Thursday, January 12, 2006


A Pirate Tale – 124

The sun was well on its way toward the zenith when the Festering Boil finally rounded the headlands and entered the strait leading to Lago de Maracaibo and the city whose fort protected the mouth of that large lake – almost an inland sea – that protruded into the heart of Venezuela like a polyp.

Since the crew’s big musical number, Mother Nature had turned against the pirate crew – the bitch – sending a variety of squalls and minor storms as the ship proceeded south from Tortuga. Most troublesome, the wind had turned against them. Instead of the week of smooth sailing they had hoped for, they had spent 10 seemingly endless days tacking to make any headway. When they finally arrived off the strait, everyone aboard was tired and testy and the tide and the wind were both against them. By the time those had turned, Cap’n Slappy decided to wait until morning so they didn’t have to make the unfamiliar passage in the dark.

Finally they entered the strait under courses and topsails, with their ersatz Dutch flag fluttering from transom and Cementhands McCormack on the bow sprit, miming his international, “Nobody here but us harmless fishermen,” routine. The weather finally decided to cooperate, and the Boil sailed through the passage under bright skies and a light but steady breeze off the beam. They had just rounded the headland and could see the city ahead on the southwest. George the Greek was at the helm, with Slappy in his usual spot along the portside rail. George glanced at the hourglass as the last grains of sand ran through and called to Dogwatch, “Six bells – ring it!” Dogwatch Watts reached for the cord attached to the clapper. As he tugged it, all hell broke loose.

A roar of cannon and a pall of smoke shattered the late morning air, sending the shocked pirates to their battle stations – all except McCormack, who was so startled by the cacophony that he plummeted off the bowsprit. Fortunately he fell starboard and George had thrown the wheel over to larboard, so he managed to mostly avoid having the keel run over him. He grabbed the line thrown to him and struggled back up the side, not too much the worse for wear, as the crew reefed sails and stared toward the city.

“What the hell?” Chumbucket asked as he emerged from below decks.

“Beats me,” Slappy said. “We haven’t been hit, but man, that’s a lot of guns.”

“Are they shooting at us?”

“I don’t think so,” Slappy said, scanning the sea. “We’re not really in range yet, and the splashes all seem to be far ahead of us, at least half a mile. It looks – Christ!!!”

His oath was in response to a second salvo of fire from the fort, as the cloud of smoke drifted over the harbor, obscuring the city.

“Well, one thing is clear. They’re obviously shooting live shots,” George said as he watched the balls splash into the water, again almost half a mile ahead of them.

“And either they’re not shooting at us, or they’re really the worst shots I’ve ever seen,” Chumbucket added.

“Well, just in case it’s the latter, let’s get ready,” Slappy said. “All hands, man the guns! Rig for action! And somebody get me a drink!”

The flurry of activity quickly cleared the decks, and long before seven bells were rung the ship was ready for battle, if that’s what was in the offing. Each of the 24 four-pounders on the gundeck was loaded and ready to fire, and barrels of axes and cutlasses were distributed along the deck. Meanwhile George had brought the ship about and was standing off from the fort. By this time the smoke had begun clearing and Leftenant Keeling focused his glass on the battlements.

“Sir, there’s somebody signaling. He’s waving a flag of some sort.”

All eyes turned to the fort, where a figure was waving a large flag, quartered in red and white.

“Heading into danger? I guess so,” Slappy said. Now what’s this?”

From the fort’s tower, signal flags were heading skyward. Keeling read them off.

“L-O S-I-E-N-T-O. Lo Siento. It’s Spanish for ‘Sorry about that,’ more or less.”

Slappy grimaced. “I should hope so. What else?”

“They want us to stand to and they’re sending out a boat.”

A half hour later a small harbor boat pulled up alongside the Boil and one of its occupants, a small, tastefully dressed man, scrambled aboard. The pirates couldn’t help noticing that he brought with him a contingent of a dozen armed soldiers.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the newcomer said, bowing. “I am Florencio Porras, adjutant and administrative assistant to his excellency the governor of Maracaibo and viceroy of his majesty, the king of Espana.”

The man withdrew a large handkerchief from his breast pocket and used it to flick a speck of dust off his spotless coat. All the sailors caught the scent of menthol as he fluttered the cloth, then held it near his face, as if he were trying not to show offense at the rather intense odor of the ship.

“Yeah, well, great to meet you Flo,” Slappy said. If the man were offended by the casual address, he showed it only by a very slight widening of the eyes. “Look, why were you shooting at us?”

“Ah no, senor, the governor was afraid you would think that. You happened to arrive right as we began our daily live gunnery practice, which begins at 11. Our men have been noticeably lax in their training, and the governor, in the way of all men who are assigned to a new post, wishes to impose some – how do you say? Escupida y pulimento?”

“Spit and polish, yes, that’s right,” Keeling offered.

Florencio seemed disgusted at the notion, but went on.

“To apologize, the governor would like to invite you, capitan, and your officers to dine with him in Maracaibo.”

“No, no, that’s far too much of an honor for an old Dutch fishing captain such as myself, being as I’m Dutch and like to catch fish,” Slappy said, pointing to the wooden shoes he had donned as the boat was pulling alongside. “I’m just looking for some new fishing grounds and thought I’d check out your lake, you see, hoping I could catch some small-mouth wall-eyed something or others. So I really couldn’t …

“It saddens me to say, capitan, that the governor thought you might wish to decline the honor. Which is why I have brought along your special ‘honor guard.’ And of course, with our gunnery now much improved, there is no point in trying to pass on southward without the governor’s permission. No, on the whole I really think it would be much the better if you and your men came with me.”

Chumbucket signaled with a jerk of his head to Slappy that he thought they should go. Pulling the captain aside, he whispered, “We might as well. We don’t even know if the Bawdy Boys came this way. Maybe we can get some news in the city.”

“But we’re pirates, remember?” Slappy hissed back with a glance at the soldiers. “Or did my shoes fool you, too?”

“Look, we could probably take out the guards,” Chumbucket shot back. “But if we can’t make it to Gibraltar, what was the point of coming here? We might as well go.”

Slappy turned back the dapper adjutant.

“On second thought, we’d be delighted to have lunch with the gov.”

An hour later the small craft pulled alongside the pier, bearing the adjutant, the ‘honor guard,’ Slappy, Ol’ Chumbucket, Sawbones Burgess, Keeling and George. They soldiers fell in around them at port arms, and they marched up the hill toward the governor’s house where they were shown into a large, well-appointed room.

“I will tell the governor you have arrived,” Florencio said, bowing as he closed the door.

“He didn’t lock it,” Slappy noted, hopefully.

“He didn’t need to, with those soldiers all over the place,” Sawbones muttered.

Chumbucket was examining the contents of the credenza when the door reopened, admitting Florencio. The pirate deftly pocketed a small gold snuff box he’d been admiring.

Florencio cleared his throat, then intoned: “It is my privilege to present the governor of Maracaibo, and at the pleasure of his must royal and puissant majesty the king of Spain, his royal viceroy. Gentlemen,” from somewhere in the hall there was a ringing guitar flourish, “Governor Don Taco.”

Five jaws dropped to the floor as their old comrade Don Taco strode into the room, trailed by his ever-present Los Mariachi.

“My friends,” he greeted them. “Oh no, you didn’t bring along Black Butch? I was counting on a decent meal. My cook here is for shit.” He looked over the credenza, then turned to his adjutant.

“Florencio, where the hell did I leave my snuff?”

Argh matey. That be a good pirate story.
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