Chapter Normal Magic Hexagon
Scene Four: Crazy Jack
“I might barter passage for work,” said the well-tanned riverman, “but ya don't look like yah'd be much of a boatman.”
“Probably not,” admitted Denario. He had made the mistake of trying to build a raft. No one in the area had wanted his work, not even as a geometer. He'd taken the advice of the farmers and cut down a few scrub mallow trees with his axe. It took him three days but it had seemed worth it.
The mallow trunks were the lightest pieces of wood he'd ever moved although they were still heavy enough to crush his toes. By themselves, the logs floated better than oak. More than half their diameter stayed above the surface of the water. His experiments with the logs along the banks of No Map Creek seemed promising. But then came his attempts to lash the stripped-down saplings together. After a day of bruising his fingers, ripping the bark that was supposed to keep his wood waterproofed, breaking his rope, and losing one of his hard-cut saplings to the mid-stream current, he gave up and paid a couple local boys to help him. They'd demanded two coppers each, math lessons, a scrap of parchment, a pen nib, and a handful of honey drops from Vogel's General Store.
In return, the boys made a raft that would just about lift Denario and his baggage but not quite. The level at which it floated was above the creek bottom but below the surface of the water. When Denario stood on it fully loaded with his gear, about an inch of water drifted over the tops of his feet. The raft was as steerable as a cart with a broken wheel. Basically, it was useless and he'd wasted the better part of a week and a sixteenth of his precious supplies on it.
He'd been poling himself slowly, carefully, and rather unsteadily along the Mundredi side of the creek when a real riverman arrived. Naturally, the fellow looked on the accountant with amusement.
“It wasn't my intention to become a sailor,” Denario clarified. He stood taller. His shifting weight shook the raft. His feet started to slip on the wet bark and he almost fell.
The current was gentle and it was only a couple feet deep according to his pole. He wouldn't have drowned. But he might have taken a serious injury in terms of embarrassment.
“Are ya just playing, then?” asked the approaching boatman. “Because it's a dangerous game, as loaded with weights as ya are. In the deeper parts of the creek, ya would be dead soon after ya tipped over.”
“No, I meant to be a paying passenger on a boat.”
“Yah?” The riverman raised one eyebrow in a slightly skeptical expression. He wasn't a tall fellow although of course he was at least a head taller than Denario. He'd gone partially bald, which Denario could see because, under the boughs of the trees lining the creek, the fellow didn't bother to wear a hat. His remaining hair was mostly black, touched by a line of silver.
The boatman's arms were strong and finely muscled. He wore only one shirt, no sleeves, so he was dressed for movement, not warmth. Possibly his constant activity kept him comfortable. The raft under his feet was a large one, about a quarter of the size of the creek and it was a reasonably wide creek. In most places, the shores were too far apart for anyone to skip rocks across to the opposite bank. Or maybe that was just Denario's weak arm showing him up.
More impressive than the size of the raft was the structure. It was nearly a flat-bottomed boat. The beams that formed the bulkheads had been made watertight by the fibrous stuffing between them. The lip of the hull was surrounded by what Denario thought of as gunwhales although they were too short to hide behind unless maybe you laid down and used a crossbow.
The craft looked almost seaworthy. Better, there was a second craft tethered behind it. The decks of both were largely empty. The closer raft held the boatman, a deer-hide tent, which was probably where the man slept at night, and two bundles of raccoon furs. The farther one carried a load of small barrels carefully distributed and tied down with twine and pegs.
“A passenger paying with what?” The fellow rubbed his stubbly chin. “I'm always looking to make a bit more profit. What do ya have? Smelt? Pigs ears? This far into the hills, I don't suppose yah've got any money.”
“Money?” Denario gasped. It almost made him fall. Rather than take any more risks, he hopped off of his raft. The creek was cold and the silt made for sticky walking but no worse. He grabbed onto a loose end of his raft's lashing as it bobbed to the surface. “Bless you! No one's wanted money from me in over two months.”
“Yah're happy that I wants money? Does that mean ya gots some?”
“Yes.” Denario's city-raised instincts kicked in. He raised his guard mentally as he turned his back on the river man and started to drag his little raft to shore. “Not much but some. How is it that you use money?”
“Well, now, I'm a professional boatman.” The fellow put unnecessary emphasis on the word 'professional,' probably his way of reminding the accountant about how dangerous the creek might be for amateurs. “This is my second trip of the year already. And I travel a long ways.”
“How far?” Denario reached the sandy bank and dragged his lash line with him until the edges of the mallow logs met the shore and stuck fast.
“All of No Map Creek plus the Lamp Kill all the way to Oupenli. Money is all anyone wants, down there. I don't go past the big city no more because they have a riverman's tax.”
“Pity.” The two huge rafts looked sturdy enough to take out on the Complacent Sea.
“It's na pity. That stop is the secret to making runs on this creek whenever I like.”
“Because you don't waste time going to Oggli?”
“Oggli has better prices, I hear. But in Oupenli I can sell everything, even the rafts. I make good rafts, as ya might notice.” The man had managed to hold his flatboats against the current for a minute but the pole-work involved looked tiring. He took a deep breath and found a larger rock along the bottom to use for leverage.
“I did notice,” Denario admitted. “So there are people who will buy the raft? And you can rely on that?”
“Oh, yes. I've got partners there. There's a whole trade built on raft swapping. If ya pole a boat through Oupleni Gates with nothing on it, the tax is only a copper. But if yah've got goods, the local knights take one out of twenty.”
“I never knew that.” This was a lesson in economics, Denario judged, if only he could figure out what it meant. It would be one for the accounting log, anyway.
“It can get worse than that. If ya don't cooperate, they kill ya or sink ya or take everything. They all claim to be free knights, too, so they don't agree with one another and they don't trust the Oupenli Gates committee, though it's made up of knights like them. So sometimes they come for their shares all personal.”
“Does that mean you get taxed twice?”
“Could be. It's hard to stop five or six men in armor when they're already aboard. Sometimes they don't care about furs or olives or apples or anything else but coins. Then they take all the silver yah've got.” He pushed the tip of his pole deep into the creek bottom. The current was starting to overpower him at last. His trailing boat had started to flow around him and now it had reached a point almost sideways behind the first. It would be in front of him soon and carry him away.
“But you still want my money?” Denario said, jumping to a conclusion. He couldn't take his eyes off of the drifting rear raft.
“Only a week or so downstream, past an old temple,” said the man as he bent down to a coil of rope near his feet, “ya find folks who don't like getting eggs or pigs ears in payment. They want pennies or elim.”
The elim were coins so badly made, they hardly lasted. Denario hadn't seen many. Their metal was the cheapest that could be cast. Placed in a sack with other coins, the elim developed nicks and scratches and eventually broke up altogether. But in the Ogglian countryside, an elim could buy an apple.
The riverman lifted his rope coil and tossed knotted end to the accountant. Denario sighed with relief. The man wasn't going to leave quite yet. The end of the rope that was still on the boat was tied off on a stake driven between two bulkheads. Denario needed to tie off his end quickly. He ran to a nearby maple tree and lashed the cord around the trunk. He tied a sailor's hitch but he almost wasn't fast enough. He barely slipped the end through the crossed loops before the pull of the creek tightened it. The fibers twisted in his hands.
The second raft had begun to pull the first one downstream. Fortunately, the lashing held. The riverman nodded at it. He hopped off the lip of his boat straight onto the shore. In his left hand, he held a second coil. He marched to a different maple tree and looped a single hitch around it. Then, because the rope still had play, he tied a snuggle hitch farther down on the trunk.
“This line joins by carrick bend to the tether between the boats,” explained the riverman. “So it'll hold the second one even if the first goes. But I don't think the first one should have a problem. Yar knot looks fine.”
“Thanks,” said Denario. He stuck out his hand. “I'm Denario the Dramatic, Accountant of Oggli.”
“Hah! That's a hero's type of name.” The fellow stepped forward and shook. “Ya don't look it except for the armor. I’ve never met an accountant before. Too rich and too free of possessions for a raftsman, usually. What are ya doing up here?”
“A job went bad and I had to look for another way home,” Denario said. “I’ve done book keeping and surveying and so on to earn my room and board.”
“Those are different things, surveying and whatnot.”
“Well, certified accountants study the measurement of everything.”
“If ya say so. Where did ya learn your knots? Not from counting, surely.”
“I grew up handling the dockyard books in Oggli. Sometimes that meant working on the docks. The handlers and sailors always wanted me to make myself useful.”
“Good. Denario the Drama Tick, I'm Jack Lasker. Some call me Clever Jack.”
“Ah ... I heard 'Crazy Jack.'” As soon as the words came out of his mouth, Denario wished he had them back. He didn't want to drive up the price of his trip. “But Clever Jack sounds much better.”
“Don't it?” Jack rubbed his bald head for a moment. “I've been called other things but I think it pays to tell people yar clever. Sometimes I put warnings into bottles, something like 'Clever Jack is coming to take all yar whiskey' and set them afloat while I'm building me rafts.”
“Why?” It seemed like a change of subject but Denario was fine with it.
“It's what I learned from my partners in Oupenli. It's called 'advertising.'”
“Oh, I get it. You pick up whiskey on the way. That is clever.”
“Them notes let folks get ready for me if they notice 'em. I sent out a dozen out last week during a flood. No one so far has told me they found 'em but I have hopes for the next place. It's a big town called Killim Thal a few miles south.”
“I've heard of it.” Denario had been heading there, in fact, although he wasn't sure if would have needed to abandon his raft and walk.
“Want to come along?”
“The price?” Denario patted his water skin. It wasn't where he kept his money but he didn't want to reveal his hiding places.
“We can discuss it as we go,” said Jack with a nod. “If ya don't like the bargain, well, ya can always get off at Killim Thal. They might have a use for math. Like I said, they're big, pretty near six hundred people.”
“What about my raft?” Denario swung his arm toward his traitorous, amateur boat. It had floated well until he actually stood on it.
“I'd like to pull it up onto my own and have a look. That's mallow wood, isn't it?”
“So I'm told.”
“Yah, the mallow is worth something in itself. I'm sorry ya cut it down. I suppose the farmers told ya to do it but I hate for anyone to waste the trees. To the farmers, they're useless. To boatmen, mallow is a friend. It’s light and strong, a bit like balsa.”
Denario knew balsa wood from the Oggli and Anghrili docks. Sailors used it to make tools that needed to float despite carrying lots of weight, things like buoys, barrels, ladles, handles, safes, and even types of riggings, rafts and ship decks. Maybe that explained why the mallow wood had seemed to Denario more buoyant than other types. He'd thought it was simply because it was old and dry.
Jack held out his hand. Reluctantly, Denario handed over the tether to his raft. The boatman pulled it close and knelt. He lifted a corner of the raft. His knuckles rapped the bark underneath with a damp, hollow sound.
“These trees were nearly dead. Not so much a loss. But ya left the bark on instead of splitting the logs and baking them. Ya need to cook out water from wood properly, even from stuff that's far gone. Do that and use a bit of sedge reed stuffed between the bulks. That would have made this raft stronger, maybe even enough to hold all of yar equipment.”
“That's ... astounding.” He felt a surge of hope. Even if he didn't get along with Crazy Jack, he had learned something useful. The raft might yet take him home before the start of summer. That would be only two months late from his apprentices' point of view.
“It takes a good fire and a bit of time to dry this out. It's worth it. We can take yar raft apart and build the fire on my deck.”
“A fire on your deck?”
“Right now?” Crazy Jack grinned. “Sure!”
The fellow wrapped the mallow raft's crude towing line around his hand. He backed up a few steps. Then he took a running leap from the shore to his nearest boat. It wasn't far but he almost didn't make it. He had to skip for an instant on the edge of Denario's raft before he placed his left foot down on the gunwhales.
Denario watched Jack almost but not quite fall in and shrugged. He'd been warned that this man took risks. Well, accountants did, too. One did, anyway. And Denario's bad experiences with fires didn't mean much on a creek. The was nothing wrong with building a fire on a boat, surely.