Friday, March 10, 2006


A Pirate Tale – 134

“Damn,” said Ol’ Chumbucket, slapping at the swarm of insects that surrounded his head like a cloud. “They’re going to eat me alive. I hope the Bawdy Boys aren’t disappointed if we finally get there, have it out, and I don’t have any blood left for them to spill.”

His sally went uncommented on by the other pirates, who by now were plodding along the narrow jungle path in stultified silence. It was their second day on the trail. They had left the ruined city of Gibraltar rather later than they’d hoped, as it took time to pull together the equipment they’d need and get a fix on where they were heading, and make other arrangements. Their numbers had changed somewhat from the five (six counting Strumpet, the monkey) that Slappy had originally planned on. For one, the ship’s cook, Black Butch, had insisted on coming. “I’m always stuck in the galley cooking or in the infirmary helping Burgess during a fight,” he’d complained. “That damn monkey’s had more adventures than I have.” Slappy had acceded to his request on the condition that “ye stop slandering me monkey!”

Also, Lt. Buckler had insisted on sending along a representative of His Majesty’s Navy – Lieutenant Mandrake Bulwer Pondicherry Tharp, second in command of HMS Tigershark. Buckler would have preferred sending a company of Marines, but after the mutiny and recapture of the Tigershark, Tharp was all he could spare if he was to have enough manpower to work the ship.

The young Tharp was now just ahead of Slappy on the trail. The pathway was too narrow for walking more than single-file, and the foliage was so close in and so tall that it shut out much of the light and all of the breeze. The heat and humidity were oppressive. Peddicord was in the lead at the moment, followed by Keeling, Butch, Ol’ Chumbucket, Tharp, Slappy and Cementhands. They took turns on point, but Cementhands was always back of the line, because his huge size constantly bent branches flying back into the faces of those following too closely. Strumpet, who could have skittered through the trees if she so chose, preferred to perch on Slappy’s shoulder and make him bear her extra weight.

None had slept well the first night out. They were used to sleeping aboard ship, in bunks or swaying hammocks, and it was impossible for any of them to find a comfortable place to sack out on the hard ground. When they did manage to close their eyes for a short nap, they were inevitably awakened by one or the other of them snoring. When they awoke (those that had managed to get any sleep) they had bolted down some breakfast and hit the trail again. They had only a vague idea of where they were going or how far – Leech had told his crew only that it would take three days of rugged marching before they got to their destination and that they’d be there some time. The ship was to wait, Leech had said, regardless of how long they took.

If the pursuing pirates could make 20 miles a day in this terrain, that would be good progress, Slappy thought, thinking wistfully about how quickly they could traverse that distance at sea, a couple of hours at most in a good breeze, and without the bugs that kept swarming around them. They knew they were on the right path only because periodically, about every mile or so, they ran across signs of equipment dropped by those they were pursuing – a discarded uniform coat, empty water bottles, a webbed belt, a cartridge box, a deck of playing cards (McCormack scooped those up.)

None of the pirates were happy, and they plodded along sullenly. But Tharp was most put out, and he wasted no opportunity to remind everyone that he came from an august family (an observation that Slappy gritted his teeth over but did not respond to,) that he was used to better climate, food and company than he was now forced to endure, that once his father the admiral returned to the Caribbean from wherever it was he’d been sent there’d be some changes, and it was a good thing these pirates had never run into Admiral Tharp or they’d all have been strung up a long time ago.

This last comment came during a break in the march and almost led to blows. As Peddicord scouted ahead, the exhausted and sweaty crew paused to breathe and throw together a quick meal of ship’s biscuit and water, with some of the rum that Slappy had had the foresight to bring along. Tharp turned up his nose at the rum and started talking about the wine cellars at his father’s estate. When Keeling politely suggested that rum in a bottle close at hand was of more value than hundreds of musty bottles thousands of miles across the ocean, Tharp rolled his eyes and sneered.

“Value? What would a pack of thieving pirates know about value? You’re only lucky the Naval Board hasn’t taken more interest in the Caribbean, or you and your lot would be long gone. The Tigershark getting sent here was just the first blow to you and your kind. You’ll be seeing a lot more of the Union Jack before very much longer.”

“Now, no need to be like that,” Ol’ Chumbucket said from a spot across the small clearing where he sat with his back to a tree. “Maybe you’re a fine gentlemen and we’re a handful of riffraff, but we’re all here for the same purpose, so let’s try to get along,”

“No maybe about it. If my father Admiral Tharp were here, this Bawdy business would have been wrapped up in a fortnight, and the rest of you pirates would have been rolled up with them.”

“What did you say?” Slappy said with a trace of menace in his voice that would have told most people to be quiet and hope he’d go away. Tharp was not most people.

“You heard me. You’re no different than those Bawdy Boys. I don’t see the point in tramping halfway across South America to try to capture them just so you can make off with whatever it is they’re after. You’re just as bad as them.”

Slappy rose to his feet and advanced toward the young officer, who effected not to notice him.

“Now look here lad, there’s a couple of things maybe you need to know,” the pirate captain said with a dangerous snarl.

“Cap’n, someone’s coming fast,” Butch said, reaching for a couple of knives as he sought cover from a nearby tree.

The pirates and Tharp quickly took cover, but were relieved when Wellington Peddicord burst into the clearing, gasping.

“You’d better come quick and look at this,” he told them. “It’s about a mile up the trail.”

“Take a breather and have something to eat first,” Slappy said. “We can afford five minutes.”

“I’ll eat as we walk,” Peddicord said. “Seriously. C’mon.”

At Peddicord’s urging the party moved quickly. Less than a quarter hour later they emerged into a second, much larger clearing. The area was somewhat beaten up and trampled by a large body of men, with signs of a couple of fires as well.

“Apparently this is where they camped,” Slappy said. “Well that’s good, we know we’re on the right course.”

“That’s not all,” Peddicord said. “Come over here.” He led them to the far side of the clearing, to a small gully that bordered the eastern edge of the opening. “Look down there.”

The pirates could see signs that someone – presumably Peddicord – had recently slithered down the edge. What they saw at the bottom made some of them wish they hadn’t eaten.

The remains of at least five men, all wearing British Marine uniforms, were strewn across the gully’s floor, about 15 feet below them. They had been dead in the heat for some weeks, but there wasn’t much smell, because the scavenging animals had taken care of most of the “spoilables.”

Peddicord, Keeling and Tharp slithered down the bank to inspect the remains while Slappy, Chumbucket, Butch and Cementhands searched the field. Half an hour later they stopped to compare notes.

“Five of ‘em, all Marines, all dead. No way to tell what killed ‘em,” Keeling said. No sign of any weapons down there.”

“Didn’t find much up here. I mean, we found a lot of gear that they cast off, bunch of regular Navy pigs,” Cementhands said with an aside to Tharp. “But nothing to indicate if there was a fight or anything. It’s been three weeks, so it’s hard to say anything besides they obviously camped here, five guys died, and we’re on the right track.”

“The information we got from your shipmates just said east of Gibraltar, up in the hills,” Slappy said to Tharp, who did not like being associated with the mutineers and showed it. “So we’re going the right way. How many Marines were aboard the Tigershark?”

“Originally 40. We lost 10 when Mr. Peddicord ‘left us,’” Tharp said. "And I think another 10 died in the mutiny. Nine came with us when we escaped, so 11 must have gone with Leech.”

“Six now,” Slappy said with a tilt of his head to the ravine. “Well, no use in sitting here. Whatever they’re after and whatever they’re doing, it’ll be up there,” he pointed to the hills which now seemed much closer and much more ominous. “Let’s hit the road."

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