The Continuing Adventures of a Pirate Queen
 
Copyright Nene Adams 1998-1999. No portion of this publication
may be reproduced or copied without the author's permission.
 
 
 
 

Chapter Eighteen: Gunshots and Gallows

Elizabeth grimaced. It was much hotter ashore than it had been on the ship and the tight cotton trousers that she was wearing were chafing in the most delicate places. She'd been forced to borrow a pair from Davy Mulvaney and although the length was good, her womanly hips and buttocks were wedged into the trousers like a cork in a bottle. It was a good thing that she'd bound her breasts with a strip of linen; even though her shirt was loose, she was sweating so much that it stuck to the skin of her back and chest.

She swiped a hand across her eyes; they stung from the salt and the sun. "How much longer?" she hissed. A red-dyed rag was wrapped turban-style around her head and she felt as if her brain was boiling from the heat.

Miguel turned to regard her with his good eye; the other was covered with a black patch to conceal the ruby he habitually wore in the empty socket. "Not much," he replied. "We'll strike as soon as we get the signal." He glanced about; he, Elizabeth and three other of the crew had stationed themselves close to the gallows' stair, standing almost in the shadow of the wooden platform. When the executioner had tested the trapdoor, sending the bag of sand at the end of the noose crashing down, they'd all stared at the mock prisoner soberly. There, but for the grace of her crew and the luck of the Devil, went Graciela herself.

There were other crewmembers mingling among the crowd. Some would provide a distraction when the time came; others had specific targets, mostly the guards that ringed the area. Everyone was armed to the teeth; Miguel hadn't spared a single firearm or sword aboard the Sans Quartier, knowing that the want of a single flintlock might mean the difference between his captain's life or death.

When Elizabeth had delivered Graciela's cryptic message yesterday afternoon, the Spaniard had immediately understood its significance. Graciela hadn't had time to get off the Brimstone with the map but she'd been able to put it beyond the reach of her enemies, probably by tying it to something and dropping it in the harbor. By taking a sighting on the constellation Orion from the porthole of Splitfoot's cabin on the Brimstone, they'd have a good chance of finding it.

And so he'd done, rowing over to the unmanned Brimstone with several hands who'd had experience diving. Splitfoot's men were all ashore - dicing, wenching and drinking - and not even a skeleton crew had been left aboard. The only occupant had been Splitfoot's monkey, a scrofulous little beast who'd perched on the rail and chattered ill-tempered insults at the diving men.

It had taken a couple of hours of searching - no easy task after dark, with the waters murky and no light to work by save the moon. The men had had to scrabble around on the bottom, looking for the map by feel, and with no idea what it might be attached to... if anything. Eventually, after bringing up various items including broken lanterns, boots, beef bones, clay pipes, snuff boxes and a load of other trash, and Miguel threatening to keel-haul the lot of them if they didn't succeed, one of the men unearthed a flintlock... with an oilcloth packet attached to it.

Now the contents of that packet rested with the remainder of the map pieces in Graciela's cabin. All that was lacking now was Graciela herself to make the Spaniard relax and draw an easy breath for the first time in weeks.

The sun's heat beat down like a hammer and the captain was now being led up the stairs to the gallows. Miguel grunted and rubbed his upper lip; he hadn't been able to get a look at her in the cell yesterday. She'd been injured, perhaps tortured; bruises blossomed on her face, her bottom lip and one cheekbone were split and scabbed, there were cuts on her forehead, hands, chin and bare feet. When the black clad executioner placed the noose around her neck, the Spaniard was hard pressed to stay still. He made a convulsive movement, immediately arrested, and blew out a noisy breath.

Elizabeth laid a hand on his arm. "When?" she whispered.

She was only a hairsbreadth shorter than he was and close enough that he could count every freckle on her nose and each bead of sweat on her flushed face. Miguel felt doubt for the first time since he'd begun this venture. Could Elizabeth be relied upon to do her part? She'd had only a little training and although she seemed willing, it was still a difficult thing to kill a man, to look into his terrified eyes and know that by sending a bullet into his brain you'd be depriving the world of that life forever. You never forgot the first time you killed and many men regretted taking that final, irrevocable step towards lawlessness, putting themselves forever beyond the pale of decency, regarded as little more than an animal by a law abiding citizens and the authorities alike.

"The Cap'n will give us the signal," he whispered back. "Hold yourself ready, bonita. T'won't be long now." He wouldn't say anything of his doubts to Elizabeth; she was nervous enough as it was and he wouldn't undermine her confidence before such dangerous action.

Up on the platform, Lord Jeffrey had arrived and was reading the charges. Elizabeth glanced around; every eye was locked on the glittering figure of the governor. She surreptitiously checked her weapons; underneath her loose, knee-length shirt she had a long bladed knife and a blunderbuss strapped to her thighs. The wide-bored gun's barrel was half as long as her forearm and it was loaded with quail shot; a devastating weapon with enough power to blow a hole bigger than her fist through a man's face or body at short range.

Beside her, Miguel stiffened. Lord Jeffrey had drawn very close to Graciela and the two were whispering back and forth. The crowd began to grow restless, muttering and shifting in their places. A baby wailed, a high pitched, angry squeal that was quickly muffled by an offered breast. As hot as it was, and without a breath of air to relieve the punishing heat, the rotting fish stench from the docks and other equally foul odors from the town hung over their heads like a miasma.

Suddenly, the executioner staggered back, falling against his assistant and plunging them both off the platform to the ground below. Up on the gallows, Graciela tossed aside the heavy Bible she'd struck the executioner with and brandished a flintlock. Looping her bound hands over the governor's head and yanking him close to her in a strangling grip, she put the barrel of the flintlock against his cheek and cocked the trigger. He immediately ceased struggling and went completely still, only his chest moving rapidly up and down as he sucked in great gulps of air.

"Twitch and I'll blow your brainpan apart," Graciela said. Then she raised her voice and shouted, "To me! Sans Quartier, to me!"

As soon as the executioner fell, Miguel and Elizabeth made their moves. The guards on the fringes of the crowd were attacked by other crewmembers; the crowd screamed and surged away from the execution grounds in a complete panic, trampling over one another in their eagerness to get away. The Spaniard took the stairs two at a time, pulling a pair of flintlocks from his coat and firing them simultaneously at two guards on the platform. Elizabeth was right behind him.

She whipped the blunderbuss up, pointing it directly at an ashen faced guard. The man raised his own flintlock, his eyes huge and staring. Elizabeth shook her head and forced herself to keep the barrel of the blunderbuss steady. "Drop it and run," she said in a small tight voice.

The guard shook but his flintlock's aim never wavered. His finger tightened on the trigger.

Elizabeth's eyes went wide. "Don't do it!" she cried.

His finger tightened further. Greasy sweat poured down his forehead, ran into his eyes, dripped off the end of his nose.

Elizabeth bit her lip so hard it bled. Her world narrowed to a pinpoint surrounded by darkness; the guard's wet, strained face, the black hole of the flintlock barrel staring at her like a malevolent eye. Almost without her volition, she pulled the trigger of the blunderbuss and the man's face disintegrated in a cloud of blood and bone.

The whole incident had taken no more than a few moments. The acrid scent of gunpowder receded and the guard's body collapsed on the floor. Elizabeth gagged, retched, nearly dropped the blunderbuss. Instead, as Miguel sawed at the rope around Graciela's neck and the captain continued to threaten Lord Jeffrey, she knelt on one knee and re-loaded the blunderbuss with shaking hands as she'd been taught, pouring a shaky stream of gunpowder into the barrel, stuffing in heavy lead quail shot and tamping the whole down with her fingers until it was tight.

Graciela was free; she kept Lord Jeffrey in her grasp, however, her flintlock pressed so tightly against his cheek that his eye bulged. Below on the execution grounds, her crewmen had finished off the guards and the crowd had dispersed. Clouds of gunpowder smoke drifted here and there, ghosts of the deadly battle that had just been fought. Elizabeth fought down the gorge that had risen in her throat, pushing the memory of her victim to the back of her mind. She got up and forced her uncertain knees to bear her weight. They weren't out of danger yet. The soldiers at nearby Fort Charleston would have heard the shots and were probably on their way.

Miguel sheathed his knife, turned and ran a critical eye over the execution ground. Some civilians had been injured, lay groaning or ominously still upon the grass, but he figured that was more from the stampede than his men's actions. The governor's guards were a different matter. Those who still lived had been trussed like turkeys, stout rope coiled heavily about their limbs and immobilizing them, dirty rags shoved in their mouths served as gags. This was a pitiful few, however; most of Lord Jeffrey's men had preferred to go down fighting rather than surrender to pirates.

Miguel barked a few orders and the crewmen gathered at the platform. He wanted them to get out of here as quickly as possible, before the soldiers from the fort arrived.

Graciela tightened her grip around the governor's throat. "P'raps you'd care to hang in my place, Sir Justice? Nay? Well, then, what's to be done with the rotten likes of you, then?"

Miguel stepped to Graciela's side. "We'd best get going, Cap'n. Reinforcements can't be too far off."

"Pity I can't stay and treat you to some of your own methods, Your Excellency, but I've a ship to get out on the tide." Graciela released the man, spinning him around and shoving him sprawling to the wooden floor. Lord Jeffrey stared up at her in frozen shock; his periwig had been knocked from his head, revealing his bald, liver spotted skull. The lead paint on his face had melted and dripped down his chin, showing the raddled cheeks and veined nose of a habitual drinker. He'd lost every shred of dignity, every spark of pride, and looked like the pitiful old man that he was. As Graciela watched, a wet stain spread across the front of his trousers and the ammonia smell of urine floated up. He'd wet himself in fear.

Graciela suddenly felt deflated; the governor wasn't a monster, just a vicious, aging roué, a relic who had no purpose, no real life. She actually felt a little sorry for him.

"Let's go," she said shortly to Miguel, then she noticed Elizabeth for the first time.

The pirate's pale gaze traveled from the girl to the body of the man she'd killed. The blunderbuss in her hands trembled but Elizabeth's face was set and resolute. Graciela said, "Good shooting, querida. I won't forget."

Elizabeth mouth worked; finally her lips parted just barely enough for speech and she replied, "Neither will I."

Graciela gave the supine governor a good kick in the ribs before moving off the platform, keeping her flintlock in her hand. The crumpled cotton dress she wore had been made for a woman even shorter than herself; the hem stopped just shy of her ankles. Her black hair, usually worn shorn at the shoulder but now much shaggier because of her time in prison, hung in limp oily strands around her bruised face. One of her eyes was still swollen shut but the other blazed.

She was free!

Free!

Just then a woman's voice rang out shrilly. "You think you've won, don't you bitch?"

It was Margaret, Countess of Moresby. She'd lost her hat and her honey blond hair had come loose from its pins, falling in a tangled mass down her back, straggling across her face. Her cotton dress had broad streaks of dust and dirt across the embroidered skirt and her amethyst eyes were filled with poisonous hatred.

Graciela paused on the stairs. "Care to be my guest again, puta? I'm sure my men could find a use for you once we're at sea."

Margaret panted, struggling to draw breath. Her hatred of O'Malley rose up until she thought it would choke her. "You haven't won," she repeated. "If it takes forever, I'll see you hanged!"

Sir George appeared beside her, wrapping a beefy hand around the Countess' upper arm. His other hand held a flintlock with an elaborately chased barrel. "Stop right there," he said calmly. His face was red and wet, testifying to the mad scramble he'd made following the Countess down to the execution ground.

Graciela sneered as her crewmen leveled weapons of their own. She noted that Elizabeth, her mouth drawn in a thin, tight line, was pointing her blunderbuss at the man as well.

"Put it down, lad, or I'll set my dogs on you," Graciela said. "I've no time to play toy soldier's games today."

Sir George licked his lips. The seadogs surrounding the woman were fairly bristling with armaments; there was no way he could kill them all with the single shot in his gun. Nor could he risk firing at all - if he missed the pirate captain, it was certain that her rogues would fall upon him and Margaret like the ravening hounds she'd called them.

He would have had no such doubts had it been only his skin at risk but he had to think of the Countess as well. Reluctantly, he lowered his flintlock. Margaret turned upon him with a hiss of disbelief and white hot fury. "How dare you!" she screamed, trying to pull her arm from his grasp. "Coward! Bloody goddamned coward!"

Graciela grinned. "Good lad," she said. From close by came the sounds of many feet running in unison; it was the garrison from the fort. "You've a bit of wisdom after all."

To Sir George's everlasting relief, she didn't order her men to fire but instead moved off at a trot, her crew keeping their weapons ready to defend their captain as they escorted her to her waiting ship. Sir George's wrist began to ache and he lowered the flintlock, wishing he could wipe his brow free of sweat.

The Countess suddenly darted her head forward and bit savagely into the meat of his hand. He released her with an oath and she spat, "Coward!  Vile, contemptible fool! Merde d'oie! Especé de fripouille!"

"Madame, I acted in your best interests," Sir George said with frozen dignity, thrusting his flintlock into the waistband of his trousers and whipping out a handkerchief. He dabbed at the welling blood on his hand. "T'was no act of a goose-shit coward to save your life and if I was the damned scoundrel you named me, I'd have left you to O'Malley's devices."

Margaret found herself desperately wishing for a gun, although it was debatable whether she'd have taken a shot at O'Malley or blown her erstwhile protector to kingdom come. "Damn you for a mother's jackeen, Fitzwilliam! If I were only a man..."

"That is ever the woman's argument," Sir George interrupted as a troop of soldiers trotted into the grassy square. "If you will excuse me, madame, I must see to the governor, organize my men and effect a pursuit. Good day." Now that action was in the offing, Sir George was focused only on the coming battle and the distracting beauty of the Countess had far less impact than before.

Up on the platform, Lord Jeffrey staggered up. He'd replaced the periwig on his head and had clapped a hand on it, fearing to lose it again. At an order from Sir George, several soldiers mounted the gallows and supported the governor while he tried to pull his scattered wits together. When Sir George had finished dispersing his troops with crisp commands, he laid his handkerchief wrapped hand on his heart and gave Lord Jeffrey a shallow bow. "I fear I cannot spare an escort for you, Your Excellency," he said. "Perhaps it would be best for you to return to your tent until the criminal O'Malley and her men have been apprehended."

Lord Jeffrey's maroon eyes were narrow slits. For a long moment he could not speak, such was his anger at the shame and humiliation he had experienced. He imagined the men around him, including Sir George, smirking, secretly laughing and mocking his loss of dignity and pride. "No," he croaked. "I will go with you. I want the woman O'Malley and her crew taken alive if possible." His teeth gleamed in a crooked snarl. "Waste no more time, sir. If they cannot be captured then I want them shot down like the rabid dogs they are."

Sir George nodded. "Yes sir." He issued a few more commands and the party left the execution ground, moving swiftly to intercept the escaping pirates.

Margaret watched them leave, her bosom heaving up and down in impassioned fury. When the soldiers were out of sight, she whirled around and marched back up to the tent, vowing revenge against O'Malley and her errant maid Elizabeth - for she'd recognized the girl who'd betrayed her, that Judas colored and Judas souled harlot - and damned the whole race of men for cowards and soulless bastards.

She would have her vengeance somehow.

Afire with hatred and anger, the beautiful Countess vowed in her heart that she would not rest until O'Malley and Elizabeth danced at the end of a hangman's noose.

Searing pain shot through her side; Graciela placed a supporting hand on her broken ribs and kept up the pace she'd set. Although she was exhausted, could barely draw breath and heartily wished to lay down and sleep for a hundred years, she knew that if she wanted to live, she'd have to keep moving. Her men would probably have carried her if necessary but she'd have dropped dead in the street before showing such weakness before her crew.

Elizabeth gave Graciela a sidelong glance. The pirate's face was white beneath a sheen of sweat and her breathing was irregular, coming in short harsh bursts instead of a healthier pattern.

They were at the docks now; a skiff waited to row them back to the Sans Quartier. The ship was sea ready; Miguel had made sure they could set sail as soon as all hands were aboard. The Sans Quartier's cannons were loaded and aimed at the fort, in case they had to shoot their way out of the harbor. The long nine guns, with their heavier cannonball loads and long barrels, would reach shore easily and destroy anything in their path. Match tubs had been set out, their perforated covers holding dozens of rows of slow matches which already smoldered. There was plenty of shot and powder for the swivel guns and Miguel had rigged a surprise for Captain Jack Splitfoot when he and his men had visited the Brimstone yesterday evening.

Elizabeth jogged along, growing more and more concerned about Graciela by the second. The captain had stumbled twice, once almost falling on her face but catching herself with wrenching effort. When the pirate nearly fell again, Elizabeth made a decision and swerved to Graciela's side. She wrapped her free arm around Graciela's waist and tried to take as much of the woman's weight as she could. Miguel noticed this and was swift to establish himself on the captain's other side. Between the two of them, Graciela's feet barely skimmed the earth as they trotted along.

Graciela was too tired and in too much pain to fight this unlooked for aid. She was feeling light headed and dizzy; the adrenaline surge she'd experienced on the gallows had receded, leaving her in worse shape than before. She put an arm around her helper's necks and fought to stay conscious.

Their footsteps thudded loudly on the wooden planks of the dock. Fishermen, alewives, whores from the nearby stews, traders and sailors watched their progress and none raised a hand to stop the escapee and her rescuers. Just as Elizabeth and Miguel were carefully lowering Graciela into the waiting arms of the crewmen in the skiff, a shot rang over their heads. Sir George, Lord Jeffrey and about half a dozen soldiers had come up behind them; they stood at the shore end of the dock, the guard's conquistador helmets dazzling, almost blindingly bright in the sun.

"Stop where you are!" Sir George said. He cut an almost buffoonish figure in his too short coat, bandy legs and cockaded hat, but the flintlock in his hand, and the weapons of his soldiers, were not funny at all.

Miguel looked down at the skiff; Graciela was in the center of the boat with her eyes half-closed. She looked close to fainting. The flintlock in his hand was empty. He knew Elizabeth had reloaded her blunderbuss but that sole weapon would hardly suffice to get himself and her out of their predicament. He remained frozen in place as Sir George said, "Surrender to my men or by God, we'll fill your scurvy carcasses full of shot!"

Lord Jeffrey was shaking with fury. "Give it up!" he cried. "You cannot escape!"

The cannons on the fort swiveled and lowered in unison; Sir George had sent a contingent of soldiers back to arm these formidable guns. They were taking direct aim at the Sans Quartier where she sat at anchor in the harbor.

"Escape is impossible!," Sir George called out. "Surrender now!"

Miguel screwed his good eye nearly shut. He muttered out of the corner of his mouth, "Get ready."

Elizabeth's sweaty grip on her blunderbuss nearly faltered. She'd thought them well away but now they were trapped indeed. She remembered the man she'd killed, how his head had split apart like a dropped melon, and envisioned the same thing happening to her, to Miguel, to Graciela, and felt sickened.

Suddenly Miguel whipped off his hat and waved it through the air three times. Immediately, the Sans Quartier's cannons boomed; the air was rent with a whistling howl as lead balls hurtled through the air, striking the gleaming stone walls of the fort and exploding. From this distance, the screams of shattered men were like the pipings of birds; soldiers fell from the battlements and into the sea with an inaudible splash.

The soldiers and Sir George were momentarily distracted by this surprise attack. Miguel grabbed Elizabeth's hand, sent up a brief prayer to God, and leaped off the dock, dragging her along with him. The oarsmen in the skiff pushed off, making for the Sans Quartier with all the speed at their command. Realizing that his quarry was getting away, Sir George took off along the wooden length of the dock at a run, his men hard on his heels. As soon as he reached the end he fired at the skiff. The bullet embedded itself into the side of the little boat, making splinters fly, but had ultimately little effect. His soldiers knelt and fired as well but the skiff was almost out of range, the oarsmen rowing like demons.

Elizabeth struggled to escape the warm, slick embrace of the harbor waters. She couldn't swim but at least her clothes weren't hampering her as they'd done when she'd tried to commit suicide by flinging herself off the Sans Quartier while at sea. Miguel snatched at the back of her shirt collar and hauled her up to air; her head broke the surface and she choked, retching up salty water and bile.

"Swim, bonita!" Miguel commanded. "Swim! Cap'n won't wait too long for us, I reckon!"

Graciela sat up in the skiff. "Toss 'em a line!" she commanded.

One of the crewmen slung out a long length of rope; it fell short by a few feet. Miguel was treading water for all he was worth and Elizabeth was trying very hard not to panic.

The crewman tried again; this time the end of the rope splashed close to Miguel's hand and he twisted it around his palm in a trice. Keeping his other hand firmly clasped on Elizabeth's collar, he kicked his legs while a couple of the crewmen hauled them in like a pair of snappers at the end of a fisherman's line. They weren't taken into the skiff but had to hang on to the gunwales as the oarsmen put their backs into it and brought the boat alongside the Sans Quartier.

While they'd been sculling across the harbor the ship's cannons hadn't ceased firing. The soldiers in Fort Charleston hadn't had a chance to return fire; the Sans Quartier's guns were chewing up the fort bit by bit, gouging crumbling holes in the walls and killing anyone with the temerity not to take cover.

As they scrambled up the lines lowered over the ship's sides, Graciela noticed the Brimstone; the ship had weighed anchor and was coming about, manuvering directly into their path. Her cannon ports were open; the big muzzles of her guns aimed in the Sans Quartier's direction. This threat sent an immediate surge of energy through her veins. By God, she'd teach Jack Splitfoot to tangle with the She-Wolf!

Elizabeth was astonished at the change in Graciela. She'd thought the woman at the end of her strength but now Graciela showed no sign of weakness at all. As soon as her feet touched the deck of her ship, the pirate began barking orders. The gunlayers shifted their aim; Davy Mulvany, who acted as the powder monkey, was sent below for more powder and chain shot; two cannonballs mated together with a short length of iron chain that was a lethal combination, especially at short range. The Brimstone was approaching from the starboard side and Graciela sprinted up to the quarterdeck, taking the wheel from the coxswain.

"Weigh the anchor!" she called. "Prepare to come about! All hands to battle stations!"

There was a flurry of activity as crewmen hastened to their posts. When the anchor had been raised and secured, Graciela spun the great ship's wheel and slowly, so slowly that Elizabeth wanted to scream with frustration, the ship turned, heeling over in the water a bit until the wind caught her sails, making them bell out with a deafening crack. The Sans Quartier began moving out of the harbor but the Brimstone was gaining ground and would be upon them soon.

"Prepare to fire!"

Graciela's order was shouted down the ranks. Elizabeth wasn't sure where she was supposed to be but she didn't want to be trapped in the captain's cabin or anywhere else belowdecks in case the worst happened. She found a place in the shadow of the quarterdeck where she wouldn't get in the way and crouched down to make herself a smaller target.

Splitfoot's hideously scarred face was split in an evil grin. "I'm comin' fer ya!" he yelled. "I'll send ye down to Hell where ye belong, poxy bastard whore's git!" He

Miguel had lost his hat in the scuffle on the dock; the sunlight struck auburn sparks from his jet black hair as he stood on the quarterdeck with his captain. . "I'd save my shot if I were you," he murmured for Graciela's ears alone. "Splitfoot can fire his guns till doomsday and t'won't do him any good at all."

Graciela shot her first mate a look. "What are you talking about?" she asked, deftly manuvering the ship towards the harbor entrance. "Has the sun gotten to you, old man?"

Miguel grinned. "Me and some of the mates paid a visit to the Brimstone last night, looking for a certain something you'd lost. Aye, we found that... and since there weren't a soul aboard that ship, we took the opportunity to buy a little insurance, so to speak, in case Splitfoot and his crowd got too clever."

Graciela shook her head. "I've no time for riddles, Miguel. Spit it out!"

"I won't have to, tho' Splitfoot'll find it hard swallowing indeed."

Just then the Brimstone slid closer and everyone aboard the Quartier heard Splitfoot's order: "Fire with a will, boys! I want that sea cow O'Malley to drown in lead!"

Slow matches were applied to the fuses of the eight guns on the Brimstone's starboard side. Sailors on the Quartier's deck crouched down, covering their heads with their arms, and waited for devastation or death.

The cannons roared...

But no shot flew across the space that separated the two ships. Instead, the Brimstone's cannon ports belched smoke and flames as multiple explosions occured belowdecks. The mainmast was rent in half and the top end toppled slowly into the water, bringing the sails and rigging with it. Splitfoot screamed in frustration and fury; his ship was wounded, foundering in the water, leaking from every seam and likely to sink. He shook his fist at the Quartier. "I'll kill ye yet, hell witch!"

Graciela looked at Miguel with renewed appreciation. "Well, I underestimated you, amigo. What did you do?"

The coxswain, Jerusalem Hands, piped up. He'd been one of the men chosen by Miguel for last night's mission. "T'was a Dutchman's bluff, I swear! A double handful of granados, fuses wired together and drawn up through the cannons' touchholes. When their gunlayers lit the fuses..."

Graciela's face lit up. "By Christ and his saints! The poor slowbellies! They thought they were firing cannon and instead, they blew themselves up with granado shells!" She laughed, holding her side against the pain.

Granado shells were hollow balls of iron filled with gunpowder and they were a favorite close quarters weapon of most pirates. They were prized because of the terror they invoked when used against a ship; these small bombs were most effective at close quarters, where the shower of shrapnel that came with their explosion would shred flesh from bone and create maximum havoc.

"Quite a good trick, amigo!" Graciela wheezed. She was having difficulty catching her breath. "P'raps I should promote you to powder monkey..."

"Cap'n?" Miguel was concerned. Graciela was swaying and her face was drained of allcolor; even her lips were pasty white. "Cap'n, I think you should go below..."

They were clear of the harbor now and heading out to open sea. There wasn't a cloud in the sky; the bright blue curve of the sky arced down to kiss the distant watery horizon. Graciela felt the world spinning suddenly and a dark haze was drawn over her vision.

Miguel was just able to catch the fainting pirate before her head struck the wooden deck.

He lowered her to the quarterdeck and motioned for Hands to take the wheel. "Make your course thus and thus," he said to the coxswain, indicating the desired heading. "Keep her steady; I'll take Cap'n below and see to her injuries."

Hands crossed himself. A bewhiskered old tar burnt nearly black by the tropical sun, he was a skilled navigator and could be trusted to do his duty.

Miguel lifted Graciela into his arms; she was a dead weight, her head lolling from side to side.

As the Spainiard made his way down the quarterdeck stairs, he spotted Elizabeth huddled on the foredeck. "Give me a hand, Lizzybet."

Elizabeth hastened over. "Let's get her to her cabin," she suggested. "Does the Quartier boast a surgeon on board?"

"Only if you count the cook, Bonny Reid. He did a turn as a surgeon's mate aboard the H.M.S. Lorelei before his leg was shot off at the knee."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "God help her."

"God help us all, bonita."

Elizabeth could only hope that Graciela's injuries were not as severe as she feared. Looking down at the pirate's slack face, she felt a sudden surge of pity mingled with despair. She didn't want Graciela to die; life without this infuriating, cocky, commanding woman was something she didn't want to contemplate. The anger that she'd felt at the small dark women melted away, leaving a heavy emptiness behind.

Once Graciela was in her cabin, Elizabeth found herself taking charge. The pirate was stripped of her dress and Elizabeth gasped aloud at the extent of her wounds. She'd been flogged; her back, breasts and stomach were striped with scabs. There were dark bruises on much of her skin, and when the maid pressed down on the side she'd seen Graciela favor, the bone was spongy, giving way at the touch.

"She's got broken ribs for sure," Elizabeth muttered. "And she's filthy, which can't be good for those cuts. Get me fresh water, a basin, clean rags, a needle and fine thread, preferably silk."

Miguel pursed his lips. "Have you experience in this, Lizzybet?" He looked doubtful.

Elizabeth ripped the red rag turban off her head; her red-gold hair had been pinned up in multiple braids and small wisps had escaped their bindings, sticking to her forehead and cheeks from sweat. "My mother died when I was seven," she said. "She left me with a lazy father, three older brothers who were spoiled and cossetted from birth, and a large estate to run. Father never hired servants to take care of anything - I did it all. I cleaned and cooked, scrubbed and scoured, butchered and birthed our animals, sewed and mended, and aye, acted as doctor and midwife to our tenants. Your Master Reid might have served as a surgeon's mate but I doubt he's had as much experience as I have in these things."

Her voice carried strong hints of bitterness. Miguel said, "And then they sent you away to Court."

"Oh, yes. Court." Elizabeth went to the washbasin and began to scrub her hands and arms with strong lye soap and water. "That was my father's idea. He'd lost a great deal of money gambling, my brothers needed cash for their clothes and mistresses and horses, and the Countess of Moresby was a popular woman with the King. Father hoped that his Great Gawk would prove of use to the family, perhaps even gain the ear of the King, and reverse their fortunes. Unfortunately, when the Countess was disgraced, I found myself exiled with her. I will never see my family again."

Miguel walked over to touch her shoulder. "Do you wish to?"

Elizabeth shook her head. She felt numb inside and surprisingly, wasn't even inclined to cry. Like always, she would have to put someone else first and see to Graciela's needs before her own.

"Have Master Reid being up the ship's surgeon's chest," she said heavily. "I'll need gallipots of salve and some aguardiente. Coarse brandy's good for cleansing and keeping infection at bay." She dried her hands on her shirt and stopped. Miguel was staring at her with something approaching compassion in his good eye.

She brushed past him, went to Graciela's side and muttered, "I need to get started."

Miguel stretched out his arm, fingertips brushing the back of her neck. Then he spun about on his heel and was out the cabin door, shouting orders and calling for the cook.

Elizabeth smoothed a greasy strand of hair away from Graciela's face. "Don't worry," she whispered. "You'll be fine. Just fine."

Graciela moaned softly...

And Elizabeth sniffed back tardy tears, wondering if anything would ever be just fine again.
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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