Friday, May 19, 2006


The Havana Caper – 15

A pale light was beginning to color the eastern horizon when the lookout on Lord Shiva’s Eye caught a glimpse of movement. Something was coming around the headland of the small cove the pirate pinnace anchored in, and Spencer saw the low shape clearly silhouetted against the brightening sky. Carefully, quietly, he cocked his musket and waited.

The shape approached the ship, and the sound of muffled oars could be heard.

When the interloper was within 25 yards, the young pirate called out, “Who goes there?”

“It’s us,” came the well-known voice of Dogwatch Watts.

“Shouldn’t that be “It is we?’ Spencer heard from a voice very like Leftenant Keeling’s.

“’It is we?’ That can’t be right,” the voice that sounded like Dogwatch protested. “It sounds ridiculous.”

“It may be ridiculous, but it’s also correct,” answered what sounded like Keeling’s voice testily.

“’It is we!’ Sounds like I should be wearing a velvet cape, reciting poetry with a bunch of violets in me hand, and swooning over some minx in a fashionable salon.”

“I don’t care. If you’re using a form of the verb ‘to be,’ then you have to use the nominative case, I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they, who. It’s just standard English.”

That certainly sounded like Keeling, Spencer thought.

“Fuck the nominative case! And fuck standard English!” the other postulated. “We’re bloody pirates! What the hell do we care about the nominative case? We should talk like pirates!”

“Well, we’re certainly pirates, right enough, but that doesn’t mean we have to sound like uneducated poltroons!”

There was a long pause, then the first voice, the one that sounded like Dogwatch, sighed and called out, “Fine. Would you repeat the question?”

Spencer had to think a moment to realize he was being addressed and what the question had been. Finally he called again, “Who goes there?”

There was a pause, then Dogwatch’s voice answered sulkily, “It is we. Dogwatch and Keeling.”

But the young watchman was not so easily assuaged.

“How do I know it’s you? What’s the password?”

Another pause.

“Password?” Keeling finally asked. “What do you mean password? Since when did we have a password?”

By now the boat had drifted to within 10 yards of the ship, and Spencer could see that the two men in the boat LOOKED like Dogwatch and Keeling, but he couldn’t be certain. The Spanish were crafty bastards, he’d always been told, and he’d hate to be the one to cause Cap’n Slappy’s plans to fail by dint of not exercising proper prudence. So Spencer leveled his musket at the boat, which was now just a few feet away. The man at the oars backed water quickly and both shouted out in alarm.

“Spencer! What the hell are you doing?”

“If you were Spanish spies cleverly disguised as Dogwatch and Keeling, you’d know my name is Spencer. Now what’s the password?”

“There is no password,” Keeling sputtered. “We didn’t set one. It would have been a good idea, but we didn’t.”

“Yes we did,” Spencer said.

“No one told us!”

“You were already gone,” Spencer explained.


“I set it last night.”

“Then how the hell are we supposed to know what it is?” Dogwatch said in disbelief.

“That’s not my problem. What’s the password?”

“Spencer,” a voice said from behind him. It was Ol’ Chumbucket – it certainly LOOKED like Ol’ Chumbucket – who had been awoken by the commotion at the rail.

“These guys say they‘re Dogwatch and Keeling, but they don’t know the password.”

“For that matter, neither do I,” Chumbucket said. “I was apparently asleep when you decided to set one. Should I go join them in the longboat?”

Spencer thought a minute, the barrel of the musket dropping. “No, that wouldn’t make sense. I relieved you and have been on watch ever since. I’d have seen if the Spanish had kidnapped you and replaced you with yet another clever double.”

“Very good. Then what shall we do about our friends here? How about this?” Chumbucket leaned over the railing and addressed the suspected Spanish spies. “What’s my mother’s maiden name?”

“Your what?” Keeling said, now totally nonplussed. “I don’t know. Nobody knows your real name, let alone your mother’s!”

“Absolutely right,” Chumbucket beamed. “Come aboard!”

Turning to Spencer, Chumbucket explained sotto voce, “If they were clever Spanish spies they might have been able to research my history and found out mom’s maiden name. Since they didn't know it, they must be the genuine articles. Now go make sure Tharp is awake, then get everybody some breakfast.”

The two returning pirates had by now secured the longboat and were back on deck, both glaring at the retreating form of Spencer.

“Password indeed,” Dogwatch said.

“Actually, it’s not a bad idea,” Keeling allowed.

“Well, it’s an amazingly bad idea if you have a password but don’t tell anyone what it is,” Dogwatch countered.

“Never mind that,” Chumbucket interceded. “What did you learn?”

“Quite a bit,” Keeling said. “First, they won’t be sailing before the end of the week, so we’ve got plenty of time.”

“What about their planned route?”

Keeling smiled. “It’s all in here,” he said, holding out the papers he’d taken from the admiral. “Route, the ships in the convoy and what each carries, their ship’s company and even a general idea of their order and planned formation.”

Chumbucket looked awestruck. “Excellent work, Keeling! How did you pull this off?”

Keeling explained about his foray into Havana, trailing the admiral, and the adventure in the bordello. Tharp was awake by now, and even Dogwatch hadn’t heard the whole story. By the time Keeling was finished with his tale, breakfast preparations were long forgotten as four sets of eyes fastened on the officer with admiration.

“So I jumped through the window and made off into the night. There was an attempt to follow me, but I was gone before they even got their pants on.”

Tharp let out a low whistle. “I’ll admit it, Keeling,” he finally said. “That was an amazing expedition. I never thought I’d say these words, but, well done, pirate!”

“And I never thought I’d say THESE words,” Chumbucket added, “But, thank God for the prostitute’s goat.”

“I heard Cementhands say that once, but I was afraid to ask him what he meant,” Dogwatch said.

That was enough to break the mood. Chumbucket turned back to Spencer and demanded, “Where’s our breakfast lad! These two men have been out all night doing amazing things while we slept. The least we can do is feed them!”

“Coming up, sir,” Spencer said. “It’ll be ready in just a minute.”

Spencer went forward to where he had the oven set and soon was ladling out five bowls of burgoo, a thick, pasty stew of meat, potatoes and cornmeal. Along with it went a hard ship’s biscuit. They settled down to eat.

“Do you suppose the officer you took these papers from will put two and two together and figure out there’s a trap coming?” Chumbucket wondered.

“I wouldn’t think so,” Tharp offered. “He’d more likely think of sneak thief, especially since how you’re presently dressed doesn’t exactly scream ‘Pirate!’ It may scream, ‘Black Jammies Bandito!’ but definitely not ‘Pirate!’ ”

“Even if he thinks something’s amiss, I don’t see him changing his plans very much. He’s unlikely to shift all the cargo around the fleet – that’d take months!” Keeling said. And the formation he’s using is already based on the idea of meeting and defeating pirates, so we should be alright.”

“I hope so,” Chumbucket said. “This is great burgoo, Spencer. What’s in it?”

Spencer hesitated just a moment, not quite sure they wanted to hear. Finally he blurted out, “Goat, sir. Goat. But I’m sure it’s a different one.”

The other four froze, eating utensils poised halfway to their mouths. Then all four began laughing, joined by Spencer.

“No, a different animal altogether, I’m sure, especially since this has been cooking since yesterday morning,” Chumbucket said. He raised his mug of rum. “To the prostitute’s goat!”

“To the prostitute’s goat!" they all toasted.

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