Wednesday, May 04, 2005


A Pirate Tale 80

As the last of the daylight failed, Africa was a dark smudge on the northwest horizon, backlit by the dying sun. By the time the crew of the Festering Boil rose to change watch at the forenoon watch, it rose up before them, a dry, golden-brown parapet dominating the horizon, not more than a half dozen miles distant.

“We’ve made good time,” Slappy observed from the poopdeck. “What do you think, another two or three days to Mossel Bay?”

Dogwatch Watts was finishing his calculations, then looked up. “A good guess, cap’n. I’d put us about three days out from the bay if the wind holds.”

Ol’ Chumbucket grunted. “One thing you can count on down here is that the wind will hold. It may not always blow the direction you want it to, but it’ll blow.”

For now, they couldn’t have asked for a better wind, strong and coming off the rear quarter, just where the ship seemed to like it. The Boil danced over the water. For the first time since they had started the long procession back from Diego Garcia, the Boil was overtaking Juan’s Blood. The Seawitch hadn’t been seen in several days, not that that surprised anyone. As usual, HMS Susan’s Doily was bringing up the rear, hull down on the horizon.

“Another day’s hard sailing and we might lose the navy once and for all,” Dogwatch said hopefully. “Maybe we could capture a passing merchantman or bark or something?”

“Maybe,” Slappy said doubtfully, “but it would probably be just as well to wait another week until we’re out in the Atlantic and he’s turned safely for home. I don’t want to press things.”

“But out in the Atlantic we’re unlikely to run into anything for weeks, until we get up into the shipping lanes,” Dogwatch said, sounding for all the world like a six-year-old whose just been told there will be no ice cream after dinner. “Couldn’t we just take a little ship?”

“I understand completely Dogwatch,” Slappy told the navigator. “But this is a case where we really are better off biding our time, especially since the ship behind us is a 74-gun frigate with a no-nonsense admiral.”

Dogwatch pouted. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

“Look, we’ll be in Mosell Bay soon and everyone will get shore leave. So that’ll be something. We haven’t been in port in months,” Slappy said.

The sailor did appear to cheer up at the news, so Chumbucket thought it best not to mention that the British Navy’s sailors would almost certainly be enjoying the freedom of the port as well, and there might well be trouble between the navees and the pirates. Or not, Chumbucket considered. They’d been through a lot together. Hell, with luck they might pick up a few strays to round out the crew, which had become somewhat depleted in the long adventure in the Indian Ocean.

Up ahead, Sir Nigel turned his spyglass from the coastline to the ship coming up fast behind him.

“The Boil seems to like this breeze. She’s apparently going to make a race of it into port,” he observed to Mad Sally, who was with him on the quarterdeck. She failed to respond to his conversational gambit.

“I say, Sally, what do you make of the Festering Boil’s chances of beating us into Mossel Bay?” he asked, a little louder. Still no reply. Instead, Sally stared off at the coastline as if studying the lay of the land for a pop quiz, but not actually seeing it at all.

“Sally, your hair is on fire,” Nigel offered a bit louder.

“I’m sorry, did you say something?” she said, stirred out of her reverie.

“Never mind what I was saying. What are you thinking, love,” Nigel said.

Sally waved a hand as if brushing the thoughts away. “Nothing. Just kind of lost for a second.”

“Day dreaming of your beloved on yonder ship?”

“No. Yes, but no, at least not the way you mean. Mostly I was thinking of something Slappy said the other day.”

Nigel thought for a moment but couldn’t recall anything Slappy had said recently that required deep reflection, and said so.

“That’s kind of my point. You wouldn’t have noticed either,” Sally said. “ But never mind. I’ve got to get the girls to their stations. They’ve got work to do.”

“Yes, and a damn good job they do of it, too,” Nigel said. “I never thought this ship could outpace the Boil, but they’ve got her practically flying, don’t they?”

It was true. The girls had resumed working the ship as they had during Fanny’s tenure, leaving little for the small band of Spaniards who accompanied Nigel and Don Taco to do. Nigel had to admit, the ship was as tautly run as any he’d ever served on.

“Will you join me for dinner tonight in my cabin?” he asked, moving a calculated distance closer to her. “Don Taco says he’s planning something wonderful wit the last of the eggs.”

“Now don’t start, Nigel,” Sally said, spinning away. “I’m sure it’ll be lovely and you’re a great guy, but I’ve got work to do now, and I promised the girls I’d share mess with them tonight. We have some planning to do to get ready for their homecoming.”

“Well yes, true enough. If these gently bred young ladies return to their stately homes in England without a few crash courses in civility, there could be havoc at the old homestead, eh?”

“Yes, something like that,” Sally said. “I don’t care if they don’t remember which fork to use with the fish. I’d like them to remember to use forks. Well, I’ve got work to do.”

Nigel watched her as she headed toward the bow where the girls were waiting for her. A damn fine woman, he said. Fiery, funny, and could run a ship nearly as well as he could, he had to admit to himself. She apparently was still pining for Ol’ Chumbucket, but he was on another ship with another destination, and it would be a long, long voyage up the coast of Africa to jolly old England.

Nigel smiled to himself. He had time on his side. And plans for a very special night in Mossel Bay.

The two ships were abeam of each other as the night began to fall, and the wind was still holding. It would get tricky as they rounded the cape, but for now the wind came relentlessly from the southeast, and the ships surged towards landfall.

At the bow of the Festering Boil, the first watch was gathered around trading sea stories. Cementhands McCormack had just finished telling a tale of a trip so far north that the lines had frozen in place and the sails couldn’t be reefed despite the howling winds. Faster and faster, the ship had gone, McCormack told the rapt listeners, until they had crashed on the ice. He and a few others had been rescued, he said, by Eskimos, who taken care of the shipwrecked sailors through the long arctic winter before they could be rescued by a fishing ship in the spring.

“The night was so cold and so long that the sun never rose, literally it never rose,” McCormack said, as Keeling, Dogwatch, Gabriel and a half dozen others leaned forward. “And that’s why, if you travel north toward the pole, if you land at the right spot, you’ll find a whole lot of young Eskimos who look an awful lot like me.”

The giant leaned back with satisfaction as his audience digested this bit of information, then chuckled as they realized its full import. All except Gabe the powder monkey, who looked puzzled.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “How come just because the night is long a lot of them would look like you?” This brought another round of laughter. The pirates decided it wasn’t the right time or place to fill in that part of the youngster’s education. Time enough for that when they were on shore leave, they thought. Instead, the changed the subject.

“Tell me, Cementhands,” Black Butch asked to cover the embarrassed silence. “How long have you sailed with Cap’n Slappy?”

“Oh, it must be 15 years now,” he said, trying to calculate in his head.

“How did you meet him?” the cook asked.

“Now THAT’S an interesting story. Sit down and let me tell you about it.”

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