The Sea Wolves

Page 9

His mind went back to her unsettling words. They would come for him tonight. So be it. He would trust in her. And there had been her other comment, as well. We’ll be locked away together. That, at least, held promise.

Very little went to waste aboard a ship. Fruit and meat on the verge of rotting—but not quite rotten—would still make its way into the crew’s diet. Jack had managed to get Ghost’s permission to bring scraps from the galley to the handful of prisoners from the Umatilla who were locked in that room in the hold, but he had not been thinking properly about what the captain would define as “scraps.” In the end, the best he could do for those poor souls was a thin stew made from the snippings off the ends of carrots, a handful of moldy potatoes, two cans of beans he found in what he assumed was some private stock belonging to the former cook, and the bones of the pelican. Some meat remained on those bones, and it sloughed off as he boiled the stew, but it was barely enough to add a bit of texture to the meal. He spiced it as best he was able, giving it a bit of flavor. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.

When the meager meal was ready, he tracked down Louis, who already had his orders from Ghost and the keys to the prisoners’ hold. Ogre came along, a knife in a scabbard at his hip.

Riding the swells of the sea, Jack followed Louis through that small door and down the few steps into the gangway belowdecks, carrying the steaming pot. Louis had been at sea much longer, and seemed almost unaffected by the rolling of the ship. Jack could not help reeling a bit, staggering right and left, but he managed not to spill more than a few ounces of stew. The ladle clacked against the rim with every sway of the vessel.

Ogre came behind Jack, perhaps to be sure he didn’t try anything rash. But the true purpose of his presence was to menace the prisoners once the door was open, in case they attempted to escape. Jack thought the precaution foolish. These people could not overpower the entire crew, and even if they did, where would they go? He doubted the people Ghost had imprisoned were sailors.

“Don’t talk to them,” Louis said, keys jangling as he led the way past the padlocked door, then the hold containing the food stores, and approached the prisoners’ hold.

“I’d like them to know they’re not alone,” Jack said.

Key in the first lock, Louis glanced at Ogre, and then at Jack. “You’ve got your orders from the captain. I am amazed he’s indulging you even this far. Don’t push him, Jack.”

Jack heard the voices beyond the door, sensed the fear and the hope in that room, and decided Louis was right. They would know just from seeing him that they had an ally outside their prison. He had wanted to apologize for not bringing them bowls, for them all having to share the ladle, but he told himself they would see such sympathies in his eyes.

Louis finished unlocking the door. He threw it open and stepped back, hand on the hilt of his knife. Ogre did the same but drew his blade, an eager glint in his eye. It seemed he hoped someone would try to escape, and he would get the chance to draw blood. Jack found his expression chilling.

The pleas began instantly. A thin, balding man wearing broken spectacles begged for his life, while a gray-haired matron demanded to know what the pirates intended to do with them. There were eight people in the hold, including a burly, bearded trapper, two young men, a pale and lovely woman in a torn but expensive dress, and a middle-aged black man who stood at the back of the room, studying the pirates with wary intelligence, obviously contemplating some plan of action. The eighth, and last, was a girl of perhaps fourteen. She still had a bow in her hair.

Jack searched their faces. They had all been on board the Umatilla with him, sailing from Alaska to San Francisco, but none of them looked familiar to him. They were strangers, but they were his fellow captives, and he racked his brain for some way he could help them. But on a ship of bloodthirsty pirates, in the middle of the sea—at least for the moment—the stew was the best he could do.

It seemed so little, but as he carried the pot into the room, they moved in eagerly. Some of them seemed to realize that he was not one of the pirates, for they began to question him. Jack felt ashamed that he could not respond.

“Hurry it up, Cooky,” Louis said, though not unkindly.

Regretfully, Jack left the pot and retreated to the door. As Louis began to haul it shut, the trapper gave a roar and lunged for him, but Louis was too quick. He clouted the big man across the temple with a small fist. Somehow, though the trapper was twice his size, Louis had knocked him down with a single blow. Disoriented, the trapper tried to scramble to his feet for another attempt, but Ogre stepped in and kicked him in the chest, sending the man crashing into the lady in the torn dress.

Jack found himself locking eyes with the bald man in the broken spectacles. “I’m sorry,” he said as the door slammed.

Some of them cried out, but moments later they fell silent, and he knew they must be gathered ravenously around the stewpot.

He felt sure he would see their faces in his dreams tonight.

As Louis fastened all the locks, Jack began to turn away, headed back along the gangway toward the galley, but Ogre blocked his path.

“What?” Jack demanded, his frustration overriding his fear of the quiet sailor.

It was Louis who answered. “You’re not done.” He gestured toward the middle door in the hold. “Go into the food stores. The captain’s got a private stock in there. You’ll find it easily enough. Make a plate of fruit and cheese, the best there is, and fetch a bottle of the finest wine.”

Louis and Ogre waited in the gangway while Jack did as he was told. Sabine had said the two of them would be locked away together tonight, so he presumed this small repast from Ghost’s private reserve must be some celebration for the captain, but he couldn’t imagine what the occasion might be. Along with the captain’s private stock, he found a stack of china plates and quickly arranged the requested food upon one of them.

A bottle of wine under one arm, he emerged from the stores, but once again Ogre blocked his attempt to leave the hold.

“Wait a moment,” Louis said, and he went to the triple-padlocked room that had so piqued Jack’s curiosity, unlocked it, and opened the door.

The first thing Jack noticed was that there were locks on the inside as well.

“Put them on the table,” Louis instructed him.

Confused, Jack nevertheless complied. He entered that room and was stunned by what he found. He could make no sense of the room. Here in the dingy hold was a chamber more richly appointed than any other on the ship, complete with a cot covered in a thick, woven spread, a love seat, oil lamps, and a shelf of leather-bound books. The wooden planks gleamed as though they had just been cleaned.

“What is this?” he asked, turning to Louis. “It’s a cabin? But for whom?”

“No questions,” Louis replied. “The captain’s given his orders.”

Burning with curiosity, but knowing he would get no answers from these pirates, Jack set the wine and the plate of cheese and fruit onto the table. For several long seconds he studied the room, until Ogre grew restless and seemed about to come in after him. Jack retreated from the room, wondering what other secrets the Larsen was hiding.

The storm started as a few urgent gusts, as if the wind were testing them, toying with them. The black clouds drifted in from the south, enveloping them in premature darkness, the sun vanishing as though in the hands of some celestial stage magician. The moon would be full tonight, but Jack knew he would not see it. The moon and stars would be swallowed.

As he cleaned the galley after dinner, Jack was troubled by the amount of food the crew had left in their bowls. He had tasted it, as he tasted everything he cooked, and though he had no affection for cabbage, he thought the beef stew had come out quite flavorful. You don’t want to see this crew if they’re not fed properly, Ghost had said. There had been an uneasy silence in the mess; calm before a storm.

It was particularly frustrating that they had left so much uneaten, considering the trouble he had gone to earlier to put together a meal for the prisoners. But perhaps Ghost would allow him to give the seven captives in the hold another meal—after all, the crew had abandoned the scrapings in their bowls.

Jack collected the uneaten stew in a large pot, trying to decide how best to frame the request. The rain began pummeling the deck above him as he cleaned and stored the bowls, and he set about washing the rest of the pots and the cooking surface. Finn seemed to have shown little interest in cleanliness during his time as cook, and Jack felt as though he could scrub the galley three times a day for a month and still not strip all of the filth away. Still, it was good to keep busy. To keep distracted. All day Sabine’s words had been echoing in his mind. With the storm darkening the sky, it would be impossible for him to know when night had truly arrived, so he tried his best not to think about it. The predictable result was that he could think of nothing else. He didn’t like the idea of being locked away, but if Sabine and he were together, it would give him the opportunity to learn more about Ghost and his crew.

Every creak of the planks above his head, or rustle beyond the galley door that might be a footfall, made him go rigid with worried anticipation. The ship rose and fell on the heavy swell, but the roll and pitch did not trouble him. He had other concerns.

When they came, it was without stealth or caution. Boots tromped upon the stairs outside the galley, and Ogre ducked his massive head to step inside, with Louis behind him.

“Evening, Jack,” Louis said, smiling his gold-glinting smile.

“Louis,” Jack said with a nod. Neither of them acknowledged the hulking, intimidating presence of Ogre in the galley with them.

“You won’t be sleeping in here tonight,” Louis said, his French accent somehow stronger. He twitched, as though he had a desperate itch he had no wish to scratch where others might see.

“No?” Jack asked lightly, keeping his breathing steady, his heart calm. “Back to the forecastle, then?”

Louis laughed. “Not there either. Non, non, mon ami. Finn is a terrible cook, c’est vrai. But for this evening, you will have other accommodations.”

Ogre glowered at him, but it was Louis’s earnest reassurance that got Jack moving, not fear of the giant. He led the way out of the galley and into the mess, and then Louis strode past him, through the mess and directly to the previously forbidden door. A certainty gripped Jack. He knew where they must be taking him. Not to the locked room with the other prisoners, and not to the largest section of the hold where the food was stored.

They would lead him to that first room in the hold, with its iron locks and reinforced frame. Jack was startled by the realization that the food he had left in that padlocked room earlier in the day was for himself. As he followed Louis into the belly of the ship, with Ogre looming behind him, Jack’s heart began to race. He breathed evenly to steady himself, glancing around for something to use as a weapon, afraid that if they locked him into that room, he would never get out alive. And what of Sabine?

“What’s this about, Louis?” he asked. The little man glanced back at him, gold tooth gleaming in the gathering shadows of the hold. Ogre carried a lamp, and its light danced in the dark, turning their silhouettes into strangely misshapen things.

“Survival, Jack.”

“I don’t understand.”

Louis’s breathing had become ragged, almost labored. Something seemed to be wrong with him.

“No more questions, Jack. Pause for answers, and you’ll be dead. It’s twilight now.”

Louis trailed off with a soft grunt. He drew in a long breath and stood up straighter. Behind Jack, Ogre had also begun to breathe strangely, but now another sound came from him—a soft, guttural laugh.

“It’s the locks on the inside that really matter,” Louis said. Working quickly, he dragged the door outward, light washing into the corridor from within. Jack winced at its brightness, blinded for a moment. And when his vision adapted to the light, he could only blink in surprise.

Sabine waited inside, seated on a tiny love seat, her hands clasped before her in worry. She looked up sharply, her eyes glistening, and when she saw Jack, she leaped to her feet and rushed toward him.

“Stay there, woman!” Louis barked, and Sabine drew up short, terror in her eyes.

The bottle of wine and the plate of fruit and cheese Jack had retrieved only hours earlier from the captain’s personal stock were still arranged on the table where he had left them. He had arranged his own prison cell, elegant though it was.

“Louis?” Jack said, turning toward the man. “I don’t underst—”

Ogre clubbed him in the face with one enormous fist, knocking him backward into the room. Shocked and confused, Jack began to rise, but the heavy door slammed shut. He heard the locks rattling as they were secured.

“Sabine,” Jack said, staring at her pale face. “What is this? What do they plan to do with us?”

Sabine came toward him and set about locking their door from the inside with bolts, clasps, and padlocks—it was now locked both from within and from without. Then she resumed her perch on the love seat and would not meet his gaze. Long minutes passed without a word from her, though he prompted her several times. It seemed almost as though she had shut him out completely, traveled elsewhere within the infinite realms of her own mind.

Something scratched at the door. Jack stiffened and held his breath. He stared at the door, then moved closer and listened to the sounds of things moving out in the corridor, the snuffling and snarling of beasts. The animal stink he had encountered outside the door when he’d first approached this room grew suddenly stronger, and he knew that whatever beast had left that stench behind had now returned.

“What the hell is this?” Jack whispered.

From farther along the corridor came the sound of a heavy door swinging open, hinges squealing. For a quiet moment, the sounds of the ship—the creaking of boards and the rush of the sea against the hull—seemed impossibly loud, and then Jack heard a growl.

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