Chapter Twelve: Cockups & Fisticuffs
Elizabeth was doubled over, panting and gasping for breath. Drops of sweat beaded down her face and splashed down on the forecastle deck. "I can't go on anymore, amigo," she said in a tired little voice. "I feel as if I've got jelly for bones and water for muscles."
Miguel smiled. "For your first day, you did better than I expected, bonita. Tomorrow, we'll practice some more with your knife dancing, but tonight, we celebrate!"
"What do you mean?"
Miguel's single eye twinkled. "You and I are going ashore for a pint." When Elizabeth protested, he waved his hands through the air and said, "Do not argue with me, bonita! It will be good for you to see the port, experience a little life instead of staying aboard the Quartier with none but these sea dogs for company."
Elizabeth was apprehensive, but as Miguel continued to persuade her, she became more confident... and curious. What would the fabulous Port Royale be like? She'd read about the Jamaican town, but seeing words on paper and experiencing the real thing - well, there really wasn't a comparison! The more she thought about it, the more she became convinced that Miguel was right; she should go ashore, if only to indulge her curiosity.
But there was one last doubt that needed to be addressed. "What about Captain O'Malley? Won't she be angry if she finds out I've been away?"
Miguel poo-poohed the suggestion. "Once she learns you intend to stay with us, bonita, there will be no trouble. I'm sure of it. Now go to your cabin and I'll bring you some clothes. I hate to cover such loveliness, but you will have to dress as a boy. The only women in Port Royale are whores, tavern keeps and alewives; besides, I'm too old a man to have to beat off all those suitors should they catch a glimpse of your true charms."
Elizabeth blushed; she knew Miguel's flattery was half teasing, but still... even a playful compliment was better than being called the "Great Gawk."
She hurried across the deck to the captain's cabin,
already dreaming about the adventure she'd find in this notorious pirate
paradise... little dreaming that all too soon, her girlish fantasy would be
transformed into bloody, gunpowder-tinged reality.
She also, at Miguel's insistence, carried a loaded flintlock thrust into her sash, a cutlass and a knife. She had no intention of using any of the weapons and would have left them off, but the Spaniard told her that everyone went armed in Port Royale; to do otherwise would attract unnecessary attention.
The final touch was a dusting of dirt on her cheeks and throat, to give the faint suggestion of beard stubble. Elizabeth screwed up her eyes as Miguel rubbed his hands on the boots of a few of the returned crewmen and then slapped the resulting grime on her face.
Satisfied at last - and carping at Elizabeth to stand up straight; tall men didn't slouch - Miguel rowed them both away from the Sans Quartier and to the dock, leaving the dinghy tied up among dozens of others.
The first thing that struck Elizabeth was the smell, an almost overwhelming stench of unwashed bodies, urine, the contents of chamberpots flung haphazardly onto the street. The gutters ran with foul smelling, liquid waste; adding to the stew were the odors of chickens, pigs, rotting vegetables and other trash. Although it was only late afternoon, the taverns were already full of drunken sailors; the streets were littered with the unconscious bodies of men who had either lost a brawl or simply drank themselves into a stupor. From the upper stories of many buildings, women in various stages of undress called down to the passing throng with promises of ecstasy - for a price. Vendors of fruits, cooked snacks, second-hand goods and stolen articles cried their wares. Together with the women's strident voices, the cackling of chickens, squealing of pigs, neighing of horses and the muffled singing and shouting that filtered out of the smoky taverns, Port Royale was a cacophony of sounds, sights and smells that made the newcomer Elizabeth's eyes water.
They started off in one of Miguel's favorite taverns, the Pig and Poke. It was here that the maid had her first taste of rum, and the fiery beverage that burned its way down into her stomach made her gasp and choke. Miguel pounded her helpfully on the back, laughing as she coughed and sputtered. After the first cup, however, Elizabeth noticed that the rum no longer tasted foul, nor did it set her belly on fire. With a knowing grin, Miguel refilled her cup and settled back to enjoy a pipe of tobacco and their blonde serving maid's prominent charms.
From the Pig and Poke, it was only a short walk to another tavern, the Monkey's Uncle. More rum was passed about, then strong beer, and soon Elizabeth was in a relaxed state that made her forget her apprehensions altogether. She sat at a table with Miguel and a few other pirates, a petite brunette from France perched on her knee, singing a drinking song with great relish and many gestures. Beer flew from her mug and the brunette landed on the floor as Elizabeth - more filled with drink than musical ability - stood up and enthusiastically sang the chorus in a cracked, off-key soprano that made the men guffaw.
"Oh, Peg-leg Peggy was a beauty in her
And she plied the seas, oh, hey, ho!
She had no teeth and plenty of fleas,
Her breath would make a bilge rat sneeze,
Her face would make the hellfires freeze,
Her deck was splintered and her hold diseased,
When she spread her thighs t'was a fisher's breeze!
But Peg-leg Peggy was a lady of means...
And she plied the seas, oh, hey, ho!"
The men laughed uproariously and called for another round. Elizabeth, flushed with success, plopped down in her chair and nearly fell over backwards as she lost her balance. She managed to reel back upright; her head was spinning and her face shone with greasy sweat. Miguel, who was fairly drunk himself, broke off the dice game he'd been playing, scooped up his winnings, and with a friendly arm around her shoulders, steered Elizabeth to the final tavern of the afternoon, one of the most popular ale houses in Port Royale.
The Swan's Ear.
Elizabeth took a tentative gulp from her tankard of ale and made a face. Suddenly, the beverage didn't taste as nice as it had a few minutes before. In fact, the combination of ale, wine, rum and other liquors, as well as the tavern's atmosphere, redolent of tobacco smoke, stale sweat and other odors too vile to mention, was beginning to make her stomach boil and bubble in protest.
With a definite greenish tinge to her face, Elizabeth staggered up from the table, shoving aside the bystanders who'd been hanging over the table watching a game of cutthroat whist between Miguel and another sailor. Sweating profusely and mouth filling with evil-tasting saliva, she felt as if she was suffocating. She needed air!
The Swan's Ear was packed with customers, making it virtually impossible to reach the front door and freedom. Her belly cramped and she could feel the vomit rising up in her throat. Whimpering and desperate, Elizabeth barely reached a shadowy corner of the room before the contents of her stomach erupted, splattering on the floor. She heaved and retched, doubled over in convulsions, thin acid burning her nose and throat. Finally, when she thought her liver was going to come up as well, the urge passed and she was able to stand up straight. Her head felt as if it was clamped in a vise, her boots were covered in vomit and the inside of her mouth tasted like a midden heap. Elizabeth stepped away from her mess, feeling dizzy and groaning slightly as her skull throbbed. She grabbed a tankard of ale from a nearby table and rinsed out her mouth, the taste of the liquid nearly making her puke again.
Still in desperate need of air, Elizabeth began to climb the stairs that led to the upper rooms. If she could just lean out a window for a moment...
She hadn't gotten all the way to the top when she had the strangest vision.
It seemed like a muscular, shaven headed and heavily armed sailor walked by, dragging a boy who looked like Graciela by the arm.
But surely the pirate captain couldn't be here, of all places...
Elizabeth looked again, blinking owlishly. It wasn't a vision; there really was a sailor who was trying to force a dark haired boy into a room. Just then, the boy's voice raised in protest and Elizabeth blinked again. It was Graciela all right... and she seemed to be in trouble.
She called out, "Captain! Are you all *hic* right?"
Suddenly, a door flew open and a portly man staggered out. "Kill the bitch!," he hollered.
The sailor who held Graciela yanked on her arm, yelling, "It's YOU!," and reached for the flintlock at his belt.
Elizabeth didn't think twice. She scrabbled at her sash, grabbed her own flintlock, aimed with her tongue clenched firmly between her teeth...
And pulled the trigger.
To Graciela's shock, it was true.
The tall maid was dressed in men's clothing with a tricorn hat hanging askew over one green eye. The barrel of the flintlock she held wavered dangerously but it was definitely pointed in the pirate's general direction. Her brain reeling with amazement, Graciela still had sense enough to duck when Elizabeth's finger tightened on the trigger.
The ball of the pistol screamed past, just missing Josephus and taking a nick out of his ear. With a bellow of rage and pain, the sailor let go of Graciela and turned to deal with this new threat. Graciela wasted no time; as soon as she was free, she swung her knee up and slammed it into his groin with every ounce of muscle she had behind it; Josephus let out a strangled scream and sank to his knees, doubled over in agony. A vicious snap of her foot against the side of his head ensured he'd sleep for a good long time.
Elizabeth was still standing there with a look of bemusement on her face. Harry Wagstaff was lumbering down the hall, waving his cutlass. Graciela stooped down and hastily slid Josephus' cutlass out of his belt. Ducking beneath Harry's first wild blow, Graciela turned about and slapped the back of his trousers with the flat of her blade, making him dance in pain.
Billy-Bones' black skinned face was a study in consternation and confusion. The prostitute Megan, having heard a shot, emerged from her room and gathering up her skirts in both hands, tip-toed past the guard and began to edge down the stairs. Billy-Bones looked from Graciela, to Elizabeth, to Megan, and seemed to be trying to make up his mind as to which threat to deal with first. Elizabeth, seeing Graciela fighting Wagstaff, made up his mind for him when she drew her dagger and clambered up the remaining steps, intent upon helping the captain.
Although she had no clue as to what was going on, Elizabeth had some vague idea that 1) Graciela was in trouble; 2) Since she had decided to remain onboard the Quartier, the maid was a part of the crew - unofficial status notwithstanding; 3) In her inebriated state, helping the captain seemed like the logical thing to do under the circumstances.
With that in mind, she got the dagger out of her belt and into her hand. What she'd do with it was still unclear but she'd figure that out when she got there. When she reached the hallway, however, Billy-Bones was blocking her way, a loaded flintlock in each hand. Elizabeth stared down at those twin bores which menaced her and then with an effort, focused on the man who held them. He was a good deal shorter than she was and slightly built. When she took another step forward, Billy-Bones gritted, "Hold it there, Storklegs. I'm a man o' few words and these shooters does all my speakin' for me."
This struck Elizabeth as hilariously funny and she began to laugh, bringing a scowl to Billy-Bones' sunburnt face. He waved the flintlocks around. "Surrender or die," he said melodramatically.
Elizabeth laughed harder. Finally, unable to bear any more of this funny little man's comedy, she simply reached out and snatched the pistols right out of his hands. Leaning down to put her face on a level with his, Elizabeth pulled the triggers, sending balls of lead shot into the floor on either side of his feet. Billy-Bones' was too dark to actually turn pale but his color did become murky, like strong coffee diluted with milk. She tossed the spent flintlocks over her shoulder and straightened up, then swung her arm back and let her fist fly at his chin. The blow connected, sending Billy-Bones crashing to the floor like a pole-axed ox.
Blowing on her smarting knuckles, Elizabeth looked around for more foes to vanquish, hiccuping intermittently.
In the meantime, Graciela had gotten Wagstaff in a corner. Trapping his blade on hers, she twisted her wrist and sent his cutlass flying. Smashing the hilt of her sword into his face, she turned and ran down the hallway. As she passed Elizabeth, she panted, "Come on!"
Elizabeth just stood there, sucking on a sore knuckle.
Halfway down the stairs, Graciela growled an obscenity, turned around, went back up to the hallway, grabbed Elizabeth's arm and pulled her along at a trot. Elizabeth obediently followed, knife still naked in her hand. The two women had just reached the common room when Harry Wagstaff appeared at the head of the stairs. His nose was swelling mightily and a cut on his lip sent a cascade of blood over his chin, but the old man was in clear command of his senses.
He sucked in a breath and bellowed, "A thousand pounds to the man who kills Graciela O'Malley!"
The tavern was suddenly as quiet as a pauper's grave...
And every eye in the place had a speculative gleam as
they turned towards the dark-haired pirate and the red-head in the ill-fitting
hat who held her hand and smiled.
Miguel began to sweat. He'd been playing a game of dice at a table with five sailors from the Brimstone. He'd lost track of Elizabeth when she'd gone off to be sick, but had figured she'd turn up sooner or later. Now, seeing her AND the captain together - how in the HELL had Cap'n come here, of all places? - and realizing that the two women were in more danger now than ever before, he cast around frantically for a plan.
A couple of chairs were shoved back and two unshaven, long haired men approached the center of the room. One of them had a short chain with a dagger point attached to the end; he unwrapped it from his wrist and began to whirl the weapon around in a circle with casual skill. The other one called up to Wagstaff: "That reward dead or alive?"
"Either," Wagstaff declared. Now that he had Graciela trapped, he was beginning to feel a bit better. "Unless Captain O'Malley decides to return the property she stole from me."
Graciela looked around; she still had her cutlass and Elizabeth had her dagger - what in the HELL was Lizzybet doing with that pigsticker? - but that was about it. Against a roomful of armed and very dangerous men - most of whom were much the worse for drink - their pitiful weapons didn't inspire confidence in their escape. Still, Graciela had gotten out of tighter situations than that before. She tightened her grip on the hilt of her cutlass and spat, "If you're man enough, Harry Wagstaff, come and take it!"
Miguel swallowed hard. If he joined the captain in her suicidal stance, he'd risk his life for nothing. There was no way he could save her single-handedly... unless...
He stood abruptly, knocking over the table with a bang. Seizing one of the sailors he'd been dicing with by the collar of his shirt, he screamed wildly, "You cheat, maricon! How many sides have these dice of yours?"
The sailor's eyes swiveled and he opened his mouth to reply, but Miguel slapped him briskly across the face, released his shirt and drew a knife. "I'll take my winnings out of your hide, bastardo, and cut off your cojones!"
The sailor's friends stood up, their chairs clattering to the floor.
The other patrons of the tavern, sensing a much more spectacular fight, let their attention wander away from Graciela and Elizabeth.
Cords standing out in his neck, Miguel yelled, "Comemierda!," and slashed at the sailor's face.
The man flinched and fell backwards, knocking a pint pot out of another man's hands. With a growl, the other man punched the sailor in the face. Someone else hollered a few salty oaths, sailors abruptly remembered half-forgotten grudges against their neighbors... and a general free-for-all erupted.
Chairs flew through the air; tankards smashed against the walls, spraying ale and rum everywhere; the bartender laid about indiscriminately with his belaying pin; and the two men who had confronted Graciela were swallowed up by the flailing mob. The serving wenches snatched up trays and brass spittoons, smacking people over the head and shrieking with delight. Megan, caught up in the melee, defended herself with a broken bottle, jabbing anyone and everyone in her attempt to escape.
Despite the madness, Graciela kept her head. She dropped the cutlass - it was nearly useless in such close quarters - and pried Elizabeth's knife out of her hand. Using the point and crouching low to avoid flying debris, Graciela slowly made her way to the door, her free hand towing the maid by her fringed sash. Elizabeth scuttled behind the pirate on her hands and knees, tripping fighters left and right, giggling insanely.
As soon as they reached the outside, Graciela got to her feet. "Lizzybet! Come on, querida... we've got to get back to the Quartier."
Elizabeth resisted Graciela's efforts to pull her upright. "Can't we stay and play for a few minutes more?," she wheedled.
Graciela rolled her eyes and pulled harder. "Dammit, woman! Come on!"
With an aggrieved sigh, Elizabeth staggered upright. "I've got a headache anyway," she said with a monumental pout. "Why does my head hurt so much?"
"I'll explain later... if there is a later," Graciela muttered. "Now walk, querida. NOW!"
Rubbing her throbbing temples and feeling rather ill, Elizabeth followed the pirate back to the dock. The two women didn't exchange any words all the way back to the ship; the maid was too miserable and Graciela was fuming.
Eyeing the crestfallen, white-faced maid, the pirate felt a burst of anger that tingled all the way up from her toes.
When Miguel returned to the Sans Quartier, there'd be a hellish price to pay; of that, Graciela was certain. What Elizabeth was doing ashore still remained a mystery, but it was one that the pirate was determined to solve as soon as possible. Headache or no headache, Graciela was going to get answers out of the girl...
One way or the other.