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Chapt. 22: A Meeting of the Minds

By Michael Jesse

MacWilde smiled broadly. "Oh, he wants to talk to me, does he? What about?"

"He didn't say."

MacWilde chuckled and got up, putting his hand on Jack's shoulder as he led the way. "Well, then, we'd best go down and find out."

A few minutes later they were both standing in front of Verdu's cage. The giant ruah held his head up proudly, but did not attempt to stand. He stared intently at MacWilde, his eyes bloodshot and filmy.

"Good morning, Mr. Verdu," MacWilde said cheerily. "And how are you today?"

Jack translated and Verdu piped several notes in response.

"He says he's as well as can be expected under the circumstances."

This seemed to amuse MacWilde, who worked to keep a straight face. "I understand you wish to speak with me about something. A business matter perhaps?"

Again, Jack played and Verdu responded, and then Jack said, "he wants to know how much longer until we reach your land."

MacWilde considered the question thoughtfully. "Well sir, he said. "I estimate three or four more days if the wind continues to be favorable."

As Jack translated and then Verdu played again, MacWilde watched them both with appreciation as one would a performance.

"Why are you doing this," Jack said, "why have you abducted our children?"

MacWilde turned to Jack. "Son, I know how you feel about these animals but–"

He was interrupted by a loud blast from Verdu who now seemed angry.

"He says to look at him when you're talking and to answer his question."

"Don't talk to me like that young man."

"Sir, I'm just translating what he said."

MacWilde sighed. "All right Jack. We'll do it your way." He stepped closer to Verdu, looking him in the eye. "Please tell Mr. Verdu that I'm doing this because I'm being paid a rather nice sum of money. And while you're at it, ask Mr. Verdu if he has any idea how much it costs to outfit a ship like this and pay a crew. Lucky for me they're so loyal to me — they still haven't been paid for our last trip. My . . . colleague, Mr. Procktor keeps reminding me that I'm a great explorer but a lousy businessman and he's right about that. I'm in debt up to my neck and by god I do not intend to lose this ship to the damned bank."

Jack's flute overlapped MacWilde's voice as he translated a few words behind him. He caught a glimpse of Liam lurking on the stairwell again, but he didn't care. He was too shocked by what Verdu had just said and his own voice choked with emotion as he repeated it for MacWilde.

"He says that he . . . that he'll probably be dead before we get where we're going and . . . he wants to know what will happen to his wife and the . . . child he'll never see."

This seemed to irritate MacWilde and he looked back and forth between Jack and Verdu as if deciding which one to speak to. Finally he said, "Well, Mr. Verdu — or perhaps I should say 'Rev. Verdu' — had you minded your own business back on the beach you wouldn't be in this situation, eight of my men would still be alive and I would be feeling a bit better myself. So there's plenty of misfortune to go around, sir. But I do wish it had worked out otherwise. I wish the world were simple enough that I could turn this ship around and take all of you back where you came from and let you run free again — just to please a certain little boy. But life is more complex than that, as I'm sure someone of your experience can appreciate. And as for . . . Mrs. Verdu here, I assure you she will be well cared for and have a good life in captivity, as will her foal."

There was a pause as Jack caught up with this long speech and Verdu made a brief reply.

"What will she be made to do?"

"Nothing. She'll merely be . . . on display. Children will be happy to see her."

"She will live her life in a cage?"

"I'm sure it will be large and comfortable and she will be well cared for."

"By you?"

"No. I'm just being paid to bring her and the others back."

"So, you are a slave merchant."

"It's not slavery!" MacWilde shouted. "You're just animals. You can't . . ."

He stopped talking. His eyes had been locked on Verdu's throughout the conversation, with Jack's voice and flute forgotten in the background. Now he looked away from Verdu and took a deep breath. "That was . . . that was pretty impressive, Jack. How do you get him to . . . seem like he is speaking?"

"Sir, I'm just telling what he's saying. Please, sir, keep talking to him."

MacWilde shook his head. "That's enough for one night. It's quite compelling. But I . . . I have things to do."

As MacWilde began to climb the stairs they heard a familiar bell sounding from up on deck. It was the captain's bell, normally used only by MacWilde himself when summoning his men to give one of his many speeches.

He glared up the stairwell. "What the devil is going on up there?" He took the stairs three at a time and Jack followed with a glance back at Verdu, who looked exhausted from the encounter.

Up on deck the men were gathered around Procktor, who was behaving in an uncharacteristically gregarious manner, shaking hands with dirty, toothless crewmen and patting each man on the shoulder as he handed out pieces of paper. Behind him was the captain's bell which had evidently been used to call the men to gather.

"Procktor!," MacWilde shouted as he marched toward the group. "What in blazes is–"

"Ah, here comes Captain MacWilde now," Procktor said smoothly. "It is him you should thank, good men, rather than I, for it was your Captain who by his steely determination and pluck has put you in this comfortable situation financially."

MacWilde was now standing next to Procktor, towering a head taller than him but somehow at a disadvantage.

"Captain," Procktor said. "Since we are nearing the end of a successful expedition, I have taken the liberty of passing out to the men certificates of deposit at the First Bank of Margaid for the amount owed to them for the previous voyage. Good for morale, you know." And then raising his voice to the crew, Procktor went on, "and this is not all, my good men. When you reach home with the valuable cargo down below, my company will authorize further payments to you for your service aboard the present voyage. So let me hear a shout of gratitude for Captain MacWilde!"

At this the men began chanting MacWilde's name and waving the paychecks above their heads. For what was probably a rare moment in his life, MacWilde seemed speechless. The men chanted his name, encouraged by Procktor. "mac-WILD! mac-WILD! mac-WILD!"

Jack watched in horror as MacWilde slowly began to grin under the blanket of adulation. He beamed as he looked around at the faces of his crew, but when his eyes met Jack's his smile faltered and he quickly looked away.

Jack angrily turned away and ran back to his little room next to Mrs. Portifoy's kitchen. He hurled himself into the hammock and allowed himself to cry. He wanted to go home, but more than anything he wanted to see Laura again and know that she was safe. For a moment he had believed MacWilde would really do it; that he would suddenly understand and order the ship turned around and they'd take the ruah back where they belonged — and that they'd find Laura waiting for them on the beach.

Jack's thoughts of Laura were interrupted by a shrill whistling scream from Riona. He scrambled out of the hammock and threw himself down the stairs and rounded the corner. Verdu was slumped in his cage, his body shaking and his breath coming in gasps. Jack ran to him but did not know what to do to help him.

Finally the convulsions stopped and Verdu was silent. This seemed to frighten Riona even more and she cried out, "Jack, is he . . .?"

"He's breathing!" Jack whistled quickly back, and then with his flute he said, "I think he passed out, but he's still breathing. What do I do?"

"Get me in there!"

Jack clenched his teeth in determination and ran back up the stairs. He found Liam in his quarters. "Where's the key to the cages?" he demanded.

Liam stood up and produced a ring of keys from his pocket. "They're safe right here," he said importantly, "but don't you go ask me to use them because Mr. Procktor has made hisself clear, he has, and I won't be–"

Liam did not have the opportunity to finish his speech because Jack jabbed his small fist sharply into the older boy's abdomen. Liam doubled over and the jangle of keys fell to the floor. Jack scooped up the keys and ran.

As he scrambled back down the steps to the hold Jack was afraid to look at Verdu and concentrated on finding the right key to open Riona's cage and then finding the one that would let her into Verdu's. Riona rushed inside and for the first time since their capture she was able to touch her husband again. But Verdu's eyes were closed and his body was limp as Riona struggled to lift his heavy head and horns. She wept as she kissed his face. The other young ruah crowded around silently as Riona sobbed.

Behind him Jack heard the pounding of boots on the stairwell.

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