Jack didn’t even wait to see if the man would rise. He slammed the door shut, pressed his foot against the bulkhead, and levered the handle off, in the hope that it might jam the latch. He turned and saw that where the grappling hooks had come over the starboard railing, the ropes had been wound about the cleats and tied off, so the killers’ vessel must be running alongside.
He’d had the knife for a long time, and it had served him well. But these ropes were wet and his hand was shaking, and Jack found cutting through harder than he’d anticipated. He kept low, remembering the fate that had befallen the lookouts up in the crow’s nest. Crossbow, he suspected, or perhaps a small harpoon. He had no wish to present another silhouetted target.
Something crashed against the door behind him, shaking it in its frame. He jumped, and the rope parted. It had been under such tension that it whipped and unwound, strands catching Jack across the face as it fell away to the boat below.
Whoever was down there would now know that something was amiss.
The door shook again, the impact tremendous.
A crack sounded from somewhere; wood breaking close by, perhaps, or maybe a gunshot from farther away.
“Hey, down there!” a voice cried out, and it came from above. Jack spun around and crouched in a fighting stance, knife held out to his right, knees bent, ready to leap aside. “Hey, is that … is that a boat?”
“Turn hard to port, Captain!” Jack shouted.
“Who is that? What’s happening?”
“We’ve been boarded by pirates seeking gold. Hard to port, and I’m doing my damned best to—”
The door was struck again, and a long splinter cracked out as the wood around the broken latch changed shape.
“Hard to port!” Jack ran to the next rope and started sawing. Something whistled by his head, lifting his hair and kissing his ear bloody, and he ducked down, heart thumping, eyes wide with dreadful excitement.
He was just killing those men in cold blood, he thought, and the memory was terrible. He had only once seen such extreme brutality by man upon man, and all but one of those slave drivers was now dead. But the more he dwelled on that, the more it would distract him.
In the pit of his gut, he felt the slight pull that told him the Umatilla was starting to turn. Good on you, Captain, he thought, and then gunfire erupted from somewhere inside the ship.
The rope parted beneath his knife, and this time he was ready. He ducked down and turned his face away, feeling the frayed ends whip through his hair as he ran at a crouch beside the railing. Two ropes were cut, and there were two more to go. The wind changed, and the ship started to thump through the water as it angled against the swell. Jack heard the two remaining ropes creaking as they were dragged along the railing—as the Umatilla pulled to port, so the attackers’ smaller vessel was being dragged closer to the hull, even as the ropes tipped it toward the waves.
As Jack approached the third rope, it was under so much tension that water sprang from it and misted in the moonlight. It was almost beautiful.
More gunfire erupted somewhere behind him, and men were shouting. Good. He hoped the returning prospectors had gotten one of the bastards, hoped the pirates hadn’t killed many more, and more than anything he hoped that his friend Merritt was alive.
He paused by the rope … and then walked on. Because someone was approaching him from behind. They closed on him like his own lost shadow, and though Jack could not hear, see, or smell them, still he knew that they were there.
Pausing beyond the straining rope, Jack turned in a crouch, the knife a part of his hand.
The man was less than eight feet away … the man who had first boarded the Umatilla, but now his dark clothes were wet and there was a splash of blood across his cheek and forehead. He stood casually, as if on an evening stroll rather than a murder spree. He was huge—several inches over six feet tall, broad as a barrel around the chest, and Jack could make out knotted muscles and powerful limbs even beneath his baggy clothing. His crooked nose and the dark circles under his eyes gave him a mortician’s austerity.
He regarded Jack as a man might look upon a landed fish about to be gutted.
“Get your gold?” Jack asked.
The man raised one eyebrow. His eyes glimmered, catching the moonlight and reflecting a brutal intelligence. There was no mercy there, but neither was this man vacant. His was a distinct, very decisive sadism.
“So you’ll be the cause of my raid being cut so short,” the man said. His voice was deep and mannered. Calm.
The ship was turning harder now, and Jack could hear the tumult of the waters below, and see the masts of this man’s ship dipping left and right as it was battered against the Umatilla.
“I don’t like thieves,” Jack said. His anger scorched, and he sensed the boiling savagery of his enemy.
“Well then, it’s a good thing it’s no thief who’s going to kill you,” the man said, and he flowed forward through the mist.
The last grappling hook, never tied off, creaked and then ruptured. Shards of metal skittered across the deck and whistled through the air. The rope lashed upward like a freed reptile, strands thrashing at the air as it sprang back over the railing. The big man turned his head to protect his eyes, and then Jack was at him, ducking low and driving with his left shoulder. Even after everything, he had no wish to feel his knife sinking into this man’s gut. Perhaps if he had simply stabbed him—used that moment of surprise to pierce him through the heart—everything else might have been different.
Striking the man was like hitting a slab of meat hanging in an abattoir. There was no give to his flesh, and no sense that Jack’s attack had caused anything other than mild annoyance. Before Jack could gather himself for another assault, he was lifted by two massive hands. And then he was flying.
For a moment he thought of that pelican, and his cry of fear and surprise sounded like the bird’s enigmatic grumblings. Then he fell, and his view swirled as he plummeted toward the sea—the pirate’s boat being hauled around and bashed by the Umatilla, the larger vessel crashing through the waves, and that big man on deck, watching Jack as he fell toward his death.
No! Jack’s mind roared as he struck the waves and was pulled beneath. The cold took his breath away, and he took in a mouthful of seawater, gagging, forcing it out through pursed lips as he was buffeted at the sea’s whim. He recalled those frozen wastelands and his haunted demise, and being brought back by that wolf of the wild. No, no, I will not die again.
The knife had gone, dropped so that he could use both hands. He pulled for what he thought was the surface, unsure of which way was up, which down. He swam easily, confident, before realizing that he was sinking. There was a weight pulling him down, and it was one weight that he could never part with—the small bag of gold he had acquired in the Yukon, which he always kept in his pocket. Jack kicked off his heavy boots. It was so cold, the depths so shattering. What’s down there? he thought, and for once he cursed his curiosity.
Checking that the bag of gold nuggets and dust was still with him, Jack took a moment to gather his thoughts. His heart was racing. His eyes blurred, and the cold froze his bones. Above him, he could see the dark hulls of the two vessels passing by.
Jack pulled and kicked as hard as he could, breath leaking from him and desperation driving him up. At last he broke surface close to the pirate schooner’s stern, and it pushed him aside as it plowed the waves. He struck the hull so hard that the wind was knocked from him, and he scrabbled for purchase. His fingers closed upon a drooping line, and he clung to the rope for dear life. Coughing, spluttering, fingers clasping the ship’s railing, Jack was only vaguely aware of the dark shape that emerged from the water beside him and scrambled up the side of the ship to the deck. Hardly climbing at all, he thought, and then that shadow fell across him.
He looked up into the dripping face of the man he’d met on the Umatilla. As Jack opened his mouth—to scream or ask questions, or simply in amazement, he was not sure which—the man reached down, grasped Jack’s jacket, and pulled him from where he clung to the rope, up onto the deck of the pirate schooner.
“Welcome to the Larsen,” the big man said, and he turned and walked away.
Shakily, Jack sat against the railing and looked up. Perhaps half a minute ago he had been on the Umatilla’s deck. Now he was down on the ship the man had named the Larsen, and things were progressing rapidly. Only one rope still secured the Larsen to the larger vessel. Gunshots sounded from above, but the bigger ship’s deck was almost fifteen feet higher, and it was difficult to see what was happening. The captain’s port turn—at Jack’s instruction—was causing the smaller ship to buck and crash against the hull, and the sharp reports of cracking wood were clearly audible between gunfire and the crash of waves.
Someone appeared at the railing above, and Jack raised his hand. Shadows struggled, and then a body fell onto the Larsen’s deck. A man darted from cover and dragged the fallen person aside.
Jack pulled himself upright, and there was one thing on his mind: getting back onto the Umatilla. In moments the ships would part company, and with the pirates’ surprise attack compromised, they would make their escape. The fallen man must have been one of them making a panicked return, and once the others were down—
Someone laughed, and three shapes appeared from the shadows. A short black man glanced at Jack and grinned, a gold tooth glimmering in the weak moonlight, and then the three spread out close to where their ship bumped against the Umatilla.
Someone shouted, and another shape fell from above. This time it was a woman. She struck the deck with a sickening thud, groaned, rolled over; and then the black man grabbed one leg and dragged her across the deck.
“What?” Jack whispered. “Wait. Hey!”
Several more shapes appeared at the railings above them, one man shouting, another crying. They were thrown down to the schooner just like the others, and the three men let them strike the hardwood deck before taking them away. One man—a prospector Jack had spoken to, but whose name he’d never known—stood immediately and reached for a knife, but one of the pirates waved a hand dismissively, the blow so strong it knocked the prospector’s head to one side and sent teeth scattering into the sea. The man fell, and the pirate slung him over his shoulder.
Jack ran for the last rope connecting the ships. Stealth was pointless, because they knew he was here. Panic had taken him. His mind worked quickly and logically, and yet fear was inside him, a darkness that seemed to cloud out the moonlight. They’re taking them below, he thought, and they don’t care how injured they are.
Several shadows dropped down, avoiding the rigging, landing along the deck almost as silently as Jack had seen them boarding the Umatilla. One man glared at him, hatred in his eyes, and then someone started shooting.
Jack dashed behind a lifeboat fixed amidships. Bullets thudded home, wood splintered. He expected shouting and running, but instead he heard only soft, growl-like laughter.
I have to get away! he thought, but deep down he already knew that he was too late. He heard the keen hiss of a blade slashing rope, and the Larsen’s movement instantly changed. Rigging rattled, booms swung, and Jack slid from behind the lifeboat as the schooner turned hard to starboard.
In the darkness, in the mist, the Umatilla quickly faded away. Merritt, Jack thought. He could make out shapes lining the railings, and there were several more reports as they fired more shots after the pirates.
None of whom seemed concerned.
“Sea’s washed up a wet rat,” the black man said, grinning at Jack.
“Looks more like a dead dog to me,” a pale ogre of a man replied.
“He’s neither,” a voice said, and Jack knew immediately to whom it belonged. A hand closed around the back of his neck and pulled him upright. “He’s the one who fought back.”
There were six men around Jack. They were all dressed the same—black, loose clothing, knives still clasped in their hands. A couple of them carried small knotted bags that might have held gold. One nursed a wound in his side, and if it was a gunshot, then the man should be down. He should be moaning. But even he smiled at Jack, and there was an air of expectation that chilled him more than the sea, and more than his lonely near death in the north.
That had been the wild, at its heart impartial.
This was savagery unfettered by any moral concern. This was evil.
“Shall we, Ghost?” someone asked.
“I think not,” the big man said. Jack turned to face him.
“Ghost?” Jack said.
“That’s right. And you have me at a disadvantage, sir.”
“Not as I view it,” Jack said, meaning to sound defiant. But the man’s eyes bored into him, and his mass was a mountain waiting to tumble.
This was savagery unfettered by any moral concern. This was evil.
Ghost smiled. He knew Jack’s fear and was evidently used to it. “I’ll know your name, son,” Ghost whispered, and the whole ocean heard.
“I’m Jack London,” Jack said. The name gave him strength, defining as it did both the wild part of him and the man he was growing to become, and he felt a rush of delight as Ghost raised one eyebrow.
“Are you, indeed?” Ghost replied. “You fought back, Jack London. That was brave.”
“And stupid,” another man put in.
“Well,” Ghost said, shrugging, then laying a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Truth is, sometimes one is the other.”
“I’ve never been stupid,” Jack said.
“Why fight us, then?”
“You’re murderers and thieves.”
A ripple of laughter went among the Larsen’s crew. “Oh,” someone said, “worse than that.”
Ghost raised a hand to silence them, his eyes still challenging Jack.
“And?” Ghost asked, staring expectantly.