Wednesday, February 09, 2005


A Pirate Tale - 27

“Probably some kind of native drug,” Burgess said, pointing to the dart. “Death is instantaneous.”

“The cap’n can’t be dead,” Gabriel wailed, burying his head in the doctor’s waist.

“I’m sorry son, I’m a doctor. I know dead when I see it.”

The corpse of Cap’n Slappy emitted a burst of flatulence.

“A newly dead body will sometimes release stored gases and such,” the doctor said. “It’s perfectly natural.”

The corpse of Cap’n Slappy began snoring and rolled over on its side. The men looked at Burgess.

“Ah, well ... the death rattle will usually include a sharp exhalation of the breath which sounds like snoring. It doesn’t often continue this length of time, but to a medical man it’s not surprising. As to the rolling, clearly it’s a surprisingly quick and vigorous case of rigor mortis brought on by the native drug. I would say his muscles contracted and hardened so quickly that it caused him to roll. He’ll be stiff as a board now.”

McCormack lifted Slappy’s hands, released it, watched it flop to the beach like a fish. The corpse of Cap’n Slappy giggled, then resumed snoring. The men all glanced at the doctor expectantly.

“Okay, no, I can’t explain that.”

The corpse of Cap’n Slappy sat up, looked around, and said, “Does anyone have a ham sandwich or a bit of cheese on them? Anything? I’m feeling a bit peckish,” and collapsed again. All eyes turned to the doctor.

“Alright, dammit, perhaps I was a bit hasty. I suppose none of YOU ever made a premature diagnosis!”

“We’d best get him back to the beach,” Ol’ Chumbucket said. “McCormack, Keeling, Juan, if you will? Sawbones, take Gabriel back to the beach and we’ll meet you there.”

“I’m taking this book with me,” Burgess said of the tome they’d found in the house. “There might be a clue in there.”

The four men struggled with their load through the underbrush. At the beach they found the work progressing. George the Greek had the crew divided into work parties, and the Festering Boil’s stores – everything that wasn’t nailed down – were neatly piled on shore. The cannon had been manhandled up the hill, where they could cover the bay entrance. Chumbucket was surprised to see Slappista supervising the cannon crew, and asked George.

“Aye, it makes me uncomfortable,” George agreed. “But he’s a natural leader, just like our cap’n, and he got the ordnance mounted in half the time I had planned. We’re ready to lay the ship on its side. But what’s going on with the captain?”

Chumbucket filled him in. George’s face darkened.

“Should we go back and smoke the buggers out?” he asked.

“No,” Chumbucket said. “But we should definitely post some guards around the edge of the forest. Pick nine, and we’ll put Juan in charge.”

“Plus a crew of five to man the guns and watch the entrance to the bay, that’s a third of our strength,” George said.

“It can’t be helped,” Chumbucket agreed. “It’s a damned nuisance, I know. I don’t see how we can be here less than three weeks, probably more like six, and we’re as exposed as a pair of lovers when the cuckolded husband comes home unexpectedly.”

With the security arranged and the crew informed of the situation, the main work of laying the ship over began. Block-and-tackle was rigged and the men and woman of the Festering Boil strained at the lines. The operation was surprisingly gentle, especially considering their reduced numbers, but the ship was more than an inanimate hulk to them. It was home, country, mother, father and family. With the giant Cementhands McCormack anchoring the lines, they slowly and carefully laid the ship on its side in the sand as softly as a mother putting a newborn down for the night.

By the time they were done, the day had all but passed, and the weary sailors trudged back up to their encampment. Chumbucket was backlit by a blazing tropical sunset so spectacular it would have made a Hollywood director gnash his teeth in envy as he slowly walked over to the doctor.

“How’s the patient, still dead?” he asked.

“Now, stop that. I’ve already admitted my mistake,” Burgess protested. “But he’s still out. He’s snoring as peacefully as a typhoon off the cape.”

“Anything in the book?” Chumbucket asked.

“Plenty, but I’m damned if I can make out what. There are entries on every naval officer I’ve ever heard of and many I haven’t, all ending about five years ago. And whoever this person is, he doesn’t have a good thing to say about any of them. Take a look.”

Chumbucket leafed through the pages, and saw that the doctor, if anything, had rather understated the author’s vehemently nasty tone. At random he read entries.

“Wallingford, Thomas H., Capt., recent of H.M.S. Alabaster, so-called “Hero of Mujnadoum.” A total git without the sense God gave a melon, and I don’t mean a smart melon. Ears rather too big.

“Chesters, Jeremiah, master of the Newberry, a merchantman, after retiring from the Royal Navy. How this fool found his way out of the nursery and onto one of his majesty’s ships is a mystery he will take to his grave, and that happy day can’t come a moment too soon.

“Tharp, Percival Winthorpe Mandrake. By the grace of a most unkind and perverse God, Admiral. May the deity protect the British Empire with such a pompous, pantywaisted, self-centered poltroon as this flying an ensign. If he’s a nobleman, I’m the Prince of Wales and all nine of his illegitimate children.

“Pomfrit, Nigel, once ensign aboard H.M.S. Rose and Garter, now a notorious pirate captain. What this man knows about seamanship would fit in a thimble, with room left over for a trollop’s heart. The day he deserted his majesty’s service to take up pirating was the happiest day in the history of this nation.”

And on like that for hundreds of pages, each entry more acerbic than the last, beginning – Chumbucket consulted the dates – 35 years earlier and ending suddenly five years ago.

“This is the most curious document I’ve ever seen,” he marveled. “We must get to the bottom of this. Keeling?”

The ship’s disciplinarian came over at double time. “You called sir?”

“Keeling, I think it’s time for a night visit back to that farmhouse. You know what to do.”

“Very good, sir! Can I wear the black, sir?”

“Oh by all means. Knock yourself out,” Chumbucket said.

Keeling double-timed back to his personal belongings, and in a moment was wearing the outfit he had acquired on a cruise to the Far East. It swathed him from head to foot in black, with only a slit where his eyes peered out. He slid a curious, squared sword into his black sash and silently disappeared into the underbrush. It was less than an hour until dawn before one of the guards came quietly back to where Chumbucket lay. “Sir,” she hissed. “Something’s moving.”

Chumbucket nudged George, Dogwatch, Cementhands and the doctor who all picked up weapons and move stealthily after the guard. Crouching behind some trees they listened intently and stared up the trail.

They were rewarded a moment later by the sight of Keeling, his black hood now thrown back, leading a prisoner – a small, wizened man not much taller than Spencer the cabin boy. Chumbucket suddenly drew in a sharp breath as they came closer and the first rays of sunshine illuminated the man’s face.

“You!” he exclaimed. The man’s head snapped up as he sought the voice’s source.

“Oh, it’s you is it?” he snarled. “Might have known. You were always hanging onto the heels of that Slappy, weren’t ya, ya little toady. Disgraceful, him being so much yer junior. You’ll come to a bad end, I don’t doubt.”

“Who is this man?” Burgess asked.

“It’s Droppingham, or The Drip, as we called him back at the Royal Naval School. He was a teacher, so old even when I was a student that I just assumed he must be dead,” Chumbucket said.

“Oh aye, you assumed, ye little prat!” the man hissed. “Do ye remember what happens when you assume?”

“Never mind, you. Report, Keeling.”

“Aye aye. I snuck back to the farmhouse and watched. There was evidently someone home because I heard a lot of swearing such as I don’t like to repeat. Finally it faded, so I entered through a window. The room looked as if it had been searched. I then went into the bedroom where this fellow was just laying himself down. It was too small a room to use my katana or throwing stars. Fortunately I remembered my jujitsu, and was able to take the fellow. He looks old and feeble, but he’s wiry.”

The man looked contemptuously at Keeling. “Jujitsu ya call it, eh? I calls it rousting an old man out of his bed and throwing him across the room, is what I calls it!! And me a veteran!”

“He’s been like this the whole way back, sir. That’s what took us so long.” Keeling said, obviously regretting he couldn’t have used his throwing stars on the man, who truly was like a ceaseless drip of venom.

“Very well. Now, Droppingham, can you explain yourself,” Chumbucket said sternly as he led the group back to the camp.

“I don’t need to explain nothin’. I was in my own house, which someone – I don’t like to say who – had ransacked, taking a bottle of my best wine and a personal object of great value to me.”

“Do you mean this book?” Chumbucket asked, flourishing the volume. The Drip gasped and clutched for the tome, but Chumbucket pulled it away. “Enough! What is this?”

“A diary I kept of all the idiot schoolboys who went through my basic seamanship class and what happened to them, the fools. I kept it up until I retired five years ago and set up me little farm out as far away from all ye glory boys and ponces as I could manage. All you fancy lads swishin’ about in yer fancy uniforms, or even worse, disgracing the uniform by taking up as pirates.” Here the man spat. “And all the while I was stuck in the schoolroom, denied promotion, while you all took to sea. Hell and damnation to all of ye!”

“All well and good. So you have a low opinion of every man jack in the navy. That you’re entitled to, no matter how monomaniacal it may seem. But what about Cap’n Slappy? What have you done to him?” Chumbucket pointed to where the captain lay. “Have you poisoned him?”

“Poison? Och, no. If ye’d not spent yer school days failing tests and strokin’ the mizzen ye’d recognize the blue and red dart. In my fraternity days we used it whenever we had a party. Its tip contains a mixture of herbs and newt extracts brought back from South America, it gives the most vividly colored dreams and sensations,” the old teacher said. “He’ll be out for a while, the effect varies from person to person. He could come to in a few hours, or a few weeks.”

The old man turned to the beach where the ship lay on its side.

“And now I see you’re careening,” he sneered. “Run along to it then. It’ll be weeks before yer ready to raise anchor and I can’t wait to go.”

“You go,” George the Greek spat back. “What in the world makes you think you’re coming with us?”

“I’ve listened to your talk when you first got here,”” he said with a sly smile. “And I’m the only man in the world who knows the exact spot my daughter is heading for in the Indian Ocean – latitude and longitude.”

“Your daughter? And who is your daughter, sir?” George challenged.

“Why, the woman you call Lady Fanny, of course, ya git.”

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