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Chapt. 21: A Great Voice Falls Silent

By Michael Jesse

Jack stood frozen in front of Verdu's cage watching in stunned horror as the giant ruah wheezed and gasped for air, barely able to hold his horns in the air.

"Verdu!" Riona shrilled again. "Jack, tell me what is happening this instant!"

Jack ran back to Riona, fumbling with his flute. "He's all sweaty and his eyes are red and he's sick."

"Go back to him and see if you can get his attention at all. See if he's got a fever."

Jack ran back and Verdu was breathing hard but looked directly at him. "I'm fine," he said with effort. "Tell Riona I'm fine."

"He says he's fine!" Jack relayed.

"He's lying. I know you can hear me, husband. Please tell Jack what's wrong so we can help you."

Verdu raised his heavy horns and looked at Jack. "The wounds," he said quietly. "They're not healing."

Jack was small enough to squeeze through the bars of the cage and had done so in Riona's cage many times. But now he squeezed himself into Verdu's cage and knelt beside him. There were several dark and swollen spots on Verdu's body where he had been stabbed by spears during the fight. Jack had forgotten about them because he thought of Verdu as invincible. But now he knelt down beside Verdu and gently spread apart the hair that covered a blood-crusted chest wound. Verdu winced and pus oozed from the inflamed and unhealing wound. Jack looked at another wound and it was the same.

"Ohmygod, ohmygod," Jack stammered in English as he stumbled backwards and squeezed through the bars again, running back to Riona. He did not know the ruah word for "infected" but it did not take long for Riona to understand what he was trying to say.

She seemed to be struggling to keep calm and focused. "There's an ointment that the doctor makes. I can't remember what all is in it, but charcoal is the main ingredient. Jack, see if you can get some burnt wood and we'll need a small amount of cloth and water that has been boiled and cooled."

With that mission Jack went up the stairs to the kitchen where Mrs. Portifoy was resting between meal times. When she saw him come in she hurriedly put a cork back into a small brown bottle which disappeared into one of her pockets of her dress.

"Could I help you by cleaning the ashes out of the stove?" Jack asked.

"Don't think it quite needs it yet, but 'ow nice of you to offer," Mrs. Portifoy said in her cat wail of a voice.

"What do you use in this? Wood?" Jack asked, acting curious.

Mrs. Portifoy guffawed. "An' wha' else would I be putting in a wood stove?"

Jack pulled the white ceramic handle to the belly of the stove and saw black chunks of burnt logs. There was a little shovel next to the stove and a metal pail. Jack took them and fished out a few chunks as if this were a routine task he did.

"I told you the stove don't need cleaning just yet," Mrs. Portifoy said, after sneaking a quick sip from her bottle while Jack's back was turned. "And besides, them bigger pieces can still burn some more. Just take the ashes why don't you?"

Jack eyed a tea kettle on the stove, but knew he could not simply take it in front of her and get away with it. The whole plan seemed pointless to him anyway. How could charcoal help an infection? He set the pail down and turned to face Mrs. Portifoy, catching her with the little bottle at her lips.

"Medicine," she said, slipping it away again. "For me poor 'eart."

"Medicine?" Jack repeated eagerly. "Does that mean there's a doctor on board?"

"Not 'nymore," Mrs. Portifoy said with a sniff. "Doc Saunders ain't wif us no more. 'Course he wadn't an official doctor with a piece of paper saying he was, but 'e was brilliant just the same, 'e was. Cured the dysentery one time by givin' the men tablespoons o' kerosene."


"Couldn't get the taste out of me mouth for a week!" Mrs. Portifoy laughed, taking another sip from her brown bottle.

Jack scrunched up his face. "Is that what you're drinking?"

"This? Oh no, this is just . . . ordinary medicine. But Doc would have had me on the kerosene, he would and no mistake. He swore by it. Had three doses a day himself as a prevention."

"But you said he's not on board?"

Tears welled in her eyes. "He passed on last year," she said. "Wasn't even very old either, rest his soul. Just came down with a strange ailment that wouldn't let loose of him no matter how many extra doses 'e took." With a shriek, Opal Portifoy burst into tears and buried her face in her apron as Jack picked up the pail of burnt logs, quietly snatched the tea kettle from the stove, and hurried out of the room.

Following Riona's instructions, Jack shredded some cotton cloth and mixed the fibers with charcoal and water until it was a black paste. Verdu sat stoically as Jack bathed the wounds and then applied the charcoal poultice.

Afterwards, while Mrs. Portifoy was busy with dinner preparations, Jack slipped the tea kettle back on the stove. But the next morning he took to drinking tea himself, or at least pretending to. He held the tea bag for show while pouring hot water into a cup and then he went back downstairs to make a new batch. But Verdu did not seem to be getting better. He still stood on shaky legs and played The Call three times a day, but now he played quietly, conserving his breath.

Riona tried to make him stop by organizing the other ruah to play The Call instead, which they willingly did — though they stumbled over the words and made Verdu so irritated he would play it again himself to instruct them.

"I wish you would just rest," Riona told him. "You've been doing this all these years and it never . . . it just doesn't seem to . . ."

"It doesn't seem to make any difference," Verdu said, finishing her hesitant thought.

Although she had rarely tried to avoid arguments with her husband in the past, Riona was now cautious, not wanting to upset him. "I know how strongly you believe, Verdu, but-"

"I don't know what I believe anymore," Verdu said in a low tone. For the rest of that day, although Verdu spoke quietly now and then to Riona and the others, he did not sound The Call again. Nor did he the next day, or ever again for the remainder of his life.

MacWilde noticed and came down, finding Jack finishing a change in Verdu's dressings. "As much as I've enjoyed being able to hear myself think, I suspected there was a reason for it," MacWilde said. "He doesn't look very good."

Jack said nothing, angry at MacWilde and his men for what they did to Verdu. MacWilde shrugged and turned to go. But Riona whistled something to Jack, who ran over to stop MacWilde at the foot of the stairwell.

"Sir," Jack said. "Could we please move Riona — that's Verdu's, um, mate — over to his cage? I think he'd be more likely to recover if she was with him."

MacWilde looked at Riona and then at Verdu and seemed about to agree when another voice came from the stairwell.

"That would be a most unwise course of action," Procktor said, coming down the stairs and joining them. "I understand from my assistant that the big buck who killed so many of our men is now himself failing from his injuries in that encounter. While some may feel there is justice to that, from an investment perspective one would hope that the big fellow survives. Nevertheless, putting a second animal — and its unborn foal — at risk in the process would be a poor choice indeed."

"But Mr. Procktor," Jack pleaded, "she's his wife and he might be . . . he might be dying. It's only right that they be together."

Procktor smiled kindly. "You are young and you tend to humanize animal behavior. Animals mate out of instinct, my boy. They can't love the way humans do. In his condition he might be just as prone to killing her as being comforted by her, and it would be irresponsible for us to take that risk." He reached out to pat Jack on the head, but Jack took a step backwards, and turned to MacWilde.

"Captain, please," he said. "You're in charge, aren't you?"

"Of course I am," MacWilde asserted, with just a hint of uncertainty. "But I'm afraid I have to agree with Mr. Procktor on this — and I don't want you going in that cage anymore either. I know he seems docile right now, but that's a dangerous animal, even in his weakened state."

MacWilde and Procktor left together, already talking about something else as they climbed the stairs.

"What did they say?" Riona asked and Jack told her, leaving out some of Procktor's words because he was too ashamed to repeat them. Verdu listened but seemed to have understood more from watching the conversation than from hearing it translated.

Jack slept just outside of the cages that night, waking up with a start whenever it crept into his sleeping mind that he hadn't heard Verdu move in a while. But each time he checked, the big ruah was breathing deeply and apparently without difficulty.

The next morning after breakfast Jack found MacWilde in his office.

"Sir," Jack said. "It's about Verdu."

MacWilde looked up. "Is he getting worse?"

"I can't tell, but that's not why I'm here. It's that . . . well . . . he wants to talk to you."

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