Tory sat perched on the stool in the dark of the wagon, as the minutes crawled by like centuries. Captain Billy had the idea to keep Alphonse and Calypso and the boys safe in his caravan, where they were not expected to be; if the militia came back, they would be far less likely to bully an English gentleman like Billy Bruce about the property in his wagon. Tory had begged Cybele and Ada to share her wagon, or let her sit up on watch with the rest of them, but Ada would not be parted from Captain Billy, nor Cybele from the place where her children were. But Tory knew they did not wish to intrude upon what was already perceived as her sorrow.
She jumped now, every time she heard a rider pounding down the road, or the distant howling of dogs. But whenever she raced to the window, all she ever saw was an empty track, and the late moon growing smaller and paler as she crossed the arc of the sky.
Oh, Goddess! Listen to my hopeful cries,
Your mortal sister. Do not turn away!
What rubbish. It seemed like a thousand years since she had chanted that rhyme. Every day of life would be an eternity without Jack. The devil was making play, all right, and she could do nothing but sit here, waiting. And she rushed to the window again, eyes straining into the night, trying somehow to mold the darkness into Jack’s familiar silhouette, loping along as if nothing were the matter. But all she could conjure out of the shadows was the shape of an officer bringing her bad news, or even a party of militiamen, drunk with their blood sport, bringing back a long, twisted body to fling into the dirt beneath the wagon as a warning to other meddlers.
Nonsense, she scolded herself, there was no reason for anyone to connect Jack with the slave conspirators. No reason except Alphonse. And his presence on the estate on the fateful day. If Jack was discovered as the conspirators’ hostage, would the militia be more or less convinced of his innocence? Would they take special pains to insure his safety because of his white skin, or sacrifice him willingly in the crossfire? And if Constable Raleigh was one of the militiamen who discovered Jack… There were so many ways for a man to die, that’s what Captain Hart always said. It was damned odd that she could not will the dark to assume Jack’s living shape before her eyes, when she could see him battered and lifeless in the dirt of some nameless roadside gully all too clearly.
A creak brought her head snapping round to face the door. It might have been the melancholy sigh of a tree limb in the wind, but the dark seam between the door and the frame seemed to widen. Tory tried to blink away the hallucination, but the door was moving. She leaped for the tinder box and the cold lantern on the shelf before her. A hand shot out of the darkness, closing on her wrist.
"No, Rusty, not yet."
She dropped the tinder box, clutched at Jack’s hand, lurched toward his ragged voice and found him in the dark, throwing her arms around him as he swayed against her. His shirt was soaked and smelled of sweat and smoke and ripe earth, his skin was hot and wet and his lungs heaved against her, struggling for air. She clung to him long enough to feel the racket of his heartbeat, the desperate strength in his arms wrapping around her. When she tried to step back to let him breathe, he would not let her go.
"Is…Alphonse back yet?" he managed to gasp, at last.
"Hours ago!" Her words burst out of her like a sob, the spell of fearful silence broken. "Oh, Jack, oh, God, I’ve been so frightened! When Alphonse came back alone—"
"I know, I know, I’m so sorry."
Her hands felt for his face with desperate gentleness. "Are you all right? You’re not hurt?"
"No, no," He bore her caress, then pressed his face into her hair. "A few scratches from crawling about in the scrub, but—"
"Alphonse said he saw Constable Raleigh."
"He did." Jack’s arms tensed around her. "Where is Alphonse? We must get him away from here."
"He’s implicated in the slave plot—"
"By Venus, you mean?"
Jack’s head came up. " What do you know about her? No, but there’ll be other witnesses soon enough. Any one of those fellows they catch. I saw the soldiers trying to flog it out of 'em; they’ll get the names they want before long. I’m surprised the militia hasn’t been here already."
"But they have. Jack, listen to me. They were watching us all evening. They found Alphonse here, but they let him go."
Jack stared at her, puzzled; his face looked exhausted in the fragile moonlight.
"There were dozens of witnesses who swore he’d been here all night," Tory went on. "Including the militiamen."
"Marcus. He wore the Punch costume."
Jack continued to stare at her, speechless. Whatever reserve of strength had brought him this far was fast draining away.
"Come sit down, hombre." Tory steered him to the bunk and he sank down heavily on its edge. "I’ll fetch some water. Are you hungry...?" She started to turn away toward the water jug, but Jack caught her hand.
"In a minute," he whispered.
So she sat down beside him, cradling his hand in both of hers. "Why did you send Alphonse back alone?"
"There were militia all over the damned place, he had to get away from there. He was the one they suspected, not me. If he'd been found anywhere near the conspirators—" Jack shook his head. "Our Alphonse is a man of many gifts, but running like the wind is not among them."
Tory could not quite smile, but she pressed his hand against her cheek. She saw him wince in the same moment she felt his sticky palm against her own skin.
"Hellfire, Jack, what’s happened to your hand?" She drew his hand toward the moonlit window, saw a ragged scorched circle of dark blisters.
"It was hellfire." His voice was a dry rasp.
"I’m going to get Cybele—"
"No, Rusty, please. Stay. Please stay."
His desperate expression made her sit down again, slide her arms around him, hold him again for another long moment when neither of them could speak. His grip was like a drowning man clinging to his only lifeline. What terrible things had he seen on the mountain tonight?
"I’m going to take care of your hand," she said evenly, at last, stroking his damp hair. "Tell me what happened."
"It was Raleigh." Jack sat up wearily again as Tory slipped away to the shelf where Cybele kept her pots of balm.
"Raleigh did this to you?"
Jack shook his head. "Raleigh is dead."
Tory’s head spun around. "Are you sure?"
"By whose hand?" she demanded; her blood was crashing in her ears.
"His own. It was an accident."
Tory brought Jack a cup of drinking water and sat down beside him with a basin of washwater and strips of gauze and a pot of balm. She tended his burnt hand as he gulped down the water and described the inferno that had been Stephen Raleigh’s last moments of life on earth.
"It was Fortune," Tory whispered fiercely when the awful tale was over. "I wished him dead. I can’t say I’m sorry."
"No," Jack said grimly. "Odd, though, how little satisfaction there was in it."
Tory nodded, still cradling Jack’s bandaged hand in hers. She would have expected to feel triumphant in this moment, as if she had won a great victory, but she only felt sad and disheartened.
"In a peculiar way, I suppose he died for what he believed in," Jack suggested. "No less than Alphonse’s companions."
"He believed in nothing but his own hatred," Tory sighed.
"Aye. And that, unfortunately has not died with him."
Jack had slumped back against the wall, and Tory crept alongside him. She put her head on his chest and her arms around his middle, in spite of his rank clothing. The merry, charmed world of Harlequin and Colombine and Mr. Punch, gaily dancing the grateful slaves to freedom, now seemed very far away. What a foolish conceit it had been. Jack’s arms closed around her and they were both quiet.
"There’ll be nothing but blood and death and misery in these islands, soon, mi vida," Jack murmured. "Slavery can’t continue for much longer. The planters can’t keep flaunting their privilege in the face of the people whose labor supports them, and expect them to accept their lot gratefully, because it’s convenient. As if they lacked the dreams and the heart and the muscle of other men to want something better. But how it will end, and at what cost to whom, that’s the issue. If there’s a war between the blacks and the whites and the people of color, what will happen to you and me and Alphonse? What becomes of our partnership, then? How can we possibly choose sides?"
"You think it will be a war?"
"It is now, only the planters don’t know it." Jack sighed. "Yet. But I know this much. It’s time for us to go home."
"Home?" Tory echoed, her voice hollow. "Where’s that?"
"England. And we must take Alphonse with us."
Tory drew a deep, silent breath. "You could be hanged for a pirate, Jack."
"I’m more likely to be hanged for an actor. Besides, Jack Danzador, the scourge of the Spanish Main is long gone."
"What about the Bath Hotel?" Tory fenced.
"We must tender our regrets, and leave the Bruces to fill the bill with their usual panache. Most unprofessional of us, but we can scarcely take the engagement at the risk of Alphonse’s life."
"But why England?"
"Because it will be safer for Alphonse. We are running out of islands here. It’s only a matter of time before someone positively connects him to this slave plot. Or the next one. He’s not an easy figure to mistake. But no one owns slaves in England. Of course..." He frowned at her wistfully. "If it was just us, we might return to the sea."
Tory shook her head. "That part of our life is over, hombre. Besides, Alphonse is a terrible sailor."
Jack nodded. "We can make a living in England, I’ve done it before. Unless you'd rather go back to Boston."
"I’d sooner swing from a gibbet at Gallow’s Point!" Tory exclaimed.
She felt the hum of laughter in Jack’s chest. "You confound me, Rusty. Most women would be in a fit of hysterics by now."
"I was saving those for when you didn’t come back." But her own words chilled her and she leaned up to find Jack’s mouth, and kissed him to stop her own shivering. He clasped her tightly to him, then abruptly let her go, and she realized she was tasting dirt and soot.
"Sorry, Rusty. I’m completely foul."
"As if I cared." But she got up to retrieve the washbasin and pour more water, while he pulled off his shirt.
"Whose idea was it to send Marcus out as Punch?" Jack asked as she finished mopping down his back.
"Mine. Calypso altered the outfit."
"It was brilliant."
"It was nearly a disaster. The militia almost found him out."
"But they didn’t. Alphonse can thank you for saving his neck."
"It’s Marcus he must thank. Oh, Jack, he was so wonderful, never a moment’s nerves or hesitation. You would have been so proud of him. If he hadn’t been so convincing..." She shook her head as she wrung out her cloth. "I couldn’t stuff all the costumes."
She told him about the stuffed Harlequin. "I didn’t expect anyone to think it was you, exactly, but you can’t have a pantomime without Harlequin, can you? All the characters had to be accounted for, and the poem was meant to explain it."
"Poem?" Jack echoed, amazed.
"Oh, you know, a verse to set the scene, like you always write."
"You wrote a poem? Since this morning?" When she nodded, he smiled just a little. "Well, let’s have it."
"Oh, Jack, it’s so silly..." But he insisted she recite it from beginning to end. When she finished, he said nothing at all, making her even more uneasy. "I told you it was no good."
"It was perfect." He reached out to take both her hands in his. "I’ve sailed with few enough men who could have kept a cool head for as long as you did, tonight. And I’m damned if any of ‘em would have the wit to write a poem into the bargain. I only wish I could tell you the worst of it was over."
"It’ll never be over, not for us," Tory sighed. "Not in this place. But even Alphonse says it would look suspicious to leave tonight. You must try to sleep now, while you can."
But it was not a night for repose. The oppressive stillness had rolled off the mountain to embrace the town, and while Tory’s brain grew dull, her eyelids were on springs; she could not force them to close. She could feel Jack lying awake beside her, jerking himself out of every fitful doze before he could dream, until she put her arms around him and felt the tension under his cold flesh. Half-asleep herself, she maneuvered her hands gently down his sides, caught him by the hips and shifted under him. His arms closed like a vise beneath her, and her kindly impulse to calm him gave way to something more selfish.
"Love me, Jack. I thought I’d lost you forever."
"I swore I would never leave you, mi vida."
She could feel him stirring, marshaling his strength, moving under her touch, coming to life. Her body arched high against his, warm and strong and heavy in her arms, as irresistible as a gale, but sweet, so sweet.
"Hold on to me, Rusty. Don’t let me go."
"Never, ever," she chanted back, "I swear it."
The slow, deep spasm of pleasure made her gasp. Part of her was ashamed for enjoying herself, enjoying Jack’s body, on such a night. But there was a kind of defiant triumph in it, too. This was the side she must always choose. Love. Survival. Life.
In another heartbeat, Jack shuddered to relief in her arms. She held on to him for a few more minutes until he sank into the exhausted sleep he needed, and for which there was so little time.
It was still dark when Alphonse came tapping at the wagon door. It seemed that only minutes had passed since they’d first crept into bed, but Tory rolled over groggily to see Jack already up and washing at the basin.
"Are you a child?" Alphonse demanded, when Jack let him in. "What did you mean, telling Victoria what you’d heard? Do you know what they do to those they suspect of having information?"
"You should have thought of that before you became involved," Jack retorted. "You, of all people! Why did you do it?"
Alphonse lowered his head and muttered something Tory could not hear. But the effect on Jack was electric. He stared down at Alphonse for a moment, then sank down to his haunches, as if the air had been let out of him, mouthing an oath. He put a hand on Alphonse’s shoulder, and mumbled something contrite.
"Because of me," Tory spoke softly from the bed. Both men turned to look at her, and she knew she had guessed right.
"I traded a pledge to find you, Victoria," Alphonse murmured. "It had to be redeemed. It was…a small price to pay." Jack’s bandaged hand slid off his shoulder, and Alphonse caught it and looked at it, and then up at Jack. "What happened yesterday was perhaps the most foolish thing you have ever done," he scolded Jack. "I owe you my life and many others far more valuable than mine. Do not think I am happy about it."
"It’s going to get worse," Jack sighed. "We’re going to England."
Tory rolled her eyes to the heavens, wondering why Jack had not thought to soften the news. Alphonse's gaze did not waver.
"We?" he echoed.
"All of us," Jack nodded. "You and me and Tory."
"To England? An entire nation of the English?"
"It’s only another island," said Jack. "An island without slaves."
Alphonse considered the proposition, folding his arms across his chest. "And I am expected to give up all my work here?"
"Your work here is finished," Jack declared, rising again. "You are too visible. The planters and their lawmakers may not know exactly what you’re up to, but they understand that you’re a threat to everything they believe in. Even if they can’t prove your involvement in Gingerland, they will never leave you alone after this."
"So I am to simply...run away."
"No. Continue your work in the only place where it might do some good," Jack urged, perching on the end of the bunk. "Escapes and risings won’t put an end to slavery, you know that. They will only create new martyrs. But the laws of England might, if enough voices agitate for it. It’s not a crime there to speak out for freedom."
Alphonse continued to gaze at him, saying nothing.
"There will be a reckoning in these islands in any event, and soon," Jack continued. "Would you not rather have a hand in the rebuilding? You have so much to teach these people, but you must stay alive. You can teach them nothing from the grave."
Alphonse considered. "And when must we go?"
"Soon. Before they can...persuade any conspirators into naming you."
Alphonse looked away. "Perhaps this is the best plan," he murmured. Then he turned again to look at them both. "But you need not come with me when your life is here."
Jack glanced at Tory. It had never occurred to them to separate from Alphonse, no more than they would have thought of parting from each other.
"Are we not partners?" said Jack.
"Even so, you must not uproot yourselves," Alphonse persisted, "leave all this behind..."
Jack glanced all round the wagon’s interior. Some creaking shelves, a few lopsided baskets of mismatched clothing, some plain sticks of hand-hewn furnishings. "It’s not so much," he grinned.
"But you would do this...for me?"
"Jack misses England," Tory explained to Alphonse. "He wants to go home."
Jack half-turned where he sat on the end of the bed, to look at her in mild surprise. She supposed the simple truth of it had never entered his mind.
"And what do you want, Victoria?" Alphonse asked her.
"I want you safe, both of you. And I want us to stay together. It doesn’t matter to me where we go."
Jack was still gazing at her. His hand crept across to where she sat and covered hers.
"It will be very different from the islands," he apologized.
"Colder, for one thing,” suggested Alphonse.
"Aye," Jack agreed. "And busier. And dirtier, at least in the towns."
"But we’ll be together," Tory said stoutly. "And we’ve been through worse."
"And what about the others?" Alphonse’s voice was very quiet, but his words echoed like cathedral bells all round the room.
"Why…we'll…take 'em with us," Jack faltered.
"Cybele will never leave the islands," said Tory. "This is her home."
"We cannot carry them off to a nation of the English without a penny to protect them," Alphonse agreed.
"Since when are you penniless?"
"Escapes are costly," muttered Alphonse. "Transport must be arranged, safe houses secured. Silences must be bought." He shook his head. "How soon can you be ready to leave?"
Jack looked at Tory, who nodded back. "Today. Now. But if there’s martial law—"
"Be ready in half an hour," Alphonse told them. "Sunup. Pack lightly. I know how to get off this island."
(Top: Homecoming, by Lisa Jensen © 2010)