Wednesday, March 01, 2006


A Pirate Tale – 130

The Festering Boil lay at anchor some 10 miles north of Gibraltar, tucked into a cove as unobtrusively as a 92-foot brigantine can be tucked. The crew kept a close watch on the waters, waiting for the return of the scouting party.

One of the ship’s longboats, rigged with a sail to look more or less like a fishing boat, had departed with a company of pirates to get the lay of the land. They had been gone since morning, and the sailors left behind on the Boil were getting nervous as the sun began setting across Lagos de Maracaibo.

“What do you thinks keeping ‘em?” Oscar asked Cementhands as the two peered over the rail.

“I doubt it’s sightseeing,” Cementhands said. “I wish the captain had let me go along. I hate all this waiting.”

“That’s exactly why the captain didn’t let you go,” said Red Molly joining them. “They went to have a look, and then they’re supposed to come right back. That shouldn’t have taken more than three, four hours. You’d have looked, gotten tired of waiting and charged in and started smashing things. Once Chumbucket and the others come back we’ll be able to figure out how to deal with it.”

“I like my way better,” Cementhands said. “It’s hard for them to get in the way when they’re all smashed up.”

“Who exactly are they?” Oscar asked. “I know we’ve been chasin’ the Bawdy Boys, and I know we hate them and all and they sure seem to hate us, but who ARE they?”

“Bunch of low-life no-good scum not good enough to be buccaneers,” McCormack said. Molly could tell from Oscar’s look that the reply hadn’t really answered his question.

“The Bawdy Boys used to be members of the Brotherhood of the Coast,” she explained. “They’d signed the covenants and were happy enough to have the brotherhood backing them a dozen years ago. But as the Spanish got weaker, they didn’t see the need. They started ignoring the codes, attacking anyone or anything. They even ambushed more than a few pirates, plundering them and killing every man on board who wouldn’t join ‘em.”

“ Fucking bastards,” McCormack added to flesh out Molly’s description.

“How many of ‘em are there? They seem to be everywhere lately.”

“There’s probably really not more than about 20 of them,” Molly said, “certainly not more than that from the original crew. But they’re usually able to find plenty of riff-raff to help out, and Leech has never been one skimp if he needed to buy someone, although the ‘hired hands’ often get paid with pistol balls rather than the gold promised.”

“It’s personal between us,” McCormack said. “We’ve crossed paths half a dozen times, and kicked their butts every time. But the first time was right after Slappy had become a captain. That was before I’d joined him. I think it might even have been before Ol’ Chumbucket was around. They set up a rendezvous with him and when he showed up, expecting to parlay with them about a raid, they opened fire on him and sent his ship to the bottom. Not more than a dozen hands survived, including the captain, Sawbones and George. Good evening Cap’n,” he added as Slappy came forward to join them in the bow.

“Any sign of ‘em yet?” Cap’n Slappy.

“Nothing,” Molly said, her voice betraying her anxiety. Her husband, the ship’s disciplinarian Leftenant Keeling, had been part of the party, along with Ol’ Chumbucket, George the Greek, Dogwatch Watts, and Two Patch Goatbloater.

“Okay, here’s what we’re doing. If they’re not back by dark, we’re sending a second party out. I’m leading it. Cementhands you’re coming with me. Find me another six or seven good men – or women,” he added with a tilt of the head to Molly, “But you’re not coming along.”

“Why not! I have as much right to go as anyone!” she said angrily.

“True, but somebody’s got to stay here and be in charge of my ship. Who else do you think I could trust her to?”

An hour later the last light was fading and things were stirring on the Boil, as Slappy prepared to lead a second scouting party out toward Gibraltar, this time with no pretense of being harmless fishermen. The crewmen were heavily armed as they began to climb down to the longboat. Slappy had just taken his seat in the stern sheets when he suddenly hushed the men.

“What was that?” he hissed.

Everyone hushed, ears straining in the dark. A moment later the sound came again, a voice calling softly, “Ahoy the ship!” and the splash of oars. The sailors waited, muskets aimed tensely over the water.

Another splash, another call.

“Chumbucket? Is that you?”

It was. Within minutes, the returning boat had pulled up alongside and the men aboard clambered up to the Boil’s deck. It took some time, because they had to carry one man up the side. He was immediately hustled below to Sawbones Burgess’s infirmary. Slappy was surprised to see the man was wearing a bedraggled uniform, as was another who stood on deck, looking about warily.

Slappy’s relief displayed itself by the testy tone he took.

“Where the hell have you been all day? Where’s George and Dogwatch? And who the hell is that?” he demanded, pointing to the officer.

Chumbucket took no notice of the tone.

“This is Lieutenant Buckler, second of the Tigershark,” Chumbucket said. “Bucker, Cap’n Slappy.” The two men gave short nods of acknowledgement, neither noticeable for its effusiveness.

“And Sawbones is looking after Captain Theodore Gustafson, known to some although not to his face as ‘Toasty.’ He’s apparently been heavily drugged over the last five months by the ship’s chaplain," Chumbucket’s voice took on an ironic edge, “a tall, extremely thin, and very dark chaplain.”

Slappy nodded with understanding. “Davey Leech. So what’s going on? Why’d these two leave the ship and what are they dong here? And where’s George and Keeling?”

“First why don’t we send Buckler down to your cabin and have Black Butch get him something to eat. He’s had a rough couple of weeks,” Chumbucket said. The man saluted, which the two pirates returned awkwardly, and let himself be led below.

“Good,” Chumbucket said. “I’m not sure I want him to hear everything we have to say. Good man and all, but … Navy, ya know?” Slappy nodded his understanding and Chumbucket continued. “So anyway, when we got to Gibraltar we could see right away that things weren’t right. The town was flattened. The fires were out but you could still smell the burning. There were half a dozen hulks tied up to the pier, two of them sitting on the bottom, and a couple more merchantmen in the harbor. And a big damn ship of the line, the Tigershark, guarding the entrance. Only there wasn’t a Union Jack flying from the transom, just a black banner – no markings.”

“The Bawdy Boys,” Slappy said.

“Right. Well, we steered clear of ‘em, of course, and I don’t think they saw us. We pulled back out of the harbor and landed just outside the town and walked in. We couldn’t find anybody. I mean anybody. There was no one on the streets, which right now are just clear paths in the debris. We’d have knocked on some doors, but we couldn’t find any doors to knock on. The place has been flattened. And under the smell of the burning was the smell of rotting corpses, so we didn’t look too hard.”

Slappy was puzzled.

“So they managed to take a British naval ship and bring it all the way down here just to blow the shit out of a town? Does anyone see a way they could make money off of that, cuz I don’t,” Slappy said.

“No, anyway, like I said the town was deserted as near as we could tell, and there didn’t seem to be much more than a skeleton crew on the Tigershark. I couldn’t figure out where they’d gone. So after reconnoitering we decided to head back here and see what you wanted to do.”

“On our way back, Two Patch smelled something and told us to pull into shore. I couldn’t see anything worth looking at, just more jungle, but he insisted. After we beached he got out and we followed his nose. About a mile inland we spotted ‘em. These British sailors. They’d set up a rough camp maybe three miles outside Gibraltar. When they saw us they were ready to fight, but we were finally able to get them to stand down so we could talk.”

“According to Buckler, Gustafson had ordered – well, he knows now it was Leech who ordered – the ship to cannonade the town as soon as they arrived. Just flattened the place with no warning and no mercy. He said they bombarded the place for six hours, until all they were doing was making the rubble bounce.

“Buckler and a few other men tried to stop them, but they were immediately attacked. One of them, and you’ll find this interesting, was apparently named Dedman.” Slappy’s eyes snapped toward Chumbucket and the captain said with annoyance, "I thought we'd killed him again!" but Chumbucket just shrugged and continued. “Like I said, Dedman came at him with a knife and Buckler ended up having to go over the side to save his own life. About 20 some other officers and crewmen managed to escape with just the weapons they had on hand. One of them was able to get the captain over the side and away from the ship. Apparently somewhat heroic. Anyway, Buckler took command of the group. The next day an armed party from the ship went after them and chased them away from the town. The navies were mostly unarmed, so they didn’t have much chance to stand and fight. Buckler set up camp in the best spot he could find and they’ve been watching and waiting and hoping help would come. That’s us, I guess. In the meantime, the scouts he sent towards the town said that three days after the attack, most of the crew, including Leech, went ashore and went marching southeast into the jungle. And that’s all they know. He tried to send a man to follow ‘em, but he never came back.”

“Anyway, I invited Buckler back here so we could come up with a plan of action. He wasn’t too keen to leave his men and sail to a pirate ship, but he reckoned Toasty needed a doctor bad enough that he’d risk it. George and Dogwatch agreed to stay with the Brits, and we left them all the weapons we had with us. So Buckler’s here to talk about how we get his ship back. And there’s one other thing you might want to know about before we join the lieutenant in your cabin.”

“Buckler left the encampment in the charge of the officer who saved Gustafson, a youngster by the name of Mandrake Bulwer Pondicherry Tharp.”

“Well, we knew he’d been aboard the ship,” Slappy said. “What of it?”

“Just thought you’d want to know, but your nephew is the spit of our Dogwatch. They couldn’t be more alike. Their own mothers couldn’t tell them apart, or more apropos, their own father.”

“Oh really? Well, I knew about the connection, of course, but I don’t know what we want to do about that right now. Let’s go below and talk to our guest.”

The two pirates retired to the captain’s cabin, where the officer was dining with relish on the seafood quiche the ship’s chef had brought him. Slappy didn’t waste a moment.

“Keep eating, Buckler. Seems to me the best way to cut out a ship is take her from the bow and stern at the same time. Do you agree?”

A grim smile crossed the officer’s face, and he nodded.

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