The Sea Wolves Page 21

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Those two nights he slept only fitfully, thinking of the softness of Sabine’s lips and the depth of her eyes. But love was not the only thing that kept him from surrendering to sleep’s embrace. The silent hostility and the promise of death that suffused every waking moment aboard the Larsen kept him wondering, not only about the outcome of a mutiny, but also about what might become of him should it succeed. He had no intention of still being on board when the mutiny concluded, yet he could not help but wonder if Louis and Tree were fond enough of him to prevent the rest of the pack from killing him after Ghost was dead.

He tried to shake the thought. He and Sabine would be gone from the Larsen by then, or they would already be dead. He did not really care who came out victorious when the men finally mutinied—as he felt sure they would do before long—except that if Ghost survived, he would pursue Jack and Sabine, reluctant to let her strange powers escape. Those who would rise against Ghost were less likely to give chase.

The hate simmered, like a volcano fit to blow. But the surreal quality of each hour that passed sprang from love just as much as it did from hate. He would walk the deck and issue orders to trim the sails, or for one man to spell another at the wheel or in the crow’s nest. Then he would go below and begin to gather together the ingredients for a meal to feed those same men, and while he cooked, Sabine would slip into the galley to visit him. As Ghost could be relied upon to remain in his cabin for long hours, she even helped him choose spices and prepare certain dishes, and while they cooked, she would touch his hand or his shoulder or kiss his neck. Jack felt a wild bliss growing unrestrained within him, and that went some way to keeping him focused on their survival instead of the festering malignance of the crew.

Ghost had ordered that meals be delivered to his cabin. Sabine always obliged. In those moments, with the crew in the mess and Sabine distracting Ghost, Jack made preparations of another sort. He squirreled away food in various places throughout the galley so that they could be gathered quickly. There were old wine and whiskey jugs in a cabinet, and now some of them, hidden behind empties, had been filled from the store of fresh water below.

When Jack visited the food stores, the pirates’ treasure was beneath the boards underfoot, and yet Ghost never sent anyone to oversee his work there. Either he truly believed Jack would not be stupid enough to steal from him, or he wanted to leave such concerns and suspicions to the crew. But the crew left him alone, perhaps reckoning that Ghost would decide his fate in time, or maybe they were more interested in their own plans for the captain.

Jack concentrated on his preparations, determined that he and Sabine would be ready when tensions finally erupted on the Larsen. There would be mutiny, or there would be an attack from Death Nilsson. Either way, that would be the moment of their escape.

“We’ll want the long pork for lunch today, Mr. London,” Ghost rasped, standing in the shadows beyond the galley entrance.

Jack could not hide the look of revulsion that swept across his face. “Long pork.”

“You know the term, I take it?” Ghost asked.

“I know it. It’s what the cannibals of the East Indies called human flesh.”

Ghost did not smile. It was clear he no longer took pleasure from his rapport with Jack. Instead, he sneered.

“We are not cannibals, Mr. London. Cannibals eat their own kind for sustenance, and as you’d be the first to observe, we aren’t human.”

Jack felt sick. It had been challenge enough for him to cure and salt the remains of the prisoners taken from the Umatilla, but now to cook that meat and serve it to Ghost and his crew … it stained his soul to even contemplate such a horror.

“Surely you don’t need it cooked for you,” Jack said, glaring at him in the shadows as the ship creaked around them. “I remember well enough the screams and the blood, Captain. You prefer your long pork raw.”

Now Ghost did smile, but it was a warning. “When it’s fresh, Jack. Only when it’s fresh. Otherwise, I’m as much a gourmand as the fattest, wealthiest man in San Francisco. Spice it well. Make a nice sauce to accompany it. And serve it yourself, this time.”

Jack held his tongue, knowing that he had pushed Ghost too far.

“What you and Sabine have for your own lunch is up to you,” Ghost added.

A shadow approached from the mess. It was Maurilio, Huginn looming behind the rangy man, ready as ever to protect the captain.

“Kelly’s in the crow’s nest, Captain,” Maurilio reported. “Says there’s a thick fog forming due west. We’re headed right for it, a few hours out.”

“Keep on course. Our sea witch will let us know if we’ve anything to fear in the fog.”

Maurilio darted off to relay orders to Vukovich, who was presently at the wheel. Ghost turned and looked at Jack.

“Go on, then. Your galley awaits.”

Jack nodded. “Yes, sir.”

The captain retreated into his cabin and closed the door. He hadn’t even bothered to go on deck to survey the crew’s efforts or check on their heading himself. Jack knew it wasn’t fear of mutiny that kept Ghost in his quarters, because he feared nothing. The captain had been consulting with Sabine about the location of several merchant ships, but also of the nearest land, and Jack suspected that Ghost might be considering what to do about the venomous atmosphere on board. How much trouble would it be to kill most of his pack and begin again?

Jack would have to go into the hold to retrieve the long pork—he could not think of that meat by any other name, for his own sake—for the wolves’ lunch, but first he wanted to see what else he might need. Standing in the galley, the ship swaying beneath him, he thought of what he was about to do and was nearly sick. Nothing frightened him. Jack London had confronted the wildness of human nature and the human heart, and had found himself undaunted. But this…

“Jack.”

Her voice eased his spirit effortlessly, and he turned to Sabine, standing just inside the galley behind him. Silhouetted in the sunlight that filtered down into the cabin, she seemed for a moment like an angel come to save him from the hell of the Larsen.

Then he saw the fear in her eyes.

“He’s coming, Jack,” Sabine said. “Death is here. They’ll see the smoke from his ship any moment now.”

Jack took her in his arms. He kissed her gently, then fiercely.

“For luck,” he said.

They heard shouts and running footsteps, and then Maurilio was calling for the captain.

Jack pulled away, clasped her hand in his a moment longer, and then nodded.

“Be ready.”

CHAPTER TEN

THE FOG OF WAR

Ghost slammed from his cabin so violently that the door cracked from its hinges, splintering against the bulkhead and scattering along the gangway. Jack pulled back into the shadowed corner of the galley, Sabine close beside him, and held his breath. This is when everything begins to change, he thought, and it was a strange idea. Change had been evident day to day, hour to hour, since Ghost had thrown him from the deck of the Umatilla. But this moment felt like the line between life and death, however thin or ambiguous that line might be.

On the deck above them, footsteps pounded and voices shouted for the captain—the crew calling for the man they had started to hate.

Ghost walked past the galley doorway, kicking the remains of his cabin door ahead of him, his breath a constant, rumbling growl, and he looked larger than he ever had before. He was a force of nature, channeled by these wooden walls and floors and ceiling but never contained, never tamed. His shadow passed through the galley and it seemed to abrade every surface it touched. Then he stopped, turned, and stared in at Jack and Sabine.

Jack thought he would comment on them hiding away in there, huddled against the wall like frightened rats. He thought the captain would pour scorn upon such fear and tell them both that they were less than people, and barely equal to animals. But Ghost only glared at them, reserving his longest, coldest stare for Sabine. And Jack knew what was to come. She didn’t tell him about Death, he thought, and Ghost’s expression held a promise of something more than mere retribution. She had challenged his intellect and betrayed his trust.

Ghost backed into the mess and did not turn away until he was out of sight. Jack heard him climbing to the deck, and then the level of panic up there seemed to lessen, Ghost’s voice transmitted down through the floor as wordless growl.

The air seemed lighter with Ghost gone. Sabine slumped against Jack and sighed.

“They’ll head for the fogbank,” Jack said, because that was what he would do.

Sabine seemed surprised, and then annoyed.

“What is it?” Jack asked.

“Nothing.” She waved away his concern. “It’s just that…” She trailed off, then pushed past Jack and crossed to the galley door. She stood there with her back to him, secrets in her strained stance.

“Mr. London!” Ghost’s voice roared. It shook the ship’s boards and loosened the fill between them, and for an instant Jack believed that Ghost was scared. But that was not fear in the captain’s voice; it was rage.

“I should go,” Jack said to Sabine. “Remember the food. When our time comes, it will be brief, and we won’t have long. Mere moments. But if we take that chance, then we can be away from here.” He waved a hand at the skillet in which he’d been considering cooking dead people’s flesh to feed this ship’s monsters. “Away from them.”

“I dream of nothing more,” she said. Her voice was soft, and Jack grabbed her shoulder and turned her to face him. There was not an ounce of confidence in her eyes.

“What is it?”

“What you said. He will race for the fogbank. And if he loses Death in there…”

“Then he will have time for you.” Voicing his fear made it worse.

“I betrayed him,” Sabine said.

“We’re not destined to die here,” Jack said, pulling her close. But Sabine laughed, a short, bitter sound that scared him.

“Destiny?” Her laughter faded, and a tear appeared. “It’s my fault you’re here.”

“No, Sabine,” Jack said. “With you is the only place I want to be.”

“Mr. London!” Ghost called again, and Jack kissed Sabine on the cheek and rushed through the mess, leaving too many things unsaid, knowing he had no time to say them. There would be time, he was certain. He would make sure of that.

As he hurried on deck, tension hung heavy in the air. To the west, directly ahead of them, the fogbank seemed no closer, yet their sails were full, booms swung to catch the last breath. Ghost barked orders and the crew obeyed, trimming by inches, enslaving the wind. When they had done all they could, the pirates looked to the north at the vessel revealed there. It rode the horizon and left a smear of smoke in the air, and from this distance Jack could make out little. But it was a steamer; that would make it faster and more maneuverable than the Larsen in these conditions.

“There stands my brother,” Ghost said quietly, staring at the distant steamer as if into the eyes of his brother, who stared back across miles of churning sea—the murdered and the murderer, one seeking revenge, the other completion.

“Death comes,” Maurilio said from where he stood at the railing.

“Five miles out,” Vukovich said from his station at the wheel.

“Four,” Ghost said. He glanced ahead, at the wall of fog laid across the sea like a blanket. “And two to the fog. It’ll be a close race.”

Jack looked at the small skiffs fixed to the Larsen’s deck. He had already inspected the fixtures of the front-most portside boat’s fixtures, and had loosened one enough to be able to kick the bolt away with his toe. It would take a minute to hunker down and release the other bolt, and another thirty seconds to winch the craft up a few inches and swing it over the side. He’d have to drop it then. There would be no time to lower it properly—if it capsized and floated hull up, he and Sabine would have to jump in and attempt to right it without swamping it and sending it to the bottom. If it splashed down as he wished, they would still have to jump.

As an escape plan, it left a lot to be desired. But right now it was all he had. It was an escape that relied on chaos. Looking north, sensing the subdued panic exuding from the Larsen’s crew right now, it seemed that chaos might descend within the hour.

“Mr. London!” Ghost roared. Jack blinked, coming to his senses just as the big hand clamped his jacket and he was lifted from his feet. Ghost slammed him against the bulkhead, leaned in close so they were almost nose to nose. The animal stink of him had never been stronger. “Don’t you think that the first mate should be making himself useful in such a situation?”

“Wh … what’s the situation?”

Ghost grinned. “Family’s coming to visit,” he said. “Yonder steamer is the Charon, Death’s ship. Sad to say, my brother doesn’t share my sweet and gentle disposition.”

Ghost dropped Jack and strode forward, standing at the bow as if to reach out and haul them into the fog. But he kept glancing north at the ship rapidly closing on them. The Larsen ran straight for the fogbank, and now Death’s ship had angled toward it on an intercept course. As the moments ticked by, Jack realized what a dreadful risk Sabine had taken. When these two ships met, the savagery would be more than either of them had ever seen.

“Er…,” Jack said, glancing back at Vukovich. “All speed for the fog.”

“Of course,” Vukovich said.

“Let’s drag every breath of wind from the air!” Jack called, voice loud but unsure. Nobody moved, because the crew was already doing everything that needed doing. He heard a snigger but was not sure of its source. He looked around, caught Louis’s eye across the deck. He raised an eyebrow at Jack, offered a slight shrug.

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