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Chapt. 18: Liberty's Bounty
By Michael Jesse
Jack opened his eyes and stared at the sky-painted ceiling of the Playroom trying to remember a dream. From down the spiral stairway came the noise of one of Dad's old jazz records. Jack loved almost all music, but his father's postmodern collection was a challenge to appreciate, and right now Jack had a terrible headache. He tried to sit up but couldn't move, not even to lift his hands or feet or even turn his head. He tried to call for help but no sound came from his mouth. Panic swept through him and he struggled with all his might to move any part of his body.
Jack opened his eyes. He was on a cot in Mrs. Portifoy's cabin and he could hear Verdu playing The Call somewhere down below in the hold where Ronnie had been kept on the voyage.
He started to get up, but was jolted by a sudden pain in his head. Involuntarily, he lay back on the pillow as Mrs. Portifoy entered the room.
"I thought I ‘eard a bit o' movement in ‘ere," she said brightly in her screechy voice. "Though ‘ow one could ‘ear anything above that racket is a wonder."
"Laura," Jack said weakly. "Where's Laura?"
Mrs. Portifoy sat down on a little stool next to him, her considerable rump covering the little chair entirely. "I don't know, dearie. She wasn't with you when you was found. When did you see her last?"
Jack closed his eyes. Laura had been left behind. She was all alone! He sat up, angrily, fighting through the headache that erupted at his movement. "She was right there behind us somewhere," he yelled. "Did anyone even look for her?"
"Course they did, a bit. Mr. Procktor knowed you has a sister and he gave orders for young Liam to look about for her while the crew loaded up them creatures, the one of which is making all the noise. Morning, noon and night he does it. I'm surprised he didn't wake you the first day."
"First . . . first day? How long have I been–"
"Three days it's been, and the Captain nearly killed by the beasts hisself."
"Is he okay?"
"I'll find out in a moment, if you'll stop holding me up with me work," Mrs. Portifoy said. "I've got to get his lunch to him now."
She bustled out of the cabin, her large butt bumping the door jam as she existed the narrow doorway.
Jack tried sitting up slowly. The combination of his dizziness, cloudy vision and the movement of the sea, made standing and walking a challenge, but he edged out of the cabin and carefully made his way down the stairway to the bottom of the ship.
Verdu was blasting the final note of The Call as Jack slowly rounded the corner to see two large cages separated by a walkway. Verdu was alone in one cage and Riona and several ruah Ronnie's age were in the other.
Verdu briefly made eye contact with him but remained focused in concentration, listening for any response. Riona motioned Jack over to the opposite cage.
"Jack, how do you feel?"
"I have a major headache, but I guess I'm okay. But they . . . they left Laura behind." Jack began to cry and Riona stood close to the bars and put her face next to his, kissing his wet cheek with her nose. "I know, honey. I had to make her get off so I could run ahead to try to help you. But I told her to stay close to the path and follow it back to the school if she needed to. She's with Irenia by now; I'm sure of that."
Jack told himself Laura would be okay. She was smart and always seemed to know what to do. And she hadn't been hurt; that was good. Left behind was better than being hurt.
Jack heard a heavy footstep on the stairway behind him. It was MacWilde slowly stepping down with Mrs. Portifoy hovering at his side worriedly, as if he might fall and she would have to catch him.
He did not seem that bad off, though there was a large bandage wrapped around his chest and ribs, and he moved slowly just as Jack had been doing. They were both banged up.
"There you are," MacWilde announced as if this might be news to Jack. "When Mrs. Portifoy told me you were awake I came right away — or as quickly as I can right now — but you were already gone. I knew where I'd find you."
Verdu had finished playing The Call and now stood silently, watching Jack and MacWilde but unable to tell what was being discussed.
"You left Laura behind," Jack said accusingly.
"I'm very sorry that happened, Jack," MacWilde replied with sincerity. "I was out of commission myself for a couple of days. If I'd been in control I'd have made sure there was a better search. Procktor took command — briefly — under the authority of one of those blasted provisional clauses of his and by the time I was back in action we were two days into the trip and facing a deadline in the damned contract. I'll go back for her, son. I vow that I will, and right away. But right now I have only a few days to get this cargo delivered."
"They're not cargo. They're people."
MacWilde smiled. "Well I wouldn't go that far, though they're magnificent creatures I agree. It's a beautiful thing to see them running free, and that's where this big fellow truly belongs, I know. But there are huge herds of them running wild all over that hill country. It won't hurt to take just a few of them back for people back home to see. And he'll have a good life, plenty of food."
"Sir," Jack said slowly and deliberately. "Verdu is not just an animal. He's a person. He's got a life. He has friends and a family and a job and–"
MacWilde laughed. "A job, has he? That's a good one. What's his job, an accountant maybe? I could use one of those right now."
"He's a minister."
MacWilde sighed. "Son, I know you have strong feelings about Voodoo–"
"Verdu," MacWilde repeated. "But you have also been lost in the wild without proper food and no one to look after you — and I blame myself for this — and you have a strong imagination, which is a wonderful thing. But you have to know when to put that aside and deal with the real world."
"Sir," let me prove it to you." Jack pulled out his flute. "I'm going to ask him to lift his front foot to show you he understands me." He stepped closer to Verdu's cage.
"What is being said?" Verdu demanded.
"I need you to do something," Jack played. "Raise your left front foot."
"But I'm trying to show him how smart you are — that you understand what I say."
"I do not perform tricks."
The big ruah's foot did move, but only to step intimidatingly close to the bars. MacWilde grabbed Jack by the shoulders and pulled him away from the cage.
"Come on, son. Let's go upstairs and talk about this. I agree they seem very intelligent, but you can't expect them to–"
MacWilde stopped in mid sentence as he stared at the other cage where Riona and the young ruah stood in a line, each one holding up the left front foot.
Jack rushed over to them. "Now I'll have them switch feet," he said to MacWilde. With his flute, Jack said "please lower your left foot and raise your right." Again the animals obeyed in unison.
"And now I'll have them take a step backwards and then step forward." Again Jack played a few short notes and again the animals obeyed.
"This is . . . amazing," MacWilde said slowly. And then he looked at the stairway and yelled, "boy, if you're going to eavesdrop, at least make yourself useful and go get your master for me. Hurry on now."
Jack had not realized anyone was on the stairway, but now he saw Liam run back up the steps.
MacWilde tried to bend down on one knee in front of Jack but winced in pain and stood up straight again, wrapping one of his big hands around Jack's shoulder instead. "You're a pretty impressive young fellow, do you know that? You're going to turn into quite a man I can see it." Jack felt himself blushing.
"I can see qualities in you that I had as a boy," MacWilde went on, his eyes drifting off. "I knew even at your age that I was different. I decided then that I would live free and by my own rules. Have I ever told you about my first expedition? Well, I was just about your age but could pass for 16 and–"
Steps echoed in the stairway but MacWilde went on with his story as Mr. Procktor came down the stairs carrying a teacup, his vest unbuttoned to show the white of his shirt. Liam trailed behind him. Procktor cleared his throat.
"Ah, Procksy!" MacWilde declared as if surprised.
"Good evening, Captain," Procktor said politely, but with the air of an orderly man who dislikes having his routine disrupted. "I was just sitting down to my tea, but Liam informed me I had been . . . sent for."
"And you'll be glad you were, my friend," MacWilde exclaimed, beaming his marble-white smile. "Young Jack here has a little something he wants to show you."
Jack faced Riona and the others and put them through exactly the same poses as he had for MacWilde. Procktor watched with surprise and slowly handed his teacup to Liam, not interested in it anymore.
"That's . . . that's quite intriguing," Procktor said, and for the first time Jack saw him smile. "How did you train them so quickly?"
"I didn't have to train them to do it, sir. I just understand their language and they understand me."
"Language?" Procktor said dubiously. "I'm not sure I'd call it that, but they do seem to be responding well. Let's see if you can make them do something you haven't prepared in advance. Have them . . . lower their heads."
Jack played the command on his flute, but before the ruah could comply Verdu exploded in outrage. "Stop this!" he bellowed. "Do not bow your heads to these weak saviens. Do no more tricks for them. Have you no dignity?"
To MacWilde and Procktor this was just more noise, but the young ruah in the cage with Riona were shamed by Verdu's words and turned their backs on Jack.
Riona was not intimidated and began arguing with her husband. "This is for a purpose, you stubborn ________" (Jack had not learned this word). "You haven't done a thing but play The Call and how much has that helped? Tell me, how much has it helped?"
"If you would play it with me instead of groveling before saviens maybe it would."
"I wasn't groveling. Your problem is you have too much pride and not enough common sense."
"Don't talk to me like that in front of these children."
The argument went on. Jack tried playing his flute to the other ruah, but they ignored him, obeying Verdu instead. Jack knew he couldn't compete and stopped in frustration.
Procktor sighed and retrieved his teacup from Liam. He looked down kindly at Jack. "Thank you, young man, for making the effort to train these creatures. Something may come of it yet, so please don't be discouraged."
"But sir, really, they're so intelligent. They can–"
"I know, I know," Procktor said. "They seem so, but intelligence in the lower species is difficult to assess. Some creatures exhibit tantalizing moments of apparent comprehension, yet they lack the cognitive ability for true learning, as I suspect is the case here. Well, Captain, if you don't mind I'll retire now."
Verdu had continued to argue with his wife, but having fallen well behind in debate points, broke off the argument and launched anew into a thunderous rendition of The Call. MacWilde grimaced, both at the noise and from being on his feet so long. He hobbled up the stairway with Procktor, leaving Jack the only human down in the caged area.
Jack was so angry at Verdu he no longer felt intimidated by his size or his piercing eyes or his deafening horns. Teeth clenched, the little boy marched across the room and stood defiantly in front of the giant ruah, feeling the hot air and drops of spit from the great ruah's horns and withstanding the full force of The Call without flinching. His ears were stopped up and he could not hear himself as he yelled, "you . . . you're not helping things!" which, despite his fury, was the strongest thing he could bring himself to say to Verdu's face.
But then Jack realized something. Verdu was drenched with sweat and his eyes were red and glazed over. This was not just from the exertion of playing The Call. Jack had seen Verdu do that effortlessly. Something else was wrong. Something was very wrong.
"Are you okay?" Jack asked, his anger melting. "Verdu, are you okay?"
The giant ruah ignored him, blasting away at the final sequence of notes. Near the end his voice faltered and he gasped to catch his breath to continue. Across the room in the other cage, Riona was alarmed. "Verdu?" she whistled, and her voice carried in the room because Verdu's had lost half its former power. "Jack, what's wrong with him? What's wrong?"
Jack was frantic, watching Verdu push on to finish despite his distress. As he played the final notes, Verdu's front knees buckled and he slumped to the floor.
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