Monday, April 24, 2006


The Havana Caper - 5

Rain lashed the Festering Boil and howling winds made keeping any course difficult. With the sails closehauled and a sea anchor out, the crew struggled to maintain enough headway to keep the ship riding into the waves and not turning broadside into them and broaching. The seas broke over the bow and flooded the waist of the ship, and it was all hands to the pumps to keep the Boil from foundering.

The squall had come on eight hours earlier, just as the ships had cleared the Windward Passage and came out into the Atlantic. As the line of black clouds raced in from the east the Boil headed for deeper water while Spencer’s small pinnace, Lord Shiva’s Eye, turned for the safety of the shore. With luck they’d meet somewhere up the coast after the storm had passed, assuming they were both able to ride it out. Now every man and woman on the ship was at work on deck or in the rigging. Even Cementhands – who might or might not still be possessed by a saint – took his turns at the pump, though he remained silent. On the quarterdeck, Cap’n Slappy, Dogwatch, George and Ol’ Chumbucket wrestled with the wheel to keep the ship on an even keel.

One particularly violent wave crashed over the bow, taking the bowsprit with a crack like a gunshot. The debris swept across the fo’c’sle, leaving a tangle of cordage, spars and canvas hanging over the bow, draggling down the starboard side of the ship and into the ocean.

“We have to clear that,” George shouted against the wind. “The drag is gonna make it even harder to steer and it’s holding the head lower in the water.”

Chumbucket nodded and started forward, leaving the others to battle the wheel and keep the Boil on something like a proper heading. He waded almost hip-deep across the waist of the ship, collecting two other crewmembers, Leftenant Keeling and one of the new recruits from Port Royal, Mad Mario Cassandra, to help. As the bow rose to the next wave the water drained through the scuppers, giving them a few moments to rush forward before the next wave crashed over and they held on for dear life. Other sailors – Chumbucket couldn’t tell whom through the driving rain – raced up the ratlines of the foremast to cut loose any remnants of the jib from the yards.

The drag of the canvas in the ocean kept the bow lower, and the wave rushed over them like a foaming green wall. The three of them clung to whatever they could find as the water submerged them, then they leaped forward with axes. The lines holding the wreckage to the ship were taut as timbers, so there was no thought of trying to untangle the mess. The pirates hacked at them to get it all over the side.

One, two, three, four lines were severed, and now the last of the mess hung from the forepeak. Not only was the entire drag now directly at the front of the ship, pulling the bow down, but the forepeak was groaning with the strain, suggesting that they were about to loose the whole front end of the ship. That would be bad. Without a word, which would have been useless anyway in the screaming gale, Mad Mario tucked the axe into his belt and slithered out onto the projection, wrapping legs and arms around it tightly as he inched out to where the jagged end of the bowsprit projected from it. Two swings of his axe and the last of the mess went by the boards.

But as the sailors heaved a sigh of relief that that problem was solved, a new wave broke over the ship, battering Mario. With hearts in their throats Keeling and Chumbucket watched as the battered seaman lost his grip. The last thing they saw was Mario dangling from the projection by his hands as the water swept over him. Then the wave hit them and they couldn’t see anything as they clung to the rail to keep from being washed away. After what felt like an eternity under water it passed and they scrambled back to their feet and turned forward. There was no one there to be seen.

As he rushed to the bow, Ol’ Chumbucket caught a dark, flashing blur to his right, but in the confusion of wind, rain and wave he couldn’t make out anything. Peering through the weather confirmed what he dreaded – Mario was gone.

But just as he braced himself for the next onslaught of water, Keeling caught his arm and pointed to starboard. Chumbucket couldn’t hear what he was saying over the howling wind, but he turned and peered into the mist. There was something in the water, and he realized that whatever it was, it was attached to the ship by a line from the rigging. Looking harder, he realized the shape in the water was actually two bodies fighting to keep from losing the line that connected them to the ship.

Chumbucket dashed to the ratlines and climbed high enough that he could grab the line that he now realized was attached to the foretop yard. Grabbing it with both hands he jumped to the deck, his weight drawing the struggling pair closer to the ship. Meanwhile, from the quarterdeck Slappy had seen what happened and had rushed to the railing with a dozen other crewmembers. As Chumbucket dropped to the deck with the line in his hands they grabbed it and hauled in. In a short time they had brought the pair to the side and were hoisting them on board.

One was Mario, half conscious, spitting seawater and shivering. The other was Mandrake Tharp.

Slappy ordered them below and sent several sailors up the foremost to secure a yard that was hanging at an odd angle, and the sail that was now flapping in the wind. Then he and Chumbucket went below to find out what had happened.

Mario was in Sawbones Burgess’ sickbay, and Tharp sat on a bench in the passageway.

“What happened there lad?” the captain asked.

“I was one of the men who went up to clear the jib lines,” Tharp said tiredly. “When I saw the wave coming I knew he wouldn’t be able to hold on. So I cut the halyard as low as I could reach, tied the end around me and as he got swept off I dove for him. Good thing he held on as long as he did. If he’d been swept five feet further out I wouldn’t have had enough line to reach him.”

Slappy stared at the young man with a look that mingled shock and family pride. It was the first time the English officer had taken part in the activity of the Festering Boil, and he had come through for both ship and crewmate.

“Even tied off like that, it was a damn fool thing to do,” he said at last. “Well, yer father would be proud of ye, lad, that’s all I can say. Damn proud.”

Tharp drew himself up, and even in his soaking sailor’s togs managed to give himself the air of a uniformed officer who was having none of the sentiment.

“Yes, well, had I taken time to recollect that he was nothing more than a pirate, I may have acted differently. But this ship is on a mission for the crown and if there’s one thing the service has drilled into me is that you think of ship and shipmate first. That might be why it comes as a surprise to you and your lot.”

And with that Tharp turned on his heel and headed back to the quarters he shared with the other ship’s officers.

Slappy looked as if he’d been struck.

“Can you believe that little prick?” he asked.

“Actually, I’m not sure I can,” Chumbucket said. “I don’t care what he said; I think there’s something there inside him that might be worth looking for.”

“Well, much more of this and I’ll tear him apart to do the looking,” Slappy groused.

Just then Sawbones emerged from the sickbay with an odd look on his face.

“How is he,” Slappy asked.

“He?” Sawbones said. “Oh the patient is fine. But here’s something interesting. He is a she.”

“Mario?” Slappy and Chumbucket asked in unison.

“More like Mary or Marie or Martina or something,” Burgess mused.

“Another woman tar who thought she had to disguise herself as a man to join the crew?” Slappy said. “Obviously didn’t get a good look at her shipmates. We have – what? – 20 women aboard?”

“That we know of,” Chumbucket said. “There are a couple of others I’ve wondered about, but I figure it’s none of my business. If Mario wants to continue being Mario, I guess that’s up to her – him – whatever. Don’t tell her you told us, explain the situation and let her decide for herself.”

The storm finally blew itself out some 30 hours later, and the sun broke on a battered ship and exhausted crew bobbing on the long Atlantic swell. Slappy immediately ordered the grog broken out and sent as many of the crew as could be spared below.

“Any idea where we are?” he asked George and Dogwatch as they peered at the charts.

“You’re kidding right?” Dogwatch said. “This is the first time we’ve seen the sun in two days, so we haven’t been able to take any sightings. And there’s no way to tell how far we’ve been blown.” He pointed. “That way’s east. We seemed to be running more or less north to nor’ east through most of that. So I’d guess Cuba’s that way,” he said, pointing, “but I couldn’t begin to guess how far.”

“Well, go ‘that way’ then,” Slappy said. “The storm may have taken us off track, but it probably did a lot worse for the Spanish. I’ll guess it’ll take a week for them to reassemble the fleet. Even if we’re a couple of days off course, we’ve probably bought four or five days on them.”

“Good,” George said. “We’ll need it to get the ship right again.”

It turned out it took less than two days to find Cuba again, and soon the Boil was riding the current up the coast, keeping an eye out for a place to land and for any sign of Shiva. And as it happened, they found both in the same place.

As the Boil rounded a headland before a small cove, the lookout spotted a large building on the hill. And below, pulled onto the shelter of the beach, lay a small craft that proved to be Lord Shiva’s Eye. There was no sign of life on the beach, but figures could be seen on the hilltop, waving from the tower of the building.

A longboat went ashore and the party, led by George and Slappy, climbed the path from the beach to the summit. An hour later Slappy returned and was rowed back to the Boil.

“Spencer’s crew is all safe and sound,” he announced when he was back on ship. “We’ll be staying here another day or two to get both ships back in order. We’ll be the guests of the mission up there on the hill, Nuestra Señora de la Sangría Eterna de la Nariz. Spencer was able to make land before the storm caught them and they pulled the boat out of the water. It got hit pretty hard, mostly by waves and by debris getting dislodged from the bluff above, but she’s almost seaworthy again and we’ll soon be on our way.”

“Meanwhile,” Slappy said, turning to Sawbones, “we’ve had a special request. I was chatting with the padre about the storm and how we knew it was coming, and he’s looking forward to meeting St. Swithin.”

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