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The Boy the Cat and the Pirate

by  neilwills

Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2007
Word Count: 3391
Summary: Historical action adventure involving, surpisingly enough, a cat a boy and a pirate

A calloused foot swung at the cat who danced reluctantly out of the way, hissing and baring her teeth. She had left the rat not fully dead, on the deck at the Captain's appearance. Blood stained the floor while it twitched its life away. She stared hungrily at the body but made no move towards it. Growling, she crouched low, her eyes blazing defiance as captain stepped towards her with his hand raised. She hissed, turned and ran into the shadows. She was no stranger to violence. The progeny of a wharf cat, she had attached herself to the brig Francine out of Singapore some four years previously. She survived on the scraps left for her by the Malays, Chinese and Javanese who made up the crew. To supplement this, she caught rats. She had attached herself to the captain's recently acquired Chinese boy, Zhang and at night she was to be found below deck sharing his bed made of rags. She sometimes licked the salt tears from his face and each morning she sat with him as he ate his rice and fish. When he set about his duties she disappeared into the darkness of the bilges or the storage lockers to hunt. It was one of these successful forays aft that the captain had stumbled across. Peabody lifted the rat by the tail and flung it through the open quarter-light. It smacked into the water and spun in the vortex left by the ship's passing until it sank to be devoured by the creatures of the sea. He roared for Zhang.

The boy scrubbed hard at the stained decking with exaggerated vigour while the captain's stare settled uncomfortably upon him. His hands shook imperceptibly at the memory of his only attempt to escape the Francine. His fingers strayed to his chest and he sniffed back a tear. The look on the captain's face as he had slowly drawn a blade across the boy's clear skin then with pleasure licked off the blood, would stay with him for ever. Each day it occurred to him that when his boat was taken by the Francine it would've been better if he'd died like the rest. At the very least it would have spared him his servitude and the depraved and disgusting attentions of the captain. The memory of that day a year ago was fading, but still his mind projected his mother's screams into his thoughts and dreams and they were always louder than those of the other victims.

In Singapore City rumours abounded. The certain knowledge that running opium was not in itself sufficiently lucrative to maintain an elegant house on nearby Lazarus Island or the phalanx of Chinee servants toiling there, had elicited the quiet but diligent consideration of the Governor and his spies however dangerous it was deemed so to do. It was said, in the brothels and opium dens of the riverside communities that even the whispering of Peabody's name had cost careless gossips a one-way trip to the mangroves. Disappearances were common and the morning tide churning up the waters of the Singapore River, often spat forth bodies for the saltwater crocodiles to feast upon.

However, with the increasingly successful activity of James Brooke and his band of stout lads aboard The Royalist, the Governor felt there might be a way to bring this particular ne'er do well to book and had sent messages to Sarawak by way of a request for assistance. It was timely as The Francine had in the last week slipped anchor for parts unknown.

Three days east of Singapore, Peabody had swapped his western clothing for native accoutrement. He now wore a sarong in yellow silk with maroon waist cloth and a yellow silk waistcoat over bare chest. Across that, hanging on a leather strap hung a parang and tucked into his waistband was an ornate, silver and ivory inlaid kris and a pair of American Colt pistols. His leathery, brown skin and wild curls suited the look and to all who saw him it would seem that he had been born east of Madras and not just outside Norwich. His hand beckoned and the boy shuffled over to him still on his knees where he succumbed to being stroked on his face and hair by the rough hand of his master. He kept his eyes firmly on the deck.

A shout from the crew raised the captain's attention and leaving the relieved boy he strode quickly to the quarterdeck where a large Malay brute with red bandana and bad teeth stroked the wheel. To the south was Borneo and Sarawak. Ahead and sailing north close to a small coral atoll was a large merchant junk. Unlikely to be armed, she was heavily laden and low in the water and while he watched her, more sail was added as if in affirmation that her crew had seen the Francine.

His crew waited anxiously, watching Peabody. He sucked his teeth and strode to the rail, clicking his fingers for the spyglass. Sarawak must be at least a hundred miles away and the haven of Half Moon Cay within a two day sail from the junk's position. He felt fairly safe. That interfering devil, Brooke and his Royal Navy helpers in The Royalist were busy, according to rumour, with river pirates on the Skraang. If he was quick they could win the prize and disappear.

He scanned the horizon again for 360 degrees and tapped the rail thoughtfully. Finally, the shouts of the crew and their excited pointing persuaded him.
'Dengan cepat! Kuai!'
The Francine's sails deployed and filled. Timbers and masts creaked as she put on speed. He smiled to see that yet more sail was being added by the junk's crew.

Within the hour the Francine had close hauled the junk. Her bow cannon splintered the junk's transom in order to frighten not damage. The junk needed to be seaworthy. When the two ships touched, Peabody shouted his orders. Grappling hooks flew across the void and seamen pulled and strained to bring her alongside. When they were rail to rail the men leapt over the side and onto the junk's deck, which crammed with cargo and a handful of terrified passengers. They set about them with their parangs and axes indiscriminately. On the stern of Francine, Zhang, sobbing with closed eyes, clutched the cat to him. Some of the junk's occupants were jumping into the sea, clinging to barrels or coconut sacking and preferring to take their chance with the sharks. The screaming and smoke mingled with the splashing of blood, spray and gleeful howls of the pirates. Throughout, he held the cat, fur bristling, her claws desperately kneading and pushing at his bare skin in fear at the tumult all around. Peabody laughed and shouted encouragement as the hecatomb continued.

Twenty minutes had passed before it finally ceased. Peabody, splashed with blood picked his way across the deck. Jute bundles, wicker bird baskets and cages lay scattered amongst broken crockery. Men, women and children lay piled upon each other, drenched in their own and their families' blood. He looked up at Zhang and shouted.

Trembling, Zhang put the cat down. She jumped up onto the rail and sat glaring at Peabody. He scowled back at her and picking up a smashed bowl threw it at her. She hissed then jumped down and disappeared while he cursed her in Malay.

Zhang slowly climbed over the rail and onto the junk. He flinched as his shipmates pushed past carrying bodies to throw over the side. The dark blood from the corpses splashed and dribbled across the decking following the paths of their bearers. Their sarongs were soaked in gore and the smell of death and powder hung aboard despite the stiffening breeze. A small casket was brought out of the after cabin and laid before Peabody. He tore open the lid and laughed at what he found. Thrusting his hand into the box he held aloft for all to see, the pearls and jade that lay within. The crew cheered wildly. A sudden commotion silenced them.

The large Malay with bad teeth had appeared from below pushing a small, fat merchant in front of him. His silk coat was stained and torn. Bobbing his head frantically, he babbled in high pitched mandarin, clasping and unclasping his podgy hands. Peabody grimly held out his parang and nodded Zhang towards the merchant.
"Shaleta!" Kill him.
Zhang kept his eyes downcast but shook his head.
"Shaleta! Xianzai! Now, or I'll gut you, boy.
Zhang didn't move.
Peabody's fist crashed into the side of his head.
He screamed again while the crew watched silently. "Shaleta!"
Zhang sobbed, silently, head bowed. The merchant wailed in despair..
"Kuai!" Peabody screamed, spittle flying from his lips. Zhang raised his eyes and shook his head. Peabody's face grew red. He raised the parang as if to strike Zhang, whose defiance was now making him lose face.

Without a warning, a tremendous, whistling, screeching crash sent the crew running. Rigging snapped and fell amongst them and large patches of the sea erupted close to the hull sending water and spray over the throng. A seaman screamed and pointed. Bucking and plunging through the dark, blue swell towards them was a dazzling, white-painted schooner. Above, the white ensign of the Royal Navy snapped and blew proudly. Brookes' Royalist was less than a mile away. The pirates swarmed desperately back over the rails onto the Francine, pulling at the rigging lines and bringing the sails into play while shell and shot landed about them splintering wood and tearing lumps out of bodies. The grappling ropes were cut and the Francine pulled away, heeling over as she made way. Zhang stood on the junk's deck amongst the gore and wreckage while the weeping, gibbering merchant hid behind him.

Shot and shell crashed down upon the Francine cutting her main mast and shredding the sails and pirates with equal efficiency. She wallowed in the swell no more that 100 yards from the junk, sporadically firing her only remaining cannon. The Royalist drew alongside, raking her decks with small arms fire and small calibre grapeshot until nothing further moved and the last cannon had ceased to operate. Brooke's men, mainly Royal Naval sailors but also with some Borneo tribesmen and Javanese volunteers quickly boarded her. Those pirates still wishing to fight were dispatched immediately by cutlass, parang or bullet and the others were rounded up and roped together into a sullen group. The young officer in charge of the boarding party grimly regarded his charge. Speaking in fluent Malay he demanded to know where Peabody was. None answered. He nodded to the master at arms whose men began to herd them onto the smaller boats for transfer back to The Royalist. Once aboard they were placed below in shackles to await their appointment with the gallows in Singapore.

The sea had begun to rise quite heavily as the afternoon progressed and the decision to leave sooner rather than later was taken. It was a disappointment that they had not identified Peabody's corpse but he could no longer pursue his wicked trade without a ship. With the junk in tow and manned by a skeleton crew, the schooner began to draw away from the Francine to bring her six pounder guns to bear. Once she had been sunk she would no longer pose a threat to merchant vessels. Zhang sat on deck with the merchant who had regained his composure and was busy cursing the pirates now safely locked up below. His eye was caught by a sudden movement on board the Francine.

High up on the aft transom, a ginger and white shape ran, keeping pace with the moving Royalist. Zhang stood and stared. He shouted to elevate his voice above the noise of waves and waved at the officer by the wheel, directing his gaze to the cat. The officer shook his head and shrugged but then stared in alarm as the boy stripped off his waistcoat and mounted the rail. Zhang threw himself into the breeze feeling the chill spray hit him several feet above the green, blue and white frothed waves. He disappeared beneath the water briefly before popping up gasping and striking out strongly to the Francine. Grasping one of the dangling grappling ropes he hauled himself gradually out of the water and up onto the planks of the hull until he could gain entry through a gunport. Close by, The Royalist hove to and a boat was put into the water with two seamen and an officer to go and collect the boy and the cat.

Once on board he trod carefully along the deck between rumbling cannon balls, rope and bags of powder towards the steps up onto the main deck. Here and there blood ran trickled back and forth in time with the roll of the ship. The timbers creaked and somewhere below him a door banged repeatedly. He passed his former sleeping place. His eating bowl lay upside down alongside the rags and he stopped to pick it up. A leather bag hung from the bulkhead in front of him. Putting it around his neck he slipped the bowl inside and continued towards the stairs. He ran up to the main deck and whistled for the cat. She was nowhere to be seen. He moved along the rail looking high and low but she had gone. He entered the cabin where the table and charts still lay where he had last seen them and searched in the dark recess of the bulkhead. A noise directed his attention to the corner and he smiled to see a flash of orange. He bent down with hands outstretched. The cat hissed and yowled with her ears back on her head. Exposing her sharp teeth she jumped over Zhang's shoulder. Frightened by her demeanour he turned to see where she was going just in time to avoid a blow from the kris in the hand of Peabody. The sharp knife sliced thin air causing him to overbalance and stumble against the boy who wriggled to one side, falling onto his back. The captain sprang back to his feet and again tried to bury the kris in Zhang's chest but only caught the flesh of his upper arm. He almost fainted with the pain of it but rolled away and gasping, got to his feet where he supported himself against the table. A footfall on the deck outside announced the arrival of the officer plus one of his seamen. Zhang hesitated and called out hoping the British sailors would understand.
The officer entered the cabin and before he could react Peabody was upon him stabbing and thrusting with the kris. He crumpled to the deck with his wide unseeing eyes directed accusingly at Zhang. As Zhang stared in horror Peabody yanked the door open and burst out, knocking the sailor aside and before he could bring his carbine to bear, Peabody had fled below decks. The sailor ran to the rail and fired a shot to emphasise the need for help. Another boat was put down this time manned by five sailors and an officer.

A rage rose in Zhang that he had never felt before. All the months of degradation; witnessing the murder of his mother and having lived with the bestial practices of the pirates welled up in him uncontrolled. Reaching down, he took the officer's cutlass with his good hand and trailing his injured arm, loped across the deck and down the stairs. He trod carefully, ears alert for the slightest sound out of the ordinary. He stood, attuning his senses to the background groaning and creaking of the ship; the sound of things, rolling about on the deck and the door still banging far below him but most of all, the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears. The daylight breaking through the gun ports and filtering in from the stairs cast awkward shadows and distorted the ordinary - making everything he knew from his previous habitat, alien and threatening. He stepped carefully with his bare feet, feeling his way through the detritus of battle. Slippery fluids made the way tricky and hard iron bruised his flesh. He approached the next set of steps down. Even less light penetrated these depths. He reached the bottom and squinting into the gloom registered as far as he could, the expected shapes and forms. Further along the passageway the door banged again. Zhang swallowed hard and began to feel his way forward. He could hear the English voices above calling to him but dared not answer. Further ahead a slight movement caught his eye and he froze trying to use his peripheral vision to locate it. It was low down and seemed to be moving back and forth in a repetitive motion.

He drew nearer holding the cutlass in front of him as if it was a talisman warding off evil. Gradually, his brain worked out the patterns and the motion. The cat stood side on to him, looking at him and licking its lips nervously, tail in the air. As he watched it deliberately rubbed itself against the drawn curtain across the passage. Again it did so and again and again stopping only to step towards him and then back to the curtain. Zhang swallowed quietly and gripped the hilt of the cutlass firmly. He raised it above his head intending to thrust through into the space behind but eyes better accustomed than his to this darkness had seen his intention. Peabody burst through the curtain with the kris pointed directly at Zhang's chest. He sidestepped the thrust but slipped and fell, bringing Peabody down with him. He screamed and scrabbled at Peabody's face having dropped the cutlass, desperately trying to extricate himself from the man. The kris swept through the air catching his ear and sending red hot pain into his brain. Peabody had risen to his knees leaning over the boy. He had lifted his arm high above Zhang for the final blow. Frantically Zhang cast about for his cutlass but it was pinned under his body.

He stared into Peabody's face, knowing it was all over. He was suddenly surprised by an unexpected sensation. He felt the scrabble of pads and the sharp sting of claws in his abdomen and the cat launched herself into the air, striking Peabody's face and fastening onto his neck and the side of his head. The cat was growling furiously and the captain screamed in pain when her claws carved into his face and eye. He tried to knock her free without any luck then tried to stand. He had by now relinquished the kris, which fell with a clatter into the dark at his feet. Zhang screamed in pain as he used his damaged arm for purchase and rolled forward to grab the kris. Lunging, he drove the blade hard into and across Peabody's chest and down through the top of the waistband and into the sarong. A bubbling howl of agony left the captain's lips and he staggered. The cat hit the floor and sped away. Zhang was surprised in a strangely detached sort of way to see the sarong peel away slowly exposing Peabody's old man shanks and shrivelled genitals. Slowly, a ribbon of red appeared, following the track of the razor sharp blade. The ribbon became more, much more and his belly finally split wide open to spill his steaming insides. He clutched desperately with shaking hands as if he could somehow make good the awful damage. Sinking to his knees, he stared open mouthed at Zhang before his eyes closed and he crumpled to the floor. Zhang passed out.

How long he lay there he didn't know but he was woken by a British officer holding a lamp above his head. He was studying the boy with concern.
"Well done. Lad." He spoke quietly.
A movement down by his leg caught Zhang's eye and the boy clucked a greeting. The cat looked up and meowed a greeting back then stuck her blood smeared head back into her gruesome feast until she turned to follow the stretcher upon which they had loaded her new master.