Monday, March 14, 2005


A pirate Tale - 55, Contact

The conference took place on the quarterdeck of Broche de Presión, where Don Taco leaned casually against the rail, puffing his ubiquitous cigar and Lady Fanny sat uneasily in a chair that had been brought for her. The man calling himself Cap’n Slappy stood at the center of attention, with the eyes not only of the ringleaders on him but the whole crew. The other ships, La Herida que Filtra de la Cabeza and his own Olor Tremendo de Conchita, stood off out of hearing range, but on those, too, sailors crowded the rail, watching.

“I am sorry, but I’m having trouble following,” Taco said with an apologetic shrug. “Tell me again how you have come to us, and how you happen to have command of one of my ships.”

“It is a difficult story,” conceded Slappista, playing Slappy to the hilt, “and I’d have trouble following it myself if I hadn’t lived through it. Let me start again.”

Fanny knew Slappy and his crew too well to believe his presence on the Conchita could have anything to do with a mutiny by the Festering Boil’s crew or desertion by Slappy, so Slappista recounted the tale he’d concocted to lull his questioners’ suspicion and lure them to his ambush.

“The Boil was captured off Morocco by Barbary pirates, a swarm of them, the little buggers. I was taken captive and sold in the slave markets. Because of my naval skills and – well, I’m a big man – they thought I’d do well rowing a galley. I was sold to an Alexandrian who ran tourist ships out of the Red Sea – lot of money to be made in the holy pilgrimage trade. I was working a ship bound from Mecca to Bombay when we ran aground. I think the captain may have been violating his religion’s strictures against alcohol. Fortunately I and a couple of other galley slaves were able to make it to a nearby island. Pretty much everyone else seems to have drowned.”

“How terrible,” Fanny started to interject, but Taco silenced her with a look. “Pray continue,” was all the Spanish grandee said.

“Well, we were stuck on that miserable little reef for a week, and were running short of food and water,” Slappista said, drawing a smile from Don Taco who added, “And yet it doesn’t seem to have hurt your famous physique.”

“No,” Slappista agreed, “I’ve been working on that since. But let me continue. We were picked up by a Portuguese ship, although its crew was mostly French and Dutch, making a run to Cathay. We were with them when we were set upon by Conchita.”

“Not by two ships?” Taco asked.

“No, just Conchita. His opening broadside disabled our rudder and took out our mast. With our ship sinking under us we had little choice but to board our opponent. We tried to explain, and I was willing to join, but they would give no quarter. In the battle that followed, we were victorious.”

“And the capitan, my nephew Guillermo?” Taco asked.

“A sad story. He died bravely, defending his ship to the death.” Here, Slappista was extemporizing, as he hadn’t counted on the family connection and knew Taco’s pride would require a valiant account. “I had been fighting at the bow, and wasn’t able to intercede. He was the last of his men alive on the quarterdeck, and he held off a half dozen of the boarders, dealing death even though he had been struck by a dozen blows. When he fell to his knees, mortally injured, I tried to rush to him to spare his life. One of his attackers, however, struck before I could get there, striking him with a cowardly blow from behind. You will understand my fury, and I picked up the craven man and hurled him overboard myself.”

Here Taco’s eyes lowered, and he nodded in understanding.

Slappista continued. “I rushed to your nephew’s side as he breathed his last. His last words were pride in the family name. ‘Vivo y muero a miembro orgulloso de la familia de Diamonte,’ is what he said.”

Taco shook his head sadly, then straightened and walked over to Slappista.

“There has been much death and destruction on this chase, and more to come, I fear,” Taco said. “I have lost many dear friends, including my nephew and your cousin, Slappista, who was like a brother to me. Now, you have been brought to me out of nowhere, and I take you as family, Capitan Slappy. You are my brother.”

He embraced Slappista, and the two men smiled, but for very different reasons. Fanny emitted a sob.

Aboard the Festering Boil, the real Cap’n Slappy had ordered his crew to take the ship west, out of sight of the unknown sails. His hope was to skirt them and regain the wind, coming around from the south to either attack or run as the circumstances warranted. Meanwhile, he called his comrades together to make plans.

“I want the guns ready for action. Powder Monkey, let’s double the number of cartridges available to each gun. And no shortage of slow match.”

“Aye, sir!” Gabriel said.

“Dogwatch will command the starboard battery. I want Cementhands to be with Keeling’s boarding party, so George, would you be so good as to take command of the port guns?”

George acquiesed, but asked the questions the others were considering. “Who’ll be at the helm? You, or maybe Chumbucket?”

Ol’ Chumbucket shook his head. “If it’s all the same to you, captain, I’d prefer to be with the boarding party.”

“Of course,” Slappy said. “I understand completely. No, I have someone else in mind.”

He turned to the frail old man at the fringe of the group. “Professor Droppingham, would you do me the pleasure of taking the helm in the upcoming engagement?”

The Drip looked startled, then almost overcome with emotion for the first time in the months since he’d come on board. Mastering himself, he straightened up, squared his shoulders and gave Slappy a smart salute.

“It would be an honor, sir.”

Back on the Broches, the conference continued.

“But what happended to your Festering Boil?” Fanny asked.

“I’m afraid those damn Barbary ships must have lanced her,” Slappista said with as much sadness and anger as he could feign. “I never saw any of my old shipmates in the brig or the slave market, and I fear they must have come to a bad end.” Here the mock Slappy appeared to choke up, and Fanny reached over to lay a consoling hand on his shoulder.

“And during the action with Conchita, you saw no sign of a second ship, my brig Esteban Usted Hombre Repugnante?” Taco asked.

“No, I fear not,” Slappista replied. “They must have become separated. Perhaps she ran before the storm and we’ll see her again soon. But that brings me to the most important point. After we had mastered the storm, we came north. Yesterday we spotted a sail and made for it. It was a giant carrack sailing Spain’s colors and a royal pennant. It was storm-damaged and listing badly. We tried to approach but they were still strong enough to drive us off. But I have to think a ship like that in these waters can only mean one thing – a treasure.”

Fanny and Taco eyed each other at this news, but didn’t respond. Good, Slappista thought, they think they can get me to lead them to it, but they don’t want me to know what the prize is. Very well, he said to himself, we can both keep our little secrets.

“We should move out at once. There was a British man o’ war back at Diego Garcia, and if she decides to take more interest in us, she might cause trouble. Perhaps we should go investigate this ship,” Taco said nonchalantly. “You marked its position and course, I assume.”

“Of course I did,” Slappista said. “It was moving slowly, and I suspect we could find it before sunset if we’re ready to stop talking and start moving.”

Just then a lookout from the rigging called that a sail had been spotted to the south. Taco immediately brought out his glass and gave it a long look. That couldn’t be Sabado Gigante, Slappista thought to himself. Francois knew he was supposed to lie in wait.

“We’d best get to our ships,” Taco said. “I assume, since you marked the carrack, that you will lead us, brother Slappy?”

“It would be an honor. Together I believe we will have no trouble mastering her.”

“Very good. There’s just one question I have for you.” Taco paused, his right hand fingering the pistol in his belt. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Ghosts? No, that’s a superstition for old men and children.”

“Nor do I,” continued Taco. “But there must be some explanation why the ship approaching from the south looks for all the world like the Festering Boil.”

Taco’s eyes narrowed to slits and Fanny recoiled. But Slappista’s eyes grew wider and rounder as he sank to his knees, his hands raised to the cloudless blue sky.

“Praise God!” he shouted. “It’s a miracle!”

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