The Only Life That Mattered: The Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackam

The Only Life That Mattered: The Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackam

by James L. Nelson


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Fed up with an outlaw existence, Calico Jack Rackam swears off the pirate life, until he meets Anne Bonny, a woman who would as soon stab a man as give him a good tumble—that is, unless he's a pirate. Soon Jack finds himself out on the high seas, with Anne by his side and his men spoiling for action.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590130605
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/01/2004
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 803,960
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

James Nelson, a former professional sailor, is committed to bringing to life, through fiction and nonfiction, America's historical connection with the sea. His writing covers a wide range of America's maritime heritage, from piracy in Colonial Virginia to the naval action of the Civil War. He lives in Harpswell, Maine.

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The Only Life That Mattered

The Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackam

By James L. Nelson

McBooks Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 James L. Nelson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59013-332-3


FATE HAD INTERCEDED two years before, in Charles Town, in the colony of South Carolina.

Then, a young couple stood before a minister. They held hands. The church was cool and dark in the autumn evening, lit with a half dozen candles that illuminated only the altar area, leaving the rest in deep shadow.

The girl was jubilant, charged, her heart pumping with the recklessness of their act. The young man was sullen, bitter, silently cursing the unfairness of it all.

"If there be any here know why this couple should not be joined in Holy Matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace ..."

There were only three people in the church, besides the couple. Just the minister and his wife and a servant to act as witness.

God, but she wished her father was there! How he would have been provoked by this. Big Bill Cormac, trying to bend his daughter to his will. Her life had been filled with petty defiances, minor assertions of independence. Each time her father pushed her down, she came back, stronger, more eager to be free.

And now this.

William Cormac, Esquire, would have come up with some reasons why they should not be joined, all right, couched in his lawyer's language, edged with a father's anger. But he was not there, and no one else spoke.

"Do you, Anne Cormac, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, for richer, for poorer ..."

Poorer, indeed, she thought.

Anne Cormac had known only wealth, at least from the time she was old enough to recall. Now she was eighteen years old, beautiful, her body taut and voluptuous, her hair thick, cascading down her back, reddish in winter, yellow in the summer. Her face might have been that of an angel, but for the look in her blue eyes, that flash of something deeper than mere mischief.

Anne Cormac could have married any of the bright and wealthy young men in the colony, fellows who had £1000 a year and kept coaches and had been sent to England for their schooling. They came around like dogs to a bitch in heat. Over them all she chose this penniless sailor and her father was not well pleased.

"... in sickness and in health ..."

It had been no small task, convincing the minister to perform the ceremony.

The minister knew her, knew Billy Cormac. He did not wish to get in the middle, to stand at the point where the irresistible force meets the immovable object. He had only agreed when Anne told him that she was with child, that she wished for the baby to be legitimate, not a bastard like herself, the result of her father's liaison with the lovely and willing young Peg Brennan.

Fiery, lusty Peg had been the family's maid in Cork. The scandal had ruined William's law practice. He had fled to the New World with his illegitimate family. Passed Peg off as his wife, mistress of their home. He loved Anne and spoiled her as much as any father ever had a daughter.

"... until death do you part?"

So the minister had agreed to marry them, for the sake of the unborn child, who did not exist. The sailor had not enjoyed Anne's favors, not to that degree.

Not because of Anne's sense of chastity — she had her mother's inclinations in that regard, and they were none too strict — but because she knew men and she knew that there was little chance she would get what she wanted if he got what he wanted first.

At fifteen years of age she had come to understand the powerful force of lust, predictable as the tide and just as unstoppable. Hard lessons, but others paid for them more dearly than she.

The lessons began when she took her first suitor, a brash young buck from the outlying plantations. Evenings they would walk together in her father's well-tended garden. She yielded to his tight embrace, let him kiss her deep, standing in the orchard under a full moon. Her thigh pressed against his cock, throbbing under his breeches. She allowed his hand to grope her breast for a few beats before she pushed it away. She loved the wickedness of it all.

Then one night, panting and groping, hot breath on cool skin, sighs deep in their throats, she said, "No ..." but he was far beyond listening to "no." Hands on her breasts, pulling her bodice down, hands under her shift, reaching up, fingers looking to violate her.

Anne Cormac was not afraid. She was not sorry or repentant or guilt-ridden. Her mind was wiped clean by a red-hot rage. She had been angry before, but now as the boy's big hands tugged at her petticoats, his tongue forced its way down her throat, she was swept up in a violent passion she had not even known was in her.

She thrust a knee straight up into his groin and he gasped, bent over, tried to curse her. She raked his face with her nails, leaving four bright red gleaming lines across his cheek.

Knee up into his face and he was down and she was kicking him in the groin, over and over, and he could do nothing but lie there and hold his hands over his crotch and scream like an injured animal. And when she was done with that she leapt on him and pounded on his head and slashed at him with fingernails, screaming like a banshee, like one of the legendary spirits of her native Ireland.

She felt big hands on her shoulders, then more on her arms, and her father and one of the servants lifted her off the boy and as they pulled her away all she could do was kick and claw at the moaning figure in hopes of wounding him one last time.

Anne learned a great deal that night, about herself, about her power over others, and about her own potential. She was amazed and frightened and intrigued, all at once, by this demon she had discovered within her.

The young man who footed the bill for that lesson spent the next two weeks recovering in bed.

"I do," she told the preacher.

Her rage was legendary. In Charles Town it was taken as fact that she had slashed a servant girl with a clasp knife, and there was no point in her denying it, though it wasn't true. The little bitch had been too fast, had leapt back from Anne's attack, fled out the door and away before Anne could plunge the blade into her.

At least Anne had managed to cure the servant girl of her habit of stealing perfume.

"And do you, James Bonny, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do you part?"

Anne watched her bridegroom as he listened to the words. His face was in profile and she noticed for the first time how weak his chin looked, as if he had no chin at all. Why hadn't she noticed that? There was stubble in patches where whiskers grew between weekly shaves, but it was clear from the pattern that James Bonny would never grow a real beard. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down in his long neck. His hand was clammy and wet in hers.

He was dressed in a sailor's blue jacket, loose trousers, wool stockings, battered shoes. The clothes were old, patched, tar-stained, but of his two suits, this was the better.

"I do," he muttered, as if he did not really wish to, but was too afraid to decline.

"Then I pronounce you man and wife." The minister did not sound any more pleased about it than did James Bonny. "You may kiss the bride."

James Bonny turned to her and they faced one another, eye to eye. James was less than half an inch taller than Anne. He kissed her, with the same grudging cooperation with which he had married her.

Anne kissed him back, put her arms around him, squeezed him tight. He was thin, girlishly thin, and though he was strong and agile in the way of topmast sailors, he was limp now and unresponsive. But Anne did not care. She was delirious with joy, with excitement.

She was married, and she was free.

Her father had kicked her out of the house for her insisting that she would marry the broke and homeless sailor James Bonny. And now, because of that, William Cormac had no hold on her at all.

She was Anne Bonny now, and the entire world was opened up to her.

And at her side, a man who had sailed half the oceans of the world, a man who was not tied down to a grand family and a plantation in South Carolina, but someone unfettered, ready to wander with her, wherever their adventurous spirits might lead.

Anne liked James Bonny, seaman. But she was deeply in love with the idea of him: a young sailor, a footloose and wild companion, one who had roamed the world before her and would take her along now.

They thanked the minister, took their certificate from his wife, and left the church. The cobbled street was lined on either side by the brick homes of the Charles Town elite. It was dark, and a cool, wet breeze wafted in off the ocean. There was a rustle of something, a door closed, a burst of laughter from far off. They took a few steps down the street then stopped. They had nowhere to go.

"Anne, it ain't right, a girl and her father, fighting like that ..." James turned to Anne. "Now that we done it ... got married, I mean, don't you reckon the thing for it is to go back and tell your father you're sorry and ask won't he bless our union?"

Her father had physically pushed the two of them out the front door of the big plantation house, one of the finest around Charles Town, in which she had lived since she was seven. He had slammed the door as they stood there under the two-story porch supported by columns, like some kind of Greek temple. Anne was poorer now than she had ever been in her life. Destitute. It excited her.

James Bonny had figured that marrying Anne would assure him a life of wealth and ease and he was not happy about this latest turn. Anne understood that and imagined he would get over it.

"James, James, my beloved James! We are free now, don't you see that? The whole world is out there for us to conquer!" But James Bonny, who, at twenty-two years of age, had been free with the whole world before him and not a groat in his pocket for the past eleven years, was not swept away with the romance of the thing. He turned and spit on the street.

"Anne, you are a silly girl, a goddamned silly girl. You don't have a buggering notion what you're about."

Anne felt the anger flash in her head, but she was silent and let it pass. Then she stepped closer to James, put her arms around his neck, pressed her body against his, rubbed against him just a bit, and whispered, "I've enough money for a room, at least, for a couple of nights. It's time you had what you've been wanting for so long, my darling husband."

"What dross have you?"

"I have some money, don't you worry about it." Anne had seen this moment coming and had stolen a decent dowry from her father's desk. William Cormac owed her that much at least, even if he did not believe it. "Now come along, my darling."

But James Bonny was not distracted from his unhappiness. Raw desire did not sweep away every other consideration, as Anne had thought it would, as it always had with every other man, and she did not find that a hopeful sign.

He scoffed, a soft sound in his throat. "And then what, Anne? Then what? Once it's gone I'll need to find a ship and leave you behind, and you without enough money to set up housekeeping. No place even for you to live." James Bonny had thought to ease his burden in life by making a good marriage, but instead he had doubled it.

Anne pressed her hands flat against his chest, pushed away until she was looking in his eyes. She had been thinking about this moment for some time, this point when her dock lines were slipped, when she was floating free. Staying in Charles Town to "set up housekeeping" was not an option she had ever entertained.

Her mother had died seven years before, and from that point until now she had run her father's house. She was done with housekeeping.

"James ... I won't have you run off alone. I love you; I can't be parted from you. We must go together."

"Together?" James shook his head, incredulous at his new bride's foolishness and naiveté. "Anne, you ain't thought this through. Where are we going to go together?"

"Nassau," she said without a pause, because in fact she had thought it through, had thought it through quite thoroughly.

"Nassau? Nassau's a wicked place. Ain't a thing to be found but pirates and whores and all manner of villains in Nassau."

"I know," said Anne. She felt herself shiver. The thought of such wickedness thrilled her from keel to truck.


FLANDERS. The summer campaigning season of the Grand Alliance. A full nine years before Mary Read would stand at the bar in St Jago de la Vega in Jamaica and half a world away. The year, 1711. Mary's eighteenth.

She rode through the pre-dawn black, the horse and saddle between her legs as easy a fit as a well-worn hat. The smell of the horses, the cumulative sound of a hundred or more riders moving together, was all so familiar now that they did not intrude at all on her thoughts.

She reached down and adjusted her saber where it was chaffing on her thigh, cleared her throat, and spit on the dirt road below her.

She was a horse trooper, a corporal in a light cavalry unit. She was not Mary Read, of course. Mary Read was someone locked away deep in her memories, a fragile doll to be pulled out and examined once in a while, a thing for her to marvel at, and then put away, unseen.

Rather, she was Michael Read, Corporal Michael Read, of the second platoon of E Company of Walpole's Regiment of Light Cavalry. A young man making a military career, fighting for his country, and no one knew or suspected anything different.

Walpole's was one of those elite squads formed in England by some well-heeled gentleman with a thought toward soldiering and money enough for a commission and for equipping his recruits. Once formed, the regiment of light horse had been sent to the killing fields of Flanders to do battle with the French and stop the alliance of the Bourbon household in Spain.

Mary, in point of fact, didn't care a pile of dung who sat on the throne of Spain. But she was a cavalry soldier, had been a foot soldier before that and a sailor aboard a man-of-war before that. She had spent most of her life masquerading as a boy and man, serving the King of England under arms. She went where she was told to go, and killed whomever she was told to kill.

Frederick Heesch, her tent-mate, rode just a little ahead of her and to the right. Mary gave her horse a nudge with her heels, brought herself up alongside Frederick. She wanted to hear his voice.

"Frederick," she said, soft, so the sergeant would not hear her over the sound of the horses' hooves, "have you got a plug?"

Frederick looked over at her and shook his head, his expression a mix of surprise and bewilderment. He dug in the pocket of his regimental coat, pulled out a twisted hunk of tobacco, handed it over to Mary. She tore off a piece with her teeth and handed it back.

"What in hell are you doing here?" Frederick asked in the same hushed tone. Frederick's platoon, but not Mary's, had been ordered for the morning's fight. Any sensible person in Mary's position would still be safe abed.

Mary shrugged. "Came to this God-forsaken country to kill Frenchmen. Hate to miss the chance."

Frederick smiled at her, that wonderful smile of his. "Not so Godforsaken, you fucking English roast-beef."

Frederick Heesch was Flemish. Like so many of his countrymen he chose to fight with the English army, which promised more action than the forces of his native land. His heart and spirit were set on warfare, and he was eager for combat. But he was a thoughtful person, good-natured, with a ready wit. Mary did not think he possessed the soul of a warrior.

His fellow soldiers liked him as a good and decent comrade in arms. Mary Read loved him, deeply, profoundly. She would not let him ride into battle alone, without her to watch his back. That was why she was there.

The trooper riding ahead and to their left swiveled around, frowned when he saw Mary. "Read? What are you doing on this raid? I swear to God, I think you and Heesch are buggering each other."

"Are you jealous, Adams? 'Cause I'm happy to do you too, if you wish," Frederick offered.

Mary blew Adams a kiss. "Reckon the Frenchies will bugger us all good before Heesch can."

Mary allowed her horse to fall back and she rode with the others near the back of the regiment, far from Frederick. There would be opportunity later to get close to him, but for now she was better off keeping her distance, lending some credence to her claim that she was there for the fighting alone.


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