Friday, April 28, 2006


The Havana Caper - 7

While McCormack and his inner saint continued their chat with Padre Bracca and Peddicord, Slappy directed the refitting of the two storm-battered ships. Or, more accurately, he directed George the Greek and ship’s carpenter Salty Jim, who directed the work.

When Jim had inspected the forepeak of the Festering Boil, what he saw made him blanche.

“We almost lost the whole front end of the ship,” he told Slappy, pointing to the seams which had split open and the strained futtocks. “Much more pounding from those waves and we’d have had some serious trouble.”

Slappy had to agree. Losing the bow of the ship in a storm couldn’t be a good thing. Jim got to work repairing the damage, which even in his expert hands would take a couple of days. They also had to rig a new bowsprit and re-rig the jib. A variety of other tasks would occupy the crew for the next couple of days as well.

Damage to Lord Shiva’s Eye was less severe since her crew has gotten her out of the water, and Spencer and his crew had already taken care of most of it. All that was left was to reseal the hull with pitch and oakum and the pinnace would be ready to sail in the morning.

“This would be as good a time as any for you to head north to do some scouting,” Slappy told Ol’ Chumbucket when he had returned from the mission, leaving Peddicord and Cementhands closeted with the priest. “The storm probably scattered the treasure fleet pretty badly, so I expect they’ll be up around Havana waiting to reform up before heading out. Get as close as you can and figure out which route they’ll be taking, then head back and meet us here,” he said, pointing to the end of a chain of islands along Cuba’s north shore. “We should be just a couple of days behind you. Then we’ll set up for them.”

Ol’ Chumbucket agreed.

“How many men are you taking?” Slappy asked.

“I shouldn’t need more than four or five,” Ol’ Chumbucket said, drawing a nod from his friend. “Besides Spencer, of course, I’d like to take Dogwatch and Keeling – you keep George with you to finish up refitting the Boil. How’s Cementhands?”

Slappy just shrugged. He had no idea of what to make of their erstwhile saint.

“Right,” Chumbucket said. “Then I’ll take Tharp.”

“That prig? Why on earth would you take him on a small boat where you can’t even get away from him? Why not take Wellington, or Oscar, or Saucy Jenny or Red Molly? Anyone but him.”

“Partly because he’s a good sailor. Partly to get him away from you – you two can’t help picking at each other. And partly to see how he does in a smaller company. You need your best crew to fix up the ship. I feel bad enough taking Dogwatch and Keeling, but I need them. I know Tharp can be a right prat, but then there are times like when he plucked Mario out of the ocean during the storm. I just thought this would be a chance to see him in a different setting. Maybe figure out what’s wrong with the kid.”

“Nothing wrong with that kid that a kick in the ass wouldn’t fix,” Slappy muttered. “It’d sure make ME feel better, anyway.”

“Well, that’s part of what I was thinking,” Chumbucket said.

“And the ship’s in good shape? Do we want to beef her up a little?”

“If you mean add a couple of cannon, I don’t think so,” Chumbucket reflected. “She’s got a couple of 1-pounder swivels, which will work well enough for when we take a ship. Anything bigger and I’m afraid we’d swamp her. Even if she could carry a couple of 4-pounders, I’m afraid firing them would shake her apart.”

“Alright,” Slappy said doubtfully. “But you know me. Don’t use a pop gun when you’ve got a big one at hand.”

“Well, this time we’re going to have to trust the pop gun, plus speed and agility and the good sense not to get into anything we can’t get out of. Besides, you’re the one who’s likely to be going up against any frigates they might have. You’ll want all the big guns you can get.”

Slappy conceded the point, and the rest of the time was spent making sure Shiva’s Eye had all the provisions they’d need for a couple of weeks. By the time the sun began to fade, Salty Jim had finally pronounced himself satisfied with his repairs and had put a crew to work closing up the planking of the bow. That and sealing would take another day, and they’d still have to replace the jib. Three days work, all told, the carpenter told the captain, adding that he wouldn’t really by happy until they could take the Boil into a shipyard and really strip her down and put her back together proper.

“She’s never really going to be right,” Jim said.

“And where do you think the nearest shipyard is, Jim?” Slappy asked.

“Probably Havana,” he replied.

“And you can see why maybe that’s not a good idea? I mean, besides the fact that the Spanish would hang us all if we sailed into port, and we’d have to sail through the treasure fleet to get there, which would sort of tip them off? Kill the element of surprise?”

Jim thought about it and agreed that those were significant drawbacks.

“You’re just going to have to do the best you can. That’s always been more than good enough,” Slappy reassured him. “There’s not a sounder ship on the ocean and you’re the reason why.”

Jim smiled and thanked the captain, then went back to work resolved to make the Boil as fit as humanly possible. Chumbucket was planning to leave with the morning tide, so he left to go over Shiva’s Eye one more time with Spencer and help load any supplies.

It was just as Slappy was heading to the galley to see what Butch had whipped up for dinner that he was hailed. Turning, he saw the longboat returning with Peddicord, Cementhands, and Padre Bracca.

When they climbed aboard they went immediately to the captain. Peddicord by this time was so impressed with the saintly spirit apparently inhabiting his huge friend that he had taken to acting as its spokesman and chief acolyte.

“Cap’n, Saint Swithin has a task for us.”

“Great, I’ve got a task for him. It involves getting to work so we can sail out of here,” Slappy said.

“You don’t understand,” Wellington said. “He’s sending us on a short quest. There’s an injustice that needs righting.”

“No, you don’t understand. There’s a ship that needs fixing so we can get out of here in three days. There’s too much work to do. It’s gonna take all hands working ‘round the clock to get her ready to sail.”

The face of Cementhands – whoever was using it at the moment – smiled beatifically. Peddicord interpreted.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” he said.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Part 6 – Mission Improbable

“That’s it! Just send the Negro!”

Wellington Peddicord’s tone was playfully sarcastic – as it was on most occasions. The fact was, he did not mind Cap’n Slappy’s request that he stop untangling the Medusa’s Head of rat line clusters to escort the erstwhile Cementhands McCormack, currently the physical incarnation of St. Swithin, to the mission at the top of the hill and “look after him,” while they settled in for the evening. But it wasn’t the color of Peddicord’s skin that determined this particular assignment – it was his size. At nearly six and a half feet tall, he was the same height as the big man and thus the logical choice to assist him, should some sort of physical assistance be necessary. However, he was less than half the volume of the beatified behemoth, so, if passing out was on McCormack’s agenda, he would be hitting the ground unaided.

Like any ritualized catch phrase, “That’s it! Just send the negro!” required a countersign and Cap’n Slappy was more than delighted to oblige.

“I had to send the Negro – the Swede was unavailable! Silly Negro!” Cap’n Slappy laughed and waved them away as he turned to go back to the important work of making sure that everyone else was doing their work. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him and he called after St. Swithin.

“St. Swithin! Do you have any idea when I’ll be getting my pirate back?”

The saint turned and held up his hand in what may have been a posture of blessing – or perhaps he was just keeping the sun out of his eyes … “These things usually take a couple of days – two weeks tops! We’ll know when we know. Be careful in the rain today!”

Slappy looked at the clear blue sky – no cloud in sight – he smiled and waved thinking to himself, “That’s it, he’s nuts.” As he said so, he was splashed by several rain drops. “Oh, that’s just not right.” He muttered to himself as he continued to smile and wave.

“Your father is an impatient man, Ethelwulf; we must find lessons to teach you to be patient.” St. Swithin was clearly under the impression that Cap’n Slappy was somehow Wellington Peddicord’s father.

Peddicord tried to set the record straight – he held his bare arm out straight with his palm down to illustrate the difference in skin pigment between himself and the captain.

“He can’t be my father – he’s …”

“Short. I know.” St. Swithin cut him off mid-sentence mistaking Wellington’s gesture to be a show of height difference rather than skin color. “But thus it is written; ‘It will come to pass that the towering hemlock shall outgrow the shadow of the stocky oak!’” But when the saint used the word, “oak” in reference to the captain, it sounded suspiciously like, “oaf.”

Wellington Peddicord was temporarily baffled but decided that when one speaks with a saint it’s always good policy to tell the truth.

“I’m not this … Ethelwulf … person, St. Swithin.”

St. Swithin stopped him in the path and looked him up and down carefully. “Are you not Prince Ethelwulf, son of King Egbert of the West Saxons?”

Peddicord thought for a moment. There was such hope in the saint’s eyes, but he had started on the path of truth-telling and decided to stay the course.

“No. Sorry St. Swithin. I’m not – and neither is Cap’n Slappy.” He could see that the saint was troubled, so he added quickly. “But you should feel free to call me … Ethelwulf if you like – hell, feel free to call me Princess Betty if it suits you.” He immediately winced when he realized he said, “hell” in front of a saint, “I mean, heck. Heck!”

St. Swithin smiled wryly. “You said, ‘hell’ in front of a saint.”

If Wellington Peddicord had ever blushed in his life, this was the moment. “Yes, your holy saintiness, I did do that. Sorry.”

With a growing smile, St. Swithin replied, “You’ve got chutzpah, I like that. What’s your real name?”

“Wellington Peddicord.”

“Then I shall call you, ‘Wellington Peddicord.’” St. Swithin thought for a moment and added, “I’m an ancient saint in the body of a huge pirate – I get confused from time to time, can I count on you to keep the record straight for me?”

“Aye-aye, St. Swithin! I’m your man!” Peddicord liked this saint fellow every bit as much as he liked Cementhands McCormack – and that was saying something.

“Thank you, my child. Do you have any request of St. Swithin?”

Wellington Peddicord gave it some thought and finally asked, “If they offer us bunk beds at the mission, can I have the top bunk?”

“Just this once.” St. Swithin said with a smile as they approached the opening gates of the mission, Nuestra Señora de la Sangría Eterna de la Nariz.

“That’s a long name for a mission,” Peddicord observed, “what does it mean?”

“Our Lady of Eternal Nose Drainage.” St. Swithin replied without comment.

“That’s right my friends! Welcome!” a young, energetic monk greeted them as they entered the mission walls. He shook hands with his guests and seemed much relieved by their presence. “The mission, she is named after Santa Elaina of the Meadows, she came here not only to bring the Word of God to the natives, but also to put a distance between herself and her allergies.”

“How did that work out?” Peddicord asked.

“Terrible.” The young monk replied, “She died in a fit of sneezing.”

St. Swithin was chuckling. The young priest gave him a puzzled look.

“It gets worse.” St. Swithin explained, “When she got to heaven, she found out she was allergic to angel feathers!”

Wellington Peddicord and the priest stared open-mouthed at the saint.

“C’mon! That’s funny! But don’t worry. God gave her some pills and it cleared up.” St. Swithin kept expecting them to laugh, but they were simply dumbfounded. Finally he confessed, “St. Timothy tried to tell me that ‘Heaven humor doesn’t translate well.’ But did I listen? No.”

“You must be St. Swithin.” The priest said cautiously.

”Yes. I am. And this is my friend and comrade, Wellington Peddicord.” St. Swithin gave the two men a chance to shake hands. “And you must be Father Giuseppe Bracca, the friar of this small mission devoted to serving the tribes that reside in the jungles on this portion of the island. You name betrays your Italian and Spanish heritage, but ethnicity aside, you are one hundred percent Catholic.”

Once again, his companions starred blankly at the saint.

“Second sight. Goes with the whole ‘saint’ thing.” St. Swithin smiled, “But please, feel free to invite us inside your study for refreshments and the many, many questions you wish to ask me.”

The priest stammered for a moment, then, did just as the saint said he would. In a few moments, they were out of the sun and sitting comfortably in the padre’s study drinking lemonade made by the mission’s native housekeeper and cook who had been given the decidedly European name, Maria De La Croix.

St. Swithin complimented her for her lemonade making skills and thanked her for her trouble in her native tongue. Father Bracca was stunned. He was one of the few Europeans who knew the specific dialects found in this region of Cuba – and he couldn’t even speak it, as St. Swithin did, without even a trace of accent.

“People pray to us in their language – so knowing them all is also part of the ‘saint’ thing. In fact, when St. Peter goes on vacation, I cover his prayers and they come from freakin’ everywhere!” St. Swithin realized he uttered an unfamiliar oath. “Sorry about the ‘freakin’ – it’s going to be one of my favorite curse words – eventually. Now, how about your questions?”

Father Bracca now smiled. “Well, if you know my questions …”

“… Why don’t I just answer them in order? Come now, Padre. That’s not fair to Mr. Peddicord, here – and besides, I really enjoy the parts where you try to confuse me by reading them out of order.”

Father Bracca took the note cards on which he had written the questions and shuffled them like a deck of cards. All three men laughed. He then pulled the first one out and asked.

Q: “What is God like?”
A: “He’s like a really funny uncle who cheats at cards because he has a great sense of humor and he hates to lose at cards.

Q: “What is His Son, Jesus like?”
A: “Really nice. Not stuck up at all! Shorter than you would think – but a really good dancer. Not Mohammed good, but really, quite good!”

Father Bracca left his cards for a follow-up question:

Q: “The Prophet, Mohammed, is in heaven?”
A: “Yes. When he’s not at his vacation home in Denmark.”

St. Swithin added a “Shhhh” after that comment – as if it were to be kept a secret.

Q: “When will the world come to an end?”
A: “Do you read all of your books from the last page backward?”

Father Bracca looked up.

Q: “Can you answer that question?”
A: “Every day, the world comes to an end for thousands and millions of living things – and yet, the world goes on. And every day, around the universe, thousands of millions of worlds cease to exist – and yet, Life goes on. Here’s the deal. It’s a nice planet you’ve got here, try not to – excuse my French – ‘Fuck it up.’ Enjoy mountains, manatees and monkeys and live each day as if it’s your next – not your last.”

Father Bracca and Wellington Peddicord sat in stunned silence. After a few moments, the sounds of children laughing penetrated the window that faced the courtyard. The priest rose to his feet and looked out the window to see Ol’ Chumbucket performing his patented “pull the coin out of the child’s ear” trick as the contingent of pirates from The Festering Boil watched his magic show. Dozens of children squealed with delight as he repeated the same trick over and over – pretending to pocket each coin as it was deposited from their ears into his nimble hands. Peddicord and St. Swithin joined him at the window.

“They’re orphans.” St. Swithin observed.

“What happened to their parents?” Peddicord asked.

Father Bracca hesitated.

“It appears the Church sold its parish to Spanish investors because Her parishioners were unfortunately living on a literal gold mine.”

Father Bracca remained silent. Tears started to roll down his cheeks.

“But what happened to their parents.” Peddicord pressed.

“They were not inclined to leave their home.” St. Swithin replied as he placed his hand on the young priest’s shoulder. “There was nothing you could have done, my son.”

The pirates in the courtyard were giving beads and trinkets to the children.

“St. Swithin,” the priest pleaded, “the Spaniards destroyed a village of three thousand people – these children were the only survivors. And they are set to move on another village. I’ve asked the Bishop for his help, but he’s turned a deaf ear – Rome receives a share of the gold. Can you help me?”

St. Swithin looked out the window and smiled as the children laughed.

Monday, April 24, 2006


The Havana Caper - 5

Rain lashed the Festering Boil and howling winds made keeping any course difficult. With the sails closehauled and a sea anchor out, the crew struggled to maintain enough headway to keep the ship riding into the waves and not turning broadside into them and broaching. The seas broke over the bow and flooded the waist of the ship, and it was all hands to the pumps to keep the Boil from foundering.

The squall had come on eight hours earlier, just as the ships had cleared the Windward Passage and came out into the Atlantic. As the line of black clouds raced in from the east the Boil headed for deeper water while Spencer’s small pinnace, Lord Shiva’s Eye, turned for the safety of the shore. With luck they’d meet somewhere up the coast after the storm had passed, assuming they were both able to ride it out. Now every man and woman on the ship was at work on deck or in the rigging. Even Cementhands – who might or might not still be possessed by a saint – took his turns at the pump, though he remained silent. On the quarterdeck, Cap’n Slappy, Dogwatch, George and Ol’ Chumbucket wrestled with the wheel to keep the ship on an even keel.

One particularly violent wave crashed over the bow, taking the bowsprit with a crack like a gunshot. The debris swept across the fo’c’sle, leaving a tangle of cordage, spars and canvas hanging over the bow, draggling down the starboard side of the ship and into the ocean.

“We have to clear that,” George shouted against the wind. “The drag is gonna make it even harder to steer and it’s holding the head lower in the water.”

Chumbucket nodded and started forward, leaving the others to battle the wheel and keep the Boil on something like a proper heading. He waded almost hip-deep across the waist of the ship, collecting two other crewmembers, Leftenant Keeling and one of the new recruits from Port Royal, Mad Mario Cassandra, to help. As the bow rose to the next wave the water drained through the scuppers, giving them a few moments to rush forward before the next wave crashed over and they held on for dear life. Other sailors – Chumbucket couldn’t tell whom through the driving rain – raced up the ratlines of the foremast to cut loose any remnants of the jib from the yards.

The drag of the canvas in the ocean kept the bow lower, and the wave rushed over them like a foaming green wall. The three of them clung to whatever they could find as the water submerged them, then they leaped forward with axes. The lines holding the wreckage to the ship were taut as timbers, so there was no thought of trying to untangle the mess. The pirates hacked at them to get it all over the side.

One, two, three, four lines were severed, and now the last of the mess hung from the forepeak. Not only was the entire drag now directly at the front of the ship, pulling the bow down, but the forepeak was groaning with the strain, suggesting that they were about to loose the whole front end of the ship. That would be bad. Without a word, which would have been useless anyway in the screaming gale, Mad Mario tucked the axe into his belt and slithered out onto the projection, wrapping legs and arms around it tightly as he inched out to where the jagged end of the bowsprit projected from it. Two swings of his axe and the last of the mess went by the boards.

But as the sailors heaved a sigh of relief that that problem was solved, a new wave broke over the ship, battering Mario. With hearts in their throats Keeling and Chumbucket watched as the battered seaman lost his grip. The last thing they saw was Mario dangling from the projection by his hands as the water swept over him. Then the wave hit them and they couldn’t see anything as they clung to the rail to keep from being washed away. After what felt like an eternity under water it passed and they scrambled back to their feet and turned forward. There was no one there to be seen.

As he rushed to the bow, Ol’ Chumbucket caught a dark, flashing blur to his right, but in the confusion of wind, rain and wave he couldn’t make out anything. Peering through the weather confirmed what he dreaded – Mario was gone.

But just as he braced himself for the next onslaught of water, Keeling caught his arm and pointed to starboard. Chumbucket couldn’t hear what he was saying over the howling wind, but he turned and peered into the mist. There was something in the water, and he realized that whatever it was, it was attached to the ship by a line from the rigging. Looking harder, he realized the shape in the water was actually two bodies fighting to keep from losing the line that connected them to the ship.

Chumbucket dashed to the ratlines and climbed high enough that he could grab the line that he now realized was attached to the foretop yard. Grabbing it with both hands he jumped to the deck, his weight drawing the struggling pair closer to the ship. Meanwhile, from the quarterdeck Slappy had seen what happened and had rushed to the railing with a dozen other crewmembers. As Chumbucket dropped to the deck with the line in his hands they grabbed it and hauled in. In a short time they had brought the pair to the side and were hoisting them on board.

One was Mario, half conscious, spitting seawater and shivering. The other was Mandrake Tharp.

Slappy ordered them below and sent several sailors up the foremost to secure a yard that was hanging at an odd angle, and the sail that was now flapping in the wind. Then he and Chumbucket went below to find out what had happened.

Mario was in Sawbones Burgess’ sickbay, and Tharp sat on a bench in the passageway.

“What happened there lad?” the captain asked.

“I was one of the men who went up to clear the jib lines,” Tharp said tiredly. “When I saw the wave coming I knew he wouldn’t be able to hold on. So I cut the halyard as low as I could reach, tied the end around me and as he got swept off I dove for him. Good thing he held on as long as he did. If he’d been swept five feet further out I wouldn’t have had enough line to reach him.”

Slappy stared at the young man with a look that mingled shock and family pride. It was the first time the English officer had taken part in the activity of the Festering Boil, and he had come through for both ship and crewmate.

“Even tied off like that, it was a damn fool thing to do,” he said at last. “Well, yer father would be proud of ye, lad, that’s all I can say. Damn proud.”

Tharp drew himself up, and even in his soaking sailor’s togs managed to give himself the air of a uniformed officer who was having none of the sentiment.

“Yes, well, had I taken time to recollect that he was nothing more than a pirate, I may have acted differently. But this ship is on a mission for the crown and if there’s one thing the service has drilled into me is that you think of ship and shipmate first. That might be why it comes as a surprise to you and your lot.”

And with that Tharp turned on his heel and headed back to the quarters he shared with the other ship’s officers.

Slappy looked as if he’d been struck.

“Can you believe that little prick?” he asked.

“Actually, I’m not sure I can,” Chumbucket said. “I don’t care what he said; I think there’s something there inside him that might be worth looking for.”

“Well, much more of this and I’ll tear him apart to do the looking,” Slappy groused.

Just then Sawbones emerged from the sickbay with an odd look on his face.

“How is he,” Slappy asked.

“He?” Sawbones said. “Oh the patient is fine. But here’s something interesting. He is a she.”

“Mario?” Slappy and Chumbucket asked in unison.

“More like Mary or Marie or Martina or something,” Burgess mused.

“Another woman tar who thought she had to disguise herself as a man to join the crew?” Slappy said. “Obviously didn’t get a good look at her shipmates. We have – what? – 20 women aboard?”

“That we know of,” Chumbucket said. “There are a couple of others I’ve wondered about, but I figure it’s none of my business. If Mario wants to continue being Mario, I guess that’s up to her – him – whatever. Don’t tell her you told us, explain the situation and let her decide for herself.”

The storm finally blew itself out some 30 hours later, and the sun broke on a battered ship and exhausted crew bobbing on the long Atlantic swell. Slappy immediately ordered the grog broken out and sent as many of the crew as could be spared below.

“Any idea where we are?” he asked George and Dogwatch as they peered at the charts.

“You’re kidding right?” Dogwatch said. “This is the first time we’ve seen the sun in two days, so we haven’t been able to take any sightings. And there’s no way to tell how far we’ve been blown.” He pointed. “That way’s east. We seemed to be running more or less north to nor’ east through most of that. So I’d guess Cuba’s that way,” he said, pointing, “but I couldn’t begin to guess how far.”

“Well, go ‘that way’ then,” Slappy said. “The storm may have taken us off track, but it probably did a lot worse for the Spanish. I’ll guess it’ll take a week for them to reassemble the fleet. Even if we’re a couple of days off course, we’ve probably bought four or five days on them.”

“Good,” George said. “We’ll need it to get the ship right again.”

It turned out it took less than two days to find Cuba again, and soon the Boil was riding the current up the coast, keeping an eye out for a place to land and for any sign of Shiva. And as it happened, they found both in the same place.

As the Boil rounded a headland before a small cove, the lookout spotted a large building on the hill. And below, pulled onto the shelter of the beach, lay a small craft that proved to be Lord Shiva’s Eye. There was no sign of life on the beach, but figures could be seen on the hilltop, waving from the tower of the building.

A longboat went ashore and the party, led by George and Slappy, climbed the path from the beach to the summit. An hour later Slappy returned and was rowed back to the Boil.

“Spencer’s crew is all safe and sound,” he announced when he was back on ship. “We’ll be staying here another day or two to get both ships back in order. We’ll be the guests of the mission up there on the hill, Nuestra Señora de la Sangría Eterna de la Nariz. Spencer was able to make land before the storm caught them and they pulled the boat out of the water. It got hit pretty hard, mostly by waves and by debris getting dislodged from the bluff above, but she’s almost seaworthy again and we’ll soon be on our way.”

“Meanwhile,” Slappy said, turning to Sawbones, “we’ve had a special request. I was chatting with the padre about the storm and how we knew it was coming, and he’s looking forward to meeting St. Swithin.”

Friday, April 21, 2006


The Havana Caper – part 4 “Saint Swithin's Day”

Cap’n Slappy and Sawbones Burgess made their way through the bustle of activity on the Festering Boil and made their way below to the ship’s sick bay.

“What’s the story on our good friend, Cementhands?” Slappy asked with grave concern.

Cementhands McCormack was, in fact, everyone's good friend - the best-loved man on the ship. For one thing, he was quite large – both in size and spirit. Standing two yards and a half foot tall and weighing over twenty stone – he was nothing short of gigantic. The legends surrounding him were not only epic – they were mostly true. He had, by many accounts, attacked a French fort armed only with a fork and those who had seen him in battle knew the havoc he could wreak with his favorite weapon, an iron bar that weighed over seven stone.

But it was his personal excesses – his love of drink, women, gambling and amateur theatrics that most endeared him to his comrades – that and his unfailing sense of humor. So persuasive could McCormack’s jokes be, he had most of the crew convinced that Doc Burgess was not (as was actually true) a southern gentleman from Tennessee, well-educated in the arts and sciences and morally above reproach; but rather an unapologetic sheep buggerer from the monastic wasteland of a seemingly mythical realm of otherwise celibate “cow-punchers” which McCormack dubbed, “Oklahoma.”

In fact, Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket would indulge McCormack’s fiction, just to hear the tales – much to the good doctor’s apoplectic and seemingly inexhaustible irritation.

Lately, however, the only focus anyone had on McCormack was one of concern. Since their last adventure, during which he’d drunk a large goblet of an hallucinogenic and possibly poisonous native concoction. It helped him save t day, but since then he’d been perpetually asleep.

“Well, the good news is he’s conscious again.” Burgess said just before they arrived in the sick bay. But Cap’n Slappy’s first view of his old friend told him that not everything was quite right.

McCormack was seated sideways in his hammock, legs crossed in front of him and his hands resting gently on his knees – thumbs and middle fingers posed in an upward “pinch” position – like a gargantuan Buddha statue in a swing. He was dressed in blue and orange robs – reminiscent of a toga. Incense sticks burned at the four corners of his hammock shrouding him in a sweet, albeit pungent cloud of smoke and what at first appeared to be three bluebirds (but later turned out to be three badminton shuttlecocks painted blue and tied up to look like bluebirds) perched on his shoulder, his forearm and his impressively large head. There was a look of splendid serenity on his face. His normally bulging eyes were half shut in bliss. If the artist, Michelangelo, had sought a subject to pose as an extremely large and imposing thirteenth apostle in his portrait of The Last Supper, one perhaps named, “Big Louie,” he could not have found a more apt model.

As they pulled up stools and sat at the feet of the enormous, swinging, cloudily ambiguously religious icon, Cap’n Slappy asked, “And the bad news is …?”

“He believes he is St. Swithin.” Sawbones said. Cap’n Slappy’s trance was quickly broken and he shot Burgess a desperate look. The doctor quickly added in his calmest, most reassuring voice, “I really think this is a temporary condition.”

“Let’s hope so,” Slappy said blandly as he returned his focus to the patient.

Cementhands drew in a very deep breath and his guests froze with anticipation – as if they were watching a geyser which showed signs that it might blow at any moment.

“Good afternoon, my children.” McCormack spoke – although it sounded nothing like the “normal” McCormack. This voice was calm and resonant without the slightest hint of malice or impending prank.

“Good afternoon, St. Swithin.” Burgess bowed respectfully as he spoke.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Slappy, who was not accustomed to speaking with the clergy dipped into the only ecclesiastical catch phrase he could remember.

“Well then, you should really knock that shit off because it pisses God off something fierce!” The words were vintage McCormack, but the tone and temper continued to be the blissful St. Swithin. He continued, “And what in the name of Lucifer’s Lopsided Bollocks made you think I was a priest? I’m a freakin’ saint you salacious bowl of rancid man-goo!”

Slappy smiled because he knew his friend was somewhere inside there struggling to communicate. He leaned in urgently and called out, “Cementhands! Can you hear me!”

‘St. Swithin’ took in a deep breath, held it, released it slowly. Then he spoke. “Your friend is resting comfortably in one of the many pleasure rooms the brothel of his mind has made available to him. I would request that in the interim, you address all statements and questions to me by name, ‘St. Swithin’.”

Slappy was momentarily dumbfounded. Then, he found his voice again, “St. Swithin, would you excuse the good doctor and me for a moment?”

“Of course, my children. You need to discuss the situation out of ear shot of St. Swithin, don’t you?”

“Something like that.” Slappy explained as he escorted Sawbones Burgess to the doctor’s quarters. Once they were at a safe distance, with the door closed, Slappy whispered, “Are you sure this is temporary?”

From the other room, St. Swithin shouted out, “I assure you, Cap’n Slappy, my stay in Mr. McCormack is only temporary!”

Once again, Slappy was dumbstruck. He stepped out of the cabin and toward the Swinging Saint. “You couldn’t possibly have heard me!” he declared.

“Not with my ears,” the saint agreed.

“If not with your ears, how could you hear me?” Slappy asked.

“I listen with my heart.” the saint said as if illustrating an important Life Lesson.

Slappy seemed annoyed. “Well stop that!”

“Who among you, by wishing, can stop the mighty waterfall in its course or change the migratory patterns of the green-headed mallard? And what wish can keep the stars from falling when it is their time to fall?” Saint Swithin gently descended from his perch in the swinging hammock of smoky incense and moved to a board covered in flannel upon which some cut-out characters stood ready to illustrate his lesson.

Slappy put his hands up in a defensive expression of “stop!” “Hold that thought, your Holy … Sainty-ness.” He quickly retreated into the doctor’s cabin where he took out pen and ink and began writing messages to the doctor.

“McCormack is posessed.” he scribbled.

Saint Swithin in the other room called out, “There are four ‘S’s’ in ‘possessed,’ my child!”

Absent-mindedly, Slappy called back, “Thank you!” Then, he caught himself and shuddered.

“You can’t be possessed by a saint!” Burgess argued.

“Well, what would you call it?” Slappy snapped back.

The good doctor thought for a moment. “Being saintient.”

“I know that SOUNDS like a word, Doctor, but it isn’t!” Saint Swithin called from the other room.

“Perhaps we can splash holy water on him and chant, ‘The power of Christ compels thee!’ until he leaves McCormack’s body!” Burgess suggested.

“No, dammit! They play for the same team!” Slappy argued. “We’ll need to use grog and say, ‘The power of pirate compels you!’ in order to exorcise this saint!”

“You can’t exorcise a saint, my children!” St. Swithin called patiently from the other room as he rearranged the cut out characters on the flannel board to make it looked as if they were going on a picnic but needed Jesus to make them some extra sandwiches with piles of loaves and fishes. “I will only be in your friend a short time, you really should just enjoy me while I’m here!”

Cap’n Slappy sighed. “C’mon. Let’s go talk to him.” They came back into the sick bay and were greeted by St. Swithin who seemed to be finishing up his flannel-board story.

“… and thus Jesus spake unto the multitude. ‘Verily, I say, these loaves and fishes are lower in cholesterol, but have plenty of the good kind of cholesterol and don’t worry about the carbs – take up thy crosses and follow me.’ And the people did, but they took a wrong turn in southwest Jerusalem which is full of these cul-de-sacs which are very confusing – so eventually everyone just went home. Amen.”

“Amen.” Slappy and Burgess echoed.

“And now, my children, I will unveil a mystery for you.” St. Swithin said as he lifted his right hand and seemed to pull the mystery down from either heaven or the beam above his head. “Today it shall begin to rain – and rain it shall for forty days. And it won’t be a light drizzle in the morning, followed by afternoon clearing and sun patches during the summer evening – but serious, ‘Save us from this deluge, St. Swithin – for the love of all things holy! Save us!’ kinds of rain – at least for the most part. But the good news is you will miss the hurricane that will create tremendous opportunities for you.”

“We love opportunities! Hell, you might call us Devout Opportunists!” Slappy said as he and Burgess applauded this happy news – although Burgess was concerned that all that rain might trigger an outbreak of Seasonal Affective Disorder among the crew.

“But!” St. Swithin’s tone was now very dark and ominous. “The storm will also place great peril in your path.”

“So you’re saying it’s a ‘mixed bag,’ right?” Slappy asked.

“You could call it that.” Saint Swithin replied.

Slappy stood, his heart brimming with confidence and his head clanging like an industrial boiler that’s only just been turned on.

“St. Swithin! Mixed bags are my bag! Come Doctor, we must prepare the crew for the work at hand – and explain the presence of our … guest.” With that, he and Doc Burgess headed back up to the main deck leaving McCormack alone.

“Thank you, St. Swithin!” the saint called sarcastically after they left. Then, he muttered to himself, “It’s always, ‘Pray for me, Saint Swithin! … Help me Saint Swithin! … Saint Swithin! What am I going to do about my crab infestation?’ But does anybody ever say, ‘Damn! Saint Swithin! You da saint! You totally rock my freakin’ world, Saint Swithin! Thank you so goddam much, Saint Swithin! You’re the best?’ No.”

The big man crawled back into the hammock and stretched out and sighed. “I know. I’m not in this for the ‘thanks,’ … but just once, it would be nice.”

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


The Havana Caper - 3

“Helm’s a lee!” George shouted from behind the ship’s wheel.

“Helm’s a lee!” echoed Ol’ Chumbucket in a voice that could be heard up in the main tops. “Let go and haul!”

The crew of the Festering Boil leaped to the task, releasing the forebowline and weather braces, and hauling the lee braces. The ship began turning to tack back across the wind, turning the ship towards the grey bulk of Cuba on the larboard side.

Cap’n Slappy watched with pleasure as the ship came around on the new tack. The maneuver had been performed flawlessly – again – and the Boil resumed its steady pace. Even better, the pinnace Lord Shiva’s Eye had followed the move hank for hank.

They had been running hard for two days and, with Jamaica well behind them, the ships were proceeding through the Windward Passage. Slappy expected one more tack to starboard would be necessary, and then they’d be able to turn west into the Atlantic with the wind off their beam and they’d fairly fly up the island’s northern coast to their rendezvous with the Spanish treasure fleet, wherever that ended up being.

“I’ll be below,” he told George. “When Ol’ Chumbucket’s done, have Dogwatch relieve you and I want to see you both in my cabin.”

“Aye,” George acknowledged as the captain headed below. A few moments later he was joined by George the Greek, Ol’ Chumbucket and Sawbones Burgess.

“What brings you here?” Chumbucket asked the ship’s doctor. “Giving a hand with plotting the course?”

“No. Captain just wanted me to bring the medicinal rum,” he explained, showing the bottles he’d brought with him. Slappy smiled when he saw them, took one and poured out generous tankards for each of the men. Strumpet the monkey perched on the shelf above them, watching.

“We’re making just shy of seven knots right now,” George said as they settled down. “We might be able to pick up a little speed as we get closer in to shore, but we’ll lose it when we beat back to windward.”

“As long as we’re through the passage by morning, I’ll be satisfied,” Slappy said. “How’s Shiva’s crew doing?”

“You saw for yourself,” Chumbucket said. “They’re staying right with us, and on the windward reaches they do a little better. It’s a fine little ship Spencer bought himself. And they’ve got plenty of hands aboard. We’ll need some of them back when we go into action, but for now they’re doing fine.”

There was a knock on the door. Slappy called “Enter!” and almost immediately regretted it when Lieutenant Tharp came in.

“Getting down to business?” he asked snidely. “I must have missed the memo about this meeting, because certainly as the official representative of the crown for this privateering expedition I must have been invited.”

Somehow, his arched eyebrow managed to make him more insufferable than usual.

“Right,” Slappy said. “Wouldn’t want you to miss where we plan to take on water. Have a seat by all means, and take notes to pass on to the queen later.”

Tharp drew up a chair between Ol’ Chumbucket and George, placing himself directly opposite Slappy, who unrolled a chart of Cuba.

“We can take on water anywhere along this first hundred miles of the northern coast. Let’s get that done tomorrow, first chance we get. Did you get that down Junior?” Slappy spoke slowly, measuring out the words as if giving dictation. “Take – on – water – tomorrow.”

Tharp glowered. Sawbones slid a tankard across the table to him, but the officer ignored it.

“Alright then. Two, maybe three days sailing we run into this line of offshore islands. Those will work perfectly for what I have in mind, assuming we get there before the Treasure Fleet does. I like our chances. We’ll wait there and send Shiva out ahead to find the fleet. Unless they’re standing well out to sea they should walk right up to us. Chumbucket, I’d like you to go with Spencer for that. As soon as you see them and get a fix on their course, hightail it back to us. And then we’ll act accordingly.”

Chumbucket nodded. The others looked over the chart and agreed that that was the best course. All but Tharp.

“Have you noticed that they have a ship or two more than us? In fact, they probably have roughly a hundred ships and you have two. Have you considered how you’re going to stop them?”

“You have as keen an appreciation of the obvious as your father,” Slappy said. “I have no intention of stopping them. Quite the opposite. We’ll pick off what we can and run with the wind. With luck, we’ll be gone before they can think of turning to chase us.”

“Ah, that would be the brave buccaneer way, would it?” Tharp sneered. “Take the money and run. What about your commission from Captain Steubing?”

“The piece of paper the captain forced on me says nothing about committing suicide,” Slappy countered. “That would be the mindless regular Navy way. My plan has never changed. We’re here to fill our hold with Spanish gold. Taking more than we can carry is foolish, and engaging in a sea battle against overwhelming force is just plain stupid. In this business, you don’t get to be a grizzled old pirate by being stupid.”

Slappy pointed to a sampler hanging on the cabin wall. It read, “He who strikes and runs away, lives to pillage another day.”

“My aunt Hortense ‘Happy’ McSlappy made that for me when I was just starting out in this business. I was always her favorite. That would be your great aunt.”

“The one who died in the asylum, I presume.”

Slappy’s chair shot across the room as he leaped to his feet.

“SHE DID NO SUCH THING!!” he roared. “She’s still alive, running the most popular tavern and sporting house in the Canaries. You should look her up some time, it’d do you good. Although when she found out who yer father was she’d probably take yer head off. She has low tolerance for strutting popinjays, martinets and self-aggrandizing poltroons.”

The two men glared at each other for a moment. Chumbucket, George and Sawbones sat still, ready to intervene in any violence that broke out or jump out of the way if they were in the line of fire. Having sailed with Slappy the longest, they were the only men on the ship who shared the secret that Captain Slappy’s brother was an English admiral and that this young prig was the pirate’s nephew.

The stalemate was broken by Strumpet, who chose that moment to fling a handful of monkey poo at the young officer, striking him squarely over the heart. The young man gasped and took a step back, but the other four in the room broke into laughter.

“Young fella,” Sawbones said, “I know you love that uniform, but ye’ve been wearing it for the better part of two months now. Even the crew is beginning to complain about the smell, and it takes a lot to offend them. The monkey just did what everyone’s been wanting to. Let’s go see if we can scare you up something that’ll fit and not smell so vivid.”

“Tomorrow’s a make and mend day,” George added. “We should be able to whip up a couple of blouses and pants. You’ll fit in better that way.”

“Just what I always wanted, to fit in on a pirate ship,” Tharp said, but then a rueful grin broke out. “But truth to tell, I was beginning to offend myself. I’ll go along as far as getting something clean to wear.”

“If you’re done with us for now, cap’n” George asked.

“Yes, yes, go get the kid something to wear, George. But Sawbones, stay here just a moment.”

George and Tharp left and Slappy turned toward the ship’s surgeon.

“When we meet with the Spanish, we’ll need all hands. So tell me doctor, how’s your special patient?”

Monday, April 17, 2006


The Havana Caper – Part 2 “Lord Shiva’s Eye”

Cap’n Slappy entered his cabin where he found young Spencer sitting quietly on a stool in the corner. He couldn’t have looked more forlorn if he had been faced into the corner – he gave the appearance of a seven-year-old boy about to be punished.

“Come out from the corner, lad. Sit in the man chair.” Slappy’s voice was firm, but friendly.

Spencer got up sheepishly and moved to the large sturdy chair that sat by Cap’n Slappy’s desk. Being a barrel-shaped man of considerable girth, Cap’n Slappy appreciated sturdily built furnishings and would often apply the word, “man” as an adjective. He wore “man” pants and slept in a “man” bed. His weapons of choice – saber and blunderbuss were “man” weapons and when he wrote his “man” poetry, he did so at his “man” desk while seated comfortably in his “man” chair. As Slappy’s cabin boy, Spencer was accustomed to sitting on the “boy” stool. He had never before been invited to sit in the “man” chair.

Of course, the honor was tempered by the fact that Spencer was concerned that Slappy would punish him severely at any moment. He was astonished to see Cap’n Slappy pour two glasses of rum and offer him one of them.

“Go on, lad. Take it and tell me how ye’ve been these last few months.” Slappy sat on the edge of his bed and seemed to genuinely care.

“Well sir,” Spencer began, “Mahren and me, sir, we lived quite happily for a time. My share of the loot bought her fine dresses and rings and such. But then I bought a pinnace with the money that was left because I knew I would have to begin making money of my own. I wanted to be a merchant carrier – running messages and small packages between the islands, but it was hard to drum up business being new on the island.”

“And being a former pirate.” Cap’n Slappy added.

“Aye, sir. That too.” Spencer’s face turned very sad. “And when the money went, so did Mahren – right back to … to …” The young man couldn’t bring himself to say it and Slappy could see that he was still in love with her despite her ill use of him.

“And you’d take her back in a heart-beat if only she would return to you.” Slappy said warmly.

Spencer nearly wept as he said, “Aye, sir! I would! I know it’s foolish, but I love her so!”

Cap’n Slappy sighed deeply and on the exhale let the words, “Ah, young love!” wistfully escape his lips.

“Lad, I’m going to do you a … what is it the young people say these days? … Ah, yes, … a ‘solid.’ I’m going to do you a solid, me young bucko!” As he spoke, he balled up his right fist leaving the knuckle of his middle finger locked firmly above the others like a point on an otherwise blunt arrow. As Spencer lifted his head to see just what Cap’n Slappy meant by a “solid,” his eyes grew wide as Cap’n Slappy’s fist drove that knuckle into the center of his forehead as if the hand of Great Neptune, Himself, was knocking on the door of Spencer’s head.

“Ouch! Jesus, Slappy!” Years in the service of Cap’n Slappy gave Spencer the right to some familiarity with the Captain – like a nephew being taken to the wood shed by his uncle – the boy called out in a familiarity born from pain.

Slappy maintained an innocent composure. “Did that hurt?” he asked.

“Yes!” Spencer replied, feeling the area to see if a lump had yet raised.

“Did it hurt more than losing your love?” Slappy pressed.

Spencer thought about the two kinds of pain he was now feeling and knew that of the two, the loss of love weighed more heavily on his heart. “No.” He replied to Slappy’s question.

With sudden violence, another blow came to the center of the young man’s forehead from Slappy’s calloused middle knuckle.

“JESUS!” Spencer recoiled in pain again.

“How about now? Does one hurt more than the other or do they hurt the same – or what?” Slappy really pressed the young man now.

“That really hurts!” Spencer had no idea what answer Cap’n Slappy was looking for.

“Are you sure, lad? I can do it again if you’re unclear about the results.” Slappy drew back his fist – knuckle extended.

“No! No! It hurts!” Spencer protested.

Slappy sat back down on his bed and spoke calmly. “Let me ask you something lad. Did you know that it hurt after the first time I knocked ye in the head?”

“Aye.” Spencer kept his hand protectively on his forehead – just in case there was another “lesson” coming.

“So, if I had offered to smash you in the head that second time, what would you have told me?” Slappy looked intently at the young man and could see that he was finally catching on.

“I would have said, ‘No, thank you.’” Spencer’s face showed that he was still sad, but wiser.

Slappy got up and ran his finger along some books tucked neatly into shelves that were built into the walls of his cabin. He spoke as he searched. “In Hindistan, the locals speak of a god who has three eyes. Ah! Here it is …” Slappy found the book and began leafing through the pages. He continued, “Two of his eyes are just like ours – they see the world around us, and tell us if it is sunny or rainy – night or day. But that’s it. They provide knowledge, but that’s it.” Finally finding what he was looking for he opened the book and placed it on the desk in front of Spencer who looked at the illustration of Lord Shiva – one part of the Hindu trinity of gods.

“He’s blue.” Spencer noted.

“Don’t be a racialist.” Slappy snapped. “Do ye see those markings in the middle of his forehead?”

“Aye.” Spencer replied.

“No. EYE!” Slappy corrected. “That’s his third eye.”

“It doesn’t LOOK like an eye.” Spencer said rubbing his own forehead.

“That’s because its function isn’t in the physical world, lad.” Slappy explained as he poked his finger gently into the growing lump on the young man’s forehead. “It shows ye wisdom – helps ye be smart. Most people’s pain is brought on by themselves when they don’t see the truth of what’s around ‘em.”

Spencer thought for a moment. “Haven’t you been married like a hundred times?”

Slappy laughed. “Well, I don’t know if it’s been a hundred, but it’s more than I care to count! I wish some old bastard had woke up me third eye when I was yer age – and saved meself some grief.”

Suddenly, Slappy was struck with an idea. “Ye say ye have a wee pinnace. What kind o’ shape is she in?”

“She’s yar, Cap’n – and swift. But she’s for sale because Mr. Chumbucket signed me on for duty aboard The Festering Boil.” Spencer was now determined to leave his former life behind.

“I can’t sign you on as an able seaman.” Slappy said matter-of-factly.

Spencer’s countenance sank. “Does that mean I’m a cabin boy again?”

Slappy laughed. “No. Ye’re a Captain! Ye have yer own ship! But I hereby invite ye, Captain Spencer LeHammer, of the pirate ship – What’s the name o’ yer ship?”

Mahren’s Smile” Spencer said – almost forgetting the lesson he’d just been taught.

Slappy shook his head and formed his fist into the “pointy-middle-knuckle-of-pain” teaching tool.

Spencer quickly added, “But that’s not a solid name. It’s easy to change. For now, I could just call it, ‘Boat.’”

“Well, she’s got to have a name, lad!” Slappy insisted.

Spencer thought carefully for a moment. After a moment, his face brightened. “Lord Shiva’s Eye!” Spencer pronounced decisively.

“ … of the pirate ship, Lord Shiva’s Eye to sail in partnership with The Festering Boil under our (cough) Letter of Marque and attack Spanish shipping lanes – specifically, the famous Treasure Train.” Slappy quickly wrote a note and handed it to Spencer who could barely speak from excitement coupled with a splitting headache.

“Take this to Ol’ Chumbucket and he’ll assign ye a crew and help ye get rigged and ready.” Slappy handed Spencer the note and extended his hand. The lad shook it enthusiastically and said, “Thank you, sir. Thank you so much! For everything!” And with that, he bolted out of the Captain’s Quarters in search of Ol’ Chumbucket.

Slappy turned around and picked up the book from his desk. After leafing through a couple of pages, he returned it to its place on the shelf and laid back on his bed.

“You can come out now, boy!” Slappy called as he closed his eyes.

A secret door, one of many in the Captain’s Quarters, opened and out popped his current cabin boy, young Gabriel. He was accompanied by Cap’n Slappy’s pet monkey named, “Strumpet.”

Gabriel took his place on the stool in the corner. Strumpet sat on his lap. He thought for a few moments before asking the question he’d been pondering as he listened to the previous conversation.

“Does Spencer really have three eyes?” Gabriel felt his own forehead to see if there was anything bumping up.

Slappy, nearing a state of sleepiness answered, “Aye, lad. But he’s just starting to open it.”

Gabriel took note of the small mirror hanging on the back of the cabin door – the only mirror in the room. He pushed his stool over to the door and climbed up on it to see his reflection. He ran his fingers over his forehead – stretching the skin as tightly as he could to see if he could see his own third eye.

Slappy opened one eye and watched the boy for a moment. Finally, he closed his eye and said, “Ye’ll never see it in a mirror, boy. But when the time comes, it will see you.”

The reflection of Gabriel’s face in the mirror showed his concern. Slappy could see that, so he let him in on a secret.

“It’s just your mind, boy. All this ‘third eye’ stuff is just a fancy way of thinkin’ about yer mind. Some people grow smart – but truly smart people grow wise.” Slappy mused to himself and patted his impressive belly. “And some of us just grow.”

Gabriel smiled and turned back to the mirror where he proceeded to make silly faces and practice lifting his eyebrows up and down.

Friday, April 14, 2006


The Havana Caper - 1

The Havana Caper – 1

A haze had settled over the island like a wet rag, turning the sun into a sickly yellow disk that barely penetrated the thick air. Mist clung to every surface in the harbor town and the surrounding waters.

Out of the haze sailed a ship, its black hull and red trim cutting through the choppy waters as it drove to its anchoring place. Though a Dutch flag fluttered from the transom, the few who could see the ship through the limited visibility weren’t fooled. Odds favored it being a pirate, like so many ships that plied these waters around Port Royal in this, the Golden Age of Piracy. And it happened that this ship was well known to all the buccaneering cognoscenti of Port Royal.

The Festering Boil.

The Boil was something of a legend in these waters. Besides being a very successful pirate ship, its crew was far more stable than most of the amorphous contingents to be found on the account; many of the Boil’s sailors and officers had sailed together for more than a decade.

The ship was also the center of strange and wonderful rumors. There was talk of a mysterious voyage to the Far East just a year earlier which had apparently brought in little booty but which the denizens of dockside taverns still whispered about. And now the ship was back from a sudden trip to Maracaibo, at the southern end of the Caribbean. They had left hurriedly six weeks earlier, and reports had come in from various locales of explosions, danger, mutiny, magic and death.

Now, just as suddenly as it had departed, the Boil was back. The report that she’d been spotted crossing Portland Bight the previous evening had been enough to get tongues wagging. Now there she was dropping anchor in the harbor.

To any who could see the pirate ship clearly through the thick air, it would have been even more surprising when they spotted the man standing so eagerly at the rail, awaiting the first opportunity to disembark. He was wearing a dress uniform of the English Navy. A rather torn and bedraggled one, to be sure, somewhat soiled and ill fitting, but clearly a uniform that had received all the attention that could be given in the confines of a pirate ship.

Mandrake Bulwer Pondicherry Tharp, lieutenant in the king’s navy and scion of an illustrious naval family, had no possessions at all but his saber, pistol and the clothes on his back, cleaned and mended as best he could manage. Everything else had been lost when the crew of HMS Tigershark had mutinied. How he had ended up aboard a pirate ship and what he had learned there about himself was something he’d rather not discuss or even think about. Right now, he just wanted off this ship. As Port Royal was an English port with an English governor, this was not just his first chance to disembark, it was his best.

The cry “all ashore what’s going ashore,” found Tharp eagerly at the railing, the first to clamber down the side into the longboat for the short trip to the quay. He was rather disgruntled to see that his shipmates for the voyage were none other than the captain and his ubiquitous companion.

Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket made themselves comfortable in the stern sheets and paid no attention to the officer perched in the bow, and he ignored them. As four crewmen rowed the boat in, the two discussed their plans for the brief stay in harbor.

“How many crewmen do you think we’ll need?” Chumbucket asked.

“I’d be comfortable with another 20,” Slappy said. “That’ll give us plenty of hands to put a crew on any prize we take and still be able to fight both sides of the ship.”

“Alright. I’ll start at the Dockside Doxie and see if there’s anyone there this early in the morning …”

“There’s always plenty of sailors at the Doxie, day or night. Just make sure they can stand up and make a mark on the ship’s roll before they sign on.”

“Don’t worry,” Chumbucket reassured him. “We won’t shove off with any walking cadavers. If I can’t find what I need there I’ll stroll down the pier. There ought to be plenty of good hands who’d rather take their shot at the treasure fleet than suck rope on a merchantman.”

Slappy nodded agreement, then said, “In the meantime I’m off to Hogshead Revisited where I should find the local Brotherhood officers – see if they have any more information on the Spanish. Maybe one or two would like to join us for a shot at ‘em.”

As they neared the pier, the pirates noticed the dock seemed unusually crowded.

“There’s the Red Dog, the Kraaken, the Polliwog, the Sudden Surprise, the Sunny Delight,” Chumbucket ticked off the ships as the longboat slid by.

“And what’s that one out there at the jetty?” Slappy said. “Can’t say I like the looks of that. That’s Royal Navy or I’m Davy Jones and all the little Joneses.”

Tharp was pointedly not paying attention to them, which meant he’d heard every word. At the mention of the navy he sat and scanned the water till his eyes fixed on the ship, a frigate. A smile flitted across his face. When they arrived at the pier Tharp scrambled out and turned on his heel to leave, but Slappy stopped him.

“So, lad. Yer off?”

Tharp paused, but didn’t turn.

“Well boyo, I won’t say it’s been fun havin’ ye on board, because it hasn’t, but I’m glad we were able to be of service. Give my best to yer father when you see him.”

Tharp turned with a cold look.

“I will be saying as little as possible to my father about all this. It is no more a subject he’d want to hear about than I wish to dwell on.”

Slappy took the insult with a grin.

“Look lad,” he started.

“Don’t call me ‘lad!’” Tharp spat back. “I’m not your lad or anything else, you ocean-going parasite.”

Chumbucket took a step forward to intercede. He had seen men receive savage beatings with Slappy’s fists and forehead for less than what Tharp had said. To his surprise, Slappy did nothing, just eyed the youth coldly for a long moment, then took a step closer to the young man.

“Lieutenant Tharp,” he said. “You’ll find your voyage through life a lot easier if you keep your eyes open and are honest about what you see with ‘em. What have I done to you, other than save your life a couple of times? A reasonable person might wonder if you’re really mad at me, or mad at your father for not telling you he had a black sheep brother, or maybe even mad at yourself. A nice fancy pedigree is a lovely thing on land, but at sea the only thing that matters is what a man does. And I think what I’ve done has merited a thanks from you, not a tantrum. What do you say?”

Slappy held out his hand. Tharp opened his mouth as if to reply, then snapped it shut with an audible click. He stared at Slappy a moment longer, then spun on his heel, and stalked off.

“So long Junior! See you at the next family reunion,” Slappy called after him, then chuckled. “Shouldn’t have done that, but he’s just like his old man. There’s nothin’ easier to prick holes in than a nice starched shirt. Oh well, to business. See you back aboard in a few hours.”

The two men went off in their different directions, Chumbucket in search of sailors in various waterfront dives, and Slappy to the slightly more respectable watering hole where he expected to find the representatives of the Brotherhood of the Coast. His should have been the shorter of the two expeditions, but by mid-afternoon Ol’ Chumbucket had returned to the pier, signaling to the Boil for the longboat, which came in and took the recruits off to the ship while Chumbucket waited for Slappy.

And waited. Two hours passed, and Ol’ Chumbucket finally signaled for the longboat to fetch him when he heard footsteps coming along the dock. He looked and saw the captain.

Followed, Chumbucket was surprised to see, by the familiar figure of Tharp. Both of them seemed in particularly foul moods.

“What’s up?” Chumbucket asked. “And what’s he doing here?”

“Long story. Long, unpleasant story. Totally fucked up long damn story,” Slappy stewed.

Tharp just looked away in disgust.

“Well, are you going to tell me this long fucked up story?” Chumbucket asked.

“Oh, very well. I got to the Hogshead, but there was no one there. No one. Hiram said everyone had been called up at the governor’s office. So I figured, what the hell, I’ll head over there and see what was going on. When I got there I found eight captains from the Brotherhood in the conference room with the governor and another man. And Junior here, of course.”

Tharp glowered. “Would you please not call me that?” he snapped.

“Whatever. Anyway, the other man was Captain Steubing, commander of that frigate we noticed.”

“Not another futile attempt to shut down the Brotherhood is it,” Chumbucket asked.

“Oh no, far from it. He was recruiting them. For a raid. On the coast of Panama. Seems he got someone in the Admiralty to approve a plan to try to wipe out the Spanish on that stretch of the coast and supplant them with English outposts. And he brought with him enough gold to convince eight Brotherhood captains to join him. They were hoping I’d make it nine.”

“You laughed at them, right?” Chumbucket said as they climbed down into the ship’s boat to head back to the Boil.

“No, that wouldn’t have been polite. Some of my best friends were at that table. But I did decline to join them, and told them what I had in mind. Believe me, when some of the fellows heard we were going for the treasure fleet, you could see they wanted to tell Steubing to go to hell and join us. But they’d already signed on, and Steubing had sent Marine squads to each ship to keep them from changing their minds.”

“He isn’t going to try to stop us, is he?” Chumbucket said with concern.

“No. As a matter of fact he loved the plan, thought it would make a great diversion for his own little effort,” Slappy said. “He liked it so much that he made us his official representatives in this venture.”

“You don’t mean … ” Chumbucket interjected in horror.

“I do indeed.”

“He didn’t give you … “

“Oh, he did. He most certainly did. Here it us, right here.”

Slappy held up the offending piece of paper.

“A letter of marque,” Chumbucket said with dread.

“Yes. We are now officially representatives of the crown in its war against Spain, whether we want to be or not.”

“Didn’t you tell him ‘Thanks but we’d sooner have our living entrails eaten by goats?’ After all, it doesn’t change what we’re planning to do. All it does is give the Spanish another reason to be pissed off at us.”

“Yes I did explain exactly that – surprisingly in those very words. But he was insistent, and you know, it’s hard to argue with a man when he’s surrounded by a company of Marines. There’s nothing for it. For now, we’re ‘privateers.’”

“I guess I’d better go back into town and buy myself some fancy silk under breeches,” Chumbucket said.

“Steady on, lad” Slappy said, “It gets better.”

“I take it that’s what Junior is doing here,” Chumbucket said, jerking a thumb at Tharp, who winced at the repeat of the nickname.

“Well, it’s funny you should mention that. When I explained that in our own, unofficial way we’d be able to manage just fine with the treasure fleet, Steubing insisted that we too needed an escort. But he’d already dispatched all his spare troops. So he ordered this fellow along to keep us company, to keep an eye on us. This,” Slappy said, pointing to Tharp, “is a squad of Marines.”

Chumbucket looked at the young man, and his smile slowly turned into a belly laugh.

“Welcome aboard, lieutenant,” he finally said when his laughter subsided.

“How’d you do?” Slappy asked. “We bulk up the crew?

“A little,” Chumbucket said. “although now that I’ve heard your story I know why I was only able to find eight really good sailors, and another six of somewhat suspect credentials. Plus there’s one fellow who was a little reluctant about signing on, but I convinced him. I think it’s worth it.”

“Reluctant? Why? And why do we care about someone who doesn’t want to join the crew?”

“It’s Spencer.”

Slappy stopped short. Spencer was his former cabin boy who two months earlier has been promoted to seaman. In celebration the crew had taken him for his first night at a Port Royal sporting house, and he had fallen in love with the working girl in question and they’d run off together.

“So his love, the girl he left the ship for? What was her name? Daisy? Maisy? Mary?”

“Mahren,” Chumbucket supplied.

“Mahren, right. She was less interested in him than …”

“His share of the swag, yes. When it was gone, apparently so was she. She’s back at Madame Svetlana’s place, I gather.”

“I’ve had more than a few of those. Better than the ones I married, who stuck around after the booty was gone and tried to ‘improve’ me,” Slappy said. “So I assume he’s feeling a little sheepish, a little embarrassed.”

“A little like he’s going to be killed for desertion. I had to give him my solemn word that you wouldn’t.”

“Kill him?” Slappy said with disbelief. “Kill Spencer? No. Look, we were in port after a long mission. The crew had been paid, and though I’d promoted him he’d never actually signed the articles. So he certainly isn’t a deserter. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. ‘A sadder but wiser man’ and all that. I suppose I should have a talk with him.”

“I expect so. I put him in charge of getting the new men organized, and you’ll have to meet them all, of course. But I’d start with Spencer. I told him to wait in your cabin.”

“Right,” Slappy said as the boat pulled alongside the Boil. “Well Lieutenant Tharp, welcome to your new home. I hope you’re very happy aboard the Festering Boil.”

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


A Pirate Tale – A Note to Our Readers

Miss Piggy: “Why are you telling me this?”
Diana Rigg: “It’s basic plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”
From “The Great Muppet Caper”

First, thanks for being our readers.

Second – Don’t worry (or don’t get your hopes up,) we’re going to continue the story.

But, as much fun as we have with it, we have always said that we’re doing the story first and foremost as a writing exercise. We’ve learned a lot already during the writing of the first 240,000 words – like the fact that we can write 240,000 words.

Now we’ve got another goal. In a word, we want to see if we can write a story that might actually be publishable. This means that starting Friday we’re going to continue the adventure, pretty much right where we left off Monday, but in a sense we’ll be starting brand new. We’re going to write it as if it were a brand new book to an audience that mostly doesn’t know us or anything about the crew of the Festering Boil. They don’t know the characters or the history, don’t know who Sawbones is or why he’s so cranky, don’t know why Cementhands is unconscious, why they’ve got a British officer on board or even who Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket are.

So it’ll almost be as if we haven’t written any of this yet. We’re going to continue the story pretty much right where we left off Monday, but we’ll be telling it as if we’re approaching a brand new audience, So we’re asking for a little patience. Because YOU already know what happened to George’s ankle and that Mandrake Tharp is a sanctimonious little prig.

We may adjust a few things, tweak a few details to make the transition a little smoother or clean up things we were unhappy with, but we’re still doing essentially the same story with the same crew in the same Caribbean, which may bear little or no relation to the real one but that’s not the point. The point is we’re having fun with the story, and we’re trying to stretch as writers a bit. We’ll be taking Wednesday off to think through where we’re going, then we’ll be back Friday with a new installment – which will be written as the first in this story arc though you already know we’re after the treasure fleet.

If you like it, let us know. If you don't, please let us know what you think we could do better. And if you're a publisher who wants to send us a chest of gold for the rights to the story – well, who are we to disappoint you?

Monday, April 10, 2006


A Pirate Tale – Part 147 “Brought to You by the Letter, ‘B!’”

“Yo Ho, Butch!” Dogwatch called from the wheel as Black Butch, the ship’s cook, passed on one of his many trips back and forth from the banana storage hold to the galley. “What’s on the menu this evening?”

“Well!” Butch called out with unabashed enthusiasm, “We’ve got a nice banana fondue for starters with a splendid banana-cocoanut dipping sauce – followed by freshly baked banana bread. Then, we’ll follow that up with a choice of shaved banana salad or steaming banana compote-soup. Our main course is fillet of barbequed banana with banana gravy with mashed banana. And for dessert, a very special treat – Black Butch’s Brutal Banana Flambé!”

“That’s ‘Bananatastic!’” Dogwatch called back with as much excitement as his banana-laden body could muster.

In fact, “Bananatastic!” had become the mandatory response for whatever Butch said was for dinner in the past couple of days. The winds had shifted, making The Festering Boil’s course to Port Royal a bit slower than had been predicted. Cap’n Slappy was always one for using the food in danger of spoilage first, so he had directed Butch to use their banana bounty to best advantage. In an effort to buoy the shipmates’ morale during these times of monochromatic dietary compliance, Slappy had once again instigated a whimsical watchword that was supposed to boost spirits while showing appreciation for the current food-stuff-of-choice. But this campaign was no more successful than was his earlier, “Potatorific!” propaganda.

But poor Dogwatch’s feigned banana-fanaticism was wasted in the captain’s absence. He was currently below decks checking on the health of his two out-of-commission men.

“I may have underestimated the damage done to George’s ankle.” Sawbones Burgess confessed to Slappy as they stood over George’s bed – the Greek anxiously insisting that he was fine and ready to return to his duties.

“He tries to put weight on it – but although he tries to hide the pain, it is clearly excruciating for him. It may, in fact, be broken.” The doctor shook his head as he pondered that thought.

“Well, how would we know for sure?” Slappy asked.

“If only there was some device that could illuminate his ankle to the extent that the flesh around it would appear to be opaque and the bone visible – and perhaps capture that image on some sort of chart or graphic device that we could examine closely and see whether or not some sort of treatment might remedy the fracture – if there is a fracture.” Burgess mused quietly to himself after making this statement.

Cap’n Slappy thought for a moment then snapped his fingers. “I have some candles in my cabin that I’ve saved just in case we come across a ‘party ship’ and I have the opportunity to bed a couple of playful and cooperative strumpets who aren’t hung up on ‘roles.’

“That’s entirely too much information.” Burgess pointed out. “But just out of curiosity, how many candles do you have?”

“Thirteen!” Slappy said still wistfully imagining that glorious night-to-come. Then, shaking it off asked, “How many do you need for this bone illumination?”

Doc Burgess seemed to be running the numbers in his head and finally spat out, “Fourteen Million, Three Hundred and Thirty-Seven Thousand, Nine Hundred and Twenty-Six.”

Cap’n Slappy rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “I don’t think we have that many on the ship.”

“I suspected as much.” Doc Burgess said, “So, I went ahead and immobilized his lower leg in these bandages that I soaked in plaster of Paris that I took from Cementhands McCormack’s arts and crafts workshop. That way, even if the bone is broken, it will theoretically fuse back if we can keep this stubborn man stationary for a while longer.”

“You have your orders, George.” Cap’n Slappy said with a sympathetic smile. “And just as a reminder, let me add my signature to this plaster bandage the good doctor has your leg wrapped in.” With that, Slappy took a quill and ink and penned the words,

George! Get well soon! That’s an order!
Cap’n Mortimer Slappy

“Speaking of Cementhands …” Slappy began to ask – but Doc Burgess just motioned for him to follow him to the infirmary.

They arrived to find the still sleeping McCormack lounging comfortably in a hammock. Suspiciously, there was a small pile of banana peels on the floor beneath him.

“Who’s been dumping their banana peels by McCormack’s bunk!” Slappy demanded.

“That’s what’s odd.” Burgess said. “He’s been sleeping for over a week now and I’ve been feeding him watery gruel through this hummingbird feeder – but whenever I leave him alone for any length of time and return there is always a pile of banana peels right here!”

“That is odd.” Slappy agreed.

“Aye, Cap’n. I wonder how those banana peels got here!” Burgess mused.

“No. Cementhands is clearly either faking being asleep or sleep walking and feeding. What’s truly odd is that you would have a hummingbird feeder on a pirate ship. Why is that?” Slappy was lost in this curiosity.

“I have it just in case.” Doc Burgess replied

“In case what? In case we are set upon by a swarm of sea-going hungry hummingbirds?” Slappy asked in disbelief.

“No.” The doctor was now somewhat testy. “In case we find ourselves in a tropical paradise with flora and fauna as yet unnamed. I’ve always fancied naming a hummingbird after my Aunt Beatrice.”

“The Beatrice Burgess’ Buzzing Birdie?” Slappy mused whimsically.

“There are worse names!” Burgess shot back.

Slappy laughed and waved his hand as he left – “No. No there aren’t.”

He was still smiling when he came above deck and saw Ol’ Chumbucket gazing intently through his spy glass at an object off the port bow.

“What is it?” Slappy asked.

“See for yourself.” Chumbucket handed him the glass and pointed in the direction he should look. After a couple of moments, Slappy saw what was clearly a pirate ship flying a jolly roger he had not seen before.

“A skull centered between four sets of bones forming the letter “B” at each corner of the flag.” Slappy pondered what it could mean. “Beatrice Burgess’ Buzzing Birdie?”

Chumbucket looked at Slappy in disbelief – having not been privy to the previous discussion.

“No, Cap’n. I think rather it stands for ‘Bawdy Boys B-Team Buccaneers.’” Chumbucket suggested.

“You could be right – but just in case, we should ask Sawbones to have his bird feeder ready.” Slappy chuckled to himself – and truly, he chuckled alone as the joke was completely lost on his friend. After a moment of solitary amusement he assumed a more serious tone. “Would you be so kind as to call the men to battle stations, Mr. Chumbucket?”

“With pleasure!” Ol’ Chumbucket said with a smile – then, turning toward the crew called out, “Battle Stations!”

Doc Burgess could be heard arguing with George in the infirmary. The first mate was insisting his presence was needed on deck – the doctor called for Ol’ Chumbucket to set him straight.

“Look, George.” Ol’ Chumbucket began. “This is the Bawdy Boys B-Team – we can handle them. Save your ankle for when we have to go up against their A-Team.”

Chumbucket looked over at Cementhands who was sleeping blissfully with a smile on his face.

“Take a page out of McCormack’s book and rest for a while.” Ol’ Chumbucket added in a tone that clearly denoted that he would not be argued with.

Above deck was abuzz with activity – the cannons and muskets were readied and those pirates fit for fighting we busily arming themselves. Dogwatch skillfully maneuvered The Festering Boil into position to fire the first volley.

The Bawdy Boys B-Team at first tried to out-run the Boil – but she didn’t have the wind for it – nor the skill. A stout voice called out, “Fire!” and the port side guns of The Boil roared to life in a cloud of smoke and sparks. A moment’s silence and then the crack of timbers as several of the cannonballs struck home.

Dogwatch brought The Boil about, presenting her starboard cannons to the enemy who had yet to make a coherent battle-worthy move. A second volley followed by a second cracking of iron against wood and Dogwatch brought her about again.

“The Boil must look like a swaggering drunk itchin’ for a fight to those bastards!” Two Patch observed from his dizzying post atop the mizzenmast.

When the enemy finally did send a volley toward The Boil, they had so badly estimated her position; the balls fell helplessly into her wake.

A few moments later, the two ships came crashing together and Ol’ Chumbucket led the first boarding party in a vicious assault while Cap’n Slappy held back a second wave in case of a counter attack.

Ol’ Chumbucket was now in his element – two cutlasses flashing in the sun as he cut his way through the weak defenses toward the center of the ship. Leftenant Keeling at his side commented, “These aren’t much in the way of fighters, are they?”

This was mostly true. But as they reached the heart of the ship, there he was – Devilish Bob Blackthorne. He was definitely not B-Team material.

“He must have been given his first command – and a very green crew.” Chumbucket thought to himself as he watched Devilish Bob fight ferociously – putting a hurt to several attacking Boilers.

In a matter of moments, Devilish Bob’s crew was all but dispatched, but the veteran Bawdy Boy had plenty of fight left in him.

“He’s mine!” Ol’ Chumbucket snarled as he charged Bob headlong. The two twisted and lunged as they fought across the deck of the ship. The remaining Boilers cleared a path for the two combatants.

“You might as well give up!” Ol’ Chumbucket called to his opponent. “We have defeated your crew and you’ve nothing left to fight for!”

“Chumbucket! You know me better than that!” was all Bob would say and then throw himself back into the fight.

“I was hoping you’d say that!” Chumbucket replied. Devilish Bob had always been a splendid fighter and a brutal pirate. He was never one to show mercy and it was gratifying for Ol’ Chumbucket in this fight that he sought none either. As he got tired, his fighting got sloppy and he finally took a swipe at Ol’ Chumbucket’s head with his cutlass which the crafty Boiler ducked and heard the “thwunk” as it sunk into the mizzenmast. In a quick motion, Ol’ Chumbucket lunged into Bob and drove his cutlass through his devilish belly. He growled, “One less Bawdy Boy!” as he twisted the blade and watched the life drain from Devilish Bob’s face.

A cheer went up from the Boilers as Bob’s lifeless body fell to the deck.

Cap’n Slappy never got off The Festering Boil. He saw what an easy time the first wave was having and decided this would be a good time to sit down on a warm cannon and give himself a pedicure.

He called across to his victorious friend, Ol’ Chumbucket, “Well done! How did that feel?”

“That felt good!” Ol’ Chumbucket replied catching his breath. “Nothing like a good fight for you life to get the blood going!”

“Or flowing!” Cap’n Slappy replied, “As it did for Ol’ Devilish Bob, there!” Slappy chuckled to himself – he hated Devilish Bob, too. “Have the lads clear away the dead and see if they have anything worth keeping. Let’s take their ship into Port Royal and see what he shipwright will offer.”

Sure enough, they found two large chests filled with gold and jewels – a nice haul particularly before heading into Port Royal. At the exact moment they discovered the chests, George sat up in his bed and called out – “Now THAT’S what I’ve been smellin’!”

Thursday, April 06, 2006


A Pirate Tale 146

The captain’s eyes grew wide with disbelief as the pirate ship bore down on him. “What now?” he wondered.

The Festering Boil pulled within very short pistol range and the ship heaved to. A swarm of pirates clambered into the longboats and were over in a trice, scrambling up the side of the ship they’d captured without firing a shot.

“¿Los caballeros, cómo puedo ayudarle?” he asked. “I am Captain Miranda of El Barco De Plátano and you are welcome aboard.”

“I’ll handle this,” Slappy said. “Donde est la … gold, what’s the word for gold? Oh yeah, donde est orina?”

“Orina?” The man was baffled. “You want to know where my urine is?”

“No, that’s not right,” Slappy said.

“The color’s almost right,” Chumbucket offered unhelpfully.

“Especially if you’ve been drinking,” George added, laughing.

“Knock it off. We’re supposed to be frightening, not comical. What’s the word for gold?”

“Gold? No, en español, gold is oro,” Miranda supplied.

“Excellent. Thank you. Donde est oro.”

“No, it’s ‘está,’ not est. ‘¿Dónde está la oro?’”

“Oh really? I thought it was ‘est,’” Slappy said.

“No, I think that’s French,” George said.

“Italian?” Chumbucket guessed.

“Belay that! This isn’t a linguistics seminar, it’s a pirate raid. Where’s the gold?”


“Si,” Slappy said, pointing his blunderbuss at the captain. “Gold.”

“We have no gold.”

“No gold? Impossible. This is a Spanish treasure ship.”

“No, I told you when you came aboard. This is El Barco De Plátano. The banana boat. We bring a shipment of bananas from Chagres to Caracas.”


“Si. Bananas. Plátanos.”

Slappy turned to look at George and Chumbucket reproachfully. George shuffled his feet.

“Well, I thought I smelled SOME thing.”

“Oh, si, the smell is very bad. I don’t think I’m gonna get these bananas to market. We got delayed by that damn treasure fleet.”

“What? The treasure fleet?” Slappy asked.

“Si. Off Santa Catalina.” Captain Miranda explained. Two days out of port they had run into a large flota, the treasure fleet. It was sorting itself out after a three-week stay at Panama and getting ready to run north for its rendezvous off Havana with the western arm of the fleet. Enmeshed among the fleet’s 50 ships of varying sizes and detained by the security screen, they had lost two weeks, allowing their cargo of fruit to get more ripe than was altogether desireable.

“Look at these,” Miranda complained. “They should still be green. Now they’re already ripe. By the time we get to Caracas they’ll be dark brown, and I don’t think Caracas will need THAT much banana bread. Would you fellows do me a favor and steal them from me? They’re ripe now. The owner will understand if they’ve been pirated, but he’ll fire me if I’m simply late and the fruit is spoiled. And all because of that fleet.”

“That’s excellent,” Slappy said, then added more cautiously, “I mean about the bananas. Not that we’re interested in the treasure fleet. Oh, no. Not us. We just love bananas. No need to mention to anyone that we even discussed the treasure fleet. No, I’m just happy to hear they’re on schedule. Not that I know their schedule. But I like bananas, so that worked out for us. Chumbucket? George? Go below and check the ship’s log. Try to get a fix on where and when the fleet was spotted. Not that we care.”

Meanwhile Slappy organized his crew to transfer the bananas from El Barco’s hold to the Festering Boil’s deck. The work was exhausting, the hold hot and fragrant with super-concentrated odor of ripe banana. In short order the load was transferred and George and Chumbucket came back on deck with satisfied smiles. “We have what we need.”

“Let’s be off then. Captain Miranda, you’ve been a most cooperative victim. Thanks for the bananas. Everyone back to the Boil!”

Aboard ship, Chumbucket had rolled out the chart and noted the spots both where the fleet had been and where the Boil was.

“Seems they’re a little behind schedule,” he observed.

“Perfect,” Slappy judged. “At their likely speed, it’ll take them the better part of three weeks to work up the coast and cross towards Cuba. We’re – what? – five days out of Port Royal. One day in port to pick up any additional news and maybe sign on a few more hands, and another five days to Punta el Cajon. We’ll be in position in plenty of time. This’ll work.”

“Aye, it should,” Chumbucket said cautiously. “If nothing untoward happens.”

“We’re just sailing to Jamaica,” Slappy protested. “What could possibly go wrong?”

A crash resounded from overhead. The two pirates didn’t say anything, just gave each other a look, then rose to go see how fate had rewarded Slappy’s question.

When they got on deck, they found George sitting amid a wreckage of bananas while Dogwatch gently tugged at his boot. They also found Leftenant Keeling, Wilford Glump and Oscar trying to hold back Wellington, who seemed to have his heart set on thrashing a red-faced Mandrake Tharp.

“He tried to kill George!” Wellington shouted.

“I did not,” Tharp retorted hotly.

“Relax Wellington,” George said. “He wasn’t trying to kill me. He just was being a prat.”

“Would someone tell me what’s going on?” Slappy roared.

The crew had been working to get the bananas, hundreds and hundreds of them still on their long stalks, stowed below, out of the sun. It wasn’t fun work. Tharp had stood with his back to the rail, watching and occasionally grabbing another banana to eat.

“You know boy,” George had said. “We could use a hand getting these stowed.”

“You certainly could,” Tharp said laconically, staring back at George.

George waited, took a deep breath, then spoke again, firmly.

“Perhaps you’d be willing to help,” he said.

“Perhaps not. That looks fairly menial. The sort of thing a gentleman isn’t cut out for. Perhaps when I see something more in my line I’ll pitch in,” Tharp said.

“George’s eyes narrowed. “You know, this isn’t a cruise ship and I’m not Julie your cruise director. “

“I know precisely what type of ship this is, and that’s why I’m not willing to lend a hand,” Tharp said. He had hissed this at George, but those nearby, though they may not have caught the words, were certainly aware of the tone.

Tharp didn’t care. He had smiled at George, turned, tossing the peel of his banana over his shoulder as he did so, and walked away. George strode after him to correct the damage the young man’s attitude might do before the crew took such a dislike to him that someone helped him overboard. But as he followed he stepped on the discarded banana peel just as the ship gave a slight roll. His foot shot out from under him and he caromed across the deck into Dogwatch and Wellington, each of whom had a stalk with a hundred or more bananas slung over his back. They both toppled over and bananas and both sailors ended up on top of George.

Dogwatch got George’s boot off and Sawbones Burgess was bending down examining his ankle. “It’s sprained, but it doesn’t look broken. Just stay off it for a couple of days and you should be fine before we reach Port Royal,” the doctor said.

“Cap’n, want me to dispose of this excess baggage,” Wellington said, jerking his thumb at Tharp for emphasis although his tone had made it clear enough he wasn’t talking about bananas.

“No, now, just stop,” George said. “He didn’t mean any harm, and no permanent damage was done. I’m fine.” George stood, and almost immediately sat back down with a grimace of pain. “Well, maybe in a couple of days.”

“Get to yer cabin and I’ll be down with the rum,” Slappy told the mate. “In the meantime, we’re short a valuable hand. I won’t speak of fault, but you’re clearly the reason lad. So you’re going to help out in his stead. Dogwatch! Get Lt. Tharp a mop and a holystone. The rest of you finish stowing this fruit below. Tharp, you will see to it that the spoiled bananas are dumped overboard, and the deck swabbed and holystoned until it shines. And when I say you’ll see to it, Imean you’ll do it. Understood? Since you’re a member of the navy, you should have a great appreciation for how a deck can be made to sparkle. And, to keep your interest in your work, I’ll have Leftenant Keeling keep an eye on you. Keeling, make sure to bring your cat. Everyone understand? ”

Tharp’s mouth opened once or twice, but no sound came out. He looked at Slappy’s stern visage (he hadn’t seen such a look since his father the admiral had last rebuked him for a trifle – maybe there was something to this uncle business after all.) Then he looked at the rest of the crew staring at him sullenly, and noticed Keeling unlimbering his whip.

“Hand me the mop,” Tharp said.


**Personal and Private Log of Mandrake Bulwer Pondicherry Tharp**

Well, it didn’t take long for the crew to show their colors. After they stole a cargo from those poor merchants, they tried to press me into service to conceal their ill-gotten cargo. I naturally resisted, but the brutes forced me into helping. It was my lot to cover up the commission of their crime by removing any trace of the act from the decks. As difficult as it was, I like to think I handled it in a fashion that would do credit to the service. The deck gleamed like that of a first-rate man o’war when I was finished. But oh! My back!

Even their leader, Slappy, behaved detestably. If what he says about our relationship is true he really ought to have been willing to take my side, but no, he was as bad as the rest of them, forcing me into menial labor. I ask no special privileges. As an officer of the English Navy I have certainly done my share of hard work at sea. But I draw the line at participating in felonies. Not that that mattered to any of them, especially Slappy. I guess blood isn’t everything. He certainly seems to have fallen to a level far below the station of his supposed birth.

I do regret that my falling out today involved George, the master and first mate of this ship. He seems a good sort, for a Greek, solid and reliable, and from what I’ve seen, a surprisingly good seaman. Yet he couldn’t see that my actions were based on principle, not self-interest. Still, I somehow want him to like me.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


A Pirate Tale – Part 145 “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”

As The Festering Boil slipped out of the harbor and headed toward the gulf Cap’n Slappy called an all-crew meeting to discuss their current course and what they hoped to accomplish.

“Take a look at your copy of the previous meeting's minutes.” Cap’n Slappy bellowed so that every crew person could hear him. “See if you have any corrections, additions, deletions, malefactions.” He chuckled at his own joke.

Two-Patch raised his hand.

“The Chair recognizes Mr. Two-Patch.” Cap’n Slappy declared boldly.

“It says in the minutes that my mother had a miscarriage. I don’t think that’s right.”

Cap’n Slappy scanned down the minutes to see what the old pirate was talking about. “I believe the word you’re confusing is ‘Miscreant.’” The Cap’n explained. “It says your twin brother is a ‘miscreant’ and warns others not to loan him money while we are in Port Royal – where your brother lives … if that’s what you can call what he does.”

Two-Patch laughed to himself. “Oh, that Lionel! Then mother hasn’t had a miscarriage?”

Cap’n Slappy stared at the very, very old pirate in disbelief. Surely his mother had been decades dead. “No. I’m relatively certain your mother hasn’t had a miscarriage in … how old are you and Lionel?”

“Eighty-three years young!” Two-Patch declared, pumping a withered fist into the air.

There was a full three seconds while everyone stared at the old fellow – mouths agape.

“Then it’s been at least eighty three years, hasn’t it? And bringing the two of you into the world was just a miscarriage against the Laws of Nature! Moving on.” Slappy hated to get bogged down on the minutes from the last meeting, but once one person started to gripe, others quickly joined in.

“That’s not how you spell, ‘expectorant!’”

“I believe the vote was tabled due to lack of interest!”

“I don’t see Doc Burgess’ request for foot powder here anywhere!”

“Did anyone take note about my proposal that we all wear chartreuse uniforms?”

“I made a splendid joke about a mermaid and an octopus – but I don’t see it in the minutes!”

Cap’n Slappy waved his arms in the air trying to regain control of the meeting. When that failed, he had young Gabriel bring him his blunderbuss which he fired into the air. Order was restored.

“Reload that.” He said to the lad as he handed him back the big gun. “Now, if the griping is at an end, I’d like to see if there are any additions to the agenda.”

“Where’s Cementhands McCormack?” one of the pirates called out.

“He’s still resting after his narcotic-driven adventure through the ‘Inescapable Maze of Despair, Atrophy, Insanity and Death.’ Does nobody read their staff bulletins?” Slappy snapped somewhat testily.

“If the maze was inescapable – how did you escape?” another pirate asked.

“Through cunning and instinct – plus McCormack’s use of a controlled substance which seemed to give him other-worldly awareness.” Slappy sighed, trying to regain patience and control.

“Well then it wasn’t ‘inescapable’ – was it?” another voice chimed in.

Still another suggested, “They ought to call it – ‘The Maze of Despair, Atrophy, Insanity and Death that is Very Difficult to Escape From – But You Can If the Right Set of Circumstances Are In Place.’”

Slappy stared into the sea of pirate faces and tried to calm himself by whisking himself mentally off to his “Happy Place.” And at this moment – The Inescapable Maze of Despair, Atrophy, Insanity and Death WAS his happy place. He quickly shook it off and tried to positively note the suggestion.

“Splendid! I’ll pass that along to our human-sacrificing captors next December when I send them a Christmas card. Anything else?”

“Why do we have a British officer on board? – That doesn’t seem very piratical.” Wilford Glump, a steady pirate who didn’t often bring attention to himself asked. As he did, he gestured toward young Mandrake as he stood off to the side of the meeting.

“This is Admiral Tharp’s son and we are returning him to his father in England.” Slappy asserted in a matter-of-fact tone that suggested that he had explained all there was to know about the situation. However, the chorus of follow-up questions quickly began.

“Why are we doing that?”

“Why don’t we just kill him?”

“Will there be a hefty ransom involved?”

“Why does he look so much like Dogwatch?”

Before Cap’n Slappy could say anything, young Mandrake spoke up. “Because your captain is my uncle!”

A hush fell over the crowd as they started putting the pieces together. “Does that mean you are Admiral Tharp’s brother?”

Slappy’s eyes bulged as he looked to Ol’ Chumbucket for an idea. He got a shrug of the shoulders instead.

Finally, Slappy just began blurting things out.

“Brothers! Sisters! Nephews! – this young man belongs to a religious order that – …”

“I belong to no religious order!” Mandrake asserted.

Slappy continued over the top of him. “ … that is so secret – they all have to deny it even exists! But in their order, we are all related! Cousins! Aunts! Grandparents! Step Children! And when you think about it – we are, all of us, one big family!” Slappy gestured to Wellington Peddicord, “It matters not the color of our skin! For we are all brothers and sisters – second cousins twice removed! Grand Aunts!”

Slappy moved quickly to Mandrake’s side and through his arm around the young man’s shoulder. “And beyond the ransom or the fact that his father can do us favors or the logic of just having one more friend in the British navy – this young man has taught us the nature of our relationships with one another. Therefore, brothers, sisters, half-siblings, let us go forth in the bonds of family love and take good care of one another! This meeting is adjourned!”

There was a smattering of applause and one pirate yelled, “Thank you brother Slappy!”

Dogwatch finally made an appearance – he had been below deck helping Doc Burgess give Cementhands a sponge bath which involved not only sponges and soap – but an complicated structure of pulleys and poles designed by Salty Jim the ship’s carpenter.

“Sorry I’m late, Cap’n!” Dogwatch said as he joined Slappy and Mandrake. “Did I miss anything?”

Mandrake was struck hard by the likeness between the two of them – but Dogwatch hardly seemed to take notice.

“Your orders, Cap’n?” he asked.

“Take us north and put Two-Patch on lookout – let’s see if we can’t spot a treasure train straggler.” Slappy said.

“Aye-aye, Cap’n!” Dogwatch said with a grin and sped off quickly to take the helm.

Mandrake was still dumbfounded.

“That was your first real good look at him, wasn’t it?” Slappy asked – almost gently.

”Aye.” Was all that the young man could muster for a moment, but then he observed. “He didn’t seem to notice the resemblance.”

“Probably because he hasn’t seen a mirror in years.” Slappy mused. “We pirates have priorities beyond vanity.”

“Like villainy.” Mandrake sneered.

Cap’n Slappy smiled at him and shook his head. “Judge not, my boy!” Then, he slapped him on the back and started to walk away, but stopped. “Oh, and stop telling the lads you’re my nephew – it doesn’t reflect well on either of us. You have the run of the ship – make yourself useful – and failing that, make yourself at home.”

Slappy walked away singing a hymn. “Blest Be the Ties That Bind – Our Hearts in Christian Love – The Fellowship of Kindred Hearts Is Like to That Above!”


After the meeting, Ol’ Chumbucket and George took a few moments to enjoy a couple of cigars they’d picked up in Maracaibo.

“Can you smell that, Bucket?” George asked.

“You mean McCormack’s sponge bath?” Ol’ Chumbucket chuckled.

“No. Not that – Can you smell the plunder?” George took a deep drag on his cigar and let the smoke whirl around his mouth before puffing out perfect smoke rings.

Chumbucket breathed in the air – trying to catch a whiff of what George was talking about. He felt a slight stinging sensation in his nostrils – the smell of gold.

“Aye! She’s out there – a wee lost little lamb and she’s got precious cargo.” Chumbucket smiled.

“Aye!” George agreed. “She’s there – just to the north. I can smell her.”

“SHIP AHOY!” Two Patch called across the decks.

George took another deep drag of his cigar and smiled.

“Now THAT’S music to my ears!” Ol’ Chumbucket smiled – then drew in another drag on his cigar.

There was no rush – they were back in familiar territory. Once again – there was pirate work to do.

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