Caruthers' Mistake
by Dana DeVries

   The waters in the small island's bay were crystal clear and the bottom formed a beautiful coral design. The bay boasted enough room for three galleons to anchor but only a single-masted sloop and a small frigate floated there at present. The sails were draped onto the decks and the sloop stood empty of flags or crew. The other ship, a frigate named The Ruthless Heart, flew a flag depicting a skull with a demented grin. Its sheets were brown with dirt and the ropes were filled with knots and snarls. A score of pirates rushed through the rigging, trying to avoid catastrophe as they lowered sails, lashed lines down, and put the ship into the slight wind from inland. More men stood on the main deck and pointed towards the beautifully shaded shorelines and a village's lightly colored huts. Most of the crew matched their ship well: dirty and unkempt.

   Standing in the middle of the gossip and chaos stood a portly, bald man dressed in a motley assortment of clothing stolen from a dozen plundered ships. His air of authority clashed with the food stains and tears upon his clothes. He drew his pistol and fired into the air. The bullet passed less than a parrot feather's length from a rigger and the bird squawked in anger at the deck, but even it fell silent when it saw the captain's scowl.

   "Alright, boys. Looks like they've scattered into the jungle." The captain's extended hand began picking out members of his crew like a dog flicking at fleas. "You six, check out the sloop. Make sure no one's hiding on board. You others," he said, pointing to some sixteen sailors, "You come with me. We'll see if there's anything worth taking before we land the whole crew."

   One voice rose from the back of the mob. "What's to stop you from pocketing all the best loot?"

   The captain's head swiveled across the crew who cleared to either side as if his gaze were a loaded cannon. Only one man stood up to that glare; a jagged scar across his face, a hook for a left hand and clothing in tatters, he was a slovenly sight. The captain's voice was quiet but easily carried across the silent crew. "Ya got my word, the word of Captain Caruthers. Or are you sayin' you don't trust me?"

   "I ain't sayin' nothin'. Just that we ain't getting' rich like you claimed. We came all the way out to the Midnight Archipelago and we ain't seen ships laden with gold and spices. We ain't seen nothin' 'cept this rock. And you want to go loot it while we's wait here? T'ain't right." The rest of the crew did not say a word but their eyes focused coldly on the captain.

   "Alright, Smitty. You come with us. Anything seems wrong, you can let the others know. 'Course if it goes smoothly, you're going to get three kisses from the cat for insubordination."

   Smitty grinned. "Not a problem, cap'n. I've sailed with you long enough to know that nothin' you do goes right." The crew grinned at the remark until the sound of Caruthers grinding his teeth wiped the smiles off their faces.

   The men quickly dropped into the two longboats, one headed for shore and one headed for the sloop at anchor. They reached the sloop first and shouted back to the captain who was directing the other longboat.

   "Nothin' here! Nothin' to loot and nothin' to eat. Just a longboat lashed alongside." Caruthers scowled and waved them back to the Ruthless Heart. His own longboat pulled up to a well-constructed but empty dock a few minutes later. The men who fell in behind him were a bedraggled assortment of thugs, salts and lowlifes, the sort that attach themselves like barnacles to any ship going to sea. As he stepped towards the island, they followed him like a pack of hungry hounds.

   Caruthers peered down the village's only street with a frown. A gust of wind swirled down the meandering path, tossing laundry aside and overturning baskets half filled with berries. But no one toiled amidst the sturdy huts scattered through the fruit trees. The huts were built of solid planking on a stone foundation; the roofs thatched with jungle fronds and then sealed with tar. Past a thick stand of trees, a few small fields of oats and wheat were visible, but they were devoid of workers. The entire place looked as if the inhabitants had dropped everything to go on a quick errand and might return at any moment. In the center of the huts, the captain growled at an enormous stone carved with a series of names and topped by a single word -- "Utopia."

   "You three, check out the houses on the east end of the street." When the three pirates turned with a puzzled look on their faces, he sighed and pointed to the right. The men quickly began poking into the homes. One man called out, "Lots a' stuff, pots and pans, books, 'n stuff, one of them big closets for clothes, but don't see nuthin' valuable."

   A series of sudden thuds and blows came from the house, then ceased abruptly. Before anyone could move, a loud soprano voice called out. "Drop your weapons and surrender and we won't be forced to do anything else violent." The pirates looked around in bewilderment until the speaker cleared her throat. Gazing up, they saw a beautiful blonde wearing a loose homespun blouse over tight leather pants. Balanced upon the center beam of one of the huts, she grinned down at them with her hands on her hips, close to a sword and a pistol. As they continued to gape, she nodded her head slowly. "Yes, I was speaking to you. Drop your weapons and surrender."

   Caruthers roared out, "Surrender to a little girl like you? I don't think so. But if you come down quietly, maybe I'll keep you to myself instead of sharing you with the entire crew."

   "As tempting as that offer is, captain, I'm afraid I have to decline."

   "Hear that, boys? The wench thought I was giving her a choice. Bring her down and I'll show her how I handle lippy women."

   "Again, an interesting offer but you're overlooking the fact that we outnumber you. Why don't you just surrender now, before I have to get rough."

   "Outnumber us? You're the only one with enough balls to fight us. Doesn't really say much for the people of this island. What do you call it, Cowardstown?"

   The blonde shook her head slowly. "Ahh, can't even read either, eh? It's called Utopia."

   "I can read alright, but like Grog said, Gosse died at sea."

   "That's where you made your mistake, I suspect." The girl laughed mirthlessly. "Did you really think we'd line up in the middle of the street and wait for you to come ashore so we could just curtsy and fall backwards?"

   Caruthers shouted out angrily. "What are you idiots waiting for? Go get her! Smitty, get those idiots out of that hut and bring anyone else in there out here too." Cutlass drawn, Smitty lurched into the hut where the other men had disappeared while three of the other pirates nodded and rushed towards the hut on which the young woman stood.

   The men grabbed for the edge of the roof and pulled themselves up. With a shrug, the girl lashed out with her boot and swept the first one's legs out from underneath him. The pirate toppled off the roof and crashed onto the ground with a thud. The other two drew swords and advanced more cautiously, carefully placing their feet upon the eaves beneath the thatch. The woman leaned forward towards one of them and quietly called out "Boo." The man took a step backwards; his foot missed the eave and went through the thatch. The woman drew her sword and slammed the hilt of it onto his head and the rest of him collapsed through the roof.

   As she straightened up, she asked loudly, "Haven't any of you ever heard of Gosse's Gentlemen? The famous pirates who retired to Utopia?"

   The one pirate still on the roof spat in derision. "That's just a story. Everyone knows Gosse and his men died at sea." He took two steps forward and swung at the woman with his cutlass.

   "Speaking as his daughter Melinda, I'm afraid I have to object to that theory."

   Melinda Gosse forcefully parried the incoming blade and the rusty cutlass snapped against her own fine weapon. The men on the street below scattered as the blade fragments whirled through the air to land point first in the street. The blonde feinted with her own sword and the man facing her turned pale as he took a step back but before Melinda could move, a foot of steel jabbed through the roof between her feet. The pirate she had had kicked off the roof called out from below, "Did I get her, Grog?"

   Emboldened by the reminder that he was not alone, Grog growled. "Nah, I'll fix the wench." He jumped towards Melinda, reaching out with both arms to grab her but she nimbly danced back a step, then whirled, grabbed him by the wrist, pulled him towards her and shoved her arm down hard. Grog crashed through the roof on top of the other pirate and both collapsed to the ground.

   Caruthers watched the rooftop ballet in frustration and finally drew his pistol. "I guess I can't trust you morons to even take care of a little girl. Nobody makes a fool out of Captain Caruthers. You don't come down this instant, missy, I'm going to shoot you where you stand."

   Smitty and the other men who had gone into the house on the other side of the street crashed onto the ground in front of the hut. Two teenage boys stood in the doorway of the house with their arms folded over their chest and grinned down at the bruised pirates. A group of women appeared at another hut's door, pistols at the ready.

   "That's funny, Captain Caruthers. I was about to offer you the same deal. Of course, my gun is a bit larger." She pointed her sword at a stand of trees at the edge of town. Caruthers glanced that way and saw a twenty-pound cannon mounted on a platform. The wide iron mouth was aimed straight for him and his men. A small gunner team grinned confidently at the pirates.

   The pirates began glancing towards their ship, but Caruthers stood his ground. "Nice popgun, girl, but you're only going to get one shot. Then my crew will begin bombarding this puny village. I doubt your twenty-pounder can hold off a fully-loaded frigate."

   "You could be right. Lucky for me, it's not your frigate anymore." Melinda pointed towards the Heart, which was now anchored in the harbor. Caruthers watched in fury as a villager cut down his colors. Most of his men stood on the main deck with their hands raised above their heads while several dozen soaking wet figures pointed weapons at them.

   He turned back to the young woman and opened his mouth soundlessly.

   Melinda began the dialogue for him. "How did we capture the frigate? The sloop has several smuggling compartments where my men could wait while you came ashore. How did we know you were coming? We've got lookouts all around of the island. We've been ready to repel your attack since before you made your final approach. Now, I'll say this just once. Drop your weapons and surrender, or you'll be known as the former Captain Caruthers."

   The pirates dropped their weapons from numb hands and Caruthers sullenly called out, "We surrender." The girl sheathed her sword and easily jumped down from the hut's roof. "Wise decision. In the name of Gosse's Gentlemen, I, Melinda Gosse accept. Now we're all going for a short trip. We're going to take you and your… crew to a small island far from here. There's plenty of food and water, but it is completely lacking in amenities or civilization. Perhaps you can create one before you're rescued. Given how many ships are prowling the Midnight Archipelago right now, it shouldn't take too long. We're short a decent sized boat at the moment so we'll just have to take yours." Her men laughed as Caruthers nodded blankly.

   The villagers quickly gathered up the weapons on the ground. As Melina picked up the pirate captain's pistol and cutlass, Caruthers extended his arm. A dagger flew out of a hidden sheath and into his hand. He quickly placed it to her throat. "Tell your men to stand aside or I'll slit your throat."

   The blonde girl looked thoughtful for a moment, then spoke calmly. "Stand clear, everyone. On my order, fire the cannon."

   Caruthers turned his head towards the gunner crew and watched in horror as they lit the big twenty-pounder. His crew ran for cover in a panic. Melinda's men moved gracefully to the side, their faces marked with expressions of concern. More than one seemed tempted to charge to her aid as the fuse sizzled. From Caruther's position, the cannon's bore seemed large enough to swallow a man but he stood firm and croaked out, "You're bluffing. That'll kill both of us."

   Melinda shrugged. "True but I'm not afraid to meet Theus. How about you?"

   Caruthers' eyes bulged and he declared in a loud voice, "You vixen! It's not really loaded!"

   "Are you certain?"

   The fuse continued to burn for several seconds as the pirate stared in fear at his captive's calm face. With a scowl, he dropped the dagger and released her. She nodded and one of the gunners quickly pulled the fuse from the cannon. Obviously relieved, she turned back to the pirate leader. "For your information, it was loaded."

   A cheer went up from her men as she gave the order.

   "Samuel, get these men back in the skiff and into their ship's hold before Captain Caruthers here gets any other ideas."

   As the pirates were marched to their skiff, the Gosse colors rose proudly up the mast of The Ruthless Heart.