Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story
The Black Joke
by Brian Jewkes
Captain Joseph Barss stood upon the deck of the Chickadee.
The small schooner was making its way into port, and the young
captain paid little heed to the mechanics of the venture, allowing
his officers to see to the details. With a groan he allowed his
mind to wander over the process of emptying his cargo - suppressing
the desire to test out the new pair of pistols, which even now
lay in his sea chest.
Barss' crew knew what they were about, and despite the fact that
Liverpool's port was extremely crowded, the Chickadee soon
found her riggings being taken down. With a regretful glance behind
to the sea, Barss began making
his way off ship.
"Barss, you scoundrel! How are you?"
With the nuances of captaining a merchant vessel dissolving around him, Barss
grinned at the middle-aged man walking down the dock to greet him.
"Enos! It's been so long. How's that ancient old leg of yours?"
"Quite fine," Enos Collins displayed a good-natured grin. "Is
that a bit of grey I see in your hair, there, Joseph?"
"It's these port duties. As a midshipman I helped with the
riggings. As an officer I ran the riggings. Now all I do is sign
papers and haggle
"Ah, you've found the nastier part of being a captain. The position isn't
what it's cut out to be, is it?" Collins gestured for Barss
to walk with him. Barss complied, trusting his cargo would still
The two began walking down the dock.
"Interesting little proposition in Halifax, Joe." Collins confided, "I
think you ought to come along and see her."
"Oh? How large is she?"
"Let's just say she is well built, shall we? Your father
is a share-holder -- we bought her on the Slater Street auction."
"She cost us hundred a fifty pounds. Not a bad price, considering."
"One fifty! She's a war-brig, then? What's her name?"
The two had reached the end of the dock, and stopped.
"You'll find out soon enough, I'm sure. Come on down to Halifax." With
a grin and a firm handshake, Enos walked off.
"Come on, man!" Barss called. "A little more information?"
Enos waved back, but did not stop.
"Damn that man." Barss cursed, turning back to his cargo.
"Ahoy -- Mr Hrake! Watch that sloop; it looks as if she's
preparing to set
The crew, busy around him, went through the motions of preparing the ship for port, skilfully dodging the ships around them. Everyone on deck noticed the unpleasant stench in the air. Shouts to other ships returned the knowledge that the cause of the smell was some sort of 'Black Joke'. The young captain, assuming this was some sort of prank, knew that somehow, Enos Collins was involved.
* * *
"Do you mean to tell me you paid 150 pounds for this?"
Enos Collins grinned slightly, as a disgusted Joseph Barss scrutinized
a small schooner sitting just off the dock - the reeking Black
"Why, it'll cost you half that again to burn the smell
out of her!"
"She does stink a bit," Enos replied, "but she'll
clean up. And you've not looked at her lines."
"Lines? Look at the size of her! She wouldn't hold half a
catch of fish."
"She'll not have to. She'll make a nice little passenger
vessel for Liverpool-Halifax run. She'll need a new name - no more
of this 'Black Joke' nonsense.
What do you think of the 'Liverpool Packet'?"
"Call her what you like, it means nothing to me." Barss
glowered at Collins, wondering why he had bothered making the trip
over to Halifax.
He thought of his family, which he had hoped to visit, and of the lost
profit from rushed
"Now, now, Joe. I'm thinking of having John Freemen as her
captain - and you as his first officer."
"Freemen? You can't be serious!" Barss' mind raced.
Everyone knew that John Freemen was a veteran privateer's man of
the Spanish and French
wars - he was no ferry captain.
"You can't be serious, Enos." Barss glanced at his friend,
and then back at the ship, taking a closer look.
Everybody knew that Enos Collins had his methods of gaining information. A
ship commanded by Freemen and Barss would be a powerful privateer. And if Enos
Collins thought there was a market for such a ship, then there would soon be
ships to be picked off the high seas.
Enos smiled confidently at Barss, carefully watching the change coming over him.
"By God, Enos. Why didn't you say so over in Liverpool?"
* * *
Within a few days, John Freemen arrived.
"She's a small ship," he commented, stepping aboard.
"Yes, but wait until you get a good look at her lines," Barss
The Packet was a small schooner, almost
a wedge in shape, with a bold bow, and two tall masts leaning into
a narrow stern.
"She's small - only 53 feet," Barss said as he and his new captain
examined the ship, "but her displacement is only 67 tons. I'll bet
you every penny to my name - although I have very few at the moment - that
is the fastest
ship in this harbour. No, the fastest ship in Nova Scotia!"
John Freemen grinned. "Judging by how excited Enos was when
I talked to him, I'd say he fancies her the fastest ship in the
world. I want to
get her ready to sail with a crew as soon as possible."
"We'll be doing the Liverpool-Halifax run, then?"
"What better way to get a feel for her? Don't worry - from
what Enos tells me we'll have some real work, soon."
"Aye aye, Captain," Barss said with a salute and an excited grin.
* * * *
It was not long until the Packet left Halifax.
She returned surprisingly soon, having not completed her run. Just
out of Halifax, the Packet's lookout spotted
a damaged ship approaching. Running on instinct, Freemen pulled
his ship back into port. In turned out to be a good move.
"Barss!" Captain John Freemen hopped onto the deck of the Packet after
having talked the Belvidera's captain. Barss quickly approached.
"The Belvidera was on a trade
run down somewhere in the States. He was attacked by a squadron
of ships - Commodore Rodger's ships."
"What? That's an act of war!"
"Precisely," Freeman shook his head grimly, but there was excitement
in his eye. "The Belvidera discovered after arriving
at port, that the United States has declared war on Great Britain!"
"By God! How long ago?"
Barss couldn't suppress a grin of anticipation, and forced himself not to burst
out in laughter.
"I know," Freemen said. "We've got to hurry to
Liverpool now - Enos needs to know about this, I'm sure the news
would be most welcome
"Right. What about cannons?" Barss said, thoughts of
action rushing through his mind.
"Go find as many as you can and get them on to the ship."
The Packet reached Liverpool with five rusty
cannons on deck - two 12 pounders, a 6 pounder, and two 4 pounders.
After a quick discussion with Enos Collins, however, it was soon
realized that action could not yet be taken. A letter-of-marque
was required for ships to privateer; yet they were currently unavailable.
While the States had declared war on Britain, Britain had yet to
The Packet returned to Halifax, the
entire crew growing increasingly anxious.
* * *
"This is disgusting!" John Freemen paced in annoyance on the deck of
the Liverpool Packet. Every day brought tidings of an
American ship making a capture off the coast of Nova Scotia.
"We're at war! Why, in God's name, can't we get a letter-of-marque?"
The crew of the ship - which had swelled to forty five in anticipation of a
letter-of-marque yet to come - was lounging about on shore. Barss and Freemen,
however, had come to enjoy lounging on the deck of their ship
"By God that English ship is leaving in a hurry," Barss
said, pointing at a British ship.
"That ship - she's English, I'm sure - she just put in port
a few hours ago."
"Your right, she did. What's her name? I can't make it out."
"The Farsight," Barss replied.
"Ahoy, Packet!" said the Captain of the Farsight, as
his ship pulled up alongside.
What are you about? You just put into harbour a few hours ago!" Freemen
"We just put in for a letter-of-marque, were off to privateer."
Freeman half turned to Barss, an eyebrow raised, before shouting
letter-of-marque? Against whom?"
"The French - waste of time," murmured Freemen.
"Hold on, I've an idea!" Barss said, jumping to the rail of the Packet.
" Ahoy, what does the letter say, regarding who you may attack?"
As the Farsight's Captain searched through his coat for the letter, his ship began pulling away. Finding and scanning it quickly, he called back,
"Against French, etcetera. That's all!"
"Thanks!" Barss shouted, turning to his Captain, whose
face had assumed a slightly confused expression.
"What was that about?" he asked.
"I've got an idea. Let's see if we can get ourselves one
of those letters against the French."
* * *
With her sails at full, the Liverpool Packet cruised
her new hunting ground - the Atlantic Ocean. Her
ship that sailed under
Several of the more intelligent members of the Packet's crew
knew they were under the command of a very clever
first officer - Barss had taken 'against French
The other members of the crew were simply happy
to be on the high seas.
* * *
The first Nova Scotian privateer was six days out
of port, and Freemen was growing anxious.
I expected to spot a sail sooner then this," he confided
to Barss as the first officer sat down beside
him. It was late at
sleep, waiting to sight something.
So did I, but we'll get something soon, I'm sure," Barss
spoke quietly, knowing that all around him, on
deck, slept most of the
"I'll take this watch, Barss. Get to sleep."
"You took all last night, and barely slept during the day.
You get to sleep, I'll take the watch."
"You're right," Freeman took a deep breath, before standing and turning
to leave. "See you in the morning."
All through the night Barss sat. As dawn neared,
he found himself dozing off. With a yawn, he blinked,
wiping sleep from his eyes, wondering at a strange
smudge on the horizon. Thinking it a piece of dirt,
he rubbed his eye vigorously.
"Rouse the captain," he ordered, shaking a nearby crewmember into wakefulness. "Then
start rousing the rest of the crew. Quietly!"
Picking his way through the many sleeping bodies,
Barss made for the wheel.
"I'll take it from here," he whispered to the young crewman at the
helm. "Help rouse the crew...quietly!"
* * *
"Good eyes, Barss," Freemen whispered as the Packet
neared the Middlesex.
The light was growing as the sun slowly rose. The Packet was
almost in cannon range when suddenly the Middlesex picked
"She's seen us," Freemen whispered.
"She's no match for our speed, though!"
Barss was right. Despite the Middlesex's increase in speed,
the Packet soon drew
up alongside her.
"Enough of the chase," Freemen said. "Fire!"
Almost instantly the warning shot brought the Middlesex to
a halt. Up went the white flag, along with a cheer around the Packet.
"Let's get a prize crew over there," Freemen said with
* * *
The crew of the Packet worked quickly, and soon there was
a prize crew aboard the Middlesex.
"That was a good show," said Freemen triumphantly.
"By God! Captain, look at this!"
The Packet lay alongside the Middlesex, a
ship twice her size, completely hiding the Packet from anything coming from
the Middlesex's opposite
"Full sail!" Freemen yelled.
A ship - the Factor - was not a quarter mile away, just coming
around the Middlesex. It
was low in the water, and its sails
were at full.
"She's trying to get away," Barss observed.
"Small chance of that. Are the cannons reloaded?" Freemen
"Of course." Barss said with faint smile.
"Let's bring them to a stop."
A shot from the Packet along the Factor's bow
brought the laden ship to a
* * *
"Two ships, Barss! Two in one day," Freemen grinned
triumphantly at his first officer as he approached.
"Captain," Barss spoke hesitantly as he stopped before his captain. "The
crew is...uh...upset? The Factor has a full cargo of wine on
"I know, damnit. But I won't be having a drunken crew, especially
with two prize crews out!"
"Damnit, Freemen! The crew is on the brink of mutiny!"
"By God Barss, there won't be a mutiny after taking two prizes."
"I want you to know, Sir, that this is not my fault."
"What are you talking about, man?"
"You're herby relieved of your command. The Packet is
"Barss! That is mutiny."
"You can either accept this, or face the rest of the crew.
They are very angry about their
"I'm sorry, John."
"I wish you best of luck with the Packet,
"I'm assigning you to the Middlesex. Take
her back to Halifax."
* * *
The Liverpool Packet had made the first two, of over 100 captures she would make in her history. Although half the size of much of her prey, she more then made up for size, with speed. Eventually the Packet would be lost to the Canadians, captured by the Americans. Regrettably, she was not nearly as successful under the colours of the United States.
The story does a fine job of dramatizing a world quite different than our own and, in so doing, provides the reader with a very pleasurable ride. Because the writer observes well and hears faithfully, this world feels vivid and true.
Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.