Friday, February 25, 2005


A Pirate Tale - 41

More than three dozen low lifes – virtually the entire population of Port Elizabeth – sighed as they watched La Herida que Filtra de la Cabeza set back out to sea. They were there, of course, for one last look at the crew of young ladies who had brought the ship limping into port 10 days earlier. It had been an amazing 10 days by the squalid settlement’s usual standards.

When the damage to the hull was first discovered, Sally had quickly scotched Bastiaan’s demand that the girls, naked from the waist down, form a bucket brigade to keep the bilge clear.

“Girl’s, pants on NOW!” she ordered. She quickly designated eight of the girls, and ordered the rest topside again – fully clothed.

Bastiaan had gone to the hold to seek “inspiration” before heading for his appointment with Lady Fanny. He felt a little put out that he wouldn’t get to be “inspired” by the sight of the young girls hard at work in the buff.

“But we have to bail out the ship, or we’ll all drown, and the girls can’t work in their usual attire down in the flooded bilge,” Bastiaan said with disappointment.

“Yes, absolutely,” Sally said. “That’s why the ship has a pump. Girls!” The eight girls Sally had designated began working the pump, and the water level started falling noticeably almost immediately.

“We have 44 healthy young schoolgirls. With eight to a team we can run five shifts, with some spare girls, until we make it to Port Elizabeth, which should take, what, the better part of a day? We won’t be drowning anytime soon, will we?”

Bastiaan grinned sheepishly.

“That being the case, let me suggest that I get back to running this ship and keeping my girls out of trouble, and you get back to your main employment, servicing Fanny,” Sally said, her eyes narrowing as she moved closer to the Dutch pirate until she was almost nose to nose with him. “And if I ever catch you touching, disturbing or otherwise troubling any of these young girls again,” her voice sank to a dangerous, hoarse whisper, “I will cut off your private parts and feed them to the sharks. Do I make myself clear?”

Bastiaan gulped.

“Let me be even clearer,” she continued, trembling with rage. “I work for Lady Fanny, and watching out for these teen-age girls is my one and only job responsibility. I take care of them for her, and if you in any way get in the way of my duty to Lady Fanny, you will pay the price accordingly. Got it?”

Bastiaan’s head jerked in a nod of agreement.

“Then get out of this hold!” Sally shrieked. Bastiann backed away, then slowly left. As he climbed the ladder back to the deck he glanced back at Sally with a look that mingled fear, respect, and desire.

Sally watched him go, then slowly sank to the bench, trembling. One of the girls at the pump looked over to her.

“Are you alright, ma’am?” she asked.

“Yes,” Sally said, forcing a small smile. “I’m just glad he didn’t call my bluff.”

The girls wore male garb when they brought the ship into Port Elizabeth, but word quickly spread that some four dozen beautiful young ladies had sailed into port. That they were wearing pants instantly gave everyone ashore the wrong idea about them. No sooner had they tied up than men were crowding the docks, and a couple of the braver souls tried forcing their way onto the ship. They were smacked on the head by belaying pins as they attempted to climb aboard, and unceremoniously dunked into the harbor. Sally fired a pistol shot over the crowd’s head, but that didn’t have much affect either. It wasn’t until Bastiaan ordered the swivel guns loaded with grapeshot and trained on the dock that a semblance of order was restored.

Port Elizabeth was not exactly a thriving metropolis. It was more a canker on the gum of southeastern Africa, one of those out-of-the-way pockets that collect the flotsam and jetsam of seafaring that happens to drift in. It possessed three bars, a barbershop, and the most remote outpost of the British East Indies Company, whose single representative did almost no business, since almost no one traveled to Port Elizabeth on purpose and the desolate surrounding country offered little in the way of trading opportunities.

For once Bastiaan, Fanny and Sally were of one mind, though their reasons varied. The girls had to not only stay on ship but as much as possible stay out of sight. For Sally it was a matter of protecting her girls. For Fanny it was a matter of preserving her crew. For Bastiaan, it was a matter of protecting his ship and keeping his options open.

Bastiaan had to go into the town to find his shipwright uncle, who turned out to be under one of the tables in the second bar the pirate captain looked in. He brought him back to the ship, where he picked three men from among the drunks and reprobates to assist him. Bastiaan then picked another 10 men from the dockside crowd – the biggest and least offensive smelling – and paid them to guard the approaches to the ship. Fanny met with each of them individually and they left with wide eyes and an appreciation for what might befall them if they failed to keep the rest of the crowd off the ship.

Bastiaan’s uncle, “Oom David,” accepted the story of the “sarwhal” with a look and a shrug, and went to work patching the hull. The shipyard lacked the appropriate timbers to affect the repairs, but that wasn’t a problem. Bastiaan and the ship’s guards took a late-night (technically, very early morning) stroll along the waterfront and when the sun rose, the repairs were under way and two neighboring ships were sitting on the harbor floor.

The work proceeded quickly, but every day was an adventure, with the town’s denizens finding new and inventive ways of trying to get on board and get to the young girls. Dinghies were rowed up to the seaside of the ship, but the boarders were repelled. Swimmers tried going under the hull and coming up from the other side. They only tried this once. Cannon balls dropped on them from the deck had a way of dissuading them. They approached the dock in the guise of insurance salesmen, agents offering luxury vacations to listen to a sales pitch for time shares and as a Jehovah’s Witness. Actually that last one might have been legit, but the guards shot him before anyone could find out.

What little traffic worked the sordid port came and went with sightseers cramming the rails, trying to catch a glimpse of the girls. One, a Portugese brigantine outward bound for Lisbon which had been chased into the port by a storm, lost three sailors who fell from the rigging when Genevieve stuck her head out the hatch for a breath of air.

The air below decks was stale, hygiene rudimentary, and the atmosphere tense. The girls bridled at being kept cooped up and, while they showed a healthy respect for the unseemly crowd that daily gathered around the ship, some also clearly enjoyed the attention and attempted to display themselves whenever possible, prompting several riots. It was a major relief when, after a week, Oom David reported that he was done. Now it was just a matter of getting the ship under way again.

The guards were paid off handsomely enough and cowed once more by Fanny so that they agreed to maintain their posts on the dock while the girls came out to get the ship moving again. With Bastiaan and Sally manning the swivel guns, lines were cast off and the girls climbed the rigging to unfurl the sails while the entire population of the town sighed and surged toward the waterfront. As La Herida que Filtra de la Cabeza moved slowly and silently from the wharf, the crowd lost control and overran the guards who dropped all pretense of guarding and also rushed the ship. They were dissuaded by blasts from the swivel guns, and the ship was out to sea.

The sails caught the wind and the ship moved lightly and swiftly back into the ocean, headed northeast towards Madagascar.

“We have to be there in five days. We absolutely have to be,” Fanny said nervously.

Bastiaan shrugged. “It won’t be easy. It’s typically a six-day sail. If we crowd on the canvas and get good winds, we might be able to make it.”

“’Might’ isn’t good enough!” Fanny shrieked. “We simply have to be there in five days or the plan will be in jeopardy. We’ve risked too much not to make it now. At the end of the trail is a crown for me and more wealth for all of us than any of you can imagine. Get me there, or I will not be happy.”

Sally and Bastiaan simply nodded assent. They could tell from the tone in her voice and the look in her eyes that Fanny meant it, and could guess if Fanny were to “not be happy,” the rest of them would definitely be miserable.

Several hundred miles to the southwest, there was excitement on the Festering Boil. The day had started with the spotting of a sail coming towards them. It had been a simple matter to overtake the ship, a Portugese brigantine, board her and quickly overcome any opposition. The ship’s cargo proved to be of little value, but the information it yielded caused a stir on the poopdeck.

“They were in Port Elizabeth! We could be there in a day and a half!” Chumbucket said.

“That was three days ago,” Cap’n Slappy cautioned. “The fellow said they’d been there a week. It’s anyone’s guess whether they’re still there.”

“The question,” Sir Nigel observed, “is whether we head for that stinking hell hole that calls itself a port, or keep heading on our course and hope to waylay them. Either way, we’ve clearly made up ground.”

“Damn yer a canny lot,” Droppingham spat out. “What do ya think? They’re just sitting there waiting for ya? Morons!”

“What do you recommend then?” Chumbucket asked with exasperation.

“Stay on the course I’ve charted, ya simpleton!” The Drip said caustically. “I know where they’re headed. I’m absolutely certain. If they stay in Port Elizabeth for much longer, we’ll pass them and arrive first. If not, we won’t be more than a few days behind, a week at most. At least that’s my advice. Take it or not as ya see fit.”

Droppingham turned and stormed off. The gathered pirates looked at one another for a few seconds, then Chumbucket spoke.

“Damn, I hate it when he’s right.”

Slappy laughed. “You know, he may be the most unpleasant person I’ve ever met, but he really is a good sailor, really quite accomplished. Maybe he was right all along and he SHOULD have been put in charge of a ship. In either case, it is the best solution. Keep us on a north northeast track. We’re either headed to Madagascar – and that’s a natural pirate stronghold the likes of which the Caribbean has never seen – or else we’re going straight on to India. Either way, we’re catching up.”

“And bloody good thing we’re giving Port Elizabeth a miss,” Nigel added. “Not a single decent restaurant or anywhere to get my nails properly buffed. Totally uncivilized, the place is. And speaking of restaurants, does anyone happen to know what’s for dinner?” He asked the last in an innocent tone, and there was just a hint of a gleam in his eye as he said it.

Chumbucket just stared at both of his colleagues for a moment, then said, “I’ll get us under way again. North northeast, and we’ll shake out the canvas.”

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