Friday, June 22, 2007


The Havana Caper – 46

(Authors’ note: We noticed in the last installment that we were calling young Tharp a lieutenant, and we were pretty sure at one point in the story he was an ensign and he obviously couldn’t have been promoted by the navy while on a pirate ship. So we went back and looked and sure enough, his rank has switched back and forth rather indiscriminately. Our curiosity got the better of us and we went all the way back to when the character was first introduced and it turns out he is and always was a lieutenant. So that settles that. Please do us a favor and ignore any references past or present in which Tharp is referred to as an ensign, not that we’re promising we won’t make the mistake again. But hey, that’s hardly the most careless thing we’ve done. Very early in the going we had a character who switched nationalities repeatedly. Okay, on with the story.)

From a half mile behind the action Fanny saw The Festering Boil crash hard into the schooner. She howled with glee.

“We’ve got them! If Reyes can hold her 10 minutes we’ll have them – and God help him if he can’t hold them that long! This really is better isn’t it, Tasha? They think they’re escaping and at the last minute they’re back in my power! Oh, there’ll be some blood spilled tonight! Crowd on the canvas! We’ll be in range in 10 minutes and then they’ll know what I’m really capable of!”

But her joyfully psychotic rant broke off suddenly as she saw the Boil lurch back to port as if bouncing off the schooner, then slowly begin to pull away from the smaller ship.

“Stop them!” she shrieked. “Ensign! Cut across to port! We can still head her off.”

Ensign Rudolph had only agreed to desert the English navy because of his respect for Stubing and friendship with Jones. He didn’t know both of them were now dead, but he certainly knew a bad idea when he heard one.

“To port ma’am? Towards the land?” he asked, hoping he’d heard wrong. “With all due respect, ma’am, the water’s too shallow through there, very treacherous. We have to turn north, then loop around. We can still pin the Boil to the coast if we get around in …”

Rudolph’s suggestion went unfinished because, as soon as he began contradicting Fanny, she had narrowed her eyes, glanced at Tasha and nodded her head toward the ensign. The assassin had slid up beside him and in one deft move sliced through his throat and heaved his still-barely-living-but-only-for-a-few-more-seconds body over the side.

“You!” Fanny said, singling out one of the frightened crewmembers and pointing to the ship’s wheel. “Take the helm. We’re going straight at those pirates, and anyone who doesn’t like it can join Ensign Rudolph.”

The man looked at his crewmates, shrugged, and stepped to the wheel. The other sailors looked at the deck, but no one spoke.

“Well? Look lively!” Fanny shrieked. “There’ll be no hesitating and no turning back! Let’s go!”

The crew all nodded and went back to their tasks, although two of the more enterprising surreptitiously went into the bow chains and began heaving the lead.

“Six fathoms. We should be alright,” the first said. “The charts don’t show nothing except some shoal right at the headland.”

“Aye, but we’re riding lower with all that gold we brought aboard yesterday.”

“I know, Alf. You keep an eye on the lead. I’ll see about finding us a gig.”

“Right Bert, you do that.”

Aboard the Boil, crews raced into the rigging to repair the spars and cordage that had been shot away. The ship had lost its bowsprit along with most of its momentum and the foresail was now flapping in the breeze. The ship was drifting without much headway, and the current as it came around the headland pushed the ship towards the rocky outcroppings of the lee shore.

“Helm! Hard a starboard!” Slappy shouted to Oscar, who had resumed his post at the wheel while George raced aloft to direct the repairs to the rigging.

“Helm’s over, sir, but she’s not coming around!’ Oscar shouted with a trace of panic in his voice.

“Of course not,” Slappy muttered to himself. “We don’t have enough headway to get any bite from the rudder.” Then, at the top of his voice, “George, we need some speed, and quick!”

“Aye cap’n, but it’s a hurrah’s nest up here!” George responded, struggling with the tangle of lines and canvas that had been shot up by the fire they’d taken. “Give me about five minutes!”

Slappy glanced at the white water breaking on the rocks that loomed nearer.

“I’m pretty sure we don’t have five minutes George!”

“We’re going as fast as we can!”

“So’s the ship!” Slappy said.

Glancing astern, the pirate captain could see the Spanish schooner also drifting, and could hear the sound of fighting, with an occasional musket shot still echoing across the water. Then there was a sudden silence from the ship behind them. Slappy grabbed his glass, but it was impossible to see exactly what was happening or who was in charge. All he could do was hope that that part of the plan had gone well. He’d know soon enough. Farther back but closing quickly, he could see the Princess coming up, taking a direct but dangerous line through the shallow waters inshore of the Boil.

“Uh, how’s it going up there George?”

“We’re working on it!”

The churning waters of the rock-strewn coast at the head of the promontory were now no more than 20 yards away.

“Work faster!”

“Aye sir! Faster it is!”

“Cementhands!” Slappy called. The giant pirate was at his side in an instant.

“I don’t suppose St. Swithin’s still in there somewhere to help us with this?”

Cementhands closed his eyes and scrunched up his face, then shook his head. “Nope, he seems to be gone. We’re on our own.”

“Damn. Well, take some men and get those spiked guns over the side, as many as you can, especially the portside. Toss over everything we don’t need.”

“Aye cap’n. Can I start with Oscar there?”

“Don’t bother. He doesn’t weigh more than 100 pounds. We need to lighten the load.”

“You’ve got it!” The big man went to work, and moments later the first of the guns – which weighed about a half ton each – went over the side with a splash. The rocks were now fifteen yards away as the current continued pushing the Boil closer to shore.

Suddenly George was beside him on the quarterdeck and he could hear the sound of sails snapping in the wind.

“That should give us some speed to maneuver with.” The first mate glanced at the nearby shore. “Hope it’s enough.”

“Oscar, helm to port!” Slappy shouted.

“Port?,” George gasped. “Uh, Slappy my friend, that’s where the rocks are.”

“That’s also where the current is and maybe it’ll give us enough momentum that we can get moving.”

George shrugged. “It’s your ship!”

The Boil surged slightly as wind and water combined to give it a burst of speed. The rocks were now just five yards away. Every face blanched as a hideous scraping noise rang through the ship.

“Helm! Hard a starboard now!” Slappy shouted. “George, haul the lee braces and let fly!”

With the additional speed gained by using the current, the ship’s rudder now was biting into the water and the Boil’s bow turned away from the coast. As it passed the largest of the rock, the Boil’s stern banged against the projection, sending a shudder through the ship, and a couple of the pirates were going to need clean britches, but enough weight had been removed that the Boil didn’t catch. Passing the head of the promontory, the ship had gained enough room to maneuver.

Slappy whirled around to view the proceedings behind them. The Princess was in range for her bow guns to open up, and water splashed to the Boil’s side as the first shots came close. The schooner was also under way again, having turned sharply to avoid the rocks. It was now completing the turn and appeared to be setting into a course parallel to Fanny’s ship to take up the chase, the green banner still fluttering from the topmast.

Aboard the Princess Fanny saw the Boil recover wind, and signaled for Reyes on the schooner to take up the chase and pin the Boil against the shoe before it could escape to seaward.

“What’s he doing?” she shrieked as the smaller ship held its position parallel with hers, about a half cable-length away.

“Madam, he’s got to give way or we’ll end up on those rocks,” the helmsman shouted.

“Nonsense, he’ll give way when we head straight for him! Helm to starboard!”

The Princess swung to seaward, but the smaller vessel didn’t budge. The promontory was about two hundred yards away now, dead ahead.

“Bring her around into the wind!” the sailing master shouted and the crew began the maneuver that would halt the Princess.

“Belay that and belay you!” Fanny screamed. Rather than having Tasha dispose of the insolent man, Fanny was at him in one stride, shoving her stiletto through his throat and feeling the exciting, sensuous spurt of his warm blood on her arm. He fell to the deck at her feet, splashing more blood on her skirt.

“Throw that man overboard and keep straight on,” she ordered while brushing hair from her face, leaving a scarlet smear across her forehead. “We won’t catch those pirates by sailing away from them!”

The stunned crew froze.

“Now!” She didn’t scream it, she said it coldly and quietly, the dripping blade still clasped in her hand. Sailors jumped to their tasks.

“Alf,” Bert said. “I’ve got the painter tied up just to port there.”

“Good.” Alf had just tossed the lead again and retrieved it. “Four fathoms. There ain’t five feet of water under the keel.”

“Let’s go,” Bert said. His mate nodded agreement, ad the two scuttled aft to where the dinghy was tied.

“Fire a gun to get his attention,” Fanny ordered as the space between the two ships narrowed. “If that doesn’t work, fire all of them! Gun crews man your stations!”

The shot sent a ball skittering over the wave tops directly across the schooner’s path, but the smaller ship didn’t back off. Instead, the gun ports snapped open and the guns ran out.

The move startled Fanny, but she didn’t freeze. As soon as she saw the gun barrels protrude from the side of the smaller ship, she gave the one word command – “Fire!”

Both ships belched smoke as they fired full broadsides. On the smaller ship the mainmast toppled with a lurch and shivers of oak whistled through the air. Several shots punched holes in the schooner right at the water line. But the Princess also took her share of hits. None were fatal, but it was too much for the man at the helm, who flinched, bringing the wheel hard to port.

“What are you doing? Tasha, take the wheel.” Fanny yelled. It was almost her last command as captain. The ship lurched, then drove straight onto the rocks surrounding the promontory with a grinding crash. The sudden stop sent all three masts swaying and then toppling forward with a long groan, the stays snapping like so many pistol shots.

“We’re aground,” the bosun informed Fanny unnecessarily. “We have to lighten the load before we’re crushed on these rocks. I’d start with the guns, and maybe the gold.”

Fanny looked at the man as if it was he, not she, who was crazy.

“Not my gold! I need that treasure. And not the guns! I need them to sink Slappy!”

“This ship won’t be sinking anyone else,” the bosun said as calmly as a man can when facing a maniac on the deck of a mortally stricken ship. “We’ve got to save ourselves.”

“Nooooo! I’ve got an empire to build!”

The man just looked at her, shook his head, then turned, knowing as he did so that it could be his final moments. He shouted at the crew, “Abandon ship!”

What Fanny might have done can be imagined, but she never got the chance. At that moment a wave lifted the Princess and drove her higher up on the shoals. Coming down hard, the ship’s oak walls were crushed and torn open by the rock-fanged reef. Chests of gold – gold taken by the Boil in its raid on the treasure fleet then stolen by Fanny in Havana – cascaded into the surf as the ship’s keel broke.

Slappy watched from the deck of The Festering Boil, which was now coming back around. Through his glass he could see sailors scrambling to escape the wreck, most of them getting caught in the surf and bashed against the rocks. He watched as the gold chests were dashed against the reef, and imagined what might have happened to his own ship had he been so laden as he passed that point.

“Beware the big one,” he whispered, thinking back to Captain Hamnquist’s warning.

“What did you say?” George asked.

“Nothing,” Slappy said, “just something someone told me once. Let’s get over to the schooner and see what we can do. It appears our friends were successful after all.”

The Boil pulled within hailing distance of the smaller ship, which was floundering. The crew had thrown out a pair of anchors to keep from being dragged against the lee shore, but it clearly didn’t have much longer to live.

“Ahoy Festering Boil!” came a cry over the water. “Got any room aboard for a few sailors in distress?”

“Aye, I’m sending the boats,” Slappy roared back with relief.

The Boil’s longboat was quickly lowered into the water and, with Cementhands at the oars, reached the side of the schooner before it could even lower its boat. The first load of sailors who came back were the wounded, including Keeling, Peddicord and Ol’ Chumbucket, who still couldn’t uncross his eyes.

“I wouldn’t worry about it. You’ll be fine in a day or two,” Sawbones Burgess said after examining Chumbucket. “You’ve had what we in the medical biz call a “thumpcussion.”

“Thumpcussion?” Cementhands asked, incredulously. “And where did you get your medical degree again?”

Sawbones just glared at his shipmate, but didn’t rise to the bait.

“Just help get these men below. I’m too busy to argue with fools right now.”

The second longboat came over now, filled to the gunnels with a mix of pirates, Spanish sailors and former Royal Marines.

“Permission to come aboard,” requested Dogwatch from the boat.

“Get up here,” Slappy growled. “And someone explain why I’m making room for all of Fanny’s crew.”

“It’s complicated,” Dogwatch began.

“Not really,” Red Molly broke in. “The ship’s sinking and everyone still alive had a hand in attacking Fanny. So make room on the deck.”

The schooner was now almost awash, only her quarterdeck and the stump of her mast remaining above the surface. On the ship Slappy could see two figures, who poised at the rail, then jumped into the ocean as the ship slid beneath the waves. They bobbed to the surface, then both struck out for the Boil and swam alongside. Eager hands tossed them ropes and helped pull them from the drink.

First aboard was a man wearing the remains of his Marine uniform. He was followed by Lieutenant Tharp. Once they were on deck, Tharp threw his arm around the Marine’s shoulders and led him back to Slappy.

“Cap’n Slappy,” Tharp said, throwing the pirate a salute so sharp it caught him by surprise. “This is Lieutenant Anthony ‘Cheesey’ Davis. He and I were at prep school together. Cheesey, this is my unc …”

“Your uncommonly handsome piratical benefactor,” Slappy said, quickly cutting the young man off before he could spill the beans about their relationship. Tharp blinked hard, but after a moment’s silence he nodded agreement.

“Yes, my uncommonly … what he said.”

“So what happened over there?” Slappy asked.

“It wasn’t pretty, they had us in a crossfire and might have just about mowed us down – your Marines know their business, Cheesey.” The officer nodded his appreciation, but took over the story.

“Tharp here is being modest. He cut his way across the deck toward me and we were toe to toe, sword to sword. I think he’d have gotten the best of me …”

“No, I never beat you at school,” Tharp cut in.

“I think you would have this time. I’ve never seen you better. That overhead feint and thrust? Brilliant move.”

“Shut up, you’d have pinned me like a butterfly and you know it.”

“Whatever. Anyway, we were going at it, hammer and tongs, when we suddenly recognized each other. Next thing I know, he’s dropped his sword and is convincing me to come over to his side. Told me Stubing and Jones were dead and had a plan to get rid of that bitch Fanny. It didn’t take much for him to convince me, I’d never liked the idea of being forced to betray the Crown.”

“Anyway, we brought the ship around, pretended to still be Fanny’s ally, and waited for the moment to open fire.”

“But the Princess could have blown you to kindling,” Slappy protested. “Hell, she DID blow you to kindling! You couldn’t possibly have sunk her.”

“We never planned to. We just needed to keep her inshore and force her up against the rocks. It was just a matter of holding up to her broadside 'til she hit the reef. And that’s what happened.”

Slappy looked at his nephew with new respect. Standing up to a broadside at close range with no real hope of winning the duel had taken more courage than he had thought the younger man had. Finally he spoke.

“Well done, lad. I’m sure … I’m sure your family is very proud of you.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Now why don’t you get below and have Burgess take a look at you, make sure you’re alright.”

“Thanks but no, cap’n. There’s plenty more cut up than me. I’m sure the doc’s busy.”

It was then that Saucy Jenny’s voice broke from atop the mainmast.

“Ship ahoy! Coming in from the northeast, four miles, I’d say. And she’s flying the Union Jack!”

note to the authors: it appears ye have a pair'a "chapter 45's" posted!?!?
You are absolutely right, anonymous. My bad. Thanks for catching it, it's now fixed.
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