Wednesday, April 19, 2006


The Havana Caper - 3

“Helm’s a lee!” George shouted from behind the ship’s wheel.

“Helm’s a lee!” echoed Ol’ Chumbucket in a voice that could be heard up in the main tops. “Let go and haul!”

The crew of the Festering Boil leaped to the task, releasing the forebowline and weather braces, and hauling the lee braces. The ship began turning to tack back across the wind, turning the ship towards the grey bulk of Cuba on the larboard side.

Cap’n Slappy watched with pleasure as the ship came around on the new tack. The maneuver had been performed flawlessly – again – and the Boil resumed its steady pace. Even better, the pinnace Lord Shiva’s Eye had followed the move hank for hank.

They had been running hard for two days and, with Jamaica well behind them, the ships were proceeding through the Windward Passage. Slappy expected one more tack to starboard would be necessary, and then they’d be able to turn west into the Atlantic with the wind off their beam and they’d fairly fly up the island’s northern coast to their rendezvous with the Spanish treasure fleet, wherever that ended up being.

“I’ll be below,” he told George. “When Ol’ Chumbucket’s done, have Dogwatch relieve you and I want to see you both in my cabin.”

“Aye,” George acknowledged as the captain headed below. A few moments later he was joined by George the Greek, Ol’ Chumbucket and Sawbones Burgess.

“What brings you here?” Chumbucket asked the ship’s doctor. “Giving a hand with plotting the course?”

“No. Captain just wanted me to bring the medicinal rum,” he explained, showing the bottles he’d brought with him. Slappy smiled when he saw them, took one and poured out generous tankards for each of the men. Strumpet the monkey perched on the shelf above them, watching.

“We’re making just shy of seven knots right now,” George said as they settled down. “We might be able to pick up a little speed as we get closer in to shore, but we’ll lose it when we beat back to windward.”

“As long as we’re through the passage by morning, I’ll be satisfied,” Slappy said. “How’s Shiva’s crew doing?”

“You saw for yourself,” Chumbucket said. “They’re staying right with us, and on the windward reaches they do a little better. It’s a fine little ship Spencer bought himself. And they’ve got plenty of hands aboard. We’ll need some of them back when we go into action, but for now they’re doing fine.”

There was a knock on the door. Slappy called “Enter!” and almost immediately regretted it when Lieutenant Tharp came in.

“Getting down to business?” he asked snidely. “I must have missed the memo about this meeting, because certainly as the official representative of the crown for this privateering expedition I must have been invited.”

Somehow, his arched eyebrow managed to make him more insufferable than usual.

“Right,” Slappy said. “Wouldn’t want you to miss where we plan to take on water. Have a seat by all means, and take notes to pass on to the queen later.”

Tharp drew up a chair between Ol’ Chumbucket and George, placing himself directly opposite Slappy, who unrolled a chart of Cuba.

“We can take on water anywhere along this first hundred miles of the northern coast. Let’s get that done tomorrow, first chance we get. Did you get that down Junior?” Slappy spoke slowly, measuring out the words as if giving dictation. “Take – on – water – tomorrow.”

Tharp glowered. Sawbones slid a tankard across the table to him, but the officer ignored it.

“Alright then. Two, maybe three days sailing we run into this line of offshore islands. Those will work perfectly for what I have in mind, assuming we get there before the Treasure Fleet does. I like our chances. We’ll wait there and send Shiva out ahead to find the fleet. Unless they’re standing well out to sea they should walk right up to us. Chumbucket, I’d like you to go with Spencer for that. As soon as you see them and get a fix on their course, hightail it back to us. And then we’ll act accordingly.”

Chumbucket nodded. The others looked over the chart and agreed that that was the best course. All but Tharp.

“Have you noticed that they have a ship or two more than us? In fact, they probably have roughly a hundred ships and you have two. Have you considered how you’re going to stop them?”

“You have as keen an appreciation of the obvious as your father,” Slappy said. “I have no intention of stopping them. Quite the opposite. We’ll pick off what we can and run with the wind. With luck, we’ll be gone before they can think of turning to chase us.”

“Ah, that would be the brave buccaneer way, would it?” Tharp sneered. “Take the money and run. What about your commission from Captain Steubing?”

“The piece of paper the captain forced on me says nothing about committing suicide,” Slappy countered. “That would be the mindless regular Navy way. My plan has never changed. We’re here to fill our hold with Spanish gold. Taking more than we can carry is foolish, and engaging in a sea battle against overwhelming force is just plain stupid. In this business, you don’t get to be a grizzled old pirate by being stupid.”

Slappy pointed to a sampler hanging on the cabin wall. It read, “He who strikes and runs away, lives to pillage another day.”

“My aunt Hortense ‘Happy’ McSlappy made that for me when I was just starting out in this business. I was always her favorite. That would be your great aunt.”

“The one who died in the asylum, I presume.”

Slappy’s chair shot across the room as he leaped to his feet.

“SHE DID NO SUCH THING!!” he roared. “She’s still alive, running the most popular tavern and sporting house in the Canaries. You should look her up some time, it’d do you good. Although when she found out who yer father was she’d probably take yer head off. She has low tolerance for strutting popinjays, martinets and self-aggrandizing poltroons.”

The two men glared at each other for a moment. Chumbucket, George and Sawbones sat still, ready to intervene in any violence that broke out or jump out of the way if they were in the line of fire. Having sailed with Slappy the longest, they were the only men on the ship who shared the secret that Captain Slappy’s brother was an English admiral and that this young prig was the pirate’s nephew.

The stalemate was broken by Strumpet, who chose that moment to fling a handful of monkey poo at the young officer, striking him squarely over the heart. The young man gasped and took a step back, but the other four in the room broke into laughter.

“Young fella,” Sawbones said, “I know you love that uniform, but ye’ve been wearing it for the better part of two months now. Even the crew is beginning to complain about the smell, and it takes a lot to offend them. The monkey just did what everyone’s been wanting to. Let’s go see if we can scare you up something that’ll fit and not smell so vivid.”

“Tomorrow’s a make and mend day,” George added. “We should be able to whip up a couple of blouses and pants. You’ll fit in better that way.”

“Just what I always wanted, to fit in on a pirate ship,” Tharp said, but then a rueful grin broke out. “But truth to tell, I was beginning to offend myself. I’ll go along as far as getting something clean to wear.”

“If you’re done with us for now, cap’n” George asked.

“Yes, yes, go get the kid something to wear, George. But Sawbones, stay here just a moment.”

George and Tharp left and Slappy turned toward the ship’s surgeon.

“When we meet with the Spanish, we’ll need all hands. So tell me doctor, how’s your special patient?”

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