Tuesday, June 12, 2007


The Havana Caper – 45

“And just what do you suggest we do?” Ol’ Chumbucket asked, feigning nonchalance as he quietly counted the gun ports on the pursuing Princess. He was concerned because Slappy sometimes seemed guided less by a cool calculation of the circumstances and odds than by a bellicose sense of machismo that led him into rash acts. In the heat of combat he had been known to ignore the tactical situation and go into full-on berserker mode. The fact that it usually turned out all right – albeit often with unintended consequences – did not markedly improve Chumbucket’s concern.

“We still have four guns ye say?” Slappy asked, his eyes reddening as the lust for battle crept up on him.


“And that’s a ship of the line with, what …?”

“… 36 guns probably, or, no, looks like they’ve got a couple in the bow as chasers, so call it 38.”

Chumbucket’s comment was made in response to the two puffs of smoke that appeared from the bow of the Princess, followed seconds later by splashes 300 yards astern of the Boil.

“She seems eager to get to close quarters with us and trade blows,” the captain observed.

“And well she might, considering she outguns us more than nine to one,” Chumbucket agreed amiably.

“Hmmmm.” Slappy said. “You know what might work here?”

“I am breathless in anticipation.”

“Running like smoke and oakum.”

“We can do that,” Chumbucket agreed with a sigh or relief.

“Then let’s,” the captain said, his eyes resuming their normal hazel color.

The Festering Boil had cleared the harbor mouth and was standing out to sea with sailors scrambling to raise every scrap of canvas that could be found. The Princess was about a half mile behind, just crossing the bar.

“Due north, Dogwatch!” Slappy shouted to the pirate at the helm. “Let ‘em see our heels!”

A brisk breeze was blowing out of the southeast and the Boil surged ahead, sheets of spray flying up from the bow as she cut through the bright blue water. In the maintop, Saucy Jenny and Wellington Peddicord paused after raising the top gallant.

“That’s everything,” Wellington said.

“Aye, unless the captain wants to spread my bloomers up here, and that’d be a different story.”

Peddicord pretended to be shocked.

Behind them, Princess was now out in open ocean and likewise was raising every sail until she looked like a huge white cloud of death riding the wind, driven by Fanny’s wrath at the notion that her prey was getting away. All eyes on the Boil focused astern as the ship slowly began pulling away from the former British naval vessel, now the flagship of what Fanny hoped would be her personal fleet.

“She’ll never catch us,” Slappy said as the distance between the two ships began to grow. He sounded, Ol’ Chumbucket thought, as if he were trying to convince himself.

“Don’t let it get you down,” he said to the captain. “We’ll live to fight another day. Considering where we were 12 hours ago, that’s no small accomplishment.”

“And when we get refitted and rally the Brotherhood, we’ll be back, and then there’ll be a reckoning due,” Slappy added firmly.

“Sail ho!” shouted Peddicord from the maintop.

“Where away?” Slappy hollered.

“Due north, dead ahead, about five miles off!”

Eyes that had been nervously watching the ship behind them swung forward and scanned the sea in front. Sure enough, there was a sail on the horizon directly in front of them and it seemed to be heading straight towards them. It was too far off to get any details, but the last thing they wanted was someone sitting astride their path, especially someone who seemed perfectly comfortable heading towards Havana.

“Dogwatch! Bring us around to a northwest heading,” Slappy snapped.

As the bow of the Festering Boil came around the ship slowed slightly, the wind now directly astern. Behind them they saw, the Princess did the same, only her course was more westerly so she got better advantage of the wind. The Princess wasn’t making up the distance, but she was no longer losing ground. The newcomer, which was now on their starboard beam, also angled to intercept. A mile ahead of them a peninsula jutted out into the ocean.

“It’s just a question of geometry now,” Slappy observed to George. “That was never my best subject in school, but it looks like those two ships will cross – intersect? Was that the word? Yeah – those two ships will intersect our line of travel. We just have to make sure we’ve crossed those points before they do.”

The ship to starboard was now close enough to get a read on. She was smaller, a schooner, very fast and maneuverable and though lightly armed, still she could throw more iron from her broadside than the Boil could at present. Her intentions were clear. Her master, Captain Esteban Reyes, just wanted to get in front of the Boil, He couldn’t know that the pirates were almost defenseless; he had been at sea and didn’t even know for sure who was on this ship. But he knew it was the ship Fanny had ordered captured, knew it had escaped somehow and was being pursued. He was offering his own ship as a sacrifice to slow the pirates enough so that the Princess could close in. And as fast as the pirate ship was moving, he was moving faster. It looked as if his gambit might succeed.

“Seems like we’re going to have to fight after all,” Chumbucket observed to Slappy.

“Good,” Slappy said, his eyes beginning to go red again.

“What’s the plan?” George asked.

“We can’t let them hold us,” the captain said. “Dogwatch! Aim the ship as close to the headland as ye’ dare without running us aground. George, put the four working cannon on the starboard side, all as far forward as possible! Grapeshot in all of them. And run out all the guns on the starboard side, whether they work or not! Portside guns go over the side. Chumbucket, get a boarding party ready. Thirty men ought to do it. Then everybody find a safe place to hunker down. This is going to get hot.”

Everyone went to their tasks with a will and the preparations were quickly made. Chumbucket assembled the boarding party in the ship’s waist and Slappy looked them over. There was Lieutenant Keeling, and Peddicord, and Red Molly, and Saucy Jenny and Dogwatch, which surprised Slappy since the latter was supposed to be at the helm. He looked back to the quarterdeck and was surprised to see Oscar nervously gripping the wheel under the close watch of George the Greek.

“You understand, we can’t stay to fight,” Slappy told the boarders. “We’re going to blow right by them and keep on moving. We can't have her grappling on and slowing us down, so that ship will be your ride home. Chumbucket knows the rendezvous point. Everyone understands? There’s no shame in saying you don’t want any part of this.”

That was a lie, and everyone knew it. No one would ever say anything to a man who backed out of the raid, but no one would ever look at that man quite the same way again. Everyone of the boarders nodded, their eyes set grimly.

“As far as that goes, I don’t know that staying here is any safer,” Chumbucket said with a smile. “If this doesn’t succeed, I don’t fancy your chance of breaking away from Fanny.”

“Fair enough,” the captain said. “Each man to his task, then, and good luck to us all.”

The sloop was closing fast now, angling in at about four hundred yards. Billowing from the mainmast was a banner featuring a large white cannon on a green field.

“We’ve seen that flag before,” Slappy observed to Ol’ Chumbucket. “Off Diego Garcia.”

“Aye, Fanny’s banner. What’s she on about with that, anyway?”

“Who knows? You may have noticed, Fanny’s crazy.”

“Oh, aye, that she is,” Chumbucket agreed, shaking his head with a smile.

“Let’s not risk finding out just how crazy any time soon, alright?” Slappy said to his friend. “Just take the ship and get the hell out of here. I wish I was going instead of you.”

“You’re the captain. This is your place.”

“I know, but sometimes it sucks. You’re not taking Cementhands?”

“He wanted to go,” Chumbucket said, “but this will rely on speed, not brawn. Besides, almost everyone volunteered, and I had to leave you somebody.”

“And you are taking Tharp?”

“Aye. I know he’s a pompous jackass, but he’s good in a fight and he volunteered.”

“Alright then, but it’s your funeral.”

“I certainly hope not.”

A puff of smoke from the bow of the approaching ship was followed seconds later by the splash of a cannon ball in front of the Boil, but the pirates showed no sign of heaving to and striking colors. The captain of the sloop waited sixty seconds, then ordered his crew to unleash a broadside. Eight cannon barked from the side of the ship.

“Everybody down!” Slappy shouted needlessly as his crew took shelter behind the gunwales, spiked guns and whatever else they could find. Moments later the air was rent by the sound of balls slapping into the Boil’s stout oak sides as shivers of wood flew like shrapnel.

“Hold!” Slappy shouted. “Wait for it!”

With luck the other ship would be in range before it had a chance to complete a reload, but luck wasn’t holding today. Less than a cable’s length away now, a second broadside was fired into the side of the pirate ship. Spars and cordage rained down, along with three or four pirates who hadn’t picked lucky places to shelter.

The continued silence from the pirate ship unnerved the crew of the approaching sloop. They could see all guns had been run out, knew there must be some crew aboard her. But there was still no sign of life. They went about the task of reloading, but nervously with one eye on their jobs and one on the silent ship. Men crowded the railings to see what was going on as they drew near the pirates.

“Wait for my signal,” Slappy said. The onrushing ship drew closer – a hundred yards, fifty. Twenty.

Slappy stood up from behind the railing and shouldered his blunderbuss.

“Fire!” he shouted, suiting the action to the words and letting loose a hail of lead balls.

The four guns at the bow belched smoke and fire, sending a sheet of death at the foe. Sailors lining the railing were cut down by the hail of grapeshot as if a giant scythe had swept through them. Horror stricken, Captain Reyes looked down from the quarterdeck to see what looked like half his crew lying in a twisted wreckage of flesh and blood; what had been a tidy, shipshape gun deck suddenly transformed into an abattoir.

The Spanish captain shook his head to clear the gory vision. He still had a ship, he still had a crew – albeit a much smaller one – and he still had an enemy to stop.

“Get those English lobsterbacks formed up amidships, now!” he shouted to his aide, who directed the squad of former Royal Marines Stubing had assigned him. They may have been renegades, but the twenty former marines were wonderfully disciplined and drilled and they quickly formed up to meet what could only be an impending attack.

The two ships were just yards apart now, running nearly parallel, marksmen on both sides looking for targets on the other’s deck. Slappy gauged the distances, then shouted to the helm, “Hard a’ starboard, NOW!”

Oscar hesitated just a moment, then began turning the wheel, not nearly fast enough to suit George who grabbed the spokes and yanked down hard. The Festering Boil lurched starboard, ramming hard into the sloop almost amidships. The collision knocked half the Boils and all the Spaniards off their feet.

“Boarders away!” Slappy shouted, and with a wild shriek the thirty hand-picked pirates flew over the bulwarks and down to the deck of the smaller ship.

“Hard a’ port! Mind the shoals!” Slappy commanded when they were gone.

The Boil’s boarding party crashed onto the forward deck, quickly overwhelming the sailors who were trying to sail the ship in the middle of the carnage. But as they started stern, they met the onrush of the former Marines, who advanced in steady line, bayonets leveled.

Ol’ Chumbucket saw the approaching Marines and leaped from the forecastle into the waist of the ship. His cutlass in one hand and a pistol in the other, he had no hand free to catch himself when his feet hit the bloody deck and shot out from under him. The pirate executed a maneuver that several centuries hence would become a staple of Saturday morning cartoons, going horizontal into the air then slamming down onto the deck.

Stars exploded in his head as it thonked against the planking. His vision blurred and a roaring filled his ears. In fact, the slip had been a lucky thing – as he fell the Marines fired a volley that passed just over his head. As it was, it tore a hole in the line of onrushing pirates, dropping 10 to the deck, including Peddicord with a ball in his shoulder and Keeling with one in his thigh. All Chumbucket was sure of was that his head hurt like it hadn’t since the morning after Keeling’s bachelor party and the ship seemed to be spinning as if caught in a whirlpool.

Shaking his head failed to clear his vision, and Chumbucket scrambled to his knees, his hands groping for a weapon. Looking up through his blurred vision he saw a line of red – the advancing Marines with bayonets at the ready. The closest, as near as the pirate could see, had selected him as a target and was lunging forward.

Before Chumbucket could brace himself for the blow, the man reeled back, a scarlet fountain spurting from his forehead. The pirate shook his head again, trying desperately to clear his vision, but the scene refused to come into focus. As he did so, a form leaped over from him from behind, lashing out with a cutlass at another of the Marines.

It was Lieutenant Tharp. Plunging into the fray he stood over the prostrate form of Ol’ Chumbucket and lunged once, twice, three times. Each blow scored, sending another opponent to the deck. With the way clear for a moment, he turned and looked down at Chumbucket.

“You alright?”

“I will be. I’m just having a little trouble seeing, or standing,” Chumbucket said through gritted teeth.

“Don’t worry about it, we’ll have them cleared out in no time.” The younger man turned back to the action.

Chumbucket shook his head again. Was it his blurred vision, or were Tharp’s eyes glowing redly?

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