Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 19

I hadn’t planned the escape. I knew that we were going to have to make a break for it, but I hadn’t thought much beyond that simple idea. And suddenly we were standing close to a single guard, bending over to put food on the deck in front of us. There hadn’t been a noise in the corridor outside. This was an opportunity that we simply couldn’t pass up.

As the guard started to straighten, my foot snapped out, like I was kicking a record field goal. I felt pain shoot through my foot as it connected with the chin of the man. His head snapped rearward with a cracking of bone. He flipped around, landing on his back. I leaped to him, put a hand against his throat but there was no pulse. I grabbed the dagger at his belt, wishing that we had better weapons.

I jumped to the door and peeked out. I held up a hand, telling the others to stay put. I stepped into the corridor and hurried along it. When I reached the ladder that lead to the upper deck, I turned and saw that Eric was watching. I waved him forward.

When he and the others joined me, I started up the ladder, pressing my back against the rough wood to the side of it. There was a square of bright light over me and I climbed toward it. When I reached the top, I hesitated, poking my head up so that I could see. Toward the bow there was no one. On the stern, I could see a couple of men and one of the creatures.

There was nothing that we could do. Either we stayed, trapped in the passageway, or we tried to get to the bow where we could dive into the river. I ducked back, leaned close to Eric and whispered the plan to him. We would run across the deck and leap into the water, letting the current take us away from the ship.

“That’s your plan?” he asked.

“All of it.”

He turned and asked Huana and Christine, “Can you swim?”

Both nodded and Christine grinned.

“I’ll go first. If I make it, then you follow. If not, duck back and try something else.”

Eric chuckled and said, “Your plan really stinks.”

I said, “Yeah,” and then peeked up again. I saw that the men and the creature were looking at something on the shore, facing away from me. I used that diversion to exit the hatch. I stepped onto the deck, turned and ran for the bow. As I dodged around one of the masts, I ran into a sailor, bowling him over.

As he went down, he shouted, “Hey!”

I pounced on him, driving my fist into his face. He grunted in pain and as I punched him a second time he caught my hand. He twisted my arm and I began falling to the right. As I did, there was a scratch and then a boom as someone fired a flintlock pistol. I felt, rather than heard, the ball whiz by my head and heard it smash into the wood of the mast. A man was standing on the stern, wrapped in a cloud of blue gun smoke.

And then Eric was beside me. He kicked the sailor in the side. The man grunted and fell to the deck. Eric reached down and grabbed my wrist, jerking me to my feet. I turned and saw a sailor coming at us, his sword held high.

There was another shot that did nothing. I dropped and kicked, hitting the man with the sword in the knee. He toppled right, losing his grip on his sword. Eric danced in and grabbed it. He spun around to face another sailor.

I turned and saw the captain standing there. He held the Mauser, aiming at Christine. I dived at him, cutting his legs from out from under him. He crashed to his side. He rolled to the right, trying to get up. I scrambled to my feet and jumped, knocking him down again. When he dropped the Mauser, I dived for it, snatching it.

There was another shot from a flintlock and the wet slap of a bullet hitting flesh. As I rolled clear, I saw Huana fall to the deck, a spreading stain of crimson on her back. Another of the Spanish was raising his weapon, ready to shoot. I fired first, the slug catching him in the throat. He fell to the deck and didn’t move.

Eric, swinging the captured sword, leaped toward Huana. He chopped at one man with all his might. The man fought back, parrying each of the blows, but losing ground. He stumbled then, throwing up a hand. Eric swung, chopping it off. The sailor shrieked and fell to his side, cradling his wounded arm in his other hand. Blood pumped onto the deck.

I reached Christine and pushed her toward the bow. As she jumped over the railing, there was a shot. It missed her and I heard her splash into the water. I glanced over and saw her swimming away in long, graceful strokes.

Eric was cutting his way toward me. A man leaped between us. There was a flurry of activity, the blades ringing against one another and then the point of Eric’s sword was protruding from his adversary’s back. The man fell to the deck with a low, quiet groan.

Overhead came the flapping of leather wings. One of the creatures was screaming out of the sky like a fighter plane attacking a trench. I aimed and fired. There was a burst of red and the beast flipped out of the way. It disappeared over the side of the ship.

And then four men swarmed from a hatch, all of them attacking Eric. He shouted, a call meant for the Vikings in Valhalla. He waded in, chopping and hacking, screaming at the top of his lungs. I wanted to help, but couldn’t find a clear target. I held my fire and saw Eric driven to his knees, blood covering his face, chest and arms. He kept shouting at them, his voice lost in the noise of battle.

Eric fell to the deck as the sailors hacked at him. I fired at them. Two dropped, blood on their clothes but I didn’t know whose blood it might be. One turned toward me, his sword raised, his teeth bared. I put a round in his face. The last man standing turned to flee.

There was nothing more I could do. Eric had been literally hacked to pieces. His blood spread over the deck in a thick, red mass. I could see his bones and his lungs and knew that he was dead.

With that, I tucked the pistol into my belt and whirled. Someone fired a flintlock. Someone fired an arrow. I dived over the railing and hit the water. I pulled myself away from the ship underwater. I opened my eyes, could see the sunlight filtering down. There was a snap beside me and I saw the twisted path of a bullet through the water. A second and third shots were fired but they missed as well.

I surfaced, gulped at the air and ducked back as two or three others fired at me. An arrow cut close. Then there was silence and I burst up again, sucking at the air. In front of me I saw Christine, still swimming as fast as she could.

“Head for shore,” I shouted.

She looked back over her shoulder and then turned. I followed her. We reached the bank and I stood up, the water was about waist deep.

“Where are the others?” she asked.

“Didn’t make it,” I said, shaking my head.

For a moment she didn’t speak and then asked, “Do you think they were captured?”

I moved closer and said, “No. They weren’t captured. I couldn’t get to them.”

She stared at me, her eyes filling with tears. She turned and reached for the root of a tree, dragging herself up, out of the water. She stood for a moment and then collapsed to the ground.

I crawled up after her. I wiped the water from my face and looked back at the Spanish ship. There was activity all over it, but no one seemed inclined to give chase. One man stood on the bow, firing arrows at the water. They fell far short of where we were hiding.

“Christine,” I said, “We’ve got to get out of here. We’ve got to move.”

She didn’t respond immediately. Then, rather than speak, she got to her feet and stood waiting.

I moved to her and held her. She was shaking and I wondered if it was her attempt to control her emotions or if she was cold from the water. We stood close for a moment and then I let her go and turned.

“We have to get moving.”

She nodded her agreement.

Together, we headed to the south, along the bank of the river. To the right of us was thick jungle, so dense that we couldn’t see more than a couple of feet into it. A giant green wall climbed high above us. To the left were a few scattered bushes, some tall trees, their roots dipping into the water and, of course, the wide expanse of the river. The water was clear and in some places so shallow that we could easily see the bottom. We could see the fish swimming just under the surface.

It didn’t take us long to put distance between us and the Spanish ship. I stopped frequently, but there was no sign of pursuit. It was as if the men on the ship didn’t care that we had gotten away. Of course, I had shot the captain and if there wasn’t a well established chain of command, the sailors might be fighting among themselves for the top spot. Not the best way to run a military command, but one that would allow us to get out of here before they got organized.

We kept traveling, staying close to the river. I figured that it would provide us with food and with a means of travel. All we had to do was remain patient.

After an hour or so, we stopped to rest. I took out the pistol and examined it. Using my shirt, I cleaned it as best I could. When I was finished, we started moving again, always heading away from the Spanish ship and the little bit of civilization that we had seen near it.

We finally came to a small dock. There was a wide spot in the jungle and the trail leading into it. I looked up the trail but it was like looking into a long, green tunnel with nothing visible at the far end.

I turned and saw the boat tied to the dock. It was a reed boat, woven with loving care. The weave was so tight that there was only a little water in the bottom of it. Without thinking, I pushed Christine toward it. When she stepped down into it, I slipped the rope from the pole on the dock and climbed in beside her. I leaned back and shoved. We floated out to the middle of the river, were caught in the current and began the next stage of our journey.

“Should we take this?” asked Christine, somewhat belatedly.

That was a question that I hadn’t thought about. Someone had made this boat and they hadn’t done it for my benefit. I had just slipped the rope stealing it. Taking the boat was wrong, and I knew it, but I wanted to get out and this, I believed, was the quickest way.

I said, “This will get us out of here.” It wasn’t much in the way of justification.

She looked at me and then, without a word, stretched out in the bottom of the boat. She looked as if she was going to speak but then said nothing. She closed her eyes and in moments, surprising me, she was asleep.

I sat there for several minutes, watching the shore, waiting for a pursuit. When it didn’t develop, I shrugged and laid down next to Christine. I reached out and touched her sun hot skin, smiled at her and thought that things might work out. I shoved the thoughts of Huana and Eric from my mind. I would have to deal with all that later, when I had the chance. Now I needed to stay alert. And in that, I failed.

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