Wilhelm Geier awoke. A grumbling, pungent man poked him in the ribs with the end of a broom handle, swaying his hammock. He shook off another fuzzily remembered dream as he rubbed the sleep from his young eyes. At seventeen, he kept a youthful appearance despite the debaucheries and insomnia of the night before. He traded places with the swarthy, reeking seaman and began to shamble in the darkness to get above deck.
As he cleared the staircase, the humid, fetid air trapped below decks wafted away from Will’s nostrils, and the fresh sea air greeted him in gusts. He walked in wide steps to air out the swampy sections of his pants—his groin, the backs of his knees, and his butt were soaked through with perspiration. He fanned his shirt to circulate some much-needed fresh air between his back and the damp fabric. A few weeks ago, this really would have bothered him, he reflected, but he was starting to settle into the cadence of shipboard work.
As he’d grown from a boy into a man, his father had been a thorn in his side. “Learn a trade,” he’d urged young Will, but nothing had stuck. Will had many memories of his father toiling away just to make ends meet. Mostly, Will had memories of his father’s persistent warnings about how difficult it was to be a first-generation Bavarian immigrant. Will had worn the pitiful fruits of his father’s labor on his feet for most of his life. His dad had reinvented himself late in life, as a cobbler’s apprentice, and Will had patiently inspected the improving examples that the old man produced as his skills were honed. Though Will’s father went on to be a very prominent maker of fine leather shoes and boots, he could not think of any person he wanted to emulate less than his dad. Will had ambitions to be a great man. He dreamed of an old age only conceivable or desirable to a young man—lavishly appointed mansions, rooms filled with coins and ingots of precious metal, with English pies and French wines, with servants to cook and clean, and with the company of two or three nubile women to service his more carnal desires. Those hopes were too far out of reach for a smith, a carpenter, or a cobbler, and so Will had sabotaged himself in every apprenticeship, so that he could return to his life of sloth.
In one last bid to position Will to make something of himself, his father had begged him to choose an occupation—any he could think up—and said he’d expend his every resource and skill to ensure that his progeny had one last attempt to grow up and buckle down. Will chose as lawless a life as he could fathom at the time, expressing after some thought that he would like to be a privateer. Privateers served at the pleasure (and under the protection) of their government—they manned an armed vessel and were licensed to attack and seize the vessels of a hostile nation. An ornate, but delicate, legal document called a Letter of Marque and Reprisal empowered them under international convention to ransack enemies of the crown.
The year was 1572, and the nature of the mission was such that an emphasis was placed on firepower, rather than moving merchandise. Ships moving cargo focused on maximizing real estate, exploiting the quickest routes, and minimizing the number of crew to feed and to pay. Privateers, on the other hand, needed large crews to operate their artillery. Merchant crews were generally leaner and run ragged by the dogged pace of their mission; privateers had many more hands on deck to execute their tasks. The yoke of burden—the tasks of scrubbing decks, polishing brass, and careening the hull—was much lighter for a privateer than a merchantman. This was the closest legitimate profession to thieving and piracy, and a man could get rich just as quickly (and almost as easily) doing one or the other. That and, Will noted, a successful privateer was esteemed and respected as a patriot. With status as a fringe benefit, Will was on board, so to speak.
Will’s father silently networked with the socialites that favored his work, until he made the right connection. He’d lovingly crafted ornate cavalier boots for a Francis Drake, who captained two privateer ships, the Pasco and the Swan. He re-soled every ragged shoe that would tread upon either ship to gain favor and secure Will’s place among them. Hunched in his cramped workshop, he paid his son’s occupational dowry with sweat and leather. Will’s father came to see him off, and with a shake of the captain’s hand he traded his son, and countless shoes, for a new apprentice—an injured sailor no longer fit for sea duty.
Will’s shift (his “watch”) was about to begin. He removed his blouse and twisted it taut, wringing a brief shower of putrid sweat onto the narrow, painted slats of the wooden decking beneath him. He hoped in vain that the lubrication might lessen the infernal creaking of the boards above his hammock for when he would next sleep. He put himself back into the thin, but freshly wrung, tatters one arm at a time. He left it unbuttoned so that he could benefit from the protection on his sun-kissed shoulders and arms without abandoning all the refreshment of the occasional cool breeze blowing across his chest as it made its way into their sails to push them across the Atlantic. Will worked on shift with two seasoned sailors, “Drunk Johnny” and “Porkchop,” and another green recruit, called “Ugly.”
Ugly, who Will was pretty sure was named Jim, was the hardest-working man on the crew. Ugly had been a promising farrier’s apprentice at age ten, but had gotten kicked in the face by a mule and developed a fear of all large animals. His apprehension was well placed. Had the horse hit him in the chest, he’d have been dead; instead, it had broken his face. He sported a face distorted permanently into a parabola. His underbite was such that his jaw and his nose were level with one another, and his brow cast a shadow on all the space in between. The obvious trauma to his face paled in comparison to the mental frailty that caused him to shake in the presence of anything larger than a dog. When he landed with Drake’s naval crew, he rested easy with the knowledge that the only horses he’d see in the foreseeable future were seahorses. They were much smaller and, to his knowledge, didn’t have hooves to kick with.
Drunk Johnny’s alias was an apt self-description. He lived in an impressively uninterrupted state of inebriation. He managed to wake and stand post as scheduled, but his aptitude for such was dubious. He was a slightly built man with gaunt features, and a ghastly dental malady that ensured that every time he spat it came out a shade of brown or red, depending on the amount of blood in it. Will simultaneously harbored disgust for the apparent uselessness of his cohort, and envy for his ability to effectively sham out of his every responsibility in pursuit of pleasure. He’d probably have been disciplined by the quartermaster, Porkchop, on a regular basis, if they didn’t have a mutually beneficial working relationship.
Randall “Porkchop” James was the quartermaster, the chief disciplinarian on the ship, and the chief glutton. Drunk Johnny regularly traded his ration of salted pork away to Randall, earning not only an extra share of rum and grog, but also immeasurable leniency. The munificence between Randall and Johnny was not shared with Will. Mere hours into the voyage, Porkchop had rebuked Will for a task done improperly, and whipped him with a small wooden switch.
“There are smart deckhands and hurt deckhands,” he liked to say, underscoring his stick-heavy approach to motivating the crew while underway. They were words that rang in Will’s head every time he brushed with the quartermaster—or with any other authority figure henceforth. The abuse and banter were not limited to punitive action, either. Even when things were jovial, Will could be summoned by any string of vulgarities and insults not already ascribed to someone else. Of late, his shift-mates had been taking turns poking at his facial hair. Will sported a hairless lip and chin for the same reasons as Alexander the Great: he couldn’t grow any. Despite all the ribbing, the whipping, the sweating, the creaking, and the watch standing, Will regarded it a superior life to that of a cobbler. It was only a matter of time before he’d be the ranking officer, he stood assured, and people like Drunk Johnny and Porkchop would bow and bend to his whim.
Will watched eagerly as land came into view at the edge of the visible earth. He’d been on pins and needles in anticipation of landfall since he learned of the target of their expedition. Captain Drake had generally kept company with the larger of the two ships he commanded, the Pasco, but Will had had a rare brush with the illustrious figure when he’d boarded the Swan to discuss their mark. During the candle-lit rendezvous, Will had stayed awake past his shift to eavesdrop. Drake had explained the findings of his reconnaissance trip to a small city in the Spanish Main a year earlier, describing an unassuming town with no fine buildings, called Nombre de Dios. Safely anchored in a nearby cove, Drake had infiltrated the jungles outside the town, literally translated to “Name of God,” and forged an alliance with the Cimaroons, who revealed a stash house where the Spanish settlers cached their gold and silver for months at a time. Spanish ships came in full of supplies and departed heavy laden—low and slow—with minted currency and raw precious metal ore.
Will had only ever fought recreationally and had never fired a weapon of any variety. He had no frame of reference for who the Cimaroons were, or where they hailed from. Having never left England, he had no expectations for this strange land. All this, and there was no trace of trepidation or fear as he watched the distant patch of greenery grow into a dense thicket of vegetation. Riches and glory occupied all the space in his blissful mind. He preoccupied himself with prophetic fantasies of his soon-to-be fortune; he and seventy-two others would soon loot the “Name of God” in the name of the king, pay their taxes in admiralty court, divvy up the proceeds, and return to England as patriots. Wealthy patriots.
He sighed a satisfied sigh, as if to celebrate a hard-fought victory.