Saturday, May 14, 2005

 

A Pirate Tale 84

The Festering Boil was a day out of Mossel Bay, nearing the invisible demarcation between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and the crew was in a funk. Their shore leave had been curtailed from the promised three days to a few frantic hours, and they hated getting chased out of any port, even if running were the obvious, logical thing to do.

There was nothing to be gained by lingering, and a lot to be lost. But it stung the pride. “Perhaps if we’d had a few more men,” Cap’n Sappy thought to himself as he stood on the quarterdeck where George the Greek was steering the ship before a brisk wind. But he didn’t allow himself the luxury of the thought, and turned to his companion instead.

“George, in all the excitement, I forgot to ask you how your reunion with your old friend went,” Cap’n Slappy asked his first mate.

“Oh, aye, I met up with him. There was a lot of drinking, and neither of us appears to have killed the other. At least I don’t think so,” George said, his hand stealing surreptitiously to his left forearm where the long but shallow cut was already healing. It probably wouldn’t even leave much of a scar, he decided.

“It went all right then? A proper reunion of old friends?” the captain asked.

George chuckled darkly, recalling the flash of knives in the dark smoky room, and muttered something in Greek while his hand gripped the wheel, knuckles whitening. Slappy realized that even though he’d sailed with George for years, he knew very little about the man. George was the most able sailor on the ship, a good man to have beside you in a fight, and usually affable and friendly, a good companion. But knowing him for any length of time, you realized there was a wall inside the man, and behind it something dark that he never let out.

“So who was this man? What happened?”

George was silent for almost a full minute, and Slappy assumed that his question was going to go unanswered. But suddenly George gave a slight shake to his head, turned, and spoke.

“Take the wheel for a moment, would you? I have to get something if I’m going to tell the story.”

Slappy did and George went below. When he came back he was carrying a small, unadorned wooden box, maybe six inches long and three inches square. He set it on the rail.

“The man I met is now known as Nick Peters, master gunner of HMS Susan’s Doily. He had a different name – Nikos Petros – when we grew up together on Skiros. We both worked on the fishing boats. We were close, as close as brothers really. We talked a lot about getting a boat of our own one day. That didn’t happen.”

“My sister was in love with him. All the girls were,” George said with a distant smile. “But he seemed to return my sister’s affection. Everything seemed perfect. Too perfect.”

“I won’t go into the details, but it all changed in a matter of a few weeks. We had been saving money, and my father had taken out a loan against his boat to help us buy our own fishing boat. That summer Nikos and Sarah were to be married. But by the time summer arrived, my sister was dead, and the money he and I had saved was gone, and my father had lost his boat and was a broken man. He had pledged his boat and his family honor, and both were gone. Nikos was gone. He spread the word that I had falsely accused him and was fleeing for his life. The town took his word and held me in jail until he could make his escape. But he also took something else, my father’s ring, which was how I knew he was guilty. He disappeared and I’ve been chasing him ever since.”

Slappy’s eye had grown large during the telling. “How long did you know he was on the other ship?” the captain asked.

“I spotted him when we first ran across the Doily five months ago. But I was pretty sure he’d be there. All these years, I’ve been keeping an ear out for reports of him. So when we made port for shore leave, I had already made my plans.”

………

In Mossel Bay two days earlier, George had waited at the gangplank of the Doily, knowing he wouldn’t be allowed aboard, but guessing that his quarry would stay on the ship. He sent a message inviting “Nick Peters” out for a drink.

Half an hour passed before the familiar figure appeared. He was older, of course, and bore a long scar across his forehead and the signs of a burn creeping up his neck from beneath his shirt. He looked wary, and was accompanied by a large seaman with a nasty leer and a cudgel tucked into his belt

“Ah, my old friend,” Nick said with a smile that stopped at his lips. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“You said it yourself – old friends,” George said.

“Well, ‘friend’ might be an overstatement,” Nick allowed. “We did not part on good terms.” A finger traced the scar on the man’s forehead.

“After all these years and all these miles, when old acquaintances meet in the far corners of the world, they put bygones aside and remember old times.”

“Bygones? Old times?” Nick said, the cold smile disappearing. George noticed that his hand had dropped to the front of his shirt, swiftly grasping an object that hung under the fabric from a chain around his neck. Excellent, he thought.

“You will understand, George, if I’m not entirely convinced of your sincerity.”

“Yes. But here I am in a strange port, with the one person above all others who remembers the old times – and most of them were good– and who might want to see if this town has ever heard of ouzo.”

“Ouzo?” A smile lit the man’s face, a genuine smile this time. “Rum, I’m sure you’ll find aplenty. Gin too. But ouzo? No. Searching for ouzo will be a fool’s errand.”

“And how many times have you called me a fool, you old fool,” George said. “Come, let’s be a couple of fools, for old time’s sake.”

The man paused, considered. Finally he jerked his head towards his companion. “You don’t mind, I suppose, if McCarthy comes along with us? I find his presence - comforting, shall we say?”

“Mr. McCarthy is more than welcome,” George said. “Let us introduce your friend to the glory that is ouzo.”

“Which we will not find, I am certain. Come.”

McCarthy grunted, and the three headed into town, the two Greeks walking together, McCarthy following a pace behind, directly behind George, who affected not to notice.

They did not find ouzo in the first tavern, nor in the second. That’s not to say they didn’t find anything to drink, and the camaraderie between the two men seemed to deepen a bit as they moved on to a third tavern and a fourth. It was in the third that Nick encouraged the silent McCarthy to have a drink of Scotch whisky with them. It was in the fourth and fifth that he accepted. Three drinks later they headed toward a sixth establishment, this one a small, filthy hole of a bar at the edge of the docks, almost hidden among the warehouses.

McCarthy seemed more relaxed and the other two were now singing as they entered the unpromising premises, lit only by just a pair of lanterns and candles burning low on the tables. A few heads turned up as Nick roared out, “Ouzo!

To his surprise, the man behind the counter nodded and brought out a bottle. Nick’s jaw dropped, and he rushed forward to collect the treasure.

“Ouzo!” he shouted again, and put the bottle to his lips. After a small, exploratory sip, his eyes widened and he took a much longer pull at the bottle.

---------------------
“Wow, that’s a coincidence, finding ouzo way down here,” Slappy said.

“Not at all,” George said. “I had took the last two bottles I’d been keeping in my sea locker and left them there.”

Slappy nodded his understanding. George continued.
-----------------------
“I feel like a drowning man who just took his first breath of air,” Nikos said, handing the bottle to George who also took a sip of the pungent, licorice-tasting liquid. “Three glasses, bartender! McCarthy, you are about to discover why the Greeks are blessed among all the people on the earth!”

They settled at a table in the corner and the liquor began to flow. Nikos quickly fell under the influence and his talk grew expansive.

“It's not the ouzo but who you drink it with that makes the experience,” he explained to McCarthy, who seemed to have developed an instant taste for the stuff. “You eat, you talk, for hours. Life becomes very beautiful and you attain an amazingly calm presence of mind as you sip slowly and eat mezedes.”

Nikos talked of sipping slowly, but he was actually drinking rather a lot. McCarthy, too, was drinking as if he had just discovered the purpose of his life. Only George held back, sipping slowly and smiling a deep, satisfied smile. He guided the conversation back to the old days as he ordered a second bottle to the table.

“We were men then, eh George?”

“No more than boys,” the pirate said.

“True. But who is more manly and alive than a young man about to enter the prime of life? Didn’t you feel you could do anything in those days?”

“True, George agreed. “I have never felt stronger, more capable, more able to lift the world onto my shoulders than in those early years.”

“And yet, as strong as you were, never strong enough to best me, you must agree.”

Nikos’ collar was more open now as the alcohol warmed him, and the chain about his neck showed more, but George still couldn’t see what hung on the end. He wagged a finger under the other man’s nose.

“Perhaps not then, but I wager I could take you now. You’ve been living a soft life on that British ship, while I’ve been hard at work on a real ship.”

“Soft life??! You pirate bastard!” Nikos said, laughing. “No man works harder than a British seaman. Why, I could lift one of our cannons by myself!”

“Oh, yes,” George sneered back. “You were always good at showy heroics, but when real work required real muscle, it was always me who did the lifting.”

Nikos pushed back his chair, opened his sleeve and thumped his elbow down on the table, hand up. “Let’s see then,” he slurred. “You’ve never beaten me before. Let’s see what you can do now.”

George smiled and extended his own hand, locking wrists with the other. McCarthy smiled stupidly. Forearms tense, the two men looked at each other, for a moment becoming the boys they had been.

Nikos threw his weight onto the other man’s arm a second before shouting “Go,” but he didn’t catch George by surprise. It was his old trick, the same as always. George was tensed to meet him, and the two arms moved hardly an inch.

They stared at each other as their arms wavered slightly, a grin on George’s face and a grim stare on Nick’s. Slowly, George returned the arms to the even position, then began to gain the advantage. The cords of Nikos’ neck stood out as he fought back, arresting but not reversing George’s progress. George’s expression didn’t change.

“You know you can’t beat me. You never have,” Nikos said through clenched teeth. George just smiled and increased his pressure.

George saw Nikos gathering himself, ready for a major push. He waited and it came - Nikos’ hand going back over the top and pushing George down slightly. And in that burst of energy George saw it. The chain popped out from Nikos collar and dangled in front of him. At the end was a tarnished gold ring.

---------------

“Wait!” Slappy said, interrupting George’s story. “Why would he still have your father’s ring? And why would he bring it with him when he knew you would be there?”

“Who knows,” George said. “Maybe he’s worn it there so long he’d forgotten exactly what it was. Or maybe he felt safe with his bodyguard, or just wanted to taunt me if things developed differently. Whatever the reason, he had it.”

----------------

With one convulsive effort, George threw all his weight into the match and slammed Nikos hand to the table, shifting his elbow so that it pinned the other man’s forearm. In the same movement he drew a knife from his boot and threw it, catching the lumbering McCarthy in the throat before he grasped what was happening.

Nikos eyes grew large. He heaved up, turning the table over into George as he leaped to his feet and tried to make the door. George caught a stool and tossed it, catching the man in the back of his head, stunning him momentarily.

But he was soon back on his feet and whipped out his own dagger, a curved, ugly blade. He lunged at George, but the alcohol made him overbalanced and he fell past him. George caught at the chain as he passed, breaking it but unable to hold on. It fell to the floor with a clink. George quickly strode to McCarthy, putting one foot on the dead man’s chest as he freed his blade. Turning, he saw Nikos scrambling for the ring. George leaped, but Nikos got there first, grabbed it and rolled away, slipping the ring on his finger.

“This is what you came all these miles over all these years for,” he said in an ugly snarl. And now you’ve lost it again.” He lunged at George, slicing him along the forearm. The blade snagged on the cloth of George’s shirt. He dropped his own knife, gripped Nikos right arm with his bleeding left, and wrapped the fingers of his right arm around the man’s throat. Nikos eyes bulged, his left hand pounding on George to try to break the iron grip choking the life out of him. He kicked, but was unable to free himself as George remorselessly forced him back against the wall. He looked at the others in the bar, but no one lifted a finger to help him. He closed his eyes, but was surprised when the grip shifted and George threw him to the ground, kicking him once, hard, in the teeth. He tasted blood.

“I promised my father I wouldn’t kill you, because father believed I’d be consigning myself to hell, a belief I don’t share. But I promised him I’d get it back and send it back to Skiros, where he is buried. And I didn’t promise you wouldn’t pay for what you did to my family.”

-----------------

“So you left him alive?” Slappy asked.

“Well, I’d planned to drop him at his ship, missing a few parts, but the clamor of the home guard interrupted. I had just enough time to do what I had to do, but let no one say that I caused the Doily to sail without its master gunner. I believe he still a live, if not in the best shape of his life.”

“And the box?”

George handed it to him. Slappy opened it. It was packed with something white - salt, Slappy realized. He brushed a little aside and saw it. A simple but heavy gold ring with some Greek characters faintly engraved in it. Of more interest, the ring was still on a finger, which was beginning to dry nicely in the salt. He also saw two ears and a nose.

Comments:
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