Chapter Three

Hours later, a knock at Rogan's door drew him from his pensive musings. "Come in."

His valet, Higgins, entered, his arms laden with an assortment of garments. The man lifted his nose toward the ceiling. "The beggar's rags you requested, sir."

"Oh, come now, Higgins, must you refer to the attire as rags?"

"I beg your indulgence, but find it reprehensible a human being would resort to such clothing."

"Well, pirates are an unscrupulous lot, in manner and dress."

Higgins walked to the bed and laid each piece out while Rogan looked on over his shoulder. "One black eye patch, a twisted gold thread for your ear, loose-bottomed, black cotton trousers, a coarse muslin shirt." Higgins rolled his eyes. "And one extremely worn and faded jacket, taken from the hide of some beastly creature from the Manu jungle."

Rogan snorted through a laugh. "Did Vane remember the moccasins?"

"Yes, your first mate delivered them this afternoon, along with two daggers, knee-length boots and leather trousers."

"Very well," Rogan said distractedly.

"When do you leave, sir?"

"First thing in the morning. And oh, Higgins." He handed him the note. "Deliver this to the address on the envelope before midday tomorrow. I've assured Lethbridge I'll catch up with Cotty at Ocracoke Island before the week is out."

Looking a tad disjointed, Higgins asked, "Will that be all, sir?"

"No, there is one more thing. In the event I fail to return, see that my brother, Rory, receives this." He handed him another sealed envelope. "Our dear mother claims he left England a fortnight ago and sails for the colonies."

"Very well, sir; I shall see it's placed directly into his hands, if need be." Higgins walked to the door then turned. "Godspeed to you, sir."

"Thank you, Higgins. With any luck I'll see you before the month is exhausted."

The moment Higgins left the room, Rogan undressed, donned the clothing laid out on the bed and left the manor. Vane would be waiting for him aboard the Devil's Heel in the harbor, and the sooner Rogan came up with a plan to infiltrate Cotty's crew, the better.

* * *

The Devil's Heel glided through the shark-infested reefs several miles north of Ocracoke Island.

After lowering the dingy over the port side, Vane turned to Rogan. "What cockamamie tale do ye intend to spin, lad, when ye find the blackguard Bloody Hitch Cotty?"

"It goes without saying I cannot merely slip in unobtrusively. I'll announce my presence, and charm Cotty into taking me on," Rogan said.

The man crossed himself. "'Tis a long, slow death for ye if they dinna believe ye."

"Wish me luck, Vane." Rogan clasped his first mate's hand. "Remember, The Scarlet Squall sails from port in two weeks. Keep her in sight off the starboard at all times."

"Aye, Rogan, she'll not know we're tailing her."

Rogan clambered down the ladder rope and climbed into the small boat. "Vane?"

"Aye, Captain."

"If something goes amuck, see to it that Drew Hibbard makes it safely back to Hampton."

"Ye have me word, lad."

Rogan hung the lantern off the front of the vessel and headed for shore. At sunrise, he intended to walk into the pirate's lair. If the gods favored him, the brigands would still be too far into their cups to think clearly.

Stars blinked and then faded in the pale pink sky as dawn broke. Heading for the south end of the island, Rogan passed a cluster of yellow poplars on his left and a mass of possum woods to his right. A channel of water connected the Atlantic Ocean and Ocracoke Inlet with the deeper waters of the Pamlico Sound. The pirates' den sat on high ground covered with thick, tall trees—the perfect place for pirates to keep a lookout for approaching enemies.

Rogan left the skiff and walked across the sandy shore. Up ahead, casks of rum and ale rested in the dirt, and empty tankards sat catawampus amid the fine sand at his feet. Crude tents and shelters sprawled leisurely in front of an outcrop of heavy boulders and mingled with scattered trunks and discarded weapons. Against the base of a swamp willow, a woman straddled the thighs of a beefy-looking man. With her head thrown back and her eyes closed, she rode the brigand hard. Heads turned toward Rogan like sunflowers trying to capture the rays of the sun. A man, his eyes bleary after a night of revelry, called out a hoarse hullo.

From twenty feet in front of Rogan, a man rose from the ground and eyed him warily. "Are you wrong in the head, man, or just plain daft?"

"I'm looking for Bloody Hitch Cotty." Rogan wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. "Word is out he's looking to take on a crew."

"Might be he is and might be he ain't." The man advanced at a foot-dragging pace, the gold hilt of the gully in his boot gleaming in the morning sun. "How'd you find your way in here anyhow and where are you from?"

"My dingy is shored a mile down the coast."

When the pirate nodded to two of his comrades, they took off in the direction Rogan pointed.

"I hale from the Carolinas." Rogan arced a stream of spit into the dirt. "Most recently, Charleston."

"Where are your bona fides?"

Before Rogan could answer, a man emerged from a makeshift shelter behind the pirate. His stern expression hardened his stone-faced features. Broad of shoulder and taller than most men by a head, he clutched a boarding axe in his right hand and a jug of ale in his left. His long, unruly hair, burnished orange with strands of dirty gold, hung in unruly waves to his collarbones. A shiny black jacket hugged his thick torso and a belt of steel chains around his waist held his loose-legged trousers in place. He possessed a sinister aura, one whose mastery of bloodlust and killing set him apart from his cohorts.

Bloody Hitch Cotty.

"What goes on here, Stryker?" the redhead asked.

"This man claims he hails from Charleston, Hitch. Sauntered in looking for work."

Cotty eyed him with the black eyes of a coyote. "If you claim you hail from Charleston and dabble in the pirate trade, how is it you left there alive?"

"I sailed with the crew that looted the merchant ships anchored in the harbor last June. The Carolinians didn't take kindly to that. Over the next two months they hunted us down and hanged twenty of us."

"Took hostages on that foray into Charleston's harbor, did you not?" Cotty asked.

Rogan nodded. "Killed every one of the poor bastards before they caught up with us."

Cotty's deep voice cut across the still morning air. "What name do you go by?"

"Spike." Rogan pulled several marlinspikes from his vest pocket and held them out.

"Sail maker, are ye?" Cotty turned the spikes over in his beefy fingers.

"And a fair hand with a cutlass," Rogan added, knowing a fast-witted man like Cotty would demand proof of his admission.

The giant dropped the steel spikes and caught the cutlass Stryker tossed through the air.

"I have no weapons." Rogan placed his hands at his sides. "I was fortunate to escape from Charleston with the clothes on my back."

A swarthy man with a wiry brown beard placed a sword in Rogan's hand. The man named Stryker moved to the side and a crowd began to gather. Rogan knew he had one chance to prove his worth, not to mention save his life, and he counted heavily on Cotty's inebriated state.

Rogan raised his cutlass and squared off with his opponent. Hoots and whistles rose from the bloodthirsty mass of pirates forming a circle around them. Cotty lunged and Rogan parried, their cutlasses clashing. A smile curved the pirate's lips as he stepped back and prepared to strike again. Rogan stabbed and Cotty deftly deflected, following up with a series of thrusts that placed Rogan on the defensive. Retreating, he deflected blow after blow from the barrel-chested pirate. Rogan's forehead streamed sweat and the muscles of his thighs and back screamed out in protest. Although quick and uncommonly strong, Cotty's drunken state rendered him clumsy. The blood roared in Rogan's ears and his heart hammered in triple beats. He stood on the brink of death and the feeling exhilarated him, spurned him on.

Cotty darted under his next lunge and brought his cutlass up high. The man's weapon keened through the air. Rogan parried the blow and returned the slash with one of his own. Hilt to hilt, the men strained and pushed. Cotty's foul breath whispered over Rogan's face before he threw his full weight against Rogan and lost his footing. Taking advantage of the man's blunder, Rogan kicked Cotty's legs out from under him and breathed a sigh of relief when the pirate hit the ground with a resounding thud. Rogan pressed the tip of his blade to Cotty's throat and a deadly silence fell over the crowd.

A slow smile came to the pirate's lips. "Well done, boy."

Rogan lowered the cutlass, held out his hand and pulled Cotty to his feet.

"I can always use another sail maker," said the leader of the pirates. “Welcome aboard.

Someone placed a tankard of rum in Rogan's hand, the crowd dispersed, and he slumped to the ground swallowing great gulps of air.

He wiped his sweat-stained brow and realized he'd just joined the bloodiest pirate crew to ever sail the Atlantic.

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