Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Siege

A boat was lowered down from the attacking ship, and a score of cutthroats piled into it, along with their captain. They motored alongside Caribe, and not expecting accommodations, threw a rope ladder with grapnels up over the bulwark. Several pirates swarmed up the ladder, pistols in their teeth, before the captain followed them up the side. One of Caribe’s crew spat on a pirate as he gained the deck, and the pirate put a bullet through the man’s head, spraying his brain and blood across the oak planks. In their horror, the rest of the crew drew back to the opposite rail. Only Jack and Vasiliy stood their ground, to face the invaders.

“I hope the rest of your crew shows proper respect” the pirate captain spewed in a venomous tone.

Jack and Vasiliy only glared as he gained the deck; neither commented, nor gave anything away by their stoic expressions.

“You’ve got our ship, you bastard. Name your terms and get this shit over with” Jack said, with no lack of venom himself.

“Ah, straight to the point are we?” the pirate captain hissed. “Good. I like things to be straight forward.”

Jack’s glare would have burned holes through that piratical bastard if there were any justice in the world. But the captain merely turned about to survey the deck, the masts, and the rigging. Once satisfied, he sent half a dozen of his men to scour the ship for whatever they might find. While they were heading below deck, the captain turned back to Jack and Vasiliy, and asked “Which of you is captain of this ship?”

Vasiliy answered “I am captain, you son of an infested yak!”

The pirate captain struck Vasiliy across his face with the butt of his pistol, then screamed “You will show me proper respect, prisoner!”

Vasiliy straightened, nose bleeding, then lunged at the pirate. He shoved the pistol into Vasiliy’s chest and pulled the trigger. For a moment, Vasiliy stood there with his hands around the pirate’s throat, a bewildered look on his broad face. Then his head flinched to one side, his grasp loosened, and he slid down the pirate’s body to lie limp on the deck. A pool of blood oozed out from beneath his twitching corpse.

“Would anyone else like to offer resistance?” the pirate growled, glaring first at Jack, then at the crew along the far bulwark. “I didn’t think so” he said after a long pause. “You” he directed at Jack. “You are second in command?”

Jack merely gave him a vicious look, but said nothing. The pirate raised his pistol to strike Jack as he did Vasiliy, but Jack lunged at his middle; down low like a linebacker set for a tackle. The pirate was driven against the rail with such force that the pistol flew from his hand into the sea. Seeing this, the Caribes rushed the other pirates on deck in a fit of inspired rebellion. The startled pirates were taken aback, and faltered in their surprise. Many were pummeled by whatever blunt objects were handy, their skulls beat in for good measure. Several shots rang out across the deck; some killing Caribe’s crew, some killing the pirates with their own captured weapons.

Then gunfire brought those pirates that had gone below back topside, and as the ship’s crew put down the last of the pirates on deck, the rest emerged in a hail of gunfire from the aft companionway. And then, to Jack’s horror, one of them shoved Linda on to the deck with a knife at her throat. She shot him a look of utter despair, then hardened her eyes into a look of defiance. As if to tell him “my life be damned, save the ship.”

Jack grabbed the still befuddled pirate captain by his hair and pulled him upright, a pocket knife pressing into his jugular. “If you God damned cockroaches want to see this piece of human shit live another day, you turn her loose!” A volley of shots rang out from the ship across the way, and Jack plunged the blade deep into the captain’s neck before flinging his body over the rail. More gunfire erupted from the pirate ship. Caribes and pirates both scattered for cover, and Jack took his chance in the confusion to make a dash for Linda, whose captor had ducked for cover. He kicked the knife from the rogue’s hand as he sent a fist into the bugger’s gaping jaw, then grabbed Linda’s arm and pulled her behind the bar which stood amidship. Having recovered a rifle one of the pirates dropped on deck in his haste to take cover, Jack returned fire on the ship, killing one of their crew on the first shot.

The Caribes used the opportunity to attack the remaining pirates on deck with whatever weapons they could find. Some crafty hand had made a giant Molotov Cocktail from a five gallon water container during the melee, and launched it on to the pirate ship’s deck with a makeshift “slingshot” hastily crafted from the bungee cords that secured the tarps over the lifeboats, strung out between the fore and mainmast pinrails. It struck the pirate ship and spread fire over the whole foredeck, which raised a cheer from the tall ship’s crew. Jack took that opportunity to send a dozen men below, to the steering compartment, there to heave what was left of the tiller hard over to port. To ram the pirate ship!

Jack ran down to the engine room himself, while the crew disposed of the remaining pirates. Through the open door to the steering compartment, he screamed “Hard to port!” over the growl of the generator and the rumble of the still idling main engine. He heard them grunt as they shoved the remnant of the tiller over, then Jack throttled the main engine up to full.

Caribe shuddered with the impact. Steel groaned against steel, and her rigging could be heard to snap down below. Jack ran up to the deck, and he saw Caribe’s bowsprit had stove the pirate ship right in her middle before it broke off. Some of the foremast shrouds and backstays had parted, as well as some of the main’s. As the ship ground down the other vessel’s side, opening a great gash in the rusted and thinned hull with the stub of her bowsprit, the foremast came down with a great crash, right across the pirate ship’s deck. The shock, weight, and leverage caused her to list hard to starboard, and the sea rushed in through the gaping hole. The ship began to settle in the increasing swell, and many pirates tried to climb across the mast to Caribe, only to be repelled back to their own ship, or into the sea.

Jack watched with grim satisfaction as the pirate’s ship dipped beneath the waves, and Caribe’s crew cut the last of the rigging from the foremast to let it slide down to the depths. Next, they tossed the pirates’ bodies which littered the deck overboard. When that grim task was done, they shuffled their way toward Jack, who stood holding Linda in the cover of the aft bulwark. They stood before him with questioning looks in their eyes, almost pleading for direction. He took this in, and considered for a moment. Vasiliy had been their leader until today, their captain. Now he was gone. Jack had been right by Vasiliy’s side since he came aboard, and the crew looked to him as second in command ever since his short stay began. He took in the scene as the last gush of air and debris rose from the sinking pirate ship, then addressed the crew.

“First thing’s first I guess, let’s give Vasiliy and the other dead a proper burial.”

They wrapped Vasiliy’s body in a sheet, weighted down with scrap metal that littered the deck, as well as four more Caribes who died in the bloody exchange. Jack said some solemn words over the dead, and after a long moment of silence, their bodies were committed to the deep. Jack then asked the crew if they chose him to command. No one said a word in protest as the crew all solemnly nodded their heads in agreement.

“Alright then” Jack said. “I need a repair party to the steering room.”  

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Chase

Jack walked into the wheel house, still wiping the rusty grime from his hands with a greasy rag, exchanging one form of filth for another. A look out the aft port holes showed the approaching ship now only six miles away, chugging blacker still as her crew drove their ship mercilessly in chase. “May I?” Jack inquired, pointing to the powerful binoculars which sat atop the chart table.

“Sure, sure” Vasiliy replied.

Jack picked them up and walked to the aft ports. He trained them on the pursuer and brought the ship into focus. “She is a warship. An old warship… Can’t see any markings. No flags.” Then, after a long pause he said “I don’t think she’s gaining on us anymore. If she is, it’s very little. Vasiliy, do you have a sextant?”

“Of course, of course! Let me find it.” He rustled through several drawers in the cabinets that made up the instrument console along the forward wheel house bulkhead, retrieved wooden box, and passed it to Jack. He took the sextant from it’s case, aimed it at the pursuing ship, and noted the elevation.

Jack noticed Vasiliy’s questioning look, and he explained; “I can tell if the ship is gaining by the elevation of her mast in relation to the horizon.”

“Ah!” Vasiliy cried, slapping his forehead. “The closer she gets, the taller she gets, no? This I should have known! I am durak, ha ha! Stupid!”

“Don’t beat yourself up, I only thought of it because I read about it in a novel” Jack consoled, with a wry grin.

Except for the fact they were under power, and possessed no cannon, the Caribe and her sister Tropic Star might have leapt from the pages of that seafaring novel read long ago. The tall ships were running wide open, making just under nine knots. Jack took another sight on the chase, and his heart dropped as he found they were gaining.

“How fast can we sail, if we had a wind?” Jack asked Vasiliy.

“Oh, I seen ten… no, eleven knots before. In the trade winds. But where they are…” Vasiliy shrugged his shoulders. “You think we can outsail that ship?”

“I think she’s giving all she’s got right now. Just shy of ten knots, tops. I think she’s hurt, maybe has an engine down. If only we had wind, I think we could lose her. Otherwise, she’ll be alongside in about six hours. Who knows what her firing range is.”

Not five minutes after those words were uttered, a puff of smoke came from the bows of their pursuer, followed by the whump of the report, and a splash fifty yards shy of Caribe’s stern. Not a large splash, Jack noted with a sort of relief. Maybe a three inch shell. But plenty big enough to do some serious damage none the less.

Vasiliy took over the helm from the watchman and altered course slightly to port. “We don’t want to be sitting ducks, no?” he said, grinning. “I was in Russian Navy many years ago. How you say? The old dog knows his tricks.”

“Close enough” Jack said as another shell splashed not ten yards to starboard, right where the ship would have been. He surveyed the horizon, then doubled back to look again to starboard. A solid bank of low, dark cloud was just barely visible, stretching the length of the westward sky. “Vasiliy, me might just get our wind. And then some.”

“Ah, yes!” Vasiliy exclaimed. “Do you think we…”

“Yes, I do” Jack said before Vasiliy could finish. With a wink, he spun the helm to starboard, heading straight for the approaching storm. Tropic Star altered course as well, but a bit more to southward, forcing their pursuers to choose one ship or the other. They fired two rounds; one at each ship, both missing their mark by fifty yards or more.

“Thank God their gun crew is not so good!” Vasiliy said with a chuckle. “And we hope practice does not make perfect, no?!”

The chase latched on to Caribe, which was the nearer of the two tall ships. On and on they zig zagged toward the darkening clouds, dodging rounds that came closer to their mark with each volley. The wind finally began to ruffle the sea’s oily slick surface, and streaks of lightning shot across the not too distant sky. Vasiliy gave the helm back to the watchman with instructions on when to zig or zag, then opened the wheelhouse door. “Time to set sail” he said, his eyes shining brighter than his grin.

“Let me know where I can be useful” Jack said.

Linda, who had been sitting quietly in the aft corner of the wheel house, stood up and said “I will help too.”

Jack smiled, and the trio went on deck to hoist sail with the rest of the crew.

Thunder rolled and lightning flashed just a few miles ahead as the Caribes bravely climbed into the rigging to set sail. Several more shots from the chase had landed perilously close to the ship, and in the back of Jack’s mind he feared they would finally find their aim. They were no more than four miles distant now, and they would certainly find their mark as the gap closed. The crew worked feverishly, and soon the deck began to heel as the wind filled Caribe’s sails. Another shot from the chase found it’s mark, and the ship’s hull rang with the impact. The crew cast nervous glances at each other, then redoubled their already Herculean efforts.

The first enormous drops of rain began to pelt the crew high aloft, and shortly thereafter the first good gust of wind hit them from the northwest. Almost simultaneously, a round from the chase holed the main course, then glanced off the steel foremast with a loud CLANG!  With tremendous effort, the sparse crew managed to set courses and topsails as the ship heeled down, her leeward rail dipping into the increasing swell from time to time, sending sheets of green water down the deck. Suddenly, the ship gave a sickening lurch as another round from the chase struck home, and she sheared off of her course to windward. Instantly Jack raced down the ratlines as the helmsman ran out of the wheel house shouting “Bloody bastards shot away the steering!”

Jack followed Vasiliy down the engine room ladder and aft through a water tight door that led to the steering compartment. Vasiliy cursed in his native tongue something fierce as he held up a piece of the severed tiller, then threw it down to the deck in rage. “We are finished!” He yelled to Jack.

“We can rig something” Jack replied, his eyes searching the room. “We can rig something…”

“There is no time” Vasiliy lamented. “They will be on us before we can have steerage.” He kicked the remnants of the long steel tiller, still attached to the great cables that led to the helm, which was now completely useless.

“Are there any weapons aboard?” Jack asked, his mind searching for some solution.

“No” Vasiliy sulked. “This is cruise ship, not war ship. All we have are distress rockets, no more. We have no teeth, Jack. No teeth, no claws…”

The war ship drew alongside Caribe in the lightning streaked darkness, her guns leveled at the deck, and a crew of right cutthroats lining her rail, with a menagerie of small arms trained at the Caribe’s crew. Their captain appeared on deck and roared across the water above the din of flapping sails, wind, and sea, in English, surprisingly devoid of accent to Jack’s ear.

“Good evening, prisoners” he began. “You made a good run of it, but succumbed to our superior force, as was inevitable. But fear not, I hold no grudge against those who wish to preserve themselves, as I would wish to preserve myself.”

“What do you want from us?” Jack shouted.

“Why, your ship, of course! Surely you must know that fuel is rather hard to come by these days, do you not? As you nearly demonstrated, a sailing vessel has it’s advantages. Your flight led me to burn nearly half of our reserves in chase! Had my gunner not knocked away your rudder, I might have been forced to break off. But happily his lack of practice was superseded by good luck. Ammunition, especially that of the naval variety, is rarer than fuel you know. I despised the thought of burning rounds as well as fuel for what should have been an easy catch, but since we were so close I thought it worth the expense. How happy I am to have remained steadfast in my pursuit!

Vasiliy spat over the side and gave a murderous glare at the captain. “And what will you do with us?”

“Well, I suppose that is up to you. As I mentioned, I will have your ship. My force is superior; therefore you are at my mercy. I may find it in my heart to set you ashore some place appropriate, should you give me no trouble. And should you and your crew prove helpful, I may even allow you food and water.”

Jack’s blood began to boil, his hands clenched into fists, and his body began to tremble visibly. Vasiliy lay a calming hand on his shoulder, and quietly whispered “Easy, easy my friend. I know this kind of man. I know what he wants, and I know how far he will go.” Then, in a slightly louder whisper, he said “Linda, hide below.”

Friday, November 11, 2011

I Found It! Captain Jack Sails Again!

Jack studied the black smudge on the eastern horizon through his binoculars. All they revealed was a somewhat closer, crisper black smudge, which Jack recognized as the smoke from the funnel of a vessel burning heavy oil for fuel. Which meant a large vessel. Quite possible a warship from some third world nation. At best, he figured, it could be some ancient merchant vessel now crewed by pirates. Either way he wanted to avoid them, and unconsciously started scratching the backstay in the ancient sailor’s tradition, to call up the wind.

Caribe!” Jack’s powerful baritone called across the water. He saw one of the crew dart into the wheelhouse, and a moment later Vasiliy walked out on deck, stretching and scratching his belly.

“Ah yes Jack, good morning!”

“Do you see that smoke to the east?” Jack asked him, pointing his outstretched arm toward the smudge, which had grown somewhat larger, perhaps nearer.

Vasily raised his hand to shade his eyes and leaned  out over the rail, squinting against the bright sun. “Ah yes. I see it! Looks like… Maybe smoke from a ship, yes?”

“That’s what I take it to be. Listen, Vasiliy… Let me come aboard and see if I can’t get your engine going. I want to stay well out of sight of that ship, and I think it’s coming this way. More or less.”

“Yes, yes… We do not want to be taken, after coming so far! Come! I will find lanterns for us to see down there.”

Jack started the little diesel and steered for Caribe’s port side. Linda came on deck, and with nothing more than a knowing glance she walked forward to retrieve the fenders from their rack. She made them fast to lifeline stanchions on the starboard side, then went forward again for the mooring lines. Jack brought First Watch smoothly alongside the ship, and two Caribes caught the lines tossed up to them and made them fast. Vasiliy lowered a rope ladder down the side, and Jack climbed up to Caribe’s deck. Vasiliy grabbed Jack’s hands to help him up, then wrapped him in an almost crushing bear hug, and pounded Jack’s back after releasing him.

“Welcome! Welcome aboard my friend!” said Vasiliy in a voice that could be heard a quarter mile away. “Come, I take you down into the bowels of the ship.”

They walked aft behind the bulwark from which Jack had seen Vasiliy come and go so often, through a water tight door that opened to a little vestibule; then through an elegant varnished mahogany door with a window in the top half. On into the passageway, lined with equally beautiful cabin doors to their left, and the ship’s hull to their right. They came to a thwartships passageway and turned left, passing several more windowed mahogany doors leading to ship’s offices. Half way down this passageway, they came to a solid mahogany door that opened to another little vestibule with a water tight door on the other side.

“The engine room.” Vasiliy said as he lit an oil lantern and passed it to Jack. He lit another for himself, then pulled the lever that opened the dogs, and thus the door.

Beyond the door was pitch blackness, save for that which the shimmering flames of their oil lamps could light. The smell of diesel and bilge water enveloped them, and the sounds of water lapping on the steel hull, with the occasional creak or groan. Vasiliy stepped down the steep ladder, one hand on the rail and the lantern held waist level in the other. Jack followed, carefully negotiating the narrow steps. At the bottom of the steps they found a door to their left.

“This is engineer’s office” Vasiliy offered. Jack opened the door and peered inside, holding out his lantern to view the tiny space, not much more than a walk in closet. It was lined with book shelves full of three ring binders, and a small desk sat against the bulkhead facing aft, which had a window looking out over the engine room. An instrument panel hung on the bulkhead to the right of the window, near the door, and several red lights were lit on it. Turning toward the engine room, Jack saw a maze of pipes and cable trays, breaker panels, motor control switchboxes, and what appeared to be the ship’s generators on either side of a railed opening in the deck right amidship. Another ladder descended from the forward end of the opening, about four feet in front of him, and from the aft end a pair of large insulated pipes rose from the depths, rising upward through the overhead.

“First thing’s first.” Jack said. “We need light down here.” He walked to the port side generator’s control panel and studied it with his lantern, then walked around the generator to look at all the piping connections. Outboard of the generator, right up against the ship’s hull, he found a fuel tank. A look at the sight glass and a rap with his knuckles proved the tank to be empty. So he crossed over to the starboard generator’s fuel tank. This one showed fuel in the sight glass, about a quarter full. Jack circled the generator, ensuring all the valves supplying fuel, cooling water and such were open. Then he faced the control panel, and after a slight hesitation, he pressed the start button. A loud metallic clank was quickly followed by a slow grinding sound. Then a clack, clack, clack, increasing in frequency until the generator roared up to full speed. The engine room reverberated with the generator’s grumbling roar, which rose half again as Jack closed the main breaker. The generator groaned as it took up the load, then recovered with a deeper bellow, the turbocharger whining in it’s high pitched wail.

The fluorescent lights in the overhead flickered to life, and Jack spied several pairs of earmuffs hanging from a pipe. He grabbed two, donning one and passing the other to Vasiliy. Jack had to yell to tell Vasiliy he was going back to the engineer’s office to look for any procedure manuals he might find, that would tell him how to refill the generator day tanks, and what needed to be running in order to start the main engine. Just as he found the manual, a large, coal black man in a white ship’s uniform filled the doorway. “Hey mon!” He shouted over the din. “Ya might be wantin’ to come on deck now!”

Jack cast an urgent glance at Vasiliy, and both hurried up the ladder to the main deck. The black smudge on the horizon was now hull up; a low, gray ship of moderate size, no doubt an old frigate or corvette belonging to some third world country. The black smoke coming from her funnel plumed with increased intensity, and the white of her bow wave could be seen with the naked eye. She was nine miles distant and coming up fast, on a course intended to cut off the Caribe and her sister ship, now only a hundred yards off the starboard bow.

“De generator, ‘im let out a cloud of black smoke when you started ‘im, mon.” said the black man. “An’ den de ship dere” he said, pointing at the approaching warship, “E turn to come for us, pourin’ on de coals!”

“Shit” said Jack. “Vasiliy, we gotta kick this pig into gear.” He ran to the rail and shouted down to Willie, who was now in First Watch’s cockpit, and Linda “Cut loose and get the hell outta here! Drop the hammer and run for Saint Martin. Run ‘til you’re out of fuel. Hopefully the wind will come up before then!”

“You’re not coming back aboard?” Linda asked, with a look of horror on her face.

“There’s no time” Jack responded. “I’ve got to get this engine going if the Caribe has a prayer. I can’t abandon these guys!”

“Then I’m coming with you!”

Before the words were out of her mouth, Linda sprang up the rope ladder. Then she cast off First Watch’s mooring lines once on the ship’s deck, and ran to Jack’s side.

“I… I couldn’t stand the thought of watching you leave me” she stuttered, staring down at her feet, suddenly embarrassed by her rash behavior. Jack pulled her close to him, and softly confided that the thought had torn at his very being as well. He was glad she did what she did.

They watched for a moment as Willie throttled up the little diesel and bore away for Saint Martin, waving and shouting wishes of good luck. A twinge of pain ran through Jack’s heart as he watched his boat and his now dear friends slip away southward, and he lingered by the rail for several minutes, waving good bye.

“Maybe we should get that engine started, no?” Vasiliy interjected.

“Yeah, let’s get ‘er going” Jack replied after a moment, and they walked aft toward the door.