Monday, June 05, 2006


The Havana Caper – 21

“Anything?” Ol’ Chumbucket asked.

“Not yet,” Red Molly said from high up in the palm tree, her spyglass focused on Lord Shiva’s Eye, cruising about two miles offshore.

“Damn,” Ol’ Chumbucket sighed. “They should be here by now. I don’t mind going into battle against impossible odds, that’s all in a day’s work. But this waiting is going to kill me.”

“Heads up!” Molly called, and Chumbucket barely had time to duck out of the way before a coconut plummeted out of the tree and missed his head by inches.

“There,” Molly said. “Something to worry about besides when the Spanish are going to get here. Now quit yer fussin’. Ho, now what’s this?”

She looked up and through the glass saw a signal flag flying from the pinnace.

“Never mind, she’s comin’ in,” Molly reported.

An hour later Lieutenant Tharp and Spencer were wading through the surf, the pinnace bobbing at anchor a hundred yards offshore. They headed towards where Chumbucket was splayed out under another palm tree – he wasn’t going to risk sitting under Red Molly’s perch again – with a bottle of rum in one hand, the other clutching half of the coconut that had almost struck him. It was now split open, emptied and filled with a tangy seafood concoction cooked up by Black Butch, the chef of the Festering Boil. Most ships had cooks, and their crews were lucky if the person holding the job could cook salted beef. The Boil had a chef, formerly the head chef of a five star Caribbean restaurant who had signed aboard to escape the tedium of landlocked life.

“What are we eating tonight?” Spencer asked. “Smells good.”

“It is good, if you can teach yerself to forget that a conch is a kind of sea slug,” Chumbucket said. “I was doing fine with it until you talked and reminded me. It’s gonna take me a minute now to be able to choke down any more. Either of you want this?” He held up his coconut bowl. Tharp looked hesitant at the word “slug,” but Spencer happily took it and started slurping it down. He’d lived virtually his whole life at sea, and wasn’t going to be squeamish when there was good conch to be had.

“We had a message from the Boil,” Tharp said. “Slappy said there’s still no sign of the treasure fleet, they’re cruising north again as soon as it gets dark but they plan to be back by morning, and would we please send Black Butch back because Cementhands is trying to cook and it doesn’t bear thinking about.”

Chumbucket grinned. “Next time you see him, remind Slappy HE was the one who assigned the starboard watch to this mission, and that includes Butch. Sorry. We‘re keeping him. Besides, Butch told me he left plenty of ‘Pig Trotters Helper,’ so McCormack shouldn’t be having THAT much trouble.”

“Where’s Molly?” Tharp asked. Chumbucket pointed up into the neighboring tree.

“Keeling sent her a message. Says he’s doing fine and not to worry about him. He’s completely over the hangover and is back on light duty. His shoulder is still bound, so he’s one-armed, but he’s feeling better and hopes to be back in action by the time the Spaniards get here.”

“Speaking of which,” Tharp continued, “when ARE they getting here? We’ve been on this beach four days now. This waiting is getting hard.”

Chumbucket put his forefinger to his lips and signaled for Tharp to be quiet. “You want to watch that, boy, or you might get a coconut in yer ear.” He glanced significantly at Molly in the nearby tree. “You two get something to eat. Spencer, can I send yer pinnace out with a couple of the other men while you rest?”

“I’ll take another couple of crewmen if Tharpy here wants to rest, but I’d feel more comfortable going out with my boat. It’s all I own.”

“Aye lad, that’ll be fine. Tharp, yer off duty. Pull up a piece of beach and get some rest. After a bowl of this delicious conch stew.”

Tharp made a face, and went off to see what else Butch had cooked up for their dinner.


The morning was much as the evening had been, with a Technicolor sunrise substituting for last night’s Technicolor sunset, and a breakfast of cackle fruit and conch fritters substituting for dinner’s conch stew with mixed jungle greens. Black Butch was well on his way to completing his latest cookbook, “Savory Slugfest: Fifty recipes for Serving Conch.” Wellington Peddicord had replaced Red Molly in the tree, spyglass fixed on the horizon as he scanned for a signal from Lord Shiva’s Eye, which was now out of sight but bound to return shortly.

On the beach, Ol’ Chumbucket was organizing the crew, making sure each man’s weapons were at the ready, cutlass, pistol, boarding axe and knives, along with many personal, individualized items of mayhem. That was the worst of the waiting, he thought. Everyone lolled on the beach drinking rum, forgetting about business. They’d been here four days and already this idiot sailor had forgotten where he’d left his pistol.

“Do you suppose it got up and walked off by itself?” he asked the man, whose normally savage face now bore the bewildered look of a six-year-old who’d misplaced his shoes.

“Uh, no, I reckon not sir.”

“Very well then, where was the last place you remember having it?”

“Over by them coconut trees, sir?”

“Why is that a question? Why are you asking me? DID you have it over by the coconut trees over there or not?”

The man screwed up his face, thinking hard. Finally he nodded. “Yes sir. Over there under them trees.”

“Then I suggest that’s where you begin looking.”

“Aye sir.” The sailor jogged off.

“Holy leaping sea serpents!” Chumbucket exploded to no one in particular. “Walker has got to be the dumbest sailor on anyone’s ship!”

He was turning to a group of pirates who were still patting themselves down to make sure they all had their weapons and wouldn’t be subject to Chumbucket’s scorn when a whistle split the air.

“Sail ho!” Wellington called. “It’s Spencer!”

Chumbucket ran over to the tree where the lookout perched. His eyes scanned the ocean but could make out only the barest break on the horizon to indicate where a sail might be approaching.

“Can you make anything out?” he called up into the tree.

“Not yet. She’s hull down, but heading straight this way. Not much to tell yet. Give it half an hour or so.”

It was a long half hour. All the pirates were gathered on the beach or up in the trees, trying to get some glimpse of the approaching ship. Ol’ Chumbucket paced. There was little talk.

Finally, it was Wellington who broke the silence. He was in the tallest tree and had the ship’s best spyglass.

“It’s Shiva’s Eye alright. She’s flying some kinda signal, but I can’t make it out. The wind’s right at his stern, so the flags are streaming straight at us.”

“What color are the flags?”

“Can’t really tell. Wait, she’s tacking, hold on.”

A long, long five seconds passed.

“YELLOW SIR! She’s flying yellow flags from the mast and bowsprit.”

The tension was released with an explosive shout from every pirate on the beach. The yellow flag was the signal that the Spanish were on their way.

“Alright lads! Let’s get ready to go!” Chumbucket shouted.

But there was still plenty of time. Lord Shiva’s Eye would be a good two hours ahead of the Spanish treasure fleet, of which there was as yet no sign on the horizon. An hour later the pinnace was drawn in close to the shore and Spencer was splashing through the surf at a dead run.

“They’re coming!” he shouted. “We were up the strait right at dawn, tied up alongside the Boil, when we spotted the sails. By the time we’d turned to run back there were dozens of ‘em. The horizon looked like a city afloat! It was amazing.”

Walker came running up to Ol’ Chumbucket.

“And look sir! I found me pistol!” the pirate said excitedly. “Right under the tree where I thought it was. It’s cleaned and ready to go!”

“Excellent!” Chumbucket turned to the assembled crew. “Alright everyone! There’s time for a good meal, then let’s get to the boats. We want to be just off that headland when they get here, and we won’t be eating again until afterwards.”

There was a roar from the sailors, notwithstanding the fact that the good meal Butch was preparing undoubtedly was more conch.

“We’ll be in action before the sun goes down!” Chumbucket shouted. To himself, he added, “And before the sun goes down, most of us will be rich but some of you will be dead.”


The Festering Boil was running north. They were out of sight of the Spanish for the moment, but soon they would swing back around and fall on the fleet from the northeast.

“Ready, George?” Slappy asked. “It’s about time to see if they take the bait.”

“Aye,” George the Greek agreed. “I’d just be happier if we weren’t the bait.”


Aboard the royal galleon El Cerdo Perezoso, the flagship of the treasure fleet, Almirante Antonio Montaña, was in his accustomed place on the leeward side of the quarterdeck. He was a fighting admiral, one who had won several gallant battles for his king. He hated this convoy duty, herding a fleet of fat, ungainly urcas and hulks across the ocean like so much cattle on their way to market. Still, it was an important job and one that might earn him a title when he got back to Spain with the treasure to bolster the kingdom’s faltering finances.

Several hours ago his lookout had spotted a sail to the north, but the ship had disappeared over the horizon before it could be identified. Probably a smuggler or merchantman, his officers had concluded, not eager to run into such a large fleet. Still, Montaña was unhappy. Nothing had gone quite right since the fleet had assembled off Havana. First the storm, then the incident with the sneak thief in the bordello. The constant headwinds that they’d fought for a week, making progress slow. Now a sail. Probably nothing. Probably insignificant.

But Almirante Montaña hadn’t risen to his present rank, let alone survived a very active life at sea, by ignoring that tickling feeling in the pit of his stomach, the buzz in the back of his mind that something wasn’t quite right.

“Esteban, run up the signals. I want the galleon screen to shift to the northeast and the freight ships to tack towards shore.”

A signal cannon from the flagship alerted the others to the signals. With uncanny precision, the 10 leading galleons each in turn threw their helms over and brought their line into a new bearing.

“It’s probably nothing, but then again …” Montaña thought to himself as his ship took the lead on the new tack.

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