By Phaedra Mintun
Scottie staggered under the weight of his clinging captain. Sticky's deep voice had risen to a shrill, panicked shriek. Scottie opened his mouth to soothe his captain, but as soon as his lips parted, long, spidery fingers crept within and attempted to shake hands with his tongue and search for better places to hide somewhere past his tonsils. Scottie gagged and sputtered. He clamped his teeth down on the tender skin invading his oral cavity and spit out the offending appendage.
Scottie worked his arms free of Sticky's winding embrace and tried shoving the captain away from him. Sticky's panicked screams intensified and he squeezed tighter, the heel of his boot finding a hold in Scottie's inner hip socket, causing Scottie's vision to blur with pain. The large birds inside the warehouse were not taking kindly to the noise and were stomping their large feet and rustling their fluffy plumes. Their obvious agitation only intensified the Captain's fear and he tried climbing farther up Scottie's body. Scottie took advantage of his newly vacated mouth and cried out for help. Sticky shimmied himself upward and attempted to curl himself, scarf-like, around Scottie's head. Scottie teetered backward, flailing his arms to maintain his balance. Frightened by the movement, the large birds began making low sounds in their long throats; a haunting "woop-woop-woop."
Sticky yelped and tried to climb higher, but ran out of places to climb and ended up perched on Scottie's shoulders. He squawked again and clung to Scottie's head and shoulders. Rick stepped into Scottie's limited field of vision. There was a muffled thump and the captain's body went limp and slithered down from Scottie's broad shoulders and into Rick's waiting arms. Scottie rolled his shoulders in relief and took a good look around. Rick was standing with the Captain's long, lean form cradled limply in his arms. Rick gave a slightly apologetic shrug. "He was scaring the cargo."
Scottie nodded. "Get him back to the ship quick and send S'more. Ratty an' them will be wakin' soon."
Rick nodded and stepped out of the warehouse.
Scottie looked over the agitated ostriches and rubbed the soft brown stubble on his jaw. He looked over at the redheaded twins and raised an eyebrow. "You two know anything about handlin' birds?"
Edwin looked thoughtfully out of a bruised and swollen eye. "Aunt Myrna had a cockatoo."
Dylan nodded. "Almost as mean as she was."
Scottie stepped closer to the giant black and white birds. Their tiny black eyes glittered in their small fuzzy heads and a few of them let out piercing cries. A shadow filled the doorway and he turned to see Captain Russel entering behind them. His bright blue fitted coat and pale tan riding pants were crisp and clean and his fair hair was lacquered into a straight side part. Behind him, three of his crewmembers were carting a large bag of feed and a coil of rope.
Dylan glared at him. "Thought the cargo was a secret."
Russel held up his gloved hands in mock confusion. "I don't know what you imply?"
Dylan looked disgusted. "Oh, so you always bring birdseed and rope along to pick up unknown cargo?"
Russel's men went to work calming and gathering the feathered cargo while Russel stood by, staying clean. Russel smiled at Dylan's accusation. "Is always better to be prepared, no?"
Dylan glowered. "Yeah, always better to be a useless cheating ponce is more like it."
Russel's men led their corral of pacified birds out of the warehouse and Russel followed them. "Ah! Who is useless and who is stuck with angry birds, I ask you?"
Dylan dismissed him with a flick of his hand.
Edwin shook his head and muttered, "Ponce." under his breath.
The birds in the corral marked for the Dread Ship Shirley hadn't become any happier after watching their comrades being given choice treats and led away. Scottie could hear the first groans of Rattling's men returning to consciousness and looked out the wide doors toward the ships. S'more was picking his way across the dusty expanse and Scottie was pleased to see that he also had a coil of rope.
The hulking Samoan reached the warehouse just as the first of Rattling's men were sitting up and looking over their wounds. S'more blinked his dark eyes to adjust to the darkness before he approached the pen full of frothy, feathered bodies. The rotund cannon man made a few soft noises in his throat and the tiny heads all turned toward him, beady, round eyes sparkling in the dusty dimness.
S'more moved slowly, keeping up his soft murmurs. The birds seemed transfixed, their sharp beaks like needles pointing to him as their magnetic north. One by one, he slipped the rope over their long pink necks. With slow, fluid movements, he unlatched the gate and led them out into the sunlight.
The crowd watched quietly as the massive islander, his face covered in the geometric shadows of tribal ink, his brown arms thick as tree trunks, and his flat bare feet shuffling backwards through the dust of the dock, led the row of peacefully mesmerized birds. His magic seemed to hold the audience just as spellbound. The heckling and cheers had faded into a breath-held silence. Scottie and the twins followed the train of feathered friends, keeping a watchful eye on the minefield of fallen enemies.
The cargo doors had been dropped open and S'more shuffled backward up the ramp, leading his infatuated captives into the ship's hold. As soon as the last bird was on board, Scottie and the twins pulled the doors closed and rushed to get the ship in the air.
They lifted away from the ground and left the audience shaking their heads in amazement. The day that the Dread Ship Shirley had fallen out of the sky would be spoken of for years to come. Those that had not been there would claim that they were, and little Midge Panderwhip would never be the same.
Scottie was in a rush to get wind in his sails. They had lost too much time fighting Ratty and the birds. They would be looking to make it up in the air. He pulled loose a tie and let the canvas bellow. Oscar had the engines singing their whirring, clippity-clap tune before the crowd had dissolved below them. The balloons were straining their netting, dragging the swinging body of the ship higher into the sky, looking for stronger currents. They found their cruising altitude and settled in at a quick clip. Scottie dropped out of the rigging and through the hatch. He could hear the clattering of Cook at work before he leaned through the doorway to the galley. "Sticky gonna be ok with these things on board?"
Cook's pot roast jowls quivered. "Locked him in his cabin with damn near a case of rum 'fore he woke up. Hope he forgets 'bout 'em an' stays put."
Scottie grabbed a stuffed roll off the counter and nodded. "We'll all keep an eye out. Next landin' is only a day away."
Cook shook his meatball skull. "Why'd it have to be blasted birds?"
Scottie bit into the roll and shook his head. "Had to be somethin'!"
Cook dropped a few more stuffed rolls into bags. "Take those to the others, will ya?"
Scottie grabbed the bags and ducked out the doorway. The moment he stepped out into the low hallway, the hairs on his neck stood on end, then he heard a sound coming from deep within the ship; a muffled pounding, combined with off-key singing and a low whistling hum. Scottie spun toward the Captain's quarters and charged down the hall. The door was hanging off its hinges and three bottles sat empty on the desk. "Oh, fresh hell!" Scottie gasped as he spun on his heels and bailed toward the cargo hold.
He door was wide open and Scottie let out a miserable groan and dropped the sack lunches. Sticky was singing at the top of his lungs as he fought to release the massive hatch that allowed them to load and unload cargo. The ostriches were nervously puffing their throats and stomping at the ground. They were edging away from Sticky and toward the main part of the ship. Scottie moved slowly closer, trying not to give the giant birds any reason to attack as he moved into the doorway. "Captain. Please don't open that door."
Sticky turned his great green globes on Scottie. They were glowing with a panicked dementia. "Ungodly creatures! What kind of monster gives a creature wings and won't let them fly! No wonder they're so mean!"
Scottie took a puzzled breath. "Opening that hatch isn't going to help them fly, Captain."
Sticky gave a sad chuckle. "Will for a bit."
Scottie moved slowly into the room, keeping close to the edge. Three of the plumed beasts shuffled into the hallway, keeping wary eyes on him. He could see now that the latch for the door had been tampered with and was strangely grateful for the sabotage. "Captain, that door isn' gonna open. Why don't you head back to your cabin 'till we get these damned birds off the ship? Cook brought you some rum."
Sticky turned on him and roared. "DAMNED BIRDS!!!" One of the ostriches kicked out with its powerful, scaly legs and put a hole in the wall of the cargo hold. Sticky's emerald eyes spun in his head and he glared at the offending creature. "THAT IS MY SHIP YOU JUST KICKED!" Sticky lunged for its thin neck.
Scottie clamped his hand around a piece of the floor tracking that they used to load crated cargo, which had been stacked along the edge of the cargo holds floor, and swung it through the air. He caught the captain just behind his right ear and the lanky man dropped to the floor.
Scottie grabbed one of his Captain's thick boots and pulled him a safe distance from the pronged feet that were waiting to trample. Scottie hefted the captain up, got hold of him under his armpits and began walking backward, dragging him toward the doorway. Every time one of the giant birds made a move, Scottie froze, hoping to avoid its wrath. But he managed to get the captain out with little more than a slight pecking.
Once in the hallway, Scottie could hear turmoil from above and assumed that the escaped ostriches had made their way up on deck. He quickened his backward shuffle, dragging the captain along. Scottie's boot came down in something slick and he threw out his arm to gain balance, but it was too late. He crashed to the ground, sandwiching himself between Sticky and a warm pool of creamy white excrement. Scottie tried vainly to pull himself up, but his feet and hands slid in the viscous pool. Eventually, by means of pulling, shoving and sheer force of will, Scottie was able to get out from under the captain and out of the puddled droppings. Sticky groaned as he began to come to. Scottie gave him a good shake and got him on his feet, guiding him into his quarters and locking the door.
Cook poked his raw liver face out from the kitchen. "What's the noise?"
"Sticky was in with the birds, few got loose, but I took care of 'im."
Cook nodded. "Those things would make some mighty fine eats."
Scottie wrinkled his nose at his stained trousers. "They are just foul if you ask me."
Cook grunted and returned to the kitchen.
Scottie squelched through the crew's quarters to his trunk and rummaged for fresh clothes. The sooner they could be rid of this cargo, the better, as far as he was concerned. While he was busy changing, he could hear S'more and Finn ushering their wayward charges back to the hold.
Once on deck, Scottie made his rounds, checking ties and adjusting sails. Out on the darkening horizon, there was a cloud of smoke. He scurried up the rigging and perched beside Dylan. "What did I miss?"
Dylan gave him a bright grin. "That Italian beauty dropped out of nowhere and took out Russel's La Théière. She didn't stick around. We've got her and the Russians to beat."
Scottie nodded and slid back to the deck and into the navigation room. "Rick, get with Oscar and make a plan to get us movin'. We are gonna be at the next dock by dawn."
Rick gave a curt nod, his fingers tapping away on the communication system with Oscar.
The ship was sinking to dock just as the first pink glow lit the eastern sky. They were close behind the Italians, Rattling was slinking along in their wake and the Russians were setting the pace. Two cargos to go, and it was anyone's race.