The small party of men hauling their jolly boat up out of the surf were dwarfed by the wall of jungle that sprouted verdantly along the banks of the African estuary. Six there were; slovenly and weather-beaten, hardened men of the sea used to the open water and the chaos of storm and wrack. Now their suspicious eyes regarded the noisome green wall with something akin to fear. It was the unknown; trackless and dense; uncharted by man and haunted by savage and predatory beasts.
Gaspard Montroy straightened and looked back to the Tambourelle, the corsair ship the men had arrived on. It was anchored about a mile offshore, sails furled. Aboard, he knew, men were busy repairing the damage the previous week’s storm had inflicted on the pirate vessel. It had been a long, hard battle for the crew, as they fought their way through awful seas, a crossing of the Atlantic none among them had experienced before.
Montroy returned his gaze to the jungle.
“Okay, let’s be quick about this,” he grumbled. “I don’t want to stay on this shore longer than we have to. Work in pairs, let’s see if we can find any fresh water. Shout if you discover anything. But be back here in 30 minutes.”
The others nodded, splitting naturally into pairs. With some hesitation they roved along the littoral, before each in turn plunged into the jungle, clutching pistols and sabres, eyes wild as they scanned the thick vegetation for potential threats.
Montroy had as his partner the giant former slave, known only as Baptiste. The pirates had freed him when they raided a plantation on one of the French sugar islands. Tall and fearsome in a sea fight, even Baptiste now seemed concerned by this new land, his bald head flicking from side to side.
“Eyes on the ground Baptiste,” Montroy barked. “There’ll be fresh water around here somewhere.”
The heat was dismal, and the two men were plagued by mosquitoes as they used machetes to slash their way through the vegetation. Baptiste carried several leather canteens on his back, but they would need more to replenish the vessel, Montroy knew.
His imagination, new to this continent, conjured many potential threats from within the dark heat of the jungle – a snake perhaps, or a leopard. He had even heard tales of the giant man-apes known to haunt the rain forest, capable of tearing a man apart with their massive arms. As he hacked through yet more vines, he remained tense, watchful.
The last thing he expected to see, as he slashed away, was the pale face of a man staring back at him.
So surprised was the pirate that he leaped backward with a yell. The gaunt, white face with steely glare smiled grimly at his discomposure. It belonged to a man clad in black, in the garb Montroy recognised as being favoured by the Puritan fanatics he had heard of up in the English colonies. A tall hat sat on his head, and despite the heat, hardly a bead of sweat showed on his forehead. He was a most unexpected spectre to appear from the verdant greenery.
Montroy could not have been more surprised.
“Run,” said the stranger.
“What? Who are you?” Montroy became aware of the giant Baptiste behind him now, backing him up.
“I said – run!”
A gurgled exclamation from behind him warned Montroy just before Baptiste fell to his knees, clasping at the arrow that now jutted from his throat. The French pirate gaped as his crewman expired at his feet, eyes rolling up in his head.
Past him, fleet of foot now, ran the man in black. He dashed through the jungle like a shadow. In his wake came the sound of men, many men, shouting as they came. Montroy glimpsed warriors with bows and spears, flooding through the bushes effortlessly towards him. He ran.
Within a minute the two men were side by side, breaking out of the trees onto the white sand of the shore again, there the sea, there the Tambourelle tossing on the waves in safety. But so far now.
An arrow whispered past Montroy, embedding itself in the sand. He fled to the boat, screaming for his men. Two appeared nearby, carrying canteens.
“Get to the boat!” Montroy yelled. “To the boat!”
Already the stranger was putting his shoulder to the side of the little vessel, and the French pirate joined him, throwing all his strength into pushing it into the waves. He was dimly aware of one of his comrades stumbling and falling, a huge war spear between his shoulder blades.
As they battled through the surf, the stranger turned, pulling two pistols from his belt. He fired back at the beach as now their attackers came on, spilling out of the trees in their dozens.
Montroy sprang into the boat, shipping the oars, and was joined by his other surviving crew member. Of the rest, there was no sign.
A huge African warrior sprang into the surf, wielding a cruel and barbed war spear. The black clad stranger turned to meet him, a longsword whispering from its scabbard. Down came the war spear, but it was parried with expert precision. The African jumped backward, preparing for another thrust, but underestimated the stranger’s reach. He lunged like an uncoiling snake, swift and deadly, and the pirates saw his opponent stagger back and topple into the waves.
Then he grabbed the side of the boat and was aboard, his carmined blade still clutched in one hand.
“Row!” he yelled.
The pirates needed no second asking and hauled at the oars. Another tribesman lunged at the side of the boat, but the stranger was there, blade flickering in the sun. After that, the fugitives had to duck as arrows and spears fell among them. Luckily none found their mark.
As the shoreline receded behind him, the man in black took off his hat and wiped his brow, then seated himself in the stern. He fixed his gaze on the ship they were rowing towards.
“Who are you?” gasped Montroy again, after he had managed to get his breath back.
The steely gaze turned now onto him, measuring him, almost like a judge might stare grimly down upon a suspected criminal.
“Kane,” said the man. “Solomon Kane.”
To be continued…