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In 1724, twelve-year-old Rachel and her friend Sally discover a pirates' hiding place on a deserted island near Charles Town, South Carolina, and they suspect it may be connected to the woman who will soon become Rachel's stepmother.
March 16, 1724
Twelve-year-old Rachel Howell leaned over the lee rail of the Betsy Jo and watched the white foam churning away from the ship's path like flowing cream. She gazed out over the great expanse of ocean that stretched before her as far as she could see. Somewhere out there was the coast of North Carolina, wild and mostly uninhabited—unless you counted Indians and pirates. And farther south—Rachel turned to look toward the starboard bow— was South Carolina and Charles Town, their destination.
"You shall love Charles Town," Rachel's father had promised in his letters. "You shall soon feel more at home here than you ever did in the city of New York." Rachel wasn't so sure about that. She'd overheard her grandparents call Charles Town "barely civilized." Rachel had lived with them in New York for the past seven years, ever since her mother died and her father went to Carolina to start a new life. Although her grandparents were remote and physically frail, their stately residence was the only home Rachel could remember.
A month ago, however, Rachel's father had sent for her to join him, hinting of some "wonderful news" he would tell her when she arrived. So here Rachel was, aboard the Betsy Jo, accompanied only by her grandfather's trusted slave Roland, bound for a strange place and a home with a father she barely knew. She wanted to go, of course—she had always dreamed of living with her father—but she couldn't help feeling scared and apprehensive. She had no idea what to expect in Charles Town.
Rachel listened to the slap and swish of water against the sides of the ship. How quickly the sea raced past; how boldly the Betsy Jo ran up and down the swell of each new wave and plunged into the next. "If only I could be so confident," Rachel muttered, as she fingered the teardrop pearl pendant around her neck. The necklace had been her mother's. Rachel wore it all the time and often fiddled with it when she felt nervous or insecure.
"Ah, there you are, Miss Rachel." It was Roland. Rachel hadn't noticed him coming up behind her. "I've looked all about the ship for you. To whom are you talking?"
Rachel turned to face the old black man who was more a friend than a servant. "Oh, no one, Roland. I was just wondering what Charles Town would be like."
"Different from anything we've ever seen, I imagine. Might be a little like New York harbor, maybe, but mostly different, missy, mostly different." He paused, leaned on the railing, and looked out across the water. "'Tis hot there, missy. That's all I know."
Rachel sighed. "I hope 'tis not too different. Nor too hot." She was watching the flickering crescents of sunlight on the waves. Then she thought she saw something white on the horizon, something more than just a crescent. "Look," she said to Roland, pointing into the distance. "What is that?"
Roland turned in the direction she pointed, but he didn't have a chance to answer her question.
"Sail on the starboard bow!" the lookout sang from the crow's nest high in the ship's rigging. And a moment later: "She's tall, Cap'n, and armed heavy!"
Rachel looked up at the poop deck where the captain was gazing through his spyglass at the ship that was now visible and coming toward them. The first mate was pacing back and forth on the poop deck, talking to the captain.
"She's changed course," Rachel heard the captain say. "I think she's after us. We'll try to run for it." The captain gave the order for every sail to be unfurled. Suddenly the ship's crew were everywhere, racing to obey, their feet thudding on deck, arms and legs scrambling into the rigging to hoist the sails.
Rachel glanced at Roland with alarm. "What's afoot? Why is the ship chasing us?"
Roland's expression was grave. He nodded out toward the tall ship steadily gaining on the Betsy Jo. "'Tis a pirate ship, Miss Rachel. And it means to take us as a prize."
Rachel's mouth went dry. "What will happen if it should overtake us?"
"I can't venture to say. Pirates are a bad lot, though some are worse than others. We may be lucky."
"You mean we may get away?"
Roland, staring at the fast-approaching ship, shook his head slowly. "I don't think so, Miss Rachel. But we may get away with our lives."
Rachel didn't know for how long a time the Betsy Jo fled and the pirates pursued. It seemed hours, though it must have been much less, for the sun scarcely moved. The captain shouted and cursed, the crew scurried about like so many mice, and Rachel stood with Roland, clutching the rail, and stared, her heart beating like the wings of a bird, as the pirate ship came closer and closer. At last it drew near enough for Rachel to see it clearly. The ship was taller than the Betsy Jo, two-masted and painted black with a white band all around. On its bulwark Rachel saw swivel guns and cannons, and from a spar its pirate flag, the Jolly Roger, snapped in the wind. Finally the ship came so close that Rachel could see the pirates on board, and one, who had to be the captain, with his chin up and his eyes blazing, called out: "Heave to!"
With a grinding and crashing the two vessels locked. Rachel's stomach turned as the pirates boarded the Betsy Jo. They wore loose-fitting duck trousers and long knives strapped to their hips. Some had earrings; some were barefoot. All were sunburned and rough-looking. Rachel shrank back against Roland as the pirates pushed the two of them along with the other passengers into the captain's cabin. One pirate guarded the door, while the others proceeded to transfer the Betsy Jo's cargo into their own vessel.
A few of the passengers whispered among themselves, but Rachel was much too frightened to think of talking. Outside she heard the bumps and thuds of barrels and boxes coming up from the ship's hold, and the bark of voices and the heavy tramp of feet. Silently she prayed that the Betsy Jo's cargo would be rich enough to satisfy the pirates, that they would leave the ship without bothering the passengers. Through the cabin's small windows she could see the sun beginning to set, turning the ocean red. The water's reflection hit the ceiling like dancing flames and gave the room an eerie glow. An omen, Rachel told herself, and she tried hard to make herself believe it was for good and not for bad.
At last the noises outside quieted. "Are they gone?" Rachel whispered to Roland. Roland shook his head, put a finger to his lips, and pointed to the window directly across from them. Rachel glanced that way and gasped. The pirate captain was looking right back at her through the window, his gaze as cold as the depths of the sea. Rachel stifled the scream that sprang to her throat and jerked her eyes away as if they'd been burned. "Oh, Roland," she said, "why does he stare so?"
"Figuring what to do with us, I would guess. To rob us, or—"
"Pray, don't say it," Rachel cut him off, terrified at the picture of violence that had jumped to her mind. She grasped Roland's hand tightly. "They must leave us alone. I must reach Charles Town. I must see Papa."
Roland nodded, but his lips were drawn tight.
Then Rachel heard voices growling outside the door. The latch rattled and the door swung open. Two pirates stood in the doorway. One of them was the pirate captain. Rachel watched his cold eyes sweep across the room of frightened passengers. "Lord help us!" one of the women wailed, and the child in her arms began to cry. Rachel herself was so scared she could hardly breathe.
"What is it you want of us?" a man spoke up.
For a long time the pirate captain, his face impassive, stared at the man. Rachel's eyes, against her will, dropped to the cutlass at the pirate's side; then she quickly looked away, as if her gaze might remind the pirate of his sword. After endless minutes the pirate spoke. "Ah, what do I want of ye?" His voice was deep and laced with brogue. "Your jewelry, shoe buckles, coins, weapons. Anything of value." He paced across the room, scanning the knot of passengers. "Give your trinkets to my mate, and I won't let him harm ye."
Then, to Rachel's horror, the pirate captain stopped right in front of her. Roland pulled Rachel toward himself. "She's but a girl. Let her be," Roland said.
"I won't touch her if she hands over that necklace," the pirate said.
Unconsciously Rachel's fingers flew to her pendant. Her father had given it to her mother on their wedding day, and it was all Rachel had of her mother's. How could she turn it over to pirates? Rachel felt Roland's hands on her shoulders. "Give him the necklace, Miss Rachel." Roland's voice was gentle but firm.
Rachel felt sick, but with her hands trembling, she reached back to unfasten the necklace. Her fingers brushed across the broken pearl near the clasp as she undid it, and a lump rose in her throat. She felt as if she were giving away a part of herself. She dropped the necklace into the pirate's outstretched hand. He nodded, closed his fingers around Rachel's precious pendant, then tossed it indifferently to his mate, who had finished collecting valuables from the other passengers. One woman was crying over the loss of her brooch. Part of Rachel felt like crying, too, but another part felt only loathing for the pirates and their robbery. Then, without another word, the pirates backed out the door and were gone. There was more shouting outside, heavy footsteps, then stillness.
"I think they are gone now," Roland murmured to Rachel. "Are you well enough?"
Rachel was shaking, and a nod was all she could manage. She felt wretched over her pendant, but she knew that wasn't what Roland meant.
As if reading her thoughts, Roland patted Rachel's arm and said, "Better your necklace than your life, missy."
"Yes," said the woman who had been crying over her brooch. She sniffed and wiped her tears with her handkerchief. "At least we're all alive."
"Let us hope our captain and crew are in the same state," said a man. He and some of the other male passengers ventured out to investigate. They found the captain and crew locked in the ship's hold but unharmed.
Since the pirates had done no damage to the Betsy Jo, the ship lay at anchor for the night and resumed its journey in the morning. On the following day, Rachel watched the shore of South Carolina come into view, green and welcome as paradise. Rachel wanted nothing more than to feel her feet steady on solid ground and to look into her father's face.
It was early afternoon when the Betsy Jo finally reached Charles Town. The town was situated on a peninsula between two rivers, the Cooper and the Ashley. The harbor was on the Cooper River and deep enough for the Betsy Jo to sail right up to the dock. Rachel's first view of her new home was of ships' masts poking up everywhere, swaying back and forth as the ships moved with the current. The wharf was lined with warehouses and jammed with people, both black and white—sailors and laborers, slaves, passengers and merchants, people coming and going, standing, hurrying, loading and unloading. And all around and in and out, various vehicles made their way through the crowd: drays and barrows, lumbering sledges and handcarts.
When Rachel stepped with Roland off the Betsy Jo's gangway onto the quay, she felt she'd be smothered, either by the throngs of people or by the close-pressing heat, unstirred by ocean breezes she'd felt onboard the ship. When she'd left New York, there was snow on the ground. Here the damp, unmoving air weighed upon her like a mound of woolen blankets. And it was only March. What would it be like, she wondered, when summer arrived?
A host of smells seemed to jump out at her: hot tar, sour mud, rotting fish, and, most of all, sweat. Everywhere there was sweat, glistening on the faces of people hurrying by, dripping from the backs of slaves loading barrels of rice onto a ship. Already tiny beads of perspiration showed on Roland's forehead.
"One thing you were right about," she said to Roland. "'Tis indeed hot." Rachel squinted against the bright sunlight and let her eyes run over the crowd. "How shall we ever find my father amidst all these people?"
"I imagine your papa will find you," Roland said, "if we stay here near the Betsy Jo."
At that very moment, a tall man in a bright blue broadcloth coat squeezed his way between a knot of chatting women and some bundles of staves stacked on the wharf. The man looked right at Rachel and Roland, then up at the Betsy Jo, and a puzzled expression came over his face. Rachel felt a rush of breathlessness. Was this Papa? It had been so long since she'd seen him.
The man approached them hesitantly. Rachel's heart gave a little jump. "Papa?" she said, feeling suddenly shy.
"Rachel?" A spark came to the man's eyes. "Rachel!" He strode forward and clasped his arms around her. "Oh, 'tis fine to see you!"
With her father's embrace, Rachel's shyness departed, and her words tumbled out. "Oh, Papa, 'tis wonderful to see you, too. But, Papa, I lost Mama's necklace. It has near broke my heart."
Mr. Howell's face fell. "Oh, surely not. That necklace meant so much to your mother."
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Roland, "but she didn't really lose it. It was stole by pirates."
"You were attacked by pirates?" Mr. Howell's brows drew up in concern. "And you escaped unharmed. Everyone did, I imagine?" He looked at Roland.
"Yes, sir. They robbed us clean, but all are fine."
"Well, thank God for that. Pirates and Charles Town have had a long history together. Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Richard Worley—they've all tried a hand at terrorizing us. Once Blackbeard blockaded the entire harbor and held our most prominent citizens for ransom. But that was more than five years ago, and since then our government has cracked down hard on piracy. The council tried and hanged forty-nine pirates in one month alone."
"Are there so very many pirates in these waters, Papa?" asked Rachel.
"Not only on the waters, daughter, but in the town itself. Pirates are suffered by the merchants and townsfolk alike for the money they spend. The rascals are not nearly as bold as they once were. Still, they're a threat to shipping, as you saw." Then his voice changed to a much warmer tone. "Enough of pirates. 'Tis sad you've lost the pendant, but you're here at long last, and safe." Mr. Howell put his arm around Rachel and squeezed. "'Twill be wonderful having you with me, my dear."
Rachel was too happy to speak. She couldn't believe she had ever worried about this moment. It felt so natural to be with her father. It was as if they had never been separated. Then Mr. Howell said something that brought Rachel up short.
"We shall be a family, all of us."
Rachel stared at her father, not sure she had heard correctly. "All of us?"
Mr. Howell, with a glint in his eye, smiled. "That's the news of which I wrote you. I'm engaged to be married. You're to have a new mother."CHAPTER 2
Rachel felt as if the breath had been knocked out of her. She'd thought she was to have Papa back, all to herself, after so many years apart. Tears welled in Rachel's eyes, but she blinked them back. "When, Papa?" she managed to choke out, then, almost as an afterthought, she added, "To whom?"
"In late June, to a young lady from Philadelphia named Miranda LeBoyer. But she's coming to Charles Town much sooner, in a matter of weeks."
"Oh." Rachel didn't know what else to say.
"Miranda and her aunt will be staying with us until the wedding. 'Twill be a chance for you and Miranda to become acquainted." Mr. Howell looked very pleased with these arrangements, and Rachel did her best to hide her burning disappointment.
"Just think, my dear," Mr. Howell went on happily, "what it will be like to have a mother again. I wanted to provide that for you before I brought you here." He patted Rachel's hand. "You shall soon grow to care for her as much as I do."
Excerpted from Mystery on Skull Island by Elizabeth McDavid Jones. Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth McDavid Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted July 1, 2001
Since her mother's death when she was just five years old, Rachel Howell has lived with her grandparents in the city of New York. The year is 1724, and Rachel is now twelve. Her father has finally sent for her, and she must make the sea journey from New York to Charles Town, South Carolina. When the ship is almost at its destination, pirates attack, and Rachel loses her most precious possession, a necklace that had belonged to her mother. When she finally arrives in Charles Town, Rachel is thrilled to finally be reunited with her father, but is devastated by the news that he plans to remarry and that his fiance, Miranda LeBoyer, will be arriving soon from Philadelphia. Rachel makes two friends, Sally and Todd, whose mother runs an inn. But at Miss LeBoyer's urging, Rachel's father forbids her to see her friends because they are from a lower class. Rachel and Sally decide to meet in a secret place, a small island near the city that they name Skull Island because they believe a pirate's treasure may be hidden there. After Rachel's father loses his fortune in a bad business deal, the friends begin to believe that his misfortune may have been caused by Miss LeBoyer, who is keeping a secret about his partner in the investment. I highly reccomend this book to young readers who enjoy historical fiction.
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Posted November 3, 2004
Mystery on skull island is my favorite of all the History Mysteries. The book begins with Rachel Howell on her way from New York to the hot, southern village of Charles Town to live with her father. While there she befriends a tavern keepers daughter who helps Rachel solve the mystery on Skull Island. The adventure starts while she is on board the Betsy Jo with her Grandfathers servant Roland. This book contains lieing pirates, narrow escapes, and many exciting happenings. There is never a dull moment while reading this suspenseful book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.