Wednesday, March 16, 2005


A pirate Tale - 57

Don Taco watched the approach of the Festering Boil, now about half a mile off, and tossed his cigar over the rail. Calling to his helmsman, he ordered him to tack to starboard.

“Maybe we can slip around her,” he said to Leather Nipples while Los Mariachi played anxiously in the background. “If he tries to close, we’re as well armed as he, and if he boards, I’ll take my chances. Our men aren’t lace-cuffed court soldiers, they’re veterans of a dozen campaigns. And we probably outnumber those pirates significantly.” Los Mariachi added a triumphant flourish.

Taco leaned forward and looked again. “But what’s that they’re doing on the foredeck?”

Moments earlier, Cap’n Slappy had suddenly slapped his forehead. “Of course,” he said, recalling a conversation from that morning.” “Get me Salty Jim!”

Salty Jim, the ship’s carpenter, had been below preparing to repair any damage as quickly as it was inflicted. Now he came up to Slappy on the quarterdeck and listened to the captain’s request.

“Sure, I can build that. How soon?”

Slappy told him. Jim gulped, almost swallowing his trim mustache in the process.

“Well, I’ll get to work.”

It was often remarked that Salty Jim didn’t look like a pirate. He looked for all the world like a befuddled parson from a village church, and the expression on his face gave people meeting him for the first time the impression he was trying to remember where he’d left something important, like his keys or his wife. But everyone conceded that in most matters Salty Jim knew more than any man on the ship – maybe on the ocean.

The carpenter got to work on the foredeck, measuring, weighing, sawing, hammering. He kept scribbling figures, mumbling to himself about “angles of acceleration” and “axis of the revolution.”

The combat opened with a tense tacking duel in which Taco on Broche de Presión tried repeatedly to slip around the Festering Boil to gain the wind, and Droppingham expertly covering each move to retain the advantage. The Boil could keep its foe from gaining the weather gauge, but Broche could turn and run whenever the Boil tried to close the distance.

Taco tried feinting starboard then running for port, but Droppingham easily saw through the maneuver and covered again. “Ya damn sissy!” he snarled, “That’s a 200-ton boat, not a bleedin’ ballet dancer! Ye’ll have to do better than that!”

The afternoon was wearing on before Salty Jim pronounced himself satisfied and returned to the quarterdeck.

“I can’t guarantee it, we can’t test it, of course, but it should work,” he reported. “Ge2t us to 300 yards, and point her straight at the target,” Jim said. “The counterweight has to go over the bow. We’ll be using Cementhands, of course.”

“Mr. Droppingham,” Slappy called out. “Enough of this pussyfooting! Take me to that ship.”

Droppingham turned the wheel, and the Boil surged directly towards the Spanish ship. Taco was surprised by the shift in tactics. Knowing that his opponent probably wouldn’t open fire until he was within 200 yards, he hesitated just a moment to determine Slappy’s intentions. It was a moment that cost him.

As the Boil raced towards Broche, Jim stood at the bow with Cementhands, the giant sailor who was strapped into a curious rigging attached to the contraption. Both were muttering. Jim was calculating furiously, estimating distances, while Cementhands uttered every prayer he could remember from his misspent youth. Finally, Jim shouted, “Now!”

McCormack looked at him. “Now? Jump?” he asked.

“Jump right this damn second!” the carpenter shouted, and with a push helped McCormack over the bow. The sailor’s weight pulled on the line, which drew in the pulley, and the makeshift trebuchet lofted its load into the sky.

Chumbucket watched incredulously as what appeared to be a large crate arced into the sky and descended towards the enemy ship. “What the hell is that?” he asked Cap’n Slappy.

From below decks in the bow, they heard Two Patch’s voice rise in an anguished howl.

“My bees! Somebody stole my bees!”

“I’m gonna miss the honey,” Slappy laughed.

Taco saw something flying through the sky at him and knew he didn’t want to be under it when it landed. He ordered the helm hard a port, but it was too late. The crate smashed to the deck, releasing a cloud of very annoyed bees that went after the first thing they saw, which was the crew. Immediately, the sailors dropped matches, weapons, the helm and everything else as they slapped at the swarming, angry insects.

“Straight at ‘em, then hard a starboard,” Slappy ordered.

At 200 yards the Boil turned on the Spanish ship and loosed it’s first broadside. Below decks on Broche, Nigel and Sally heard the sound. Nigel immediately leaped to his feet and turned the room’s table on its side. Falling to the floor behind it, he said, “Come lay down with me for a while, Sally my love.”

“Nigel! This is no time for that. What the hell ...”

“Actually Sally, that’s exactly what this is time for,” he shouted, and dragged her down with the table on top of them as the first volley of cannon balls crashed into the hull of the ship.

The return fire was desultory, as half the Broche’s crew was either still fighting bees or searching the deck for dropped weapons. Within two minutes Slappy’s crew had wormed and reloaded the guns as the ship crossed the stern of the foe and raked it with another broadside. Musket fire from the rigging added to the damage below. Besides obscuring the two ships in a dense cloud, the smoke from the guns had the added effect of driving off the bees and the Broche began returning fire, but as is often the case, the edge belonged to the aggressor, and Slappy drove home his advantage.

“Mr. Droppingham, bring her around so the other guns get a turn. Then bring me up close. Boarders, get ready!”

There was a surge of men into the rigging as the starboard guns took their first shot. In the small brig on Broche, a ball hit the porthole squarely, smashing it and passing over Sally and Nigel, knocking the door off its hinges and throwing the two prisoners across the room.

Sally scurried to her feet. “Nigel! We can get out of here.”

Nigel didn’t respond. Sally knelt over him and realized there was blood trickling from his forehead. “Damn,” she said. Then, after putting a blanket under his head to cushion him and positioning the table over him again, she made her way into the passage.

“Boarders away!” Slappy shouted from the quarterdeck, and the first wave of pirates flew out of the rigging and across the 20 feet that separated their ships.

There was always a moment, suspended from the rope amid the swirling smoke, swinging from the rigging of his own ship to the deck of the enemy, when Chumbucket wondered for a split second if that might be what death is like, lost in the gray smoke of hell. Then the thought was gone. There was work to do.

Being in the first wave was dangerous, of course, but it was also simpler. When you landed, everybody you saw was a target. As he came out of the smoke, he saw a Spanish soldier preparing to swing at him. Chumbucket raised his legs till his feet were on target and bowled the man over, knocking him over the railing. Chumbucket hit the deck rolling, then drew his own cutlass and turned to face the man who was approaching him.

Keeling had landed farther to the stern, and quickly dispatched the two men who blocked his way to the helm. At the top of a short ladder he ducked to avoid a blow from Don Taco’s rapier, then vaulted to the poopdeck while Taco freed his weapons from the railing. The two turned and squared off while Los Mariachi strummed chords evoking the bullring.

Blades flashed as Keeling lunged, but Taco answered him steel for steel, parrying the attack. Keeling’s overhead cut was blocked, and he barely had time to parry the riposte that almost snuck inside his guard. “This guy’s good,” Keeling thought. Coincidentally, that was the same thought in Taco’s head as he circled, looking for an opening. Los Mariachi perched in the corner, playing the music’s tempo increasing as the blades whirled almost faster than the eye could follow. Taco lunged, but Keeling caught his blade on the guard and turned it, then swung for Taco’s leg, but the grandee was more nimble than he looked and he leaped out of the way.

In landing, however, he came down on a spar that had fallen during the cannonade and his leg crumpled under him. He slashed as he went down, slicing into Keeling’s forearm, but fell to the deck. The music stopped. Keeling raised his blade, aiming for the heart, but suddenly the blade fell from his hand and he also crumpled to the deck. Behind him stood Los Mariachi, the smashed remains of his guitar in his hand.

Red Molly had kept one eye on the fight on the poopdeck while she worked the cannon, and saw Keeling fall. Without thinking she dropped her tools and leaped for a line, swinging across the closing gap between the two ships. She fell to the deck, and in scrambling up found a cutlass dropped by the Spaniard who would no longer need the weapon. She raced to Keeling’s side just as Taco sat up and reached for his own blade. A stiff right cross from Molly, her fist encased in the steel guard of the cutlass, landed squarely on Taco’s temple, knocking him cold. Molly hovered over the fallen swordsmen, standing guard over her lover and her prisoner. Los Mariachi went to strum the appropriate music for the moment, but realized his guitar was now kindling. Sadly, he lowered its remains and began to hum the Death march – “Dum-dum-Da-dum, BA da dum dum dum dum dum.”

The swelling crowd of pirates was gaining the upper hand on the dispirited Spaniards. Chumbucket looked for another foe, and out of the swirling smoke saw a huge form.

“Cementhands! Glad you could make it,” he shouted.

But the shape that came at him from the acrid cloud turned out not to be his friend and shipmate. It was Leather Nipples, armed with a broadsword, his face a mask of death.

His blows rained down on Chumbucket, and it was all the pirate could do to parry them as he backed up. He had never fought a man so strong and so fast, and it was all he could do to dodge the Spaniard’s attacks. Finally, he felt the rail at his back and realized with a sense of desperation that it was now or never.

His lunge caught the Spaniard off guard and he retreated with a nick to his sword arm. Emboldened, Chumbucket increased his attack, but the Spaniard just smiled, parried the blow and struck a riposte that ripped Chumbucket’s blade from his hand and sent it skittering over the railing and into the sea. A remorseless look in his eye, Leather Nipples drew back for the final blow.

Then a puzzled look shot across his face and he stopped in midswing. His broadsword fell to the deck with a thunk, and he turned, showing Chumbucket the stiletto protruding from between his shoulder blades. Behind the Spaniard, Chumbucket saw Sally, her hand bright with blood. She looked her victim in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, Ernesto, but I told you. Please don’t take it personally.”

The man known as Leather Nipples fell to the deck.

Sally looked up. “Hello Chumbucket. Hope it’s going well. I’ve got to get below decks. There’s someone who needs tending to.” She disappeared.

Ol’ Chumbucket just stood there, gaping, as the last of the fight swirled around him.

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