Dewey Lambdin

The Captain`s Vengeance

(Lewrie – 12)

To all my hard-working, common-sense East Tennessee kin-folk who went before, who lived in the shadows of McCloud Mountain and McLean's Rock in the Powell Valley time out of mind, just a 'Hoot and Holler' from the Cumberland Gap. If they did try to pound some 'down home' verities into me, I'm sorry that they didn't all take, and wish I'd paid more attention to the old tales, the centuries-old lore that was warp and woof of their 'Bright, Sunny South,' in those wondrous summer twilights when the kids and the dogs lay 'plumb tuckered out' 'neath my Mamaw and Papaw Ellison's sheltering oak, and the 'lightning bugs' swam above the lawn as thick as schools of minnows. It may be belated, but God bless you all for my 'raisin'.'

And, to my ex-wives… don't bother, I'm still too broke to pay attention.

Praenda vago iussit geminare pericula ponto,

bellica cum dubiis rostra dedit retibus.

Praedator cupit immensos obsidere campos

ut multa innumera igera pasecat ove.

Booty bade men double the perils of the surging

deep when it fitted the beaks of war to the rocking ships.

'Tis the freebooter who longs to seize upon

the measureless plains that on many an acre

he may graze his countless sheep.

– Nemesis III, 39-42

Albius Tibullus


Gonzalo: Now would I give a thousand furlongs

Of sea for an acre of barren ground-long heath,

Brown furze, anything. The wills above be done

But I would fain die a dry death.

– The Tempest, Act I, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

The Dry Tortugas 24°37'N, 82°45' W

Two ships tossed, rocked, and heaved on a fretful sea, fetched-to and immobile, within easy rowing distance of the dry, low-lying, rocky islet-too small to be called an island, too large to be termed a cay. Bastard, barren places were these islets, neither Caribbean soft and beguiling nor American mainland coastal-marshily bleak. These islets did not belong to the Caribbean, but to the Gulf of Mexico, and lay far west of southernmost Spanish Florida, an afterthought of a distracted Creator, who had flung them like excess ochre droplets off a cosmic putty knife, once the last of the Florida Keys had been shaped.

Except for a small sand beach on the north side, off which the two ships lay, the islet's shore was rocky, gravelled and steep-to, with waves breaking vertically, strewn with broken shells, fragments of driftwood, bird skeletons, and russet humps of pine needles and palm furze.

The seas were lively and heaved four or five feet or more in a confused chop; deep-ocean blue-grey, changing to teal, aqua, or lapis near the shore-all under an achingly empty cerulean blue sky that was brushed by mares' tails, with only the rare stiff-winged albatross, frigate bird, or gull to show a single sign of life.

The two ships fetched-to off the northern beach were clattered, clanged, and slatted by those confused seas, rising and dropping, pitching at bows and sterns, and rocking in uneven, unpredictable fits and jerks. One of the fetched-to vessels was a typical bluff-bowed, three-masted merchantman, a tad high at poop and forecastle, wide and beamy and deeply laded. She gleamed with linseed oil 'twixt her black-tarred gunwale and her jaunty blue upper-works and bulwarks, with a hint of a wealthy trader's gilt round her bulging quarter-galleries, entry ports, and figurehead. Her motion, because of her greater tonnage and weight of cargo, was a bit easier and more predictable than the other ship's. A Tricolour flag of Republican France flew from the leach of her large spanker, which was still sheeted in to keep drive on her, and her bows pinched up to the winds, while her courses and topgallants were bag-reefed, her tops'ls flatted aback, and her jibs knife-edged full of wind. That Unseeded gleaming wood was as pretty as a spanking-new, beeswaxed tabletop.

The second fetched-to vessel rode much more lively, for she was a schooner, much narrower in beam. Gaff- hung sails on her foremast and main fought a losing fight to drive her forward, whilst her two standing jibs, hauled taut on the opposing tack, kept her motionless-in respect to the islet, at least. Riding her decks, keeping one's feet as she slatted, was a feat worthy of gainful employment with a touring Gypsy circus. Her hired captain, and her crewmembers, were managing it well. So were their employers.

The schooner showed the world a lovely face, too; black-hulled with a dockyard-fresh coat of the glossiest paint, not tar. That hull, so long, lean, and so sweetly sheer-lined, was boot-topped on the waterline and striped along the upperwork bulwarks with wide bands of a deep scarlet. Her masts, gaffs, and booms, jib boom and bowsprit, her coachtop 'tween foremast and mainmast, and her two small upper yards, were painted a hazy light blue-grey, and her sails… instead of new-from-the-chandlery ecru, or well-worn and used parchment-like tan, had been dyed horizon-grey, as well.

La Reunion , she was called, as so she was named in the scroll-board on her stern and in her ship's papers that declared her a yacht, a nautical plaything for her idle-rich planter owners, and, registered as she was as homeported in a Spanish possession, she usually sported a gilt-tan flag with the two horizontal red stripes equidistant from top and bottom of a Spanish merchantman or private vessel.

For this occasion, though, in keeping with her secret name and her other papers, the purchased Letter of Marque and Reprisal declaring her to be a French privateer by name of Le Revenant-that is to say, 'The Ghost'-that despised shit-brintle 'rag' had been hanked on below a French Tricolour atop her mains'l's leach, a flag brighter and larger, as if she were the prize, lot the three-master.

No matter how desolate or bleak the islet, La Reunion 's owners were in

happy takings, eyes alight with the novelty of it all, sipping champagne and snickering as they watched the crew aboard the merchantman struggle to sway out and lower her largest launch. The sailors manning the check or snub lines were having a rough go of it as the prize ship juddered about.

'I thought you said Capitaine Balfa was a salty man,' one young man demanded, 'a bold, experienced freebooter! But he goes about that like a clumsy, drunken… Bayou Barataria coon-ass, ha ha!'

The hired captain of La Reunion (or Le Revenant), standing aloof of them, clamped his lips together to bite off what harsh response that petulant plaint merited, eyes slit in frustration. Jerome Lanxade and Boudreaux Balfa went back a long time together, and a slur on Boudreaux might as well have been a slur on his own competence.

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