When Jack did not reply, he smiled. “Well then, Jack London, time for you to get below.”
“With the others?” the ogre asked.
“No. Not with the others,” Ghost said thoughtfully. He gestured to a tall, pale man Jack recognized as the pirate he’d shoved down the stairwell. “Finn, make our guest comfortable.”
Speaking the word guest made the captain grin. Finn, which might have been his name or his heritage, grabbed Jack’s arm and escorted him roughly to the forecastle. The man looked unharmed by his tumble down the stairs—nothing broken, nothing bloody.
“I should have stabbed you,” Jack said, and his comment provoked another flush of laughter. The sound seemed out of place on the ship, and as Finn pulled at Jack, someone whistled once, sharp.
A whisper, a thud, and then a large white shape thumped onto the deck, thrashing for a moment until a sailor stomped his boot down on the thing’s exposed neck. The pelican grew still, blood marring its chest, black-tipped wings spread in death.
“Something different for dinner tomorrow, Ghost,” the man who had shot the animal said. He came forward, bent down, and plucked the crossbow bolt from the poor creature’s body.
“Perhaps,” Ghost said. “Perhaps.”
Jack felt the man’s eyes burning into the back of his head as he was forced down into the ship, and into the tight, dank quarters of the Larsen’s bestial crew. And he could still feel that heavy gaze as the door was slammed and he was left alone in the darkness, and the cold.
AN ANGEL AMONG DEVILS
Jack awoke in a stinking bottom bunk in the crew’s quarters, startled to find that he had managed to fall asleep in the cold, dank forecastle. They hadn’t locked him in, but he knew he had nowhere to run save over the side and into the rolling sea. Though he had struggled not to let his guard down, he had been alone and exhausted. And with his mind a riot of defiant and rebellious plans, his body had surrendered to weariness, silencing his thoughts at last.
Now he blinked awake facing the wall, and stiffened as he realized he was no longer alone.
Something stood behind him. Jack could feel its presence, though he could scarcely hear it breathe. A scent filled the forecastle, the musk of men combined with the stink of filthy animals, and perhaps that aroma belonged to the creature even now stepping lightly toward his bunk. Yet when he inhaled again, he caught that smell on the stained linens beneath him and knew it did not come solely from the intruder.
Come to kill me, he thought, and wondered if the thing had seen him stiffen as he woke in the gloom.
Jack waited, listening for the rustle of cloth or the grunt that would presage an attack. But the rustle that came moments later sounded too deliberate, too stealthy, to be the movement of a would-be assassin. He frowned, still facing the wall, as understanding struck him. His jacket had been next to him on the bunk, and it was only now that he noticed its absence. The intruder was not an assassin, but a lowly thief.
Erupting into motion, Jack rolled and twisted and shot out both feet, ramming his kick into the stealthy figure’s torso. He gave the kick such force that it drove the intruder across the room, where he crashed into other bunks, slamming his head on the upper and tumbling into the lower. The man grunted in surprise, then hissed as he clawed to pull himself upright.
But Jack was already on his feet. He had no weapons and no time to find one, for he saw now that this was Finn, the sailor he had ambushed on board the Umatilla and who had confined him to these quarters some hours ago. Unshaven, lips peeled back in an instant of hatred, Finn would kill him given the chance. And Jack knew that in such close quarters, the larger, stronger man would have the advantage.
It was greed that saved him. Finn’s greed.
The sailor had lost his grip on Jack’s coat but must already have discovered the heavy bag in its pocket and realized what it contained. And so instead of attacking Jack directly, he tried to secure his prize, clutching at the jacket that had fallen onto the bunk beneath him. In doing so, he left himself vulnerable.
Jack grabbed the jacket and tugged, raising his right leg and stomping his heel into Finn’s groin. The man let out a bellow of pain and released the coat, and Jack was already running for the door. As he climbed three steps and exited the cabin, he heard the furious sailor scrambling in pursuit.
What’s he made of? Jack thought. He’d dealt him a cruel kick, and Finn should’ve needed time for such pain to subside. But even as Jack reached the stairs that led up to the deck, he heard the rumble of the man’s voice.
“Little bastard,” Finn growled. “I’ll have your eyes.”
On the second step, Jack knew he’d never make it. He turned, saw a flicker of surprise in the scruffy sailor’s face, and hurled himself back down. Finn caught him easily, one hand closing around Jack’s throat and the other holding his free hand at bay. He squeezed, and Jack felt himself sag, a stringless puppet hanging in that iron grip. Finn smashed him against the bulkhead at the base of the stairs, and smiled as he began to crush Jack’s throat.
Jack twisted his fist in the fabric of his coat, felt the weight of the little bag of gold, and swung it with all his strength. It struck Finn on the temple. The man’s eyes dilated and his grip loosened only slightly, but that was enough for Jack. He braced his feet against the wall behind him and thrust forward, dropping his shoulder and ramming Finn against the stairs. The sailor tripped and fell back, cracking his skull against a wooden step, and then Jack was clambering over him, swift as could be.
Finn grabbed at his leg, but Jack tore free and launched himself to the top of the stairs, sprawling on the deck. The night sky had cleared and the moon burned bright enough to cast a silver gleam across the ship. As Jack picked himself up, wondering where he could run and what that murderous pirate captain Ghost would make of the concept of justice, Finn crested the forecastle steps and hurled himself at Jack.
In the open, Jack had thought his speed would give him an advantage. Years living rough on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco, and then riding the railways in search of work and enlightenment, had mixed him in hundreds of fights, from the simplest scuffle to the most brutal brawl. At eighteen, he was stronger than most of the older men he’d met, and he knew how to fight dirty.
But Finn treated him like a toy, hoisting him into the air and pummeling his face with a stonelike fist. Twice. Three times. A fourth would have knocked Jack senseless. He grabbed a handful of Finn’s hair and yanked, stealing his balance for just a moment. He punched the sailor in the throat, and Finn staggered back. But he did not release Jack.
With a roar, he lifted Jack over his head and hurled him into the foremast. Something cracked inside, and Jack knew he’d fractured at least one rib. The wind knocked out of him, he struggled to drag in a single breath, chest burning for air. He tried to rise, but Finn was upon him.
Voices rose around them. The lookout called some rude observation from the crow’s nest. The ogre and the black man from earlier were among those who came to watch, but it was no longer a scuffle. In a moment it had turned from a fight into bloody punishment. Finn seemed to have forgotten all about the gold in the pocket of the coat that Jack still clutched in his hand. Instead, the sailor’s entire focus was on inflicting pain.
Jack felt the blows land. Tasted blood. Knew that he could expect no help, and without it he would surely die.
A shape darted in from the right, a dark silence that blotted out the moonlight, and then Finn flailed as he was yanked backward and flung across the deck. He tumbled end over end, thumping against the deck, and crashed against the railing. So swiftly that he seemed barely to move—appearing in one spot and then the next without passing between—Ghost stood over Finn, glaring down upon him with cold fury.
Finn began to rise, fumbling for words. But even as he opened his mouth, Ghost struck him such a powerful blow that Finn collapsed back against the rail, a boxer on the ropes in some pugilistic nightmare.
“Do not speak,” the captain ordered.
Fear filled the sailor’s eyes, and he obeyed.
Wiping blood from his nose and mouth, Jack rose unsteadily, maintaining his balance with a hand upon the foremast. Other members of the crew had gathered around, and Jack felt sure that Ghost would command them to return to their duties. But it seemed he wanted an audience. The sailors looked on with hungry fascination, almost licking their chops in the hope of some further violence. Jack prayed they would be disappointed.
The captain turned from Finn and approached Jack, his footfalls on the deck almost silent.
“Young Jack,” Ghost began, studying him closely, as though appraising him anew. “An explanation is due, I think.”
“Simple enough,” Jack said, wincing at the pains in his jaw and face as he spoke. “I woke to find your man trying to rob me. I hoped to keep what was mine and so fought him for it.”
“Offered yourself up for a thrashing, more like,” Ghost replied, a sly smile lifting the edges of his mouth. Like the devil’s smile, Jack thought, it does not reach his eyes.
“What could you possibly have that would be worth such punishment?” the Larsen’s captain continued. “Or worth fighting for at all?”
In the haze of his pain and in the midst of trying to discern the captain’s intentions, he had nearly forgotten his jacket, which now lay on the deck a few feet away, as near to Ghost as it was to Jack himself. He racked his brain for a suitable lie to hang on to his hard-won prize, but his eyes gave him away.
Ghost plucked the jacket from the deck, one brow arching curiously as he felt the strange weight in one pocket. He hefted the bag in his hand, dropping the jacket back to the deck.
“Had I caught you with this on board your ship, I’d have killed you for it.”
“Finn meant to do just that.”
A brief, savage anger flickered in Ghost’s eyes as he glanced at the sailor, before he returned his attention to Jack.
“We’ve boarded half a dozen vessels returning from the Yukon,” the captain said. “Yours yielded the smallest amount of gold thus far.”
“There’s little to be found,” Jack said. “The gold rush is more of a trickle. Even what you’ve got there is just a few small nuggets and some dust.”
“Still worth quite a bit, I’d imagine.”
“And it’s mine,” Jack said.
Ghost took three steps until he stood directly before Jack, eyes still more curious than brutal, though Jack had seen the violence in the man.
“We own only what we can keep, Mr. London. It isn’t enough to have, nor even enough to take. All things pass into the hands of others, in time.” The captain tucked the small bag into his pocket. “If you want this back, you’re welcome at any time to attempt to retrieve it. But you’d best be prepared to kill me for it, as I will not hesitate to do the same to you.”
Hatred burned in Jack as he recalled the men who had died to acquire that meager bit of gold. Ghost watched to see if he would attack, but Jack London was no fool. Even at his best, without the pain in his ribs and face and the ringing in his head, he would need all of his cunning and a great deal of luck to best Ghost in a fight.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” he said.
Ghost gave a curt nod and turned back toward Finn.
“My orders were clear, Finn. He was not to be touched. Worse yet, you hoped to rob him and keep the dust for yourself—”
“No, sir,” Finn began. “It weren’t my intention at all. I only—”
Ghost’s cruel smile alone was enough to silence the man.
“And now you’ve interrupted me,” the captain said.
The ship creaked, lines swaying, pulley blocks jangling, but the crew was utterly silent. Jack had seen this before in the packs of sled dogs in the frozen north. He had watched as a member of the pack challenged the leader, as a bloody, snapping, snarling fight ensued, and as the rest of the pack loomed with dark purpose, waiting to savage the loser. These were men, not dogs, but their ominous silence bespoke the same malign intent.
“Do I not give my men a fair share of the spoils, Finn?”
“You do, sir,” Finn said, his voice faltering. “My word, you do.”
“And yet,” Ghost said, almost idly. “And yet.”
He turned and paced a bit, tapping his temple as if he were a stage actor performing the part of one deep in thought. Then he glanced at Jack and tipped him a wink, an amused twinkle in his eye.
“Mr. Johansen,” Ghost said.
Jack turned to see a sailor step forward, a lanky man with tiny beads for eyes and long, spidery fingers. This, he knew, must be the first mate, for the captain had called him Mister, and to him would be delivered the orders.
No trace of a smile remained on the captain’s face.
Finn screamed, lunged from his place at the railing, and drew out a wicked-looking knife as he hurled himself at the captain. Ghost slapped the blade from his hand and it stuck in the deck, quivering in the moonlight. So fierce and strong was the captain that he had the man on his back in the space between heartbeats. He raked a single fingernail along Finn’s jaw, drawing blood and causing the sailor to cry out in surrender.
“It’s the keel or your throat,” Ghost growled, his face bent so low that the two men were nose to nose. He almost whispered, but in the loaded silence the whole crew heard. “Pain or death. Those are your only choices.”
Finn went slack beneath him, and Ghost stood, turning his back on the defeated sailor. The captain paused and looked at Jack.
“They are forever our only choices, young Jack. As you will most assuredly learn.”
As a boy, Jack London had been something of a pirate himself. Desperate to escape the hellish drudgery of his work at Hickmott’s Cannery, he’d borrowed enough money from his foster mother to buy the sloop Razzle Dazzle. All his young life, he had been in the company of rough men, and he had been along with some of them as they raided the oyster beds in the mudflats off San Francisco Bay, stealing what they could by night and selling it off in Oakland the next morning. Oyster pirates, they called themselves, and with his new boat, he’d become a pirate captain. At the age of fourteen, it had seemed a glorious adventure.