Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pirate Waters 2: The Rescue of Barbados Betty

Captain Powder Jack stood at the helm of his newly christened ship the Sea Dragon. He spun the wheel to turn the ship as they sailed out of the harbor of Port Royal. There was a favorable wind and Jack was elated to be heading out to sea again. He sang lustily and off-key:
"What did we do with Cap'n Jones bones?
What did we do with Cap'n Jones bones?
What did we do with Cap'n Jones bones?
We buried him at sea.
First, we used the skull for bowling
Then we used the thigh for walking
Then we used the fingers for needles
We buried him at sea
Second, we used the shin for stirring
Then we used the heel for grinding
Then we used the toes for dice
We buried him at sea"
Three verses later the first mate came up to the captain and said, "Begging your pardon, Cap'n, sir but I represent the crew. They say your singing is most noisome."
"Ah, just the man I wanted to see." said the captain smiling. "The privy is in dire need of scrubbing—see to it.
"Aye, aye, Cap'n." said the mate.

Nothing was going to stop Captain Powder Jack today from being in a good mood. He had a new ship, a large purse of gold, and a shiny hook for his right hand. He had wanted a hook for some time but until recently both of his hands worked perfectly. Fortunately, he blew off his own hand a couple of days ago. Jack thought the new hook made him look both dashing and fierce. He had practiced using a sword with his left hand for years in the event that he lost his right hand and was glad that the hard work would pay off. Jack began singing again, much to this dismay of the sailors who had prayed to the saints and gods of the sea that he had lost his place.
"Seventh, we used the beard for weaving..."
Powder Jack knew all twenty verses of the song and could sing them without missing a word even while drunk (though the words would slur a little.)

As he sang he thought about the girl he loved down in Barbados, Elizabeth 'Betty' Prim. The daughter of an Englishman and a native princess, Betty was a stunning beauty. Her dark eyes and wavy tresses were the envy of all the ladies. She was also a huge flirt and Jack knew he would have to return to her soon or she would get restless. And there would be plenty of suitors for her. On an island with few women, men circled Betty like hungry sharks.
"...Then we used the guts for strings
We buried what's left o' him at sea!"
Mercifully, the captain's song ended. The first mate ran up before Powder Jack could start a new song.

"Cap'n, sir! I have scrubbed the privy clean." said the mate.
"Really? Clean already?" asked Jack in disbelief.
"Aye, Cap'n, sir. Clean enough for the queen herself to sit on." said the mate.
"Good man!" replied Jack and his mind began to work. The first mate clearly had the potential of being a great lackey. There was one on every crew.

"Er, what exactly is your name, mate?" asked Jack.
"Augustus Daniels, sir, but most calls me 'Gus'." said the mate.
"Well, Gus, how would you like to be my new shadow?" said Jack.
"You mean it? Oh yes, Cap'n, sir, I would be delighted!" said the mate.
"Please, Gus, just call me 'Cap'n'." replied Jack smoothly.

*****
Gus rowed the small canoe as fast as he could. Cannon balls flew overhead between the pirate ship and the barricades of Barbados. Some of them splashed uncomfortably close to the canoe in the shallow water. Captain Powder Jack sat in the bow while facing forward and holding a drawn sword. He was reveling in the battle and wearing a broad smile.
"Cap'n, are you sure about all this?" yelled Gus between cannon blasts and rowing the canoe.
"Ha! Gus, you worry too much! The plan is simple: you and I will go ashore and I will locate and steal away Barbados Betty while you go find the jailer's key." said Jack beaming confidently.
"And why exactly do we need the jailer's key?" asked Gus.
"Why, in case I get captured, you simpleton!" retorted the captain. "Honestly, Gus, you don't think ahead sometimes." quipped Jack.
"A thousand pardons, Cap'n." said Gus.

Gus, however, was unsure if Powder Jack thought ahead much either. He had ordered the pirate ship to sail right up to the harbor of Barbados and blast away with a broadside of cannons. "Make it rain cannonballs, lads!" the captain had said. "Blast them to bits. We'll teach them the meaning of 'Powder Jack'. And when the fort flies the white flag you're free to come ashore and loot to your heart's delight."

Apparently, the authorities at Barbados were ready for Powder Jack and his crew. They knew he would visit again and they had a line of cannons waiting for him. Jack loved the challenge though and was hoping they would put up a fight before he sacked the town.

Reaching the beach, Jack jumped from the canoe and pointed with his sword down the main road.
"You will find a very drafty and rat-infested jail that way, Gus—just beyond the church." Gus, covered in sweat, just nodded.

"As for me, I'm off to see my love, Betty." said Jack. He turned to trot towards the terraced hills nearby of her father's plantation.

*****
Betty looked out from the balcony of her house and then returned quickly to the looking glass. She wanted to look her best when Jack arrived. "Mother! Quick! Help me tighten my corset in the back." she yelled down the stairs.
Betty knew the day would come when Jack would return and was excited to hear the cannon balls booming.

Betty's mom entered the room and gave her a look. Betty read the look on her face and gave one back.
"What are you going to tell that nice boy, Geoffrey?" Betty's mom, Siba, asked while tightening her corset.
"Mother, I don't love Geoffrey. He's just a friend." she said quickly.
Siba persisted, "Geoffrey has worked very hard for your father and he would make a great husband. Besides, he will be heartbroken."

Siba would be heartbroken, too, if Betty ran off with Jack rather than marrying the local boy. She knew that Geoffrey was a quiet landlord who would choose to live next door to Siba and her husband for many years while raising her grandchildren. Powder Jack would haul her daughter off to sea or worse leave her pregnant and stranded for months at a time while he sacked merchant ships on the waters.

"It's not like Geoffrey and I are married." said Betty defiantly.
"Yes, but you were to marry him in one week!" shot back Siba. "As if it weren't enough already that you are too young to marry." she continued.
"You were younger than I, Mother, when Father stole you from your people and carried you away to this island to be his wife!" fumed Betty.
"Yes, but I was very mature for my age. The women of our tribe had to grow up fast. You! you're a coquettish girl who likes to dress up." said Siba.
Betty played her trump card by saying, "Well, I'm marrying Jack and no one can stop me!"
The truth is Betty had been playing this game a long time—pouting, raging, charming, doing anything to get her own way. Her parents could hardly wait for her to be married off and become someone else's problem. They were so close to her marrying someone decent but now she was determined to run off with a pirate.

*****
Peter Prim was tired of his daughter causing trouble. He had already run Powder Jack off the island once before and now he would have to deal with him again.

Half a year before when Betty came home with a garishly dressed seaman on her arm, Peter smelled a rat.
"What exactly do you do for a living, sir?" asked the wary father.
"Oh, papa, Jack is a ship captain—isn't that exciting?" squealed his daughter. Jack simply smirked and nodded.
"And what pray-tell do you carry on your ship, sir?" inquired the father.
"Oh, whatever I pick up here and there." said Jack nonchalantly.
"Hmm, yes. What's the current price for a barrel of sugar?" asked Peter, the sugar plantation owner.
"Er... a large or small barrel?" stalled Jack.
"And how much for a barrel of rum?" persisted Peter.
"Two crowns, a shilling, six pence, and a couple of farthings." replied Jack without blinking. "Or I could give it to you in doubloons or dollars...
"How are you with a sword, sir?" asked Peter.
Suddenly Powder Jack's eyes flashed. "Any man that crosses blades with me will not live to tell about it." said Jack chuckling. "That is, if I don't shoot them first! Eh?"
"Do you ever encounter pirates on the seas, sir?" asked Peter.
"Oh yes, they're nasty devils. Rumor has it that there's some prowling these very waters. Why just two—no three days ago a merchant vessel was hit not far from here and blown to bits! Or so says the sailors down at the tavern." said Jack.
"Betty, dear, would you please fetch my pipe and bring Captain Jack a cigar?" Peter said suddenly. "I wish to talk with him further in private."
The ecstatic girl suspected her father and Jack were really getting along well now.
Fifteen minutes later she heard them arguing loudly in the drawing room.

"...I'm a powerful man on this island and if you don't want to be hanged or thrown in jail you will stay away from my daughter!" yelled Peter Prim.
"No, Papa!" Betty said as she rushed into the room. By now, most of the household servants were crowded just outside of the room to see what all the commotion was about.
Jack had drawn his matchlock pistol and lit the wick with the end of his cigar. Peter stood on the other side of the room with a machete he had grabbed off a peg by the door.
"Stay out of this, Betty!" yelled Peter.
"Honestly, sir, I think your daughter has a say in this matter." interjected Jack.
"You'll get to my daughter over my dead body." growled the father.
"As you wish." said Jack and he fired the pistol and shot the pipe out of Peter's mouth. It was a very impressive shot—a one in a million. It was also an accident. Jack had been aiming for his head. He had a flare for the dramatic however and seized the moment to walk past the stupefied father and attendants.
"I will be down at the tavern, Betty, if you wish to join me." said Jack as he was leaving.
Betty's father stood wide-eyed and motionless with only the stem of the pipe clenched in his teeth.

The next day, a delirious sailor washed up at Barbados clinging to a half empty barrel of rum. Once they revived the poor, sunburned man, he told the harrowing story of being attacked by the notorious pirate, Powder Jack. The ship was plundered and blown to bits by powder kegs and he alone escaped on a barrel of rum. He had drifted at sea for four days and survived by taking nips of the rum and passing the hours singing, "Cap'n Jones Bones."

Once the news got around, Peter Prim had the local magistrates arrest Powder Jack (who was found head down on a table at the tavern) and throw him in jail. That was the last of Powder Jack—or so Peter thought but over the next month his daughter and Jack exchanged letters daily through the bars of the window.
"She'll get over him after he's hanged." thought Peter. However, the night before the execution the town awoke to the church bell ringing in alarm. The custom house and bank were ablaze and the window of the jail had been blown out. Jack's pistol and sword had been taken when he was arrested but he had hidden his powder horn and flint in his boot. It turned out that his distinctive limp was not merely an affectation but caused by what he was carrying in his boot.

It did not take people long to put the pieces together and the crowd rushed to the docks in time to see Jack being rowed out to a waiting pirate ship in the harbor. Jack stood defiantly in the boat, lit by the flickering firelight and shouted across the waters, "I've got the money from the bank but I will return for the biggest prize yet—Betty Prim!" The whole town was abuzz with the news for weeks and Betty was delighted.

Now, six months later, Jack was back on the island and Peter Prim was busy gathering a guard for his house. By now, most of the fighting men in town had rushed to the barricades to hold the pirates back with cannons and muskets. In fact, the whole town was in chaos.
Peter rode up on horseback to someone he knew would still be around. There was Geoffrey giving instructions to some workers on plans for an irrigation ditch to be dug. He was so engrossed in his work that he was oblivious to the cannon fire.
"Geoffrey! You had better grab your sword and hurry to the main house if you still want to have a bride in a week!" shouted Peter.
Geoffrey looked around, startled by the realization that Betty could be gone by the time he got to her house. The past four months with Betty had been exciting and agonizing. Geoffrey had proved again and again his undying love to her in a thousand acts of kindness. He assured her his only goal was her happiness in life. He worked tirelessly for her father and had saved enough money to build a house for them.
But the ghost of Powder Jack haunted their courtship. He often saw Betty looking out from her balcony dreamily at the sea. Her big eyes would moisten ever so slightly at those times and a sigh would escape through her luscious lips. Geoffrey noticed her elevated heart rate as well by the slight pulse of the vein along her delicate neck—he could not marry her soon enough! He begged her for short a engagement, but she convinced him she needed more time to plan.

Geoffrey jumped on a horse and tore across the countryside. Fortunately, he already had a longsword tied carefully across the back of his saddle. When he arrived Betty stood on the balcony breathless (from the corset) and clutching her bosom. Powder Jack was standing below, entreating her to jump into his waiting arms.

"Back off, you blackguard!" shouted Geoffrey at Jack. Both men drew swords.

Just two days before Betty had made up her mind finally to marry Geoffrey. She had walked the hills of her plantation talking for countless hours with her best friend, Rica, about whom she should marry. Rica was such a great friend! She had pointed out to Betty that Geoffrey was handsome and secure while Jack was exotic and risky. Rica thought Betty should marry Geoffrey but she totally supported her friend no matter what her decision. Now as Betty looked below she was as confused as ever. Sweet Geoffrey, fresh from the field, with his tanned muscles and tussled, blonde hair was holding a sword and ready to die for her. Just to the left of him stood Jack in a long, blue coat with silver buttons. He wore a dark purple, tricorne hat with a plume made of peacock feathers. Only a dandy or a flamboyant pirate would attempt such fashion. A thin rapier was in his left hand and the rays of the setting sun reflected off a silver hook on his right—how dashing and fierce!

"En garde, you scoundrel!" shouted Geoffrey.
"Meet your death!" countered Jack.
Geoffrey swung the heavy longsword and Jack deftly turned it aside with his slender rapier. Geoffrey used his back swing to try to take off Jack's head. But Jack caught the blade with the hook on his right hand.
"I love this thing!" Jack exclaimed while turning Geoffrey's sword with his hook. Then Jack whipped his rapier across Geoffrey's chest, slicing his shirt open and tracing a thin trail of blood.
"Boys, please, don't fight!" Betty cried from the balcony, but secretly she was thrilled. The townspeople would talk about this for years. Additionally, if one of the two men were killed it would make her choice for a husband a whole lot easier—decisions, decisions!

Betty's father and a group of armed men thundered up on horseback. They saw that Geoffrey was losing the sword fight badly. Jack was just toying with him like a cat playing with some unfortunate creature before killing it.

"Ah, gentlemen, good of you to join us." said Jack while dodging a sword slash. "You will have to wait your turn to die. Please form a line."

Peter Prim did not want to take any chances though so he and his men rushed up and threw three fishing nets quickly over Jack. Then they wrestled him to the ground and stood on his sword blade.

"Oy! It's dishonorable to interrupt a duel!" protested Jack.
"You're no gentleman!" said Peter triumphantly. "You're a dirty pirate—the lowest of criminals."
"You mean the best dressed of them." said Jack.

Jack knew his time was short so he started yelling. "Betty! Betty! I will break free and find you. Come away with me!"

"Where, Jack?" she gasped. "Wherever shall we live?" Her hand went from her bosom to her forehead. She feared she might faint at any moment.
"Who cares!" yelled Jack. "I have enough gold to buy an island."
"Really?" she sang out, suddenly revived. Then she dropped the question, "Would you be willing to retire from the sea to make a home for us?"
"What?" exclaimed Jack. "That's not part of the deal..."

Jack was suddenly dragged behind the horses, net and all. He went bumping and eating the dirt all the way to the jail. Once there he was indignantly thrown into his old cell with the promise that he would be hung in the morning. A rat scurried by his feet as he sat down on the hard, wooden cot.

"Time for a nap." thought Jack. Even though it was early evening, Jack knew he would need all the rest he could get to be ready for either a grand escape the next day or a memorable death.

*****
"Get up!" yelled the jailer while banging the bars with a club. "You have a visitor. Father Maynard is here—no doubt to pray for your condemned soul."
Jack sat up and rubbed his face sleepily. A priest in black robe entered the cell carrying a basket.
"Leave us, my child." he said to the jailer. "That I might hear the confession of this dying thief."
The jailer obliged, happy to get back to his station in the front room where he could return to sleep himself.
When the jailer was well out of earshot. The priest whispered, "I brought you some bread and a skin of wine, Cap'n."
"What the devil took you so long, Gus!" said Jack.
"Begging your pardon, Cap'n, but the priest next door put up quite a fight. Also, I didn't feel right about killing a man of the cloth so I restrained him. We have to move fast before someone finds a naked priest in the church bound by ropes." said Gus.
"This bread is stale!" complained Jack.
"Sorry, Cap'n, stale was the best I could steal." said Gus.
"It can't be helped, I guess." said Jack. "Did you get the key?"
"Aye, I did." said Gus and he pulled the key to the jail from his sleeve.
"What news of the attack, then?" asked Jack.
"The quartermaster had the crew pull the ship out of range of the barricade cannons. The townsfolk are glad they survived the bombardment and are using the cover of darkness to shore up the fortifications for tomorrow." said Gus.
"Excellent!" said Jack. "Have you got any black powder on you?"
"Aye, Cap'n, a little." said Gus.
"Meet me an hour before dawn by the custom house." said Jack with a gleam in his eye.

*****
As dawn broke the weary townsfolk awoke to the sound of the church bell ringing in alarm. A fat, naked priest was pulling the bell rope, the newly rebuilt custom house and bank were on fire, and the notorious pirate Powder Jack was being rowed out to his ship with so much gold it threatened to sink the small canoe. Jack soaked in the moment, standing in the canoe with the rising sun behind him. Most of the town, including Peter and Betty Prim, stood on the shore in shocked defeat.
"Cap'n, are you sure you want to leave Barbados Betty behind?" asked Gus while rowing.
"Ah, lad." replied Jack. "The sea is my only mistress."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Pirate Waters

"It is a glorious day to be sailing." thought Sir Robert Kaye while dabbing lightly at the perspiration on his forehead with his silk handkerchief. He had slept late and dined on the best of the provisions for breakfast. He fully expected to be arriving in Jamaica by tomorrow.

At the helm of the merchant ship stood Capt. William Mason who was in an unusually foul mood. The sailors on the ship knew it and tried to keep out of his way today. Those unfortunate enough to come near to him got commands and curses yelled at them.
"Check the shrouds for fraying, you indolent barnacle or you'll have my boot to eat and brine to drink!" shouted Capt. Mason at a sailor.

The captain was in a bad mood because his large merchant ship carried nothing but a strongbox full of gold and silver—and these were Pirate Waters.

What's more, Capt. Mason had been convinced to carry along an insufferable dandy, a gentleman from England, to drop off in Jamaica. Sir Kaye had made himself a general nuisance over the past few weeks, demanding deference from all on board and complaining about everything on the ship from the privy to the wine.

Capt. Mason's plan was one that was sure to reap incredible riches if he were successful. He would load up in Port Royal with as many barrels of molasses as he could cram onto the large ship. He would sell off the molasses in Newport, Rhode Island and return to England with double the amount of gold and silver in the strongbox now. He would switch off sailing crews at each port giving the men just enough money to get drunk for a couple of nights and then return to England with a skeleton crew and vast treasure.

But there were others that day that had treasure on their minds: two others in fact.

"Cap'n!" cried the boatswain "a ship's been spotted off starboard the last hour and heading for us."
"St. Elmo's fire!" swore the Captain. "Blow your pipe, Bo's'n, and get all hands on deck. We're going to open every sail and pull hard to port."

"What is the meaning of all this?" demanded Sir Robert Kaye. His leisurely deck stroll had been interrupted by sailors rushing around.

"Late to the ball are we, your Lordship?" mocked Capt. Mason. The humor was missed entirely by the dandy who replied, "Fashionably late."

Just then the first mate with his spyglass came running up. "Cap'n Mace, sir..."
"I already know—there's a ship off the starboard rail." the captain said cutting him off.
"No, Cap'n, sir. There's a ship also off port side of the stern and gaining hard on us." said the mate with panic in his voice.

"Great Neptune's beard!" blustered the captain. "We'll not outrun both in these winds. What colors are they flying?" asked the captain.

"Both black flags, Cap'n, sir. One with a sword and the other with an hour glass." said the mate.

"Roll out the cannons and stand by." ordered the captain.

"On my word, are we being attacked then?" bleated Sir Kaye.
"Not another word from you, you foppish silk stocking or you'll be stuffed in a barrel and rolled overboard!" said Capt. Mason red-faced.

"You are a foul-smelling, crude, ill-mannered beast!" retorted Sir Kaye.
Capt. Mason swung a meaty fist and narrowly missed Sir Kaye's head. Sir Kaye squealed and pranced away. Hours of dancing had honed his reflexes and agility which just saved him from a certain broken nose.

Both pirate ships approached quickly and easily overtook the slow-moving merchant ship. Capt. Mason and his crew stood on deck and braced for a bloody attack. The ships seemed to be racing each other.

"Hold your fire, lads," shouted Capt. Mason "or we'll be blown to splinters from both sides. We're out-gunned and we'll have to bargain." Capt. Mason had a bag of coins on him that might buy off the pirates and the rest was safely hidden in the bottom of the ship.

Both ships crashed up against the merchant ship simultaneously. A large man with a wild beard and a sword in hand jumped from his ship over the starboard rail and landed hard on the deck of the merchant ship. The man winced in pain as one of his ankles buckled. Nevertheless he roared, "I'm Captain Bill Booty! Surrender your ship or every man aboard will die by sword or sea—that is, after their teeth and toenails have been yanked from them."

Suddenly, another man swung from a grappling rope over to the deck of the merchant ship from the port side and landed with impressive finesse. As he landed lightly on the deck, he jerked a pistol from his belt with his right hand and took a large dagger from his clenched teeth with the left. "I am Captain Powder Jack, and I am commandeering this ship! Anyone who doesn't want to be blown to bits will cooperate." Already he had a smoldering wick on a cocked, matchlock pistol—ready to blast a ball into the first man to step forward.

"What are you doing here, you piece of whale vomit?" Bill Booty said.
"I'm taking this ship—so kindly sail off and I will spare your life." responded Powder Jack.
"Step aside, Jack, and watch how it's done. Besides... I got here first." sneered Bill Booty.
Jack ignored him.
"Anyways, I thought you were up in Charleston." continued Powder Jack, clearly annoyed.
"We drank them dry months ago. News travels slow." said Bill. "Speaking of which, didn't you have a girl down in Barbados?"
"Let's just say that I am not on good terms with the authorities there." said Jack.

Capt. Mason and his sailors did not know what to make of the two bickering pirates. It was obvious that the two ships that attacked them were not working together. In fact, Bill and Jack were old enemies since the days when they were urchins on the docks of London. They led rival groups of boys in street games and stole each other's girlfriends. When one joined the Royal Navy the other did as well but on a competing ship. When one turned pirate the other did as well. Each one lived to out-sail, out-curse, and out-plunder the other.

Sir Kaye picked this moment to approach the pirates. "Sirs, as a gentleman I demand to be ransomed."
"Pardon me, Milady. Are you sure you're not a woman under all those frills?" said Powder Jack.
"How gauche!" cried Sir Kaye and all on board had a laugh at his expense.
"Good one, Jack." said Bill still chuckling. "That's right your Ladyship, Jack and I have some business to tend to here."

"Fine," said Jack, "Your move, William—William Lily. You should have a beautiful lily on your flag rather than a stupid sword!"
"I've killed men for calling me, 'William' before—James, James Poudre. And now you, your ship, and this merchant will have to deal with me and the crew of the Salty Mermaid." he threatened.

"What crew?" asked Powder Jack.

"Don't be coy, Jack. The crew behind me, the Salty-blooming-Mermaid!" growled Bill. But while he was talking his ship had started to sail away.
"You better go catch them, then!" laughed Jack.
Bill turned around and saw that his crew had picked that moment to mutiny and sail away on his ship.

"Oy, oy! Come back you scurvy dogs!" yelled Bill. Calico Joe, his former first mate, was standing at the helm and grinning viciously as he sailed away."A curse on you, Calico Joe! You're nothing more than a hermit crab, scuttling off with me ship."

"I knew I should have watched that upstart closer." said Bill with a twinge of defeat in his voice. But suddenly he looked up and smiled towards Powder Jack's direction.

"Oh, what do we have here, now? Look out James, look behind you." said Bill.

"I'm not falling for your tricks, Bill." said Powder Jack. He kept his pistol trained on Bill but noticed that the sound of his men behind him was growing fainter. Finally, overcome by curiosity, Jack turned around to see his mutinous crew sailing off as well.

"Unbelievable!" Jack exclaimed and then he released a torrent of curses that were shocking—even coming from a pirate.

Bill Booty was hooting with laughter. When he caught his breath he asked Jack, "When's the last time you paid them?" and then burst into laughter again.

Pirates are notoriously superstitious and lazy. While both nervous crews had waited for the unconditional surrender of the merchant ship they weighed their odds of fighting two ships and decided to forego the hassle and sail away stranding the captains.

"It seems the odds are now in our favor, sirs." smirked Capt. Mason. "But feel free to kill each other if you like."
"Gladly!" said Powder Jack who leveled his pistol at Bill. But when he pulled the trigger, it blew up in his hand instead.

"Ouch, ooh, ooh, ouch!" said Powder Jack holding his blackened hand.

Bill Booty chuckled again, flicked his sword in a practice swing, and said, "I'll gut you, Jack, like a fresh fish." But when he took his first step he landed on his bad ankle again and fell down, rolling on the deck in pain while holding it.

Capt. Mason shook his head and yelled to his men. "Grab these two buffoons and lash them to the mast." It was not difficult for the sailors to grab the two ailing pirates. As a cruel joke the two were not tied to the mast back-to-back but facing each other. They were tied straddling the mast—hugging it and each other. They immediately began cursing each other.

Capt. Mason was finally in a good mood as a result of having narrowly avoided two pirate encounters without a scratch. "Tap the kegs o' rum, lads!" he sang out. "Let's drain 'em afore we reach Port Royal where we'll pick up fresh ones." A hearty cheer went up from the sailors.

*****
As night approached, most of the sailors stumbled around the deck drunk, singing, or gambling at cards. Arguments would break out when one of them was too far gone to read his cards right.

Everyone had forgotten about the two pirate captains that sat uncomfortably face-to-face with arms wrapped around the mast.

Powder Jack spoke first, "Well, Bill, if we don't get out of these ropes then we'll wind up with one around our necks as soon as we get to port. They don't take kindly to pirates in Port Royal."

"Shows what you know," said Bill Booty. "I've arranged for a full pardon from the governor there if I can come up with enough coin. I've been thinking about retiring lately and this ship was going to be me last plunder."

"Ha! You're flat broke now without ship or crew." said Jack.

"I wouldn't be so sure about that." said Bill slyly. "Er, I mean the part about being broke. Obviously, me ship has sailed. But I have a gold dagger with gems for the handle made by natives that's worth ten ships. I traded all me loot for it to have something I could stow in case of mutiny."

"How fortunate." said Jack flatly. "Wait a minute! You have a dagger on you—where? I think I can get a hand loose and cut these ropes."

"It's under me belt in front—near the nethers." said Bill.

"The nethers!" shuddered Jack. "Let's get one thing straight, Bill. If we get out of these ropes and fight to take the ship together I get three-quarters of the plunder we find."

"You'll get half, you greedy son of a sea-witch." said Bill.

"Fine," said Jack, "but you'll also get me a hook for my hand, I think I'm going to lose it."

"You blew your own hand off!" said Bill incredulously.

"Aye, trying to shoot you." retorted Jack.

"Alright, it's a deal then. Just grab the dagger in me pants." said Bill.

Jack shook his good hand free from a poorly tied knot and reached for the front of Bill's pants. He hesitated though, unsure if this was one of Bill's dirty jokes.

"Careful!" cried Bill. Fortunately, Jack found the dagger without incident and began sawing at the ropes.

"This dagger is as dull as a spoon." Jack complained.

"It's a blooming ceremonial dagger made o' gold! What did you expect?" said Bill.

Finally, the ropes gave way and the two pirates were able to stand and stretch in the dark. They had little trouble stepping over passed-out sailors along the deck who didn't make it to their hammocks. Most were snoring. "This is like fishing in a barrel." muttered Jack.

The two pirates casually strolled to the captain's quarters and tied up the sleeping captain. (Some unfortunate, sober sailor had been left to mind the tiller.) Grabbing their sword and dagger from the corner they went out on deck again and went down below to see what they could find.

"No cargo!" exclaimed Jack. "You know what that means..."
"A strongbox full o' gold." finished Bill.

They searched the bottom of the ship and easily found the strongbox because, after all, they were pirate captains and used to hiding treasure from their own men.

When they broke open the box they were astonished by the large mound of gold doubloons and silver pieces o' eight.

"Kings may rule the countries but it's merchants what has all the money." exclaimed Bill. "This will set me up good for retirement."
"Why don't you join me, me old hearty."

Jack was surprised by Bill's sudden friendliness but said, "I've got a few more years at sea in me."

"I tell you what, Jack. You can keep this ship and the crew if they'll have you as long as you get me and me gold into Port Royal safely." said Bill jovially.

"Agreed." said Jack.

That night both pirates slept in the captain's quarters with Capt. Mason uncomfortably tied, gagged, and shoved in the corner.

In the morning, the pirates got the drop on the hung-over sailors. They kicked them in the ribs to wake them and told them to line up or be run through by the sword pointed at their nose.

Capt. Mason was now propped up on deck against the mast but still tied and gagged.

Before Powder Jack could announce that he was the new captain of the ship and that all who opposed him would be killed on the spot, the first mate ran up to him and Bill.

"Begging your pardon, Captains, sirs, but I represent the crew. We would happily serve as pirates under you if you would spare our lives." said the mate. "We've heard stories that Capt. Mason skims his crew and we would rather have pirate pay."

"Well, crew, you're as smart as you are ugly," said Powder Jack. "We accept!"
"Three mutinies in two days might be a new record for me" mused Bill Booty.

The first command under Captain Powder Jack was to maroon Capt. Mason and Sir Kaye on a small island nearby. The island was not much more than a sandbar with a clump of palms. Both men were protesting vigorously when the crew left them with a paddle, a canoe, and one week's provisions. If they paddled hard on the sea and worked together they could make it to Jamaica in a week. Frankly, the crew was happy to be rid of both.

The next task was to get the notorious pirate Bill Booty safely into Port Royal—nothing that a little forgery couldn't accomplish. The ship's papers were changed from "Captain William Mason" to "Captain William Lily" with the help of an ink blot or two.

The ship sailed into port and cleared customs without a hitch. A day later, Bill Booty whistled as he walked down the road to the harbor in new clothes. He was carrying a silver hook in a bag as a gift to Powder Jack who was on the ship in the bay.

However, there was a public hanging near the docks and a large crowd blocked his way. Suddenly, Bill saw Calico Joe, his old first mate, standing on the scaffold and Calico Joe saw him.

Calico Joe began to yell, "Bill Booty! Bloody Bill Booty! You cur, you pirate! You belong up here with me." The priest backed away from the condemned man and all in the crowd turned to look at Bill.

Bill smiled and said loudly, "You mistake me, sir, for a friend. But I am Captain William Lily and I have papers to prove it. Me ship lies in the harbor and is recently sold to the Honorable James Poudre who is weighing anchor soon for Barbados."

"Liar!" cried Calico Joe, causing murmurs in the crowd.

Bill gave a humoring chuckle and said, "Everyone knows that pirates lie and betray their friends. That man has clearly been proved a pirate and is therefore a liar. Death to pirates!"

"Hear, hear." murmured those in the crowd and the executioner snapped the hood down over Calico Joe's head muffling the rest of his protests.

*****
And that's the tale of how Bill Booty retired, Powder Jack got a new crew, ship, and hook for his hand, and how Capt. Mason and Sir Kaye worked out their differences.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On the Edge

 "My life is not my own." Jared softly said. "I determined that long ago."

He sat behind the steering wheel in his parked car. Moments before he had contemplated driving his car into the river ahead and drowning himself.

It would certainly look like an accident. The river bank was steep and the road and its shoulder were very close to the bank. Who would know that he had purposefully driven off into the deep river rather than  merely taking his eyes off the road while driving?

"God would know." thought Jared. Though this thought should have been enough to sway him, Jared still felt the weight of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and lost dreams come flooding back. It was hard to say which one exactly he was feeling at the moment. They all seemed to swirl and churn together like the muddy river in front of him.

"I just want to escape!" Jared suddenly said out loud.

He gave a half-chuckle and said, "Am I praying or am I just talking out loud to myself? God, I don't know."

Jared had weathered tough times before. The year his father died he suddenly realized he was all alone now in figuring out manhood.
"You're the only father, I have now, God!" he said that night through tears.
"But then, that's always been the case, I guess."
"On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother's womb you have been my God."

Yes, Jared had read that passage in the Bible shortly after his father had died. He could not sleep well so he read the Bible and tried to find comfort from it. He started with the familiar 23rd Psalm ("the Lord is my Shepherd...") but found himself drawn to the agony of Psalm 22.

In it, David says that he was cast onto God from birth. Jared closed the Bible and prayed. "You're all I have, Lord. My life is dependent on you. You have watched over me from birth and you can sustain me now."

Many years earlier Jared had come to another crisis. College had left him messed up and confused. Far away from home he wondered, "Who am I?"
He had been searching for the answer to that question and he did not like the answers he found. When he looked in the mirror he saw someone who faked it, put on a mask, lied so much that he wasn't sure anyone knew the real Jared. His quest for pleasure and popularity left him empty. Guilt was a constant companion.

But at his darkest hour so much became clear. It was clear to Jared that his life was messed up and that he was to blame. It was clear that he had rebelled against God by doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted without regard to his Creator. Jared had been his own god and Jared was sure that the real God was not happy that he had tried to usurp Him. For years Jared had been taken to church by his parents. Now in college he attended sporadically with friends. Jared thought he had heard it all but only now did the message make sense. He was a sinner. He had rebelled against God. His wicked sin separated him from a good God. God would punish him as a lawbreaker and he would be sent to Hell. But Jesus...

Here is where the light shown into the darkness of Jared's life. Jesus, the son of God, coming down at Christmas long ago to be born as one of us. Jesus, the only man who ever lived a perfect life and fully pleased God. Jesus, who willingly died for sinners, such as Jared, on the cross as a sacrifice to turn God's wrath away. The same Jesus rose from the dead at Easter and appeared to his hopeless disciples. He encouraged them for forty days then ascended into heaven. The disciples gawked until angels appeared telling them that Jesus would return in the same way some day. Until then they were to proclaim to others about this Jesus, the risen Savior and Lord, that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

"Have you made Jesus your Lord and Savior?" Jared had heard a thousand times before on the lips of people he had humored—people who were proclaiming the message like Jesus' first disciples. "What a strange phrase!" Jared had thought at the time. Now as a college student who was hopeless and humbled by his sin he finally understood.

"Jesus, save me!" he cried out. "I need your forgiveness! I have ruined my life. Please lead me—be my Lord. My life is not my own."

From that moment on in college life had never been the same for Jared. His trust had been in God and not himself or his circumstances. He saw the world with new eyes, had fresh hope, and a new birth.

Jared was startled from his reminiscence and found himself sitting in a car on the edge of a river. "Jesus, you are enough. You are all I need. Thank you, Jesus, for the reminder."

He put the car into gear and slowly pulled back onto the road. The river now seemed like a calm, ever-rolling stream that extended far past his view rather than a watery grave before him.

*****
A year later Jared drove up to his home after work. Hardly out the door of his car his three kids ran out in the yard to meet him. They began talking all at once, competing to tell him about their day. He gave them hugs and tickles. Inside his wife almost had dinner ready for the family. When she saw him she apologized that the food was not ready yet. He assured her that he appreciated her hard work.
"How are you doing today?" asked Jared's wife.
"Better than I deserve." he replied with a smile.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Monster ABCs

"Goodnight, Taylor." Mom said.

"Wait! Don't turn out the light!" cried Taylor.
"What's wrong?" asked Mom.
"Uh, I want to read some more." said Taylor. Actually, this was only half true. He was dreading the moment the lights went out.

"Oh, Taylor! You're not reading those monster books again are you?" asked Mom. Taylor's look of shame told her everything.

"Oh, sweetie, I told you not to get any more of those books from the library. You know they give you nightmares."

"But I'm not scared," protested Taylor. "I like them. Just leave the lights on so I can read." he whined.

Dad walked by, peeked his head in the door, and said, "We're not leaving the lights on all night. You're too old to have a night light. Besides, it wastes electricity."

"Ok," said Taylor pouting.

Click! Off went the lights. Taylor buried himself under the covers with only the pale moonlight shining through his window to light his room.

Upstairs, Mom and Dad were talking. "Do you think we were too hard on him?" Mom asked Dad.

"No, no. The boy's got to grow up sometime." said Dad.

"I think it would be nice if you would go down there and reassure him." said Mom.
"Psshh," Dad exhaled while hardly opening his lips. "Honey, I just laid down in bed."
"Please?" said Mom. When Dad didn't budge Mom reminded him that two nights ago Taylor came yelling into their room about a werewolf being outside his window. It took a long time to calm him down and convince him that it was only the same noisy dog barking in a neighbor's yard as it was every night.
Dad threw off the covers and grabbed a small flashlight from a drawer in the bedside table and went downstairs.

"Hey buddy," said Dad. "I brought you a magic flashlight."
"Really?" said Taylor.
"Yep. You can't keep it on all night but when you need to check out something in the room it will show you that there's no monsters." said Dad. "Well, goodnight, then."
"Thanks, Dad, goodnight!" Taylor replied.

Just as soon as Dad was up the stairs, Taylor clicked on the flashlight. He knew he should go to sleep but he pulled out a monster book from underneath his pillow instead. A week ago Taylor had found some books in the "young adult" section of the library about ghost stories, monsters, and unexplained mysteries. Some of the drawings in the ghost book were so freaky that Taylor could not bring himself to read the story with it (like that moaning, bloody head on p. 25!) Even though the stories terrified him he could not stop reading the books. He wanted to know what defeated werewolves (silver) and vampires (garlic, wooden stake) in case he ever met one. Plus he was curious to know what happened in the stories. What was in that old house on the hill? Why did people keep disappearing at Camp Murky Lake?

"I'll read this one." Taylor thought. "It looks like a kid's book and shouldn't be too scary."
MONSTER ABCs by Gaye Ping Maw
A is for an Amoeba absorbing adolescents
Taylor saw a picture of two teenagers sitting in a car at a drive-in movie theater with a look of terror on their faces as a gelatinous blob was eating them and the whole car. He continued to read.
B is for a Banshee bobbing by the bedside
C is for a Cyclops cracking craniums
D is for Dragons dragging damsels
E is for an Evil Eye eliminating enemies
F is for Frankenstein flinging fetters
Taylor thought the picture of Frankenstein was really cool. The monster was snapping chains from the laboratory table and lurching towards a wide-eyed doctor. He also liked the picture of the dragons. He hurried past the picture of the banshee though. It looked rather like a ghost and the bed it bobbed by looked rather like his. Taylor read on.
G is for Gremlins grinning at Goblins.
H is for a Headless Horseman haunting the hollows
I is for Insects invading institutions
J is for a Jabberwock jutting jagged jaws
K is for a Kraken killing kayakers
L is for Leprechauns licking lips
M is for a Minotaur munching men
N is for Nosferatu nibbling necks
O is for Ogres ogling outside
P is for Python pinning prey.
Q is for Quasimodo quartering quietly
R is for Robots rioting rebelliously
S is for a Sea Serpent swimming silently
T is for a Troll tricking travelers
U is for Undead ululating unpleasantly
V is for Vampires vexing villagers
W is for Werewolves watching wayfarers
X is for eXtraterrestrials eXhuming autopsy X-rays
Y is for a Yeti yanking youths from yurts
Z is for Zombies Zeroing-in on Zealots
By the time Taylor got to the last picture he was thoroughly creeped out! Monks frantically threw holy water down from the top of the abbey walls onto the legions of zombies closing in. But Taylor could tell by the hopeless expressions drawn on the monks faces that it was only a matter of time before the zombies ate their brains.

Taylor clutched the magic flashlight and prayed to God that its tiny battery would last all night. He fell asleep thinking about monsters new and old.

*****
Suddenly, Taylor woke up and cautiously peeked through half-closed eyes. The magic flashlight had gone out—but worse there was a (gulp) Presence in the room!
Taylor laid as still as a corpse with the blanket pulled up to his chin. "Perhaps," thought Taylor, "if I am very still the Presence will not notice me and go away."
But the Presence came closer, making the faintest of sounds while disturbing the stillness of the room. And now Taylor felt something lightly touching the foot of his bed.
Taylor did not dare move or he knew he would be eaten although his heart beat so hard he thought he would die.
The Presence brushed Taylor's leg and then his elbow. It came so close to Taylor's face he could feel it through his clenched eyes.
"Meow"
"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!" 

Skittles the cat jumped and then tore out of Taylor's room like it was on fire.
Taylor continued to yell and cry while trying to find the light switch. He blubbered and stumbled and finally clicked on the light.

Dad was the first one down the stairs but when he realized there wasn't a burglar or break-in he turned to go back up the stairs. Dad's messed up hair and groggy state made him look like a zombie as he shuffled back upstairs. Mom came down in her robe and sat next to Taylor on his bed rubbing his back and soothing him.

The next day at breakfast neither Taylor nor the cat were happy with each other. The morning sun brought a bright new day without monsters and Taylor felt really silly about all the commotion the night before. He also swore to take back the monster books to the library—that day!
"It's a shame I didn't finish the last book." thought Taylor.
*****
Later that night, Taylor pulled a book from underneath his pillow. He had a new battery in the magic flashlight and it illuminated the title of the book he held, "Ghoulish tales of Ghastliness."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Silver Key

The peddler's wagon creaked and groaned with every bump and dip of the road.

A tired ox pulled the dilapidated wagon slowly along. From the wheels to the bulging walls the wagon threatened to break under the weight of pans, pots, furniture, furnishings, toys, tools, carpets, crates, chests, cages, jewelry, and junk piled high or hung on it. Who knows what else lay inside! No doubt if the side door of the carriage were opened then the contents would rush out.

Old Kaspov, the peddler, held the reins of the ox and hawked his wares as he drove.
"Chairs! Chairs, for sell or to mend!
Purchase a plow! to lease or lend!
Fishing hooks, meat hooks, flesh hooks, shepherd crooks
Bottles, bags, boxes, bins, blankets and books
Trinkets, charms, charts, maps, spells
and shoes and shirts made by elves."
Three dirty boys ran up to the side of the wagon and waved their arms frantically. "Halt!" they cried, "Halt! We wish to buy something."

Old Kaspov smiled and pulled back on the reins. The ox immediately turned to the side and began chomping at the weeds on the edge of the road.

"Buy something you say?" grinned Kaspov. "Have you got any money?"
"We do, we do!" all three said.
"And how would three dirty boys like yourselves get their hands on money?"

"Please, sir." said the oldest. "We are three brothers and farmers like our father. Our crops are just harvested and sold and our father has given us some coins to spend as we like." Upon saying this the three opened their hands. The sun shone off the gold and silver bits that they held.

At this the old man came alive—moving quickly for a gentleman of his age. He hopped down from the seat and bustled to open the side door of the wagon which tumbled out into a folding table. On the table was a great, bulging carpet which Kaspov rolled out to reveal wonderful treasures tucked inside. Then he pulled a wooden lever. Hinges squeaked as panels opened with more items.
There, before the three brothers, stood a shop—a roadside bazaar.

"Me first!" shouted the littlest brother and pushed his way to the table.
"And what is your name, little boy?" asked Kaspov.
"I'm Hasty Harry," he replied. "And I want to buy something amazing—right now!"

"Might I interest you in some magic seeds which grow into the most delicious fruit trees? These are trees which never lack fruit year-round. And the more fruit you eat the more they produce." Kaspov held the tiny black seeds for all the brothers to see.

"How long do they take to grow?" asked Hasty Harry.

"Oh, in just ten years you will have fruit from them." replied Kaspov.

"Ten years! No way." said Hasty Harry. "I need something that will help me now."

"I see." said Kaspov. "Then perhaps you would like to buy these shoes made by elves. They will always fit your feet, they will never wear out, and you will be able to run like the wind."

"Deal!" said Hasty Harry and he slapped the coins down in Kaspov's hand and grabbed the shoes. In hardly no time at all Harry had put on the shoes and was running hither and yon with blazing speed.

The oldest brother stepped up to the table next.

"And what is your name, lad?" asked Kaspov.
"I am Practical Pete," he said, "and I want to buy something reliable—something that will help me everyday."

Kaspov rummaged around the wagon and brought out a ring ornamented with a red stone. "This is a true-heart ring." said Kaspov. "This ring will help you find and marry a woman with a beautiful heart. She will be a great wife and help you everyday for the rest of your life."

"But I'm not going to get married for at least five years!" protested Practical Pete. "Don't you have something that will help me now?"

Kaspov smirked and brought out a fishing pole. "This is an enchanted fishing pole. Fish cannot resist its magic. With it you will be able to catch at least five fish a day for the rest of your life."

"I'll take it!" said Practical Pete for he really loved to fish. Pete gave the coins to Kaspov then took the pole, hands shaking with excitement.

Finally the third brother, who had waited to go last stepped up to the table. He had been carefully considering what to buy and was wondering if he should buy the magic seeds or the true-heart ring.

"Who are you, now?" asked Kaspov.

"I am Look-Ahead Luke." said the middle brother. Luke spied a silver key hanging on a chain just inside of the wagon.

"What is that silver key?" asked Look-Ahead Luke pointing.

"What? Oh, that. Not for sale." said Kaspov, looking a little cross.
"May I see it, still?" persisted Look-Ahead Luke.

Kaspov reluctantly grabbed the key and handed it to Luke who turned it over slowly in his hand. Luke noticed the picture of a shield at the top of the key.

"What does this key unlock?" asked Luke.
"That's just the thing," said Kaspov, "no one knows! I have spent many years trying it on locks and have never found its match."

"I'll take it." said Look-Ahead Luke. "For where there is a key, there is a lock to be opened. And what can a shield mean but a great protection in the day of trouble."

"You fool!" said Kaspov. "Would you spend your gold on a key that might be useless?"

"No," said Luke. "I would gladly give up what I have for something greater."

Kaspov stared at the coins in Luke's hands. He reached to take them but hesitated. Then Kaspov grabbed them quickly and replaced them with the silver key.

Business was done and Kaspov packed up quickly. With a pull of the lever all the panels snapped back and even the table folded up again right through the side door. Off went the peddler driving a wagon with an ox who chomped a mouthful of weeds. The three brothers never saw Old Kaspov or his wagon again.

Hasty Harry soon found a job as a courier. No one in the land was faster than Hasty Harry with his elven shoes. Day after day Harry delivered messages for lords, ladies, merchants, and farmers. Harry liked his job and liked to run but as the years passed by Harry wondered what would have happened if he had bought the magic seeds. "If I had planted the magic seeds I could be eating its fruit this year." thought Harry. "And I could sell the extra fruit year-round instead of having to make a living with my feet."

Practical Pete fished day after day with his enchanted fishing pole. He caught so many fish that he became a fishmonger. He would sell his fish daily in the market and always had plenty to eat. However, Pete missed the days when fishing was difficult. He remembered how he would sit for hours trying to outsmart the fish with technique and bait. Now fishing was just too easy. What Practical Pete really wanted now was a wife! He wondered if he would ever find a woman who would marry a man who smelled like fish. He wished he had bought the true-heart ring.

Look-Ahead Luke kept his silver key on a chain around his neck. He searched for many years to find what it would unlock but never found it.
"Oh well," he thought, "that's the risk I took when I bought the key."
Since he did not have elven shoes or an enchanted fishing pole like his brothers, Luke had to learn to work hard. He farmed a small piece of land that his father had given him and carefully saved his money to buy a ring. Luke knew that he could not buy the true-heart ring so he searched for a woman himself who would make a good wife. Humble Hannah, the simple, kind, and pretty daughter of a neighboring farmer was a childhood friend of Luke. They soon married and became even better friends.

One evening after a long, hard day of farming, Luke and Hannah took a walk together to enjoy the evening breeze. They chatted, and laughed at each other's silly stories as they walked. Luke picked up stones from the path and tossed them at a pile of rocks at the bottom of a hill.

"Listen!" said Hannah suddenly. "Throw another rock, Luke, right where you threw the last."
Luke tossed another rock and listened as it clattered and echoed down a hole.

"A cave!" said Hannah. Luke rushed over to the small hole near the pile and dug around it removing weeds and dirt until he could squeeze down into it.
"Be careful Luke!" Hannah pleaded.

"It's not too deep!" said Luke. Using the light from the hole above Luke shuffled forward a few feet until he stood in front of a smooth stone door. Luke pushed on it but it did not budge. Then he noticed the picture of a shield on the door.
"Could it be?" gasped Luke. He took the silver key from the chain on his neck and carefully placed it in the door lock. Slowly he turned the key and...

It worked! The door swung inward to reveal a treasure hoard: glittering gold coins, shimmering silver, strings of pearls, rubies the size of walnuts that caught the fading light of the sun and blazed like fire, elegant swords, shining shields, crowns encrusted with jewels, a scepter made of ivory and royal robes made of silk! And there was even more that he could not make out in the dim light.

*****
A few years later an impressive castle made of red stone sat on a high hill. Knights with elegant swords and shining shields guarded its entrance. A bustling town full of happy folk sat encircled in its walls. The fastest messenger in the land, Harry, brought news to and from the king. Pete, the royal fishmonger supplied tasty fish to the king's table everyday. King Luke and Queen Hannah were loved by all the people.

And stitched on every flag flapping over the castle was a silver key.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sunday Morning

As the last chord from the pipe organ faded, Rev. Tuxedo rose from the stately wooden chair on the dais and approached the lectern. In a voice that was reverberant, reverent, and dignified he began.
"Beloved, we are drawn now to a subject of utmost importance to the souls of all present—for the words of our Lord as recorded in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter III, verse 3, declare:
'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'"
"Beloved, our Lord himself declares in no uncertain terms that 'You must be born anothen' which is variously translated as 'again' or 'above.'"

*****
Down the road, Bro. Coat-n-tie approached the pulpit with noticeable energy. Moments before he could hardly contain himself during a plodding hymn played on the piano while the plate was passed. He fidgeted, smiled, picked up his Bible, thumbed through it, and then set it back on his lap. Now behind the pulpit he began to speak. He was unpolished, extemporaneous, at times shouting, at times losing his place, but always passionate. At one point he whined,
"Friends, I'll tell you plainly,
'You must be born again! Except a man is born again he can NOT enter the kingdom of heaven!'"
"Amen!" shouted someone in the back.
"I'm talking about you!" shot back Bro. Coat-n-tie at the flock. "All here should ask themselves, 'Am I born again?'"

*****
A smiling team of singers in color-coordinated outfits crooned as a well-organized band backed them on a popular praise song. Perfectly timed with the ending of the song came Pastor Open-collar from the side of the stage. He walked up to a plexiglass stand which was practically invisible.
"This morning we begin a series called, 'A New Start' and I am very excited about this series because I know that God is going to use it to change many lives forever. Some of you sitting here today will get 'a new start.' Who here wants a new start?"
"Whoo!" the crowd responded.
"But there's something very important I have to tell you up front," continued Pastor Open-collar. If you don't get anything else out of today's message, GET this:
You'll never get a new start without being born again. You need to be spiritually born from above to enter God's kingdom.
*****
The worship band blasted out a popular, secular song which nevertheless had words that could be interpreted as longing for God in the midst of despair. The band members were authentic in their emotion as they sang and played. They were trendy in their style. Before the pastor took the stage a well-produced video was projected as an intro. Scenes of a smiling baby were shown. Suddenly the video quickly reversed. A time-lapsed camera showed the baby getting younger and younger until we are left with a woman who is large and in labor. Suddenly, the same baby is shown but screaming, bloody, and with the cord still attached. The scene fades as the word, "REBIRTH" appears.
Dude T-shirt gets up to speak. His style is always direct, raw.
"Some of you here have seriously, screwed-up lives (if I could put it mildly.) You have lost track of the beds you've been in, the bottles you've drank, your addictions. You have been drinking from the toilet instead of the living water that Jesus offers.
And unless you have a spiritual rebirth, you will go straight to Hell.
Are you ready to have a new life? Then cry out to your King!

*****
And now dear reader, church attender, or visitor I ask you this simple question from our story:
Which did you notice—the music, the man, or the message?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

How to Eat a Taco

(Found on the box of Tast-EZ™ Taco Shells)

Thank you for your purchase of this product. You have made a wise choice and are well on your way to tasting the best tacos, and quite possibly the best food, of your life. Here are a few tips to make your taco-eating experience enjoyable.

  • Please be advised that the contents of tacos can be extremely hot and cause burning of the lips, tongue, palate, and uvula. Our nutritionists and lawyers advise serving tacos at tepid and/or room temperature.
  • The first bite into a hard taco shell will break it completely and spill its contents. We recommend purchasing Tast-EZ™ Flour Tortillas and making soft tacos instead to contain spillage. Or if a rubbery consistency is desired then purchase Tast-EZ™ Corn Tortillas.
  • Spillage is still possible with soft tacos made using tortillas. Care must be taken to roll up the tortilla completely and fold over both ends while firmly holding the ends in place with the fingers. (Don't bite your fingers!)
  • Taco meat is typically greasy and consumption of it has been tied to obesity. Try substituting a leaner meat like turkey or a vegetarian alternative such as soybean for a healthier choice. Warning: some people are allergic to soybean and a protein alternative such as peanuts or shellfish should be used instead.
  • By purchasing this box you have agreed to release and hold harmless (te absolvo) Tast-EZ™ Corp. from all taco-eating complications including (but not limited to) asphixiation, death, and cramping.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Glass Half...

Brian's eyes opened one hour before his alarm went off. "Great," thought Brian, "now I'm awake. I might as well get up." He slowly dragged himself out of bed and mildly cursed as he hit his foot on something by the bedside he had left there the night before.

In the shower his mind raced with all he had to do for the day. "It's only Monday and I'm already behind this week." he muttered.

A slice of toast and jelly and a cup of coffee were in his hands as he went out the door to his car.
"Crap!" said Brian while setting his coffee cup down on the roof of his car. "Where are my keys? Oh, never mind. Here they are in the other pocket."

The rest of the drive to work went on without incident. Brian listened to the morning news about the latest world affairs and political wranglings on the radio. This did not improve his mood.

Upon entering the office, Jerry greeted him with the usual joke. Brian tried to summon a grin. Frankly, Jerry annoyed him. Before he even sat down at his desk, Sharon walked over to remind him about an important office meeting that would take up most of the morning.

"You do not want to mess with me today!" Brian snapped. Sharon was taken aback. "Brian, are you alright?" she asked. "Just give me a couple of minutes, Sharon, OK?" Brian replied while trying to soften his tone. He didn't do a very good job, though. Brian sat down as Sharon walked away.

"Is there some way this day could have turned out different?" Brian said out loud to no one in particular.

* * * * *


Brian's eyes opened one hour before his alarm went off. "Great," thought Brian, "I'm already awake. I might as well get up." He sleepily dragged himself out of bed and picked up the Bible that hit his foot at the  bedside. He had read a little of the Bible the night before. He did not get as far as he wanted to before falling asleep but he was glad that at least he ended his day reading it and in dreamy prayer.

"Good morning, Lord. Please speak to me. I need you today," Brian said as he opened his Bible to the bookmark.

In the shower Brian's mind raced with all he had to do for the day. "Jesus, help me not to worry about tomorrow but just take care of what I have to do today." he prayed. Coincidentally, he had read a familiar verse that morning that said just that.

Brian grabbed his breakfast and headed to the car.
"Now where did I put my keys?" said Brian while setting his coffee cup down on the roof of his car. "Probably my other pocket. Yep!"

The warm coffee felt good on a cold morning. Brian knew that Mondays were tough though and he could feel a general frustration already rising. So he resisted the urge to catch up on news on the radio and instead switched it to a Christian music station. "Lord, please help me to worship you today. I want to have the right attitude and I need your help." A couple of songs played and Brian switched it off to finish the ride in silence.

Upon entering the office, Jerry greeted him with the same joke he had heard every Monday. Brian laughed not at the joke but at the predictability of Jerry.

"Jerry, I appreciate you, man. Every Monday morning you greet me and try to cheer me up. It takes a lot of work on me though." said Brian. Both were now smiling.

Before he even sat down at his desk, Sharon walked over to remind him about an important office meeting that would take up most of the morning. Sharon looked worried. She always had something on her mind.

"Sharon, are you alright?" Brian asked. "Yeah, I just need a couple of minutes to calm down. I'm worried that they are going to start laying off people in our department and I need this job bad, Brian." A sob crept into her voice.

"Would you mind if I prayed for us, Sharon?" Brian asked.

"Please." she managed to reply. After Brian finished praying, she mouthed, "Thank you." and squeezed his hand.

"Lord, I don't know how this day would have turned out so far without Your help." Brian said out loud to Someone in particular.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Naughty Leprechaun

Handy O'Toole was a naughty leprechaun. He loved to spook, scare, surprise, and startle anyone who came his way.

One morning the baker was walking along the road and carrying a large basket of fresh bread in his arms. Handy O'Toole crept up quietly behind the baker as he paused to catch his breath.

"Surprise!" shouted Handy and the Baker was so startled he threw all the bread up in the air and the basket landed on his head. 

"Ah ha-ha," laughed Handy heartily.

"Why you!" said the baker whose face was red with anger. 

"Off I go!" said Handy and he quickly scurried away from the baker while still laughing.

The next day a pretty young maiden came along with a large basket of eggs that she was carrying to the market. She was day-dreaming about a handsome farm boy who had smiled at her that morning so she did not notice when Handy O'Toole crept up behind her. 

"Look out!" shrieked Handy. The maiden gave a scream and dropped the basket of eggs which broke nearly every one of them. 

"Handy O'Toole, you are very, very bad!" she shouted and her pretty face was scrunched up in an ugly look. She quickly stooped to pick up some unbroken eggs and hurled them at Handy. He was much too fast to be hit by them though. He merely skipped and jumped away while laughing.

The next day the king himself was walking along the road with his trusted knight, Sir Cuthbert. Handy O'Toole crept up behind the king and yelled, "Long live the King!"

The king jerked violently at the sound and the crown tumbled down off his head and plopped into the mud.

Handy O'Toole rolled on the ground with laughter. The king was furious and said in a solemn voice, "Sir Cuthbert, I command you to spank that leprechaun!"

"No, no!" shrieked Handy O'Toole and he took off running. He ran quickly down the road and after a mile or so he stopped to catch his breath and look over his shoulder. There behind him he saw Sir Cuthbert in his shining armor still coming after him.

"Oh no!" said Handy and he left the road to run towards the river. Once he got to the river he jumped in the only canoe there and quickly paddled to an island in the middle of the river.

"There!" he said. "Sir Cuthbert will never follow me out here. The river is much too high and fast for him to get me." But Handy was wrong.

Sir Cuthbert stepped into the river and plowed through it one step at a time until he was almost to the island. Handy jumped up and got in the canoe and paddled furiously for the other side of the river. He jumped out of the canoe when he got to the shore and ran up the side of a tall hill  nearby. Exhausted, Handy sat down at the very top. 

"Now!" he said. "Sir Cuthbert will never find me here." But Handy was wrong. When he looked down the hill he saw Sir Cuthbert walking straight up it towards him and getting closer!

Handy ran, slid, bumped, and thumped down the other side of the hill, falling down a few times since he was in such a hurry. He quickly ran into the forest and traveled two more miles until he came to the tallest tree in the forest. Using all the strength he had left he climbed to the top of it.

"Whew!" he said. "Sir Cuthbert will never be able to get me now." But Handy was wrong. Chop, chop, chop--Sir Cuthbert was chopping the tree down!

The tree fell with a mighty crash and Handy jumped out and tried to run but Sir Cuthbert caught him by the back of his shirt. 

"No, no, no! Don't spank me!" shouted Handy O'Toole but Sir Cuthbert turned him over his knee and swatted his bottom three times.

"Whaa!" cried Handy. "I am so sorry! I should have never scared all those people. Please forgive me." 

Sir Cuthbert hugged Handy and told him, "You are forgiven. No more mean surprises though."

"OK," said Handy. "I promise."

But on occasion Handy cannot contain himself...

"Happy birthday!" shouted Handy and Grandpa nearly fell over dead with shock. Everybody else in the room smiled and laughed as they brought out the cake.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Big Green Al

Gather 'round folks and I'll tell you the tale of Big Green Al. Now some folk will try to tell you that Big Green Al is a stretcher--one of them made up stories like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. But that's hogwash! Big Green Al's a living American hero...

Why when Al was only two days old he planted his first tree. That's right, he was set down in the yard by his mama. She was tired of holding him because he weighed 20 pounds at birth. Well, no sooner had she set him down than he grabbed a seed and poked it into the ground.
Well sir, that seed done growed up into a tall fir tree in just ONE week! They say that Big Green Al grew up right along with it. Both of them 200 feet tall.

Now Al, being so tall a lad felt awful bad about taking up so much space so he vowed to conserve the earth the best he knew how. So when Christmas came Al told his mama that they would use the big green fir for the Christmas tree rather than a store-bought plastic one. Not only would this save non-renewable fossil fuels but the tree would take harmful CO2 out of the air.

When Al was old enough to get a driver's license he couldn't wait to buy one of them fancy, hybrid/electric cars. But there was just one problem--he couldn't fit into one of them tiny cars. If normal-sized folk had trouble squeezing in 'em, then, by golly! there was no way a lad a couple hundred feet tall could. So Al vowed to walk everywhere he went. This made him superior to all those folk on buses, trains, and certainly SUVs. Besides, it didn't take him long to get where he wanted to go since he was so tall.

Why was he called Big GREEN Al, you say? Well some says it's because of his love for plants. Others say it's because he was green from head to toe. In fact, he planted so many vegetables and gave them away to folks that he got quite a reputation. Folks would say, "Go see the big green giant, and he'll give you some vegetables." This was Al's way of trying to get people to be vegetarians. Well, a canning company noticed it and started using his reputation to sell their cans of vegetables. But they changed the name to "Green Giant" and didn't pay Al a cent. That's corporate America, for ya!

One day, Al was checking out some wind farms in Texas when he ran into the meanest, dirtiest snake of them all, Tex Oilman. Now Tex was just as tall as Al but instead of walking everywhere he had an enormous truck. It got negative miles-to-the-gallon and belched out black smoke constantly especially when Tex would peel out the wheels.
Tex was eating a steak when he drove up and smoking a cigarette, unfiltered of course.
"You better stop it, Tex." Al would say, "Or I'll..."
"Or you'll what?" said Tex.
"You're kind is dying, Tex. A new generation of earth-conscience, eco-friendly people is on the rise. Just look around at these wind turbines." said Al boldly.
"Who do you think owns them wind turbines?" snarled Tex. "I'll tell you who--me and my oil companies!"
As Tex stepped out of the truck Al noticed that Tex had a pumpjack for a belt buckle... and wind turbines for spurs.
Well sir, the truth broke Al's heart that day into pieces. He slunk away never to be seen again.
Ole Tex Oilman is still somewhere out west around Odessa. Legend says that Big Green Al can be spotted on busy days around Whole Foods Market in Austin.
And on cold, still nights, if you are real quiet-like you can still hear Tex and Al arguing about the environment coming from the Texas State Capitol building.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Death of Imagination

"Hey, Dad, look at this!" the little girl said while shoving a drawing of an alien riding a unicorn towards him.
"Um, not right now. I'm trying to pay bills online." the father said crossly and brushed it away.
This was only half true. While the online site was open the father was checking on the results of his favorite sports team at the moment. "It figures," he thought, "another loss. Not one thing can go right today. I should have switched teams years ago. Of course, whatever team I switched to would hit a losing streak. Whatever I touch turns to lead."
Lead. A dull, lifeless, heavy, gray (poisonous?) lump. That pretty much summed up his life.
He couldn't even remember the drive to work this morning, much less the drive home. After years of taking the same route he didn't even notice the half hour (hour?) it took to get to and from work. Heck, he was doing good to remember to get the oil changed in the car every 3,000 miles. He would have forgotten that too except for the little sticker on the driver's side windshield. Its numbers hung in the air like a winning lotto ticket that would soon enough match the odometer.
His daughter kissed him and asked him some question about fairies. He didn't really hear. He was struggling to remember what his wife asked him to do a few minutes ago before he got online. "Take out the trash? ...close the garage door?"
"Dad! I said, 'What are you imagining?'" repeated the little girl. 
"Oh, Sweetie. Daddy doesn't have an imagination. He has to worry about other things." 
"Well," said the little girl, "it looked like you were thinking really hard so I thought you were imagine-ating."

The father tried hard to imagine something for his little girl. All he could think of was how one year had slipped into another with so little change that they all became indistinguishable. No, that's not true. There was once something exciting long ago, like a sandcastle on a sunny day. But now it seems time had carried it away slowly, slowly with the tide.

"A see a statue..." the father started to say out loud. He indeed did see a statue made of stone. It looked a lot like him--still, lifeless, with a stupid expression on its face, like squinting at a screen. The statue did not move. It did not think. It was hard to say even how old the statue was. A little girl came up to it smiling. She clambered up to its lap and gave the hard cheek a kiss. The statue moved slightly and the eyes moistened. Its heavy arms became warm and soft and moved to hug the little girl. She laughed and now the hands tickled her until she squealed. The statue was alive again. 
"What happened to me?" thought the statue. "There was a day when a stick in the yard became a gun, a sword, a snake--no a sword. A sword to slay Medusa."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Babies versus Bears

The battle lines were drawn. The morning sun glistened on the brown coats of Grizzlies, disappeared into the glossy coats of Black Bears, and blinded off the white coats of the Polar Bears. A careful observer could also detect a slight breeze from the ripple of the fur. Thousands of bears were mustered in this valley to finish the battle once and for all with the Babies.
Just 20 feet from the front lines of the Bears lay the Babies--wriggling, cooing, spitting up, flapping arms, and yes, some comatose in sleep. The pinks, blues, and pastel colors of their onesies looked more like a patchwork quilt spread on the hill rather than a mighty army.
The time had come and Bruin, the general of the bears, stood up on his hind legs. He pawed the air with arms that could push over a tree stump or mutilate a hunter in elk country. As one, the bears let out a mighty roar, "RAW-UH-RAWWR!"
At first the Babies did nothing. They were in collective shock. General Gideon, the baby with the tallest hair, scrunched up his face and quivered his lips. In unison the Babies gasped and heaved their tiny diaphrams. Then they let out a blaring wail, "WAAAHHHH!"
The Bears never saw it coming.
Just like that the bears were put to flight leaving nothing behind but scat and defeat.