Dawn was breaking on the horizon.
Ignoring the pain that his wounds were causing him, and suppressing the rage that engulfed him, he kept walking, not knowing exactly where he was heading but knowing he had to keep going.
He should have never left his ship, 'The Flying Horse', and come ashore alone. He had been an easy prey for the governor's patrols. But after months at sea he had been desperate to feel solid ground beneath his feet, to smell the earth after the rain, to hear the jungle animals cry out and the birds sing.
He had been spotted by the patrols when he reached shore, and although he had managed to escape his pursuers, he had not prevailed unharmed.
He paused for a minute to catch his breath, knowing his strength was rapidly diminishing. His limbs were becoming stiff, his breathing more and more difficult, and his wound was still bleeding, even after he had wrapped it with a crude bandage made from his shirt. He had been hit with a bullet; most likely from a pistol, and the lead was still somewhere inside him, thankfully without damaging any vital organs. It was not a serious wound, but it could quickly become so if it was not looked after promptly.
He advanced slowly, and let himself fall heavily to the ground. He wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball and let himself be transported into oblivion, but through an act of sheer will he kept from passing out. He knew he was feverish, feeling his body being overpowered by cold sweat and hot flashes at the same time.
He dragged himself under a wide leafy tree, ignoring the dizziness and nausea attacking him ruthlessly. He closed his eyes, trying in vain to stand up, his strength finally gone. He fell to the ground exhausted, panting harshly.
Uttering a last helpless cry, Captain Chris Larabee, pirate to the Caribbean seas, also known as 'The Phantom', surrendered to the darkness hovering over him like a ghost.
CHAPTER I -
He turned his attention to the bedroom and began to examine its contents in detail; it was a vast room, elegantly decorated and lit by two large windows through which could be seen immense trees. He spotted a piano at one end of the room, on which were scattered some pages of music; a mahogany table took up the middle of the room.
"Where the hell am I?" he wondered softly. "And who tended to my wound?"
Suddenly the handle of the door rattled and turned and a man entered, walking slowly, carrying several pieces of white cloth and a small basin. He was younger than Chris, shorter, but sturdily built. He had chestnut hair and pale green eyes that lit up as they settled on him.
"You are awake!" the man exclaimed. "I'm happy; I was afraid we might lose you to the fever. You have been senseless for three days."
"Three days!" Chris echoed surprised, his mind conjuring images of the green-eyed man bathing his face and crooning softly to him as he writhed feverishly. "How did I get here?"
"I was riding through the plantation when I found you unconscious against a tree. I brought you here and nursed you back to health. Your injuries could have been fatal," the man replied. "How are you feeling now?"
"Better. Not in much pain."
"I'm glad to hear it. May I be so bold as to query, what happened to you, sir?"
"I don't know," Chris lied smoothly. "Several men attacked me on the road. I have no idea who they were, but they took all my money and possessions and shot me."
The man nodded. "Probably bandits. We have been having many problems with such miscreants. No matter. All you should care about at the present is getting better. You will have to remain here for at least a fortnight, you have lost a lot of blood."
"Where am I? And who are you?"
"You are in the governor's plantation. I'm his nephew, Ezra Standish."
"The governor?" Chris muttered, his expression darkening. He quickly recovered himself, "I'm --"
"Don't," Ezra interjected softly, his fingers brushing against Chris' mouth to prevent him from speaking.
"Why?" Chris asked, curious as to the reason the other man refused to hear his name.
Ezra smiled gently. "I saw your expression at the mention of the governor. It will be better if I know nothing of you. He is staying in Port Royal for the next two weeks, due to business affairs. By the time he returns you should be long gone."
"I don't understand. I'm a stranger, for all you know, I could be one of those bandits you mentioned."
Ezra chuckled, shaking his head. "I'm a good judge of character, sir, I do not believe that. And..." He hesitated, then ventured on. "He may be my uncle, but that doesn't mean I agree with his laws or the way he rules over this exquisite island. Now, let me check your injury and change the bandages."
"You were the one here with me all this time, weren't you? I remember someone bathing me, cleaning the wound."
"Yes, it was me," Ezra replied, unwrapping the bandage gently and using a moist cloth to clean the wound. Once he was done, he used a new bandage. "There. You are overly warm," he remarked. "Let's see if we can make you a little more comfortable. Can you move forward just a little bit so I can take your shirt off?"
"I can try."
Chris let the other man pull him forward carefully and work his arms out of the shirt, discarding it to the side. Ezra then helped him lie back on the bedding. "All right, just relax and try to breathe easy."
He couldn't hold back a low moan as Ezra bathed his face and chest tenderly. He took a number of slow, deep breaths, enjoying the way the cloth moved down his throat, over the curve of one shoulder, then the other, brushing softly over his chest and nipples until they were hard.
"Feel better?" Ezra asked, chuckling as his only answer was a low, throaty grunt. "Good."
"You have a foreign accent," Chris found himself saying abruptly, feeling a strange pull to the man sitting beside him on the bed.
"I have been most fortunate. I have spent most of my childhood and puberty traveling throughout Europe," Ezra replied, a sadness invading his eyes before it was quickly replaced by a carefully neutral expression.
"Why do you live with your uncle if you don't agree with him?"
"It's a long story, sir. One best left alone," Ezra replied grimly, making to rise.
Chris reached for him, his hand closing firmly but gently on his wrist. "Please?"
Ezra exhaled softly, sitting back on the bed. "This plantation belonged to my father originally. He and my mother were the product of an arranged marriage. I don't remember much of my younger years or my father, only his foul temper and the beatings should I happen to cross him. When I was six, mother and I escaped his tyranny and traveled to Europe."
"Why did you return?"
"Last year we got word my father had died in a riding accident. Mother decided we should return so I could claim the inheritance. But when we arrived, Uncle Rupert was here and had taken over. He threatened to kill us both if I didn't sign the plantation over to him." He sighed unhappily. "I did, obviously. He's a powerful man; there was nothing we could do. He did let us remain here, which answering your question, is the reason why I live with him. I have no money of my own, no place to leave to; I have to stay. Besides, should something befall Uncle Rupert, I will be the sole heir."
"And your mother?"
"She left a few months back, I assume to return to Europe; I haven't heard from her. I thought of joining her, but I was weary of her ways. She also doesn't have any money of her own, and her way of getting around that problem is to swindle innocent souls of their hard-earned valuables. That was how we survived the first time; I had no wish to do it anew. Now, you're still weak and in need of nourishment. I will see that some soup is brought up to you. In the meantime, rest."
Giving Chris a parting smile, Ezra left quietly, leaving the other man to wonder about his host and his predicament.
He had been living in Jamaica for two years with his wife Sarah, and son Adam, when Governor Rupert Standish had taken over. It hadn't taken Chris very long to realize the man was a corrupt politician with only his own best interests at heart.
Chris had begun a campaign against the man, speaking against him and his ways any chance he got, even gathering a few followers among the populace. Then one day, without so much as a warning, his home had been suspiciously burned to the ground, killing his wife and son.
In a fit of blind rage, Chris had gone to Port Royal to kill the man who he knew was responsible, but the governor was too heavily guarded. He had only managed to kill a few of his watchdogs before his friends had helped him escape to safety.
Turned outlaw, Chris had joined forces with his three friends, Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington and Josiah Sanchez, buying a magnificent ship, 'The Flying Horse', and recruiting a small, but fierce and loyal crew who fought the governor's troops. And the legend of 'The Phantom' had been born, thus known for his surprise attacks on any ship unfortunate enough to cross his path, most of its loot going to the poor or those who Governor Standish saw fit to persecute.
And so it was beyond ironic for him to be recovering from his injury in the house of his greatest enemy, especially without his nemesis' awareness of the fact.
Vin Tanner returned to the ship with a heavy heart.
"Well?" Buck asked grimly as soon as he jumped aboard.
"Nothing. I found the dinghy on the beach, but no sign of Chris. I went all the way to the main road and found traces of blood and footsteps matching the governor's troops' boots. Some tree branches in the area were broken, and I found a few bullets on the ground."
"Damnit! But he hasn't been caught yet," Buck said. "Governor Standish has been trying to capture us for months now. If he had Chris, he would've been shouting it out loud from the highest tower. Not to mention he would've been announcing the hanging by now."
"So where the hell is Chris?" Josiah whispered, exchanging worried glances with the other men.
The days flew by quickly and by the afternoon of the tenth day Chris found he was strong enough to at least get up from bed. He was tired of spending so much time lying down and locked up inside the same four walls. For someone used to the immensity of the ocean it was an unbearable feeling.
He donned the clothes left for him by Ezra and exited the room. He soon realized the rest of the house resembled his bedroom; wide, spacious, richly decorated with all sorts of fancy paintings and china, expensive furniture and golden touches everywhere. He went to the window that looked out onto the immense garden.
There, sitting in the shade of a palm tree, was Ezra. He was alone, deep in thought, a book resting on his knees. Chris remained there, motionless, eyes fixed on the younger man, holding his breath, as if afraid of bothering him.
He felt close to the other man, which was surprising considering the little time he had actually known Ezra. He had thought it to be gratitude at first; after all, Ezra had nursed him back to health, and had been spending nearly every waking hour by his side. Chris would be dead if not for him.
But deep down he knew it was not so. The more time they spent talking, getting to know each other, the closer he felt to the other man. Someone who hid a gentle heart behind a bland mask, who hid his true nature in order to survive a harsh world which was not his own. Sometimes he felt as if he had known Ezra all of his life instead of merely a week. He couldn't really count the first three days; he remembered only scant images, all of Ezra by his bedside, watching over him.
Finally coming out of his daze, he walked out of the front door, taking slow, careful steps until he was standing behind the other man.
As if realizing he was no longer alone, Ezra looked back, grinning when he saw him. "Well, seems you are feeling better, sir!" he exclaimed, rising from the ground.
"I needed to get some fresh air."
"I can understand that. Maybe a guided tour of the plantation would help?" Ezra suggested with a smile.
"Who's going to be the guide?" Chris asked with a grin.
Ezra chuckled. "Since we have no other guides available at the moment, I'm afraid you are stuck with me."
"In that case, let's go."
They took their time walking through the enormous plantation, going through the main house, gardens and finally the fields. They were watching the slaves work, when suddenly the sound of a whip hitting flesh and a small cry caught their attention.
"What the...?" Ezra growled, running towards the scene unfolding before them. On the ground was a small black child, curled up into a ball, while a huge white man whipped him fiercely. "Thompson! What the hell do you think you are doing?"
"He disobeyed my orders, Mr. Standish. I told him no water until lunch break."
"And for that you saw fit to whip him, Mr. Thompson? May I remind you, you are but the foreman here, not the master? You cannot make such decisions."
"The master's not here," Thompson drawled.
"But I am. Now, get back to work."
"Get. Back. To. Work," Ezra gritted out angrily. Once the man walked away, Ezra knelt beside the little slave. "What's your name, child?" he asked softly.
"Timothy, young Master," the child sniffed, uncurling slowly, his small face a mask of pain.
"Well, Timothy, let's take you to the healer," Ezra said gently, picking him up effortlessly.
"Healer?" Chris echoed, following Ezra to the slave quarters behind the main house.
"One of the other slaves, Nathan Jackson. My uncle bought him six months ago. He makes the most obnoxious concoctions you can imagine, but I trust him with my life. He knows more than any of those quacks calling themselves doctors these days."
"Don't get me wrong, but I'm surprised at your reaction to what happened. Most plantation owners don't care what happens to their slaves just as long as they keep working."
Ezra sighed sadly, looking from the child in his arms to Chris. "I wasn't always like this. I grew up believing slaves were nothing more than farm animals, with not a thought between them. And as advanced as Europe is, I saw nothing there to make me believe otherwise."
"But?" Chris prompted.
"But living here has been an eye opener. My uncle is a ruthless master. He mistreats the slaves, enjoys torturing them. He advocates regular beatings and administers most of them himself. When you see their suffering, their fight to survive..." They reached the slave quarters and walked inside. "Nathan, where are you?"
"In the back room," a voice replied, and the two men walked over to the back of the building.
They entered a small room and Chris watched Ezra sit the child on a small table. "Nathan, Timothy here needs your care."
"What happened?" Nathan asked, nodding to Chris as a way of greeting.
He was tall and strong, probably in his thirties and by the way he was examining the little slave, Chris realized he had a gentle manner and knew what he was doing.
"Thompson again. That man truly loves his profession."
"And you stopped him from whipping Timmy? I'm surprised he let you."
"Well, I'm sure he will complain to my uncle as soon as he returns from his business meetings in town. I'm sure I will be lectured again on the ways a master should handle his slaves."
"Just be careful, Ezra. Your uncle is a dangerous man, and he don't take kindly to being defied."
Ezra smiled. "I know. I will be careful, I promise. Take care of the little one for me?"
"I will. It's not too bad; a couple of deep lashes only. Could've been a lot worse. Now, you better go. It's not proper for the young master to be seen in the slaves' quarters."
Chris followed Ezra out of the building, the two men proceeding on their walk in comfortable silence. "You are an enigma, Ezra Standish," he finally stated.
The other man laughed. "I hope you mean that in a good way, sir."
"Oh, I do. I do," Chris whispered, feeling his heart swell as he watched the other man's beautiful smile.
His journey to dry land had certainly earned him more than just a bullet. Each passing day he felt more drawn to Ezra. The man was a mystery and Chris had never been able to resist mysteries. He was already dreading the day he would have to leave.
CHAPTER II -
"Mr. Thompson, what's the meaning of this?" Ezra snapped angrily.
"This slave nearly killed one of my men. He must be made an example, he must pay for what he did."
"And what did your man do to cause such a reaction? Well?" Ezra challenged when the foreman hesitated.
"He went to fetch Timothy back to work, he was needed in the kitchen."
Chris saw Ezra's eyes darken with rage. "I took Timothy to Nathan to be treated for the lashes *you* inflicted on him. He was not supposed to go to work again today."
"That still doesn't give the slave the right to turn on my man. He must be whipped. The punishment in these cases is fifty lashes."
"Very well," Ezra complied suddenly, much to Chris' surprise. "Chain him to the post."
They watched Thompson raise Nathan's arms over his head and lock the shackles in place around the healer's wrists. However, when the foreman reached for the whip, Ezra stopped him.
"That's enough. No one but the master can see to his punishment. Since my uncle is not here, it's my responsibility. For the next ten days this man will see no food and shall receive a cup of water only every twelve hours."
"What?" Thompson shouted. "That's not punishment! I will --"
"You will do nothing, Mr. Thompson. You work for my uncle, thus you work for me. Are we clear? You either obey me or you will be fired," he bluffed. "Now, get out of here."
Once Thompson was out of hearing range, Ezra looked down at Timothy. "Thank you for calling me, little one. I will need your help for the next few days. Can I count on you?"
"Yes, young Master."
He ruffled the child's hair. "Good boy. I want you to pay close attention to the foreman's whereabouts. Especially near meal times. Understand?" When the boy nodded, Ezra proceeded. "Good. Now, when you know for sure he is away, I want you to bring Nathan some food and water. But don't let anyone see you. If by any chance you get caught, I want you to shout out as loud as you can and I will come running. Deal?" he asked, holding out his hand for the child, who shook it with a grin.
"Deal, young Master. I'll make you proud, you'll see."
"I already am," Ezra whispered, watching the boy run back to the slave quarters. He turned his attention to the chained man. "Nathan."
"You should've let him whip me," Nathan told him softly, his head resting tiredly against the post.
"Fifty times? He would have killed you, Nathan."
"Why not just let him go?" Chris asked. "You are the master."
"I can't," Ezra replied sadly. "If Nathan's not punished, my uncle will kill him when he hears what happened. This way, he will be furious with me for being too lenient, but he will let it be." He patted the slave's back gently. "Courage, my friend. I will come to see you in a few hours. Come, sir, let us go back inside."
"That's the real reason why you don't leave, isn't it?" Chris asked as they made their way back to the house. "The slaves."
Ezra smiled dismally. "During the course of the last year I rediscovered my love for this land and its natives, yes. I'm the one thing standing between them and both Thompson and my uncle. If I left... I believe many of them would die. And I can't let that happen."
They sat back at the table, but their need for nourishment was gone. Chris suddenly found himself wishing he could stay, wishing he could somehow help the other man, make things better for him. He had no doubt Rupert Standish was going to be furious when he realized he'd had an uninvited guest and that his nephew had been challenging his foreman every step of the way.
"I know where Chris is!" Buck shouted, rushing into the Captain's cabin where the others were talking.
"Where?" Josiah asked, rising to his feet.
"I went into town to get supplies and stopped by the local tavern. There were two men there talking and I overheard everything."
"And?" Vin snarled.
"One of the men said he had just returned from Governor Standish's plantation and that while the governor was away his nephew had taken a guest in. He said no one knew who the guest was, but rumor had it he had been shot on the road to Port Royal. He also described the man as having blond hair, green eyes, and being tall and slim. It has *got* to be Chris."
"In Governor Standish's plantation?" Vin raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. "He's insane! If the governor returns suddenly, he'll get caught."
"The governor won't get a chance. We're going for Chris tonight," Josiah vowed. "We've been without our captain for much too long."
When in the middle of the night there was a knock on his door, Chris had yet to go to sleep. He jumped out of the chair in a flash and opened the door. Ezra appeared at the entrance to the room, two natives, both armed to the teeth, accompanying him.
"Ezra, what's wrong?" Chris asked, frowning at the armed men.
"We just got word about intruders on the plantation. You better come with me, we need all the help we can get. You two, go find Mr. Thompson. I want to know what we are dealing with."
"Yes, young Master."
After the two men left, Ezra turned to Chris. "Come with me. I want to unlock the slave quarters, I want them to be able to escape should something happen."
"Unlock?" Chris echoed as they rushed through the corridors.
"Thompson locks the doors to the slave quarters every night so they can't run away."
They had just reached the hall when the front door was suddenly kicked open. Chris grinned as he recognized the three men storming in.
"Took you long enough," he remarked sarcastically.
"Contrary to some people who have been doing nothing but vacationing on someone else's plantation, some of us had to work hard to find our lost lamb," Josiah replied with a smile.
"I take it you know these gentlemen?" Ezra asked him.
Chris chuckled. "Yeah, they're my friends."
"Chris, are you all right?" Buck asked.
"Chris?" Ezra echoed.
"I'm fine. And yes, Chris. Chris Larabee," he replied.
Ezra hissed. "Lord, my uncle will perish with rage when he hears about this." He glanced at the three intruders' miserly weapons. "Those are all the weapons you carry with you?"
"Yes," Vin replied with a frown. "Why?"
"Come with me."
When the others hesitated, Chris nodded. "We can trust him."
They left the hall and passed into the drawing room. Its walls were covered with a wide variety of modern weapons. Ezra rummaged inside one of the desk drawers, grabbing a set of keys.
"How did you arrive?" he asked.
"By horse. And before you ask, yes, we brought one extra for Chris," Buck replied with an amused smile.
"Good. Take any weapons you want. In case of an attack we have a guard prepared to go for help. There's a military garrison ten minutes away, they should be here soon." He moved closer to Chris. "Take Nathan with you?" he asked softly, handing him the keys to the shackles.
Chris reached for the keys, holding Ezra's hand captive and making no effort to release him. "Come with us. Your uncle will turn on you when he finds out what happened."
Ezra smiled sadly. "Perhaps. But I can handle him. You know why I can't leave. You have your weapons?" he asked the others.
"Yes," Josiah replied.
"Then you better leave. Come."
"Thank you," Vin told him softly as Ezra walked by him.
"For taking care of him."
Ezra smiled. "My pleasure."
They ran out of the house, Chris freeing Nathan while Buck went for the horses. The others mounted, Nathan behind Vin, while Chris spoke with Ezra one last time.
"You sure I can't change your mind? About coming with us?"
"I would love to. But I can't."
Chris nodded, then acting on impulse hugged the other man tightly to him. "You're one hell of an amazing man, Ezra Standish," he whispered.
"So are you, Captain Larabee," Ezra replied, his own arms going around the other man. "You better go." The sound of horses approaching pulled them apart. "The soldiers from the garrison!" Ezra breathed. "Go! Get out of here, Chris!"
Without another word Chris jumped on his horse and together with the others disappeared at a gallop behind a cloud of dust. Ezra stayed frozen for a long moment, watching the cloud diminish until it vanished completely.
"Farewell, Chris Larabee," he whispered softly. "I hope our paths will cross again."
It was nearly dawn when Ezra retired to his bedroom. Instead of lying down he began to pace around the room in a state of agitation.
It had been easy to convince Thompson and the soldiers from the garrison that he had been overpowered and forced to surrender the weapons to the intruders. They might be good at carrying out orders, but thinking was definitely a thing both the foreman and the military lacked. Making his uncle believe the lie, however, was another thing altogether.
That would be the worse part. Thompson had told him he had ordered a guard to go fetch his uncle in town; he should return sometime in the afternoon. And Ezra would have to play the part of his life or face the consequences.
He shook his head ruefully. Insane, he had to be insane. He had harbored a known pirate, worse, the one his uncle hated with a passion that bordered on madness. Then to make things worse, he had given him and his comrades weapons and had even helped them escape. Insanity indeed.
So why had he done it? His heart knew the answer. He had felt drawn to the man from the moment he had laid eyes on him. Maybe it had been Larabee's vulnerability that had gotten under his skin, the way he had trusted Ezra to take care of him. No one had ever needed him that way before; it had been a heady feeling. Whatever the cause, he had been lost when he had found those dark green eyes open and staring curiously at him.
And as the days flew by, he'd kept feeling closer to the other man, letting his guard down for the first time in years, allowing a perfect stranger to see the real 'Ezra', to see the man inside. He sighed sadly, wondering if Larabee had felt that same inexplicable connection between them.
He shook himself out of his reverie. It didn't matter now; it was too late to have such foolish thoughts. Had she been there, his mother would have berated him incessantly for allowing someone to break through the mask he wore. It was a dangerous thing to do; it gave power to the other person, power over him, over his emotions. He would have to remember that if he ever saw Chris Larabee again.
He threw himself on the bed fully clothed, convinced he would never be able to rest, but exhaustion took over and soon he drifted off to sleep. He awoke a little after noon, as the sun was streaming in through the windows that had remained open. He summoned a servant and asked after the governor's whereabouts, but was told that he had yet to arrive.
He washed and dressed for the new day, deciding to go down for something to eat. At the very moment he had finished his meal, his uncle entered the living room. He was frowning, his cold, brown eyes gleaming dangerously.
"Ezra," he drawled. "Thompson told me what occurred tonight. What is this about a guest?"
"Uncle. I found the gentleman unconscious over a week ago and brought him to the plantation."
"Very charitable, nephew. And who was he?"
Something in his uncle's voice made Ezra swallow hard. "I didn't want to be too intrusive. I know he was a traveler, injured by bandits on the road to Port Royal. He was a salesman."
"Really? That's interesting. You see, the soldiers managed to get very close before they let those men escape. And Sergeant Hutchison swears the blond man leading the others was Chris Larabee. And by Thompson's description, he was your poor, wounded guest."
Ezra gasped. "Oh, Lord! Uncle, I didn't know. You had mentioned that miscreant's name before, but I have never seen his face. I had no way of knowing who he was."
"True, true. And Nathan? Why didn't you punish him?"
"I believed the slave's actions were Mr. Thompson's fault, not his own. There was no call for the fifty lashes."
His uncle shook his head sadly. "I wish I could believe you, Ezra. I really do. Thompson!" he called.
"Governor?" Thompson walked in almost immediately, and Ezra knew he had been standing just outside.
"Take my nephew to the post. I will give him the fifty lashes he wouldn't allow you to give the slave."
"Uncle, no!" Ezra pleaded brokenly.
"I'm sorry, Ezra, but it's time you learned your lesson. I will not be disobeyed or defied. This was the last time. Take him!"
Ezra fought against Thompson's hold, but the other man was bigger and stronger and it was useless. He was chained to the post, his shirt torn from his back. As the leather bit cruelly into his flesh, he closed his eyes, biting his lip to stop from crying out. He allowed his mind to wander, thinking back to the beautiful green eyes of the pirate he had lost his heart to. And while pain invaded his whole being, a sense of relief filled his heart; the other man was far away and safe from his uncle's clutches. And that was worth all the suffering in the world.
CHAPTER III - A Day At The
Three months later
The five men sat inconspicuously at a table by the back of the tavern, watching the comings and goings of the other customers, and sipping leisurely from their ales.
"Think Jasper will come?" Buck asked Chris.
"He's the one who sent word out he wanted to see us. It's in his own interest," Chris replied.
"Wonder what that old bastard wants with us?" Vin muttered.
"Whatever it is, I'll listen. His information about the whereabouts of British cruisers and the business deals done by the governor has been extremely useful. Thanks to him, we have taken a great chunk of the governor's intended fortune and given it back to who it really belonged. I wouldn't trust him with my life, but his word is good," Chris said.
"Here he comes," Josiah warned.
Jasper O'Neill was a man in his late fifties, wrinkled by a hard life at sea. His frail build belied a fierce temperament, one that had allowed him to survive more than one dire situation. The five men watched him sit at their table, waiting until he had his own ale before getting down to the reason of their meeting.
"Well? Why did you send for us?" Chris asked impatiently.
Jasper smiled, the effect being somewhat ruined by his lack of teeth. "I have in my possession something that you might want to have, gentlemen."
"Really?" Buck retorted. "And what is that 'something'?"
"A map," Jasper replied, looking very smug.
"A map?" Nathan repeated with a frown.
"Treasure map. Belonged to Cap'ain Mckenzie."
"We heard he died last week," Vin remarked.
"And he left you the map out of the kindness of his own heart?" Chris quipped sarcastically.
Jasper chuckled. "Not the kindness of his own heart, no. Mine. See, after he made his fortune, he was forced to hide the loot because the British troops were hunting him down somet'ing fierce. He drew the map and hid it, but before he could disappear he was caught and sent to the galleys for life."
"So, how did you come by his map?" Buck challenged.
"He managed to escape two years ago, but by then he was too old to go back for his treasure. I happened to find him wandering through the island and took him in. The day he died he told me where to find the map. A reward for having taken such good care of him."
"So, why not keep it for yourself?" Vin asked curiously.
Jasper shook his head sadly. "I'm too old meself, lad. But... there's nothing to say I can't sell the map and make a few coins to save for my old, old years," he added with a chuckle.
"Why us?" Josiah asked, staring at the man through narrowed eyes.
"I like you. You're good men and you fight the good fight. Governor Standish is the devil hisself, he is."
"So..." Chris drawled. "You told only us about the map?"
Jasper chortled, obviously understanding what Chris was getting at. "Now, I never said that, Cap'ain Larabee. A man must make plans should one of his buyers not meet his demands."
"I see. And who else did you tell?" Chris asked with a glare that had Jasper squirming in his seat.
"Just Cap'ain Death," he replied.
Chris hissed angrily. Captain Death was the worse scourge in the Caribbean Sea. While Chris and his men attacked only British ships, especially if under Rupert Standish's orders and always let the prisoners go, Death attacked any ship, no matter the nation, and left no survivors to tell the tale. The man was ruthless and with a thirst for blood like Chris had never seen before.
"I suppose you're going to say you also like him and that he fights the good fight?" Vin scowled.
"No. Like most people, I have never even seen the man, and honestly, I hope it stays that way. Speaking with his second in command was bad enough. The things you hear about them..." Jasper shuddered. "But he's the only one besides yourselves who can pay what I ask."
"Which is?" Buck prompted.
"Ten gold coins."
Nathan whistled. "You're asking a lot."
"Bah! That's nothing, laddie! Mckenzie sunk hundreds of ships in his golden years, most of them full to the brim with goods. The worth of his treasure is..." He shrugged helplessly. "I can't even imagine it meself. The map isself is worth much more than the ten coins. It's a bargain. Take it or leave it."
"We'll take it," Chris decided.
Jasper nodded. "Good. I'm happy it goes to you and not Death."
"But you'd still have sold it to him," Josiah scolded.
"Business is business, Sanchez. Now, obviously I don't have the map with me, I have no death wish. Meet me here in a week, same time. Bring the coins, I'll bring the map." He shook Chris' hand. "I'll take my leave now. May the good winds carry your sails, Cap'ain Larabee."
"Jasper?" Chris called out.
The man interrupted his slow march to the exit and turned. "Yes, Cap'ain?"
"It might be a good idea for you to disappear after our... deal is done. I can only assume the other 'buyer' won't be too happy to have lost the map."
Jasper nodded. "I thought so as well. Do not worry, good Cap'ain. I have the perfect hideout waiting for me once this is over. Goodbye, gentlemen."
"Think he'll keep his word?" Vin asked once Jasper had left the tavern.
"Yes. He's never let us down before. I just hope his hideout is secret enough. Death will be looking for him once he knows we have the map. If he finds Jasper, he'll never get a chance to enjoy the coins or his 'old, old years'," Chris replied.
"Oh, my Lord!" Nathan whispered suddenly.
"What?" Chris asked, frowning at him.
"That man who just walked in, he's one of the slaves from the governor's plantation," Nathan replied, rising from his seat. "I'll be right back. I want to know what he's doing here."
The others watched him approach the slave, a black man that resembled Josiah in both size and weight, and whose garments were close to rags. Nathan guided him to their table, and asked for an ale. Once his friend had the drink securely in his hands, he sat down.
"Joseph, what the hell are you doing here?"
"I's a runaway slave now," the other replied sadly.
"And you're here in plain sight?" Nathan hissed. "Tortuga may still be out of the governor's control, but there are spies everywhere. You have any idea what they'll do to you if they catch you?"
"I wouldn't talk, you's also a runaway and you's here," the other remarked sullenly.
"Yes, but I'm not alone. If someone recognizes me, my friends can help me escape. And my clothes don't draw attention to myself. Now, what are you doing here?"
"I didn't have a choice. I been lookin' for ya," the slave answered softly.
"Why?" Chris asked, a feeling of dread washing over him.
"I need your help. The plantation is gone."
"What do you mean, the plantation is gone?" Buck started.
"Burned to the ground," Joseph told them with a shake of his head. "Never thought I'd see the day, Nathan. It was... hell right here on Earth. Everythin' burned; the fields, the Master's house, the slave quarters... There ain't nothin' left standing."
"What happened?" Josiah asked soothingly.
"The night ya escaped," Joseph began to Nathan. "Young Master Ezra talked foreman Thompson and the soldiers into believin' your friends had overpowered him and forced him to give 'em arms. But the next day..." He exhaled slowly, the sorrow clear in his eyes.
"What happened?" Chris whispered, echoing Josiah's earlier question, his heart lurching painfully in his chest as he remembered his green-eyed savior.
"Thompson sent for the guv'nor that night. He arrived in the afternoon. He didn't believe the young Master, ordered Thompson to inflict him with the fifty lashes he had refused to give ya."
"Lord," Nathan whispered brokenly, covering his face with his hands.
"Thompson didn't get very far, though."
"What do you mean?" Vin asked.
"When the slaves saw what was goin' on, they rebelled. We turned on the guards, forced the guv'nor to free the young Master. He always been good to us; he didn't deserve such treatment. But then one of the slaves set the fields on fire."
"And?" Buck prompted.
"When he saw all of us, the guv'nor let the young Master go. But the soldiers in the garrison must've seen the fire and soon we could hear 'em comin'. The young Master told us to run, go get away. He then struck his uncle in the face and ran away in the other direction, so we could escape. He saved us, Nathan," Joseph told them softly. "The soldiers killed some o' us, but we's natives, we knows the land. Most made it into the jungle and are safe. The British can't stand the marshes or the jungle heat and don't chase us there."
Chris swallowed hard. "Did... did Ezra die?" he whispered, looking down at the tablecloth. He didn't want to see the answer shining from the other man's eyes.
Joseph sighed. "No. But I ain't sure he's much better off."
Chris looked up sharply. "Why?"
"Thompson caught him while we was escaping. He was taken to Port Royal and imprisoned."
"Imprisoned?" Vin echoed. "What for?"
"Treason. You's enemies of the Kingdom and he helped ya and harbored one of you. His trial was last month."
"He was convicted?" Josiah guessed sadly.
Joseph nodded. "To ten years in the galleys."
Chris moaned. The whole situation was his fault. He should have made Ezra come with them, even dragging him by force if he had kept refusing. The only thing the other man had done was be kind to a stranger, to him, and he was now paying the price for his goodness. Very few people lived a year in the galleys, let alone ten years.
"You said you needed our help?" Buck remembered.
"Yes. I been tryin' to find ya for months."
"After what happened we decided to set sail for a while. We got back two weeks ago and have been staying close to Tortuga. Jamaica is just too dangerous for us at the moment," Vin explained. "What kind of help do you need?"
"The ship the young Master was taken to is a patrol cruiser. It will stay in the Caribbean Sea, lookin' out for pirates in these waters and the islands. It shouldn't take ya long to find it; it's the 'Courage', under Captain Perry's command. Ya have to rescue him, ya have to!" Joseph pleaded desperately.
"Chris?" Nathan asked, although he already knew the answer.
Chris nodded, his green eyes breathing fire. "Josiah, Nathan, go find Jasper. Tell him I'll give him twenty gold coins if he keeps the map until we return. Vin, Buck, we need supplies."
"On our way," Vin replied, following the other three out of the tavern.
Chris focused his attention on the slave. "You have done well, Joseph. We will get him back, rest assured. You better get away from here now, go join your friends in the jungle where you'll be safe."
"I will. And thank you, Captain Larabee. The rumors is right; ya are a good man. May the Lord bless ya."
Finally left alone, Chris closed his eyes tiredly. Life certainly had a funny way of sneaking up on a person when least expected. Ezra had saved his life three months earlier, now it would be his turn. He just hoped his ship was strong enough to face up to the British cruiser.
CHAPTER IV - Gains And
Ezra followed the second in command from the galleys to the upper deck, wondering why the Captain would want to have a word with him. He had done nothing to justify any punishment; in fact, his month aboard the 'Courage' had been surprisingly better than he had anticipated. He had a few more scars on his back, but other than that...
The second in command knocked on the captain's door. After hearing the shouted 'Enter', he moved aside to let Ezra enter, then closed the door silently, leaving him alone with Captain Perry.
"Captain?" he left the question unvoiced.
Captain Perry smiled up at him from his desk. "Sit down, Mr. Standish."
He obeyed, remaining silent as he waited to hear why he had been summoned. It was the second time he stood face to face with the commander of the ship, the first being during his arrival. Perry was an old man, probably in his late sixties, tall and slim, with snow-white hair, and warm brown eyes.
"You must be wondering why I sent for you."
"I'm an old man, Mr. Standish. I should have retired from this game a long time ago. But the sea..." He took a deep breath, then smiled gently. "The sea is my mistress. I find I cannot leave her alone. I'm also old enough to allow myself some extravagances. As you may know, Mr. Chamberlain, my cabin boy, died when we were attacked last week by that Spaniard ship. Well, I'm in need of a new cabin boy and I decided it will be you."
Ezra cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Please don't get me wrong, Captain, but besides being too old for a cabin boy, I am a prisoner. You could come to serious problems over this. I wouldn't put it past my uncle to have you court-martialed."
The captain chuckled. "I am aware of the fact Mr. Standish. Going back to your first point, and although I understand it's a somewhat demeaning title, you wouldn't have much to do. I simply need someone to help me in and out of these wretched uniforms and who won't mind spending some time listening to an old man reminisce about the good old days. I'm sure that's a major improvement from your current position in this ship. As for your uncle, I know perfectly well who he is. I also know what you, Mr. Standish, have done to get you here."
"Don't tell me you concur with my association with pirates!" Ezra smiled, relaxing under the other man's easy-going manner.
Captain Perry grinned. "From what I've heard, Larabee is much more than a common pirate. Plus, I don't agree with the way your uncle runs Jamaica. I already made it known to England, and so have others. We have been waiting for news from the Queen herself. One should not use one's position for personal gain, which is exactly what your uncle is doing. From now on you will be my cabin boy and will remain so until we conclude our journey. I highly doubt someone will tell him, and even if it happens, there's little he can do to me. So, what say you?"
"When you put it that way... Yes!" Ezra replied with a grin, still unable to account for his good luck.
"Good. Come with me, I'll show you to your cabin. You can change into the proper attire there."
The captain took him to his new quarters and showed him where everything was to be found. Soon he was freshly bathed and dressed, feeling the sea breeze caress his body for the first time in a month. He strolled quietly through the main deck, nodding to the seamen. He couldn't help but grin as he saw a young man by the bow, scanning the horizon with a thoroughly enthralled expression on his face.
"First time?" Ezra asked as he joined him.
The young man reddened slightly, but grinned back. "Easy to tell, uh? Yeah. We've been out here for a month and still..." He took a deep breath. "It's beautiful. I'll never get over it, how big and beautiful and cruel it is." He held his hand out to Ezra. "JD Dunne, the cook's helper."
"Ezra Standish, former galley prisoner, now cabin boy," Ezra replied, shaking the offered hand with a smile.
JD nodded. "We've all heard about you. I'm glad the captain saw fit to set you free, you didn't belong in the galleys." He seemed to hesitate, then, "Did you really meet 'The Phantom', Captain Larabee?"
"What is he like?" JD asked eagerly.
Ezra remained silent for a moment, remembering the wonderful days spent by the other man's side. "Larger than life," he finally whispered, sadness tingeing his voice.
"You miss him, uh?"
He started at the young man's insight, but JD shrugged. "I could tell by the way you spoke. I wish I could've met him," he told Ezra sullenly. "I joined this crew so I could be a sailor, have an exciting adventure on the vast ocean. Instead I spend most of the time locked below, scrubbing pots."
His forlorn expression made Ezra chuckle. "Don't be so hasty, Mr. Dunne. I have always heard that good things come to those who wait. Your time will come, you will see."
JD grinned. "Hope so. I have to go back; the cook's probably threatening to skin me alive by now. See ya around, Ez!"
"Goodbye, Mr. Dunne."
He stayed leaning on the rail for the longest time, watching the sun reflected on the ocean like a mirror and wondering about his life. Would he ever see Chris Larabee again? Did he want to? And where was the other man at that moment? Was he safe? Was he even alive?
He closed his eyes, allowing the soft breeze to brush over him with a lover's touch, then sighed gently. Time to go about his duties. Anything to keep his mind busy and away from impossible dreams.
Ezra sat up suddenly, peering into the darkness, trying to place the sound that had awoken him. He lay still, looking up at the starred sky, but the beach was quiet except for the sentries patrolling the shoreline.
He had finished his second week as a cabin boy when suspicious smoke had been seen coming from one of the smaller islands spreading throughout the Caribbean Sea. The captain had ordered a small group to go ashore and investigate, but they had yet to find anything.
Desperate to feel solid ground beneath his feet at least for a few hours, he had asked the captain if he could spend the night on the island. His request had been granted and JD had joined him at the last minute. The cook would remain on the ship, but the group going to the island would need someone to provide them with meals.
He looked at the sleeping men gathered around the dying fire, and realized JD was nowhere to be found. He pushed off his blankets, knowing something was wrong. He pulled on his boots, then climbed to his knees and very slowly made his way to the tropical forest surrounding the beach.
Wishing for a torch, but knowing it would be unwise to advertise his position to possible miscreants, he squinted at the soft ground, spotting the footsteps easily. He looked up in the direction of the prints and saw a flash of movement in the darkness. Drawing his gun, he stepped toward the woods. The last vestiges of sleep left him as he moved silently forward, his heart speeding at the thought of the danger lurking before him.
He heard what sounded like a whisper off to his right, a man's voice. A second voice and a muffled cry; he was getting closer. He kept moving, faster now, certain that JD was in some kind of trouble. The voices were coming clearer now.
"You really are somethin', boy," one of the men said roughly. "Tender meat, that's what you are."
"Yeah. Going to show us a good time, ain't ya?" the second voice chuckled. "Bet you're a little virgin, ain't ya, boy?"
"Oh, Lord," Ezra whispered, shuddering violently as he realized what the men had in mind for his young friend.
He rushed in the direction the voices were coming from and suddenly he could see the frail light coming from a lantern. The scene that greeted him made his blood turn cold. JD was kneeling in the middle of a clearing, gagged and blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back. One of the men had him securely by the hair, yanking his head back in what could only be an extremely painful position.
He didn't recognize either man; they were probably pirates or bandits, and unquestionably the ones responsible for the smoke the sentry had seen that afternoon from the ship.
He moved forward carefully, not wanting to make a sound until he was standing close enough to act. When he reached the edge of the clearing, he aimed his pistol at the two men. "Let him go. Now!" he ordered, relieved when his voice didn't betray his uneasiness.
One of the men grinned. "Well, well, well, looky here! Another sailor boy to join the party. And nice looking too! We made it big, Jack!"
"Yeah," the other man nodded. "You better drop that gun, lad, or my friend standing behind you will be forced to hurt you... before time, that is."
Ezra narrowed his eyes, feeling the hairs at the back of his neck stand up. Could the man be telling the truth? Could there be a third man behind him? It would have been easy to miss him in the darkness, but it could also be a bluff from the two men to try and overtake him.
Before he could make a move, a hand hit him on the shoulder forcing him to stumble forward, the pistol dropping from his hand and disappearing somewhere in the bushes. He was turned around, a fist catching him hard in the stomach, and he fell to his knees gasping for breath.
Filled with a sudden rage, he growled angrily, throwing a punch at the man towering over him, grinning madly when he felt his knuckles connect with the other man's groin. The man howled in pain, falling to the ground and curling up into a ball as he whimpered pitifully.
Ezra rose to his feet, but failed to see one of the other men approaching. Another fist struck him on the chest driving him back against a tree trunk, a second punch slamming hard against his face. He hit his head on the tree, his vision blurring as he felt blood trickle into his mouth from a split lip.
"What the hell is going on here?" a new voice boomed and everyone froze.
Ezra blinked at the sudden light of the lanterns and looked up to find two sentries from the camp and three of the seamen standing in front of them. Spotting his pistol in the extra clarity, he reached for it and aimed at the three men, one of which was still moaning on the ground.
"These... 'gentlemen' were trying to kidnap our Mr. Dunne, probably to try and extract information about our small party," he lied smoothly. He knew how embarrassed JD would be if the others knew the truth. He was certain the miscreants wouldn't dare contradict him. "I stumbled into the attempt and was doing a dreadful job at rescue," he added with a rueful grin.
"What do we do with them?" one of the seamen asked.
"Take them back to camp, chain them up. Question them to see if there are any more of their friends around. If yes, search for them. If not, take them to the captain in the morning. He will decide what to do with them," Ezra suggested firmly. "I will see to Mr. Dunne," he said, already pulling the gag from the young man's mouth and getting rid of the blindfold.
He might have been the cabin boy, but none of the others thought twice about questioning his judgment. The three men were taken to camp immediately, leaving the two friends alone in the woods.
He cut the ties binding JD's wrists, watching him closely to gauge how he was fairing. JD coughed violently, staggering to his feet with some difficulty.
Ezra put a gentle hand on his shoulder to steady him. "How are you doing?" he asked softly.
JD coughed some more, then rasped out, "You arrived just in time, Ezra. Thank you."
Hearing the quiver in his voice and feeling the trembling in the young man's frame, Ezra guided him slowly back to the beach. Instead of taking him to camp, he led his friend to a small stream they had discovered upon arriving.
They knelt by the water's edge and Ezra used the gag to tenderly clean JD's face. Once the dirt had been washed away, it became clear the young man had put up quite a fight; he had a black eye, a bruised cheek, a few scrapes and cuts, and a split lip to match his own.
"My, aren't we the pair," he quipped, knowing his torso would also be badly bruised. He was relieved when JD gave him a weak, but genuine smile. "You will be fine, my friend."
Gently, he wrapped his arms around JD, and the other man leaned forward, resting his head on his shoulder. He felt JD snuggle up against him, his whole body beginning to shake as realization of what might have happened hit.
Ezra embraced him tightly, crooning softly as the young man wept and trembled silently in his arms. "Shhh. That's it, let it out. Let it all out, JD. Everything is fine now."
"I just... I wanted... to go for a walk," JD whispered brokenly against his chest, hiccups rocking his frame.
"It's over, JD," Ezra promised, rubbing his back gently. "They won't hurt you again, they will never hurt anyone again. I will see to it tomorrow. You will be all right."
They remained by the stream for most of the night, JD eventually drifting off into a restless sleep. As he watched his friend fighting the demons in his dreams, Ezra hoped that night's events had not deprived the world of JD's most precious possession -- his innocence.
Ezra woke up to the feeling of being watched. He opened his eyes to find himself under the warm hazel gaze of his young friend. Somehow during the night they had stretched out on the sand, still in each other's arms. He was lying on his back with JD's head resting comfortably on his chest.
"Feel better?" he asked gently, making no attempt to move.
"Yes. Thank you, Ez. For saving me and... and for last night."
Ezra smiled. "You are most welcome, Mr. Dunne. Now, what do you say we go back to camp? The others must be worried."
The young man nodded and they rose from their makeshift bed. He had begun to walk back to the other side of the beach, when JD's voice stopped him.
He turned to face the other man. "Yes, Mr. Dunne?"
JD stepped close and pulled Ezra into a brief but hard hug. "Thank you," he whispered into Ezra's ear, then ran off to camp, leaving Ezra far behind.
Ezra found himself chuckling at his friend's antics. JD was going to be fine, they both were. Now it was time to join his crewmembers and see to his captain; leave day was over.
CHAPTER V - The
Everything was ready for the upcoming battle. The cannons and the firelocks were loaded with the greatest of care. Large quantities of cannonballs were piled onto the deck; rifles, axes and cutlasses were laid out and the grappling hooks were placed on the bulwarks, ready to be hurled at the enemy vessel.
All preparations complete, they began scanning the sea for yet another day, some from the ratlines, some from the bulwarks, all anxious to spot the 'Courage'. It seemed that Chris' anxiety and restlessness had spread throughout the ship.
He walked nervously from bow to stern, continually scanning the vast stretch of water, gripping the golden hilt of his sword tightly, ignoring his friends' amused glances. They had been searching for the 'Courage' for two weeks and had yet to sight the British cruiser.
He couldn't stop thinking about Ezra; how the younger man would be faring after a month and a half at the galleys. He wanted to storm the seas, board the 'Courage' and rescue the other man, but until they actually saw the cruiser there was nothing he could do. And helplessness was not a feeling he was accustomed with.
Then suddenly, a few minutes after midday, a voice shouted from atop the mainmast.
"Ship to leeward!"
Chris stopped pacing, a maddening grin lighting up his face. "Battle stations!" he commanded, watching all the seamen that had been hanging from the mast take cover and go to their assigned stations. "Buck," he shouted, turning to the man stationed on the mainmast. "What do you see?"
"A sail, Captain," Buck replied from above.
"Is it our target?"
"It's the sail of a cruiser, but I can't see the name yet. We need to get closer," Buck told him.
"Damn... Where the hell is that ship?" he muttered with a frown. "Very well. Vin, move us closer. Even if it's not the 'Courage', we can always use the practice."
"Aye, aye, Captain," Vin replied with a grin.
Half an hour passed, during which their ship gained five knots on their prey, then Buck's voice was heard once more, the excitement clear in his tone. "Captain, it's the 'Courage'!" he shouted. "They have seen us and are trying to get away."
"Ah, finally!" Chris leered. "Vin, give them chase, don't let them escape."
"Consider it done, Captain," Vin assured, capable hands steering the helm.
Another forty-five minutes and they were close enough to see the frenzy on the enemy vessel's decks. They were obviously preparing for battle as well, each sailor going about their posts.
Chris narrowed his eyes, then looked down at his faithful crew. "Men, remember! Aim high, I don't want the galleys to be destroyed by a loose cannonball. And no more bloodshed than necessary, take as many prisoners as possible. Now... Attack!"
A wild cry arose from the crew of the pirate ship at the shouted command. Nathan and Josiah rushed to the cannons on the bow, while the others aimed their rifles and armed their carbines.
Suddenly a shot rang out from the cruiser, and a small caliber cannonball whistled through their ship's sails. Chris glared at the British vessel. "Well, well, well, the mouse wants to play... Josiah, show them how it's done."
Josiah bent over his cannon and fired. The effect was immediate; the cruiser's mainmast, split at its base, oscillated violently back and forth then crashed down onto the deck, dragging down sails and rigging. They watched as men ran chaotically along the bulwarks of the vessel, trying to escape the wreckage.
"Good shot, my friend," Chris praised. "Let's teach these sailorboys how to fight!"
They resumed their attack, showering the cruiser with cannonballs, destroying its foremast, smashing its bulwarks and frame. Deadly projectiles sliced through its rigging, killing a few of the sailors that were desperately trying to defend the ship with nothing but their rifles.
They continued to advance until they were side by side with the cruiser, flanking it on the left side. They hurled the grappling hooks at the enemy vessel, bonding the two ships together with an iron grip.
"Attack!" Chris shouted again, following his friends as they sprung on board the 'Courage', guns held high and aimed at the many seamen still trying to resist.
Ten or twelve pirates, who had been hanging from the riggings like monkeys, jumped over the bulwarks and landed on deck, surrounding the remaining crew of the cruiser.
"Surrender!" Chris shouted at the few rebellious fighters.
The men that were still brawling with the pirates, faced with the prospect of fending off a second attack, threw down their arms.
"Who's the captain?" Chris asked.
"I am," replied a voice from his right, and Chris watched as a man in his sixties, standing tall and proud approached him, sword laid down in both his hands. He handed it over to Chris. "The 'Courage' is yours, sir."
"Thank you, Captain, but there's only one thing I need from you."
"Yes, and did you really have to cause such massive destruction to get it?" a new voice asked, and the men turned to see Ezra walking up to them, a slight smile grazing his lips. "Captain Larabee," he greeted, bowing slightly.
To Chris' surprise, the captain of the British cruiser chuckled softly. "My good man, had you told me who you were and what you came for, we could have saved all this melodrama. I'm perfectly content to release my cabin boy to you."
"Cabin boy?" Nathan echoed, blinking in surprise.
"Long story," Ezra replied. "Suffice to say, Captain Perry decided I didn't belong in the galleys."
"What now?" Perry asked. "The 'Courage' is obviously beyond salvation."
"Well, uh, we could take you and your men back to Jamaica, drop you off close to Port Royal. It's the least I could do," Chris offered, looking slightly shamefaced.
Perry chuckled again. "Don't look so forlorn, Captain. As one of the Queen's men I am under sworn duty to fight all piracy. Even knowing who you were and what you wanted, battle was inevitable. However, I do accept your kind offer." He turned to his second in command. "Mr. Gallagher, see to it that all the prisoners in the galleys are released and taken to Captain Larabee's vessel. The rest of you, follow the captain's men back to his ship."
Half an hour later, having abandoned the now dismasted and battered cruiser, they sailed back to Jamaica. The seamen and former prisoners from the galleys were being moved to the lower deck, while a cabin was provided for Captain Perry for the remainder of the journey.
Ezra smiled at the five men standing in front of him. "So we meet again," he drawled softly.
"So it seems. I'm Josiah Sanchez, by the way. Last time we were in too much of a hurry for formal presentations. This is Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington."
"Nice to meet you, gentlemen. Nathan, how are you?" Ezra asked, turning his attention to the healer.
"Fine, thanks to you. We heard what happened on the plantation," Nathan told him, grimly.
The green eyes darkened with rage. "Yes. Well, maybe one day someone will take over and rebuild it," Ezra replied, taking a deep breath, then looking around.
"Looking for someone?" Vin asked.
"Yes. One of the men... Ah! Mr. Dunne!" he called, and a young man rushed to join him.
"Ezra! Are you all right? I lost sight of you during the shooting!"
"I'm fine, Mr. Dunne. And yourself?"
The young man grinned. "I'm fine, Ez."
"Good. Gentlemen, this is young JD Dunne," Ezra introduced. "Would it be possible for him to join us?" he asked, turning to Chris.
Chris grinned. "He seems a little young, Ezra. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Ezra assured him.
"In that case, welcome aboard, JD," Chris said, shaking the young man's hand.
Ezra grinned. "Mr. Dunne, your exciting adventure on the vast ocean is about to begin. The gentleman you just shook hands with is none other than Captain Larabee himself."
JD gasped, blinking rapidly, his mouth opening and closing without a word being said. He took a step back, two steps, a third, proceeding to trip over a large coil of rope, tumbling over it and falling to the floor. The others chuckled at his antics, then taking pity of the sullen young man, Buck helped him up.
"Come on, lad, let me show you around the ship. The Captain needs to have a quiet word with Ezra."
The men walked away, leaving Chris and Ezra alone, standing face to face on the bridge. After an awkward moment in which they simply regarded each other silently, Chris finally took the lead.
"Did I do that?" he asked, touching Ezra's bruised cheek and split lip gently.
"You?" Ezra frowned in confusion.
"The attack," Chris said as a way of explanation.
"Ah. No, I was not harmed during the attack. Mr. Dunne and I had an... unwelcome encounter with some miscreants last night while ashore on a small island. They managed to do some damage before they were caught."
"What happened to them?" Chris growled angrily.
"They were taken to the 'Courage' this morning before we set sail. Unfortunately, they were close to the mast when you first fired. They met their demise at your hands, Captain Larabee."
Chris grinned wolfishly. "Good." He cleared his throat hesitantly. "When you asked if JD could join us... Does that you mean you're staying?"
"If that is your wish," Ezra replied enigmatically.
"I want you to stay by my side, yes. But what do you want, Ezra?"
Ezra looked into the stormy green eyes he had thought of so often during the last months and smiled. "I want to stay as well."
Chris smiled back. "I'm glad. Come, I'll take you to your quarters. I have asked Josiah to prepare the cabin next to mine. He should also have supplied some clothes. There's not much choice, I'm afraid, but I'm sure he'll find something that fits."
Ezra nodded. "That will be fine, thank you."
Chris showed him to his cabin, a surprisingly large room on the stern of the ship. Most of the back wall was surrounded by windows, presenting him with a marvelous view of the calm sea. There was a large bed, a square table with a couple of chairs, a bookshelf and a huge chest for his garments.
"As you can see, there are some clothes on the bed. We should reach Jamaica by tomorrow night, we can get you something then," Chris told him. "I'll leave you to change. Join me on the bridge when you're done."
"I will," Ezra promised, shedding his shirt and trembling slightly as he felt the other man's hungry gaze traveling over his body.
Chris practically rushed out of the cabin, closing the door on temptation. The circumstances conspiring to bring him and Ezra together had been queer to say the least, without having to add his confused emotions to the mixture. It was best to let the sleeping demons lie.
The next night, as promised, Chris allowed Captain Perry and his crew to go free. They disembarked on the beach close to Port Royal, under the darkness provided by a moonless sky. It took several trips to take every man ashore, Captain Perry being the last one to set foot on solid ground.
"Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure," Perry told Chris and Ezra, who had accompanied him to the island. "It's a shame we had to meet under such terrible conditions, but I look forward to our next meeting. And Mr. Standish, remember; your uncle won't be able to stay on his self-appointed throne for much longer. One day you and your friends will be able to claim your right to freedom and avenge the injustices that have fallen upon you."
Ezra shook the man's hand. "I shall look forward to that day, Captain. And to seeing you again. Please take care; my uncle will be furious when he finds out I escaped and have joined his greatest enemy."
Perry chuckled. "In that case, I'll take great pleasure in telling him myself. It will be a memory to treasure once I retire. Well, time to go, we have a lot of ground to cover. Gentlemen, farewell."
The two men watched him venture into the night, guiding his men towards civilization. "He's a remarkable man," Ezra whispered. "I owe him so very much, I don't know if I will ever be able to repay him."
"If you owe him, then so do I. If he ever needs help in any way, he will have me and my men to stand by his side," Chris vowed. "Come, we better head back before a patrol finds us."
Ezra glanced back one last time, hoping he would get the chance to see Captain Perry again. His life seemed to be turning into a whirlpool of unforeseeable events, which he was powerless to control. Any help he could gather in the future was more than welcome.
CHAPTER VI - Captain
"He will be fine," a voice assured from behind him, and he turned to face Chris. "By this time he has spoken to your uncle and is safely back home. He's probably enjoying his precious memory of a furious Governor Standish as we speak." Both men chuckled at that. "Ezra?"
Ezra narrowed his eyes suspiciously at his demure tone. "Yes, Captain Larabee?"
"I want you to stay aboard the ship."
"What?" Ezra exclaimed. "But --"
"Ezra, please," Chris interjected softly. "It's too dangerous for you to be seen in town at the moment. Tortuga is full of your uncle's spies, not to mention dozens of cutthroat bastards who would sell you out for a few gold coins. You'll be safer here."
They remained silent for a long moment, eyes locked in a battle of will, until finally Ezra exhaled sharply. "I don't like it, Chris," he said. "But I understand. Very well, I will stay. But don't expect me to be so agreeable to your wishes next time," he added with a grin.
Chris chuckled. "I won't. I promise we won't take long. We will meet with Jasper, buy the map, and return. I allowed most of the crew to go ashore; they deserve a little free time after yesterday's battle. But I'm leaving five men behind to watch over the ship. If you need anything, they will see to it."
Ezra nodded. "I doubt they will be needed, but thank you. I will go back to my cabin and read while I wait for your return. Be careful?" he pleaded in a low tone.
Chris brushed a hand over his face gently. "Always. We won't be long; two hours at most."
"Just be sure to bring that treasure map with you, I promised Mr. Dunne an adventure," Ezra quipped.
"And he shall have it. See you in a few hours, Ezra."
"Safe journey, Captain."
Ezra stood on the deck, watching the six men lower one of the cutters and row towards the quay. He waited until they were but a small dot in the water before going to his quarters. Surely there was a book there to help him pass the time.
A little over half an hour later, and while enjoying a book about ancient civilizations, Ezra suddenly heard a loud thud coming from the upper deck. He sat up on the bed, alert to any possible danger, but when no further sound was heard he went back to his book.
Only to hear the same noise again.
He frowned. It sounded suspiciously like a body hitting the hard wooden floor. But there hadn't been any other sounds; no shouts, no cries for help, no typical noises originating from a fight.
Ezra put the book aside and rose from the bed, exiting quietly from the cabin and moving to the upper deck. His first glance showed the ship to be deserted; not even the five sentries Chris had left behind could be seen. But something told him he was not alone.
Reaching for his pistol, he walked to the bridge to get a better view of the vessel. And his blood froze in his veins. He could clearly see the bodies of his shipmates lying dead or unconscious, hidden behind the cannons. And spread throughout the deck was a group of five or six men he had never seen before, all of them aiming their guns at him.
One of the men left his cover and walked over to the middle of the deck, looking up at Ezra. He was tall and well built, probably in his mid-fifties. His long brown hair flowed past his shoulders, while his dark eyes seemed to see straight through Ezra. A gruesome-looking scar crossed his left cheek from the eye to the lips. He was dressed all in black, from the shirt to the tight pants and knee-high boots, to the feathered hat.
"Mr. Standish, I presume?" he asked. "Please, be so kind as to place your pistol on the floor."
Ezra obeyed, his eyes never straying from the man, obviously the leader of the small group of intruders. "Who are you?"
"Me? I... I am Captain Death. And you, Mr. Standish, are my prisoner."
Chris glared at Vin. "Well?"
"I can't find Jasper anywhere, Chris. I searched the whole town and nothing," Vin answered. "I don't understand. He said he would wait for us!"
"Think he sold the map to Death?" Nathan asked.
Chris shook his head. "It doesn't make sense. He told us the map was ours and he wouldn't go back on his word. He even told Vin we could pay him only fifteen gold coins instead of the twenty I offered."
"Maybe he is hiding," Buck suggested.
"From what?" Josiah asked. "He said he would stall Death until we got back. There would be no reason for him to go into hiding until the map was sold."
"Unless Death got tired of waiting for Jasper to make up his mind. Especially if he knew I was the other possible buyer. He has lost quite a few ships to us," Chris remarked.
"So, now what?" JD asked with a frown.
"Let's go to the tavern, have a word with the owner. He's a friend of Jasper's, maybe he knows something."
"How do you know my name?" Ezra asked, as was he taken to Chris' cabin and pushed into a chair by two of Death's thugs.
"Through a... Let's call it a mutual friend," Death replied with a smile.
Ezra frowned. "I don't understand."
"Well, allow me to explain. About three weeks ago I got word someone named Jasper was looking for me in Tortuga. I sent my second in command to meet with him and was informed about a certain map. I'm sure you are aware of all this?" he half-questioned. When Ezra nodded, he proceeded, "I was perfectly happy to wait until Mr. Jasper decided if he should sell the map to me, when, to my surprise I began to hear rumors of a second buyer. And none other than Chris Larabee, a man who has cost me more than you can imagine."
"And I'm sure if Jasper had decided to not sell the map to you, you would have let him be," Ezra drawled sarcastically.
Death laughed. "Actually, no. I intended to get that map one way or another, but as long as he wouldn't try to sell it to anyone else... He told my second in command the map was well hidden and would take some time to retrieve. He never mentioned anything about a second buyer. So last week I had my men search for him, torture him until he told them where to find the map, then kill him. Slowly."
"I still don't see what this has got to do with me," Ezra scowled.
"I'm getting around to that, Mr. Standish, patience. So, Mr. Jasper had suffered a somewhat painful demise, but now I had the map. So I went to meet with my associate, the mutual friend I mentioned earlier. We have been working together for years; he gives me information about certain ships carrying valuables, I attack the vessels, we split the loot. There's nothing more beautiful than a relationship based on greed," he added with a laugh. "But where was I? Oh, yes. I showed him the map, when to our surprise, we realized its instructions were in French. But not all was lost. My associate knew you spoke French and where to find you."
"So you were going to attack the 'Courage'," Ezra realized, relieved that Chris had been the one to do it. Perry and all his crew would have perished at the hands of this madman. "But how does your... associate know I speak French?"
Death chuckled. "Because, my dear boy, my associate is your Uncle Rupert." He laughed outright as Ezra gasped, turning as pale as a ghost. "Now imagine our surprise when last night Captain Perry and his crewmen showed up in Port Royal, on foot, and told Rupert you had joined forces with Larabee. I thought your uncle would explode, so furious he became."
"So you decided to attack Larabee's ship?"
"Not really, no. When we realized you two were together, we knew Larabee would be coming to Tortuga for the map. So I set sail immediately and arrived just a little behind you. I had no real plan to capture you; maybe wait until you went to town, ambush you when you went searching for Mr. Jasper... Larabee saved me the trouble when he sent his whole crew ashore and left you behind with only five men to watch over you. They're dead, by the way."
"Now I'm going to leave you alone to translate the map. And I advise you to do it; there are a lot of things more painful than death. And I know every single one." He placed the map, a sheet of paper, ink and a pen on the table. "You can start right away. I'll be back in half an hour to see how you are doing. It shouldn't take you long, it's only a couple of lines."
Ezra watched Death and his men leave the cabin, heard a key rattling on the door and realized they were locking him inside. He looked down at the map. Death was right; the French was easy to translate. A few minutes would be enough for him to write everything down.
Not that he was going to do it; he had every intention of escaping.
He folded the map and placed it inside of his shirt, taking care it wouldn't fall out. If his plan worked the map would get wet, but since it was drawn on some kind of animal skin, he didn't foresee it getting too damaged.
Going to the door, he looked through the keyhole. The key was not there and there was no one guarding his temporary prison that he could see.
He grinned wolfishly. "Amateurs," he muttered.
Pulling off a boot, he turned it upside down and shook it until a small piece of wire fell out. During his many years accompanying his mother through her escapes in Europe, such a small piece of equipment had come in handy. Especially if they happened to get caught during one of his mother's schemes. There was no lock he couldn't pick, given enough time.
Pulling his boot on again, he turned his attention to the door, tackling the lock with gusto. It took him a while; the wire was too thin and the lock was obviously new, but he finally did it. There would be nothing stopping him now.
"What do you mean, Jasper's dead?" Chris growled at the tavern owner.
The man cowered behind the counter, nodding frantically. "It's true, I swear. I went to his house last week and found him. He was tortured to death. The place was completely wrecked."
"Any idea who did it?" JD asked.
The man looked around nervously. "Not for certain, no. But there are rumors. I heard it was Captain Death."
"Damnit!" Chris snapped. "He has the map for sure."
"What map?" the man asked curiously.
"Never you mind. Come on, let's go back to the ship. We've been gone long enough."
He reached the upper deck easily. Looking around, he could see only two of Death's men; the others were probably somewhere in the lower decks with the Captain. No doubt looking for something they could take with them when they left.
He was about to jump overboard when a sudden shout startled him. "You there! Stop!"
He did not obey this time. Rushing to the side of the ship closest to the quay he jumped over the rail, his whole body shuddering as he impacted with the freezing water. He surfaced gasping for air, taking enough deep breaths to regain his balance, then began to swim as rapidly as he could.
He heard Death cursing him from up above, but did not stop, not even when the shooting started and the bullets began to fly around him. A bullet hit him in the right arm with enough force to drag him under the water, but he came back up fighting and kept going. Death would not win. His uncle would not defeat him yet again.
They were boarding the cutter when the sound of guns firing reached their ears. Momentarily confused, the six men suddenly realized where the noise was coming from.
"It's coming from the 'Horse'!" Josiah shouted, practically dropping into his seat and grabbing the oars.
"Let's go!" Chris ordered and they began to row with all their might.
"Someone's in the water!" Vin yelled. "It's Ezra! He's coming our way!"
They kept going until they were close to the other man, who having seen them was coming straight for them. Nathan and Chris helped him climb into the cutter.
"You're hurt," Chris whispered worriedly, allowing Ezra's soaked frame to lean back against his chest.
"Not... serious," Ezra panted, letting Nathan tie a piece of cloth on the still bleeding wound.
"Who is that, Ezra?" Buck asked.
"Death..." Ezra huffed, still out of breath.
The others exchanged a worried glance.
"Captain Death?" Vin asked for confirmation.
"What did he want?" Chris growled angrily.
"Me." Ezra replied softly, his forehead resting against Chris' throat, his whole weight resting exhaustingly against the other man.
CHAPTER VII - The First
"Yes," Josiah replied. "Tortuga hasn't had a priest for some time; no one will come here."
"Good. Buck, JD, go look for the rest of the crew. Tell them not to return to the ship, explain what happened. And tell them to meet us here tonight at midnight. Vin, Josiah, search for something Nathan can use to bandage Ezra's arm."
The four men nodded and rushed out of the abandoned church. Chris waited until they left before turning to Ezra, who was sitting quietly in one of the pews.
"How are you doing?" he asked softly.
"I am well, Chris," Ezra replied, giving him a weak smile.
"He is," Nathan confirmed when Chris turned to him for assurance. "The bullet merely grazed him and the wound has stopped bleeding. Once it is properly cleaned, there shouldn't be any problems."
Chris nodded and allowed himself to relax for the first time since seeing those men shooting at Ezra from the ship. Death would pay dearly. For taking over the 'Horse', killing his men, and especially for hurting Ezra. He began pacing the expanse of the church, impatient to take some kind of action, but knowing he would have to wait.
Josiah and Vin returned at that moment, carrying a small pot filled with fresh water, a bottle of whiskey and a few pieces of linen to use as a bandage.
Nathan examined the items carefully, nodding his approval. He cleaned the wound with the water, then used the whiskey as a disinfectant, apologizing when Ezra hissed sharply. That done; he wrapped the wound and patted the other man gently on the shoulder.
"All done. I'll have another look at it tonight, just to make sure it's not infected."
JD and Buck burst through the large wooden doors, both looking a little out of breath.
"We're back. Everyone knows what happened," JD announced softly. "They will be ready at midnight."
"What are we going to do at midnight?" Buck asked with a knowing grin.
"Get our ship back," Chris replied with a growl. "I'm not letting that bastard keep the 'Flying Horse'. That ship is mine," he snarled, then looked down at Ezra. "Now, what did you mean when you said Death was here for you?"
Instead of answering, Ezra removed something from within his shirt. "I believe this is what you came here for," he said, handing it to Chris.
Chris accepted the object, unfolding it and looking at the crude drawing on the animal skin. He blinked as he recognized what he held in his hands.
"Ezra, how did you manage to end up with Jasper's map in your possession?" he finally asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Death asked me to translate it, since it's in French and both he and his associate are unfamiliar with the language."
"Associate?" Josiah repeated.
"My uncle," Ezra sighed tiredly. "Apparently they have been working together for years. My uncle provides information on ships carrying valuable cargo and Death attacks them. Jasper made a terrible mistake when he contacted Death about that map. When he heard you were also looking to buy it, Death sent his men to kill Jasper, after torturing him until he revealed the location of the map. He then met with my uncle, probably to discuss how to go about such a venture, and found the map was in a foreign language."
"Your uncle doesn't speak French? He's the governor!" JD observed.
Ezra snorted. "My uncle, speak another language? My uncle believes England should rule the world and all other nations should bow to the Queen. They should be the ones to learn English, not the other way around."
"I get the idea," Chris told him. "And of course, you speak French?"
"Yes. Mother and I spent a few years living in France and my uncle is aware of that. Death was going to attack the 'Courage' in order to get me back, but you were faster."
"Why didn't your uncle just pardon you?" Nathan asked with a frown.
Ezra shrugged. "I did not ask. But I believe a pardon takes some time to arrange, months I think, if not longer. And I'm guessing they were afraid you would somehow get ahead of them and find the treasure first. Not to mention, my uncle knew I would never help them out of my own free will, even after liberated. Plus, the 'Courage' would be out at sea for at least six more months. Even with the pardon, they couldn't wait that long for me to return."
"How did Death know you were staying aboard the 'Horse'?" Buck asked.
"He didn't. From what I understood, he was with my uncle last night when Captain Perry arrived at Port Royal. They realized I was with you, and that now that you were back, you would obviously come for the map. Death set sail right after us and followed us here. He's probably anchored on the other side of the cape. He watched the crew come ashore, saw you leave, then realized I had stayed behind, so he tried his luck. He killed the others and tried to force me into translating the map."
"And did you?" Vin asked with a grin.
Ezra chuckled. "No. I stole it instead," he replied, making the others laugh as well.
When the laughter had died down, Chris looked at his friends. "It's after midday, we need to find something to eat. Vin, Nathan, see to it. We're going to spend the afternoon here, maybe rest for a few hours. There will be no sleep for us tonight. By this time tomorrow I want to be back on board the 'Horse' and on our way to the treasure island."
"Island?" Josiah echoed.
"Yes. I can't understand the words on the map, but the drawing represents a group of small islands close by. One of them is marked with a cross. We should find Mckenzie's loot there." He looked at Ezra, who nodded his agreement. "It shouldn't take us more than a day to reach it. Providing Death didn't do anything to the 'Horse'." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "And Lord help him if he did. He will regret it for the rest of his short, miserable life."
It was already dark outside when Ezra woke up from his afternoon rest. His arm throbbed a little, but nothing that would lead his attention astray. He rose from the pew where he had been lying, noting the others were still asleep.
He walked closer to the altar, his mind wandering over the past months. How much his life had changed since his chance meeting with Chris Larabee nearly four months earlier. The pirate had stormed into his life and turned everything upside down, changing his peaceful -- if not always pleasant -- life into a never-ending adventure. And what was even more amazing, he was loving every minute of it. Even after having been whipped, imprisoned, sent to the galleys, threatened by bloodthirsty pirates and shot at, he wouldn't change a thing if it meant not having met Larabee.
He shook his head ruefully; he had been right before, he was insane. And apparently getting worse, for now he was one of Larabee's men, a pirate himself. On the way to a treasure hunt with a madman on their trail.
"What are you thinking about?" a voice whispered softly from behind him.
"About Captain Death," he replied without turning around.
"What about him?" Chris asked.
"He will chase after us, you do know that, don't you? Especially after what I did, stealing the map right from under him. He's probably plotting his revenge as we speak."
"Let him. He won't get near you ever again, he won't hurt you ever again," Chris vowed fiercely.
Ezra shuddered at the emotion he could hear in the other man's voice.
"Cold?" Chris whispered, mistaking his trembling for something else entirely different.
"A little," Ezra replied, and Chris wrapped his arms around him from behind. "Chris?" Ezra called after an extended silence.
"What's happening between us?"
"I'm not sure. But it's not a bad thing. Is it?"
Ezra chuckled softly. "Not bad, no. Dangerous, though."
"I know. Let's... get through this first, see what happens."
Ezra nodded. "I agree," he said, tipping his head back to look at the man embracing him.
Without any conscious thought he turned to face Chris, leaning forward slowly, uncertain of his reception. Apparently unable to resist the unspoken offer, Chris closed the distance between them and their lips met. Chris' mouth was soft and moist against his own and he tenderly explored the addicting sweetness. He nipped at Chris' lower lip then traced it with his tongue before teasing at the crease between the full lips until they parted and he was allowed access to the heat of Chris' mouth.
He moaned as Chris' warm body pressed hard against him, tightening his hold and pulling them impossibly closer. He wrapped his arms around the older man's neck, sighing softly and settling into Chris' embrace as their tongues danced leisurely together. Both were breathless when they finally parted.
"This is waiting?" Chris finally asked, amusement tingeing his voice.
"Just something to keep you interested," Ezra replied with a grin.
They stayed in each other's arms for a long moment, his head resting on Chris' shoulder, the other man nuzzling his hair softly with his cheek. He smiled. No matter what happened in the future, that moment would forever keep in his mind. Even with all the madness constantly crashing in on them, for the first time in his life he felt content, safe, whole.
He looked back at the pews, his breath catching in his throat as he saw Vin sitting quietly, looking at them. He exhaled softly, relaxing against Chris as Vin smiled gently, nodding his approval and mouthing 'About time'. He grinned back, relieved to have the other man's friendship and understanding. 'Thank you', he mouthed back.
"Are you two done?" Chris chuckled suddenly, leaving them staring at each other shamefaced at having been caught by the other man.
A knock on the door broke through the silence, rousing the four men still sleeping. Vin went to answer, opening the door for the rest of the crew to join them. It was finally midnight, time for action.
Chris nodded at his men. "You all know what happened this morning. I have no idea if we still have a running ship, or what that bastard might have done to our 'Horse', but it's time we got it back. We still have our three cutters in the quay and at this hour we won't have any problems 'borrowing' a few more. Just enough for all of us to get back to our vessel. Be as silent as possible, surround the 'Horse' from all sides, and when I shout 'Go', climb on board as fast as you can. Be careful; we don't know how many there are or what weapons they might be using. Let's go."
It took over fifteen minutes for the whole group to reach the quay. Even if Tortuga was a pirate haven, there were still enough of the governor's spies around to make them cautious. Every available seat was soon taken in the three cutters, four more were commandeered for their cause.
Rowing as silently as ghosts, the cutters slid effortlessly through the dark waters towards their target, under the patronage of a new moon, all eyes locked on their lost lady, 'The Flying Horse'.
Chris waited enough time for all the cutters to surround the ship, then gave his rebel yell. "Go!" he ordered furiously.
Suddenly the quiet harbor thrived with frantic activity. Every seaman rushed to obey the command, grabbing ropes, riggings, the anchor line, anything that would help them get aboard the ship.
The seven friends were among the first to set foot on deck. Under Chris' guidance they split up, spreading throughout the ship, looking for any signs of their enemy.
Chris gritted his teeth as he spotted their five fallen comrades hanging from the masts. He knew then Death was long gone; those symbolic hangings were meant as a taunt, a way of hurting him. But all it really meant was just another nail in Death's coffin.
"Well?" he asked when Josiah approached him.
"Nobody. They're gone. And by the look of things, they left soon after Ezra escaped."
"And the 'Horse'?" he growled angrily.
"Everything's in place," Josiah replied. "Nothing's damaged that I can see. The others are checking again."
Chris took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, trying to control his fury. His revenge would have to wait. At least now he had someone by his side who knew what Captain Death looked like. One day -- soon -- they would cross paths again. Maybe Ezra was right and Death would follow when they departed for their treasure hunt. And should they come to battle... He would come out the victor.
"Chris, you better have a look at this," Buck called out, bringing him back from his reverie.
"What's wrong?" he asked, walking over to his friend.
"Ezra's cabin is completely destroyed," Buck replied, leading him to the sleeping quarters.
The others were all there, already waiting for him. He looked around dismally. The cabin was a complete wreck. The bed was broken, the chest open and overturned, the bookshelf had been torn from the wall, and the chairs were lying in pieces on the floor. The only thing left whole and standing was the table. Resting among the chaos, it stood tall and resistant, a small sheet of paper adorning its center.
"What does it say?" JD asked.
Ezra looked up, gazing at the six men. "'Until we meet again, Mr. Standish'," he replied softly.
CHAPTER VIII - The
Ezra took a deep breath, closing his eyes and enjoying the smell of fresh air and salt water. Nothing could ruin that moment, not even Death's pathetic threats. He was in heaven.
"Enjoying yourself?" an amused voice asked from beside him.
Ezra opened one eye to glance at a grinning Buck. "I certainly am, Mr. Wilmington. I have seldom had the chance to enjoy such a marvelous day, especially during the last months."
"Well, you better make the most of it, 'cause it won't last," Buck remarked.
He raised an eyebrow quizzically. "Oh?"
"Vin says the weather's gonna change during the day, might still rain today," the mustached man replied.
Ezra looked up at the clear blue sky. "You jest, surely? It's such a nice day, not a cloud in sight!"
Buck shook his head and shrugged. "Can't explain it, but I know it's true. Seen Vin predict it before, he never fails. He told me once the air smells kind of different when a storm is brewing. He's expecting that by late afternoon a gale will build from the southwest."
"Which is the course we have taken?" Ezra half-asked, half-stated.
"Yes," Buck grinned.
"So you're basically saying we are heading towards a possible storm?"
"Yes," Buck's grin grew wider.
"Why, thank you, Mr. Wilmington! Glad to see you are the bearer of such good news," Ezra drawled sarcastically.
Buck laughed. "No problem, Ez. Always aiming to please, that's me."
Ezra remained hopeful for most of the morning, as the weather kept fairly warm and sunny. However, as the night drew closer, and as predicted by Vin, the weather did change. Threatening gray clouds replaced the clear sky, and even Ezra could feel the difference in the air around them. It felt charged, heavy and stuffy, making it almost impossible to breathe.
The storm didn't hit until the early hours of the morning, catching most of the crew in their sleep. The first splattering drops of rain rapidly turned into heavy rain. The wind picked up and the waves began to swell, rocking the ship violently.
"I can't believe this!" Chris yelled, trying to make himself heard over the roar of the storm. "We're so close to the damn island! One more hour and we could've found a safe cove to hide from the storm!"
"Too late now?" Ezra guessed, yelling back.
"Yes!" Chris nodded with a shout. "And Vin says this is a big one! Let's hope the ship holds up!"
Ezra held his breath as he faced one of the most exhilarating and frightening moments of his life at the same time. Lightening lit up the sky and thunder boomed in his ears, the raindrops were so thick it hurt when they hit his body, and the ship was swaying so hard it was difficult to keep on his feet.
He watched Vin and Josiah trying to control the helm while Nathan and JD tied them securely so the growing waves wouldn't drag them overboard.
Buck walked slowly to the bridge where both he and Chris were holding on for dear life. The blinding light and loud noise from the thunder and lightening was painful to withstand, but Ezra knew it was too late to go back now; they were in the heart of the storm.
"Chris! The ship won't take much more punishment!" Buck yelled at them. "We're being pounded to pieces by this storm!"
"We have no choice!" Chris replied. "We're barely holding on now; if we try to turn back, the winds will take us off course and set us adrift! We have to keep going!"
Lightning slashed through the sky at his words, illuminating the furious sea as if it were day; thunder rumbled overhead, and the ship seemed to vibrate in its wake, making standing a difficult task.
"Jesus," Ezra whispered to himself.
He felt Chris reach for him, holding him tightly as a huge wave nearly capsized the 'Horse'. Large waves rolled over the decks, buffeting the cabins, and threatening to destroy the ship.
One powerful bolt struck the main mast, breaking it in half and setting it on fire until the merciless rain falling down put it out. The top half of the mast crashed down onto the deck, sails and rigging coming down with it.
"Reef!" he heard someone shouting over the maddening roar. "Reef! Watch out!"
It was too late. The wind pounded the 'Horse' against the reef, and the ship struck with a jolt, throwing everyone off balance. He watched terrified as several of the crewmen fell overboard, their cries ringing loudly in his ears, even over the storm.
He watched helplessly as the load began slipping away; the sides of the ship gave way, the noise of splitting wood competing with the thunder for attention.
"There's a hole in the hull near the bow! It's taking on water!" someone else shouted, but he seemed to be the only one listening; everyone else was fighting for their lives.
"Help! Help us!" he heard Vin shouting.
He turned to see both Vin and Josiah frantically trying to break free from the ropes tying them to the helm. The ship was sinking; if they didn't hurry they would go down with it.
Ezra reached for his dagger, crawling painfully on the soaked wood until he reached his friends. "Hold on!"
"Where's Chris?" Vin shouted.
"I can't see him!"
Ezra turned back, never stopping cutting through the thick rope. His heart lurched as he realized Chris was no longer there; he and the two men tied to the helm were the last ones standing on the bridge. Taking a deep breath, he forced his mind back to the task at hand. Chris was all right; he had to be.
Finally the ropes slipped free and the three men rose awkwardly to their feet. Just as they were rushing down the short flight of stairs leading to the upper deck, a loud crashing noise was heard and the whole ship shook.
Ezra had enough time to realize the 'Horse' was breaking in two -- a nutshell in Mother Nature's hands -- before something hit him from behind and he dove into the unforgiving sea.
Ezra woke to the sound of seagulls and the warmth of the sun on his skin. He was lying on his stomach, on a beach, by the water's edge. It took him a moment to remember what he was doing there, but when the memory returned, he sat up with a gasp.
"I can't believe I'm still alive," he muttered to himself as he looked around.
Then a painful ache filled his heart as he thought of Chris and the other men. Could they still be alive? After all, and against all odds, he had managed to reach land. And by the look of things, the very island they had been searching for.
He couldn't bear the thought Chris might be dead, not when they still had so much to face together, to look forward to. And as for the other five men, he had come to enjoy the friendship and camaraderie they seemed determined to share with him, he wasn't ready to give them up for dead. Not yet.
He looked back at the sea, staring for as far as his sight could reach, seeing large chunks of wreckage floating in the clear water. He blinked suddenly as he noticed there was something strange about a large piece of a cutter, which was drifting closer to the beach.
"Oh, my Lord," he whispered, recognizing the two men lying on the floating wood.
He rose swiftly, plunging into the water and swimming rapidly until he reached the two marooned. He felt for their pulses, holding back a sob as he realized they were both alive, merely unconscious. Knowing he would have to take them back to shore one at a time, he began with the easiest; JD.
He turned the younger man onto his back, wrapped an arm around him protectively, and swam back to the beach. He laid JD gently on the sand, then went back for Buck. The other man was harder to rescue. While they were in the water it was not too difficult, since Buck was unconscious and didn't offer any resistance. But dragging his weight to the beach took a definite effort and by the time Ezra placed the man by JD's side he was exhausted.
"Ezra!" he heard someone shout, and turning towards the voice, he saw Vin and Josiah waving madly at him.
He waved back, suddenly feeling better. He still didn't know where Chris and Nathan were, or even if they were alive, but at least four of his friends were safe and together.
"Are they --" Josiah began fearfully as he saw the two men lying on the sand.
"They are alive, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra interjected gently. "Merely unconscious. I just pulled them out of the water; I was about to try and rouse them."
"We have more survivors. There's another beach on the other side of that cliff," Vin told him. "Nathan is trying to patch up everyone as best as he can. We have three dead and eight men still missing."
Josiah knelt beside JD, patting his face gently. "Wake up, JD. Come on, son, we need you to open your eyes."
JD groaned, turning his face away from the stinging slaps. "Buck, will you stop that!" he rasped out angrily, swatting at the insisting hand.
Josiah chuckled. "Not Buck, son. Open your eyes."
The young man sighed tiredly, but obeyed. He stared at the men looking down at him, at their surroundings, then closed his eyes again. "Lord... I never thought I'd live to see another day," he whispered. Then, "Buck!" he shouted, sitting up rapidly.
"Take it easy, JD. He's right beside you," Vin told him.
"Oh." JD pushed against Buck's shoulder. "Hey, wake up. Buck, wake up! We're alive!" Buck twisted, but didn't open his eyes. "Come on, wake up! Buck!"
"Damnit, boy!" Buck groaned. "Let me sleep!"
"We sunk, remember? Wake up!"
"Sunk?" Buck echoed with a frown. He opened his eyes, looking up at the other men. "Holy...!" he exclaimed, sitting up.
Seeing his friends were fine, Ezra turned to Vin, ready to ask the question burning in his soul. "Chris?" he whispered.
Vin shook his head sadly. "He's one of the missing. No one has seen him yet."
Ezra nodded slowly, gazing despairingly back at the sea. He felt numb, unable to grasp the reality that Chris might be dead. He couldn't be. It wasn't fair.
"He's alive," Buck told him knowingly as he rose to his feet. "That man has nine lives."
Ezra smiled slightly as he looked at the four men before him. "Am I that transparent?" he asked.
Josiah patted his shoulder softly. "We knew what to look for. Before you came along, Chris was different. He fought your uncle's troops, attacked the enemy ships, sailed the Caribbean Sea... He was alive, but he wasn't living. There was this part of him that was dormant, that he kept hidden from sight. Since you've met, he looks happier, smiles more, he's more alive than I've ever seen him before. And we have seen you two together, the way you look at each other, smile at each other."
"And are you comfortable with that?"
"In these violent times, you reach for whatever happiness you can find," Josiah replied with a smile.
"Besides, it wouldn't be none of our business," JD grinned. "And you two look... right together."
The others nodded, then Vin wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "He'll show up, you'll see. Come on, let's go over to the other side and join the others. We found fresh water and some of the men are already out looking for food."
Ezra nodded, really looking at their surroundings for the first time. They were standing on a beautiful beach, surrounded by a dense forest that reached beyond their vision. A few softly rolling mountains were barely visible above the trees. He could hear birds singing, as well as the calls of other animals he didn't recognize.
He took a long, deep breath and closed his eyes, smelling the coconuts, the sweetly scented flowers, and the salt air. They had found paradise. And he had no one to share it with.
Ezra stood by the water's edge, gazing upward at the endless expanse of the heavens. It was a clear night and millions of stars shone down their light on the small island.
He wanted to be alone. He appreciated the other's efforts to try and draw him out and talk, but he really couldn't be bothered. The eight men were still missing, Chris among them.
The whole day had been spent building shelters, finding food for at least a few days, and searching for their missing friends. Stranded on the island, they had no way of knowing when they would be able to rejoin civilization anew, but they had a pile of wood ready to light should they happen to spot a ship sailing by. The smoke from the bonfire would surely be enough to disclose their location.
Now all they could do was wait. Wait for the night to end so they could keep working on their provisory habitations; wait for a vessel who would rescue them; wait... for Chris to appear.
A sudden noise close by made him tense, but before he could move, he was grabbed from behind. A hand covered his mouth while an arm wrapped powerfully around his chest, imprisoning him. He fought fiercely as he was taken to a shelter behind a large group of boulders.
Once there, he was released and turned around to face his captor. Prepared to growl his protest at being manhandled thus roughly, he focused his attention on the man before him. And blinked.
"Well? Aren't you going to say anything?" Chris finally asked, obviously amused at his speechless reaction.
"You... you bastard!" he snapped, coming out of his daze, and surprising the other man with his anger. "I thought you were dead! And why the hell did you drag me out here? I thought it was a miscreant wanting to hurt me!" Then, in one swift movement, he buried his right hand in Chris' hair and pulled his head down, brushing their lips together in a feather-like caress. "I thought you were dead..." he whispered brokenly against Chris' mouth. "That I would never see you again, feel you again, kiss you again..."
"I'm sorry," the other man whispered back, capturing his lips and kissing him passionately.
Chris broke the kiss long enough to take a deep breath, then took his lips again, this time less frantically. When they finally parted, they eyes met and held, saying all the things they were unable to voice yet.
"Why didn't you join us at the camp?" Ezra asked.
"I wanted to see you first, speak with you first. I couldn't resist when I saw you by the beach." He sighed tiredly. "I can't believe we came all this way for nothing. Now we have no ship and no map. I wish I'd never heard of that damn treasure!"
Ezra smiled. "Well, I can't assist you with the ship, but I still have the map."
"You do?" Chris asked, confused. "I thought I'd left it in my cabin."
"You did. But I still have it... Memorized in my head," he explained with a grin.
Chris hugged him hard, laughing softly. "You really are one hell of an amazing man, Ezra Standish!"
Continue to Part 2