Chapter Twenty-Three: Boarding Party

The shadows had already grown long. Dusk followed quickly, so they didn’t have much time to prepare. On board the anchored ship the pirates had grown increasingly agitated but it seemed there was only one landing craft and it was out of reach on the beach. So far no one had volunteered to swim ashore and check how their comrades might be enjoying their shore leave. The mustachioed and ornately turbaned captain was close to having a conniption fit. He stomped around the deck, sometimes shouting at the empty shore in a menacing bellow.

Just after sunset, during the last few minutes of natural light, a procession of the island’s inhabitants came down the trail to the beach carrying torches and more baskets of fruit. Now the two women were joined by a slender male youth dressed in the same grass-and-flower style, whose shyly downcast face was a study in red. The captain shouted himself hoarse at them but all they did was wave as the youth pushed the pirates’ longboat back into the water. The two women got in the front while he sat in the back, paddling the unfamiliar craft clumsily toward the junk, canoe style. The women stayed seated so as not to tip the odd craft over, but put their upper bodies to good effect in a shimmying and swaying dance, all the while crooning in their incomprehensible tongue. Slowly they drew nearer to the larger craft. The youth’s piloting was unskilled but they were making headway. Nearly all of the crew aboard were gathered at the rail to watch the bizarre shore party approach.

“It’s working, it’s working,” Pam said just loud enough for Dore and Pers to hear. They were singing I’ve Been Working on the Railroad because it was one of the few the few uptime songs Dore knew the tune to, replacing the words with the same sort of nonsense babble they had used earlier. The giddiness that had helped her get through the first round had faded. Fear ran through her, a cold tingling in the balmy night. She had washed the spattered blood from her face, but she still felt unclean somehow. Her smile was forced and she began to worry that the enemy would see through their act too soon. She jiggled her scantily covered breasts a bit harder in an effort to distract these frightening and undoubtedly ruthless men from the terror that was threatening to creep across her painfully smiling face. Whatever mad confidence had taken hold of her earlier had fled. She was literally naked and exposed.

I can’t believe this is really happening it’s some kind of a nightmare oh God oh God! As they drew nearer the boat she took a deep breath and forced the inner voice of her fear to stop its nattering. Now was when it mattered most that she stay cool. This was the part that really counted. She could see Dore reflected in the water, waving the torches in a graceful arc. The more distraction the better, plus the light might blind the pirates somewhat to the darkness beyond. They were only a yard away now, Pam coyly fluttered her eyelashes up at the captain, whose outrageous curled mustachios dripped with sweat. She instantly regretted doing that as it sent the already upset fellow into a rage, eyes bulging and face cartoonishly crimson.

With a nerve-jarring shriek, the porculent old pirate captain vaulted over the rail to climb deftly down a rope ladder with a grace that belied his awesome girth. He jumped the last few feet to land in the front of their longboat, causing the craft’s back end to rise dangerously out of the water. Dore dropped one of her torches into the water in order to take hold. Pam was bounced upward and back to land painfully on her bottom between her and Dore’s bench seats, getting another nasty jolt when the pirate captain began making his way toward them and caused the craft to fall to the surface again with a splash. Suddenly Pers leaped over her, placing himself between them and the invader, armed only with his paddle. Pam looked on in horror as the enraged captain knocked the paddle from his hands and then began pummeling poor Pers with meaty fists. The youth was knocked backward just as Pam had been and was in bad position to defend himself. A kick of the pirate captain’s boot knocked the wind out of him and he slumped into the boat’s planked bottom.

Pam felt something hard and cool jamming painfully into her shoulder blade. She knew it was the butt of the up-time Smith and Wesson .38 caliber pistol Gerbald had insisted they bring with them for this part of the mission, which Dore had hidden in her fruit basket. She thrust the pistol into Pam’s hand.

“Shoot, Pam, shoot! I know you know how!” Dore hissed in her ear.

Pam’s eyes narrowed. She was filling with a deep and powerful anger. Pers was no more than a boy! So much like my own Walt! She had naturally grown very fond of the lad and his sunny disposition. The fat captain had stopped beating the boy and was reaching for a nasty-looking curved long-knife at his belt. A cold rage she was sure was founded in deep maternal instinct went through Pam, a partially physical sensation, electrified emotions buzzed through her blood and brain. You really do see red! she thought as tiny red stars began to sparkle in her vision. She gripped the pistol firmly, feeling its weight, clicked the safety off and pointed it at the approaching foe’s chest.

I’ve shot pistols before a hundred times back at Uncle’s farm. Hold it steady, get your target in your sights, deep breath, squeeze slowly . . . Pam felt as if she was moving in slow motion but the pirate captain, angling his knife for a murderous stab paused when he realized Pam was armed. His cruel eyes widened. There was a flash and loud crack as if lightning had struck.

Pam watched, half in horror, half in glee, as the pirate captain fell with a bullet through his heart. He hit the boat’s side heavily at his waist, then tipped into the water, turban first, with a sizable splash. The heavy pistol had kicked back into her hands hard, jarring her muscles painfully, but she kept it under control as her uncles had taught her, despite her awkward position.

“ARGGHHH!!” Pam’s wordless, primal wail was lost in a wider cacophony. The bitter gunsmoke stench helped clear her head. With a twist and a heave, Pam began to extricate herself from between the seats, carefully keeping the pistol pointed away from her friends. Dore helped lift her as best she could with her free hand, she still held the torch, its light flickering crazily across the boat as it swayed and bounced with their frantic movements.

Pam saw that the second part of their ruse was in full effect. During the noisy show they had put on, Gerbald and the Swedes had launched the pinnace and had carefully circled around to the seaward side of the anchored junk. They had succeeded in boarding and were now locked in close combat with the Arab pirates.

There was a loud boom as Gerbald downed one charging pirate with one barrel of his pistol grip Snakecharmer shotgun while sticking his katzbalger shortsword deep into the gut of another. He moved around the deck with the practiced grace of a ballerina, dodging and killing with silent precision. Another boom from the next barrel and two more charging pirates fell, screaming and pawing at their shot-destroyed faces before dying. This is what Gerbald was trained for, how he had made his living from his youth to just a few years ago. War was his first calling and he was very damn good at it. I’ll have to remember to thank Walt for giving him that crazy shotgun pistol, Pam mused as she watched him quickly reload it. The Snakecharmer soon fired again, killing one pirate and maiming another, which the katzbalger finished in a single, swift stroke.

Dore grabbed her shoulder and pointed, a pirate trying to flee the losing battle was halfway over the rail and poised to drop into their longboat. Pam shot him in the back, his falling body struck their bow with a sickening thunk before splashing limply into the water. Pam let out a long, low stream of curses under her breath.

Dore gripped her shoulder harder, bringing her face close behind Pam’s ear. “It is good, Pam, you help our men! There, shoot that one!” Dore pointed at a pirate who was closing on the bosun, occupied with an opponent, his cutlass clashing and clanging against a blood-streaked scimitar. Pam stared for a moment at the wet, red blade in the enemy’s hand. That’s the blood of one of ours. She took aim carefully, supported by Dore’s firm grip on her shoulders. Her finger squeezed. Now accustomed to the bang and flash, she didn’t flinch afterward. She calmly watched the pirate she had shot through the neck drop limply to the deck. My shot went a little high but he’s still dead as a door nail.

The bosun separated himself from his dueling partner with a mighty shove. The taller, thinner pirate skidded backward on the blood-drenched deck. The bosun glanced a question at Pam, with a barely perceptible nod she drew on the bosun’s opponent as he regained his footing and shot him in the gut. Pam looked away from the messy results, her own gut suddenly sinking, as if meeting a sudden drop on a roller coaster. The deck went suddenly quiet but for the moans of the dead and dying. No pirates were left standing. Lojtnant Lundkvist looked down to see Pam still holding her smoking pistol. He saluted her. Pam’s hands lost their strength and she laid the pistol down heavily on the seat in front of her as Dore eased her grip on her shoulders.

“It is all right now, Pam. It is over,” Dore told her. “You did well, my friend. It was you who turned the battle’s tide. You never even missed!”

Pam thought of each man she had shot and fought throwing up. She had barely eaten a thing all day so it wouldn’t have helped much anyway. She looked to the deck where Gerbald had finished hurrying the enemy injured along on their journey to hell.

“Let us leave none alive,” he said to Lojtnant Lundkvist and the bosun as calmly as if he were ordering a hamburger at the Freedom Arches. The Swedish marines took the lead in searching the ship, cautiously entering the captain’s cabin and then the lower decks, pistols ready. While Dore went to the aid of injured Pers, Gerbald motioned for Pam to join him on the deck. Somehow she managed to climb the rope ladder with nerveless fingers until Gerbald dragged her over the red-lacquered rail. Dore clambered up onto the deck next. Standing unsteadily, Pam saw bodies in the flickering torch light and not all were dressed in bloodstained white. Gerbald looked at Pam proudly.

“Nice shooting, Tex! Four shots, no misses! You turned the battle in our favor!” he told his ashen faced friend, who just blinked at him, half in a state of shock. He saw where Pam was looking and his voice took on a solemn timbre. “Rask is injured very badly. We have lost Mard. Rask and Fritjof are sure to follow him. He is asking for you, Pam.”

Pam felt a knot tighten in her stomach. Not the nice old fellow who loved that photo of “The Princess” so much!

“You are sure about Fritjof? Not making it, I mean?”

Gerbald nodded sadly. “I am sorry, Pam. He fought bravely. Please, follow me. Dore, see what you can do for our wounded.”

“Pers has also been hurt, but not too badly. I shall tend to Rask first,” Dore replied calmly, being used to aftermaths such as these.

Gerbald led Pam to where Fritjof lay, his head cradled by an exhausted bosun. He couldn’t stay, as Dore called for his help with Rask. Fritjof’s face was pale except for a line of blood trickling into his white beard. Someone had placed a cloth over his wounds, Pam could see that it was dark and soaking wet. Her gorge wanted to rise, but she forced it down.

“Fritjof, Frau Pam is here to see you,” the bosun said softly into his ear. The old man’s eyes opened, bloodshot and wild, darting about in search of her.

“I’m here, Fritjof,” Pam told him, kneeling next to him and taking his hand. Although they were cold and bloodless, his long, thin fingers grasped hers with surprising strength.

“Frau Pam, thank you, thank you. I haven’t much time now. I am no longer the fighter I was when I was young but I take two of these dogs to their graves with me.”

“You are very brave, Fritjof. I am so proud of you. I know the princess will be, too,” Pam told him, tears forming in the corner of her gunsmoke-stung eyes.

“The princess. Will you tell her? Will you tell her that I served her to my last?” His sentences were now punctuated with heaving gasps as his punctured lungs fought a losing battle for every breath.

“I will. I will tell her all about you, Fritjof! How brave you are and how you loved her and how you kept her photo. I will tell her of good Fritjof, loyal friend and fearless soldier!” Her voice caught and she fell silent, trying not to lose herself to weeping, not yet. Fritjof tried to say more but his gasps were coming more rapidly, stopping him from further speech. Pam took the damp cloth from the bosun and began to wipe his face, tears streaming now, mixing with the cool water and cooling blood. The touch of her hand seemed to calm him and he was able to speak again.

“Thank you, Frau Pam, thank you. I see the faces of my ancestors now. They have come for me in the ships of the old times. I see their sails, red and gold. Soon I shall join them.” His grip on her hand tightened and his eyes were able to focus on her for a moment. “You were always kind to me. It is you who are the brave one, Frau Pam. All we men see it. I am glad to have you as my captain here at my end.” Before she could answer Fritjof convulsed, a final ragged breath and then silence. His grip loosened and his hand fell limp to the deck. Pam let out a low wail, still wiping his forehead with the cloth. The bosun gently pushed her hand aside and closed the old sailor’s eyes.

“Fritjof lived a long life, Frau Pam, longer than most who go to sea,” the bosun told her in a tone of utmost kindness. “He is with his people now in the next world. Don’t weep so.”

Pam somehow ceased her keening cry and took a deep breath. She wiped her tears with her arm, her hands shaking.

“Come, good lady. Let us now help those who stay with us in this world.” The bosun stood up, his movements those of one bruised and battered in cruel battle but still filled with strength. He took her trembling hands in his and lifted her to her feet. Pam embraced him for a moment, nearly knocking the wind out of the poor fellow, then released him to peer about the deck with tear-burned eyes. She shook herself, then spoke from an icy, calm place in the maelstrom of grief and disgust heaving about her mind.

“I’ll go check on Pers. I think he’s all right, just badly bruised.”

The bosun saluted her, then turned to pull the blanket over the face of their fallen comrade.

Pam returned to the rail to see Pers was beginning to come around in the longboat. The boy was black and blue and he had a bloody nose but his eyes focused on Pam and his pupils weren’t dilated.

“How do I look?” he asked cheerfully. Pam let out a laugh, more of a growl really, and told him, “You look like an elephant stepped on you, but you’ll live. Stay put there and pinch your nose shut until I come back and tell you to stop.” He did as she ordered while Pam went to join Dore where she ministered to Rask.

“Oh, dear. It is not good. A deep cut to the thigh here, and a gash to the side of the belly. I must find out how deep.” No stranger to battlefield medicine, Dore went about her examination with the same deft swiftness she would preparing a chicken for the boil, ignoring the man’s gasps and moans of pain. Pam was suitably impressed that Dore had developed such sophisticated first aid skills during her years as a camp follower. She knelt down to assist however she could. Under Dore’s direction they made quick progress and stopped the bleeding.

Pam cursed under her breath and wished for up-time antibiotics. Back at camp she had a precious plastic bottle of Bactine, an over-the-counter antibacterial and mild local anesthetic she kept in her birding pack’s tiny medkit for cuts and scrapes on the trail. She had been hoarding it, using it only sparingly, but she knew she would give it all if needed to help this man. With Rask stabilized and resting as comfortably as they could make him, they stood up wearily.

“I have some antibacterial medicine in my hut,” Pam told Dore.

“Good, we will use it. Here come the men. Let us thank the Lord we have prevailed and pray that He welcome the souls of our brave men in His heavenly kingdom.” Dore lowered her head and clasped her hands in silent prayer, a common pose for the upright German lady made utterly unearthly by her half-naked condition. This night Dore was a grass skirted and savage warrior queen with flowers in her hair, blood spattered and solemn as she sent the power of her unwavering faith to aid the souls of their fallen on their journey to Paradise.

****

To be continued . . .

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