Thursday, May 19, 2005


A Pirate Tale 86 - Oh What a Lovely Anachronism

The sun pushed its way over the eastern horizon as the Festering Boil continued its journey west. High up in the rigging, Ol’ Chumbucket sat on one of the yardarms of the foremast, his spyglass sweeping the sea.

He liked getting up here as dawn was breaking, It was quiet. Down on the deck there was always work going on and that infernal singing. Sea shanties were all well and good, but after about 15 minutes he no longer cared what to do with a drunken sailor. And then Keeling would try to get them going on show tunes and that was about all Chumbucket could stand. Except Sondheim. He liked Sondheim, he had to admit.

But up here in the rigging it was quiet, nothing but the wind in the ratlines and the occasional call of one of the lookouts or the tops’l’men working the sails, especially when the weather was tricky. A man could think up here. Not that there was much to think about these days. They were nearly done with their long voyage across the Atlantic and there would be plenty to do and plan and consider when they got to the Caribbean. For now, it was enough to feel the roll of the boat under him and look down at the little world of the ship some 45 feet below.

The sea to the east was clear. To the west there was not a sail in sight, but the first hint of what might prove to be land. Another hour at most would tell the tale.

Below, the watch was changing as the ship stirred to life and morning routines were commenced. In the galley, Spencer the cabin boy was helping Black Butch get breakfast ready, and asking a question that had been puzzling him for days.

“I still don’t understand why we’ve taken – what’s it been, 12 ships? – in the last two weeks, and we don’t have any gold,” Spencer complained.

Indeed, the pirates had been quite successful in overtaking and plundering ships overawed by the bloody red banner known as “Three-Martini Mick,” but the take had not been the sort that would set a pirate’s pulse racing. Lots of food, lots of wine, fabrics, tools, gunpowder and other commodities that would fetch a nice price in the Caribbean, but there had been little in the way of typical pirate plunder. No jewels or silver, no rum and, except for a few private purses, the only gold coins they had found proved on closer inspection to contain chocolate. That was from consignment of goods from Switzerland. The same shipment had contained a dozens cuckoo clocks, which had delighted the crew and increased the cacophony which drove Chumbucket up the mast each morning.

“Let me try this again,” said Black Butch patiently. “We’re in the westerlies, the wind that’s blowing us west. And the ships we’re overtaking are following that same wind. We catch them because we’re faster. Now, where do these ships get the gold we like to take from them?

“From the New World,” Spencer piped up quickly.

“Right. And we’re traveling TOWARD the New World, right?”

Spencer thought about it, then nodded his assent.

“Okay, so why would these ships be taking gold TO the place where they get the gold? You see, that would make no sense. We’re catching ships on the way to the New World, carrying goods they planned to sell there in the Spanish settlements before loading up on treasure and heading back to Europe. And it might not look exciting to you, but we can sell them for a very tidy profit. We’ll need to get into the Gulf Stream to catch the ships on their homeward route laden with gold, but then we’d never get back to the Caribbean, now would we, because the current and winds would be going the other way. Do ye understand now, laddie?”

Spencer’s face contorted in concentration for a moment. Finally he nodded agreement.

“I see,” he said. “The currents and wind push us either to or away from the New World, depending on which current we’re in. And all the ships we’re likely to meet in that current must be going the same way. I get that. There’s just one question.”

Black Butch braced himself for what he knew was coming.

“Where’s the gold?” Spencer asked.

“Shut up and stir that oatmeal,” Butch replied.

Below in the hold, the changing of the watch caught some sailors heading topside while others coming off watch were heading to their hammocks.

“Any sign of land?” Greta Olsen asked Two Patch.

“I saw nothing,” was his response. “But we should make landfall any day now.”

“Is it true what Dogwatch said? We’re going to make landfall at – Brazil?” Greta’s voice was full of dread as she said it.

“Aye, if his course is true. Until he met with Prof. Droppingham, I’d have bet against it and given odds that we’d more likely end up in Cathy or maybe Moscow. But the professor seems to have turned him into a right fair navigator before he left us.”

“But isn’t Brazil where…” Greta’s voice dropped and her eyes grew wider as other sailors with the same worry crowded around her.

“Where what?” Two Patch said.

“Cementhands said there were monsters there.”

“Oh, aye, Cementhands said,” scoffed Two Patch, one of the few sailors in the crew who’d seen enough of the world to know a fish story when he heard it. “If I had a gold ring for every tall tale HE’S spun I’d need a lot more ears.”

“But you heard him,” Salty Jim added. “A 15-headed monster the size of a boat. Even if he exaggerated the size, 15 heads is far above the normal compliment of heads.”

“Oh, I’m not saying there’s not things to worry about in Brazil, or in other parts of the world. But I’d not be worryin’ about the things Cementhands had to say about it,” Two Patch reassured them.

“What kind of things should we worry about in Brazil?” Greta asked.

“Oh, there’s the natives and the swamps and flesh-eatin’ fish and the spiders, and all manner of other strange creatures. But if we’re stayin’ on the coast - as who shouldn’t if they’re sailin’ in a fine ship such as this - we shouldn’t have naught to worry about except…”


Two Patch looked both ways as if to make sure no one was listening, and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. The listeners all leaned in as if to stay on camera.



“Volleyball,” Two Patch said. “It’s a game they have there, a fierce, savage game, played by men and women nearly naked” – a shocked gasp rose from the audience – “and they leap into the air and smash the balls into a net or some such thing. And for some reason, Cap’n Slappy is fascinated by the game. If there’s a tournament goin’ on, we might be becalmed there for some weeks. And …” Two Patch leaned in even closer, “The cap’n might - MIGHT I tell you – choose to enter a team from the ship. And then there’s no tellin’ what sort of devilment may come up.”

The crew went to its stations somewhat more worried about the volleyball than they had been about McCormack’s monster.

Elsewhere on the Boil another, more spirited argument was taking place. It was Sawbones Burgess and Cementhands McCormack, still not having settled their dispute over the banner that floated over the ship. This was no surprise, as they’d been arguing over it for years and showed no inclination to stop any time soon.

“Even given that the banner makes sense, and I don’t concede the point, it’s still a stupid name,” Sawbones said.

The doctor had the upper hand in the squabble just at the moment, as he was free of duties while McCormack was working, seeing to the ship’s goats. That didn’t stop him from replying as he bent to his task.

“It’s not a stupid name. It’s a terrific name. The perfect name! As a matter of fact, I have a sister named Mick, and she takes a lot more than three drinks a day. Hell, she takes more than three drinks at a time.”

“But that’s clearly not a martini glass he’s holding on the flag,” Burgess shot back. “With that little paper parasol, it’s obviously a Caribbean tourist drink. If we HAVE to have that flag, and I don’t see why, it’d make far more sense to call it ‘Mai Tai Mick.’ That’s more euphonious. It rolls off the tongue.”

“I’ll roll this goat off your tongue if ya don’t stow it. It’s not a paper parasol. It’s a … a … a butterfly! A butterfly that’s landed on the rim of his MARTINI glass.”

“A butterfly?” Sawbones said, scoffing.

“Or - no - wait. It’s an olive. The pimento in an olive! A really, really big olive.”

“Your brain is a really big olive, you ox. Besides, how can it be a martini glass? Martinis haven’t even been invented yet.”

“Neither have Mai Tai’s,” McCormack retorted. “And gin’s certainly been invented.”

“So has rum, of course, and Mai Tais are made of run, or will be,” said Burgess.

The two men paused to consider the difficulty of being characters in a period piece where the authors have gone out of their way to not specify the exact year of the story, or even the century. In fact, both men were pretty sure the authors themselves didn’t know, had never considered it, and didn’t care. It was a rare moment of cosmological introspection, the kind of thing neither man was good at. It made them both feel lightheaded. Finally, McCormack broke the silence.

“Fuck you,” he explained.

“Bite me,” Burgess theorized.

“Sometimes they sound like an old married couple,” Cap’n Slappy observed from his station on the poopdeck. “Maybe they should room together so they wouldn’t have to stop squabbling at night.”

“Sir, speaking of getting rooms together …” Lt. Keeling broken in.

“What is it Keeling?”

“Well, Molly and I had our bachelor party some months ago, as you’ll recall, and the honeymoon was very nice, if you’ll pardon my saying …”

Slappy nodded his pardon and Keeling continued.

“Well, it strikes me that maybe we could have our wedding now? It’s been a long crossing, and we still have a ways to go to get home, so maybe we could have the wedding.”

“Why certainly, son, if you’re sure that’s what you want to do.”

“Oh yes sir. And Molly insists. So you’ll perform the service for us?”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Slappy said. “Let’s do it this afternoon, if no other business gets in the way. Have you got a best man?”

“I was going to ask Dogwatch,” Keeling said.

“That’s fine with me, although Cementhands may be disappointed. You know how he loves weddings.”

“Oh, not to worry sir. In the absence of Mad Sally, Molly has asked him to be her maid of honor.”

“Oh Lord!” Slappy said.

“No, really, it will be all right. It’s the least we could do after he got us all out of the trouble at Mossel Bay.”

“Very well lad. Shall we say four bells of the forenoon watch? Will that give you enough time to prepare?”

“Oh yes sir, that will be fine. Thank you sir.”

Another voice cut into the lieutenant’s effusive thanks. It was Ol’ Chumbucket, coming down the ratlines.

“Good timing that’ll be. By then we should be within sight of shore,” he said, pointing.

The two other men looked out and saw the shape on the horizon firming up into the unmistakable form of land.

“Ah,” Slappy said. “Brazil.”

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