A sailing ship bobbed up and down on the waves, her sails limp and lifeless. The setting sun cast orange rays on the pirate flag hanging from the mast. On the flag was the image of not a human skull and crossbones, but those of a dog. This was The Jolly Growler, the ship of Captain Pit Bull.
On the deck stood Captain Bull, an enormous pit bull dog. He liked nothing better than attacking merchant cats as they sailed to Catland. He sniffed the air and studied the clouds, trying to predict the weather. They had suffered two large storms in just a week and the crew was tired. Now the wind had died down and the ship was stranded. After days of rowing, land showed on the horizon like a long green haze.
Captain Bull wore a black pirate hat, and his clothes were red and blue silk. A curved pirate sword hung on his belt. His crew of sea dogs were skilled pirates, fearsome to the last dog, but Captain Bull was a nasty old cur, unequaled in his skill with the sword. He could out-fight and out-smart any dog or cat across the seven seas.
Satisfied with what his nose told him, he muttered, “There’ll be a good wind tomorrow.” Turning around, he called to his crew, “All paws on deck!”
The fierce and tattered crew, a collection of dobermans, boxers, and rottweilers, came running. “Arf, arf, Captain!” they barked. Drooling, they gathered around.
“Tomorrow the wind will pick up, so we can reach land.” Captain Bull scratched his ear with a paw, then grinned at the crew. “So tonight we can celebrate my birthday in style. Max, break open a barrel of grog. Rex, get out the poker chips. Cookie, make some chow, and Rags, feed the galley slaves. Now jump to it.” The crew bounded off, wagging their tails and howling with excitement.
Deep in the bottom of the ship lay the rowing galley. Cat slaves, thin and scrawny, sat chained to the benches in pairs. Their forepaws were chained to the oars in front of them. Rags and his assistant, the cabin pup Rifky, walked between the benches giving each cat a bowl of mush.
Rifky handed a bowl to a small orange and black spotted cat and winked. The small cat watched Rifky as he served the rest of the slaves. When Rags and Rifky had left, the cat sat back against the bench and gulped down his porridge. Rifky’s wink meant that the escape was on!
For months the small orange and black cat, Patrick, had been planning carefully. Cat slaves grew thin and weak so quickly. Patrick knew that he had to save himself and his little brother Nathaniel. Rifky was his long-time friend, ever since he had come to the ship as a cabin pup. Patrick himself did not remember when he had become a slave or who his parents were, but he was a capable kitten and he knew that his brother kept getting thinner and thinner. He had to save Nathaniel.
The sound of dogs drinking and laughing floated down to the slaves. Patrick’s oar-mate lay down on his half of the bench. Patrick followed his example, pretending to go to sleep. He watched through his slit eyes as the other cats settled down. His ears listened, sticking straight up, for the sounds of the dogs above. Gradually the dogs were quieting down and falling asleep. When the deck sounded quiet, Patrick sat up. The chains were easy to slip off his paws now that he was so much thinner. Careful to stop them from clanking, he climbed off his bench and walked down several rows to where Nathaniel lay asleep. Gently poking him with a paw, Patrick whispered, “Natty, wake up.”
Nathaniel opened his eyes and pricked up his ears, asking silently if they were going tonight. Patrick nodded and helped open his chains with a piece of wire Rifky had left in his porridge one night. The two cats tiptoed between the benches and up the ladder leading to the deck. When a cat on a bench nearby moved restlessly, they froze. Patrick knew that if they were seen it was all over. If another slave caught them escaping they would tattle to get extra food. He crouched flat on the floor and motioned to Nathaniel to do the same.
They waited, holding their breaths, as the sleeping cat settled back down. Patrick nudged Nathaniel, and they started climbing the ladder leading up to the main deck. Going first, Patrick worked his way up. He had no idea who might be at the top. Cautiously he slid up the hatch. Fresh air met Patrick’s nose as he poked his head up. His ears picked out the sound of snoring dogs. As his eyes adjusted to the light, Patrick scanned the deck for signs of a watchdog. Over toward the captain’s cabin, sleeping forms were visible in the lantern light. The front of the ship was clothed in shadow, but nothing moved.
Patrick jumped up onto the deck. Turning around, he helped Natty climb up. Together they crouched on the ground and slunk toward cover. They hid in the shadow of the mast and waited. Rifky tiptoed over from the direction of the captain’s cabin. He leaned against the mast and whispered, “Are you here, Patrick?”
“Yes, we are both here,” Patrick whispered back. “Is everyone asleep?”
“The captain, Max the first mate, and Spot the second mate are still awake drinking grog in the captain’s cabin. The rest are just snoozing, so we have to be quiet. Go to the front of the ship and jump off the starboard side. That’s the direction of the land. There is a piece of wood leaning on the side for you to take. Count to ten before you slide down the anchor chain so that you hit the water at the right time. Good luck.”
Patrick squeezed Rifky’s paw. “Thank you, Rifky. I’ll never forget you.”
“Goodbye Rifky,” Natty said.
The two slipped away toward the bow of the ship as Rifky went towards the stern.
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