The Sea Wolves Page 6

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So he cooked and cleaned, scrubbed the galley and sorted the ship’s limited foodstuffs, and by sunset he was so tired that he could barely stand.

In the corner of the galley, bloody pelican feathers and the proud creature’s bones sat ready to be flung overboard. All those meals he’d prepared in the Yukon—shooting an animal, skinning and gutting it, making the most of the carcass—had prepared him for his painful duties here. But still he’d found butchering the bird a difficult task, and the compliments from Ghost after he’d cooked and served the meal did nothing to lessen the impact. If anything, knowing that the dead bird had provided an enjoyable meal to these bastards made Jack despise himself, just a little. He could have spat in the meal, or found a bottle to crush and scattered powdered glass inside—a meager, symbolic revenge for the bird’s death. But instead, he did the best that he could. It was all part of his instinctive effort to survive, and he was sure the bird would understand.

By the time he went up on deck again, the sun was bleeding across the western horizon, and the sea had risen into a heavy swell. The sails slapped in the wind, and rigging rattled as the Larsen dipped and rose. Maurilio stood silently at the wheel, ignoring Jack and staring up at the moon, smudged behind a veil of high clouds. A few others were on deck, but there was no sign of Ghost nor, to Jack’s continuing dismay, Sabine.

But the ship was not large, and he knew that she was somewhere close.

Jack tipped the waste bucket over the side and bade a final farewell to the pelican. Then he descended to the galley, blew out the oil lamp he’d been burning for the past few hours, and settled into the galley’s tight sleeping nook, which still smelled of Finn. Ghost had moved Jack from the sailors’ cabin in the forecastle, at least.

Midnight, he promised himself. It’ll be time for a stroll. And despite everything, he slipped into an exhausted sleep.

Jack snapped awake and sat up, and something smashed him in the head. He groaned and rolled, bringing his hands up to defend himself, lashing out in the darkness and feeling his bare feet striking wood. He paused, listening and sensing. There was nothing. He was alone, and the nightmare had brought him fighting awake, banging his head in that confined sleeping space.

He gathered his senses, breathing in the foul scents of stale cooking that permeated the galley, however much he cleaned. The ship creaked and rolled, and a metal ladle hanging on a wall hook scraped back and forth across the bulkhead, back and forth, a metronome that had aided his sleep.

No time for sleep. Jack stood and leaned on the galley work surface, scooping a mug of water from the large bucket kept there. It tasted gritty and warm but quenched his thirst. He’d need a clear head for what was to come.

Beyond the galley lay the mess, and in the other direction, at the ship’s stern, the captain’s quarters and several other smaller cabins. Johansen kept one of these, another was the chart room in which Jack had served them breakfast, and he guessed Sabine must be in another. He’d have to navigate the mess in complete silence, then venture up on deck to begin his exploration of the ship.

The way he had it figured, the pirates had snatched at least six people from the Umatilla. There couldn’t be many places for them to be hidden away, and it was time now to find them. And then what? Steal a boat, row away across these vicious seas? But that was a problem for another time. Discovering where they were must be his first step.

He left behind the old boots Johansen had provided for him to replace the ones he’d lost in the ocean before being dragged on board the pirate ship. As he took his first step out of the galley, an image came to him, so sudden and shocking that it brought him up short: Ghost, lying in his bunk with eyes wide open, hearing and sensing everything that happened on his ship and smiling through it all.

Jack glanced along the short, dark corridor. Ghost’s door was out of sight in the shadows, but the weight of his presence was undeniable. Jack moved quickly through the mess, worried that thinking so much about Ghost would bring the captain’s attention his way.

A single weak oil lamp lit the mess, casting large, troubling shadows. But Jack heard no breathing or snoring and saw no sign of anyone sleeping behind the benches or beneath the table.

Once through the mess, he paused again at the foot of a staircase. Up the stairs, through a small hatch, he would reach the open air. He could breathe more freely up there, and yet he knew that Ghost would always post a watch, even in the dead of night. Someone was steering the ship, and others would be patrolling the decks or doing other sailors’ duties. He could not afford to be caught now. He had not been locked away, yet he suspected the punishment for snooping would be severe.

Jack closed his eyes and gave his senses free rein. That underlying scent of old wet animal was just as prevalent here as elsewhere. The ship rode the sea, dipping and shifting in rhythmic motion. Boards creaked, rigging stretched and hummed with tension, sails slapped at the air. And somewhere above him, casual footsteps trod the decks.

For the moment, he would need to remain belowdecks. That suited him, because the prisoners would not be found topside. He needed to explore the ship’s hold.

Jack bypassed the staircase and approached the forbidden door. It was not locked. The hinges creaked and he shoved it quickly, darting inside and closing it behind him. He squatted in the darkness and held his breath, and slowly his vision improved. There were four grilles set in the ceiling along the gangway, casting moonlight down from above, and a small gutter ran along either side to take away any water that came through. It smelled of the sea.

With some areas weakly illuminated, shadows along the gangway seemed darker than ever. He walked slowly, crouched down, listening for any movement that would indicate he had been discovered. There was none … but there was something down here disturbing the dark air, and he sensed an awareness brought alert by his arrival.

Stepping softly, breathing through his mouth, Jack advanced toward the first pool of light. He looked up before passing through, expecting one of those pirates to be staring down at him with a blade in his hand. But he was still alone.

He stopped at the first door set into the bulkhead to his left. It was a heavy, wide door, bolted shut and locked with three iron padlocks. The hinges seemed to be embedded in the bulkhead, and Jack was sure he could see, in the cracks between timber boards, the glint of metal lining the door’s inside surface. He raised his fist and almost knocked … then wondered what a door such as this might be used to imprison. The damp, clinging animal smell he’d caught in the air before lingered here as well, but even more powerfully. It was as if the wood itself stank of it, and for a moment he thought he sensed something looming behind the door. But when he reached out with his senses, searching for some living presence there, he felt nothing but the ominous absence of something, like the quiet of a bear’s den when the beast is out hunting and might at any moment return.

He moved on, eager to leave that strange door behind.

The second door in the hold area was smaller and nowhere near as secure, and Jack sniffed at the crack between door and frame. He smelled salted meat and slowly rotting vegetables, sea biscuits and flour, and heard the cackle of chickens startled by his arrival.

Footsteps above. Jack froze and shifted along the corridor, out of the weak splash of moonlight, in case one of the pirates looked down through the grille. The sailor moved on, and it was as Jack approached the third and final door that he began to hear the whispers.

He froze, head tilted to one side, and for a moment he was afraid to hear what they said. There was something so strange about this ship, and he’d already entertained the possibility that the prisoners were dead, and that he alone had been kept on as…

As what? A cook? For the moment perhaps, but that had been the result of Finn’s punishment, and not part of Ghost’s initial decision to separate Jack from the others. Had he been kept aside for some more elaborate torment as the pirates’ plaything? No, because there was something more than amusement in Ghost’s eyes when he looked at Jack. The captain of any ship was kept apart from his crew by virtue of his position, but Jack had noted almost immediately the intelligence glinting in Ghost’s eyes and hinted at in his words. Could it be that he truly did want to discuss Hawthorne, or other subjects about which his crew were doubtless woefully ignorant?

The whispers came again, sibilant arguing, and though Jack could make out no individual words, their desperation was obvious. He pressed his ear to the door and listened, and now he could catch snippets of what was being said inside.

“… get rest…”

“… do something soon…”

“… kill us, like they did…”

“… ransom…”

“… I’m scared!”

These had to be the prisoners from the Umatilla.

Jack scratched at the door and the whispering stopped. They’ll think it’s rats, he thought, but then realized that he had seen no rats aboard this ship. Not one.

“Hey, in there,” Jack whispered, pressing his mouth to the space between door and frame. There were two bolts here, but he could tell from the air moving between boards that this door was not lined with metal. He glanced back along the corridor to that first, much more formidable door and wondered again just what might be inside.

“Who’s that?” a voice hissed, far too loud.

“Keep it down!” Jack said. They fell silent for a few seconds, Jack looking up at the nearest grille. Faint moonlight flowed in, unhindered by the shadow of anyone watching or listening.

“Who?” the voice asked again, quieter.

“I’m from the Umatilla.”

“What? You’re hiding from them?”

“No,” Jack said, but he didn’t know quite how to explain what had happened to him. “How many are you?”

“Eight of us in here,” the voice said. “What of the Umatilla?”

“Long gone, friend.”

“Then what—?”

“Sh.” Now that he’d found them, Jack had no idea what he would do next. Given time and the right equipment, perhaps he could have pried the padlocks loose, or even pulled the hasp and staples from the wood, and freed the prisoners. But what then? He had no weapons or plan, only a certainty that any conflict between prisoners and pirates would end in a bloodbath. They could expect no mercy. At best, the prisoners would be slaughtered quickly. At worst… Jack’s imagination, rich and given wide scope by his experiences, painted terrible scenarios, of which keelhauling was a lesser torment.

He blinked them away.

“You’ll have to wait,” Jack said. “I let you out now, and we’ll all be killed.”

“But we can take a boat! Escape!”

“Can you feel the ship’s motion? We’re in deep sea, friend. We’d drown, or starve, or freeze to death. No. There has to be another way.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jack London.”

“Well, Jack London … we’re locked in here with our own filth and stink, and given a loaf of stale bread and one bucket of water a day.”

“And I’m sorry for that. But believe me, I’ve seen what these men can do. They killed many aboard the Umatilla, and—”

“Killed?”

“Dozens, I’d say.” Jack paused, heard the man’s heavy breathing and others whispering within. “You didn’t know?”

“No,” the man said. “We thought it was just…”

“Gold,” Jack said. The man was silent again, and beyond the door Jack could sense a thickening of the atmosphere. How terrible it must be for them, he thought. And he almost changed his mind and vowed there and then to get them out.

But when the gangway door to his right swung open, any decision was taken from him.

Jack instinctively crouched low and went for his knife. But he’d dropped the blade when Ghost had thrown him into the sea, and even with a knife, the fight would be one-sided. A shadow paused in the doorway, silhouetted by weak lamplight from the compartment beyond. It was slight—Kelly or Louis, or perhaps the dark-eyed Maurilio. But whoever had found him down here would doubtless be ready to mete out rough justice. They hadn’t forbidden him to snoop, but the last thing he expected from these pirates was fairness.

When the voice came, it stroked a cool finger through his memories.

“Go back,” she said, exotic and husky.

Then the ship rose and jarred sideways, and as Jack reached out for support, the shadow came toward him.

Sabine.

“Go back,” she said again. The moonlight paled her skin and shadowed the wavy hair framing her face, and it darkened her full lips. “You must go back.”

“Sabine.” It was the second time he had uttered her name, the first to her face.

“Jack. Go back to the galley. Sleep. Stay alive.”

“But—”

“I’m amazed he hasn’t killed you.” Her voice was almost wistful, quiet, as though talking to herself.

“I can look after myself,” he said, and for a moment the scene was frozen and silent, the ship balanced atop a wave as if waiting to see which way the discussion would fall.

“Not here,” she said. Her voice was so old and filled with a startling wisdom, and Jack stepped forward to see her face fully. For an instant he was terrified that he had been deceived, and that she was in fact a crone, a sea witch casting spells over whomever she chose even as she scried the waters for the Larsen’s next target.

Sabine came forward to meet him, and when she stepped into a splash of moonlight, her beauty winded him.

But Sabine came forward to meet him, and when she stepped into a splash of moonlight, her beauty winded him. Her eyes were heavy and sad.

Jack and Sabine reached out for each other but did not quite touch. Could this creature love a man like Ghost? It seemed unimaginable. Yet here she was, roaming freely about the ship. Would she have such liberty if she were not here of her own accord? Though she had a gentle sadness about her that seemed entirely opposite to Ghost’s looming brutality, logic suggested there must be some relationship between them.

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