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Jens Rushing is a widely published writer, currently living in Arlington, Texas.

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Twenty-two cannons boomed. The merchantman’s mainmast shattered and splinters hailed the deck. Another shot from the barque burst the forecastle and sent sailors flying. Everywhere men lay dead and dying from the pirates’ assault. The foremast buckled and crashed to the deck. The torn and burning sails fell loose and swathed the bow. From the aft cabin Miranda watched the shape of the wounded captain moving feebly beneath the sheet; soon he did not move at all. The bombardment ceased and in the sudden calm Miranda heard the rush of water into the hull, the groans and wails of the dying sailors, and the creak of oars in locks.

This last sound set her heart racing. She peered through the porthole, and too, too close, three large boats freighted with dark and desperate men crossed from the barque to her own sinking ship, oars dipping into the placid Caribbean sea. The pirates drew near; she could make them out now. A rogue with a long musket stood in the prow of the forward boat, scanning the deck for survivors. Miranda shuddered at the sight of him. He was tall and broad, with one milky eye and a bald scalp leathery and brown from the sun. A cutlass hung at his waist, tucked into a green silk sash.

“What are we to do?” Nona bawled. “Mistress, what are we to do?” She sobbed and wrung her hands. Her face was red from two weeks of crying. From Bristol to the Caribbean she had wept silently over Miranda’s imminent marriage: “Oh, my wee baby girl,” she said time and time again, shaking her head and annoying Miranda beyond telling. “Oh, my darling lass.” Then her crying became intense and urgent when the captain sighted the red flag and commanded full speed and battle stations. Nona’s sobs leapt to deranged shrieks when the first broadside crashed into the ship, and now she sputtered like a dying flame. “Do we conceal ourselves below and hope they pass? Or—do we destroy ourselves, mistress, before they, before those rough men…” She trailed off.

Miranda seized a bulkhead as the ship listed suddenly. “We’re taking on water,” she said. “We can’t conceal ourselves, Nona! The ship will plunge under the sea and take us with it.”

“A better end than whatever those brigands plot!” Nona dabbed her eyes. “I would rather see that, mistress, than you in their foul, wicked hands. Let the sea take us!”

“I have no wish to die. And I won’t.” Miranda said it simply, and knew it for a truth. “In two weeks, Nona, I’ll be Mr. Fraser’s wife and mistress of Averslay, and you’ll be couched in luxury. Don’t talk of death. I won’t allow it.” She closed and barred the door while she spoke.

Nona smiled for the first time since Bristol. “Oh, mistress. And my divan.”

“Of course, good Nona.” Miranda heard footsteps on the deck and raised her voice to cover them. “I’ll have it stuffed with hibiscus blooms if you like! And a servant of your own! Never work again, good Nona!”

From outside a shouted command: “Stove it in!” And a thundering crash of metal against wood. Nona shrieked. The door shook, but the bar held. Nona held out her arms and Miranda flew to them.

“Pray with me, mistress, pray!”

“No need, no need. We’ll live, Nona.”

“You’ll die this day, lass, and never prayed a word in your life.”

Miranda pursed her lips but said nothing. She didn’t flinch, not once, as the door shattered under the blows and the bald man strode into the little cabin, brandishing his cutlass. Nona clung to Miranda as a drowning man to a piece of lumber. She twisted out of Nona’s grasp and lifted her chin in defiance. “I am Miranda Davenport,” she said, and her voice had never rung so clear or so proud, “daughter of Sir Richard Davenport of Gloucester. Affianced to Samuel Fraser, captain in His Majesty’s Royal Navy.”

The pirate bowed low. “Captain Joshua Barclay,” he said, “of no nation and no king, at your service.” A redheaded man appeared in the doorway behind him. He wore a tattered blue Navy jacket, and his beard was full and bushy. He eyed Miranda. “And this here’s Frederick Wickliff, bosun, Royal Navy—retired.” Wickliff nodded. Nona moaned, and irritation flickered across Barclay’s face.

“Captain,” Miranda said, “I have made you familiar with my position. I hope I can trust you to deliver me safely to the nearest port. You will be amply rewarded, of course, for—”

Barclay cut her off with a wave. “Say no more, lass,” he said, and Miranda smiled. “You’ll bore me to tears. Aye, you’ll come with me. A sweeting like you, to have and to hold.” He gripped Miranda’s wrist. Her nails raked his face, gouging long red slashes across from brow to cheek. Barclay howled and pressed his hands to the wound, then took them away and saw blood. Fury flared in him and he struck Miranda with the back of his hand. She reeled with the powerful blow—no one had dared strike her before—but didn’t fall. Barclay drew a small dagger and moved on Miranda. For a moment she stared death in the eye. Wickliff shouted, “Captain! Havana!” and Barclay returned the dagger to its sheath.

A smile snaked across Barclay’s face. “Right,” he said. “Havana for you. Such a lovely face. Such fine skin, that none ever took a knife to.” He stuck his thumbs in his sash and roared with laughter as blood dripped down his face. “To Havana, then!” He crooked a finger at Nona. “We’ll not be needing her. Wickliff!”

“No!” Miranda cried. She seized a bottle from the table and sprang at Barclay, poised to crush his tanned skull. With a laugh he disarmed her and flung her over his shoulder. She kicked and pounded on his broad back with her fists. He grunted.

“Keep it up, lass, and you may not see Havana after all. You’ll just make it to my bunk, and then it’s the knife for you. Understand?”

Miranda lay still. She wanted to fight this man with every fiber of her being, but her desire to live was greater. “Wickliff,” she said.

The bosun glanced at her and looked away. Drawing his cutlass, he moved past Barclay and into the room. His shadow fell across Nona, who whimpered and crouched in the corner. “Wickliff, you can’t do this!” Miranda shouted. “Bring her, too! You can’t—you can’t!” And then Barclay was carrying her away, over the ocean, away from Nona, from Samuel, from life, from everything.

Insensate rage followed. Miranda lurked in a sullen fury for three days, the image of Nona’s fear-frozen face her only company. Barclay imprisoned her in an aft cabin, quite small, and twice a day he or Wickliff brought her food and drink, which she left untouched. Miranda lay on her cot, turned to the wall. The only sounds were the babble of the sea and the no-quieter babble of laughter and clanking dishes from the chamber adjoining hers.

But love of life was bright within her, and her grief quickly gave way to anger and hatred for the men who had slain her old friend and abducted her, and soon an ambition, hateful and necessary, germinated like a venomous weed in her mind: vengeance. She buried the ambition—for now. On the third day, she ate and drank, and was alert and thinking when Wickliff brought her meal.

“Why is it only you and the captain wait on me?”

“Your pardon, miss, we don’t wait on you exactly. We keep you among the living, is all.”

“Well, why is it only you and the captain who keep me among the living, then?”

“I believe I’m the only one the captain trusts to…respect you.”

The thought seemed strangely hilarious to her, and Miranda laughed despite herself. “Trusts you not to force me, you mean.”

Wickliff blushed. The blush faded quickly and he said, gravely, “Yes, that’s it exactly.” The laugh died in Miranda’s throat.

“Because you were in the Navy? And that makes you a gentleman?”

“More so than some others.”

“Do you miss the Navy, Mr. Wickliff?”

“I’d have to be a fool to miss the Navy, Miss Davenport.”

“Is it very bad there, then?”

“Is it very bad?” Wickliff snorted. “It’s not enough food after the purser takes his cut. It’s ten lashes if you’re late to watch. Aye, it’s not pleasant. In a lot of ways I’m better off now.”

“But not in every way.”

Wickliff said nothing for a while. “No, not in every way.”

“In the Navy, you can anticipate a pension. Here…” She trailed off, fingering a loose lock of her dark brown hair.

Wickliff finished the sentence. “Nothing but a rope.” Then he grinned morbidly and performed half a jig step. “But we’re free of tyranny, at least! So says the captain, and his word is law. And a rope’s a sight better than what you can anticipate, Miss Davenport.”

“Why? What awaits me in Havana?” Miranda tried to remain casual, but urgency crept into the question.

“The grandest, finest slave market in the New World, miss. Oh, don’t you worry. You’ll get to be a plantation mistress yet, what with your fine skin, and your dark eyes—only a planter could afford you.”

Revulsion seized her. To adorn the arm of some repugnant Don! “And that’s why the captain has preserved me from the depredations of the crew.”

“Aye. Unspoiled you’ll fetch a higher price.”

“I don’t—I can’t believe you. You deceive me! You slew Nona,” Miranda hissed. “Serpent. Villain!”

Wickliff spoke quietly. “Orders are orders, miss. I was gentle as a lamb with her.”

Miranda laughed, one harsh bitter laugh. “Gentle as a lamb? When you—what? When you cut her throat, and her blood poured. When you sliced her belly and her entrails tumbled out! When you hacked her skull open!” Miranda collapsed in the lone chair and held her hands palm upward, fingers curled like claws. “What did you do? Tell me what you did!”

Wickliff looked at the plates on the table, at the door to the cabin, at the lamp, at his boots. Finally he said, “The captain’s getting a trifle impatient with you, miss. Sulking does you no good with him. I had a job of it convincing him to take you to Havana, and if you make it hard by not eating and not drinking, he may forget about the profit to be had. And you don’t want that.” After a while he added, “I don’t want that.” He left Miranda alone with her thoughts.

A shudder traveled the length of her spine, then another, and though she fought them tears leaked out, two by two. A single sob broke from her lips, and she wiped the tears away, sniffing. She would cry no more. She had more important things to do.

That night, when the captain brought her dinner, Miranda smiled blandly for him. She felt the smile might run away from her and widen until it split her head open, but she kept smiling and said “thank you” in a small and timid voice, startling Barclay momentarily. Then he laughed: “There’s a good girl!” and stomped out. Miranda ate, swallowing each bite with solemn duty.

Barclay delivered her food again the following morning. He regarded her warily, expecting some new absurdity, and again Miranda smiled and thanked him, and again he laughed. “You’ll get on fine here, sweeting.”

“Tell me of your ship, captain,” she said suddenly. Miranda didn’t care a fig about Barclay’s ship, but she knew Barclay did.

He coughed and scratched the back of his neck with one filthy hand. “What?”

“If I’m to be your passenger, captain, I want to know about the ship that carries me.”

“Ah…very well.” He massaged his nut brown scalp while he spoke. “The Ocean’s Scourge. She’s got forty-eight guns. Three masts, aftermost fore-and-aft rigged. Crew of twenty-nine. Fast! Doesn’t draw much, either, so we ply the shoals. Took a Navy sloop once. How we got Wickliff. And a merchantman out of Barbados, with molasses by the ton.” As he spoke, Barclay relaxed perceptibly. Soon he was sitting in the little wooden chair and telling Miranda of a raid on Panama, and then he spoke animatedly of outrunning Navy patrols in the Bahamas. He had a natural love of boasting, and Miranda encouraged it with occasional nods and impressed murmurs. Then four bells sounded and Barclay leapt to his feet. “You got me chattering on,” he said, and dashed from the cabin. Miranda shook her head after he left, dispelling the memory of the loathsome man. The information she retained.

Wickliff came the next morning. “You occupied the captain for quite a while yesterday,” he said.

Miranda demurred. “I remain unspoiled.”

Wickliff laughed shortly. “I hardly meant that, miss.” He studied her and Miranda could see the thoughts rolling ponderously in his head. “I don’t understand, miss, why you’d care to talk to a man like that.”

“A man like what? He’s your captain, Mr. Wickliff.”

“Aye. But he’s a terror. He knows it. He wants the world to know it. Be damned if he gives or takes quarter, he says. He wants to shake the skies and boil the seas.”

“And what does that mean?”

“It means blood, buckets and barrels of blood. Like your ship. No quarter, excepting you.”

(Continued on page 2)



Thirst by Jens Rushing 1 2 3
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