Read an Excerpt
Merton knew the rat; the rat knew Merton. For five months they had lived together in the stinking hold of the frigate, and during those five months they had measured and developed a healthy respect for each other. Merton had a commendable and profound knowledge of rats. They had shared living space with him since his memory began, on land as well as at sea. And the rat had also developed a commendable knowledge of Merton. The rat was very large, and Merton was small, only five feet two inches in height; they were both intelligent, ingenious, and agile. Merton simply had the advantage in being a man. As a man, he was determined to kill the rat. The rat, being a rat, was only determined to remain alive.
The rat was gray, with a white face and white paws, which identified him specifically and was finally his undoing, since it turned Merton's animosity against all rats into a single direction. Merton devised traps, poisoned bait, and laid ambushes, and all of it failed. Finally, on the twelfth of June, in the year 1775, luck and the mysterious workings of doom coincided. The rat ventured onto the gun deck. Merton happened to have a marlinspike in his hand. He let go with the spike and caught the rat squarely and stunned him, which gave Merton a chance to bash in the rat's head.
Dancing a small dance of victory, Merton held up the enormous rat for his shipmates to see. "Now if this ain't the biggest bleeding son of a bitch that ever lived, then I am a dick's udder! I said I'd get the bastard, and I got him!"
"You bloody well got him," they agreed.
"Weighs three pounds if he weighs an ounce."
"And what are you going to do with the little bastard, Merton?"
Merton smirked and stared from face to face at his grinning shipmates. "Now what am I going to do with him? And wouldn't you like to know?" Out with his knife. He gutted the animal, tore out its entrails, and flung them over the side into the water of Boston Harbor. Then, quickly and expertly, disregarding the pool of blood at his feet, he beheaded the rat and skinned it.
"Looks like a bleeding hare, don't it?"
"Looks like a rat to me."
"Cook it up and eat it, Merton. It'll taste better than rotten salt pork."
Merton wiped his knife on his pants and grinned.
"And get a bucket of water and wash down the deck," said the bosun.
"Ah, that I will, bosun. That I will."
His mates lost interest and wandered away. After he had washed down the deck, Merton took the rat's body into the galley. The cooks were at the bow fishing, the galley was empty except for a scullery boy, and Merton told him to keep a still tongue in his head. Grinning and chuckling, the scullery boy watched Merton butcher the rat and drop it into a pot of soup that was simmering for the officers' mess.
Few enough liked Merton. He had a mean, tortured, shrunken soul, and he lived a mean, tortured, shrunken life. The scullery boy hated him, and the captain's coxswain hated him, but since the scullery boy hated the captain as well, he waited until after the captain's dinner before he informed the coxswain of Merton's addition to the soup pot.
The coxswain communicated the news to the first officer, and Merton was duly reprimanded. He was bound to a mast to receive fifty lashes across his skinny back.