Tuesday, October 04, 2005


A Pirate Tale – 106

“Well, a surprise attack is out,” George the Greek opined. “They’ve seen us as clearly as we’ve seen them."

Slappy returned his gaze to the ship in question. Sure enough, the interloper was changing course subtly, veering slightly westward onto a course that would intersect eventually with the Festering Boil’s.

“That’s not the action of a harmless merchant captain afraid of running into pirates on the open sea,” Slappy commented.

“Looks like he wants to run us down, but he’s being very casual about it so he doesn’t spook us,” Ol’ Chumbucket said. “He’s not turning directly into us, even though he’s got the wind. Well, we should have no trouble outrunning her, but I hate to see all that money fading over the horizon behind us.”

“Dogwatch,” Slappy called to the navigator, “can you show me on a chart where we are?”

Dogwatch Watts, inspired by his silver medal in navigation at the pirate Olympics, had been keeping careful track of the ship’s speed and position, and had little difficulty in finding their location on the chart. Slappy looked thoughtfully at it for a long moment.

“How long will it take us to get here?” Slappy asked, pointing to a spot to the northwest of their current location.

“If we pour on the canvas, I’d say we could be there in about four hours,” Watts said. “But Cap’n, that’s …”

“We don’t want to pour it on,” Slappy said. “We want to get there just before sunset.”

“But Cap’n, that’s Sorenson Shoals. Shouldn’t we steer clear of that?”

“No, it’s exactly where we want to go,” Slappy said. “The tricky part will be keeping that Spaniard chasing us. George! Throw a sea anchor out on the larboard side, out of their sight. We don’t want them to know we’re slowing down for them. Chumbucket, let’s tack starboard until we’ve cut down the angle of his pursuit, then straighten out on a heading directly for the shoals. And tell the crew to be sloppy handling the sails. We want those guys to think we’re the worst set of sailors they’ve ever seen.”

It took little time for the pirates to catch on to Slappy’s plan, but there were some worried glances at the chart that showed the shoals. About 50 miles east of Trinidad the seabed suddenly rose from a depth of more than 500 feet to almost the surface, forming an unexpected rocky barrier. More than a few ships had come to grief in the area. And the timing was going to be extremely difficult – encouraging the Spaniards to chase without letting them get so close that their overwhelming firepower could come into play.

After the course correction Slappy had asked for was made, the two ships settled in for the chase. The Boil had made its larboard turn particularly clumsily, and the Spanish payroll ship – which had dropped the pretense of the Dutch ensign and was flying the flag of Spain – had gained almost half a mile. She was now about five miles behind the Boil and was cracking on all the canvas she could hold. The Boil had run up mains’l and topsl’s in a show of making a run for it, but the balloon of canvas George had rigged over the larboard side ensured that the pirates didn’t run out of sight, leaving the large, heavy ship to give up the chase.

The chase – which to the pirates was really little more than a parade – wore throughout the afternoon, the Spanish ship slowly gaining on its intended prey. When Slappy ordered his crew to an early dinner at 4 p.m., their pursuer was now about two miles off. As the crew ate – a delightful seafood platter whipped up by ship’s cook Black Butch, Slappy and Chumbucket stood at the stern, watching the oncoming galleon.

“This next couple of hours is where it gets tricky,” Slappy said. “In another hour she’ll be close enough to take some shots with her bow chasers, and there’s always the chance she could get lucky.”

“Well, George is standing by to let go of the anchor,” Chumbucket noted. Indeed, George rarely moved away from where the canvas that slowed the ship was anchored to the larboard rail. A look of tension on his face and a boarding ax in his hand, he kept both eyes closely fixed on the galleon slowly coming up behind them.

“Are we really going to try to run over the shoals?” Chumbucket asked, his own voice betraying a hint of tension.

“Aye, right over the top. But don’t worry, I’m not planning to rip out the Boil’s bottom today. I think she can take a few knocks. But when they open fire back there, we have to look like we’re desperate, toss a few things overboard.”

That moment came slightly earlier than Slappy had assumed. The crew was just coming back on deck after eating, some of them still burping and picking bits of fish from their remaining teeth, when a cry from atop the mainmast was accompanied by the sound of a distant cannon. All the sailors stopped and watched as the shot rose into the air and fell far short of the Festering Boil.

“He’s early. Very optimistic I see,” Slappy said calmly. “He’ll be getting much closer before we get there.”

The sailors continued their routine tasks, but always with one eye on the pursuing Spaniard. Those who didn’t have immediate tasks, such as Oscar, Sawbones Burgess and Leftenant Keeling, kept both eyes on the Spaniard. Oscar’s eyes were noticeably nervous. He had already shown that he wasn’t used to the sea, and admitted he (might) be a reporter. No Putzler Prize – if he really WAS a reporter – was worth getting blown out of the ocean by an errant shot from a lucky Spaniard gunner. The shots were coming about every four minutes now. Not close yet, but getting closer.

“Nervous young man?” Burgess asked.

“N… well, yessir, actually I am,” Oscar said.

Burgess smiled. “Good. You’d be a damn fool if you weren’t. We’re not within his range yet, but he’s gaining on us.”

“How come no one else seems scared?” Oscar asked.

“Didn’t you notice? You’re on a whole ship full of damn fools.”

Somehow, that didn’t help Oscar’s nerves at all.

“How much longer?” Slappy asked Watts, who was paying particularly close attention to his charts now.

“Should be a little less than an hour,” the navigator said.

A few moments later a shot splashed just astern of the Boil. Four minutes later one went whizzing over their heads.

“They’ve got a good gunner there,” Chumbucket said with studied nonchalance.

“Fair, fair,” Slappy said, matching his insouciance.

“Would this be where a merchantman was beginning to get nervous?” Chumbucket asked.

“Yes, I think there are some things we could start doing,” Slappy agreed. “George! I want them to see us starting to panic. Let’s toss some of those barrels of flour and crates of mangoes over the side. Then, about five minutes after that, I want you to make a big show of tossing four of the cannon overboard.”

“Half an hour to the shoals,” Dogwatch called.

From the pursuing ship, it did indeed look as if the Boil, in an effort to gain speed, was lightening the load. First they saw cargo going over the railing. A short while later the captain was gratified to see cannon going over the side. A four-pound cannon weighed about 500 pounds (the name referred to the size of the ball it threw, not the weight of the weapon) but if a ship began throwing them overboard, then its crew must be desperate.

“Just one more thing for them to do, and we’ll know it’s just a matter of time,” he said to his lieutenant. Sure enough, just 10 minutes later a stream of water began issuing from the ship as the crew began pumping out the fresh water. Still the quarry didn’t seem to be gaining appreciable speed. His gunners sighted again, waited for the pitch of the ship to turn back up, and let loose another shot from the nine-pounder in the bow. He was rewarded to see his shot fly true and directly through the window of the aft cabin, probably the captain’s cabin.

“We’re just about there cap’n” Dogwatch called. The bow was crowded with sailors searching for the telltale signs of shoal water.

“Very good,” Slappy said. “George, stand by to cut lose the anchor. If we have just a tiny bit more luck, he’ll be so intent on us he won’t see what’s happened. Now we find out if we lightened ourselves enough. Cementhands! Toss the lead.”

McCormack dropped the lead and it took almost no time to hit bottom.

“We’re at 30 feet sir!” McCormack shouted.

With his eye on the pursuing ship, Slappy slowly counted, his right hand raised. At 15, he dropped his hand sharply and shouted at George, “Now! Cut us loose right now!”

Freed of the brake that had been holding it back, The Festering Boil suddenly shot ahead, spoiling the shot from the chasing Spaniard that otherwise would have hit the mainmast squarely. Aboard the Boil McCormack worked the lead feverishly calling out the rapidly decreasing depth, every eye that could be spared staring ahead for rocks.

Aboard the Spanish ship, it took a moment to register what had happened. Sailing into the setting sun, the officers had not noticed the change in the color of the water. Suddenly their prey had seemed to grow wings and danced ahead, making up a quarter mile in a matter of minutes. It was only while pondering this that the captain realized the trap he’d sailed right into.

On the Boil the noise of the keel scraping over a rocky projection sounded like the stroke of doom, but by tossing the cannon and the water they’d raised the ship’s draft just enough to scrape over. It was a horrible noise. Salty Jim, the ship’s carpenter, gulped and raced below to be ready in case there were any holes to patch.

It was obvious to the pirates when the Spaniard realized the trouble he was in. The sails were hauled in sharply and the helm went hard to port, way coming off the speeding ship, but it was too little too late. The deep-draft galleon had no chance in the shoal water and it plowed into the rocky undersea ledge like an ox cart falling off a cliff. The sound of crushing timbers could be heard across the water, and the ship’s foremast and mainmast toppled forward, bringing a tangle of blocks, canvas and rigging down on the deck.

Slappy ordered his ship to turn sharply starboard, and Chumbucket threw the helm over as the crew expertly trimmed the sails to match the new course. Suddenly the quarry had turned into a beast with very sharp teeth, and the 10 remaining guns on the starboard battery clawed the Spaniard at a distance. Slappy let the Boil continue the broad turn, coming back on the galleon at less than a quarter mile, ready to fire the larboard broadside. He had actually drawn in the breath to shout “Fire” when he saw the white flag waving desperately from the deck of the stricken ship. A sailor crawled out on the stern and struck the Spanish flag.

“Well boys, let’s see if there’s anything we can do for our Spanish brethren, and see what they’re willing to pay us to do it,” Slappy said.

Chumbucket looked out at where the Spanish sailors and soldiers clambered to the stern of their ship, which was now stuck fast on the rocks. He turned back to Slappy.

“Now that, my friend, is what I call a good idearrr.”

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?