A Tall Ship Tale #81: Hooked on Phoenix

Another punishing episode from Paul DeAnguera.

One morning some 120 years ago, the little town of Phoenix climbed out of its collective beds, glanced out its windows and shouted for joy. “Rain at last!” For a huge shadow lay across the thirsty desert. But when they looked up and saw that it was just a flying square-rigger, the smiles changed to curses and many fists were shaken at the wooden ship in the sky.

So Acting Sheriff Jack Swilling was already disposed against the crew of the H.M.S. Legume when it arrived at the town’s only crossroads. The First Mate slid down a rope and picked up the heavy hook at its end. He glanced around for something solid to attach it to, and decided on a nearby sapling. He was just stepping over the picket fence onto the little patch of lawn that surrounded it when he heard the hammer of a Colt 45 Peacemaker being drawn back.

“Kindly step away from the Tree, stranger,” drawled the Sheriff. The sailor realized that there was no other tree or, for that matter, grass in sight. “Now drop the hook and back away slowly.” Swilling swept back his striped poncho with his left hand, inserted a long, twisted cigar in his mouth and lit it.

They heard a rumbling sound and glanced upward to see the Legume’s starboard gunports opening in unison. A double row of cannon muzzles protruded into the desert sunshine. “Is there a problem down there, Lieutenant?” called Captain Quid from the quarter-deck.

“No problem!” Swilling answered. “I was just showing your officer my gun. Ever see one of these?” Suddenly a furtive shape slid down the rope and ran into the alley.

“Captain!” the First Mate called. “Sir Hillary has escaped! He’s a very dangerous man,” he added to Swilling. “He’s an intelligence agent from another time zone!”

“You mean the east coast — the White House?”

“The White House?” the First Mate gasped. He snatched a worn letter out of his shirt — Cilantro’s encrypted orders, which they had intercepted in Chapter 2 and decoded in Chapter 49:

	Your oar, dears!  Art, to prose -- cede to thee!  
	Why douse, Anisette?  Fie, you're due wit!


He showed it to the Sheriff, who frowned as he read it. “Burn the President’s house? We’ll organize a posse. Out in the desert he won’t get far.”

The Legume’s crew and the men of Phoenix spent the rest of the day combing the stony valleys and low, craggy ridges for the scoundrel Sir Hillary Throckmorton-Shillingsworth III. They trudged up dry streambeds past stands of tall, multi-armed saguaro cactuses. They had to watch their step, because cactuses came in every shape and size from bulging barrels and outspread joshua trees down to nasty little pincushions, and they all bristled with needles.

At length the sun started to set, and still they had found no sign of Sir Hillary. As they were walking back to town, Swilling paused to light a cigar and scan the ridges behind them, shading his eyes with one hand. “There he is!” he pointed.

They stared up at a row of long-armed black shapes backlit by the ruddy western light. “He’s the third from the left,” the Sheriff assured them. Sure enough, as they approached the ridge the third cactus from the left lowered its arms and fled down a dry gulch. A party of sailors nabbed him at the bottom.

“How did you know?” Sir Hillary gasped as they dragged him back to the trail.

“That was a pretty good disguise,” the Sheriff said as he ground his cheroot under his boot heel. “But you forgot one thing. Now, there’s some cactuses that have arms and some that don’t. But there isn’t one cactus that has fingers — at least, not in these parts.”

The First Mate nodded in agreement, adding:

“…Close, but no saguaro!”

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