The Return to Treasure Island
Jim Hawkins is lured back to the Caribbean in 1758 by Long John Silver, only to discover baffling clues to a treasure hidden by a great Chinese fleet in 1421. They join with two intrepid young women to solve the keys to the treasure: the escaped slave Tabitha, living only for revenge on the Commandante who killed her mother, and Meilu, last of a Chinese colony abandoned on Cuba’s shore four centuries earlier. Together, the company discovers the message coded in four seashells carried in his sea chest by Billy Bones, rescues Tabitha from the dreaded dungeons of Havana's Del Morro Castle, battle Chinese mercenaries from Shanghai pursuing the same treasure, and in the end face the Sea Goddess Ma Tsu, guarding an emperor's treasure of jade, silk, and porcelain in a sea cave beneath Del Morro Castle.
First three chapters of The Return to Treasure Island
Chapter One. Meilu. Shanghai, China, Spring 1756
My stomach was tight, and hurting, as the huge burnished door came into view. Help me, Ma Tsu, I prayed, stroking the porcelain figure of the sea-goddess in my pocket. I need your sea-strength. Help me live through this visit to Shanghai's richest mansion to claim my family's heritage, lost for three centuries.
I quickly jerked the cord beside the door--before I lost my courage.
A slot opened, high up. Black eyes peered down at me.
I shoved my hand at the eyes, the old ring showing prominent on my finger.
The eyes swept the hand contemptuously, pulled back to leave, then suddenly noticed the ring, peered closer, and opened wide. After a long stare, the slot snapped shut, and the door opened.
He was the biggest man I had ever seen. A broad, flat forehead, and curiously long arms. The way my tutor had described the Tanka, the boat people from another land used by the Black Pans who lived in this mansion.
"I would see your master, about the ring," I said, in a quavering voice into which I willed courage. I was here from halfway around the world to claim my family's legacy. He led me through halls rich with ebony and jade furnishings, to a smaller room, bamboo-bound books lining the walls. A huge painting of an old man towered behind an ebony desk, looking a lot like my grandfather, except for the hint of weakness and cruelty around the mouth. A crimson phoenix flared on his gown, as on the carpet on the floor.
I sat on the edge of a long couch, alone in the room now. My tutor had said they were as likely to kill me as listen to me. I glanced toward the floor-length windows across the room, which opened onto the garden. That would be my way out, should I need to leave quickly.
The door opened. A tall woman in a golden silk gown shuffled into the room, supported on the arm of a young man as she took little steps toward the desk. She was stunningly beautiful, in a formal sort of way, as if her beauty was painted onto her. Her age was impossible to guess, but her hair was jet black, with pieces of jade woven into it. The woman sat heavily in the chair behind the desk, while the young man remained standing, glowering at me.
"What is this about a ring?" she abruptly hissed, her voice soft but menacing.
I rose, and walked to the desk, raising my hand to her face.
"Give it to my son," she said peevishly, turning her head from my hand. "I need to examine the ring, not your dirty hand."
Reluctantly, I removed the ring and dropped it in the outstretched hand of the young man, who relayed it to his mother.
She breathed slowly as she peered closely at it. Tilted it toward the windows to catch more light. Turned it slowly around in her hand. Then gingerly placed it on the desk, beside a black inkwell with bamboo brushes resting on it.
"Where did you steal this ring?" she demanded, in the same low hiss.
"It was given me by my father, who received it from his father," I answered evenly. "Through centuries, it has been passed down in our family, a treasured heirloom from our great ancestor, Pan Fulong."
"Do not say that name!" The command erupted from her painted mouth like fire from a blaze. "The man whose ring and name you claim left China over three hundred years ago, early in the Ming dynasty," the woman spat out. "He sailed away in the great fleet of the emperor's eunuch, Zheng He, and has not been seen--or heard of--since. So you see--what you say is preposterous."
"Yet I have the ring," I stubbornly pointed out. "Handed down with tales of its original owner, an accomplished navigator, captain of a ship like a city, which sailed from a faraway homeland, only to founder on the shoals north of our island, called by us Cuba. The survivors prospered on the island, until barbarians and their diseases arrived, and now we are reduced to my grandfather--the seeming twin of the man in that picture--and myself, sent here to discover who we are."
"Nonsense! Errant nonsense!" the old woman exploded. She motioned for the young man to come closer to her. "My son. Have you ever heard of this, this 'Cuba' she prattles on about?"
He whispered in her ear, but I could hear. "Never, Honored Mother. But the eunuch Zheng He spoke of many islands the Yong Le Emperor's fleet visited, on either side of the great continent Fusang over the eastern ocean."
She glared at me for a long moment, weighing it.
"How did you get here, to Shanghai?" she suddenly snapped.
I shrugged. "I disguised myself as a boy. Hired on ships as a sailor. Lied, cheated, misrepresented myself. Until I got here."
A sly smile lit her face. "Now, that finally sounds like a Pan." Her eyes bored into mine. I quickly averted my gaze from them, fearing that she would hypnotize me.
"But how did you hear of--us? Of the remaining Pan family?" her son demanded, his voice harsh, and threatening.
I edged toward the window. "When I arrived here in Shanghai, I hired an old tutor, to teach me your dialect. He noticed my ring. He told me the well-know tale of the great ancestor Pan Fulong, the White Pan, who sailed away with the Ming Emperor's eunuch Zheng He, leaving his great trading empire in the hands of his cousin--a man whose cruelty had earned him the title of Black Pan."
"To survive and prosper one must be cruel!" she interrupted savagely. "Cruelty is merely what the vanquished call the victors."
Another step closer to the window.
"My tutor also said," I continued, "that the Black Pans held the trading empire only until the White Pan--or a descendant--returned to claim it again for the White Pan."
"And you--you dare to proclaim yourself the fabled White Pan?" she hissed. "You--a mere girl! An uncultured, ignorant, foreign girl from a fantastic excuse of an island, called, called--what?"
"Cuba!" I fairly shouted back. "And I'm not here to steal your empire. I'm here to--to discuss my family's role in your empire. To--"
"Oh, we know what you're here for," she interrupted. "The ancient agreement is clear, regardless of what you say. The Blacks return all to the White once he--or she--appears to claim it. Really, it doesn't matter what you think about it."
She stared hard at me for several minutes. I tried hard not to tremble. Or to glance at the tempting window. "My son," she suddenly said. He bent to her. "Bring your younger brother here."
"But I do not know that he has risen yet, Honored Mother," he whispered.
The sun was well up in the sky outside.
"Then rouse him!" she hissed back. He left hurriedly.
We were alone in the room. She stared hard at me for another several minutes, seeming to appraise me. "Take a seat," she commanded. "You are what--sixteen years?"
"Fifteen," I answered as I sat on the couch, very conscious of my youthfulness.
More appraisal. "Healthy?" she asked.
I nodded, warily.
"Have you begun your cycles yet?"
"That is none of your business," I spit back.
A dry laugh from her. "Oh, my young lady, that is very much my business. Because you are about to become my beloved daughter."
"What?" I said as I jumped up. Help me, Ma Tsu. What had she said?
" Oh yes," she nodded, calm in the face of my agitation. "Let us speak plainly, dear daughter." She picked up the ring from the desk. "This ring indeed appears genuine. The ring of the fabled, lost White Pan, the able but sickeningly virtuous Pan Fulong. How our ancestor hated him."
She jerked her head toward the man in the portrait. "The original Black Pan. Bad luck dogged him. Bad luck, while his sanctimonious cousin went from success to success, attracting the attention even of the Yong Le Emperor's eunuch. But the Black Pan finally got what he lusted for, when the White Pan sailed away, never to return."
She tossed the ring in the air, and caught it with surprising skill. "Until an uncultured waif suddenly appears three hundred years later, imagining--ha!--that we would simply hand over our empire--and our fortune--to her. Ha! No, we have worked much too hard to do that, my dear."
She leaned toward me. I shrank back.
"Here is what we are going to do, my dear. In a minute, my youngest son will walk through that door. He is a Black Pan. Not too intelligent. Fond of cruelty. Like the first one, in the painting." She smiled. For some reason, her smile frightened me, more than her baleful stare.
"But Black Pan males," she continued. "are surprisingly easy to manipulate, once you learn what they want. Really, it is us, the women, who have ruled the Black Pans all these centuries, my dear daughter. You see, I am being plain with you, my dear."
Her eyes gleamed. "You have a choice, my dear. You can become my daughter-in-law. I will instruct you how to be a woman, my child. It is difficult, transforming from a child into a woman. Agonizing, in some ways. But we will manage it, you and I." Another cold smile. Her tongue flicked out from between vermilion lips.
"I ... I do not know that I wish your instruction," I croaked, my throat tight.
A short laugh from her. 'Oh, you do have a choice, my dear. You can marry my youngest son, and join the White Pans and the Black Pans into a new, united Pan family."
"Or?" I asked, guessing the answer.
Her smile broadened, then suddenly disappeared, as she spat out her answer.
"Or we will slit your throat, take the ring for ourselves, and pretend you never existed. It is all the same to us, whichever you choose. But choose you must."
My heart stopped for several beats. This seemed the time for me to leave. I was about to dash for the window when the door opened.
The older son entered first, behind him a young man, about my age, strikingly handsome, actually, in a dissolute sort of way. He glanced at me from sleepy eyes.
"Honored Mother," he said, bowing casually before her.
She sighed, indulgently. "My youngest son. Meet your betrothed. The long-awaited White Pan, returning from some obscure island with a very difficult name, in the eastern ocean." She handed the ring to the boy. "Is she not beautiful?"
He turned to me, and looked me up and down absently. He said nothing as he slipped the ring onto his index finger. The ring he gave a most detailed examination.
"Oldest son, help me up," the woman said. "Get to know each other," she said as she took his arm and left the room. "You two are made for each other. It is in the stars."
The door shut. The boy yawned, and slouched toward the couch. I edged away from it. He flopped himself down on the silk covering. "Come," he said imperiously.
I didn't move, but glanced toward the window.
He undid his sash and opened his gown. "Come," he repeated, loudly this time.
I moved away, and looked for the latch on the window. Faster than I could have credited him, he sprang up and grabbed my arm in one hand. In his other a knife had appeared. I stared at it in horror. The gleaming blade was very long, its edge very sharp. The handle was gilded with rubies and diamonds. .
With slow deliberation he brought the knife to my throat. "You heard what my dear mother said. We must get to know each other," he said with a broad smile. "It won't take long. Perhaps you'll even enjoy it," he added, pulling me to the couch.
I began to struggle, trying to wrench free of his grip. He laughed, and hit me in the face with the handle of the knife. I felt diamonds rip into my skin, and tasted blood.
"Next time, it will be the blade, not the handle," he said with a snarl. He shoved me onto the couch on my back, and moved over me.
He put the hand with the knife on the couch beside me, to support himself as he pinned me down with his other hand on my shoulder. As he lowered himself toward me, with the knife no longer at my throat, I shoved with both hands against his chest as hard as I could. The shove sent him spinning away. He lost his footing, and fell flat on his face on the carpet with a surprised little cry.
Silence. Breathing hard, I sprang off the couch, and glanced at him on the carpet.
He was still. Unnaturally still. And beneath him, spreading out through the cream carpet, was a pool of red. The red reached the phoenix in the center of the carpet. I took a few hesitant steps to the body, praying to Ma Tsu all the way, grabbed a shoulder, and turned him over.
Yes. His knife handle was sticking out of his chest. The blade was all the way in. He had fallen on it. I remembered what his evil mother had said, about Black Pan males being dogged by bad luck.
I grabbed his hand, and twisted the ring off his limp finger. I put the ring back on my finger--where it belonged. Thank you, Ma Tsu, for helping me reclaim my ring.
This seemed a good time to use that garden window and take my farewell of the Black Pans and their happy, though now smaller, family. As I slipped outside, I wondered how long I had before they came after me. Now I really did need Ma Tsu's help, all she had to offer. I began to run as soon as I was outside.
* * * * *
I reached my room just beyond the eastern city wall in no time. When I burst through the door, my tutor was there. Tall, thin, in a threadbare grey gown, the kindly old man had adopted me soon after my arrival in Shanghai. He had taught me the dialect, and many things about China--including the Black Pans and White Pans.
"You are alive!" he said, genuinely surprised to see me, evidently.
"Yes. The Black Pans are as charming a family as you said they would be," I said, quickly stuffing my few clothes and things into a bag, including the purse of gold I had reserved for my return to Cuba.
"In a hurry?" he asked as he watched me.
"Yes, a bit of a hurry. I left the younger son dead in the library. I'm afraid I ruined their expensive carpet there." I was headed for the door.
"You killed the Black Pans younger son?" he asked in astonishment.
"No! He tried to force himself on me, we struggled, and he fell on his own knife, the clumsy idiot."
The old man's face was aghast. "You murdered a Black Pan!"
"Not murdered," I repeated. "He slipped and killed himself. But I strongly suspect his mother won't appreciate the distinction. Nor the giant Tanka doorman."
"You'd better run," he snapped at me. "Right now, and the farther the better."
"That had occurred to me, also. Thank you for all your help, old man."
He bowed. Reached into his thin gown. "Take this. I thought that, if you survived and I saw you again, it would be useful to you." He crossed the room to the door, where I was standing impatiently, and put a beautiful green and red cloisonne disc in my hand, an ivory ring in its center, silver chains on either side.
"That's very lovely, old one. Thank you," I said hurriedly, and turned.
"Wait. It is more than lovely. Watch." So saying, he depressed the ivory ring in the center. A faint whirring sound, and a thin ring of metal bloomed around the outside edge of the disc, as the chains fell off. The metal ring was razor sharp.
"It is a throwing star," he explained. "Exquisitely balanced. Deadly. Practice it on the ship." He depressed the ivory again, and the blades retracted. He inserted the chains in their hooks again, and placed the disc around my neck.
"The Black Pans will find you," he said, urgently, staring me full in my face, his hands on my shoulders. "Wherever you go, they will find you. You must be prepared. The throwing star will help. Good luck. Hurry. Try the north end of the wharves--barbarian ships are often leaving from there."
I hugged him, much to his discomfort, turned, and fled. Out to the alley, and down to the wharves on the Whampoa River, the north end. As I ran onto the wharves, I saw a Dutch bilander just pulling away from the dock. My legs were nearly numb from all the running, but even so I stumbled to the edge of the dock, and jumped. I barely made it across the growing space to the moving ship, landing with a thud against cotton bales, and scrambled onto the deck with my bag in front of an amazed Dutch sailor.
"Where are you going?" I asked in Spanish, out of breath. He stared dumbly. I tried English, which I spoke better than Dutch. "What is your destination?"
His face lit up. "Canton, first," he answered.
"That will do." Ships left Canton for Manila frequently. I'd catch a Spanish galleon there for Veracruz, then cross Mexico and a final short sea voyage back to Cuba. I glanced back at the docks as we sailed slowly up the Whampoa River with our cargo of cotton and Shanghai's newest criminal. No sign of the Black Pans. But as my tutor had said--they would follow. All the way to Havana, I suspected
Chapter Two. Jim Hawkins. West Devon Coast, England, Spring 1756
"The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Captain Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island."--Ch. 34, Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Our sign swung wildly in the spring storm's heavy wind. The notch in the wood where Billy Bone's sword had missed Black Dog gleamed in the occasional flash of lightning, below the words "Admiral Benbow Inn."
Billy Bones. The old pirate with the saber cut across his cheek, who drew Long John Silver's pirate shipmates to our quiet inn on the West Devon coast last year, searching for the treasure map he carried in his sea chest. How much had changed since then, I thought, staring at the rain pelting down outside the parlour window. My mother had decamped for London with the good Dr. Livesey as her new husband shortly after my return from Treasure Island. Being the custodian of my new wealth until I am twenty-one, mother left me to manage the lonely inn above the cove.
The nightmare had begun soon after mother had left. I'd awake, drenched in sweat, just after Blind Pew had thrust the black spot in Billy Bone's hand. And then I'd hear it, distinctly, downstairs. The peculiar thudding noise made by Billy Bones' dead body as it had hit our parlour floor, the rum and imminent arrival of Silver's pirates too much for his black old heart.
Soon, I came to look forward to the sound every night. The haunting thud came to stand for my escape from the dull routine of the Inn. From listening to Devon country folk's small stories of small happenings in small lives. Billy Bones' hitting the floor took me away from all this, to the delicious feel of a ship jumping as the sails caught a fresh breeze, of my pistol blasting Israel Hands from the port shrouds of the Hispaniola as I sat pinned to the mast by his knife.
But tonight--tonight I was here, alone, trapped not a yard from where Billy Bones had hit the floor. Restless, hating the storm and the cold and indeed the old inn itself, I glared out the parlour window at the dark pathway down to the cove, waiting for the next flash of lighting. Wait! What was that? Shivers swept me as a figure materialized on the pathway in the lightning's sudden glare--then just as suddenly disappeared. A one-legged man, struggling against the wind and rain, the familiar crutch under the left arm.
Long John Silver? At the Admiral Benbow? I fell away from the window, gasping for breath, as if struck in the stomach. I rushed to the plank door and jammed the iron bolt across it. I stumbled to the bar, and jerked the pistol from under the rough oak counter. Checked the powder, and stuck it under my vest with a trembling hand.
Seconds ago I was pining for the adventures of last year. Now that it seemed to return, I was trembling with fear. But perhaps I was mistaken. Could I believe my eyes?
Two huge blows on the door shook the glasses on the counter. He wasn't an apparition. Open the door and serve the devil a glass of rum? Or do as my mother and I had done just over a year ago, and flee out the back to hide under the bridge?
To my credit, I believe, I walked to the door, threw open the bolt, and opened it.
There he stood, the grizzled old buccaneer himself, looming above me in the storm. Water streamed off Long John Silver's greatcoat, his tricorner hat barely protecting his large, crafty face from the pelting rain. Even in the storm, he swept off the hat grandly, smiled broadly at me--too broadly--and bowed.
"By the powers, my boy, ye look good. Have ye a glass of rum for an old shipmate, lad, whilst we parley over a scheme of mine?"
My feelings for Long John Silver were by no means as warm as the apparent smile he was presenting me. Without a word I motioned him to enter with my head.
"Ah, thankee, Jim Hawkins. You always was a kind boy, to my thinking," said he, hobbling into the parlour. He threw his drenched greatcoat and tricorner hat over a chair beside the fire, before which he leaned on his crutch, rubbing his hands together.
"The old claws get numb from cold much faster these days, my lad," he announced cheerfully over his shoulder to me.
I passed to the bar, poured our cheapest rum into a glass, and silently crossed to him and set it on a nearby table. I noted that though his hair had more gray, his clothes were fine. Indeed, though it seemed strange on him, he had all the marks of a prosperous gentleman. Linen shirt, clean yet; woolen britches; and a silk vest. His hair even appeared to have been subjected to a comb but recently.
His quick eyes took in my look. He was always a clever one. "Yes, by thunder! I be quite the gentleman now, do I not?" He took the glass in hand, and raised it in a toast.
"To old times, eh? Even those times, sadly enough, that be filled with sorrow and misunderstandings. But shared, all the same, says I."
He took a deep drink of the rum, and stood there, savoring the warmth apparently.
"Why are you here?" I asked coldly.
An insincere laugh from Long John, and a sideways glance at me. "Quick to business, my boy. You always was quick to business."
Silence from me. He was too dangerous a person to be easy or familiar with.
"You're right, of course," he continued. "Smart as paint, you are. I seed it from the first time I laid eyes on you, in me old tavern in Bristol." He emptied his rum.
"Here be the long and short of it, my boy. As you can see from my garb, I've not done badly since I last had the pleasure of seeing you on Treasure Island. My old missus met me in Havana, with all my savings from Cap'n England and Cap'n Flint, plus the sale of my tavern in Bristol. A tidy sum, it were. I'm a prosperous tobacco grower in a valley southwest of Havana, my boy."
"Then why are you here?" I repeated.
He studied the empty glass on the table. I was not going to offer him more rum.
"That be a ripe question, my boy. And here be the unvarnished truth. I miss it, boy. All of it. The feel of wind filling the sail and pushing you forward. Being on a ship, going--anywhere. There's no feeling like it, says I. No roadway nor path nor sign hemming you in. But the best, says I, is when you're going after treasure. And you and I knows where there's more treasure, don't we, Jim Hawkins?"
His face glowed in the firelight as he spoke, and his eyes began to twitch. He glanced over at me, just like the old days, his face flushed with the longing for treasure. Despite myself, my heart was beating fast, such was the magic he could conjure up.
But this was Long John Silver, I remembered. A man who had killed, lied, and betrayed to get his prosperous tobacco plantation in Cuba. I hid my excitement. "What treasure would that be, Long John?" I said coldly, even though I knew the answer.
"Why, Flint's silver bars, still on Treasure Island!" he exclaimed. "Look on your map, boy. Remember the other two X's on that chart? Up by the North Inlet? 'Arms be here,' by one X. And 'Silver bars be here,' by t' other. Arms I ain't interested in. But silver bars? That'd be a treasure worth huntin' for, boy!"
"Then go hunt it," said I, casually.
"Aye, easy to say. But it's a big island. And tho' I had your treasure map in me claws once, my attention was focus'd on the other hoard, the one Ben Gunn beat us to. I didn't rightly pay attention to the silver bars. Certainly not enough to find it on me own."
"So you're here to talk me out of the map, then," I concluded. "In that you're flat out of luck, Long John. I don't have it."
Astonishment swept over his large face. A trace of anger, then, but quickly displaced by a wily curiosity.
"And where might it be, boy? With your mother?"
I laughed. "My mother's living in London now. With our friend Dr. Livesey."
More astonishment on Long John's face, then he burst into laughter, and indeed spent the better part of a minute with his whole body shaking, slapping his knees, and laughter pealing from his mouth. He very nearly fell off the chair.
"Why, by thunder, if that ain't the way of the world," he finally gasped. "She's took your treasure, and she's spending it with the good doctor in London!"
Another fit of laughter shook the parlour. I sat, sour and silent.
"My boy, you need them silver bars now worse than me, says I. You've more reason to return to Treasure Island than your old shipmate, and you may lay to that!"
"Nay," I said. "There'll still be plenty of my own treasure left for me, when I reach my majority."
"You're what--fifteen now? Sixteen?"
"Jim, my boy, you'd be surprised how much a woman can spend in six years. Or a man, for that matter. I wouldn't have believed how much Blind Pew spent in one year. He was a rich man after Flint's last voyage, and in a year he was swindling and knifing for a piece of bread."
"I don't need the money," I persisted.
Silver glanced sideways at me again, that shrewd glance of his I knew so well.
"P'haps. But what about t' other, me lad? The adventure. The freedom of going wherever ya please over the wide blue of the sea? Do ya nae think of that, me lad?"
"Never," I lied. My heart was racing again, despite my words.
He grunted. "Bad storm today, Jim. Do ya ever bring to mind the warm days and balmy evenings of the Caribbean, my boy? Going about yore business with naught but a shirt and britches, not even shoes much of the time? Do ya a mind of that, Jim?"
"Not a bit," I lied again. "I have summers here, in England."
"Aye," he said softly. "All two weeks of summer, here in England. And the rest of the year--this." He hobbled to the window, and stared out at the stormy darkness.
I couldn't help myself. "Besides, how would we even get back to Treasure Island?" I heard myself asking, trying to sound casual-like.
He stood very still at the window. He thought he had me. "Ah, yes. Smart as paint," he said softly. He turned on his crutch, trying hard to conceal the triumph from his face. "As I told ye, I'm a prosperous tobaccy grower in Cuba. Got me own ship, I do. By the powers, she's a beauty. She's down in your cove right now, with my crew, Jim."
He smiled. His clothes might be grand, but his teeth were the same chipped, yellow fangs as always.
"We could sail tonight, my boy. I've learned a lot since Treasure Island. I can set my own course, now. Latytude, even longytude, after a fashion. Shall we sail, Jim?"
The question hung in the parlour, as the fire crackled. The notion drew me, pulled me towards it, as a flame pulls a moth. With a jolt, I shook my head. "I don't have the map, Long John," I blurted out. "It's at the Squire's mansion."
"By thunder! What's it doing there?" he roared, anger lighting his face.
My guard up again, I took my time to answer, throwing another log on the fire. "I've been spending a time there. You've learned to calculate latitude, longitude--well, so have I. Plus even more mathematics. And geography. He's teaching me the fine life."
"And very large of him it is, I'm sure. And he's relieved you of the map, has he?"
"Well, he likes to show it to his friends when they visit."
The fire crackled in the silence. "My lad, I've come a might long ways for that map, by the powers," Long John said quietly, an ominous undertone in his voice. "Let's us just visit the Squire, get the map, and you and me go treasure-huntin', eh?"
"Oh, no. He wouldn't appreciate seeing you, Long John. He's likely in fact to throw you behind bars. Walk me to the gate of The Hall, and I'll talk with him. Alone."
With a growl, he limped to the chair beside the fire and claimed his greatcoat. "Then we'd best be off, lad. I have my first mate with me. A fine boy, former slave that I freed. You'll enjoy his company through the storm."
Chapter Three. Tabitha. Havana, Cuba, Spring 1756
Momma's screams echo down the colonnade. I tear around the corner from the kitchens. The two big Bantu slaves are dragging momma away from Mistress Ravenia's rooms. Beyond the open door the Commandante looks coldly on, his oily black ringbeard gleaming in the morning light.
One of the Bantus knocks me to the marble floor as I throw myself on them. They kick me down the hall as they drag Momma to the locked room beneath the staircase.
Momma, me, and the two Bantus are panting and covered in sweat by the time they throw us into the dark room and slam the door shut. We hear the clank of the lock.
"Momma, momma. What's happening?"
She's moaning, breathing heavily, and covers her face with her hands.
"Momma? Tell me."
"She's sending--" she gasps between sobs. "Sending me to the cane fields."
My breath catches in my throat. The plantations are death for slaves. From overwork, or disease, or beatings. But death, for sure.
"But--why?" I spit out, dizzy with terror.
She shakes her head, and begins wailing.
"Momma--why?" I grab her shoulders, and shake her.
Deep breathes, to pull herself together. "It's that cursed Commandante, Ravenia's latest lover. I seen how he looks at me. Hate and desire, together. He can't stand me near."
"But, the Mistress. You're her personal servant. She'll--"
A bitter laugh. "She's more a slave than you and me, Tabitha. Slave to him. He'll enjoy everything she has to give, then leave her. Just like all the others have."
"But Momma, momma--"
"No! Listen. Tabitha." I feel her face close to mine in the darkness.
"Tabitha. I won't let you go with me to the plantations."
"No!" she shrieks. "You are all I have left of your father, child. You will not go."
She pants, and runs her fingers through her hair. Like she always does when she's scheming.
"When they come for me, I'll fight. Punch, scream, run, spit. Fight like an orisha from the darkest hell."
She begins to wail again, then catches herself with a moan.
"While they're battling me, you run, Tabitha. Run through the kitchen and into the alley. Run like Chango the thunder god is after you. Don't you stop for nothing, Tabitha. You understand me, daughter?"
I'm crying. I'm gonna lose my Momma.
"Understand?" she shrieks, grabbing my shoulders.
"But Momma--where am I running to?" I gasp, as sobs begin to shake me.
"The street, child. You live on the street. Under the bridges. In the alleys. There's other runaway slaves out there."
"But Momma, I don't know how to--"
"Then you learn how to, girl. And fast."
"Tabitha!" She jerks the white amulet from her neck, and shoves it in my hand. "This is yours now, girl. Remember all the times I told you how your father gave it to me, just before they beat him to death on the slave ship? A piece of Obatala is in it, Tabitha. This is a dark world, but Obatala keeps us Yoruba people pure, clean. The amulet has kept me alive, to raise you in your father's memory. Now it will keep you alive. It is yours."
Her hands twitch as she ties its leather strands around my neck.
"Now hold me, Tabitha. Hold your mother, close. We won't have much time together, my dear daughter."
We weep, and hold each other close in the dark of the closet.
They are back, sooner, much sooner than we wish. Momma shoves me away from her as the key clanks in the lock. She launches herself out and upon them as the light pierces our darkness. Whirling, shouting, kicking, cursing. I catch a glimpse of the Bantu's arms fending off her struggles, and beyond that the Commandante on the veranda, looking on in alarm.
I dash out, and veer right toward the kitchens, my legs pumping fast, like my momma told me. I hear the Commandante shout behind me.
"The girl! I want her, too!"
Nearly to the kitchen corner, I glance back. Momma has broken free of the Bantus, and is running up the veranda, toward the Commandante--away from me, I realize, luring them all away from me. She glances back to check my progress.
A metallic twang fills the veranda, as the Commandante draws his sword, the short one he carries everywhere with him. He jabs it into Momma--my Momma!--as she runs by him. Her body stiffens, jerks to a halt.
I shriek, again and again. The veranda tilts, and spins, and jerks.
Momma turns her head to me, her eyes wide with surprise. Her eyes are the only thing in the world that isn't spinning. She tries to say something. Can't. Then her mouth makes the shape of the word she can't say.
I can't move. The tip of the sword sticks out of my Momma's back. Her body slumps. The Commandante yells to the Bantus.
"Get the girl!"
My Momma is gone.
Hands pull me from behind. The kitchen women, Yoruba like us. They whirl me around, and shove me into the kitchen.
"Run, Tabitha! Obey your momma."
I stumble toward the back door. I am running fast now, like my Momma told me. I glance back. The women are shoving carts into the kitchen aisle, to slow the Commandante. I run faster, and burst through the door and into the street.
My Momma is gone.
* * * * *
Hidden behind barrels in the alley east of the square, my friend Xavier and I watch the Commandante stride into the Plaza de Armas. For such a big man, the Commandante always moves quickly, although jerkily, as though he is avoiding something.
It is the ghosts of all those he has killed, I suddenly understand. They clamor about him, whispering sly comments, promising their revenge.
My Momma is there, in the crowd of spirits. And I will have that revenge. I feel the heavy weight of the pistol in my belt. It was not difficult to steal the pistol. The Spanish are so careless. So sloppy. Weapons are left about everywhere. This one was on the table just inside the guardhouse at the south gate of the la Fuerza Castle, looming on the far end of the square. It only has one bullet in it, but that is all I will need.
I've thought about it often, in these two weeks on the streets as a runaway. It'll be late in the morning, in the barbershop off Avenida Aguiar, when the Commandante is stretched out on the big leather chair, the thin barber trimming his ringbeard. His eyes will be shut, and his barber will be concentrating on the trim. I have it all planned out. Xavier will walk in and distract the barber. Then I'll quietly slip in, up to the chair, and put the pistol on the side of his head, just above the ear. I've decided not to say anything, about Momma. That might give him or the barber time to do something. I'll just walk up, both hands holding the heavy pistol, put the barrel against his head, and pull the trigger.
And then run. Again. Just like Momma told me.
I met Xavier my first day on the streets. He is Yoruba, like me, though younger by a year or two. Twelve, or thirteen. But he's lived on the street for over a year. He says the amulet of Obatala that Momma gave me is powerful good luck. That it will permit me to kill the Commandante. And get away.
He taught me how to steal things from the Spanish. How to sleep during the day and live during the night, when the darkness hides us, and the Spanish are busy with the women and the gambling and the rum. Where to go to get food from the slaves in the markets and the kitchens of the big mansions.
Xavier taught me where to sleep, behind the barrels littering the alleys. You can depend on the Spanish to leave things around, to be sloppy and unorganized. We marvel, Xavier and me, how the Spanish can rule over us, being so careless. We have decided it is because they are so large. And they have large things, like horses. And hard things, like guns. The steel and the horses and their large bodies make up for their sloppiness and inability to do anything right.
But still it is a puzzle, how they manage to rule us.
He is even thinner than I am, Xavier. Big eyes, same jet black skin. But he smiles much more than I do. What do I have to smile about? My Momma is gone, to the realm of the orisha. My Daddy gone, during the voyage from Africa. All I have is the amulet of Obatala. And my revenge on the Commandante.
"Tomorrow morning, Xavier," I whisper to him as we watch the Commandante in the Plaza.
Xavier grins. He nods his head. "That barber--boy, is he gonna be mad at losing such a good customer," he laughs.
"Maybe we'll let you take the Commandante's slot," I suggest. "Won't be long 'till you're needin' a shave."
We both laugh at that. Xavier, though younger, has taught me a lot. Including how to laugh. After I kill the Commandante, I expect I'll laugh a lot. If I'm alive.
Xavier slumps back against the barrels at the front of the alley. We've been eating scrap pieces of tasaro, turtle meat, from the bottom of the barrels for two days now.
"That tasaro's too salty. I need me some wine."
I snort. "It'll go to your head, Xavier. Besides, where you gonna get wine?"
"From that guardhouse," he proclaims in the braggin' sort of way he has. He points to the Castle's guardhouse across the Plaza, the same one I stole my pistol from.
"Watch me," he says, and rises.
Before I can stop him, he's slipped away, and making his way around the edge of the square. Though skinny, he's awfully strong, and moves quick and smooth. I follow him with my eyes. He's a friend, but he does things too quickly, without thinking them through, to my mind. Impulsive.
The Commandante is walking through the square, jerky as always, with his fat lieutenant waddling after him. I notice that the Commandante is heading for the guardhouse also. Does Xavier notice that? I begin to worry. I've seen Xavier slip out of some bad situations. But he doesn't have a lucky amulet, like I have.
Xavier slips around the corner and into the guardhouse. The Commandante approaches the guardhouse in his jerky walk. I begin to moan, nervous.
A moment later, there's a yell, and Xavier comes barreling out, a bottle of wine in his hand, a triumphant smile on his face.
He runs smack into the Commandante, who grabs him by the neck. Xavier swings the bottle at him, but the Commandante knocks it out of his hands.
Xavier is struggling, trying to hit the Commandante, who draws his short sword, with the metallic twang I heard two weeks ago.
No. Not with the same sword that took my Momma. Please, no. I tug the pistol from my belt, and grip it with both hands. Lifting it up, I sight down the quivering steel barrel. Much too far. I would be lucky to hit the guardhouse, much less the Commandante. Do I run into the Plaza to get closer? No. The fat lieutenant would stop me long before I got to the Commandante's side.
I begin to sob, for Xavier.
The Commandate hits Xavier on the head with the butt of the sword, the big hand guard on its end. Xavier slumps, stunned.
"Ha!" the Commandante laughs, triumph in his high voice, as he throws Xavier's limp body into the dust. "Another runaway slave. My morning is complete."
The fat lieutenant, Sanchez, guffaws loudly. It is smart for him to agree with everything the Commandante says.
"The third, I believe, this week, Sanchez?" He bends down, takes Xavier's neck in one large hand, and quickly draws his sword across a cheek, three quick slices. Even from the other side of the Plaza, I can see the blood on the sword.
"Put him in the cage, Lieutenant," says the Commandante, nodding toward the steel cage hanging from the Ceiba silk-cotton tree on the east edge of the Plaza, not fifty feet on my right. "We'll see how long the ruffian lasts." More laughs, then a sigh of contentment, at how well the morning is going. He wipes the sword on Xavier's pants, then returns it to its scabbard, and stands enjoying the morning, hand patting the handguard.
The lieutenant picks up Xavier easily, and drags him through the dust to the cage. Another soldier, from the guardhouse, unlocks the door to the cage, and shakes out the bones of the last person to be placed there, some weeks earlier.
The cage is a hard way to die. The person in it exhausts himself--or herself--fighting off the hungry flies and birds that torture them as they starve and lose their strength. In the end they are eaten alive by the flies and birds.
I watch with horror as Xavier is dumped into the cage, the door is locked, and the cage is raised off the ground by the rope over the Ceiba tree's lowest branch.
Xavier comes to, rises to his knees, and his scream echoes around the Plaza as he realizes where he is. And what will happen to him in the next days.
I crouch behind the barrel in the alley, listening to Xavier's screams, which turn to low moans as the day ends. Several times soldiers visit the cage, and amuse themselves by poking Xavier with their swords, and commenting on the flies already massing on his bloody cheek. Xavier still has strength to fight off the birds which flutter hungrily around the cage.
By nightfall, I know what I must do for my friend.
Taking care, I very slowly make my way along the edge of the square under the night's cover. I will not be caught, not before my revenge on the Commandante, at least.
I will miss the pistol. But I will find another one, for the Commandante. But carefully. Not impulsively, like Xavier. That was his problem, his impulsive way. Never will I be impulsive.
I check the guardhouse. Nothing but the light of a candle, and the occasional laughter of the guards.
I am beside the tree. All around it are offerings, to the orisha which dwells in the tree. Candles, and plates of fruit, yellow bananas and red mamey colorado, gleaming in the faint candlelight. The tree is much visited by slaves and freed people, those of us who realize its age and size are signs of the presence of an orisha.
Strange, how the Spanish can be so clever at some things, but so blind to the orisha.
"Xavier," I whisper urgently as I arrive beside the cage.
A moan from the heap at the bottom of the cage.
A head rises. "Tabitha?"
"I'm sorry," I begin. Then my throat tightens up, and I cannot speak.
"Tabitha. I'm just sorry I won't see you kill the Commandante," he says, in a cracked voice.
He and I don't need words, so I forget them.
"Here." I shove the pistol, with its one bullet, through the bars of the cage.
"What?" he asks.
"For you. Before the flies and the birds have their way."
A sharp breath, as he realizes the gift I am giving him.
"But the Commandante--"
"Plenty of pistols to be stolen," I say. "You know how sloppy the Spanish are."
A weak laugh. Even now, Xavier laughs.
I nod. "Don't delay. You will need strength to do it."
I move away in the darkness.
I am slumped behind the tasaro barrels in the alley when the shot shatters the silence of the night.