Character Interview: Captain McCulloch West

Better late than never! As voted by the fans, the latest character interview is of the gruff but capable Captain McCulloch “Cap’n Mack” West, from my Free-Wrench and Skykeep books! I hope you enjoy it!

In the Captain’s Quarters, which served double duty as an office and a bedroom, McCulloch West was as near to sleep as he tended to get. The gentle motion of the airship in flight rocked him back and forth like a child in a crib. For a man who devoted himself as deeply to his role as captain as he did, one would expect sleep to be a black, dreamless thing. Not so for Captain West. The light tap of knuckles on his door were enough to bring him to full wakefulness without so much as a groggy slur to his voice when he answered.

“What is it, Ms. Graus?” he asked.

“How did you know it was me?” she asked through the door.

“You’re the only one who would knock. The rest of the crew would barge right in if it was something important or leave me be if it wasn’t.”

“Do you mind if I have a word with you? It is about what I’d discussed before.”

He heaved himself from the hammock and climbed down into his chair.

“May as well,” he said.

Nita pushed the door open and marched inside. She was dressed, as she tended to be, in her work gear, a leather and canvas ensemble that stood up well to the assortment of tasks that were expected of her. A strange addition was a small folio of loose, blank pages and a fountain pen.

“Refresh me, Ms. Graus. What’s this about?”

“As you know, my father is working to convince the council that the Wind Breaker deserves safe harbor. I’ve vouched for your character, but in doing so, I realize I your character is effectively the only thing I know about you. He’ll have questions I can’t answer. So I thought I’d ask a few questions that I’ve been wondering about, and I’ll record the answers for posterity.”

“Posterity ain’t something I’ve put too much though into. By matter of course it doesn’t concern me. But you Calderan’s have your own way of doing things. Ask.”

“Thank you very much. My first question is about Butch. I’ve always wondered, why did you divorce Butch?”

“… And this is about us getting safe harbor?”

“It further speaks to your character.”

He crossed his arms and leaned back. “You know the way it goes. There’s only room in a man’s life for one great love, and I had two. Butch and the sky. There comes a time when a woman gets tired of sharing her man. Can’t say I blame her. More curious, I reckon, is why she saw fit to say ‘I do’ in the first place. Can’t say I was any more devoted back then. Just a bit more… vigorous. We both were.”

“Do you ever miss being married to her?”

“Ain’t much room in a hammock for two, though we did have an awful lot of fun trying… But then, that’s not really talk for mixed company. Simple answer, you can’t have a woman as a wife and as a crewman. A crewman’s got to follow orders. I ain’t met a fella who found a wife that’d do that. Near as I can figure any wife who’d follow orders like a crewman hasn’t got enough life to her to be worth having. To each his own, though. Fact is, she’s more good to all of us cooking meals and cleaning wounds. If I could either have her by my side or at my command, the command is the better choice. Not having to put up with me in her off hours probably added a few years to her life, too.”

“I think I understand. Now, another question I had. How did you get the Wind Breaker?”

“Rich fella, over on the north end of Circa. Lots of plateaus that way. Lots of farming. Nothing like you’ve got in Caldera, mind you. But enough to feed the local folk with enough left to ship and sell. Any man who does enough shipping’s bound to run into wailers and suchlike. So a man with heavy enough pockets is best served to pick up a couple escorts. That’s when I first set foot on the old girl. Wasn’t called the Wind Breaker back then. Fella called it… Madeleine or some such. Name of his daughter. Anyhow, I kept my heap together a few years. Kept the raiders and them off his veggies. Time came he gave farms, the ships, the whole mess to his daughter. Not Madeleine, the younger one. Her husband and her reckoned they knew better than her old man, decided to sell the escorts. Everybody knew the two of  ‘em didn’t know the value of a good ship, but sometimes that’s a good thing. Like when you’re fixing to buy one from ‘em, for instance. Picked her up good and cheap, with enough left to keep the crew on. For a spell, anyhow.”

“I see. What made you start your life of crime?”

“Didn’t get started with that until roundabout when this young lady who was too smart for all our own good came aboard and put the thought in our heads about a heist.”

“I meant your smuggling and black market sales.”

“Ain’t nothing illegal about a little free enterprise. If you folk considered that spot we tie up to be a part of your land, you’d plop one of them cannons in front of it. Far as I’m concerned we’re just offering a service.”

“But why that service?”

“Takes money to keep a ship in the air. Something I worked out on my own when I was a boy, you want to get paid more than the next fella, you need to do the sorts of things he won’t. Same goes for a ship. No one else was willing to swing around them cannons and give you good folks a taste of Rim. Least ways not as often as we were. So that’s what we did.”

“And how did you assemble your crew?”

“‘Less you’re in the military and doing some drafting, ain’t but one way to put together a crew. Set down in a port, look for folk looking for a job. If they don’t die or quit, that’s your crew. Though… come to think of it most everybody died or quit. I ain’t the easiest man to work under, I’m sure you noticed. Gunner used to work for a fella I knew back in the Madeleine days. Heard I was lookin’ for a man who could do the work of three or four good stout deck gunners. Gunner, for his part, was lookin’ for a job that’d put his finger on the trigger a bit more. Turned out to be a good fit.

“I went through three or four cooks and a dozen medics before I finally found out Butch was running short of money and hadn’t found a new husband to help her make ends meet, so I asked if she wanted to handle the knives for me again. Turned out to be the best offer on the table. I reckon that doesn’t say much for the other offers. Or the table for that matter.

“Then Coop and Lil had that problem with their herd and a wind storm while I was nearby. Did a rescue, saw the whole herd got wiped out. They weren’t going to last long without some money coming in, and I figured I could use some extra hands. The pair ended up following orders better than the boys I already had on, so I kept ‘em on.”

“What were your first impressions of the crew?”

“Well, Butch is Butch. Just about the only thing that’s changed about her since I first met her is the size of her jowels. Not that I’m one to talk. Gunner struck me as a bit too full of himself. Boy leans more on that education of his than he ought to. Still, most of the things he blows up are on other ships, and to his credit, even if he says nay to almost every order that comes across, he still does as he’s told. Coop and Lil? Didn’t expect them two to survive two weeks in the air. Lil didn’t have the stomach for it. The fish got more of her meals than she did in the beginning. And the both of them were quicker to tackle an order than to figure out how they were supposed to do it. To talk to ‘em, you’d think they wouldn’t have half a mind to split between the two. But hammer something into ‘em hard enough and they’ll learn enough of it to get by. And I swear them two have got their own personal angels watchin’ over ‘em. The doings they get up to… I seen folk get killed for even coming close to what they do day in, day out. But I’ll be damned if they didn’t take to it after a fashion. Best deckhands I’ve had.”

“What do you like most about this crew?”

“I don’t have to think about ‘em. Doesn’t matter the job that needs doing. I say the word and I know they can handle it. Don’t need to tell ‘em how. Don’t need to tell ‘em why. Just need to tell ‘em, and they get it done. If I told my crew to bring me the devil’s tongue I’d have it by sunup, and a couple of his teeth besides.”

“Is it true what I’ve heard? That you’ve spent some time in prison?”

“It is.”

“How did that happen?”

“It was nothin’ I didn’t earn. This was in my military days. Westrim Navy. I was pretty high up on one of them frigates they run. Nothing so substantial as the dreadnaught, but ship enough to keep a few dozen hands busy below deck when cannons start boomin’. We were over on the East side of Rim, I was… How old was I? … Old enough to know better regardless. I was running messages for the first mate, and on that ship the cap’n said he ran things, but the truth of it was he ran things above deck and his mate ran things below.

“We were called in to settle a disagreement. Couple folks felt they owned this patch of the sea or that. Fuses got lit. Navy had to tend to it. Turns out when we showed up, half the mountain had joined in. Air was thick with cannon balls, bullets, nails, anything one boat could heave at another.

“The mate had more than he could handle, and he started ordering things that’d get folk killed at best, take the ship down at worst. I thought his orders were damn fool orders and told him so. He told me if I didn’t like the way he ran things I could return my last month’s pay and resign. I did.

“In those days they paid us in silver victors. I kept ‘em in a wool sock, and when I returned ‘em, I did it in an awful hurry, and right upside his head. He went down like a sack of potatoes. Like I said, I was running messages for him. Him not being awake to give orders didn’t seem to me to be a good reason to stop delivering ‘em. So I started handing out the ones I thought’d keep us alive.

“By the time he came to, the fight was clearing up. Out of the three frigates that ended up gettin’ called in, ours was the only one that didn’t lose any crew. Even so, there’s an awful lot of names for a man who’d do what I did, and none of them is sailor. They locked me away for a bit. First man I saw when I got out was Cap’n Dahl. Same cap’n who was running that ship. Seems he never forgot what I got up to, and decided if I could see my way clear to keep from swinging my pay around this time, maybe I’d like to give a tour as first mate a try. The other fella, to no one’s surprise, didn’t last too much longer after I got locked up.”

“I’ve heard whispers about the boiler being overfed once? What’s the story?”

“About what you’d expect. I wanted more speed, the general thinking from the crew was more heat and more water’d do it. It did. For a bit.”

Nita paused for a moment, as if debating on whether to ask the next question. “Do you remember when we figured out the truth about Wink?”

“I do.”

“You said you had more to say to him, but you sent me away before you said it.”

“If I’d’ve meant for you to hear it I’d’ve said it while you were still about.”

“If you’d rather not tell me, that’s certainly your right.”

“… I suppose there isn’t any harm to it. Wink’d always been an important part of the crew. But figurin’ the little bugger wouldn’t know what I was sayin’ if I said it, I never let him know what I expected of all the folk who work under me. So I let him know. And I let him know what’d happen if I didn’t get it from him. In words that it ain’t fit for a man to use in front of a lady.”

“A lot changed that day.”

“A lot changed once you set foot on my ship.”

“That’s true… Do you ever regret taking me on?”

He was silent for a few moments. “Every man’s got problems. When I took you on, I swapped out the ones I was used to for a whole new set. But if I were to lay it all out, I’d say you pushed us a lot further forward than you set us back. Not so fond of needing you as much as I do, seeing as how without you we ain’t got the knowhow to keep the Wind Breaker in the air, but before you we had the same situation with the fuggers, and I’ll take you over the fuggers eleven times out of ten. Plus, one of these days the rest of us’ll work out what needs working out to look after ourselves. That wouldn’t’ve happened without you. Regrets come pretty often, I guess, but they go pretty quick too.”

“I really appreciate that,” she said. Again she though long and hard before speaking again “I’ve never heard you say much about when you were younger. What was your childhood like?”

“Didn’t have much of a childhood. I was near the middle of a batch of youngsters that was closer to a dozen than most families get these days. Ma and Pa had their hands full keeping us from starving and/or killing each other, so they couldn’t care less if we got to mischief. By the time I was seven I was spending half my time stowing away on airships. I was pretty much a regular member of the crew of this one scout ship, the Quarrel, by the time I was ten. My folks were just happy to have to put one less plate on the table most nights. Come my fifteenth birthday I had more time in the air than half of the officers, and I finally made it official and enlisted.”

“Is that how you learned to fly the ship so well?”

“No crew would let a boy take the wheel. What I know about flying and running a ship comes from that man I mentioned before. Cap’n Dahl. First man to put the wheel of a ship in my hands, and to not take it out even after I almost crashed the thing. Had more close calls that year than in the last twenty. Every moment I’m above deck, I’m doing my damnedest to be half as good as him.”

“The man must have had an eye for talent.”

“I think it had more to do with how often he was into the bottle. Probably something he taught me that I’d have been better not learning.”

Nita wrote a bit more on her pages. “I’m sure you’d rather be resting than answering these questions, so I suppose I’ll make this my last one. Why did you let the Wind Breaker get in such bad shape? It’s clearly your whole life. Why was it so run down when I joined the crew?”

“You’ve had the good fortune of not having to do much business with the fuggers. They have two prices for fixing a ship. Good enough to keep running is one, and that’s as much as most folk can afford. Almost as good as one of theirs is another price. Seems like every time I ask, the fuggers give me a number that everything I’ve got, plus a few hundred for good measure. Never had much of a choice to get her working better than she was until you showed up.”

“But what about how it looked? Surely the Fug Folk let you make cosmetic improvements.”

“Well, see there, that’s your Calderan talking. I got a list of things I care about. How something looks ain’t on it.”

“I suppose that’s fair enough.” She scratched down a few more lines. “Thank you for taking the time to answer these. I think it will really help my father understand what sort of man you are.”

And that’s that! If you like the character, be sure to check out Free-Wrench and Skykeep, both of which are available now!

“I reckon understanding what sort of man I am is just about the last thing we’d want if we were after safe harbor, but he’s  your Pa. You’d know better’n me.”

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