Monday, December 08, 2008


The Curacao Caper, Chapter 11

It wasn't the Frenchman's ship that Two Patch had sighted, but a small Spanish merchantman The Boil overtook and relieved of its cargo of wine, silks and racy Italian novels just before nightfall.

The next day they spotted another ship heading diagonally across their course, but after running it down they found it to be a local fishing boat. The Boil sent it on its way after buying its catch and quizzing its master on any ships he'd seen in the region.

A third set of sails was sighted an hour before sunset. The Boil shifted course as soon as she spotted the interloper and raced north under full sail. Within minutes the ship, apparently sighting the pirates, changed course and raced west towards land, disappearing into the dark before The Boil could overtake it.

"He sure isn't behaving like a pirate-torturing French serpent dans l'herbe," Ol' Chumbucket said as he watched the ship fade into the dusk.

"No," Slappy admitted, ignoring Chumbucket's attempt at bilingual pirate talk. "Although ye never know with Fifi. He's a crafty bastard all right. It'd be just like him to act like a frightened prey, try to slip around and then come up on us from behind. He likes his reach around, Fifi does."

"So do we plunge ahead, assuming it's a merchant ship running for the nearest port, or do we back off and take some kind of precautions?" Chumbucket asked.

Slappy's face screwed up in thought for a moment and his old friend could actually see the thoughts flitter across it – the excitement of the chase, the thrill of battle, the possibility of perfidy on the part of the treacherous Frenchman, and the fact that he was hungry and might like a little something from the galley before bed. Finally, Slappy shook his massive head and slammed his fist on the rail.

"We plunge ahead while taking precautions!" Slappy said.

"Very good. Heading?"

"West by northwest," Slappy said. "We can use the wind coming off the land for at least three or four hours. Then when the sea breeze comes up we'll change to a more northerly heading."

"Sounds good," Chumbucket agreed. "There are a couple of ports in that direction it might be heading for."

" Double the watch, and I want the crew ready for action," Slappy added. "At a moment's notice, right?"

"Aye," Chumbucket agreed again, then began issuing the orders that would carry Slappy's thoughts into action.

The ship cut cleanly through the dark waters, angling in toward the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua as the night wore on. Then just after four bells of the midnight watch (two in the morning to you lubbers) the wind began to swing around, albeit fitfully, and the crew brought The Festering Boil to a northerly heading and the ship began gliding along the coast about 15 miles to larboard.

That's where dawn found them, cruising north in moderate seas under low clouds and occasional banks of heavy mist. There wasn't much wind, and The Boil's progress was slow. Slappy emerged from his cabin, picking the crumbs of last night's eight bells (midnight) snack out of his beard and nibbling on them like a monkey with some nice juicy lice.
He scowled at the weather.

"It'll be hard to find anybody with all this," he grumbled, waving his hand in the air.
The hand gesture might almost have been a signal, so closely was it followed by the dull thud of a gun and the scream of a four-pound iron ball shrieking through the sky, falling with a splash a hundred feet short of The Boil.

Slappy spun toward the sound and muttered those immortal words uttered by every warrior since that night in Troy when the big wooden horse statue started excreting Greek soldiers like so many road apples. (One of those Greeks, by coincidence, was a direct forbearer of The Boil's first mate, George the Greek, but that's a different story.) Anyway, Slappy looked to stern and said, "Oh shit."

Emerging from a fog bank behind and about a mile upwind of The Boil was the ghostly form of a large merchantman bearing all the marks of having recently been converted to something more mercenary.

Additional gun ports had been cut into her gunnels and there clearly hadn't been time to tidy up the construction. That's why observers could see there was a gun barrel protruding from each one. Work was still going on to cut away the high castles in the stern and bow, but right now there were no carpenters at work. The rails and rigging were crowded with sailors shrieking and yelling high-pitched screams, waving a variety of weapons in the air.

The ship's bow bore the signs of heavy painting – the words The Bristol Lady’s OTHER Knickers were crudely painted out but still readable. Below that they could read the words, La Petite Mort Deux, and underneath that the phrase "Venez encore?"

From the ship's mainmast fluttered a bloody red flag bearing an unrecognizable image in black. George studied it through his glass as the flag caught the wind and spread out.

"What the hell is that? A fuzzy coffee table? What?"

"Poodle with its head cut off," said Slappy, not even bothering to look.

"Damned if that's not it! How did you know?"

It's Fifi."

"What a strange flag," George marveled.

"What a strange pirate," Slappy said. Then he shouted into the rigging, "All hands! Battle stations! Prepare to come about! George, northwest if you please!"

"Aye aye," said George. The ship was now in combat status; the instant the enemy's gun had sounded Slappy's word as captain had gone from being suggestions to the crew to absolute law, which everyone aboard raced to execute.

"How the hell did he do that?" Leftenant Keeling asked, racing to his action position on the quarterdeck. "He should be in front of us somewhere. Now he's on our stern and has the wind. All the advantage is his."

"For the moment," Slappy said grimly.

With the wind behind the interloper, the Frenchman could either offer battle or not. For The Boil to try to engage it would have to claw its way toward the target against the brisk wind that was kicking up. With the wind, the Frenchman also would be able to maneuver much more freely, and could easily cover any move The Boil made. In an otherwise even combat, having the wind meant everything. The only real options were to stand and fight on the enemy's terms, or to run. Moreover, because the wind was dead astern, the Frenchman's huge spread of canvas cut down the wind available to The Boil, literally "eating the wind out of their sails," as the saying goes.

The Boil turned and the French ship matched the move, turning more cumbersomely but maintaining its advantage. Together, they raced side by side toward the distant coastline, both just out of effective range of the other's guns. George kept a careful eye on the ship's performance.

"We can keep this up for about 20 minutes or so and then we're going to have to think about turning, unless you like the idea of running her up on the rocks," he told the captain.

"I know that," Slappy snapped. "Let's see if we can gain a little on them first. If we can turn in front of them, we'll get the weather gauge and we can probably hammer them with a broadside as we cut in across their bow."

"It'll be close," George said.

"That's the way I like it," Slappy replied with a grin. Then he turned forward and shouted to the crew, "Let's get those guns ready for firing!"

"Way ahead of you," shouted Cementhands, who had already changed into his preferred combat uniform – – a kilt worn in the "traditional" fashion and a puffy T-shirt from his favorite pirate rock band. "They've been loaded since last night. Just waiting for your orders to run 'em out!"

"Everyone ready for a fight?" Slappy asked. The scream of affirmation from his crew was so savage that Slappy's eyes teared up.

"God I love being a pirate," he said, mostly to himself.

The crew of The Boil was leaning over the railing, vaporing, howling threats and impugning the virtue of their foes' female relatives. Several pirates were waving hastily made signs bearing such messages as "We will kill you and despoil your daughters," "Slappy Rocks: Fifi Sucks" and "John 3:16." Cementhands had taken advantage of his costuming to hang his ample buttocks over the side to moon the Frenchmen.

"Shall we fire at 'em, just to show we mean business?" he asked.

Slappy repressed his natural inclination for as much noise and smoke as possible.
"No," he said, "let's not waste the shot or the powder. We'll save it for when we turn on 'em."

"Too late!" McCormack said, releasing a noxious cloud. "I just fired!"

"Jeez McCormack! Didn't you notice we're downwind?" Dogwatch Watts cried, as several crew members reeled to the deck, momentarily overcome.

"Sorry," the pirate said sheepishly.

La Petite Mort Deux, meanwhile, continued to fire a single gun every couple of minutes.

"I think he's trying to signal us," George said, squinting across the distance between the two ships. "Look at their quarterdeck, someone seems to be waving."

"Probably ranging shot," Chumbucket said. "Soon as the one shot hits us, he'll let fly."

"Taunting us, I imagine," Slappy guessed. "We've almost got enough headway to try to sing around 'em. Get ready to come about to the south."

"It'll be close," George said, eyeing the distance between the two ships and the rapidly approaching shoreline. The water was changing from the deep, almost purple blue the open sea to the lighter cerulean of the coastal waters.

His eyes shifted back to the mast, and he called out, "Look, they're raising something below their weird flag. I can't make it out because the wind's behind them and it's streaming straight out at us, but it looks like a white flag."

"He's surrendering?" Slappy said, elated. "Terrific!"

"Maybe, but probably not."

A slight shift of the wind gave The Boil a brief glimpse of a white banner fluttering from the mast of the French ship. Another gun fired and more pointing indicated the white flag. From across the water Slappy could hear a voice calling, "Parlay!"

"He wants to talk, huh?" Slappy said. "Well, let's see how he talks …"

Slappy's words were cut off by a cry from the deck.

"She's sheering off, cap'n!" Red Molly shouted. "Look!"

Sure enough, the French ship had struck its headsails and turned upwind, breaking off the chase.

"What the fuck," murmured Slappy.

"She's putting a boat over the side," Keeling observed.

Sure enough a small boat was in the water and figures were scrambling down into it. Moments later oars went out and the boat pulled towards The Boil.

"Let 'em come," Slappy said. "I'll be in my cabin. Chumbucket?"

"Very good," his friend said. "I'll see what they have to say."

The boat pulled alongside and voice identified itself as coming from La Petite Mort Deux, Chumbucket nodded and a ladder was lowered, and a tall, thin man scrambled onto the deck.

The graying blond hair of the newcomer rose in a widow’s peak above a face that perhaps once had been noble, but now bore the marks of too much sun, too much wind and far too much depravity. His clothing had evidently once been very fine but was now so stained, patched and mismatched that it looked more appropriate to a harlequin or clown.

Yet his bearing still retained something of the court nobleman that he had apparently once been. He surveyed the crew with a cold eye, then turned toward Chumbucket, who stood at the top of the steps to the quarterdeck.

"I am Viscount Jean Pierre de la Muqueux, adjutant, first mate, general factotum and personal friend of the honorable Fifi Le Fleur, capitaine of the La Petite Mort Deux, conqueror of the seas, gentleman adventurer and …"

Chumbucket cut him off.

"Yeah, yeah. And I'm Ol' Chumbucket, pimple on the ass of the great and glorious Cap'n Slappy. Whaddaya want?"

If the man took offense at the insolence he didn't show it by so much as a raised eyebrow. Instead he doffed his hat and swept into a low, courtly bow.

"Ah, Monsieur Chumbucket, you do yourself an injustice. You are as renowned as any member of the crew of the illus…

"Stow it, Slim," Chumbucket said. "Just give us the message."

The slightest pause, then de la Muqueux drew himself up to his full height and spoke.

"Yes. Well. Capitaine Le Fleur requests your Captain Slappy to attend with him for a parlay on the shore. If he acquiesces, I can take him ashore immediately."

"Not happening," Chumbucket said.

"But Capitaine Le Fleur wishes to discuss with him the current situation regarding our two vessels and their mutual history. I give you my word of honor as a gentleman that no harm shall come to him while under the flag of truce."

"And I give you my word as nobody's fool that there's no way Slappy is going off in a rowboat with you. Even if he agreed, the rest of the crew wouldn't allow it. Go back and tell that to your capitan – " Chumbucket deliberately put a spin on the mispronunciation.

"Very well, I shall deliver the message," Muqueux said with an edge in his voice and a defiant glare in his eye. "I do hope we can come to some accommodation, otherwise it will be necessary to destroy your ship, and Capitaine Le Fleur is most eager to speak with your captain. It will be harder to do if he is dead."

"I hear you. Now go," said Chumbucket, seeing no point in bandying insults with an errand boy.

The rowboat shuttled back to the French ship as Chumbucket reported to Slappy.

"I don't think we've seen the last of him," Chumbucket said, summing up the discussion. Sure enough, Slappy didn't have time to reply before Keeling called from the deck that the boat was returning.

It took several more trips back and forth and the sun was almost overhead before an agreement was reached. If asked, Chumbucket would have to have admitted he raised a couple of objections at the end just to force the Frenchmen to make two extra trips back and forth.

As per the agreement, at precisely four bells of the afternoon watch, both ships put boats over the side while officers on deck kept a close eye on the other ship through their spyglasses. Four sailors climbed down into each boat – McCormack, Watts, Peddicord and Spencer from The Boil – followed by the captains and one aide each. From the quarterdeck Ol' Chumbucket could see the angular form of Muqueux joining the diminutive Le Fleur in the French boat while Sawbones Burgess settled into the sternsheets besides Slappy.

As if synchronized, both boats began to pull toward shore at the same moment.

"Well, here goes nothing," George said, watching them go.

"Yeah, let's hope it's nothing," Chumbucket said. "For now, forget about them. We've got to keep our eye on that ship." And he turned his attention to La Petite Mort Deux, which bobbed on the swell a half mile away, still with the wind at its back.

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