Why does he say "Treasure is ticklish work" in Treasure Island?

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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This quotation is spoken by Captain Smollet (Chapter IX, "Powder and Arms") just before the Hispaniola sets sail from Bristol. The captain is speaking with Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey as they make final preparations for their voyage to Skeleton Island.

    “Next,” said the captain, “I learn we are going after treasure—hear it from my own hands, mind you. Now, treasure is ticklish work; I don't like treasure voyages on any account; and I don't like them, above all, when they are secret, and when (begging your pardon, Mr. Trelawney) the secret has been told to the parrot.”  
    “Silver's parrot?” asked the squire.
    “It's a way of speaking,” said the captain. “Blabbed, I mean. It's my belief neither of you gentlemen know what you are about, but I'll tell you my way of it—life or death, and a close run.”

Captain Smollet is simply declaring his worries about going after buried treasure and the risks it contains. Worse yet, he has discovered the true intention of the journey by a third party--not from Squire Trelawney, whose loose tongue has spread the news throughout Bristol. Smollet knows it will be a matter of " 'life or death,' " and he knows that the town is full of former pirates who would love to get their own hands on the riches.