“I’m thinkin’ we be in the Aucklan’ Current,” Jacob confided that evening over the supper he shared with her in the hold. “This time o’year it run to the east o’ New Zealan’, down past Poverty Bay and heads fer the South Islan’.”
“So you think we’re headed for New Zealand, then? The Captain doesn’t know where we—”
“The ‘Cap’n’ ain’t a real cap’n,” Jacob interrupted, “and don’t know sh—”
“—I understand,” Aleksandra cut in, flashing him a grin.
“Jus’ so we understan’ each oth’r” He smirked.
“So how would I find Coromandel Town from that coast?” Aleksandra muttered into her salt pork.
“I don’ be likin’ yer chances, Mrs. Arguello.”
“Please, call me Aleks.”
“There be some awful big mount’ns a’tween that’n east coast n’ Coro Town. Ye’ll need’n t’ find a mission house’n ask ’em fer help. They c’n prob’ly find ye a native to guide ye,” he whispered, blowing flakes of hard tack, eating and speaking at the same time. “There be lots’a boats comin’ thru’ here’n, all a time.”
“Jacob, we owe you more than you can ever know. If we all get through this alive, remember to come and find us, wherever we are. We’re seeking a man called von Tempsky. He’s from Poland, where my family comes from, and Xavier met him in San Francisco. He’s a man who’s a bit bigger than life, so I’m sure you can find him, and through him, us. When you tire of the sea, you’ll always have a place with us.”
The boy’s eyes shone wetly in the dimness, and he ran a sleeve across his eyes. “Thank’ee, Mrs … Aleks.” He gulped. “Ain’t no one ever said nuthin’ like ‘at b’fore. My thanks. I’d best be goin’ now. I’m thinkin’ yer land’ll be here soon, t’morrow, mebbe?”
“Thank you, Jacob, from the bottom of my heart, now go.” She gave him a push and he turned and dashed up the ramp.
“And what was all that about?” Broadhurst strode in, the collar of Jacob’s shirt in his clenched fist. “Why did the boy run out of here, and why were you two so quiet talking together?”
Aleksandra looked down at the ground. “Well, sir,” she put her hands over her face, “I do believe I embarrassed him, being frank with him about a woman’s needs …” She rubbed her eyes and effected a sob or two. “With my man not available, why, I just wanted a little closeness, but … but the boy’s as good as his word, and I’m a married woman … a bad, bad married woman. Oh please, please, don’t tell my husband I’ve been unfaithful in my heart,” she said with a sob.
“That true, Jacob?” Broadhurst growled.
“Well, yes, sir, ’tis,” he said in a small voice.
Aleksandra peeked between her fingers to see the boy biting his cheeks to keep him from laughing aloud.
“Aleksandra.” Jacob lightly touched her shoulder as she slept beneath Dzień’s head.
She sat up in the darkness and reached out to the boy. Dzień whickered softly at the seaman, then nuzzled the back of Aleksandra’s neck, his whiskers tickling her fully awake.
“Good save yest’day, wi’ the Cap’n’. He just’n ’bout found ye out,” he whispered. She could swear she saw him grin in the pitch-darkness. “I smell’n land. It’s jus’ aft’r midnight, but I smell it, and I hear some o’ them li’l owls them have, them’r callin’ ’em moreporks.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“First light, if’n it’s safe, I’ll knock on th’ deck above ye four times. Ye come out ‘n ride fer yer life. I’ll have m’ men ready so’s ye don’ get shot while yer swimmin’, but there won’ be much’n time. If’n it gets t’ be no safe, I’ll bang three times. Ye’ll have to do summat else, mebbe use th’ two horses’n like we said.”
“OK. I’ll be ready.” She grinned.
“I’ll be tellin’ yer man how ye went,” he whispered, and they clasped hands before he melted into the night.
Sleep came hard, but she got some, in fits and starts, as the ship rocked through the night.
“It must be near to dawn,” Aleksandra murmured to Dzień as he nuzzled her hair and shifted his weight to his other hind leg.
She sat with her skirt loosely tied over her short trousers, arms clasped around her knees. Her pack remained hidden yet, Dzień’s bridle stowed with it. No sound had yet come from the boards above.
At the sound of footsteps, she looked between the planks lining the front of Dzień’s stall and her brow furrowed. This wasn’t what she and Jacob had planned.
“Over here,” she whispered.
“Expecting someone, are you?” Broadhurst sauntered into view.
“Only wishful thinking,” Aleksandra said, as she pulled her blanket up under her chin over her fully dressed frame. Her heart pounded so loudly, she was sure he would hear it from six feet away.
“Better get used to the idea that your husband won’t be coming back to you. He’ll be hanged for what he did to Symes. Remember that,” he said, his jaw clenched as he spun about and stomped up the ramp.
“Thank you for the visit,” she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice.
“Just wanted to remind you that I’m watching you,” he said, without bothering to turn to face her.
How she wanted to bury her throwing knife between his shoulder blades.
Four knocks came through the ceiling boards. The captain’s footsteps stopped.
“What’s that?” he growled, spinning around to face her.
“It’s still dark, you’ve come and woken me up from a sound sleep, you hear noises, and you ask me what they are?” Her voice raised as she railed at him, making sure it reached maximum volume by the end. “Good night, Captain Broadhurst,” she shrieked at him, her hands clenched at her sides.
He took a deep breath, then resumed his walk topside.
Two minutes later, three knocks, repeated, sounded.
Aleksandra assembled all just beside the door and went for a walk to see the lay of the land. She walked the long way to the privy, which gave her the view all around the ship as she walked, slowly and a bit unsteadily, as if still groggy from sleep. As she turned a corner, she saw the captain heading back toward the galley and his cabin, then she heard a door click closed. Ducking into a narrow space where she couldn’t be observed, she strained her eyes to starboard, searching the horizon. There, rising from the straight line of the sea, were the jagged lines of mountains, glorious mountains. She had to bite her tongue to keep from crying out as she quietly opened, then slammed the privy door shut, then slipped back the way she’d come, seeing no one on her way. As she entered the hold, she heard four faint knocks on the wood above.
She smiled. Jacob was on the job.
Dzień took the bit she proffered, then Aleksandra’s fingers flew as she slipped the crownpiece over his head, buckled the throatlatch and finally flicked the split reins around his neck. Slinging the pack onto her back, she strapped it on tightly. One tug on the string of the waistband of her skirt and it slid to her feet. She stepped out of it and shivered, feeling naked in only the thin men’s trousers.
Opening the stable door fully, she swung up onto her pony and they dashed away, up the ramp from the hold to the ‘tween decks. She turned the corner to go up to the top deck and Dzień slid to a halt as a shadow rose up before them, hands held high.
“Stop,” Broadhurst barked.
The captain dropped his hands and walked toward them, shaking his head.
“Stupid, stupid. That’s the oldest trick in the book.” He grinned as he reached for Dzień’s reins.
Aleksandra’s father hadn’t spent years training her and her mount in the Cossack ways for nothing. She drew her shashka as Dzień rose up on his hind legs in a levade, tucking his forelegs up to protect his rider and free her to swipe at Broadhurst, who dodged, but not before he received a slice across the inside of his right forearm for his efforts.
She saw the captain’s fingers jerk backwards and he screamed. Desperately hoping he shot his pistol right handed, she called to Dzień and he leapt over the man who crouched before them, holding his arm.
Dzień galloped the rest of the way up to the deck and along to the loading area. She aimed him for the spot on deck that gave her the longest run at the five-foot high balustrade. Dzień gave a great grunt as his forelegs left the ground and his hind hooves, softened by the long trip in the damp hold, slipped.
Good thing the pony tended to jump big.
Aleksandra held her breath and kept her eyes up as she felt him swing his hindquarters sideways to miss the rail in his slightly botched jump. His hind hooves clipped the top of the balustrade, but then they were over, and falling, falling until they hit the dark water.
Expected Available May 2017! Look for it!