Thursday, June 22, 2006


The Havana Caper – 25

The captured urca was turning, but the maneuver was achingly slow. Because the Spanish ships had been working against the wind, the sails had been tightly reefed and the pirates from the Boil were struggling through the unfamiliar rigging as musket fire and the occasional cannonball hissed through the air around them. At the helm, Ol’ Chumbucket swore as a bullet tore a hole in the jaunty officer’s hat he had liberated from a jaunty – but dead – Spanish sailor.

“Molly, there’s your target on the starboard bow!” he called to Red Molly, who had organized a group of pirates to man the ship’s cannon. Many of them were useless, as the deck was so crowded with cargo for Spain that the gun ports were blocked. The pirates had only a half dozen on each side to work with.

The ship was now catching the wind blowing off the starboard beam and as the sails began to fill, she surged powerfully into the larboard turn. To the north, the captain of one of the Spanish hulks, more alert than many of his colleagues or less cautious, had seen the pirate attack on the ship and decided to take action. He had closed the distance to about 500 yards and was trying to block the escape Chumbucket and the crew were trying to put into action.

“Ready!” Molly called to her ad hoc gun crews. “Fire as she bears!”

The opposing hulk had just opened fire with a scattered broadside, none of which hit the ship. As the urca completed its turn the starboard guns now bore on the hulk.

“On the up roll!” Molly ordered.

The first gun to get a clear shot barked, throwing its 4-pound ball of iron through the air at 1,000 feet per second. It hit the bow of the ship, pretty much like a fighter swinging a roundhouse right and clocking his opponent on the nose. The effect was not dissimilar, as the bowsprit tore away in a tangle of splinters, cord and canvas. Moments later four of the five remaining balls also found their mark on the ship, which never fired another volley. Instead the hulk sheared off, as if its captain suddenly remembered urgent business elsewhere.

With Lord Shiva’s Eye leading the way, the captured urca now began weaving a path through the lumbering cargo ships. None turned to give chase, but all kept up a steady hail of lead as they hurried to get out of the way and the pirates sought to make good their getaway. In their haste not to engage the buccaneers, two of the Spanish ships closer inshore ran themselves up on reefs, giving the remaining ships something else to worry about.

Meanwhile, the captured urca was picking up speed, its guns blasting defiantly at the other ships and the pirates up in the rigging answering with musket shots at those firing back. Aboard Shiva, Spencer, Tharp and their crew kept up a steady hail of grapeshot on the Spaniards.

“Ahoy the deck!” Peddicord cried from the maintop. “There’s five galleons to the northeast, about two miles out, but they aren’t closing.”

“Keep an eye on them,” Chumbucket answered, as he maneuvered the ship towards the northwest, away from the shoreline.

Fifteen minutes elapsed, in which time the urca began pulling clear of the mob of shipping. Spencer, at the helm of Lord Shiva’s Eye, dropped back so the pinnace could cover the escape.

Peddicord slid down the ratlines, landing with a thump on the quarterdeck.

“Two more sails ahead, hull up and closing,” he reported to Chumbucket. “But those galleons astern don’t seem to be moving at all. I wonder why.”

“I don’t much care why, as long as they decided to leave us alone.”

On the quarterdeck of the lead galleon, La Espuma de la Indecision, Captain Marquez was in a froth of indecision. His admiral had sent him away from the fight with the pirate ship to support the cargo ships about five miles off. They were apparently being beset by something, although no capital ships were in sight. But before the galleons had covered half the distance, Marquez’ lookouts had reported that two of the remaining ships in the fight against the Boil were sinking, and the third seemed to have closed within boarding range of the pirates.

“Do I go back to the aid of the admiral, or do I go help the fleet?” he pondered. “True, the admiral ordered me back to protect the precious cargo, but now he is beset by those cutthroat corsairs. Should I split our force, and send three ships back and two onward?”

It was too much for the captain. He ordered the ship to heave to and ran up signal flags calling the other four captains to a conference in his cabin. It took an hour for them to assemble.

After explaining the situations, Marquez asked for their advice. Captain Juarez noted for the record that the pirate ship now seemed to be pulling away to the northwest and thus did not appear to be a further threat. But Captain Entrerroscaroja noted that the admiral’s flagship now seemed to be crippled and might need their aid.

“Yes, but my lookouts tell me that the fleet is in a turmoil ahead, so perhaps the admiral should look out for his own difficulties while we go back and protect the king’s cargo,” Captain Bolasgrandes said.

Just then there was a knock on the door. An officer was admitted with a report that the signals from the flagship indicated the admiral was now dead, but the pirates were fleeing.

“Excellent!” Marquez said, beaming. “Then it is no longer necessary to come to the admiral’s aid, being as he’s dead and all. I’d suggest returning to the fleet and destroying anyone who still is intent on attacking us.”

“You may suggest that,” Bolasgrandes said, “but you cannot order it as you are not in charge of the fleet.”

“Who is in charge now that the admiral is gone?” Juarez asked.

“Well, Don Trapo del Asno was second in command, but he was aboard El Gallo Sumiso, which exploded so magnificently earlier today, so I think we can safely exclude him from our calculations.”

As the debate about seniority continued with increasing vehemence, it became clear that four of the five had various reasons for calculating that they were now in charge. The four were on the point of drawing swords when the fifth, Captain Entrerroscaroja, reminded them of their duty as Spanish noblemen to conduct their business in a civilized manner.

“I suggest to you there is only one way a true Spaniard could resolve this,” he said, laying his hand across his heart. The others looked at him silently, then smiles of recognition spread across their faces.

“Of course. Thank you Captain Entrerroscaroja. There is only one way. Gentlemen, it is time for ‘Roca, papeles, tijera.’”

The four men stood as one. Each placed his clenched right fist into the palm of his hand, then began counting – “Uno, dos, tres!”

Back on the captured urca, which Chumbucket was ready to rename The Wallowing Pig in tribute to its sailing characteristics, the two remaining sails to the northwest were growing closer. As Chumbucket had guessed, they were galleons whose job it was to ride heard on the stragglers in the fleet. They now had an angle on the pirates and had separated by about two miles to pin them against the coast.

“Our best hope is to sail inshore as close as we dare and try to beat them to that cape,” Chumbucket said to Peddicord, Molly and Butch as they huddled on the quarterdeck in a council of war. “We get around there first and we should be able to outrun them”

“I don’ see how we can beat them there. They can cover any move we make,” Molly said.

“There’s one thing we have going for us,” Black Butch said. “They don’t know who we are.”

“True, but they know we’re gong the wrong way, so SOMETHING’S up, no matter what,” Chumbucket said.

“No, Butch is right. They see one of their ship’s still flying the Spanish flag, and behind us they see a pinnace. If Shiva fired at us a few times, then took off, those galleons would assume we were just being chased by pirates. They’d try to protect us!”

“Yeah, by blowing Spencer out of the water,” Molly objected.

“Not if he’s smart about it,” Peddicord said. “Shiva should be able to outrun those two.”

Chumbucket thought about it, then reluctantly agreed.

“We’ve got just a few minutes before they’re close enough to see what’s going on. Signal Spencer to come in under our lee.”

Spencer brought the pinnace in close and Chumbucket explained the plan. The youngster looked a little ashen, but he nodded.

“You sure that’s the best way?” he asked.

“It’s the only way,” another voice offered. It was Lt. Tharp, who had been manning the swivel guns on the pinnace all day. “The two galleons are just wide enough apart that if we shoot for the gap, we should be able to get past them and lead them a chase all the way to the Keys.”

“Everyone agreed then?” Chumbucket asked. There were nods all around.

“Then let’s get going. Remember where we’re meeting the Boil. We’ll wait for you there. Just remember, powder only on those volleys, got it?”

Moments later the pinnace dropped back. From the decks of the Spanish ships it looked as if they had tried to board but were driven off, and were now coming around to try again. Suddenly smoke billowed as all six starboard guns on the urca fired at the approaching pinnace, which fired back, then veered away and began dashing north, aiming for the gap between the two approaching galleons.

The Spanish threw their helms over and began converging on the tiny ship, which was shooting towards the rapidly closing gap. From the urca, the pirates could do nothing but watch.

“It’s gonna get dicey for them, right about now,” Peddicord said.

The two galleons had wheeled about to fire broadsides at Shiva, but virtually all the shots missed the tiny ship, which flew between them and took off to the north. Obediently, the galleons turned and began the pursuit.

“Peddicord, take the wheel,” Chumbucket said. “Bring us two points to port. We’re aiming for just around that cape where there should be enough ocean for us to get lost in. Sometime tomorrow we can put our prisoners ashore.”

“Right now, I’m going below to see what we’ve captured. We can only hope it was worth all this trouble.”

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