Monday, February 21, 2005


A Pirate Tale - 37

The last of the stores and gear had been wrestled down to the beach; the food and supplies stored in the hold of the Festering Boil, the cannon returned to their place on the gun deck, the sailors’ personal belongings in their various compartments and cubbyholes.

“Now there’s just one decision left to make,” Cap’n Slappy said to the assembled crew. “Slappista! For your treachery you have been given a choice – you may travel with us as a prisoner in the hold, with no promise as to how or where or even if you are released, or you may remain here, alone, in this isolated spot on the coast of Africa.”

“How very kind of you, my cousin,” the prisoner said with sarcasm. "It would help if I had some more definite idea of WHERE on the African coast we are.”

“Prof. Droppingham, perhaps you could help in that regard?” Slappy asked the dyspeptic retiree, who had been living there in isolation for five years.

“What’s the matter, ya whelp? Can’t do simple navigation? Forgotten the first lessons we taught? Well, it wouldn’t surprise me. In fact we’re on the southwestern edge of the great desert, north of the golden horn. If ya want to walk, and lord knows the exercise would do ye good, ye’ll find the Moorish city of Casablanca just up that way to the north, about 600 miles. There’s a great expanse of desert between here and there. If ye’d prefer to go south, you should run into the city of Dakar eventually, about 500 miles south. Of course there’s a fair amount of impenetrable jungle and hostile tribes on the way, not to mention animals so ferocious ye’d wet yerself just thinkin’ of ‘em, so I’m not thinking ye’d ever actually see Dakar.”

“And have you seen much in the way passing ships who might rescue a stranded sailor?” Slappista asked.

“I’ve lived here five years and seen a few ships, slavers passing by on their way to and from markets. But this is the first ship that ever stopped here that I’ve seen.”

“Well, I have never been known as a contemplative man in search of quiet and privacy in which to consider the mysteries of the universe,” Slappista said, his voice heavy with irony. “I have always been un hombre de la acción, more used to being in the fray, or causing the fray. So I suppose I shall have to accept the offer of your hospitality aboard your ship and hope for events to eventually deliver me. And it’s a comparatively generous offer. Were I in charge and our positions reversed, I’d weigh the alternatives and save myself the trouble by having you bound head and foot and tossed over board.”

“Yes, but you’re not in charge, so I think we’ll do things my way. And now, let’s get aboard.”

As the last of the shore party clambered aboard the long boats, Slappista had one last moment on the shore. He looked back at the jungle, then out to sea.

“No,” he said quietly to himself, “No, I’m not in charge. At the moment.” Then with a jerk of his chains he was led to the boats.

As the last boat pushed off through the surf with Cap’n Slappy, Sir Nigel, Ol’ Chumbucket, Droppingham and Sawbones Burgess aboard, Slappy noticed a flash of movement on the shore. His hand was reaching for his blunderbuss as he realized what it was.

“My monkey friend!” he said. “C’mere boy! Come join us!!”

“No, not that foul little beast!” Droppingham said. “For five years he’s pestered me. In fact, it was him I was shooting at when I hit you with that dart! I hate the thing.”

“All the more reason to bring him along,” Chumbucket said, laughing. “Anyone that can get under YOUR skin is someone I want along, if I must be burdened with your company.”

The monkey paused at the waterline, unwilling to enter the surf. Slappy leaped off the boat and waded back the short distance to the shoreline, where the monkey quickly scurried to meet him. Reaching his outstretched hand, it quickly scrambled up to the captain’s shoulder, where it perched as naturally as if it had lived there for years.

“Well, make yerself at home,” Slappy said with a laugh. “Wave goodbye to yer old home old boy, we’re on our way.”

Slappy waded back to the boat and handed the monkey to Burgess while he climbed back aboard.

“Careful with my chimp there,” he said.

“Not a chimp, I think,” Burgess said. “There are many varieties of the monkey family, but the chimpanzee is much larger than this little fella. He could never perch on yer shoulder like that. I’d guess, without having a book to look it up in, that this is a capuchin monkey. And,” he continued his examination,” I’d say this is a lady, not a male.”

“Doc, I’m sure you’re all smart and book learned and stuff, and if you say my male chimp is a female cappuccino, then you’re probably right,” Slappy said. “But if you think I’m going to stop calling him a chimp, then you haven’t been sailing with me nearly as long as I think you have.”

“Stupid git,” The Drip muttered.

They arrived at the Festering Boil and climbed aboard.

“Good to be home,” Chumbucket said.

The crew was already up in the rigging raising the sails, and Cementhands McCormack led a party at the capstan raising the anchor. Similar preparations were going on aboard the pinnace “Nigel’s Revenge,” which they had decided to take along with them.

“The wind’s off the shore and the tide is running, so we won’t need to man the sweeps,” Slappy said. Calling across the water to Dogwatch Watts, who was in charge of the crew on the pinnace, “Dogwatch! Lead us out of here!”

Turning to the man at the helm of the Festering Boil, he ordered, “George, let’s get her back to sea!”

Cap’n Slappy assumed his typical spot at the rail of the poop, watching his crew fall back into their natural seagoing habits. Chumbucket was nettled to see Sir Nigel standing at Slappy’s shoulder, in the place he usually occupied.

“I’ll go forward and watch for rocks,” he said, departing for the bow.

“Yes, keep a sharp eye out,” Nigel said encouragingly.

“We made astonishing time getting ready for sea,” Slappy said, rubbing the spot where he’d been hit by the dart some weeks ago, “Especially considering that it wasn’t exactly uneventful stay. Still, that’s a three and a half week head start Lady Fanny has on us. If Droppingham really knows where she’s headed that might make the difference, because otherwise I don’t see how we can find her.”

In fact, at the very moment that the Festering Boil was rounding the headland that protected the cove and entering the ocean, Mad Sally had her charges on the deck of La Herida que Filtra de la Cabeza, practicing their navigation.

“It’s really all just the same as a math class, only with very practical uses,” Sally told the girls as they shot the sun with their astrolabes, which they had constructed as part of a wood shop class.

The girls labored with their numbers, and finally came up with their answers. Sally gathered the results and with a smile reported, “Well done! You’re mostly all within a reasonable range. I think it’s safe to say this must be the correct answer and you’ve now fixed our position reasonably well. Congratulations! If these numbers are correct, and I see no reason to doubt them, you have just left the Atlantic and are now sailing in the Indian Ocean. You are dismissed. I must report this to the captain.”

Sally left the girls to clean up after the class and made her way back to the poop, where Fanny sat watching the girl at the helm and buffing her long, cruel fingernails.

“Yes, Sally?”

“I’m pleased to report the girls have done quite well at their navigation lesson. They’ve almost all come in with roughly the same result – latitude 34° south, longitude 018° east, more or less and with a fair variety in the exact minutes. So that smudge of land to port must be the Cape of Good Hope, and you are now officially in the Indian Ocean.”

“Excellent,” said Fanny. It should be only another couple of weeks to our destination on Madagascar. Then the real work will begin. And I promise to fill you in completely at that time, m’dear. It’s really quite an exciting prospect. But,” a vexed look crossed her face, “You said ‘almost’ all the girls got the answer. Who did not?”

“Well, two or three of the girls were within a couple hundred miles – Helen, Joyce, Patricia,” Sally said, knowing she was naming girls who had shown an inclination to side with Fanny. “By far the worst, I’m afraid, was Genevieve Rubette. I haven’t checked the charts, but I believe her answer puts us somewhere in the vicinity of Berlin, rather far inland for a sailing ship. Shall I have the girls disciplined?”

Fanny paused for a moment, then breathed, “No, not this time, I think. I find arithmetic quite tedious, don’t you, and certainly understand that they might not have their hearts into it. They have other qualities I think I can bring out in them. That will be all for now.

Sally curtsied and turned away, making a mental note on her list of who could be trusted and who could not.

“It’s not all that different than keeping tabs in a public house,” Sally said to herself. “Who owes what and who’[s likely to pay. But there’s always a bill to be paid in the end, isn’t there.”

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