Thursday, July 27, 2006


The Havana Caper – 29


Cap’n Slappy snapped his chair forward, his boots hitting the deck with a thud as rum spilled onto the crotch of his pants.

“Raak me doden met een rottende kabeljauw,” he cursed, jumping to his feet.

The sound of excited talking on the deck brought his attention back to the sail sighting and he rushed from his cabin to the quarterdeck. Everyone was staring west.

“Is it Spencer and Lord Shiva’s Eye?” he asked.

“Don’t think so Cap’n,” George said, giving a brief glance at the stain at Slappy’s groin then pointedly looking away. “Not unless he’s graduated to a bigger ship, and a lot of ‘em.”

Slappy turned to larboard and gaped. The sails of at least three ships were converging on the western opening of the bay they were in.

“Let’s get under weigh!” he shouted. “Every man aboard, and cut loose from that sea cow.”

“Already working on it,” George replied calmly, nodding to the ship’s waist where the sailors were rigging the bars on the capstan to raise the anchor. The last barrels of gold from the captured urca were coming over the rail and the pirates were cutting the lines that moored the two ships together. Overhead, other crewmembers had forgotten their daydreams of idle riches and were racing up the ratlines to unfurl sails.

“Any sign of who that is?” Slappy called up to Peddicord, who perched on the highest set of crosstrees and stared out at the interlopers with his spyglass.

“They’re flying an English flag!” he shouted down.

“English? Not Spanish?”

“No sir. Definitely a Union Jack.”

“Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean shit,” Slappy muttered to himself. “We’ve got a whole locker full o’ flags. Dogwatch! Run up a French flag … No, wait, belay that froggy banner. I think they’re still at war with England. Um, Swedish? Russian?”

“How about Iceland?” Ol’ Chumbucket suggested from the railing, where he had just come aboard after supervising the unloading of the treasure.

“Do they have a flag?”

Chumbucket shrugged.

“Oh hell, when in doubt, go Danish,” Slappy ordered. “Dogwatch, run up the Danish flag. And let’s get moving before they cover the eastern channel.”

The three ships at the mouth of the harbor were heading in at an angle that would cut off the Boil if she didn’t get moving quicklyr. Fortunately, the breeze was off the land, which seemed to give the pirates an edge. The ship was moving now, parallel to the coast to gain maneuvering room. Dogwatch was fumbling with a large, green gold banner on the transom.

“What the hell is that?” Slappy bellowed. “The Danish flag is blue, not green.”

“Sorry sir, I couldn’t find it. Cementhands used it for a backdrop a couple of months ago when he directed the shipboard production of Hamlet.”

“Sorry,” McCormack called out from the gun deck, where he was helping charge and prime the ship’s cannons. “Been using it for a bed spread.”

“Well what’s that one?”

Dogwatch peered at the unfamiliar ensign for a moment, ten the light of recognition lit his eyes.

“The Sultanate of Quombodo, one of those Arab kingdoms along the Mediterranean.”

“Where the hell did … never mind. Fly it. It’ll keep ‘em guessing. George!” Slappy called to the first mate. “Bring us up a couple of points to larboard. I think we can get the angle on ‘em now.”

A single gun fired from the lead ship of the squadron entering the bay, and signal flags started going up on her foremast. It looked as if the Boil was going to beat the approaching ships to the channel, although it would be close and they would certainly pass within firing range.

“What are they sayin’?” Slappy shouted to Peddicord, who was still keeping lookout above.

“They want us to stand down and come alongside.”

“Sure. We’ll stand down just as soon as we put few miles of sea between us and them,” Slappy said. “George! Royals, top gallants, my great aunt Tillie’s knickers – every scrap of canvas we’ve got! Let’s go!”

The Boil clearly had the advantage now and would make the eastern channel before the visitors could cut them off. A sound drew Slappy’s attention to stern, where he saw flames leaping up the rigging of the captired urca they had abandoned. He glanced over at Ol’ Chumbucket.

“You do that?”

“Yeah. We were done with her, and I thought it would give those fellas something else to think about.”

“Nice touch.”

Another signal cannon fired from the lead ship and more signal flags fluttered in the breeze.

“She says they want to talk!”

“They can talk to my ass once I’m out to sea!” Slappy said.

The Boil had now crossed the bow of the lead ship, which began turning to port to offer its broadside, although by the time it was in position it would clearly be out of range. The pirates gave a cheer as their ship neared the headland marking the eastern channel to the bay. Another half mile and they’d be clear and showing their pursuers how fast a pirate ship could be.

The cheer died in their throats. Coming around the headland were two more ships, taking position to cut off any escape.

“Shit!” Slappy said. “Where’d they come from?”

Another signal gun brought their attention back to the flags fluttering from the lead ship.

“They’re ordering us to heave to or they’ll open fire.”

“Let ‘em try,” the captain said. “Gun crews, ready the larboard cannon!”

“Captain! I think I recognize a couple of those ships!”


Peddicord hurtled down the ratlines to the quarterdeck and pointed.

“The ship to the east? I’m certain that’s the Red Dog. And that lead ship is English navy or I’m a French tart.”

“Cap’n, this might be a good time to find those ‘papers’ that English captain forced on you back in Port Royal,” Leftenant Keeling suggested.

“Papers? What papers? Oh, shit, that letter of marque,” Slappy said, recalling the ignominy of being a privateer instead of an honest pirate. “Gabriel!”

The captain’s cabin boy appeared at his elbow.

“Get below to my personal privy and see if we’ve still got the letter of marque. I just hope I didn’t use the thing. Get moving lad!”

Gabriel made a face and dashed below.

“That ship to port of the frigate looks like the Sunny Delight, Cap’n,” Peddicord said, pointing.

“Brotherhood ships? Very well, George, heave to. But gun crews, don’t stand down.”

The Boil turned to starboard and her momentum came off. The pirates maintained their vigilance as they watched a longboat set out from the frigate. It took some 15 minutes for the sailors to pull across to the Boil, covered the whole time by the pirates’ guns. Finally she pulled up alongside.

“Permission to come aboard?” a voice called from below. At that moment Gabriel returned, an official looking piece of paper fluttering from his fingers.

“Found it sir! It was under the latest Pirattitude Monthly.”

“Good thing Sawbones hasn’t been able to cure my constipation,” Slappy said. “Permission granted! Come aboard!”

Dressed immaculately, an officer scrambled up the side and presented himself to the quarterdeck.

“Ensign Jack Jones of HMS Princess, sir,” he said, saluting crisply. Slappy gave a short nod to acknowledge it, and the young man dropped his hand. “Captain Stubing’s compliments sir, and he desires you and your officers to come aboard the flagship for a discussion.”

“Stubing? I thought he was taking you lot to Panama?”

“Yes sir. About half the ships did sail to Panama, but he got a message ordering him to Havana to support your operation. So here we are.”

“Support our operation? Our operation went flawlessly, thank ye,” Slappy said. Suddenly a glimmer of hope rose in the back of Slappy’s mind. “Say, you don’t think he intends to take the treasure from us under the terms of our letter of marque, do ye? Blast. Then we won’t be incredibly rich gentlemen and we’ll have to stay on the account, maintaining our pirate lifestyle. Darn, there goes that life of ease I’d been hoping for. But, if it’s all for king and country, then I suppose …”

“Oh no, no sir, he didn’t say anything like that,” Jones replied, dashing Slappy’s hope. “But he is most eager to discuss details of your operation and a follow-up that he has in mind.” Slappy’s face wrinkled in displeasure at the notion of following up with the navy, but he didn’t say anything.

“Anyway, he asked that you and your officers accompany us to his flagship, where we’ll hold a council of war.”

Slappy had to admit he liked the sound of a council of war, as long as more rum was involved, so he nodded to Ol’ Chumbucket.

“Watch the ship ‘til I get back.”

“No sir,” Williams interposed. “Stubing wants you and all your officers. He specifically asked for” – the ensign pulled a slip of paper from his blouse pocket – “the crew members known as Ol’ Chumbucket, George the Greek, Leftenant Keeling and Sawbones Burgess.”

“If we all go over, who’ll run my ship?”

“Not to worry. I’m sure you’re crew can handle things. We’ve no need to be anywhere just yet. And a few of my men will be coming aboard to help out in your absence, which shouldn’t be that long.”

Slappy looked skeptical, but at that moment another signal gun fired from the Princess drawing attention to the new set of flags fluttering from the foremast. The pirates also couldn’t help noticing that the gun ports on all five ships were still open, and they were maneuvering into firing range.

“Apparently they’d like us to hurry, sir. If you’ll follow me?”

The pirate officers looked at each other, then nodded grimly. In a matter of minutes a dozen Marines from the longboat had gone aboard the Boil and the pirates were sitting in the stern sheets of the longboat, which pulled back towards the flagship.

“Any idea what this is all about,” Ol’ Chumbucket asked Jones.

“An idea sir, but only that. You’ll really have to wait for Captain Stubing to explain things.”

The longboat ground against the side of the frigate, and with a request that they wait just a moment, Jones scrambled up the side. A ladder was lowered and a bos’n’s pipe squealed.

The pirates climbed onto the deck, where they were met by a Marine detachment at port arms forming a lane for them to walk down. The bos’n’s pipe squealed again. Led by Ensign Jones, the pirates walked between the two rows of Marines towards the quarterdeck.

Standing on it was a short man in a crisply starched, white uniform, his epaulets shining with gold braid. The beam of his smile was matched by the gleam of the sun off his mostly bald head.

“Gentlemen,” Jones said. “Allow me to present Captain Merrill Stubing

“Come aboard,” the man said. “We’re expecting you!”

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


The Havana Caper – part 28 “Feelin’ Very Piratty Today”

“By the Grand Dam of Mermaids’ left teat, Benny! That’s not how ye carry a treasure chest!” McCormack bellowed at his stubby unofficial lackey.

Benny had balanced a small box filled with doubloons on his head and held the edges of the chest delicately in his hands – it was a trick he had seen done by African tribeswomen with heavy baskets of food sometimes twice their own size. He’d chosen the smallest box he could find to transfer onto The Festering Boil which was now nearly filled to capacity with the gold and jewels taken from the Spanish ship. It was reasoned that even with the load, The Boil would still move faster in these waters without the accompaniment of the hulking, slow urca; laden or un.

At any rate, Benny quickly found that he had neither the grace nor the stamina of an African tribeswoman, but he either refused to shift tactics or simply didn’t know that that was an option. As McCormack made his observation on Benny’s improper chest-moving methods, Benny turned his head to face his tormenting mentor and in so doing, shifted the weight of the chest and his momentum without making accommodation for the travel plans of his feet. Immediately he came crashing to the deck, the lid came off the chest and Spanish doubloons scattered everywhere.

“Do ye see, Benny! This is why I tell ye, ‘Benny, don’t think! Benny just obey!’ But no! You have to go getting ideas and mucking up the plan!” McCormack lectured poor Benny from his perch atop a barrel of rum where he sat in the shade of the mainsail. “And what does it cost ye, Benny-Boy?”

“Tensies out o’ me movin’ fee, Mr. McCormack, sir?” Benny asked as he tried desperately to sweep each doubloon and bauble back into the small box while also trying to avoid being trod upon by other box movers.

“That’s right, me little fillet minion!” McCormack replied with as sympathetic a voice as he could muster. “Ye owe me one out o’ every ten doubloons from yer take. But fear not, me little cumquat! Ye’ll still be the richest carbuncle in all o’ jolly ol’ Portsmouth likely as not!”

Just then, Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket appeared behind McCormack to comment on his little production line.

“So, ye’ve paid some o’ the lads like wee Benny here, to do yer packin’ chores for ye out o’ yer take, have ye Mr. McCormack?” Cap’n Slappy knew the answer before he even asked the question.

McCormack immediately took umbrage with the very notion and made it clear in his reply. “After all the years in yer service, Cap’n and ye would accuse me o’ usin’ me new-found wealth as a means o’ shirkin’ the slightest o’ duties?” He placed his big paw over the area on his shirt where one might assume his heart lay buried if one assumed he possessed such an organ. “I would never use me treasure in such a despicable and cynical way!”

Slappy seemed genuinely embarrassed that he had leapt to such an assumption of his old friend. “Ye have me most humble o’ apologies, Cementhands.” He then turned back to his conversation with Ol’ Chumbucket as McCormack mumbled, “I’m payin’ ‘em off with part o’ yer share o’ the take!”

McCormack knew that he had spoken just loudly and clearly enough to be heard and understood and was, in part, hoping to watch the captain explode with rage – it was just one of his most favored past-times, but instead, Slappy just stopped whatever he was saying to Ol’ Chumbucket and inquired calmly.

“I didn’t fully catch that, Mr. McCormack, could ye repeat that last statement for me?”

“I said, ‘I accept yer apology for friendship’s sake.’” McCormack’s eyes nearly bulged with anticipation of the fireworks to come as he knew lying would only set off Slappy to ever more entertaining heights of apoplexy. He would, however, be disappointed.

“Ah!” Slappy smiled, “Very good, then. Carry on.!” He ambled off to his cabin alone.

“So, what’s crawled into the Cap’n’s hornpipe?” McCormack asked Ol’ Chumbucket.

“I believe he’s sufferin’ from an acute case o’ ‘embarrassment o’ riches,’ or as I’ve often heard it called, ‘poverty envy.’”

McCormack brightened, “So, I’m doin’ him a bleedin’ favour!”

“Aye! But don’t get too charitable with Slappy’s wealth – he’s contemplatin’ retirement.”

Cementhands McCormack sat in stunned silence for a moment. “I can’t imagine The Brotherhood without the Cap’n. It’d be like a night at The Slovenly Slattern without a drunken brawl! Perhaps I should talk to him!”

“He’s not takin’ counsel at the moment.” Ol’ Chumbucket replied. “He’s doin’ what he always does in dire situations – assessin’ the situation and lookin’ for loopholes.”

Ol’ Chumbucket then produced a pipe from a pocket in his vest and began stuffing it with a rich tobacco. “In connection to nothing in particular, I’m just noticing a plethora of quaint and colorful verbiage issuing enthusiastically from your facial orifice.”

McCormack lifted an eyebrow toward Ol’ Chumbucket and flinched a bit as he struck a match on the side of the barrel upon which the big man sat. “And, prithee what in me prattle has attracted such an observation from a man as well versed in the communicatory arts as yerself?”

The bowl in Ol’ Chumbucket’s pipe glowed red as he drew in its smoky issue. He then blew three perfect smoke rings, each larger than the one before and placed them in the air to form what appeared to be an archery target. “Your speech is more than usually laden with such piquant phrases as ‘ye’ and ‘me’ in a fashion one might describe as stereotypical of a person in our chosen profession but not, as an individual, idiosyncratic to your normal banter.”

Cementhands McCormack offered a conspiratorial smile and signaled for Ol’ Chumbucket to lean in closer. He did so, and the big man whispered, “I’m just feeling very piratty today.” He then punctuated the secret with a hushed, “Arrr.”

Ol’ Chumbucket smiled, “Aye. And with good reason.” He then hopped up on a nearby barrel and joined Cementhands McCormack in supervising Benny’s work.

Cap’n Slappy sat quietly at his desk in his favorite sturdy chair and pulled a cigar out of the small humidor he kept next to a small portrait of his mother. The great windows of his cabin that overlooked the stern of The Festering Boil presented him with a panoramic view of the open sea broken only by the frame of the window, the slight imperfections of the glass and the anchor line that now held his precious ship suspended in this one place and, to his way of thinking, in this frozen moment.

He bit off the end of the cigar with his teeth and, after moistening the now wounded wrapping with his tongue, struck a match on the side of his desk where he had tacked some sandpaper for this purpose. He focused the match delicately on one end of the cigar as he puffed and turned the stogie with the other hand in order to achieve an even burn. Once the cigar was ablaze, he shook the match and tossed it into his cuspidor.

After inhaling once or twice deeply, Slappy poured himself a small glass of rum from a decanter that seemed to have always been on his desk. After judging the volume in his glass, he poured a little more. As was always his custom when alone, he tilted the rim of the glass toward the picture of his mother and said, “Cheers, mum!” before taking the first sip. This time, however, his traditional salute was followed not so much by a sip as by a gulp and he found himself in need of another pour – which he genially obliged.

With a glass of rum in one hand and a cigar in the other, Slappy pulled a drawer that sat at shin level part of the way out of his desk and pushed himself backward in his chair in order to recline and view the sea in complete comfort. He compensated for each roll of the ship by pushing and relaxing his legs against the drawer in the effortless rocking of a man accustomed to this world and no other. His face and the focus of his eyes would have given an observer no clue as to whether he was looking at the waves or the glass in the window had there been anyone there to observe him. There wasn’t.

Above the captain’s cabin, powerful, clear voices could be heard, even through the stout timbers that served as the quarterdeck’s floor and Slappy’s ceiling. Slappy knew the one voice immediately; it was that of his long-time friend and first mate, George the Greek. The second voice took some guess-work, but after a few moments, he realized that George was talking to Wellington Peddicord.

“So what’s a rich man such as yerself doin’ mannin’ the helm?”

“Makin’ damn sure all these other rich lads and lasses live long enough to spend some o’ their wealth and keepin’ a weathered eye out for Young Spencer and his crew. They’re overdue.” As always, George’s voice was friendly but businesslike.

“Hence the spyglass ye keep lookin’ through.”

“Aye! And if one o’ ye young fellars had a mind to be o’ some help, ye could scamper up the mizzen and take a look-see for me.”

It was the following laugh that made Slappy recognize Peddicord’s voice. “So rich a man as meself?”

“Hell, lad! Look around ye! Ye’re surrounded by as rich o’ men as yerself – even poor Benny – but I’d not ask him to climb the mizzen as the lethal combination o’ ropes, gravity and his tiny brain would do nothing but enrich his heirs – or McCormack if he got to Benny’s personals first.”

“I’ll tell ye what, Greek! I’ll climb the mizzen and see if I can’t spot our young scallawag’s tub, but don’t expect any special treatment at the bordello I buy with me share o’ the loot!”

“Welly, what the hell do ye know about runnin’ a bordello?”

“Who said anythin’ about runnin’ it? I’m just goin’ t’ buy it and never be lonely again!”

Slappy heard Peddicord’s laugh grow faint as he climbed the mizzen. For a few moments, is cabin was silent but for the creaking of the timbers and the splash of waves against the hull. His eyes closed and he seemed to drift with the movement of the sea. Suddenly, the peace was broken by Peddicord’s booming voice from above.

“Sail ho!”

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


The Havana Caper – 27: Beware the Big One

Slappy had expected – well, maybe ‘hoped for’ would be the better expression – a good haul from hitting the treasure fleet. He was in no way expecting what he saw when he climbed aboard the captured ship.

As Slappy clambered up the side from the longboat, he was greeted by a crew of pirates, none wearing less than a chain of gold around his or her neck. Most were much more ostentatious. Somewhat to Slappy’s consternation, Wellington Peddicord had found a bosun’s whistle and piped him aboard with full honors, and the pirates actually saluted, completely flustering the buccaneer.

“Now stop that!” he shouted at the smiling crew.

“But it’s only fitting,” Ol’ Chumbucket protested, holding the salute. “I mean, there’s not a captain in the English navy worth more than you today. There’s also no captain in the English fleet worth more than your cabin boy, as near as I can figure.”

“Put down yer hand and tell me how we did,” Slappy demanded.

Chumbucket held the salute, rolling his eyes up, then waggling his elbow a few times and sort of nodding his head. Slappy sighed.

“Oh, shit. Alright. Just this once.” He returned the salute, a fairly ragged gesture in which his fingers barely touched his forehead, then dropped his hand quickly in embarrassment. The crew, surprisingly, dropped their salute with a precise snap that would have done the Prussian army proud.

“We’ve been practicing that most of the day,” Chumbucket said.

“What the devil did you do that for?” Slappy groused.

“Because you are a very rich man today,” Chumbucket said. “I haven’t completed the full accounting, but every single member of the Festering Boil’s crew could probably return to his or her hometown today and buy it. The whole damn town.”

Slappy’s eyes opened wide.

“Just how rich are we talking here?”

“Rich enough that I imagine a lot of the crew will be retiring from the life and settling down to a long career of counting money. Here’s a chair.”

The last comment was because Chumbucket had anticipated Slappy’s knees getting weak somewhere around here and had brought a sturdy chair from the captain’s quarters for that purpose. Slappy sank down into it.

“Alright you seadogs – excuse me, You very rich seadogs! Let’s get back to work!” Chumbucket shouted. The crew returned to their task in the hold, all smiles.

“You alright?” Chumbucket asked Slappy.

“I’m fine. Just enjoying this sturdy, comfortable chair. Yessir, nothing like a good chair to make a man feel like a king. And speaking of which, just exactly how rich would you say I am?”

“I haven’t done all the math, and there’s the conversion rates and such to figure, but in round terms, the answer to the question ‘How rich am I?’ would be, pretty damn. See that barrel there?” Chumbucket asked, pointing at one of several posted by the railing.

“Yes,” said Slappy.

“It’s full of silver. Newly minted Pieces of Eight. There’s 200 of them below. That makes, very roughly, a barrel and a half of silver for each of us. As captain, your share is a tad larger, of course.”

Slappy’s eyes grew a bit wider.

“See the smaller keg there?” Chumbucket continued, pointing to a stack of roundlets nearby.

Slappy nodded.

“Full of gold. I have so far counted 180 of them. Again, about a barrel and a half each, in very round figures. What with the stack of gold bars in the stern, and the crates that were full of these – “ Chumbucket reached into his pocket and withdrew two of the biggest uncut emeralds Slappy had ever seen and dropped them into the captain’s lap – “plus the specie in the captain’s cabin, plus a few other trinkets I haven’t even gotten around to calculating yet, I’d say ‘pretty damn rich’ is a fair appraisal.”

Slappy slumped back farther in his chair.

“Beware the big one,” he mumbled.


“The big one. Beware the big one.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s something old Cap’n Hamnquist said when I was a wee pirate,” Slappy explained. “Every pirate goes on the account for a chance at the big one, the one big prize that will make his fortune. But when his fortune’s made, his life changes. Why even remain a pirate? Why not go ashore, buy an estate and stop worrying about the hangman?”

“Why not indeed?” Chumbucket said.

“Yes, but every pirate who does that loses something, loses the freedom that made his life worth living! Every pirate should chase the big one, but cursed is he who finds it.”

“Truth to tell, I’ve been contemplating what to do with my share, wondering what I’ll do now that I can do anything,” Chumbucket said.

“You? You can’t be serious!”

“Oh, don’t worry, no decision yet. It’s awfully tempting though. I could go back into politics. Or – Do you remember my mentioning once how I got thrown out of university? I might be able to go back and buy it now. I’m not going to, no money in education. But you see what I mean. And you’d better believe every man jack on the ship will be wondering the same thing. I’ve heard some conversations already. Even McCormack is going to have to ask himself the question, what do I do now? This is not ‘spectacular shore leave’ wealth, even for Cementhands. Even for you. This is life changing. The only advantage I can see is that at least we’re in a position to choose how our life is changed, rather than have fate or the hangman choose it for us.”

Slappy heaved a huge sigh. He slowly rose from his very comfortable chair.

“How long do you figure it’ll take to transfer the cargo to the Boil?” he asked.

“Well, we’re going to have to sling a line from the yard and hoist ‘em out of the hold and over, because these are not light barrels. And it’s gonna take some work getting them stored properly below so it doesn’t ruin the ship’s sailing characteristics. I’d be surprised if we were done before this time tomorrow, assuming we work through the night. Probably more like a day and a half.”

“Well, then we’d best get to work,” Slappy said with resignation.

“Cheer up,” Chumbucket encouraged his friend. “Things could be worse.”

“How could they be worse? Not that this is bad, but how?”

“This wasn’t the biggest ship in the fleet, just the closest. We might have ended up a whole lot richer than we did.”

“That’s somethin’, I suppose,” Slappy said with a shake of the head. “Thank God for small favors.”

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