A Tall Ship Tale #73: A Burning Issue

Yet another episode from Paul DeAnguera.

On the snowy quarter-deck, the steersman pulled the flying lever, activating the H.M.S. Legume’s special GAG levitation system. Shutters on the bottom of the hull rumbled apart to reveal a portrait of President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt. The water of the Yangtze River surged back, and soon the entire planet edged away from that dreadful apparition, leaving the ship behind it in the air.

“Hands to the braces! Set course south-west!” And so, her sails billowing with the frosty wind, the ship ascended the steep canyon while perplexed sailors fumbled with their orthodontics. The lookout reported tracks below in the snow. “That would be Sir Hillary’s party and the Brotherhood monks they were chasing,” the First Mate said. The tracks led to a log cabin just below the canyon rim.

The ship set anchor in the roof of a sturdy barn nearby, and he went to investigate. Inside the door he noted three monkish cloaks and several sea-coats dripping from a row of pegs. But the room beyond was empty save for a big calico cat on the mantle and Sir Hillary before the fire. He was feeding sheaves of paper to the roaring flames. “Ah!” he exclaimed upon seeing the First Mate, and tossed in the rest of the paper and dusted off his hands. “It’s good to see you again. Come stand by the fire!”

They stood companionably with their backs to the blaze, and the First Mate looked about the cabin. “Where are the rest of your team?” he asked after a moment.

“In the kitchen with the prisoners.”

The First Mate went through a low door into the kitchen. Here the monks and sailors were visiting amicably while Ma Jong brewed up some tea. He introduced himself to her and added “You must be the warden, I suppose. We’re here to save Lao-tsu’s book. Do you still have it?”

The tiny woman’s face wrinkled kindly as she looked up from her teapot. “Mr. Shillingsworth asked if he could look at it by the fire,” she answered placidly, handing him a steaming mug. The First Mate dropped it and was back in the living room before it hit the floor. He just had time to read the title page before it curled into ash in the fire.


He seized a poker and thrust it at the burning book, but as it was a draw poker it only served to increase the flames. He snatched a bucket and dumped it on the fire. But all that came out was a shower of tiny 1’s and 0’s. “A bit bucket!” he panted. Then he spied a set of tongs in the corner. But as he reached for them, Ma Jong’s cat pounced on them with a clatter and dragged them into the kitchen.

He rose slowly until his gaze met the other man’s. Sir Hillary Throckmorton-Shillingsworth III smiled ingenuously and inquired,

“What’s the matter, sonny — cat got your tong?”

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