1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 08
Northwest African Coastline
Bertram hissed in pain as his salt-stiffened shirt sawed across the raw meat of his neck. He looked heavenward. Four days almost without wind, baking in the sun. Even the crew was starting to grumble. Seeking distraction, he glanced at Rodney, who was bent over the port side rail, the dirty white line of the coast of Africa inching slowly by beyond him.
This devil’s own sunburn was still better than Rodney’s endless puking. The poor man hadn’t been right since they boarded. Everyone was a touch miserable when they sailed right into that rough weather getting round Ireland, but Rodney had been a class apart the entire time.
A snort from the poop deck above drew him from thought. “This sun will make you look a redneck, that’s for sure.”
Bertram turned, craning his sizzling neck, and saw it was John Ennis speaking. The oldest of the up-timers with the mission for their technical expertise, Ennis had a set of the telescopic contrivances up-timers called “binoculars” hanging from his neck.
Bertram returned the smile. “In appearance only, I’m told. Randy and Ricky say there’s more to being a proper redneck than a sunburn.”
“A ‘proper’ redneck? Now there’s a contradiction in terms.” John beckoned Bertram to join him, stepping back from the ladder to make room.
Bertram scrambled up the ladder, finding Captain Strand, the First Mate, and Gervais keeping company round the tiller. He gave the knot of men a nod and turned to John. “Could you explain that?”
“Yes, please do.” Gervais said, stepping over to join them, leaning against the rail. He didn’t seem the least bit uncomfortable in the heat, and his neck was already nut-brown.
John pursed his lips slightly. “Well, the term’s much more popular among southerners inâ€¦the nation we came from, than it was among West Virginians. We generally prefer the slang term ‘hillbilly.’Â ”
“Yes, I have noticed that is a title all you up-timers seem to bear with pride.”
A broad smile, full of teeth. “Not all of us, but,” a slow nod, “yeah, most of us who came from Grantville do take being called hillbilly with a degree of pride. It was, my father told me, originally an attempt by some city flatlanders to describe ignorant mountain folk, just like ‘rednecks’ was a sneer at dumb farmers whose necks were burned red by the sun.
“Over time, things change, and the two terms had mixed meanings when I was growing up — which partly depended on where you grew up. The term ‘redneck,’ especially, got mixed in with attitudes during the civil rights movement.”
John waved his hand. “I don’t want to go into that right now. Hillbilly, though, more-or-less kept its original meaning. Sometimes people would try and insult me with it, but I always took it as something to be a bit proud of: Most hillbillies I knew were more willing to help their neighbors than most city-folk, were clever with their hands, and not above bending their back to work for a living.” He shrugged. “So it wasn’t a bad thing, for me, being called a hillbilly.”
“Me neither,” Rodney gasped, between retching sessions at the rail below. “Except I was born in Georgia so I’d go with ‘redneck.’ But for the love of God” — he managed to fight down another retch — “don’t ever call my West Virginia-born wife a ‘redneck’ or you just restarted the civil war. ‘We seceded from you damn secessionists!’ is the first thing she’ll say, and it’ll go downhill from there.”
Bertram was looking a bit confused again. John chuckled and said: “I’m afraid that’s another up-time history lesson we’ll gave to postpone for the moment.”
“But, with all the wonders you have brought to us, it’s hard to imagine someoneâ€¦” Bertram trailed off, trying to find the correct phrase.
“Looking down on us?”
“Well, there were a lot who did. Small towns had a reputation for being backward, just like todayâ€¦and we Americans didn’t have the best reputation overseas, either.” Another shrug. “Hell, Grantville still ain’t anyone’s idea of a cultural center.”
“Plebeians, then?” Gervais offered.
“Huh?” John asked.
Finding it endlessly interesting how these up-timers, so highly educated in matters technical, could be so ignorant of terms common to every modern down-timer’s education, Bertram explained: “The Roman Republic had patricians and plebeians. The former looking down on and fearing the latter, who were the majority. The patricians would do whatever possible to keep the plebeians from capitalizing on their numbers and seizing power, including bribing them with food and putting on entertainments like gladiatorial combats and circuses.”
“Oh, so that’s where that bread and circuses thing comes from?”
Bertram smiled. “Exactly so.”
John looked thoughtful a moment, then shrugged again. “Seems people have always been looking for ways to make themselves special, even at the expense of others.”
“Trueâ€¦” Gervais murmured.
A sailor in the rigging shouted something that, between the accent and the nautical term, Bertram missed.
But he couldn’t help but hear Strand cursing as the captain pulled out a telescope and stood to the rail along the port side next to Gervais.
There was another shout from above.
“Where away?” the captain bellowed.
“Port, three points.”
Strand adjusted the telescope, muttered, then said clearly: “Damnation.”
John appeared on the deck. “What is it, Captain?” he asked, bringing his binoculars up in the direction the captain was looking.
“Not good,” Strand muttered, chewing one end of his mustache.
Bertram squinted, but could not see anything. “What?”
“One of those ships with both sail and oars –” John said.
“Pirates,” Strand said.
“How can you tell that at this distance?” John asked.
Strand snorted. “Xebec with her oars out, pulling hard for us.”
“And?” John said.
“Damnation,” Bertram breathed.
Strand ignored them both, stomping over to his first mate. “Open the arms locker and man the guns. We’re in for a visit from the slaver scum.”
“I still don’t understand what he saw,” John said, peering at the horizon again through his binoculars.
“Would you want to row in this heat?” Bertram asked.
John let the binoculars hang from his neck and looked at him. “Hell, no.”
Bertram saw understanding dawn in the up-timer’s eyes.
“Shit.” John scrambled down the ladder and disappeared below decks.
Bertram heard a mechanical click, followed by a gentle whirring from just below. Bertram looked over to see a blue-steel pistol had appeared in Rodney’s hand, the cylinder opened to reveal shining brass.
Satisfied with the state of his loads, Rodney snapped the revolver closed with a practiced motion. “I’ll make sure the boys are ready.” He staggered off.
“And I’ll see to the women,” Gervais muttered.
First Mate Loke shouted from the rail, “Malte, Short Leif, Ulf, Lukas with me to the weapons locker! The rest of you, to your guns or stations!”
Bertram watched as the mast of the pirate slowly grew to reveal a ship as men leapt to their posts all over the LÃ¸nsom Vind.
“Knew we should have stood further out to sea,” Strand grumbled.
“Not much choice; what with the weather, the English, the Dutch, and the Spanish,” Bertram said, fear squeezing the words through a suddenly tight throat. He had no wish to be killed or, worse yet, watch Monique and the others gang-raped and sold into slavery.
* * *
John kissed his wife and pulled the Winchester free of its case. There was barely enough room in their cramped quarters for the two of them, and the barrel of the gun bumped the low ceiling as he slung it over one shoulder.
“What’s going on, John?” Ilsa had been lying down, suffering from seasickness nearly as bad as Rodney.
He grabbed the small ammo box his father had left lying around, the one labelled M25. “Pirates. Captain says they’re all slavers, too.”
Ilsa blanched. “Oh, no, John.”
He kissed her again. “Got to go.” Holding her at arms length, he added: “Keep your head down.”
“I’ll join the others.”
“Sounds good.” He left, squeezing past Gervais in the narrow gangway outside. The Frenchman was readying a coach-gun, sweat dripping from his round face. “On my life, they’ll not pass, Monsieur Ennis.”
Not sure what to say to that, John just nodded and climbed out on deck.
The sun beat on him as he considered his options. Setting up in the rigging would give him height and better viewing aspect on the targets, much like a deer stand in a tree, but the ropes and spars were swaying far more than the deck.
Ricky and the rest of the boys boiled out behind him while he thought it through, all shotguns and pent-up aggression.
He spat over the side and decided on the poop deck. “Ricky, do me a favor, get meâ€¦five or six of those winter blankets.”
“Will do, J.D.”
John climbed up, Rodney right behind him, and rejoined the Captain and Bertram. Strand was still peering through his telescope.
“Captain Strand, what range do their guns have?” he asked, trying to keep his mind off of what he was preparing to do.
“They’ll probably give us a warning shot at about a hundred paces, reload, and if we don’t just give up, they’ll get to the business of trying to break us at around fifty.”