Tuesday, January 03, 2006


A Pirate Tale – 123

One after the other, the 32 guns of the starboard brace fired a rolling broadside, as impressive for it’s impeccable timing as for its sheer power. Each yard of the mighty ship was perfectly squared, every man aboard at his station in his white ducks or glistening officer’s uniform.

On the quarterdeck of HMS Tigershark, Lieutenant Buckler snapped his watch shut with satisfaction. The salute had gone perfectly, as he reported to his captain. The captain, however, seemed as oblivious to the officer’s report as he had been to the thunder of the guns. With a distracted air, Commodore William Bracknell Toasty waved one hand, which might have been a signal to continue or might have been an effort to ward off a mosquito.

From the fort guarding the port of Maracaibo, a ragged volley returned the ship’s salute. Buckler counted the shots. Only 14, not even half the salute the ship had fired. Normally, such an insult to the Royal Navy would have required some action, up to and including a landing party to spike the guns. Toasty, however, seemed to take no notice. His eyes – glazed under half closed, swollen lids – didn’t seem to be registering.

“Sir, shall I have Mister Manley bring the ship in closer to offer the garrison a more forceful signal of our presence?” he asked. As had become usual, it wasn’t the captain who responded, but the parson. With a simpering look, he leaned toward the captain as if listening to the frail man whisper orders, then righted himself and turned to Buckler.

“No, the commodore is sensible to the lack of courtesy displayed by the Spaniards, but wants to continue south to Gibraltar without delay,” “Rev.” Leech said.

“Is that the captain’s orders?” Bucker asked, ignoring the man of the cloth and looking directly at Toasty. The captain made no response. “Captain?”

Leech put his hand on Toasty’s shoulder and dropped his head until his eyes were level with the captain’s. “Captain Toasty,” he said sharply. “Are those your orders?”

The captain’s eyes flickered, then seemed to register for a moment.

“Oh, eh, what? “

“Your orders. Shall we sail on?”

“Oh, yes, by al means. Sail on.”

Buckler gave one despairing look at the captain, then turned and gave the orders.

“Come captain,” Leech purred. “Let’s get you back to your cabin and give you another dose of your medicine. Then perhaps the Duchess will come up and sit with you for a while.” The captain’s eye’s showed a glimmer of interest as Leech led him away.

Down on the gun deck, Abe McIlwain watched Maracaibo fall astern. He had been surprised, to say the least, to find himself assigned as a master gunner’s mate. “If me old dad could see me now, he’d die o shame,” McIlwain had said on getting the assignment from Leech. “I guess it’s a good thing I killed him all those years ago.”

He had just finished taking part in firing the salute, and felt a curious tingle of pleasure and pride that his gun crew had performed flawlessly. It was a crew entirely made up of members of the Bawdy Boys, all men who knew and had fought alongside each other for years. They were hardly regular Navy, but enough of them had served under the Union Jack for them to at least look the part.

“Why can’t we take the ship now?” Dedman asked. “We’re past Maracaibo, and we can take Gibraltar with just our lads.”

“Look, it‘s none o’ your business why Leech gave us the orders he did,” McIlwain snapped back. “Maybe we could take Gibraltar and maybe we couldn’t, but it’s what comes next that’s important.”

“Well, when the time comes, I’m gonna enjoy taking care of that bastard Buckler,” Dedman said.

“Just be patient,” McIlwain said. “In another week we can say goodbye to the flag and Buckler and all the Jack Tars who are so happy to serve him,” McIlwain muttered in reply. “And after we’re done with Gibraltar, maybe we’ll take a stop in at Maracaibo and see what’s what. I wasn’t much scared by their gunnery.”

One person had been scared by that gunnery. Unfortunately, that person was the newly appointed governor of the town. Since his recent arrival he had been worried about the town’s readiness. Now, from the fort above the harbor, he was actively concerned as he watched the ship sailing impassively away. He was furious that his gun crews had done such a ragged job of returning the ship’s salute, but knew that the poorly trained men had done the best they could. While he couldn’t blame them for the laxness that had prevailed prior to his arrival, he also knew that had the British decided to press the matter he would have been unable to repel them. The port looked a lot stringer than it actually was these days.

“Florencio,” he called, summoning his new adjutant. “I want the town alerted to the fact that starting tomorrow we’ll be holding gunnery practice an hour every day from 11 to noon. It might get a little noisy, and those who can get away from the harbor at the time will probably want to do so.

“Si, your excellency.”

“And I want to form militia companies in the town, for homeland defense. Get that organized for me. And let’s send another message to Hispaniola seeing if they have any spare soldiers that can be sent down here.”

“Si, your excellency.”

“I don’t know what the British think they’re doing sailing down Lago de Maracaibo as if they own my lake, but by the time they come sailing back, I want this town ready to compel them to stop and answer my questions,” he said. “I’m the governor here now, and I expect that to mean something.

From behind the new governor, a chord rang out from a nearby guitar, a flourish both dramatic and defiant.

The Festering Boil had cleared the windward strait and was heading south toward the South American coast. The wind was fair, and if it held up, it shouldn’t take more than a week to reach Maracaibo.

On the gun deck, Cementhands McCormack looked with satisfaction at the newly swabbed deck. Neatness was not one of the abiding virtues in the pirate world, but every now and then a sailor just had to get out the mops and holystones and clean something. It was in the blood.

McCormack beamed at the gleaming deck, and a song rose in his throat.

“Oh gold and jewels and booty are a pirates chief delight.
Buccaneering is a great life, when there’s plund’ring to be done.
You prove yer mettle every time you get into a fight,
Cuz a pirate’s just a sailor ‘til he kills someone.”

From somewhere aboard, a chorus echoed, “Yes a pirate’s just a sailor ‘til he kills someone.”

A string section appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and the music swelled as McCormack, joined by Dogwatch Watts and Leftenant Keeling in three-part harmony, sang a second verse.

“We’ve sailed the Spanish Main and we’ve sunk many a ship,
We’re happiest when our enemies are fallin’.
We send ‘em all to Davey Jones, they don’t enjoy the trip,
For a pirate’s just a sailor ‘til he’s keelhalin’.
Yes a pirate’s just a sailor ‘til he’s keelhalin’.”

As the brass section came in, carrying the melody, a dozen pirates slid down the ratlines to the poopdeck, where they performed a series of pas de deux and grand jetes. The trio of McCormack, Watts and Keeling swung up to the quarterdeck, where they marked time with a series of jazz squares. Then, with the wind snapping in the rigging and the sun gleaming cinematically on the horizon, McCormack stepped forward for another chorus.

“With cannon or with blunderbuss, with cutlass or with dirk,
We fight until the enemy’s colors have been struck.
The light of battle burns ‘til we’ve finished up our work …”

A door slammed open and Cap’n Slappy came out on deck.

“McCormack! What the fuck!?!!” the captain bellowed.

Dancers scattered below deck or back up the masts, the orchestra dematerialized as fast as it had appeared, and Watts and Keeling suddenly became deeply involved in taking the ship’s position.

“Yes sir?” McCormack asked innocently.

“What the blazes was THAT all about?” he asked.

“Just a musical number sir.”

“A what?”

“A musical number,” McCormack said. “You know, singing, dancing. It breaks the action and provides an enhanced – one might almost say melodramatic – feeling of the characters’ mood.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“It’s all part of my manifesto for a new theater.”

Slappy looked puzzled for a minute. Finally he sighed.

“Look, will you just keep I down? I’m holding the best hand I’ve had in five years, and Chumbucket and Sawbones Burgess have just raised me. I’d like to be able to concentrate on my cards.”

“Yes sir. No trouble cap’n,” McCormack said. The sailor turned, picked up his bucket and emptied it over the side, whistling the final chorus of the song as he did so.

Slappy shook his head, then turned back to his cabin.

“What a ship! A musical number?”

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