Wednesday, June 14, 2006


The Havana Caper – 23

Five eyes squinted into five spyglasses as the pirates stalked their prey among the urcas and hulks pressed in close to the shore.

“That one’s close, and she looks like she’s in trouble,” Spencer said, eyeing a target. “We could be on her in no time.”

Ol’ Chumbucket gave her a long look before dismissing her. “She’s giving too much leeway. She’ll be on the reef before we could get to her, and then where would we be?”

“How about that one?” Tharp said, drawing their attention to a ship a little farther out.

Red Molly gave the lumbering hulk a long, appraising glance.

“I don’t know,” she said doubtfully. “We’ve got to sail away in her, and that looks so slow we’d have to get out and pull.”

“That’s the one,” Wellington said, his eye on a third ship. The other four swung their glasses to her. The ship in question was about a mile offshore, struggling into the wind. She rode low in the water, obviously laden with something heavy and hopefully precious, but wasn’t wallowing. And she looked in somewhat better shape than many of the other ships.

“I like it,” Chumbucket said. “We’ll have to slip by a couple of ships and things could get dicey, but I think you’re right, Mr. Peddicord. Let’s go get her.”

The five pirates clambered back into their boats and Chumbucket, from the stern of Spencer’s pinnace, Lord Shiva’s Eye, called across the water to the two longboats, each containing 20 well-armed buccaneers manning the oars.

“You know what to do, lads! Nothin’ fancy!” he shouted. “Straight at ‘em, then hit ‘em hard and fast! Let’s go!”

The pirates leaned into their oars and began pulling towards the ship. With sails fully set and 14 men on the sweeps, Shiva surged out ahead. Chumbucket took a moment to scan to the northeast, where the Festering Boil was offering itself as bait to the galleons that were supposed to be protecting the cargo ships.

“In and out, Slappy, just like a trip to Madame Svetlana’s” Chumbucket said to himself. “Don’t try to fight ‘em, just in and out.” He couldn’t see the Boil, but the distant line of galleons was swinging in well-ordered precision. “Somebody over there knows what he’s doing,” Chumbucket fretted. “If Slappy’s not careful those ships on the south end of the line might get the wind of him.”

But there was no point in worrying, and nothing he could do to help anyway. He turned his attention back to the business at hand.

The sound of cannon fire echoing across the water from the distant battle kept most of the Spanish sailors’ attention to the north, away from the shore and the approaching pirates, so the three-boat flotilla went unnoticed at first. Shiva crossed the bow of the first urca just as she ground hard onto the reef, as predicted, and even if someone aboard had spotted them for what they were, he would be too busy for the next few hours to care.

The pirates were beginning to draw some attention now. Sailors manning the rails of the Spanish ships to watch for reefs were pointing and calling out. It would be only a matter of time before someone figured out what was up and opened fire. The pinnace had now covered about half the distance to the prize, the longboats somewhat less.

“Bring her up a little to port,” Chumbucket told Spencer, and the young man at the helm complied. Ships had spotted the grounded urca and were slowing, whether to help or avoid making the same mistake wasn’t clear and didn’t matter.

“Getting a little crowded in these waters,” Chumbucket said with forced nonchalance.

Spencer, taking his cue from the more experienced pirate, nodded and said with affected casualness, “I HATE it when the pleasure boaters are out.”

Shiva had about a quarter mile to go when the first shots rang out. A hulk that had passed them to the south was now trying to turn to offer a broadside, but wasn’t yet able to bring its guns to bear. Small arms fired at them from the rigging, but at that distance it was nothing to worry about – yet. Some of its rear guns opened on the longboats trailing Shiva, but the splashes were far beyond the pirates, almost striking a cutter that was coming up from the other side to cut them off. The interloper sheared off and the longboats gained precious distance on the small ship.

Gun ports on the prey were now opening and a handful of cannon being run out. Sailors were racing up the rigging with muskets, and the captain seemed to finally be making some effort to defend his ship. Musket balls were smacking into the railings, and the men on the sweeps crouched lower as they pulled closer. It was easier on them than those in the more exposed longboats as the cannons offered a ragged volley.

Aboard the first longboat, Wellington Peddicord kept his crew focused.

“Straight at ‘em!” he shouted. “Don’t mind the guns, they’ll never hit us!”

At that moment a four-pound ball whizzed overhead close enough that, had anyone been standing they’d suddenly be a lot shorter. A second shot raised a geyser of water just feet to larboard. The boat’s bow came up out of the water, then slammed back down with a thump. Nineteen ashen-faced pirates stared accusingly at Wellington, who just shrugged and urged them on.

“Alright, I lied! Guess we’re gonna have to get to that ship and spike the guns. ROW, you sons of bitches!”

The longboat surged forward as the pirates found new inspiration for getting to the target as quickly as possible. Noticing their pale faces, Wellington chuckled to himself. “One of the many advantages of being black apart from my naturally good looks,” he thought to himself. “They can’t see I’m as scared as they are.”

This was the hard part, Chumbucket thought as they neared the prey, ignoring the flying lead and keeping on. The small-arms fire had grown like a swarm of bees, and glancing into the waist of the ship he could see several men had fallen from their oars with blood staining their shirts.

“One more minute and we’ve got ‘em!” Chumbucket yelled. “Swivel guns ready?”

“Aye!” Tharp shouted from the starboard rail where the two small cannon were mounted.

“Steady on!” The rain of balls was now pelting the small ship from two directions, as another of the urcas turned to offer support to the targeted ship.

“Damn, this is really getting annoying,” Chumbucket said to Spencer, whose jaw was locked in grim determination as he kept the ship’s prow pointing steadily at the looming bulk of the prey. Chumbucket saw a man aboard the ship level a musket at the ship and hesitate, as if seeking a target. The hesitation was his undoing. Chumbucket whipped his pistol from his belt and fired. The shot went wide, but not so wide that it didn’t give the would-be marksmen pause, and his head ducked back below the rail.

“Almost there!”

The ships were now less than a hundred yards apart. Chumbucket’s lone, vain pistol shot had so far been the only response to the hail of lad from the larger ship. The pirates could see two of the cannon run back out, their gun crews having reloaded and ready to fire again.

Seventy yards. Fifty.

“Hard a port! Mr. Tharp, open fire!”

As Shiva slued alongside, offering her broadside, the two swivel guns barked and sent a rain of grapeshot over the other ship. At that range it was deadly. Men staggered back from the railing of the Spanish ship and those pirates not pulling an oar added their muskets to the carnage.

“Bring her in!”

The distance closed. The buccaneers dropped their oars and readied their lines. As the ship’s collided – Shiva’s bow to the Spaniard’s stern – a dozen grappling hooks sailed over the railing, followed by pirates storming up the side.

First to the top was Walker, who leaped to the rail and fired his pistol into the mass of Spanish on the quarterdeck. From the pinnace it was impossible to see what or who he’d hit. But as he reached for his cutlass, he toppled backward, a musket ball lodged in his brain, and fell back to Shiva’s deck.

“The fool!” Chumbucket said. He was now halfway up the side, and could see that the other pirates were following the safer practice – if there could be a safe practice in boarding an enemy ship against unknown odds. They hurdled over the railing and got themselves on the deck rather than making targets of themselves while perched dramatically on the railing. Chumbucket reached the top.

“Here goes Old Mother Chumbucket’s boy again,” he breathed, and vaulted the splintered railing.

Hitting the deck, he rolled, and a good thing too, as 30 inches of Toledo steel split the deck where his head had been. Chumbucket reached for his belt and his second pistol, and a moment later his second shot of the day had found its mark and a Spanish officer lay dying on the deck.

A roar from below signaled a second volley from the swivel guns and Tharp’s gun crew had cleared the waist of the ship just as the two longboats came up alongside. The pirates heaved their grappling hooks, and soon the embattled Spaniards were pressed in from both sides.

Black Butch the Dutchman, who had been part of the contingent on Shiva, found himself squaring off against a man in a heavily ribboned uniform. They traded passes, the Spaniard with his rapier and Butch with his heavier, shorter cutlass. The man lunged, the point of his steel aimed at the pirate chef’s heart, but Butch was able to parry the thrust to his right. He continued the move, spinning clockwise while his left hand reached into his sash and drew his cleaver. Completing the spin, his cutlass again flashed against the officer’s blade while the cleaver flew through the air and embedded itself in the man’s chest.

Just like that the Spanish crew was without its captain. Butch put his boot on the man’s torso and tugged out the cleaver. “I’ll be needing that to make tomorrow’s dinner,” he apologized to the corpse.

As the pirates stormed aft from the bow, there was little fight left in the Spanish sailors. Red Molly cut down one man who tried to rally the crew, and Wellington placed a pistol shot down the throat of a man who took a swing at him wth a ramrod.

The Spaniards were pressed towards the middle of the ship, death on either side. As they fought, the pirates kept repeating a phrase they’d been taught – “¡No le pagan bastante! ¡No le pagan bastante!”

The ship’s bosun faced off against Molly, who raised her cutlass and shouted it again, “¡No le pagan bastante!” The man looked at his feet, where a member of his crew lay with Butch’s paring knife sticking out of his eye socket. They were right. He wasn’t paid enough for this. The man dropped his weapon and raised his hand. “¡No mas! ¡No mas!” he shouted. His shipmates quickly followed suit.

The Spanish sailors were herded below and the pirates immediately sprang to the task of turning the ship. The other cargo ships had seen what was happening and were beginning to close in.

“Molly! Can you give me a half dozen guns on the starboard ready to fire?”

“Aye aye!” she shouted, and quickly assembled a score of pirates and put them to work getting the guns ready. Peddicord, meanwhile, led a dozen sailors up the masts where they began working the unfamiliar rigging to bring the ship around.

“Spencer!” Chumbucket yelled down to the pinnace. “Do what you can to discourage that fellow! She’s showing a little too much interest in us!”

Spencer, Tharp and the four crewmen left on Shiva quickly hacked away the lines tying the two ships together, and the smaller vessel turned into the breeze, challenging the much larger but ungainly urca. Tacking across the freight ship’s bow, Shiva unloosed another salvo of grapeshot and the unwanted visitor flinched, sluing to starboard.

Pirates were still tossing bodies over the side as Chumbucket took the helm. He gave it a heave and she answered. “Well that’s something,” he said to himself, as he heaved the wheel to port. Then much louder, “Mr. Peddicord! Let’s shake out some canvas. I don’t want to be here when those galleons come back.”

“Aye sir, we’ll be under way in five minutes!”

“Make it two!” Chumbucket shouted as a volley from another nearby ship splashed into the water fifty feet away.

The canvas finally began sheeting home and filling, and the ship began turning, but it was ungodly slow. Shiva dodged under the stern of the ship and headed towards another urca that seemed inclined to dispute possession of the prize, and more cannon balls fell, some striking home against the sides of the ship.

“Molly, those guns ready?”

“Aye! Give me something to shoot at!”

“Steady on! As we come around you’ll have a target in just a minute! Just fire as she bears!””

Suddenly, there came a roll of distant thunder. Heads jerked up and turned to the source of the sound, to the northeast. Even in the bright sunlight they could see a stab of flame and a column of smoke beginning to rise about five miles off.

“What the hell was that?” Butch asked.

“We’ll find out when we find out,” Chumbucket said grimly. “Right now we’ve got a little more work to do.”

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