Bridgetown Chase

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They managed to get around Bridgetown and reach the Constitution River undetected. The river was surprisingly wide, the water slow and seemingly deep. They found refuge in a thick patch of jungle along the banks a few hundred meters from town that would hide them from casual passerby, not that there were many at this time of day, but military patrols were out and they’d had to hide from two already.

From her hiding spot, Mei blearily looked up into the sky in the east, where stars were disappearing, and the black was beginning to gray. “It’s just starting to get light out. We haven’t much time.” Seeing time running on them made her suddenly more anxious than ever. 

Cheeto gazed out at the water. “How do we use the river? If we go in a boat, won’t they see us?”

“Oui,” Armand replied, already rooting in the underbrush. “Which is why we will swim.” For an older man, he was remarkably resilient and fit. Out of all of them, he seemed the most energetic despite the hour and labours so far, even more so than the youngest amongst them. 

Lance, looking very tired in the wheelbarrow, his eyes half-closed, tried to frown. “Swim? But…” Even after losing so much blood and enduring so much pain, his alarm at being left behind was still evident. 

“It is ok,” Armand assured him with a casual wave though his attention remained on the underbrush he was searching through. “Wounds cannot get infected here. Being in the water won’t do you any harm. Assuming a fish does not get stuck inside the hole in your stomach,” he joked. “If it does, you should pull it out.”

Lance’s pallor turned green.

“Isn’t it kind of far?” Cheeto objected. 

“We just need something to hold on to as we float downriver. Ah.” Armand found a half-rotten tree trunk in some tall grass. “Give me a hand.”

The trunk was from a bearded fig tree and was thus rather large. However, it had lain on the ground for quite some time and, with a lot of joint effort, grunting and heaving, they managed to roll the log out of the jungle to the water’s edge, where it reached the bank and slid into the river. Most of the wood submerged but for the top and some branches devoid of leaves or greenery.

When Mei stepped into the water, the coolness was refreshing, especially after all the work that it had taken to get this far. She, like the others, hadn’t had a great rest on the catamaran before landing on Barbados, and that had been after a very active time on St. Vincent that had left its share of wounds. 

The attack on the plantation, the burning of the mill in Speightstown, then the long journey here to Bridgetown had all taken a heavy toll. She had a shallow bullet wound of her own and had been cut and stabbed and bruised. She was pretty sure that she had a deep bone bruise or fracture in her leg. It was difficult to keep moving and getting harder to even think. She craved a bed in which she could lay down for days. Not to mention she was starving, having not eaten much in days.

Still, the prospect of all this being over soon, their destination now in sight, the ship that they were going to steal almost within reach, it was almost enough to give her a second wind. Or maybe it was just that dawn was coming, and her internal clock was telling her that it was time to wake up again. 

The water crept up her calves as she entered, then her thighs, then hips until she was neck deep. Pushing off the bottom, it only took a couple of strokes to reach the log idling in the river. She grabbed onto a rough section and floated, her body thanking her for this reprieve. In moments, she understood another essential factor in using the log: her clothes were soaked and wanted to drag her down, and it would have taken a lot of effort to swim without help.

Armand and Juan helped Lance into the water. Cheeto didn’t say anything, but from the way he gingerly eased himself into the river and then frantically splashed over to the log in near panic, he didn’t know how to swim. Mei made a note to be aware of him in case he needed help, though she didn’t say anything lest it embarrass him. 

Lia practically dove in, as at home in the water as she was in the jungle, a fierce little smile on her face. Her blow gun slung from her back, she now also carried a big Bowie knife taken from one of the soldiers they’d killed and seemed very proud of the steel weapon, an upgrade from the more rudimentary stone and wood tools she and her people would have used in the past. 

Jie was a bit confused by all this activity, of course. But when she saw the humans all dangling in the water and holding onto the tree trunk, she got the picture. She splashed into the river and paddled for the log.

The others swiftly scrambled to get out of her way. 

The jaguar’s front paws caught the top of the log and she curled her body so that her back claws found purchase. Then she pulled herself up and sat on top of the crude vessel, as comfortable as you please, looking down at the others with all the dignity of a queen. 

“Well,” Lance wryly joked, “I guess we all know who’s captain of this robust ship, huh?”

Mei smiled, and when Jie lowered her head in her direction, she rubbed the feline behind the ears. 

Together, they slowly kicked, putting the log into motion, just fast enough that it looked like it might be naturally drifting down the channel. Mei, Lia and Armand were on one side, with Lance and Juan and Cheeto on the other. The humans all stayed just above the waterline, giving themselves only enough room to breathe and trying to keep out of sight. Dead branches provided scant cover from afar but likely wouldn’t hide them upon closer scrutiny.

The early morning hours were still quiet. No birds or animals sounded, nor was there any wind. Most people wouldn’t be getting up until dawn or shortly after that, with exceptions like bakers and fishers. The latter might be an issue. According to Lance, many boats were tied up further down the river, where it entered the ocean and became briny. Seeing a jaguar floating along would probably attract attention, but hopefully, they’d be past the boats before anyone saw them. 

Progress was smooth until they reached the only bridge over the Constitution. It was a crude structure made of logs and stone that formed four low arcs, and it did not look European in nature. When Mei commented on that, Lance was able to fill in the history. 

“It’s called Indian Bridge. Built by Caribs. Apparently, it was here when the Europeans arrived.”

Lia pointed at the structure, “Garifuna,” and then at herself. “Kalinago.”

“Ah,” Mei understood. “Built by another tribe. Impressive.”

The first of Bridgetown’s buildings began on the north side of the river. While the south was undeveloped, the north featured an indigo field and small, run-down houses that denoted the edge of the town itself.

Lance drifted along, not doing much of the paddling himself because of his injuries but letting the others pull him along. “I heard something about the area itself being called Indian Bridge at first. Then St. Michael, I think. That’s probably what it was in 1675 in real history, but everyone calls it by its modern name: Bridgetown.”

“Shh!” Armand hissed. “Soldiers on the bridge.”

They all stopped kicking and hung in the river about thirty meters shy of the structure, staring ahead, only their noses above the water to breathe. 

Three men with muskets on their shoulders appeared from the foliage lining the south road. They plodded along the road from the south side of the river, lanterns in hand, and tromped onto the bridge. The way they held their lights up and seemed alert and searching for something, it was likely that these men were on the lookout for Spanish agents or an invasion. Hopefully, they would pass by and go on their way.

Unfortunately, they only crossed to the other side of the bridge and walked a few paces closer to the houses on that side before turning and making their way back onto the bridge. It seemed they were stationed at this critical crossing. There was no way to drift past unseen. 

Mei looked around, trying to come up with a plan. What could they do? If they attempted floating under the bridge, the soldiers would likely see them, especially with Jie sitting on the log. They could swim to shore and make a run for it while the soldiers were facing the other way but would likely be spotted as there wasn’t much cover on the river here, with the field on one side and only low vegetation on the other. They could fight the soldiers, but a single gunshot or a shout could sound the alarm and bring far more reinforcements than the little group could handle.

She glanced at Lance on the other side of the log. The sky had grayed enough now that she could make out his features.

His face was tight. He seemed to have reached the same conclusion she had: he wouldn’t be able to run, so it would be easiest to leave him behind. 

Armand caught her eye, looked over at Lance, then gave her a questioning look. Was he asking if she wanted to leave him behind? Or did he want to find a plan that took Lance into account?

Her lips pressed firmly together. Perhaps it was because Mei had spent so much of her life alienated by others, but she was someone who really valued loyalty. Humans, being the selfish creatures that we are, often only contemplate loyalty from our own perspective: are others loyal to us or do they betray us? Mei, however, did consider her loyalty to others as well. She weighed her self-interest and expedience against what her actions would cost others because she cared about what happened to them, not just to herself. 

In this case, she had begged the others to join her on this mission. That they were all at risk now was, yes, due to their own choice to be here. But she was still responsible for influencing that decision. And that meant that she owed them for being here and helping make this quest possible. 

Lance had seemed charming when first meeting him but much less so when placed under stress and later difficult decisions. Like when he’d punched her in the face. She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t at least a little tempted to leave him behind. But she knew at least part of his current temperament was due to the stress of their overall situation. Even so, she didn’t want to abandon any of the group, including him. She’d already promised Lance that she wouldn’t leave anyone behind. And she wanted to be someone worth being loyal to. To do that, she had to show loyalty first.

So, if they couldn’t sneak past and couldn’t fight without being discovered, then what? Only one option came to mind. It wasn’t what she wanted to do, but she didn’t see any better choice. 

She faced Armand and whispered in her lowest voice. “I’ll draw them away. You guys get to the ship. Take it. Take out the cannons if you can, too. I’ll catch up.”

He shook his head, his lips barely moving in response. “Too dangerous.  You are in no condition to be chased.”

She didn’t give him a chance to make an argument. After all, she agreed with him: she was in rough shape at the moment. It was doubtful that she could outrun anyone, let alone athletic soldiers. Pushing off from the log without making a ripple, she moved past him, towards the rear of their group. “Sail as soon as you can. If I’m not there, don’t wait for me. But look for me along the coast to the south or on the west side of the island.”

Lance had enough of a conscience to look guilty. “There must be another—“ 

The volume of his voice alarmed her. She flashed a frown at him, shutting him up before they were discovered and put a finger to her lips. Swimming for shore, she couldn’t help but feel conflicted. She’d didn’t want to do what she was about to, but she’d rather take the risk than… Well, face it. If they left Lance behind, the guy likely wouldn’t just sit here quietly; he’d give them up. Which meant they’d have to slice his throat and kill him to prevent that. 

She could be utterly wrong. If they asked him to remain behind for their sake, maybe the good side of his nature would win through, and he’d sit silently on the river banks while they escape without him. 

But why take that chance? And how would the others look at her if she was willing to eliminate one of their own? The others would think that they, too, were expendable, right? And then how would anyone trust each other?

Lia tried to follow, but Mei stopped her with a hand on the shoulder. She pointed back at the log. “No. You stay.”

Lia frowned in confusion, looking hurt, and said something in her language. 

Mei shook her head. “Stay. Help.” She pushed the young woman back to her spot at the side of the log, but she also tried to give her a reassuring smile at the same time. Pointing to herself, she pointed at the guards, then mimed running with two fingers pointed down. 

Lia finally seemed to put it together and tried to object again, but Mei pushed her towards the log and swam away. 

Just as Mei was climbing out of the water, the jaguar decided to follow her, and the animal was not about to be talked out of it. She entered the water with a splash that caught the guards’ attention. 

“Who’s there?” One shouted, lifting a lantern while the other two spun that way. 

Mei stood still, giving her clothes and long hair precious seconds to drain water. Thinking rapidly, she knew that her pistols would be waterlogged and useless for several minutes until they dried. Only her sword would be useful. 

“Hey. You there!”

They’d spotted her at last. 

Mei climbed up the short bank of the river to flat ground. Feet squishing in her boots, she lumbered into a jog and aimed herself at the houses. Thankfully, the soldiers were on the opposite, south side of the bridge again. 

Her body protested. It did not want to do this. Her leg, especially, urged her to limp. But the spike of adrenalin she got from being chased helped overcome that. Feet pounding as fast as she could, she sped across the road and past the backside of the houses, hoping she might lose them in town. 

“It’s the prisoner!” Someone shouted. “The one the captain’s after!”

“Get her!” 

Another whooped with glee.

Sure enough, all three gave chase. 

Mei shot through a narrow gap between two shack-like houses, the space barely wide enough for her narrow shoulders. Bursting out the other side and hearing steps behind her, she instinctively turned right, away from the river. 

She had to give the others enough time to swim to the ship and take control of it. So a merry chase she’d lead the soldiers on and maybe try to cause a distraction as well, without being captured, as she would then be mercilessly tortured for the rest of her sentence. So, there was a little something at stake here. The terror of such a future propelled her even faster.

A mansion on her right. A leather tanner on her left. She turned left at the corner of a house, then right again, jumping over a weather-worn picket fence into someone’s backyard but landed in a low bush that sent her sprawling with a grunt into wild, uncut grass. 

Pain was everywhere. But she pushed through it. The adrenalin was helping and she was loosening up. Back on her feet, she ran through the yard, over another fence, and down an alley between two warehouses. 

Coming out the other side, a body slammed into her and carried her to the ground. “Got ya!” a triumphant male voice exclaimed in her ear. 

She groaned under the weight of him. Someone had followed her, but he must have split off and taken a different route, anticipating her. With her sword arm underneath her, she was helpless to strike back. 

Another soldier appeared out of the alley she’d come from. A few seconds later, the third showed up from the same street her first attacker had used. 

The man atop her shoved her face into the ground with his forearm. “Captain’s gonna reward us for this, boys!” He laughed, and the other two followed suit, excitement on their faces. After all, they’d bagged a big prize. 

An angry growl and one of the soldiers went flying as a yellow-and-black cannonball hit him in the chest. 

 The soldier on top of her looked up in surprise. “What the—?”

She kicked and rolled, fighting back against him, drawing his attention back to her. His elbow knocked her in the temple, dazing her. Yet she squirmed blindly, desperately. 

A man screamed. 

“Blimey! It’s a bloody jaguar!”

A pained snarl. 

Mei heard scared shouting and footsteps back peddling. She snapped her head back and felt something crunch. 

The man gripping her muttered a curse and let up, holding a bloody nose. 

That allowed her to rise just enough to free her sword arm. Flipping the blade into a stabbing grip, she blindly jabbed backwards at the soldier and was rewarded with a cry. 

A punch hit her in the back of the skull, and then a hand took hold of her wrist, preventing any more stabbing. 

A gun fired. Then another man screamed. 

The one holding her down was angry now. He spoke to one of the other soldiers. “What the hell are you doing? Whoa. Whoa!” The weight above vanished as the soldier hurriedly got off her and backed away. 

Looking up, she saw him wrestling with his musket, trying to bring it to bear at something on the other side of her. She suspected it was Jie. 

Not giving him that chance, Mei lashed out with the rapier and slashed the gun barrel to the side, throwing his shot wide. So he didn’t have time to recover and shoot again, she pulled herself to her feet and lunged at his face, causing him to shout, and left a nasty red gash on his cheek. Running the steel through his neck cut off all future communication. 

Whirling in case the others were in a position to threaten her, she relaxed as she found only Jie standing next to an unmoving body. The first man she’d hit was a figure in the distance, running away. Her relief was short-lived, though. Jie limped towards her, shot once in the side and stabbed once in the neck and shoulder.

On instinct, she lurched towards the cat before recalling that it was a wild animal and likely even more dangerous and unpredictable when in pain. But when Jie bowed her head and kept coming forward, Mei dared to touch her. “Oh no. You’re hurt!” She tried to assess the injuries. They were bloody, and the fur was becoming matted, but perhaps they were not life-threatening. Perhaps. “You’ll be ok.” She lightly petted the cat behind the ears, and it nuzzled her, possibly looking for a positive response in return for saving her life. Mei vowed to catch Jie all the fish she could eat as soon as possible in thanks. 

Their momentary respite shattered when shouts from down the street made both look up and see the soldier who’d run away returning with three more. It seemed the addition of others had restored his courage.

She groaned. “Can’t catch a break.” Spying a musket on the ground nearby, she picked it up and pointed at the running men. She fired, and they pulled up, taking cover. Dropping the weapon, she impulsively ripped a grenade from the soldier’s belt and then ran across the narrow street and dove into the first alleyway, Jie loping awkwardly behind. 

They twisted and turned through the town, using every street, alley, and gap between buildings to confuse their pursuers. The sky lightened further. Early risers began appearing from homes and in the dirt streets as people started their day, watching her in surprise as she careened by. 

Heart racing, Mei pounded down a back street full of discarded boxes and waste and human excrement, slapping aside laundry lines and skipping around a homeless man asleep against the wall of a house. Seeing a patch of jungle where nobody had built anything yet, she ran into the foliage and lay on the ground, chest heaving, trying to catch her breath. 

Jie slowed and painfully lay next to her, tongue lolling. Her fur was even redder.

Feeling sympathy for the animal, Mei let the cat lick the sweat off her hand and petted her. Lying down felt good. It was tempting to just stay here, but she knew she needed to get up and keep going. 

How long had it been since she’d left the river? It is difficult to make sense of time when you’re fleeing for your life. Still, it probably hadn’t been all that long since she’d left the others. Would they have even reached the ship by now? 

Now, she was in the town proper, surrounded by poor houses and grand estates and businesses. Voices in the distance from different directions let her know that more soldiers were on to her. As a distraction, she was doing a good job. But could she do better?

Maybe she should try to blow something up. She was good at that. There had been a lot of explosions so far. If she wasn’t careful, someone would think she was from Hollywood. And that her adventures would make a good movie.

She inched through the brush until she reached the street in front of her. It was a more prominent street than others she’d been in, lined with buildings but for a couple of gaps like the one she was in. 

A pair of soldiers were jogging down the street away from her. A man with a rolled-up fishing net on his shoulder and his head down walked towards the river. A woman opened the door of a yellow house and emptied a chamber pot into the street. 

“Ew.” She gagged, grossed out. Right; not a lot of plumbing in the world in this time period. “But did you have to dump it right there?” She grumbled to herself. “Where you walk? So unsanitary!” The coast clear of soldiers, she rose to her feet and eased into the street as if she had every right to be there. It was unlikely that townsfolk would be alarmed by her or on the lookout for a prisoner in officer’s clothing. 

However, things changed. Jie emerged from the grass, sending the housewife back into her home with a look of fright and a slammed door. 

Mei’s leg was getting sore again, so she jogged but limped along, scanning the street for a way to create even more of a fuss, something that would bring soldiers away from the docks. 

Ahead, a wiry man in black pants and plaid shirt and a white apron opened the front door of a shop. He carried a lantern in one hand and looked like he’d pulled an all-nighter, his shoulders stooped and bags under his eyes. The shop door was set between two large windows with already thrown open shutters. The man seemed deep in thought about something and didn’t notice her or the jaguar coming down the street.

An unpleasant but oddly familiar smell caught her attention. She slowed down in curiosity as it seemed to emanate from the shop. “What’s that smell?” She wondered aloud before realizing it. 

“Whale oil,” the man muttered in mild exasperation without looking up, his tone half annoyed as if he’d heard that question many times before. “You’ll get used to it.”

“Oil…” A thought occurred to her. She stopped. “Anyone inside right now, or is it just you?”

“Anyone—? It’s only me. Why—?” He looked up in definite annoyance, which immediately transitioned to anxious respect at the sight of her naval uniform, an officer’s one at that. Then his eyes caught sight of Jie and widened. 

Mei looked down at the grenade still in her hand. “It really does seem like I have a penchant for blowing things up, doesn’t it?”

The shopkeeper saw the explosive and gasped, looking up at her with apprehension. “W-what are you going to do with that?”

She flicked the tip of the sword at his face. “Put the lantern down on the ground. Carefully.”

He gulped, eyes crossed at the sharp steel point nearly poking him in the nose. Head shivering as much as nodding, he slowly squatted, put the lantern on the dirt and then backed away, hands up. 

Mei went down on one knee, opened the lantern’s glass front, and stuck the grenade fuse into the little flame. It caught immediately. 

“No. Stop!” The shopkeeper begged, finally catching on to her plan. 

The grenade sailed through one of the front windows. 

Mei protectively put her back to the store, blocking Jie from what was coming. 

The grenade went off, obliterating the peace and quiet of the morning and bringing about destruction and a wail of despair from the poor shopkeeper whose livelihood she’d just ruined. 

Jie jumped at the blast. As Mei quickly deserted the scene, the feline chased after her. 

A look over her shoulder showed the shopkeeper standing with his arms limp at his sides, smoke billowing out of the windows as a real conflagration took hold, thanks to the jars and barrels of whale oil inside his former business. With a warehouse and some kind of textile factory tightly pressed on either side of his building, the fire would soon spread and cause havoc. 

She felt mildly guilty about that; she didn’t want to inconvenience or hurt any other prisoners or NPCs if at all possible. But less than thirty seconds had passed before she heard an alarm bell frantically ringing and knew that fire fighting would soon be a town-wide priority. 

The sky was distinctly warmer in colour in the east now. Dawn was upon them, and a few clouds in the sky had become blood-orange in hue. 

Surely enough time had passed, yes? She should make her way to the docks and the ship. Though she’d need to be extra careful after stirring up a hornet’s nest and putting herself right in the middle of it. She was nervous and thrilled both, and a smile split her lips. Soon they’d be free of this place. 

She darted from one street to the next with Jie at her heels, hiding around corners and making her way west towards her destination. 

Soldiers ran by but seemed more intent on racing to the fire than searching for her. 

She came to the Main Street that ran along the coast to the river and the docks. Peering around the corner of a fishmonger, she studied the home stretch. 

The naval barracks and headquarters were huge, stone buildings on one side amidst a plaza and small parade grounds. The ocean was just beyond. And there, at the end of the street, not two or three hundred meters away, was the river, the main dock, and the prize: the sloop. It was a small ship with a single lateen sail and one cannon poking forwards. There was no sign of activity aboard. 

To her surprise, the street was empty, and neither naval building showed any life. The door to the headquarters was standing wide open as if deserted. Their distractions had worked! With a grin, she warily stepped into the street and headed for the dock. 

A gunshot rang out, and a lead ball bounced off the cobblestones with a spark just in front of her feet. 

Mei stopped in surprise and looked towards the headquarters. 

He all-too-casually strode out of the building with a pistol in one hand and a rapier in the other, though neither was as fine as those she’d stolen from him earlier. His white pants had been pressed, and his red jacket was spotless. He did not wear a hat, and his blond hair was perfectly styled. Despite the early hour, the man was as immaculate as ever.

Her stomach fell. 

“Good morning, Mei,” Captain Fowler greeted her with an icy smile. “We meet again. Ready to die?”

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