Fiction: One Night's Work

I ask you, what's Christmas Eve without pirates? To correct that omission, here's a short fantasy piece titled "One Night's Work," the newest addition to our 25 Christmas Eves project. 

By: Erin L. Snyder

You could see it in the men’s faces even if you couldn’t feel it: they were getting older. There were few of us, fewer every time you’d look around. The English colonies pinched us from the south and the Americans’ navy pressed us in the north. Their ships were getting faster and their captains smarter. The days of the pirate were waning, and we were dying. The era of legends was a hundred years gone, and we felt dwarfed by their shadows. Against the tales of Black Bart or Morgan, how could we see ourselves but as common thieves?

I was the youngest man on the Red Gull, and I’d been at sea more than a decade. I’d sailed with Laffite before I landed on the Gull, and I knew as well as any of the others that our days had all but passed. I think we all knew it, and all but one accepted it.

Say what you will about Captain Tom, but he was a man with pride. The old sailors used to say he’d killed a hundred men to earn his hat, and maybe it was so. I don’t think he liked it, though, not the way some of the men did. The killing was part of piracy, so he did it, but it was always the dream that drove him. The dream of reaching the heights of his idols, of being a legend himself.

It was early in the morning on the 24th of December I entered his quarters to bring him his breakfast. He was seated, reading a few pages we’d taken off a schooner the month before. It was a poem, by the look of it, and was titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

“Captain,” I said, setting his food on a side table. “Ship’s off the coast of San Domingo.”

“Good,” he said, not once looking up. “Tell Kips to take us close and keep an eye out for an isolated farm. I’ll be taking some men ashore.”

“Aye, sir. We could use some tobacco.”

“Not today,” the captain said thoughtfully. “Today, we take prisoners. Everything else comes tonight.”

I didn’t understand then, but I related his message as told. It didn’t take long to find such a farm, and the captain came out to take a look through his glass. He examined it carefully then chose nine men to accompany him in the long ships.

“While we’re gone, there’s something I’d like built.” He took out a piece of paper and showed it to us. “We’ve wood in the storeroom. Use what you need, but make it look nice.”

I was glad not to be taken: we’d generally maintained good relations with the farmers along San Domingo, and I had little interest in being present when that course changed. I had no illusions about the nobility of my profession, and I’d done all manner of things unsavory in my years, but even a bad man likes to live by a code when he can afford such luxury.

We finished at about the time the captain returned. He’d lost a man in the fight, but he got what he’d gone for. I was surprised at what that was, though. I’d expected him to come back with women in tow: he’d come back with two children.

They were crying, of course, while the captain had them hauled up. Once they were aboard, though, he ordered they not be harmed. But it did little to improve their spirits: they’d lost their father when the captain took them.

We set sail at once, but didn’t go so far as I’d expected. We found an empty inlet and weighed anchor. It was early evening now, and the captain turned to the kids. For his part, he did his best to soothe them. He gave them the best of our food, along with candy and rum. He set the children up in his own quarters, and set up the contraption he’d ordered us to build on the deck above it.

Then he joined us on deck. “I know you’ve questions,” he said. “And I’m going to answer them. But first, there’s something you need to hear, something I’ve been reading as of late.” He took out the papers from his coat and began reading that same poem I’d seen him with earlier. When he finished, he said, “I know times have been hard. I know money’s been low. But that all changes tonight. Because tonight we’re going to take something greater than any pirates taken before us - we’re going to take Saint Nicholas’s sleigh, deer, and sack of toys!”

None of us knew what to say. We just stood there, staring at him in disbelief. Finally, the captain began speaking again.

“We’ve taken the kids, so he’ll be drawn here. And we’ll trap him in this chimney you’ve built. The way I figure, if he’s enough toys on his sleigh for all the world, it’ll set each of us for life. The sleigh, too: it’s got to be worth a fortune.”

“If it’s real,” someone said.

The captain considered this. “Do this for me. Wait tonight and fight if he comes. If I’m wrong, I’ll resign my post. Can you do this for me, men? One night’s work’s all I’m asking.”

We looked at each other and shrugged. “We’re with you, Captain,” I said reluctantly.

We took to hiding after that, and we bided our time. I don’t know how many of the men believed in this Saint Nicholas or thought he’d show. When the captain wasn’t around, one of the men took bets, but I waved him off. I wasn’t sure myself, but I’ve seen stranger things at sea than flying sleighs. I’ve seen serpents as long as ships and turtles the size of islands. I think I saw a mermaid once, but I’d been drunk at the time so there’s no telling.

I heard a few mutter he wouldn’t know there were children aboard, but somehow I thought he would, assuming he was real in the first place. By the time midnight rolled around, I was less optimistic. The captain, for his part, seemed upbeat. He kept making the rounds when he wasn’t staring off into the night. “He’ll be here,” he said, softly. “He’ll come.” The night drifted on, though, and by two I think even the captain was starting to doubt. He kept up the front, but there was a desperation about him now as he paced through the ship.

But he needn't have worried. It was almost dawn when we spotted the dot in the sky. It was moving fast at us, and we were about to leap when the captain signaled for us to wait. So wait we did, while the object grew larger. It was as the stories: a sleigh drawn by eight deer. And the rider was a round man dressed in brown fur holding a whip. Behind him, sat a sack, larger than any I’d ever seen. Much to our distress, he didn’t head for the fake chimney, but rather the port side of the ship.

The captain drew his pistol, and we all held our cutlasses ready. No one moved until the sleigh stopped alongside the ship, almost touching the rail. The round man started to board, pulling his sack behind, until it teetered between the two vessels. Then the captain stepped out, pistol aimed at the round man’s back.

“I’ll have that bag, Sir,” he said.

The round man turned his head and smiled. “Tom, is it? I’d be happy to share the contents of this sack with you and your crew.” Then he pulled on the sack, so it turned over and opened.

It wasn’t toys or treasure that spilt out, but small men, each about three feet in height, and each armed with a tiny pistol and a dagger. They fired a volley before we could react, and a fourth of our men fell to the deck then and there.

The captain took his shot, but the round man, Saint Nicholas, was faster, dodging to the side before the gun fired. The rest of us did our duty. We charged, cutlasses raised, to avenge our comrades and claim our prize. We thought these little people - these elves - would be easy prey on account of their size, but we were sorely mistaken.

I’ve never seen anything so quick. They fought like demons, dodging our thrusts with ease and closing in. They went for the knees and ankles first, then for the throats when our men fell. And they always seemed to find their mark. We realized we were fighting for our lives, and an instant later we were fighting for nothing at all. It was futile; the elves were swarming over the ship, spilling red as they darted around. Those of us left lost all hope and gathered together around the chimney, hoping to hold off the inevitable.

But there was one who didn’t give up, not just yet. The captain fought on, and he charged at their leader, at Nicholas, who met him. The captain swung his cutlass and met only air. Nicholas jumped back, and his whip lashed out, flaying the captain’s cheek. The captain slashed, once again hitting nothing, and Nicholas’s whip cut a gash in his coat and his arm in response.

I ran toward them, hoping to help, but didn’t reach in time. The captain charged Nicholas, who dodged once more, then with a flick of his wrist, tangled his whip around the captain’s legs. The captain fell forward, grabbing the side of Nicholas’s sleigh, that prize he’d sought. The sleigh began to rise then, with the captain dangling from the side, feet still tangled.

I froze, staring at the scene. The captain was trying to pull himself up, but Nicholas’s whip was pulled taut, pulling him at an angle. He was no longer over the ship as the reindeer pulled away.

“Tom,” Nicholas called out, “You finally got my sleigh, and you don’t seem able to keep hold of it!”

“Please!” I said. “Call it back! Let him on the deck!”

Nicholas turned to me. “Children were taken. Their father’s blood shed. On Christmas Eve. That needs to be answered for.” He tugged the whip, and the captain lost his grip. He dropped, still held by the whip, which let him fall like a stone on the end of a rope to the edge of the ship, before swinging him into the outer hull with a heavy thud. Nicholas shook the whip, and I heard the captain hit the water.

Nicholas just retrieved his whip while I ran to the edge to look over. I could see the captain floating below. For a moment, I considered jumping in after him, but I knew it would do no good.

The elves finished their bloody work, and I slumped to the deck, waiting my turn. But mine never came. They threw the bodies of my shipmates over then retrieved the children, showering them with gifts. Then they all boarded the ship, children too, and drifted away, leaving me alone.

They didn’t say why they let me live.

I couldn’t sail the Red Gull alone, so I abandoned it, taking a longboat to the shore before the navy found it. I took what I could carry of the ship’s treasure, which was enough to get by a few years. I lost most of it gambling, of course, but that’s always been my weakness. These days I get on as best I can, taking odd jobs and trading stories of the old days for those who’ll listen. Everyone wants to hear stories about pirating, now that the era is truly gone, and most folks will buy you a drink for the privilege.

That story - the last story - I always hold for Christmas Eve, and I don’t care whether you believe a word of it. Captain Tom came close to something grand, something bigger and better than Morgan ever got his hands on. And he should be remembered for it. And truth be told, some days I think Saint Nicholas thought so, too, and maybe that’s the reason he left me alive. One final Christmas gift to Captain Tom.