Mei saw Amos hurl the lantern down and, fear clutching her heart, launched herself from the window opening before she could mourn his loss or appreciate his sacrifice.
The explosion was so powerful that the rush of air and flame jetting through the window behind her flipped her over in midair. Upside down, she saw the blast separate the very stones making up the backside of the mill. For a brief moment, they lifted and allowed firelight through all the cracks. A vast plume of yellow and orange flames blew the top off the mill and engulfed everything as it rose into the night sky, illuminating the entire area much as the volcano had on St. Vincent.
Mei helplessly tumbled down through the air, a prisoner of gravity. She heard a cry of alarm and then felt herself slam mostly into the sugarcane refuse except for one leg that hit the top of the wagon box. Before she could shriek in pain, she bounced out of the wagon, pinwheeled, and landed square on her back on the ground, causing all the air to whoosh out of her lungs.
She lay there in a daze of stars, struggling for breath under the fireball above her. Her entire body hurt.
“Careful! She might have damaged her spine!”
It was unclear who was speaking, but she felt her body dragged under the wagon while bits of stone and wood cascaded down from the sky. From the corner of her vision, she saw that while most of the conical mill remained, the factory side had been vaporized, leaving only the floor and mangled equipment and vats, the walls and roof utterly gone.
“Mei! Mei, are you ok?”
She blinked and fought to breathe and regain her senses. She saw Armand’s face above hers. “I’m ok. Give me a minute.”
“We don’t have a minute,” Lance whispered.
She became aware of shouting, and a troupe of boots ran past, pounding the dirt.
A commanding voice rang out. “Find whoever’s on duty here! Private Rattle, haul your ass into town and find Leftenant Davies.”
“Surely he would have heard the explosion and come running on his own, sir.”
“Depends how far into his cups and whores he is. Get moving!”
The voices passed.
Lance let out a breath. “I can’t believe they didn’t see us. We have to go. Now!”
Armand and Lia pulled Mei to her feet, and she stumbled along between them, her arms over their shoulders as they hurried in Lance’s wake. He led them across the work yard and into the stables, where several horses knocked about in their stalls in fright.
The stable building was large, with a dozen animals. The companions pulled up shy of a brown mare whose eyes rolled white at the sight of them.
“Why come here?” Armand asked Lance.
The American vaguely gestured at the horses. “We need to go, fast. We’ll ride out of here.”
“Do you know how to saddle or ride a horse?” He deadpanned.
Lance’s face reddened. “No.”
Lia’s face was tense and pale. Her eyes opened wide, and she hurriedly waved them out of the doorway and into hiding, dragging Mei along with her as she ducked into the shadows.
Two more soldiers ran past towards the inferno.
Mei felt a deep bruise on her leg and gingerly tested it, feeling a sharp stab of pain. She might have cracked her femur. Looking over at the animals, a horse to escape on would be nice, but she didn’t know how to saddle or ride. She gritted her teeth and tried to stand on her own. “It’s a long way to Bridgetown, and the night is running out. Let’s just go.”
Armand gave her and her leg a dubious glance but only nodded. “Lean on me if you need to.”
She gave him a grateful smile. “Thanks. I’ll try on my own for now.” Her entire body felt like it had been through a meat grinder. She wanted to crawl into a bath and bed and maybe a hospital. But she was all-too-aware that their best chance of taking the ship in Bridgetown was under cover of confusion and darkness, and they had to hurry to reach their objective before the sun rose.
Leaving the horses behind, they crept out of the stables and made for the jungle. Luckily, the mill was situated on the edge of town, and it wasn’t far.
Mei sensed movement and turned her head. To her relief, she saw Jie shoot out from a patch of shadow bushes and catch up. The jaguar looked scared and nervous and seemed more than happy to get away from all the noise and danger of this place.
Together, they reached the relative safety of the trees outside of Speightstown and merged with the jungle’s darkness.
Cheeto followed closely behind Juan as the pair traversed the countryside. The plan to fool the soldiers in the fort about Spanish saboteurs had worked a little too well. Twice now, they’d had to flee and hide from patrols on horseback sent out to scour the landscape for him and Juan. He was still sweating from the last near miss after they’d hidden in a farm shed at the edge of a cotton field while a search party tore past on horseback.
Now they picked their way through a field of immature indigo plants, crouching low so as not to stick out so much amidst the shorter plants.
The hush and peacefulness of the night shattered, and he looked over to see a windmill on their right exploding, bright orange flames rising into the night and illuminating this side of the town.
“What the—!” He jerked sideways away from it on instinct, though they were a few hundred meters away.
“I’m guessing that’s the distraction they came up with,” Juan muttered.
Cheeto shook his head in wonder. “Man, that chica es loca. Every soldier on the island is gonna come running.”
“That’s the plan.” Juan hung and shook his head but also half-smiled. “What have we gotten ourselves into with that woman?”
An idea occurred to Cheeto, and he slapped Juan on the back. “Hey. That’s not far from us. Maybe they’ll come this way to escape. Let’s try to catch them rather than meet up down the road.”
Juan was of a similar mind, and the two scampered on an angle towards the disaster, though still heading south of it. Good fortune smiled on them when they spotted their coconspirators fleeing the scene.
Cheeto plucked a stone from the ground and hurled it through the air.
The rock crashed into the ground in front of the Carib girl, who looked up and recognized them. Pointing him and Juan out to the others, the group slowed to allow them to rejoin.
“That was you?” Juan asked Mei. He nodded his head towards the raging fire.
She replied with a pained grin. “Yeah. How’d it go with you guys?”
“Great!” Cheeto happily enthused. “They’re all over us. Been chasing us something fierce. They totally think we’re Spanish spies.” He was proud of that. He’d been a little more scared than he wanted to admit going up to that fort. But they’d pulled off the con game and gotten away, and now he felt safe enough to recover his humour.
“Let’s keep going,” Armand urged. “We have a long way to go.”
Feeling a little more secure, the group reunited and, in larger numbers, continued on, darting from one shadow to another as they wormed their way around Speightstown, moving southward through fields and brush.
Cheeto saw the way Mei was limping and looking worn. He felt pretty drained himself, despite, or perhaps because of, the adrenalin rush earlier. Apparently, it was about fifteen kilometres to their destination. He wondered if they were going to make it.
Leftentant Davies could still smell Lorelai’s perfume. He could still taste her plush lips on his own. The ethereal feel of her naked flesh still warmed his hands. His head swam in what, until minutes ago, had been a pleasantly light-drunken state.
He could see the fire raging up head at the end of Commercial Street and saw the harried distress in the other soldiers as they ran to help prevent the fire from taking out the entire town. He’d already been made aware of the issue of Spanish spies in the area and a potential invasion.
Thus he was somewhat regretful at having imbibed this much while on duty. And at having been roused from Lorelai’s place rather than his office at Fort One, considering he was the commander on active watch this night. His stomach rumbled unpleasantly as he thought about Captain Fowler learning of these things.
Reaching the end of the cobblestone street, he stood amidst chaos.
The front half of the conical mill had caved in on itself, leaving the back wall standing alone. The wooden blades of the windmill lay atop the warehouse on the right side of the street, burning brightly and torching the warehouse along with it. The warehouse on the left was half flattened and also on fire. Soldiers and citizens were swiftly gathering to fight the blazes, but without modern equipment, there wasn’t much they could do.
The sugar factory had been obliterated, the smell of burnt sugar replacing Lorelai’s perfume in his nostrils. Striding forward with the vague idea of taking command of the situation, he glanced sideways as something caught his attention. Then he shuddered and jumped back a step. Clutching his stomach, he tried not to vomit all over the street.
A soldier had been embedded into the side of the warehouse. Another was a crumpled ball at the base of the wall. Both were charred like flash-burned barbecue. Wisps of gray smoke coiled up from the pink and black flesh that had cracked open in the heat.
Well, that would probably explain the fate of the guards on duty. A waft of burned meat made him gag, and he hastily backed up to get away from it.
One of his subordinates ran up: young, blond, and ambitious. What was the kid’s name again? Bount? Bunsen? Wait, did it even start with a B? The young man saluted. “Multiple casualties as far as we can figure, sir. No idea what caused it yet.”
He fought back a yawn. “Was it an accident? Or the Spanish?”
“No idea, sir. No witnesses as far as we can tell.” A glance at the two corpses, yet he betrayed none of Davies’s unease at their state.
Davies mentally groaned. Iron-stomached bastard. This kid was far too chipper for the middle of the night. “The priority is getting those fires out,” he snapped. “Knock buildings down to provide a break if need be but don’t let it spread!”
“Aye, sir!” Another salute, and the young man—Binton?—took off.
More soldiers came running up the streets, staring up at the fire, some still pulling on their uniforms after being woken out of bed. It was all hands on duty during the crisis.
Hopefully, a worse crisis wasn’t about to descend on them. Was this just the work of saboteurs, or were the Spanish landing in force?
Davies waved over to one of his sergeants. “Boz! Assemble two squads and sweep the area around the town. Send runners up and down the coast too.”
“But, sir, we already have—“
“Double check! I don’t want to get surprised. Is this just an accident or an attack? Find out! Have we sent a runner to Bridgetown yet?”
“I’m not sure, sir.”
“Find out. And then send another runner, just in case.”
The man saluted and sprinted off.
Davies stalked towards some of the firefighters, determined to make himself seen and heard if nothing else. He’d leave the hauling of water buckets to others—privileges of rank and all that.
After circling around Speightstown, the companions decided to return to the road and chance the faster path, even though messengers and troops would no doubt use it as well at some point.
“It’s just a lot faster than trooping cross country,” Armand had argued. “And we need every minute we can get. The sun rises early in the Caribbean.”
On the road south of town, there were more coastal forts, all of which were alert for trouble. Soldiers alertly stood on the ramparts, most eyes on the sea, expecting Spanish ships to appear. Yet eyes were also turned their way, forcing them to slow down and stick to the deepest shadows.
Creeping parallel to the road until they passed by the forts, they heard a horse galloping towards them from behind as a messenger came from Speightstown.
A soldier in the nearest fort hailed the rider. “Ho! What news? Have the Spanish landed?”
The messenger pulled up, horse rearing momentarily. He shouted at the man on the fort’s roof, and there was no urgency in his tone. “Nothing sighted so far. Seems to be just the work of spies.”
The soldier above relaxed. “Good to hear.”
An officer came from behind and reprimanded the pair. “Just because we have yet to see anything doesn’t mean they aren’t still coming. Stay alert. And get a move on down there!” He shouted at the rider.
The messenger kicked his heels into his steed and raced off down the road. He made it about thirty meters before he ran into a patrol coming up the road, and the congestion brought him to another halt.
Mei bit her lip, worried. “I don’t like the sound of that,” she whispered to the others.
“What’s wrong?” Juan asked.
“They don’t seem worried enough.” But what to do about it? She tried fast to think of something that would put the fear back into the soldiers. Then a lightbulb went off in her mind. She looked at the Spanish pair. “You feel up to an encore?”
Cheeto swallowed. “Another con?”
“Yeah. Only,” she turned to Lance, “you’ll be the star of this show.” She told them her idea.
Lance was shaking his head hard before she’d even finished speaking. “Hell no. No. Never. Not a chance.”
She flicked her eyes at the road. The messenger was still there, held up speaking to the soldiers on patrol. “We’ve got seconds. It’s a great opportunity.”
“No!” He quietly barked.
Armand nudged him. “Come on. It’s a good idea.”
“W-we’re up for it if he is,” Cheeto told them, looking a bit calmer now that he knew who would be taking the most risk.
Lance looked around and saw everyone staring at him. He snarled. “Fine. Whatever.” At a nod from Juan, he rose, put some distance between him and the others, and then charged the patrol and messenger, shouting. “The Spanish have landed! The Spanish are coming!”
Everyone on the road and on top of the forts heard him and turned their heads.
Juan and Cheeto exploded from cover. Raising their muskets, they took aim at him and fired, muskets blazing, puffs of smoke blooming, and bullets ripping through the leaves just wide of Lance.
The American whirled and showed them an angry, surprised look. He raised his musket and shot back.
A bullet whizzed over Cheeto’s head and elicited a loud stream of Spanish invectives.
Lance continued, shouting once more. “They’ve landed in the east! Six ships! Over a thousand soldiers!”
The English burst into frenzied motion, shouting at each other.
The messenger kicked his horse and forced his way through the patrol, now very intent on delivering his message.
Cheeto and Juan each got off another shot, but the English soldiers were already in motion, raising their own weapons and taking aim. A hail of lead sent the pair diving for cover and scampering away, heading northeast.
Mei led Armand, Lia and Jie southeast, moving slowly and taking advantage of the distraction, watching the patrol go after the others. Unfortunately, they were not as stealthy as they’d hoped.
A shout went up from the patrol. “There! More of them!” An arm pointed at the grove of bushes they were entering.
Desperate, she tried to get into the act as well. “We’re English!” She shouted, waving them in the direction of the others. “After them!”
But it was too late. The patrol split in half and while four went after Juan and Cheeto, the other four came towards her.
Sensing danger and perhaps seeing and hearing a lot of guns, Jie nervously melted away into the night.
Mei gripped her sword in one hand and pistol in the other. But before she could decide whether or not to fight off the soldiers, they were on them. There were shouts of surprise and suspicion, and then she and Lia were forced to their knees at musket point. She cursed under her breath, frightened and furious. Then she frowned. Where had Armand gone?
She heard more gunshots. Several minutes later, the two ‘spies’ were paraded back, Cheeto bleeding from a shot in the arm, both looking despondent.
Her heart sank. It was over. And it was all her fault. Self-loathing and guilt flooded her being. If only she hadn’t tried to take this extra, foolish gamble. The plan had been working. Why had she tried to take it even farther? Idiot! She’d gotten them all captured.
The lean-faced sergeant leading the patrol stood over the captives with a smug look. “So these are the Spanish saboteurs, huh?” He smiled cruelly. “Just a few cunt prisoners making trouble. Boy, are you lot in for it.” Putting his thumbs in his belt, he looked relaxed. “Guess we can call off the alarm. There’s no invasion after all, is there?”
Mei hung her head.
Camouflage is a commonly used tool in the animal kingdom, but most people don’t think it applies to humans. Indeed, even suggesting that humans possess any natural camouflage would cause some to decry racism, perhaps looking for any excuse to rise up in indignant anger in the latest social cause, as if righteousness, in itself, was a sign of wisdom.
Yet Armand had fought in his share of guerrilla battles and was quite aware of how well he naturally blended with the night thanks to his very dark skin. It was a tool he’d used in the past to deadly effect. When the English soldiers had approached their group, he’d melted away from the others and merged with the shadows of the patch of jungle around them, knowing full well that he’d be hard to spot so long as he moved slowly.
Like a ninja, he gracefully slid between low-growing ferns and a thick bush, his eyes never leaving the circle of soldiers who had their guns on their captives, standing only a few meters away. He placed his feet carefully, not making a sound, moving too slowly to catch anyone’s attention. He was calm and focused.
Armand removed the bayonet from the end of his musket and carefully stuck it into the soft soil at his feet, the edge towards the people in front of him so that the flat wouldn’t catch any stray light. Very carefully, he raised the musket.
There were eight soldiers, including one officer. Not good odds. Yet every second he hesitated risked more soldiers arriving from the fort only fifty meters away.
Taking another half step to the left to gain a clear line of sight on two targets at once, his finger gently squeezed the trigger. A moment of pause, then the flintlock lit the pan, and the gun fired. A bullet spun through the air, penetrating the head of the soldier closest to him, exiting in a spray of bone and brains, then piercing the next soldier’s head and lodging inside, rattling inside the skull, too spent to exit.
Both targets crumpled. Six remained.
Armand was already in motion. He knew there was no point in waiting for the timer on the musket to count down; thirty seconds was far too long, and his position was now known. Pulling the bayonet blade up out of the ground, he moved sideways and disguised himself behind a palm tree’s narrow trunk.
He experienced a moment of déjà vu, a flashback to his time in Africa many years ago. How odd it was that he’d fallen back into old patterns of violence so easily, that his old skills remained, despite having lived far longer in peaceful France in nonviolent activities. What did it say about him, or about human nature, that one could so readily become a warrior—and killer—when the need arose? For a brief second, he wondered how he should feel about this.
The sergeant shouted. “There’s more out there!”
“Where are they?”
“The shot came from that way!”
muskets fired, tearing up the vegetation where Armand had been only moments before.
A brave man jumped into the bush, musket in his hands, ready to stab or shoot, running forwards, heading swivelling. Yet he saw nothing.
Armand let him come close, dropped his gun at the attacker’s feet to distract and slow him, and then when the soldier looked down, he jammed his blade deep in the man’s side. His free hand grasped the soldier’s musket and liberated it. In one smooth motion, he brought the gun up and fired, killing the next soldier foolish enough to come at him.
Four down. The one at his feet screamed in pain.
A gun fired and he heard Lance cry out. Looking up, he saw the officer and three other soldiers taking the others hostage.
The officer stood over Lance, gun smoking, having shot the American in the leg, but his eyes were on the jungle. “Come out, or we’ll kill your friends!”
Mei was having none of it. She jumped to her feet and wrestled with the closest soldier. She was weaker but struggling admirably.
Juan tackled another to the ground.
His gun almost recharged, Armand picked it up off the ground, discarding the other simultaneously.
The sergeant drew his bayonet and stabbed Lance in the gut, making him scream a second time. “Come out with your hands up! No weapons!”
Walking forward, Armand put a bullet in the officer’s chest from close range, dropping him. The corpse fell atop Lance. Raising the now-useless musket like a spear, he threw it at the last free-standing soldier, fouling the other man and momentarily preventing him from helping any of the others.
Mei was flung to the side by the soldier she was battling and fell to the ground. She kept her cool, though, and reached into the pocket of her jacket for her second pistol. A quick shot centre mass had the soldier reeling backwards. She leapt back up to her feet and went at him, giving him no time to recover should the shot not be deadly, bashing him in the head with the gun.
He was impressed. She was holding her own against a larger opponent. Despite her background, Mei was tough and something of a natural fighter. Perhaps she’d taken self-defence classes or martial arts or something.
Juan was overwhelming the soldier he was fighting, holding his arms down and pounding him in the face.
In possession of a knife he’d taken off a soldier earlier, Cheeto saw the man Armand had thrown the gun at and threw himself at the bigger man, arm stabbing wildly, punching holes in the soldier’s arms, chest, legs, anywhere he could reach.
“I’m hit,” Lance moaned. “I’m shot. And stabbed!” He lay back on the ground, bleeding from his stomach and one thigh. Clutching his gut, blood oozed between his fingers.
Armand went to the man’s side. “Bah. Don’t be a petit baby. Who has not been shot before, yes?”
Lance blinked up and frowned. “What?”
He fought to keep a smile off his face. “It is only a little stab wound. You will be fine.”
“Go to hell!” Lance shouted, spittle flying. “This is not fine!”
The other men dispatched, Mei came over and kneeled next to him, wincing as she did. After all, she had a battery of injuries all over her body. She examined Lance’s wounds. “How bad is…? Oh.”
“He won’t be able to walk,” Armand surmised, cutting the dead officer’s clothes into strips and rapidly and roughly bandaging the injured man, ignoring Lance’s protests. “Bullet’s still in the thigh. Looks like it missed the main artery, but it’s still bad.” The shot had been from up close, at full power. There were burns and stippling on the pant leg around the hole. “He won’t bleed out from the gut wound right away, but moving around will definitely make things worse.”
Fear entered Lance’s expression. He looked around at everyone with widening eyes. When he saw the disappointment on Mei’s face, he reached up and grabbed the front of her jacket. “Hey! You’re not leaving me. You can’t!”
She shook her head sharply. “Of course not.”
But he didn’t believe her. “You can’t! You know what they’ll do to me. Especially if the rest of you get off the island. They’ll take it all out on me.” He shook her. “I didn’t even want this. It’s your fault I’m here!”
Mei placed a hand on his arm and spoke with motherly assurance. “We won’t leave you.”
“I can carry him,” Juan offered.
“Not ten or fifteen kilometres,” Armand countered.
Lance’s frightened eyes turned on him with betrayal. “You… I thought we were friends.”
“I said he cannot carry you; I did not advocate leaving you,” he chastised.
Shouting from the fort carried to them. Reinforcements would be on their way.
Mei wearily stood. “We can’t stay here. For now, grab him and let’s get away from here. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” Rubbing her leg, she favoured it, then gingerly touched a wound on her shoulder. She closed her eyes for a second, seemingly forlorn, before looking over at the fort.
Armand wasn’t sure she’d make the journey either before she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion, her body failing on her. Still, they could not stop to rest. Every second counted.
Juan slung Lance onto his back, the latter crying out from the pain. Together, they hobbled away from the seaside fort as quickly as possible, sticking to the jungle and fields as they bypassed the next fort down the road. Luckily, they weren’t spotted a second time.
However, not even Juan, with all his muscles, could carry Lance indefinitely. A few kilometres south of Speightstown, they sought shelter in a small gully. Out of sight of the road and any passerby, they fell to the ground, tired and aching.
Lance had tears in his eyes from the pain of being jostled as he’d been carried. As Juan tried to gently place him on the ground, the American groaned.
“How are you holding up?” Mei asked him.
He didn’t look at her, his voice terse. “I’m fine. I can keep going.”
“We’re not going to leave you behind,” she reiterated.
Lance’s lips twisted almost in a sneer, but he said nothing in reply. He obviously didn’t believe her.
Armand was under the impression that Lance wasn’t the sort who trusted others easily, nor someone who had a lot of faith in his relationships. Under the circumstances, with lives on the line, who could blame him?
Cheeto jumped to his feet. “I have an idea. Hold on.” He dashed off before anyone could object.
They waited about fifteen minutes, growing increasingly anxious. Mei suggested going to look for him while Armand was intent on getting back underway. What was that kid doing?
They heard a hollow metallic rumble. A few seconds later, Cheeto reappeared, pushing a wheelbarrow. He grinned at them. “What d’you think?” He looked around with hopeful expectation.
Juan exasperatingly let out a big breath. “Oh, thank goodness. If I had to carry him another two hours, I was thinking of just leaving him here.”
“You too, huh?” Armand nodded, playing along. “With all his whining and complaining and moaning, I was thinking the same. It would be quieter.”
Lance’s worried face snapped back and forth between them. “Wait. What?”
Mei sighed, though her eyes twinkled. “I don’t know. Even pushing a wheelbarrow seems like a lot of effort, doesn’t it?”
Juan heavily nodded. “True. I’m pretty tired.”
Lance pulled himself up into a sitting position with panicked effort. “Hey now!”
Armand, enjoying the teasing, rubbed his beard in mock thought. “Perhaps we should stake him to the road. A good distraction for any soldiers coming along.”
This time the American’s face turned red. “Hold up! You’re not staking me anywhere. I’ll ride the wheelbarrow!” Grunting and bleeding afresh, he struggled to crawl towards it.
Everyone finally broke out into laughs. Armand and Mei rushed forward to help the man up into the wheelbarrow without hurting himself further.
Lance scowled at them, resentful but too scared to complain further lest he actually get left behind.
Juan carried one side of the wheelbarrow while Armand manned the other. This way, their pace picked up considerably, especially when they returned to the road.
“Better?” Mei asked as they travelled.
The wheelbarrow hit a bump, and Lance winced. “It still hurts.”
“Well,” she teased. “Next time, don’t get shot. Or stabbed.”
He gave her a dark look and grumbled something under his breath.
Cheeto ran ahead a couple of hundred meters down the road to act as a scout. Only twice did they have to find a hiding spot: the first as a large group of soldiers marched past in double time, and the second when another mounted rider flew by on route to Bridgetown from behind them. They had luckily heard him coming before he’d seen them. Perhaps the additional bodies had been discovered, fuelling conjecture about Spanish agents active in the countryside. It seemed that their plan was working.
Jie eventually returned, apparently seeking them out. Armand was puzzled by the feline. It showed remarkable loyalty to Mei. The others all gave it a wide berth, yet it seemed content to trot by her side in defiance of wild instincts. Watching the way the woman strode down the road, it occurred to him that she and the cat might be two of a kind. Perhaps recognition of one in the other was what drew the two together: kindred spirits.
When they reached Bridgetown, they found the town practically bustling though it was early morning. Where the road left town, another company of soldiers was assembling, an officer shouting from horseback. Several men carried lanterns, the soft orange glow creating a kaleidoscope of shadows amongst the red-uniformed men.
The companions verged off the road with the town just out of sight and found shelter in a plantation, hiding behind the barn while they scouted Bridgetown from afar.
“No cover,” Juan noted, a bit discouraged. “The town is surrounded by fields. There’s no way to sneak in.”
Mei looked at the sky. “We’ve probably got an hour and a half until dawn, which means it’ll start getting light a little before that.” She gazed out over the fields. “Let’s circle around to the backside of town and hope they don’t have spotters out looking for us.”
“With all the ruckus we’ve been making?” Lance scoffed in a tight voice. “Of course they’ll have people out.”
“So, how do we get in?” Cheeto innocently asked.
A thought occurred to Armand, and he turned to Lance. “Where is the main dock? You said something earlier about a river?”
Having lived here, Lance knew the layout pretty well. “Yeah. There’s a little river that empties out on the south side of Bridgetown. Hardly anything built on the south side of the river; almost all of the town is on the north side. They use the spot where the river turns into ocean as a little bay. It’s just big enough for the sloop or a mid-sized merchant vessel to dock there. The brig and anything large have to anchor offshore.”
“And there were cannons protecting the river mouth?”
“There’s a tiny fort on the south side. There’s a cannon embankment on the north. Just a short wall above the beach, maybe two meters above the water, with eight or ten cannon pointing out to sea. The headquarters is directly behind that, overlooking the ocean. There’s a plaza around headquarters, and the barracks are north of that. Main Street runs from the docks north, and a smaller one goes along the river to the bridge that gives the town its name. Both roads are lined with warehouses and factories for the most part.”
Armand nodded slowly and pictured the layout in his mind. “This side of town is busy with soldiers. The coast will be watched in case of a Spanish attack. But the landward side will likely have fewer lookouts. Perhaps if we circle around the town to the river—“
Mei finished the thought. “We could float down the river all the way to the ship.”
He looked at her with approval. “Oui. Then climb up onto the ship and sail away.”
“What about the cannons?” Juan pointed out. “If they see us leaving, they’ll just sink us, won’t they?”
“We’ll have to take the cannons out before we sail,” Armand agreed. “We’ll have to split up. Half of us quietly liberating the ship while the other half disable the cannons.”
“How do you disable them?” Mei wondered aloud.
Armand had read enough historical fiction to know. “The touch hole where the powder is ignited. We need to spike it. Drive something into the hole so the spark can’t reach the powder. Like a knife or bayonet blade or even rocks. Hammer it in tight enough that they can’t easily pull it out without tools.”
Cheeto generally alternated between youthfully boisterous when outgoing and quiet when around his elders when discussing things like this. But he stood straight now, obviously putting on a brave face. “I don’t know nothing about boats. But I can fuck up those cannons.”
Juan, as was his habit, volunteered to go with the Mexican. “And I.”
Looking nervous and worried, Lance spoke up as if desperate to be of use. He tried to sit up a bit in the wheelbarrow. His clothes were soaked with blood. “I…I can keep a lookout or something.” His eyes flickered over them all. “Just don’t—“
“Lance!” Mei sighed. “Stop freaking out. No one is leaving you behind. Do you really think I would do that?”
He didn’t reply.
Armand kept silent. He himself would try to accommodate the wounded man, but if it came down to it, if sacrificing Lance meant everyone else getting safely off of this island, he would do it. Not because he was callous or didn’t like the man, but because the prosperity of the group was more important than any one person.
He wondered what Lance’s worry was based on. Was he uncertain because he did not have a strong, established relationship with the others, no friendship to count on, so he did not yet trust? Or was Lance anxious because he was the type who would quickly leave others behind, and therefore he naturally assumed that others would just as quickly do the same to him?
Liars always assume that everyone else is lying. Thieves always assume that everyone else will steal.
Just how trustworthy was Lance when it came down to it? Armand had enjoyed his company on the other island for weeks. In ordinary circumstances, they could perhaps become friends. And yet he found himself wondering: was now the time to accommodate the wounded man because he would prove to become a solid companion in the future, or should he use Lance’s condition as an excuse to divest the group of his company and prevent future betrayal? Should he continue to carry the man or arrange an accident?
What kind of a person was Lance? Was he worth investing in? Or would they be better off without him?