Saturday, June 17, 2006


The Havana Caper – Part 24 “Red Shirts in the Sunset”

Door krullend de kinhaar van mijn moeder!”

Slappy cursed in Dutch, as was his custom in particularly stressful moments. And moments didn’t come laden with much more stress than this one. A flotilla of Spanish war galleons was closing a circle around The Festering Boil which was having some difficulty getting turned in order to regain the wind. Cannonballs were whizzing over the decks so close to their heads that any literate pirate could read the words, “Producto de Madrid” imprinted on the red-hot orb. To their miraculous good fortune, none of the strikes on the hull of the Boil had done any more than dent the wood or chip the paint, but the sails would soon be in range of the grape or chain shot, and then they would be dead in the water – soon after that, just dead.

Cap’n Slappy was frustrated that his exuberance had been the cause of this predicament but he knew there wasn’t time now for self flagellation so he did what he always did when faced with any impossible situation, change the things that were changeable and hope one of them helped.

“Walker! Get over here!” Slappy bellowed at the young sailor who came running up on the double.

The Boil continued exchanging cannon fire with the galleons as Slappy shifted his attention to the young pirate in front of him.

“Aye-aye, Cap’n! Wilton Walker reporting for duty!” The young pirate saluted as he addressed Cap’n Slappy for the first time since coming on board.

“I thought your name was Walter Walker.” Slappy seemed confused.

“No, Cap’n. That’s my cousin. He’s with Mr. Chumbucket and the boarding team.”

Cap’n Slappy choked back his own frustration. How could there be so many people aboard his ship that were easily mistaken for other people aboard his ship! Who does this happen to? It felt like a plot contrivance run amok. But here he was, in the flesh; the spitting image of his cousin. Slappy quickly shook off this temporary thoughtfulness and refocused in the matter at hand.

“Change yer shirt.”

“Begging the cap’n’s pardon?”

“Change yer shirt, lad. Every pirate knows it’s bad luck to wear a red shirt in a sea battle especially if you’re a new pirate on board.”

“But I’m not all that new, Cap’n.” Walker began with some frustration.

“New enough.” Slappy said hoping to end the argument. “Go put on a different color shirt.”

“I’ve been with the crew since we left Port Royal, sir.”

“Which time?” Slappy quizzed.

“What do you mean?” young Walker seemed perplexed.

“Which time we left Port Royal. We’ve left Port Royal a thousand times. Did you join us when we left Port Royal three hundred and thirty six times ago?”

“No, sir.” Walker slumped a little, “Last time.”

“You’re new. Change your shirt.”

“But I wore this shirt in the battle with the Spaniards in the rainforest, sir!” Walker stiffened.

“How many Spaniards did you kill in that shirt?” Slappy demanded.

“Three, Cap’n!” Walker felt himself winning the debate. “It’s me lucky shirt, sir!”

Cap’n Slappy looked at the young man’s desperate face and smiled. “Well lad, I suppose we could use a little luck right about now.”

The word “now,” had just passed Slappy’s lips when he felt the warm, familiar spray of blood splatter on his face. Not quite a Baptist immersion, but more than a Catholic sprinkling. Instinctively, his eyes slammed shut for just a moment but when he re-opened them, he could see the headless torso of young Wilton Walker in a red shirt. The hot Spanish cannonball had so cleanly removed his head and cauterized his veins and arteries that no more blood would be forthcoming. Just a red, meaty wound where a neck used to be.

Walker’s body stood of its own accord for a few moments, even on the pitching ship as she began to catch wind and come about. Slappy stood in stunned silence, still facing the upright corpse.

With the efficiency of a street sweeper removing dead leaves from a gutter, George swooped by as the body began to fall and caught it up like a drunken child bride in his arms as he made for the rail of the ship and tossed it overboard with no more thought to the discharge than one might give a sack of potatoes gone soft with mold and decay. He then returned to Cap’n Slappy’s side and gave him a firm pat on the shoulder.

“You tried to tell him, Cap’n. Red shirts are bad luck in a sea battle.”

With the superstition firmly reinforced and the object of the lesson put unceremoniously over the side, attention turned once again to their precarious predicament. The Festering Boil was finally beginning to regain the wind, but her escape route was in the process of being blocked by two of the Spanish ships; El Cerdo Perezoso, Almirante Antonio Montaña’s flagship, and a war galleon christened, El Gallo Sumiso.

Fortunately for the Boilers, several well-placed cannonballs had opened a breach in El Gallo Sumiso’s hull exposing, as fortune would have it, the area where their barrels of black powder were neatly stacked. Gabriel, Slappy’s cabin boy, was getting a lesson in gunnery from Cementhands McCormack when they spied the opening and the tempting target within. With the patience of a sleeping headmaster, McCormack listened to his pupil calculate the amount of charge he would need and the trajectory of the ball as he carefully lined up the shot. The Boil pitched steadily as she came about, but on the up-swing of one roll, Gabriel touched fire to his cannon and sent a blistering shot directly into the breach. The hope was that a large explosion would upset the gun deck, perhaps disabling some of the guns, but the true result was an explosive inferno of biblical reckoning.

A column of fire shot up from the center of the ship, as though Poseidon himself had thrust a flaming sword up from the depths like an edged-weapons enthusiast excitedly showing off his latest toy. Slappy could imagine the great sea god calling out, “Hey, kids, looky-looky at my fire sword! It burns AND it cuts!”

The two ends of the ship that remained in some semblance of what moments before was an impressive galleon were now gulping water while the shattered center of the ship rained down burning debris on the few sinking survivors. It may have been due to the fact that hey had to shield their eyes from the flash of fire, but no matter the reason, the approaching galleons finally noticed the distress that their distant charges were under along the shoreline and five of them were ordered by the flag ship to reverse course and intervene.

Despite the loss of half his attack force and three of five of his remaining ships being out of commission, Montaña knew that he had the advantage of position on The Boil which now bore down on the Spanish flag ship with surprisingly renewed ferocity.

“¡Almirante! ¡Los piratas están viniendo a la derecha en nosotros!” The lookout on El Cerdo Perezoso called down to his Admiral, who responded calmly.

“Today is ‘Talk Like a Stupid English Person Day’ Estaban! Remember, we all have to speak English – like those stupid English persons!” Montaña admonished in a confident albeit friendly tone of voice.

“Si! – I mean, ‘Jolly Good’ Admirale’! As I was saying, old chum, What-What! Those pirate fellows are coming our way!”

“I know, Estaban! As you can see, I am planning a little surprise for our friends. Like a jack in the box – only instead of a little clown puppet on a spring, my surprise is a volley of cannonballs. And after we fire that volley, we will have time for another volley! Do you not think it is a good surprise, Estaban?”

“Volley Good, Admriale’!”

Montaña frowned, “Do not pun, Estaban! You know how I hate puns!”

The Boil was moving under courses only, with the other sails reefed to provide maneuverability. As the ship came about with the wind on the beam, George looked into the rigging.

“Winds picking up now cap’n,” George said. “You want to spread a little more canvas to get moving?”

Slappy stood on the quarterdeck staring through the spyglass at the flagship in their path.

“Tops’ls and gallants – but hold until my command!” he said, and George repeated the orders in his foghorn voice. Slappy glanced at the Spanish ship gaining on them from behind.

All eyes aboard The Festering Boil turned to Cap’n Slappy as he stood motionless with his eyes fixed ahead.

Leftenant Keeling kept a watch on the on coming ship, Mi Tortuga Curiosa.

“Less than a mile and closing fast!”

“Hold!” Slappy stared dead ahead as a few moments passed.

“Half a mile!”


The crew began looking to George in desperation, but he shook them off with a wag of his head and a cold stare.

“500 yards!”


Suddenly, that first cannon volley came from El Cerdo Perezoso. Most of the crew of The Festering Boil hit the deck and prayed that they wouldn’t meet Walker’s fate. McCormack stood firm and smiled as the missiles approached from the northeast.

With loud bangs in quick tempo, the iron orbs once again bounced harmlessly off the side of The Festering Boil and splashed into the sea. One ball hoping to make itself a nuisance, careened off the deck about three feet in front of McCormack’s big toe in his right foot and took a dramatic bounce high enough to clear the quarterdeck and, having done no damage other than a few soiled britches, sizzled as it broke the surface of the waves.

Almost without paying any heed to the recent excitement, Slappy turned to George and said casually, “Let’s shake out that canvass, shall we?”

“Let fly!” George bellowed.

Relieved riggers quickly released the sails which immediately filled with wind, and The Festering Boil surged forward – even McCormack had to catch his footing.

Mi Tortuga Curiosa had closed to within 300 yards of The Boil, but was unable to turn and show her guns without losing her wind – and her captain knew he had but one job – to chase The Festering Boil into the ever loving arms of Almirante Antonio Montaña.

Dogwatch Watts stood at the wheel taking in the picture that was unfolding all around him. He muttered, “We’re heading into a shit storm!” It was the clearest assessment of the situation.

Frustrated with the lack of penetration, Almirante Antonio Montaña ordered his cannon crew to increase the charge for their remaining volley. But when they touched off the cannons, The Festering Boil had already sped past the projected point of impact and the balls that flew from El Cerdo Perezoso slapped mercilessly into Mi Tortuga Curiosa stopping her dead in The Boil’s wake and opening a gaping hole in her bow allowing sea water to begin filling her hull. The only chance for any of the crew to survive was to try to turn her back to the two disabled vessels before she slid beneath the surface.

And then there were two.

“Pirate up!” Slappy ordered as the crew scrambled for their boarding weapons. Slappy began loading his faithful blunderbuss.

Marines aboard El Cerdo Perezoso began peppering the deck and the rigging with musket balls. Here and there, a few pirates fell, but The Boil came on.

With the heavy crunch of wood, like a sledge hammer crashing through a door, The Festering Boil’s bow landed sharply in El Cerdo Perezoso amidship and with the percussion of Cap’n Slappy’s blunderbuss as the starting shot 50 pirates streamed onto her decks in a torrent of mayhem and destruction.

Antonio Montaña was accustomed to a good sea fight and he, too had a marvelous blunderbuss. In his red shirt, he was easily identified and Mario led a pack of pirates to within yards of the Spanish admiral.

“Say ‘Hallo’ to my little friend!” Montaña declared cheerfully in his best English accent as it was still, Talk Like a Stupid Englishman Day and nothing was going to deter him from participation.

The shrapnel from his thunder gun cut deeply into the flesh of all the oncoming pirates, but one was undeterred. Mario was a woman dressed as a man on a mission.

Blood spilled from the wound in her cheek as she launched herself with dagger and cutlass at the admiral. Montaña fended off the first assault with his now-empty gun, but quickly tossed it aside and drew his own saber and reached for his boot knife. This proved to be a fatal mistake because as he stooped down to retrieve the knife, Mario moved quickly in and plunged her, or rather, his dagger between Montaña’s ribs.

With a look of devastation and horror, Antonio Montaña looked her in the eye, and knowing a woman had just killed him on Talk Like a Stupid Englishman Day, asked, “Pardon me, miss, but what hideous thing did I ever do to you?”

The life was quickly draining out of him, but Mario took his face in her, or rather, his right hand and made him look at her. A realization suddenly grabbed him as he looked at his killer’s face carefully. “Oh.” He nodded, “Right – Jolly Good.”

With the death of the admiral, the Spanish crew quickly surrendered and they were brought to the center of the deck. McCormack took a small work crew and began spiking their guns as Slappy addressed the crew.

“Normally, I would speak to you in your native language, but since today is Talk Like a Stupid Englishman Day and my Spanish is abominable anyway, I will, rather, address you in an exaggerated English accent complete with over the top idioms, Jolly Good?”

“Jolly Good!” the Spanish crew called back as one.

Slappy then explained that they would be free to return to their pleasant little armada as soon as their guns were spiked and half their sails were commandeered.

“Additionally, we will be helping ourselves to a spot of your splendid tea – and by ‘splendid tea,’ I of course mean that chest of gold my men found in the admiral’s quarters.”

When the work was done, The Festering Boil began to sail away. Doc Burgess met Cap’n Slappy on the quarterdeck to give the casualty report.

“Several wounded, but mostly superficial – I’ll sew ‘em up and they’ll be good as new.”

“And the dead?”

“Six. No! Seven counting young Walker.” Burgess hesitated. “And they were all wearing red shirts.”

“That’s it! I’m declaring Crazy Eddie’s Red Shirt Emporium in Port Royal off limits! I don’t care if his prices are so low he must be insane! I don’t want to see another red shirt on The Boil!”

And with that, Cap’n Slappy wrote himself a note reminding him to put the new “No Red Shirt” policy on the agenda for next month’s staff meeting.

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