Baily, the ship’s carpenter, reluctantly sat up in his hammock, nearly missing his head on the wooden beam that stretched across the cramped quarters. As usual he was in a foul mood and didn’t want to work in the Captain’s cabin building more shelves. As he got to his feet a big black cat shot between his legs like a blinding flash in pursuit of an enormous rat.
“You devil!” he squawked while pulling his shirt on. “Startles me every time” he grumbled to himself as he trudged up the stairs and onto the deck. The blinding sun made him swear an undecipherable oath as he pulled his tricorn hat down over his brow. Seagulls screams told him they were getting near land. He didn’t have time to eat. The captain expected him at eight bells and he knew the penalty if he wasn’t there on time. The whip. Just the thought hurried his pace.
Jason the cook was sitting on a stool peeling potatoes (it was early in the voyage and the ship’s food supply was still well stocked) when a black cat sauntered in with a grin. Jason smiled because he knew Lucifer had recently dined on a rat. He stopped peeling long enough to pet the huge cat who was brushing up against his legs.
Lucifer was Jason’s cat. He paid good money for him at the last port because he was special. He was a polydactyl cat. His front paws both had eight toes each which he used to his advantage in catching prey. His prior owner said he was retiring from the sea and needed the money. A prized cat like Lucifer could make life a lot easier on the whole crew. Food containers were rarely breeched because the wily feline never stopped hunting. Day and night. But, for reasons Jason couldn’t understand most of the crew, and the captain, seemed to fear him. Some, like Bailey, just hated Lucifer and would have gladly killed him if he didn’t think the crazy cook would cut him up into shark chum. He’d seen Jason fight with a butcher knife when two pirate ships tried to capture their ship the USS Ohio near Port au Prince, Haiti. His eyes were glazed with blood lust as he lopped off pirate limbs with such savagery his own mates gave him wide berth in battles. No. It was best not to antagonize the cook.
Sailors in the 18th century were a superstitious lot. So it was no surprise that the crew aboard the USS Ohio thought a black cat brought bad luck, unlike the British and the Irish who wanted black cats and considered them good luck. The fact that it’s name was Lucifer didn’t help. It was also common knowledge among the crew that if a ship’s cat fell, or was thrown overboard it meant trouble. The act would summon a terrible storm to sink the ship and that if the ship were able to survive, it would be cursed for nine years. So no one bothered Jason about his black cat. Only Bailey dreamed about killing Lucifer.
Daniel had the devil to pay. He was caught stealing another man’s gold chain and given the worst task aboard the ship. The devil was the ship’s longest seam in the hull. He was given pitch to caulk that seam while squatting in the filthy bilges. He’d already received a good flogging – ten lashes – and endured the stinging saltwater thrown on his bloody gashes. The task could take days, but he couldn’t come up until it was completed. His moans of pain echoed eerily in the semi-darkness as Lucifer watched him with his curious yellow cat eyes. The lone candle flickered, almost going out, before returning to a steady glow that caused shadows to frolic in the filth. Then Lucifer came up to him confidently and asked, “Do you believe in God?“
Harry and Spencer we’re enjoying a rare moment of rest by the scuttlebutt – a water barrel with a hole cut in it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. Rumors about what happened to their mate Daniel were rife among the crew and even officers. After a day of paying the devil the bosun’s mate had came down to check on Daniel. He let out a gasp of horror and vomited when he saw him. Daniel’s eyes were gone. Plucked out and sitting on his lap. His hair had turned from brown to pure white. He was peacefully chewing on his right arm, exposing bone as he ripped off gobbets of flesh. Nearby, Lucifer was curled up and watching the bosun’s mate scream for help.
The incident left all hands on board shaken. When Daniel’s condition was brought up to the captain he crossed himself and walked away without commenting. When they got to port a day later, Daniel was dead. The ship’s surgeon had sawed off his infected right arm but it was too little, too late. The ship’s log recorded seaman Daniel Phillips died from an infection from a self-inflicted wound. There was no mention of plucked-out eyeballs. Or his white hair. They stayed in port for two days unloading cargo and onloading new cargo. During that time one of the sailors deserted. A mate of his said he feared Lucifer more than getting strung up on the yardarm for desertion.
His work finished in the captain’s cabin, Bailey was below decks working on the wooden gun carriage that had been cracked in the last battle when he heard something, “You’re next,” a silky voice assured him. He gripped his hammer tighter and called out, “Show yourself, coward!” There was a rustling among the small oak barrels that held gun powder. Piles of rags and cannon swabs near them shifted with unseen movement. A sudden cold wind blew past him. The normally stifling hot gun deck seemed to cool down a few degrees as he listened for more movement.
“I’m not afraid of you Lucifer!” he screamed, sure now that the cat was indeed the devil.
A dark pall fell over the entire crew, with the exception of Jason who went about his normal day, content with the companionship of his cat.
A feeling of foreboding kept everyone nervous. As the days turned to weeks the crew’s fear’s were palpable. Strange little incidents were happening daily. Rope knots would inexplicably come loose causing close calls for sailors climbing the rigging. A bad case of “the trots” affected half the crew who squatted below decks over wooden pails for a week. Moral got lower every day. Rumors about Lucifer were passed around in hushed whispers. Meanwhile, Bailey had enough. His hate for Lucifer was white hot. It burned his brain and his patience, causing him to formulate a plan to kill the demon feline. He had to wait weeks, but the opportunity finally came.
He pulled out the wooden cage to capture Lucifer with from its hiding place. It was solidly built to hold the black devil captive long enough to throw him overboard. Everyone below deck was asleep so Bailey was careful not to make any noise. When he got to the base of the stairway leading to the main deck, he positioned the cage on it’s side with the door propped open with a piece of string leading to his hiding place by the scuttlebutt. Inside the cage was a live rat Baily had caught the day before. Using tough twine, he made a halter for the rodent that was tethered by a nail on the side of the box. The rat was on a short string stopping it from scurrying away. He waited for an hour before Lucifer struck! It was over in an instant. Bailey pulled the cord and the trapdoor came down on the startled cat who had the rat in his mouth. Dropping the half dead rodent Lucifer screeched so loud it woke everyone up. The sounds coming from Bailey’s box were blood curdling.
Moving swiftly he went topside and threw the box into the calm sea. Jason, who was asleep in his own little cubby was locked inside that night by Bailey. By the time he battered the door down Bailey had returned to his hammock. No one knew why the cook was rampaging around the room and what caused the screeches that woke them up.
A day passed before Jason decided something bad had made his cat howl like a lost soul, and the crew was complicit. The first thought that came to mind was he’d poison all the bastards. That way he’d be sure to get the perpetrator of Lucifer’s disappearance. It turned out that he didn’t have to do anything about it.
A terrible storm come up from the north causing massive waves that battered the ship like a toy for hours before it broke apart and sank with all hands on board.
With the exception of Jason who clung to a wooden box.
Miraculously, the seas were calm the next day when a ship came by and Jason was spotted by a sharp-eyed sailor. He clutched the wooden box securely to his chest as they helped him get in the row boat. Once on deck of the ship, the USS Vermont, Jason opened the box and pulled out Lucifer. To a man, the crew crossed themselves.