The fearsome Captain Blackbird gazed out from the deck of his ship and swept his glance across the sea. The wind ruffled his mighty beard and made his velvet eyepatch flutter. “Arrr. The sun is high, and the sea is blue. There be no better day for some piratin’!”
He stomped his boot on the deck, took a vigorous swig of rum from the bottle in his hand, and cried out to his crew: “Avast, ye dogs! Bend your backs! Stretch your legs! Today we go lootin’ and plunderin’, me hearties!”
A pitiful, whimpering half-cheer rose up from the throats of the crew.
“What be this?” said the captain. “Be ye not eager to lay your filthy hands on a right heap o’ treasure?”
A bronze-skinned giant of a man with one eyepatch, three teeth, a mighty beard, and about a dozen ugly scars laced across his chest looked up from his mop and said, “Oh, aye, treasure indeed.”
“Do you doubt me word, then, Hank?” said Captain Blackbird. “When has your Cap’n ever led you astray?”
“Meanin’ all due respect, sir,” said Hank, “you promised us a pile o’ gold last week, in them mountains, and alls we found was rocks and goats.”
“Well me stash had been burgled,” cried the captain. “Surely you can’t blame me for that!”
Laslow Cort, a bald, whip-like man with tattoos all down his arms, hopped down out of the rigging and stood beside Hank, chewing a plug of tobacco. “And the rumrunners’ stash you led us to,” he said. “Completely empty! We never saw a single drop o’ rum, despite your sincerest assurances.” He spat tobacco juice on the deck.
“Watch yer mess, Laslow,” said Hank, swiping his mop over the tobacco juice.
“Aye, sorry, Hank.”
The rest of the crew was gathering, now, at the foot of the mast, frowning and folding their arms, some snarling while others chewed on their thick moustaches.
Captain Blackbird stood in front of his cabin and tugged at his earring. “If I didn’t know any better, Laslow,” he growled; “if I hadn’t rescued you from that slave camp with me own cutlass, Hank; if I wasn’t the loyalest, caringest, most generous Captain on these Seven Seas, I might think this was shapin’ up to be a mutiny.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” said Laslow, pulling a pistol out of his belt. “‘Tis indeed a mutiny, but it need not be a bloody one if ye’ll listen to our demands.”
“Demands, eh?” said the captain. “So you aren’t going to just shoot me down in cold blood, then, fellows? Mighty honourable of ye. Mighty appreciative, after all I’ve done for every last one of ye.”
Hank reached over and lowered Laslow’s gun. “We won’t shoot you down, Cap’n,” he said. “Not if you accept our terms.”
Captain Blackbird scoffed. “How noble of ye scurvy dogs.” He spat on the deck at Hank’s feet.
Hank glared, then ran his mop over the spit. “Aye, scurvy dogs we be. That’s our first demand. We be sick and tired of all the scurvy. We want oranges and lemons to eat, not just all this mutton and broth and crusty bread.”
“Oranges and lemons?” hooted the captain. “How d’ye like that for a pirate’s meal? You’ll be turnin’ into girls and sissies before my very eyes!”
“Say what you will,” said Laslow, “but I’ve heard they’ve got a sort of citrusy voodoo in ’em that cures the scurvy.”
“Hot air and bilgewater,” said Captain Blackbird. “Utter nonsense and foolishness. But have it your way, you mangy curs. Eat all the oranges and lemons you want, while I feast on meat and bread, like a proper pirate.”
“There’s more,” said Laslow. “Hank and Vick and Willem need new eye patches. They’ve been runnin’ short for a couple o’ weeks, now. Willem had to make one out o’ wood and string!”
Willem stepped forward, scowling, and pointed at his wooden eye patch. The skin around it was red and raw from chafing.
“Oh, aye, is that the reason for it?” said Captain Blackbird. He roared with laughter. “I thought he was tryin’ to be fashionable!”
“You best not be making light o’ his situation, Cap’n,” warned Laslow. “The splinters he gets are downright fierce.”
“Aye, well, it’s certainly a miserable plight,” said the captain, melodramatically. “New eye patches all around, then, boys! Two for each man!”
Willem cheered victoriously. The others shot him a silencing glare.
“So, lads, fruit and eye patches,” said Captain Blackbird. “Surely your list be longer, if you felt need to threaten mutiny over it. What else do your black hearts desire?”
“Um, Georgie’s got arthritis,” said Hank, gesturing to a pale, feeble, white-haired gent standing in the back.
“No more hard labour for Georgie!” declared Captain Blackbird. “Up in the crow’s nest with him all day long! Let him eat his oranges and lemons as he lies in the sun! We’ll get some real colour in yer skin, me boy.”
Georgie bobbed his head gratefully.
“And one more thing,” said Laslow. “Our most important demand.”
“Pray tell,” said Captain Blackbird, with a dark grin.
“Rum,” said Laslow.
“Rum?” said Captain Blackbird.
“Rum,” said Hank.
“And grog!” called Willem.
“Shut yer hole, Willem,” barked Laslow. “Rum’s what we want. We don’t need none o’ that filthy spew.” He turned back to the captain. “We’ve been suckin’ on dry bottles for nearly a week. I haven’t been sober this long since I was a lad on me father’s knee!”
“Ah, boys, we come to the crux of it, then,” said Captain Blackbird. “Sobriety is a terrifying beast. No wonder you’re all makin’ lists o’ yer hardships and sufferin’s. We’ve gotta get some more fire in your bellies!”
Laslow pointed his pistol at the bottle in the captain’s hand. “Maybe let’s break open the private stash, for starters, eh?”
“Stash?” said the captain. “What stash is that?” He lifted the bottle to his lips and gulped the rest of its contents down. He belched. “I’m as dry as the rest of ye, I’m afraid.” He tossed the bottle into the sea. “That’s why we’re on course for Gorgon Isle, me lads. Hordes of treasure lie there, and casks full o’ rum, besides. It’s as true as my mother’s love, boys, and I can take ye there by nightfall.”
“Rum!” croaked Georgie.
“Casks o’ rum!” cried Willem.
Laslow eyed the captain warily. “All right, then, Cap’n. We’ll go with ye to Gorgon Isle and find what we find, but if we come out unsatisfied, it’s the plank with ye, and make no mistake!”
“If any man leaves the Isle unsatisfied,” said Captain Blackbird, “on my honour, I’ll dance a proper jig off the plank right into the sharks’ waiting mouths and sing a tune for you to dance by as they eat me.”
Hank and Laslow looked at each other and nodded. “Set the course then, Cap’n,” said Hank.
“Up sails!” cried Captain Blackbird. “Tonight we drown in rum and Spanish gold!”
The pirates set to with renewed passion, hauling up the sails and turning the ship into the wind. Laslow and Willem helped Georgie up into the crow’s nest, and Hank swabbed away enthusiastically until the deck shone in the sun.
A few hours later they spotted Gorgon Isle on the horizon. It was covered in dense green jungle and rang with the songs of birds and the screeching of monkeys. They drew near and began to lower the boats.
“Land ahoy!” croaked Georgie.
“Aye, Georgie,” said Laslow. “Aye, land ahoy, and we saw it an hour ago. Eyesight’s not what it used to be, is it, lad?”
“Follow me,” said Captain Blackbird when they’d reached the shore. They cut their way through the jungle for about a mile and came at last upon the yawning mouth of a cave. “Into the caves we go,” said the captain. “Arr, lads, be wary. I’ve been here but once before and hardly escaped with me life, due to the foulest deceit and treachery. Stay close, and keep your voices low, so as not to awaken the spirits.”
“S-s-spirits?” said Willem.
“Oh, aye,” said Captain Blackbird. “The restless souls of the blackguards who betrayed me, Willem. Only my wits and my cutlass brought me safe through when last I visited this place, but the traitors, those gutless mutts, were well rewarded for their villainy. If you hear ’em whisperin’ at you, pay no heed. Stick by me, boys, and they’ll do ye no harm.”
The crew lit torches and plunged into the caves. The walls and ceiling flickered in the torchlight, and slow drips of water echoed around them. Stalactites hung down above them like teeth. The pirates walked on their toes, afraid to speak lest they disturb the spirits.
The tunnel took them deeper into the earth, around corners and through caverns. As they went, the echoes of dripping water grew louder, and every shuffling step they took sounded like an army approaching from around the bend.
“What was that?” whispered Hank.
“What?” squealed Willem.
“Hush,” ordered Laslow. He perked up his ears to listen. A thin sound floated up from the depths, like a half-lost echo of a wavering voice.
“The spirits!” cried Willem.
“Aye,” said Captain Blackbird. “But don’t be afeared. We’re nearly there, lads. Draw your cutlasses, if it helps ye feel bolder.”
One by one, the pirates shifted their torches in their hands, drew their cutlasses from out of their belts, and brandished the weapons in front of them. Willem’s teeth chattered.
“Just a short ways, yet,” the captain assured them. He pointed them down a left-hand fork in the passage and led them around a corner. The echoing whispers grew louder, and the pirates almost thought they could make out words among the shifting sounds.
“Rum and gold, they say,” said Hank. “They’re calling out for rum and gold!”
Captain Blackbird held his torch out in front of him. “Ghosts get mighty thirsty,” he said, “and when you’re dead everything loses its colour, or so I’ve heard. Right you are that they want rum and gold. In death as in life, eh, my hearties? But in death, all the rum ‘n’ gold in the world can’t satisfy… Rum is for the living!”
Willem licked his lips.
“Just around this next bend,” said Captain Blackbird. “Here’s where the treasures lie. The quicker we get in there and drag ’em out, the quicker we can get ourselves away from these wicked spirits, and the sooner we can wet our lips with all the rum we can carry.”
“Rum!” shouted Willem. He held his torch out in front of him and jogged around the corner. The rest of the pirates moved to follow, more slowly. They heard Willem shout again, more excitedly, “Rum!” and every one of them shoved eagerly past the captain into the treasure chamber.
A mound of gold coins sat in the middle of the wide, round cave, and stacks of bottles were piled all around and spilled out of wooden chests. Willem had already thrown his cutlass aside and was ripping the cork out of a bottle with his teeth. He lifted it to his mouth and started to pour the rum down his throat. The entire crew swept down on the treasure and began tossing coins in the air and prying chests open, hooting and hollering like wee children on Christmas morning.
Suddenly they heard a loud, guttural, echoing exclamation from the other side of the chamber. “What’s this!?” cried the voice.
Another crew of armed pirates had emerged from a different passage, bearing their own torches and cutlasses. “They aren’t ghosts!” said the burly black man with the nose ring who was leading them. “They’re filthy thieves! At ’em, boys!”
The other pirates charged, whooping and swinging their cutlasses. Captain Blackbird’s crew swept up their own weapons to defend themselves, and everyone was caught up in the deadly melee.
It was over in minutes. Dozens of bodies lay strewn around the chamber, lying in puddles of blood and rum. The only men left standing were Captain Blackbird and his counterpart from the other crew, a thin, hook-nosed gent with a long beard, six earrings, a tall hat, and a red parrot on his shoulder.
“A shame, Captain Tinder, that it comes to this yet again,” said Captain Blackbird.
“Aye, ’tis a bloody shame, indeed, to see so much blood shed upon our precious hoard.”
“Not enough rum, they says to me. Too many splinters. They want to eat oranges and lemons and laze about all day.”
“Arr,” said Captain Tinder, sympathetically. “A pirate crew’s not what it used to be.”
“I guess we’ll be headin’ back to Tor Tuga then, my friend. Always plenty o’ fresh and eager faces there ready to follow an old sea cap’n on his perilous quests.”
“Right you are, Sir Elmo.”
Captain Blackbird flinched. “Arr, while I appreciate your reference to my rightly swindled knighthood, Tinder, you’d best not be mentioning my Christian name.”
“Oh, aye, my sincerest apologies Elmo—er, Sir Blackbird,” said Captain Tinder. “I’d forgotten yer, er, ‘sensitivity’. Have ye any crew left fit for sailin’?”
“Nay, sadly. All fools and mutineers, this time around, every last one. Not a soul fit for savin’ among the lot of ’em.”
“Four o’ mine stayed loyal,” said Captain Tinder. “You can borrow two to get your ship to Tor Tuga.”
Captain Blackbird stooped to gather up a few bottles and a pocketful of gold. “Aye, thank ye, sir. To Tor Tuga, then, and may it be many profitable months before next we meet on Gorgon Isle!”