Wednesday, May 03, 2006


The Havana Caper - 9

Deep green jungle slid past the small ship’s port side –foliage dank with the recent rain and giving off the rank, fecund aroma of life run wild.

Since leaving the cove that sheltered the mission Nuestra Señora de la Sangría Eterna de la Nariz, the five pirates aboard Lord Shiva’s Eye had sailed steadily northwest along the coast of Cuba, with a brisk breeze blowing off the starboard beam and a gentle current flowing beneath them.

“That’ll change when we get about halfway to Havana,” Ol’ Chumbucket offered to Spencer, the young man who stood at the wheel. “We’d better pray the wind stays steady, because when this current meets the current out of the gulf we’ll be fighting to stay within sight of land. That’s where it heads turns towards Florida, then out across the Atlantic and back towards Europe.”

Spencer set his jaw a little more firmly, as if envisioning the battle with the elements he would wage to carry out his mission. Chumbucket just smiled. He couldn’t help noticing that the line of Spencer’s jaw was blurred by the wisps of whisker where Spencer was trying to grow his first beard.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “Just a matter of keeping an eye on the wind and the weather and knowing how to use them. You’ve got yourself a good little ship here. She’ll be fine. So will you.”

That was a long conversation for that morning. Three of them – Chumbucket, Keeling and Dogwatch Watts – had sailed together long enough on The Festering Boil that words were hardly needed. Spencer, who had been the Boil’s cabin boy for several years before leaving the ship to try life on shore, then heading right back to sea when the girl of his dreams abandoned him, was certainly familiar with their way of handling a ship. The only outsider – Lt. Mandrake Bulwer Pondicherry Tharp of His Majesty’s Navy, was quiet for his own reasons.

It had been bad enough to learn that Cap’n Slappy was his uncle, brother of his father, Lord Sir Admiral Percival Winthorpe Mandrake Tharp, and that he’d have to sail with these pirates for what would have to be another two months anyway. Now he was alone with a handful of them, one of whom bore a striking similarity to the figure he saw in the mirror each morning – or would if he were back at the family estate and had access to a mirror.

The one they called Dogwatch Watts was not his exact copy – he was a tad thinner than the naval officer, and his wiry frame was a bit taller. But they shared the same coloring – light brown hair, fair skin turned bronze in the tropic sun. Both had long noses that came to a point and the beginnings of a widow’s peak atop long foreheads. But most disturbingly to Tharp were the eyes. When Watts looked at him, his eyes seemed to be a match, an almost exact duplicate, of his own gray-green eyes. And those of his father, and for that matter, of Cap’n Slappy.

One way in which Tharp and Dogwatch differed, – and his father and Cap’n Slappy, come to think of it – was in the looks conveyed by those facial features. Tharp tended toward what he thought were intense, piercing gazes, although others might have described them more as egotistical or cross, maybe even suspicious. Anyone who knew them both would say he had adopted those attitudes and their corresponding gazes from his father. Dogwatch, on the other hand, much like Slappy, tended to carry an easy, friendly open look. Tharp had seen Slappy angry, in fact he had to admit he had been the cause of some of that anger, but most of the time he was far more likely to be smiling.

It just didn’t bear thinking about. If there was another family secret, Tharp didn’t want to know it. Aboard the Boil it had been fairly simple to stay out of the young pirate’s way. He had stayed out of pretty much everyone’s way by the simple expedient of remaining below decks in the little space he had carved out for himself off the gunroom. He had agreed to go along on this scouting expedition precisely in the hopes of putting further distance between himself and both Slappy and Dogwatch. But Ol’ Chumbucket had neglected to mention who the rest of the party would be when he’d invited Tharp along on the venture – he assumed Chumbucket had done it on purpose – and now there was no turning back short of marooning himself on the Cuban shore.

So silence seemed the best alternative. After the tiny ship put out that morning Tharp had climbed the foremast and sat perched in the crosstrees, and would remain there as long as possible. As long as nobody pointed out the resemblance, he was perfectly satisfied to go on ignoring it.

“Have you noticed how much that naval git Tharp looks like you?”

The voice of Leftenant Keeling floated up from the deck, where he was sitting in the bow with Watts watching the coast drift by. “Damn!” thought Tharp.

“Not really,” Dogwatch said. “You think so?”

“Oh, no question,” Keeling said in a voice he took to be a conspiratorial whisper. Like most seamen, he had no appreciation for just how loud he could be or how well sound would carry over water. “Look at his eyes, look at his nose. Just like yours.”

Dogwatch thought it over for a moment.

“It’s hard to say, really,” Dogwatch finally considered. “I haven’t really seen them that much.”

“Well get a look at him next time he’s down on deck with us.”

“No, not him. I’ve seen his eyes. I really haven’t seen MY eyes very much at all. I see my nose a little bit,” Dogwatch crossed his eyes to peer down the length of his nose, “but I can’t really see what it looks like in relation to the rest of my face.”

Keeling sighed.

“Look,” he said, “take it from me, he’s your spit. If you don’t believe me, ask Molly when we get back to the ship. She noticed it right away. In fact, she pointed it out to me. Haven’t you heard other people on the ship mention it?”

“Not really.”

“A lot of them have been talking about it.”

Dogwatch looked puzzled.

“Why?” he asked.

Keeling paused, then replied, “Dogwatch, what do you know of your family?”

It really wasn’t the sort of question one pirate asked another. Buccaneers came from all over, and they shared their past only as it suited them. Aboard the Boil in particular, it was more important who a man was than who he had been. Dogwatch, however, didn’t seem to mind.

“Not a lot, really. My mother was in service in England, and after I was born she opened a tavern in Plymouth. She died when I was young, and I really don’t know much more than that.”

“Don’t know who your father is?”

“No. Why?”

Tharp was not the only person listening in. The conversation was equally audible at the stern, where Chumbucket sat with Spencer. And it had gone far enough, he decided. No need to push the matter too far all at once, especially since Dogwatch did not seem particularly interested. The young man may be turning into a fine navigator with an ability to find his way across the trackless seas, but he seemed wholly incurious about the voyage that had brought him here.

“Alright you two,” Ol’ Chumbucket said. “This backstay seems a might limp. Let’s tighten it a bit, shall we, and see if we can coax a little more speed out of her.”

“Aye, aye, Chumbucket,” Dogwatch said. He and Keeling leaped to their feet and began tightening the line, which helped support the mast. “How long do you figure we’re going tonight Chumbucket?”

“We’ll keep on sailing till it’s dark, then we ought to pull in somewhere for a few hours. But I want to get going again before light, and then we’ll sail straight through till we’re near Havana. I don’t expect we’ll see much before then.”

He turned his face skyward and bellowed, “Ahoy aloft!” He waited five or 10 seconds, then called again.

“Ahoy aloft! Tharp, what’re you doin’ up there?”

“Ahoy!” came the strained reply. “Keeping lookout.”

“Well fine! See anything?”

“Just jungle.”

“Well, give a cry if you spot anything on the water – and I mean anything! I’m going below to find us something to eat. I’ll call when the food’s ready.”

“Aye!” Tharp replied. He went back to his reveries. Dogwatch had no idea who his father was. His mother had been in service. Great. Tharp breathed a deep sigh.

The ship sailed on, the thick green of the jungle sliding away unnoticed and unremarked.

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