The Sea Wolves Page 4

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Now he stood on the deck of the Larsen, the sails full of a gentle Pacific breeze as the ship kept a steady course westward, away from the California coast—away from home and safety, and the family who had already waited too long for his return, and the financial salvation they would be praying he had found in the Yukon. In a single night he had seen blood dripping from multiple blades, heard the dying sighs of innocents, witnessed the brutal abduction of fellow passengers, and been savagely assaulted by someone who seemed more beast than man. And he had the feeling that far worse horrors yet awaited him.

Oyster pirate? He had been a laughing boy, an imp, attempting to thwart the Fish Patrol and escape arrest. Here, now … these were pirates. They lived by the law of blade and club. Bloodletting seemed ordinary and righteous to them, violence the solution to all riddles. And until he could divine some manner of escape, which at this moment seemed impossible, he had to dedicate himself to a single principle: survival. It was a familiar instinct—he had survived a long, hungry winter stranded on the banks of a frozen river, the cruelty of slavers, the obsession of an insane forest spirit, and the wild fury of the dreadful Wendigo. This was a new challenge, but Jack would endure.

Finn, however, might well be dead in the next few minutes.

Jack did nothing to draw attention to himself. The crew was occupied with the punishment being meted out, and no one seemed at all concerned that he might attempt escape. The ship measured perhaps one hundred feet from bow to stern, and its beam couldn’t have been wider than twenty-five feet. This was the extent of his world, at least for now. There were four small boats on board—used, he supposed, for hunting and going ashore from deep anchorage—but it wasn’t as if he could lower one into the water and paddle away unnoticed.

Ghost, too, seemed almost to have forgotten about Jack’s presence.

Johansen barked orders and two men—Vukovich and Kelly—dragged a struggling Finn to the front of the ship and held him still as others tied ropes to his wrists and ankles.

“You bastards!” Finn screamed, trying to shake free as they stripped him. “Stand up to him!”

Vukovich grabbed him by the hair and forced Finn to meet his gaze. “For your greed? We should challenge ’im for that? No, Finn. You’ll take what’s coming.”

Jack stood on the raised foredeck slightly away from the Larsen’s crew, his own predicament almost forgotten as he watched the men force Finn toward the bow. He had heard of keelhauling—had read about it as a boy and included it in the pirate tales he shared with his chums—and so he knew what was to come. They would throw Finn overboard and drag him beneath the ship, right along the keel, where the hull would be caked with barnacles that would shred his skin to ribbons. The faster they dragged him, the tighter he would be held against the keel, and the worse his injuries. But if they went slowly, giving him slack to spare him the flaying, he could well drown.

“I don’t understand,” Jack said, stepping up between the ogre and Louis, the short black man whom he had first seen when Ghost dragged him aboard. “I’d thought a man would be thrown over one side and dragged to the other. If they haul him fore to aft on a ship this size…”

He glanced at them for answers. The ogre ignored him, scratching at his huge head. But Louis smiled to reveal an awful mouth: some teeth missing, some jagged as a shark’s, and that single upper canine made of gold.

“It’ll hurt, c’est vrai,” Louis said, in an island-lilted French accent. “But if he dies … c’est sa bonne fortune.”

Jack frowned in confusion. “I don’t—”

The ogre grunted and cleared his throat, tugging at his filthy beard. “If the captain lets him die, Finn’ll be lucky,” he said, his voice a deep rumble in his chest. “Fool wants to howl, thinks he can challenge Ghost, but he’s no match. If he lives, he’d best fall into line. You challenge Ghost and lose … better off in hell.”

Then there was shouting and the pounding of feet on the deck, and Jack whipped round to see he had missed the moment when they hurled Finn off the bow. Vukovich and Kelly and two other men were running along beside the railings, ropes held taut, slowing only to feed the ropes around rigging, and Jack tried not to visualize Finn beneath the ship, holding his breath as barnacles ripped his skin. Sickened, he watched the men run as the rest of the small crew followed.

A hand like an iron vise grabbed his arm and propelled him forward, slowly but far from gently.

“Come along, young Jack,” Ghost growled in his ear. “This is for all to see.”

Not quite all, Jack thought, remembering the others abducted from the Umatilla who must still be locked below. But he thought it best to hold his tongue for now. That was a question for another time.

With Ghost as his escort, he walked aft, watching as the crew gathered along the stern railing. Together, the four men who’d done the hauling pulled at the ropes, hoisting Finn from the water. Jack watched with dreadful anticipation, because he knew that what he was about to see would be awful.

What they dragged aboard was not at first recognizable as human. The skin had been flayed open on Finn’s back, arms and legs, flesh ripped way, so that he resembled little more than a pile of bloody meat. Only when he vomited seawater onto the blood-smeared deck, and tried to rise to his knees, could Jack be certain the creature before him was a man.

Then Finn collapsed, blood running freely from his wounds and flowing across the deck.

The first mate, Johansen, turned expectantly to the captain, and the crew watched impatiently. For a moment, Jack felt sure they weren’t done with him. Their captain had inflicted punishment, but the crew seemed to want their own pound of flesh. Jack imagined that attempting to keep a secret stash of one’s own must be the worst of sins among pirates. Ghost’s own words had suggested that he divided up their ill-gotten gains by some formula they all agreed was fair. For Finn to keep even so small a bit of treasure as Jack’s bag of gold for himself was for him to steal from all of them.

Yet though violence remained in the air, the crew glaring menacingly at Finn, none of them attacked. It was as if they awaited some word from their captain, but the word had not come.

“Take him below,” Ghost commanded at last. “Louis, doctor him as best you can. Then leave him. Everyone else, back to work. Mr. Johansen, check our course. If we lag, we’ll miss our chance.”

“Aye, sir!” Johansen snapped, and hurried off to obey.

Denied further retribution, the crew might have balked, but it was plain to see that none would challenge the commands of their captain. After the example Ghost had set with Finn, Jack could see why. They were loyal to Ghost, perhaps, but they feared him as well.

The crew busied themselves about the ship, though it seemed to Jack that in fair weather the Larsen practically sailed herself. Vukovich clambered into the rigging, and the others rushed about, and soon the only man standing with Jack by the aft railing was the captain.

Ghost did not look at him.

“Young Jack,” the captain said, the diminutive name a purposeful needling. “Can you cook?”

Jack stared at him, but his thoughts were racing. Survival.

“I’m a damn fine cook,” he replied.

Ghost nodded grimly. “A lad who thinks on his feet and isn’t afraid of a fight, bound from the Yukon to San Francisco? Aye, I had a feeling you might’ve learned to feed yourself. We lost our cook, Mr. Mugridge, in a scrape a few months back. We’ve been making do with Finn, but he’ll be in no condition to man the galley for a time.”

For a time? Jack thought that once they chucked him below, Finn would be lucky to survive till morning.

“You’ll do his job,” Ghost went on. “I’m less inclined to kill those who are useful to me. Go and acquaint yourself with what’s in our stores. It’ll be morning soon and we’ll want a bit of breakfast. And then, for lunch, we’ll be having a special treat.”

Jack shuddered at the way Ghost said that, and the captain bared sharp teeth in a grin that seemed more hunger than smile.

“What’s that?” Jack asked.

Ghost gave him a sidelong appraisal, as though reaffirming his decision. Then he grunted and strode forward, leaving Jack standing on the aft deck without an answer.

The first thing Jack did was clean the galley. In the months since the previous cook had been “lost,” Finn had made little attempt to fight the accumulating grease and filth. Every surface bore a layer of grime that required scraping and then washing, and Jack set to work long before dawn. By the time the sun had risen over the eastward waves, he was prepared to cook, although the best he could offer was a meal of cinnamon-spiced oatmeal, some eggs, and rashers of fatty bacon. He had inventoried the food available and wanted to conserve the vegetables and meat that were still relatively fresh for dinners.

From a quick conversation with Louis he had learned that there were chickens in the hold to provide eggs, and eventually they, too, would be eaten. What meat and vegetables they had fresh were in the galley already, having been acquired at their last landfall, only two days before. There was reportedly plenty of salted beef and pork, plus dried beans and baskets of sea biscuits, also in the hold. But Jack wasn’t allowed down there to check.

Even so, he reasoned that though their heading was to the southwest, toward Japan, Ghost must not intend traveling that far or he would have put in greater stores of food. They were a small crew, but Jack did not think they had near enough provisions to make the ocean crossing, particularly given the threat of scurvy without much produce. There were few enough vegetables, and half a bushel of apples comprised a meager store of fruit. He reasoned that it must have been kept only for the officers, but he would not serve it without asking the captain first.

In a bucket in a corner, Jack discovered the pelican that had been shot on the deck the previous night. This, then, was the treat the men were to receive for lunch today—fried pelican. He might have turned it into a stew, but the captain’s orders were to preserve the flavor of the bird. Jack would fry potatoes and onions in the pan with a liberal dash of spices, and it would make for an excellent lunch. But he himself would not partake of the meal, fixing something apart from the crew’s special treat. He could not eat the creature whose portentous arrival last night had saved his life. He wished that he had the gift of life, so that with the touch of a hand he might restore it, but such a thing was not to be. Instead, the bird would end up in the bellies of the monsters who crewed the Larsen.

Ghost’s remark about lunch had seemed ominous in the darkness before dawn, but now it only confused Jack. Could the captain have had an inkling that the pelican had some significance for Jack? Surely not. Which meant that despite his grim expression, Ghost had spoken in jest. He seemed an unlikely jokester, but Jack could not read the comment any other way. It brought into sharp relief the observations he had been accumulating about the rough men who were now his crewmates, and their captain.

Ghost had been hewn from different stuff than his crew. They were ignorant brutes, and though he might be the most savage of them all, and certainly seemed the most dangerous, he brimmed with intelligence. Jack could see the mind working behind Ghost’s eyes, the dark and voracious intellect, yet the captain had no manners and no fundamental morality, and Jack could only think the man must be self-educated. It would make escaping from this devil ship far more problematic.

“How ye farin’, Cooky?” came a voice, and then the Irishman, Kelly, came into the galley.

Jack tried not to flinch at the nickname. “Cooky” was worse even than “young Jack.” I have a name, he thought. But he held his tongue. He wanted to live long enough to get off this godforsaken craft.

“Tell the men their breakfast is ready,” he said. “They can eat in shifts at the table there. Since no one’s popped up and announced themselves as the cabin boy, I take it I’ve gotta feed the captain and Mr. Johansen myself.”

“Nothing slips by ye, eh, Cooky?” Kelly jibed.

He walked through the mess and went up the steps to the deck, shouting profanities at his fellow sailors as a way of summoning them to the table. The man seemed amiable enough for one of the brutish pirates, but still Jack chafed at the invisible bonds of his shipboard captivity. He ran through the faces of the crew in his head. Aside from Ghost and Johansen, there were Kelly and Louis, Vukovich and Finn, and the huge, ugly man he thought of as Ogre. Of the five remaining men, he knew the dark, rangy-looking man was Maurilio and the giant African, his skin black as pitch, was called Tree. The fat man was Demetrius, but he had forgotten to ask Louis the names of the silent, bearded Scandinavian twins.

Any one of them seemed willing to kill him. Which made the question of accommodations a troubling one. How could he sleep among them, knowing they might murder him as he dreamed?

Simple, Jack, he thought. They don’t need to wait until you’re asleep. And none of them is brave enough to kill you unless their captain orders it. These points were true, but the former troubled him considerably. As he prepared breakfast, he had been wondering about the strength and agility of Ghost and his crew. Finn could have torn him apart if he’d gotten the upper hand, and such strength was beyond the power of ordinary men. So if the men aboard the Larsen were not ordinary, which Jack’s own experiences made easy to believe, then what were they?

“Something smells good! How the hell can that be?” Ogre rumbled as he came into the mess beyond the galley.

Other men gathered behind him, and Jack took that as his cue. He had no desire to spend time among them, and he knew that Ghost would not be pleased at the thought of his men eating while he waited to be fed.

Jack picked up a huge tray bearing a tureen of oatmeal and plates of biscuits and bacon. At the last moment he had scrambled a few eggs for the captain and his first mate, and he brought those along as he made his way through the cabin to the captain’s quarters.

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