There are more than a few reasons why having a woman on board is a problem. She also proves to be a great asset.
Chapter Three: Problems Arise
“Cap’n!” Gibbs tapped at the cabin door again. “Cap’n!”
Jacks’ head jerked up from the table. “Eh?”
Gibbs hesitated then spoke through the door. “Cap’n, we’ve need of you….”
“You can come in, Master Gibbs,” Jack growled testily, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
Gibbs tentatively pushed the door ajar, cautiously peering in. “Cap’n, we’ve need of………..”
“Bloody hell, Gibbs!” Jack roared. “Come in the bloody room!”
Gibbs sidled his way around the jam of the door, his eyes shifting nervously from side to side, extremely curious, but afraid of what he might see.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir.” Halting at the table edge, he folded his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels. “I didn’t wish to intrude.”
The sparkle in Gibbs’ eyes and the insinuation in his voice was not lost on Jack.
“There’s no intrusion to be made, Master Gibbs,” said Jack around a huge yawn, pulling himself to a standing position. He winced a few times, stomping one foot, then stiffly shuffled around the table, rubbing one thigh. “Our guest is in the other room. I moved her in there after she fell asleep, here at the table.”
He felt compelled to add that last bit, but he had full confidence that Gibbs wasn’t going to buy his story, anyway. Well, it was only a small lie. He had moved her to his bunk after she fell asleep. Gibbs didn’t need to hear everything, though God knows there are precious few secrets on a ship. The Master of the Ship already seemed to think he knew too much already.
“Did you have need of me, Master Gibbs?” Jack prompted, hoping to change the subject.
“Huh? Oh, aye, sir! The boatswain said as he was in need of your judgment. Something about the tackles, sir.”
Jack yawned again, eyes watering from the effort. “Lead on, Master Gibbs.”
Jack hesitated at the great cabin door, his hand hovering over the knob. He prided himself on his deep intuitive understanding of women, and he sensed an awkward moment pending. This was not going to be easy! Nonetheless, charts had to be checked and courses adjusted; he had to go in. Maybe, she’d still be sleeping.
She was standing in the opened windows of the gallery, still wrapped in the quilt from his bunk. Turning as he entered, she clutched the covering a little tighter around her shoulders.
“Good morning, Captain.” Her voiced sounded reasonable and clear.
“Jack,” he corrected. “You may call me Jack…. Kate?” His voice held the question.
She nodded, smiling slightly. She seemed a bit more relaxed than the night before but, there was still a certain amount of tension about her, around the eyes and mouth and the way she held her head.
He seized the opportune moment to appraise her in the daylight, as she made her way around the table. Appealing, even wrapped in a quilt there was a particular air about her, not haughty, but more regal, a clear confidence. Fine-featured, but not fragile—he recalled an impressive length of thigh and curve of hip. She was most undeniably a full-fledged woman.
But look at her! She’s too tall, her shoulders are way too wide, she’s thin—you know you like them more…round—her hair is a wreck, not to mention those accursed-colored eyes! Besides, she’s probably older than Methuselah. You like them much younger, don’t you?
His eyes caught hers; it did not appear his gaze made her uncomfortable. She had a way of looking directly at a person; it wasn’t a challenge, just a “Take me as I am”. So much, like someone else, once.
She seemed to be groping for words, searching the rug at her feet for them.
“I’m sorry about last night, Cap...Jack!” she corrected herself, quickly. A nervous smile flickered across her lips. “I’m not usually one to be wailing away like that. Things sort of built up on me, I guess.”
Cleared of the salt water and rum from the night before, her voice was soft and slightly throaty.
“Aye, it can happen to the best of us,” he agreed, with a thoughtful nod, his ornaments jangling softly.
“I hope I didn’t, umm, inconvenience you too much, I mean, your cabin and bunk and all…” her voice trailed off into an awkward ending.
“Not in the least, luv,” he said, flashing her a broad smile. He bowed gracefully, with an elaborate wave of his hand. “I live to serve.”
There was an awkward silence, both their gazes dropping away in different directions. Well, this is going as well as I had feared. His eyes shifted aimlessly around the table, turning over the hourglass, while she directed hers toward the windows, throat clearing and fidgeting from the both of them.
“Hungry?” he finally asked then hesitated, uncertain where to go next. “Tea?”
Yes, tea! Isn’t that what most people drink of a morning?
“Yes, tea would be lovely,” she responded, brightening at the suggestion, a relieved sound in her voice.
Jack purposefully strode to a narrow companionway in a far corner of the cabin. “Mr. Kirkland!” he shouted downward.
Approaching, quick footsteps could be heard below, followed by a querulous “Aye, sir?”
“We require tea.”
“Beggin’ yer pardon, sir?”
“Tea, Mr. Kirkland,” Jack replied with patient firmness. “We require tea.”
There was a long pause, then a confused-sounding “Aye, sir” and footsteps fading away.
Jack turned back with an elaborate shrug. “Tea, directly.”
And, directly, it did arrive. He busied himself with charts and logbook until then, making a grand show of seating her and serving. She sipped carefully, closing her eyes in satisfaction.
“Would the lady care for a bit o’ toast?” Mr. Kirkland offered, hovering anxiously at the edge of the table.
“Yes, Mr. Kirkland, “ she answered, smiling. “ I’d love some.”
Pleased at his success as a host, Kirkland scurried away, pausing only to nod a salute to his captain, as he passed.
Enthusiastic with the spirit of keeping up appearances of civility, Jack poured himself a cup. He sipped it, suddenly realizing his mistake.
What, in all that’s holy, were you thinking!
Rolling it from side to side in his mouth a few times, he struggled against the urge to spit it out. Finally, he managed a hard swallow, looking up to find her watching, clearly amused by his discomfiture.
“Vile stuff,” he said, pressing his lips together grimly.
“Don’t feel you have to maintain appearances for me.” She sipped again. “May I ask again, Captain, what do you plan to do with me?” she asked, setting her cup down.
She looked up, shooting him a direct look.
Bloody hell! Those blue-green eyes, again! They look right through a person. Saw eyes like that on a statue in Campeche, once. Cursed me, it did.
He cleared his throat, trying to find his voice. “Why were you on the Melody?”
She considered her answer then gave a small shrug, tossing back a large lock of hair behind her shoulder. Now dry and sleep-mussed, her hair hung in a muddled tangle around her shoulders, a dark copper bramble. Her eyes shifted to the table, as she traced a finger along the edge of the saucer.
“I had to leave England, rather quickly. The Melody was the first ship leaving, for a price I could afford; where she was going wasn’t important.”
That doesn’t sound right at all.
Suspiciously frowning, Jack cocked an eyebrow, tipping his head in question. “Wanted to leave, or had to leave?”
She gave him another level look, chewing the inside of her mouth in thought. He could see the struggle on her face, clearly trying to decide what, or how much, to say. One eyebrow twitched when the final decision was made.
“Look, Captain, I’ll make it easy for you,” she said slowly, stopped and then proceeded carefully. “You and your men pulled me out of the water—probably saved my life—and gave me a dry bed to sleep in. The least I can do is return the favor.” She took a deep breath. “I can probably be worth a certain amount of money to you. There is a price on my head. Not so large as the ransom of a governor’s daughter,” she conceded, equivocally “But at least enough for a few evenings of drink in the nearest tavern.”
He kept his face carefully arranged. Steady mate, this could be what you’ve been waiting for.
“What...” He stopped to clear his throat. “What could you possibly have done to draw the attention of His Majesty’s army?”
“Ever heard of Bonnie Prince Charlie?” she asked quietly, her eyes returning to the table.
“Sure, who hasn’t?” What the bloody hell has a Catholic upstart trying to take over the British Crown have to do with anything?
“My husband took a large part in the Rising; an officer in the Stuart army, actually. Following Culloden, he was captured and imprisoned. Since I always rode with him, I was considered to be ‘aiding and abetting the enemy.’” She chuckled in amused disbelief. “At one point, there were even wanted posters.”
“Last night, you said you had no one. What of your family?”
“All very far away,” she said, faintly. “And quite possibly all dead; I haven’t seen or heard from any of them in over ten years.”
“And his family?”
She took another sip of tea, giving herself time to arrange her thoughts. “Associating with a known criminal, like me, could implicate them. If they were caught harboring me, they could be arrested, just the same as I.”
“You don’t sound Scots.” Jack observed. This isn’t making any sense at all.
“Oh, I’m not; Brian, my husband, was a Highlander, though.” She paused, one corner of her mouth seeming to smile on its own. “Clan Mackenzie.” she added with a spark of pride. Her eyes went a little distant, as she toyed with her wedding ring. “The day before he was captured, he told me to forget him, consider him dead.” She braced her elbows on the table, dropping her head in her hands. “God, as if I could!”
He noted the passion and desperation in her voice, feeling a pang of jealousy tighten his chest.
Just give me five minutes with that stupid bugger!! Five minutes, that’s all I would need to beat some sense into him. Damned fine way to treat a woman!
‘Course then, why should you care?
Because she’s too good a’ woman to leave alone!
“Does he know where you are?” he asked, trying to sound dispassionate.
“He was captured almost five years ago,” she said, shaking her head, still braced in her hands. “I haven’t heard from him since. I did hear he had been transported, but I have no idea where: Colonies, Australia, India; no telling where.”
A heavy fall of hair covered her face, but he could hear her voice quavering. He knew the sound; there would be more tears, very soon.
“Did you make inquiries?” Keep her talking, mate, or the cabin will be flooding, soon enough.
“And just how was I supposed to do that?” she bristled, looking up at him, dropping a hand to the table. “’Excuse me, sir! Could you overlook the warrant for my arrest and tell me where you took my husband?’” She made a sarcastic noise in the back of her throat.
“So, you’ve been living alone?” His question fell somewhere between disbelief and admiration. He was beginning to admire more than just her appearance.
She heaved a deep sigh, nodding watching her own finger as it traced the table's wood grain.
“I’m a fair hand with a needle; I can sew, some. I do some quite fancy embroidery, too. A time or two a family took me in as a tutor, because I could read and write, but I had to be careful. Anyone around me could have been imprisoned.”
“But then, you had to leave?”
She nodded, leaning back. “The authorities were closing in; there were a few close calls, so I decided it was time to leave England. I went down to the Bristol docks with every shilling I had, and bought passage on the first ship out.”
“The Melody was heading for Port Royal. Do you know anyone in Port Royal?”
“Hardly,” she scoffed. “I suppose the Governor and family would have been my only acquaintances. That wouldn’t have been so bad, I suppose, but that doesn’t matter now, anyway.”
“You’ve a strange accent. Where are you from?” It’s working! Keep her talking.
“I’m from the Colonies,” she said hesitantly.
“I’ve met quite a few people from the Colonies; you don’t sound like any of them.” Been around the world several times over, and never heard an accent like that.
“Yes, well, I’m from the western Colonies, the very far western Colonies.”
She finished her tea, looking up at him again.
“So, Captain,” she said suddenly confident. “You have your prize, right here; tell the nearest garrison you have Katherine Mackenzie, and you’ll be a richer man.”
“You said ‘Harper’ before.”
“Yes, well, it’s actually Mackkenzie; Harper was my maiden name.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked cautiously. “It could mean the hangman’s noose.”
She shrugged, dismissively, dropping her eyes to the table. “Drowning or hanging; there’s not that much difference.”
Profits are damned!! It’ll be a cold day in Hell before I turn her over to the Royal Navy, let that bloody Norrington lay hands on her.
He was preparing to ask why she was so eager to die when Mr. Kirkland arrived with the toast. It was arranged carefully on a plate—a very clean plate, Jack noticed—with a small dollop of jam on the side. A small pitcher of honey was placed next to the plate and even a knife, polished to the point of exhaustion.
The arrival of food broke their connection. Jack made motions of checking charts, occasionally stealing a peek at her. Kate chewed her toast quietly, a distant look in her eyes.
Either leave the bloody room, or you’ll be doing something that you’ll have to do a lot of apologizing for, later.
He rose from the table abruptly and made to leave the cabin. He paused at the door, turning back.
“Is there anything else I can get you?”
”Well, I could do with some kind of clothes.” She raised one leg to make an example of her attire. The quilt fell away, showing a slim, well-arched foot and an enticing ankle leading up to a delicious calf. His mind’s eye led him the remainder of the journey, past knee and thigh. “I don't think the crew would appreciate me walking about in a quilt.”
“On the contrary, luv, they would greatly appreciate it.” Wouldn’t we all! He had to clear his throat, again. “I’ll see what we can do.”
Why couldn’t she have been some plain-as-a-board, fat-as-a-fish-wife hag?
Still, there’s something about her.
Woman is pushing me limits.
Certainly can’t adjust me goods now, though God knows I could. Easy, me lads, relief from temptation is but a few steps away.
He gave an elaborate bow and was turning to leave when she called out. “Oh, and one more thing!”
“Yes?” he replied, turning back again. Sweet bleeding Jesus, if there is a God, let me out of here!
“A basin and some water?”
What the hell does she want that for?
“To wash with,” she clarified.
“Wash?” Wash what? The table? The dishes? The decks?
“Yes, wash? Bathe? You know, clean-up?”
He nodded, like he understood. Why can’t women just be normal, like men?
Mr. Kirkland appeared with a deep porcelain basin, a bucket of reasonably clear, somewhat heated water, and a large piece of sea sponge.
“Picked the barbs out, myself,” he beamed. Apparently the cook, he was a round man with an even rounder head and face. Totally bald, he wore a kerchief wrapped about his head that was decidedly too small to offer any sort of protection.
From one of the chest of drawers, he produced a length of cloth that could serve as a towel. His face burning bright red with embarrassment, he scampered away.
Kate moved her toilet to the sleeping area. The curtain would never be any kind of a barricade to anyone who chose to intrude, but psychologically, it provided comfort, giving at least the impression of privacy.
She dropped the quilt on the bed and spread the cloth on the floor. She started to step out of her shift, but paused a moment, looking at the rip that ran from neckline to below her navel. Obviously, there were fewer secrets about her than she thought.
Standing on the cloth, she poured a measure of water into the basin and proceeded to bathe, falling into a steady rhythm of dip and squeeze, sliding the sponge over her skin, then repeat, dip, squeeze, and slide. In spite of its warmth, the water was cooling, goose flesh creeping up her arms. It felt wonderful, the tensions and traumas of the last few days loosening and falling away.
She closed her eyes, and let her mind wander to Captain Jack Sparrow.
An unexpected surprise, he was. Under all the hair and bizarre accouterments lurked a very charming and good-looking man. His smile alone was enough to make her stomach lurch; golden teeth aside, it was dazzling. From every indication, he was well versed in how to use that smile, too, making her feel like a fluttering teenager, every time. And those eyes, deep, coffee-brown, almost bottomless—nearly the same color as the walls of his ship. Coincidence?
Oddly, his hands were his most dominating feature, long and slim-fingered, elegantly expressive, a constant embellishment to his conversation. Even from a distance, though, she had seen a multitude of small scars over his fingers and knuckles, a testimonial to a hard life. The leather palm protector he wore on his right hand was evidence enough to that.
“Don’t forget, he’s a pirate,” warned a small inner voice.
Minor detail, she answered back. As she skimmed the sponge along her arm, allowing the water to slide down her ribs, she allowed herself a few moments to speculate about those long fingers, on her neck, along her arms, sliding down her ribs.
“Snap out of it, girl.” She surprised herself with the sound of her own voice.
Good-humored, charming or good-looking could not diminish the fact he lived by mayhem and violence. He had, no doubt, raided, plundered, rampaged and ransacked. How many men had he killed? How many women had he….
“Never mind!” she scolded herself, aloud again.
But why hadn’t he approached her last night? There had been no overtures, no implications or threats. If he were such a rapacious scoundrel, why not her?
Shaking her head, she dismissed the thought. He was a walking contradiction in far too many ways. And it had only been one night; she couldn’t allow herself to become too lax and over-confident.
Still, if so many, why not?
What are you thinking! she thought, scrubbing furiously. Where in the hell are you going to fit a man into your life? This was no romance novel, with some dashing pirate about to sweep her off her feet. This was the real world, and could rise up and devour starry-eyed romantics in a single bite.
Bath finished, hair even rinsed, she found herself with another slightly larger problem—clothes. The quilt had served well, but this was the Caribbean; a quilt was a little warm.
On cue, the double doors of the cabin door burst open, followed by heavy footsteps and a sizable amount of heavy breathing and cursing. She peeked around the curtain to see two crewmen drop a huge dome-topped chest in the middle of the floor. Close behind them followed two more who deposited a smaller, but still large, flat-topped chest next to the first. One more seaman, a solemn man with a bright blue and yellow parrot on his shoulder, bore a much smaller lady’s chest. All five of them spotted her at the curtain and froze, then quickly bobbed up and down, touching their foreheads in salute, scurrying out.
All clear, she arranged the quilt around her again and went to inspect.
The first trunk was massive with broad straps and heavy buckles. A padlock nearly the size of her hand had protected it, once. Now, it dangled from the loop, smashed. She ran her finger along the crest on the front of the chest; an oval, full of flourish and detail, it bore a scripted “W” in the middle: Winstead.
She hesitated, chewing the inside of her lip. It didn’t seem right; she felt as if she were intruding on someone’s memory. The owner of this chest had once been alive; breathing, moving, talking, loving and being loved. And then, suddenly, she was gone, dead, all her worldly possessions in a chest, sitting on a pirate ship. Strange world.
She took a deep breath and heaved the lid open.
Clearly, the pirates had already ransacked the chest. The entire contents were scrambled and crammed; silk, satin, lace, ribbons, ruffles and linens stuck out in all directions, whites, pinks, blues, greens and yellows mixed and wound around each other. She recognized some of the colors and patterns: Mrs. Winstead.
The lesser flat-topped trunk bore the same crest. Again, the lock had been broken. And, upon opening this one, the contents here, too, had been rifled. Many of the colors and patterns here were more delicate, less bold. One sleeve sticking out on top she definitely recognized: Lucy Winstead.
She touched the sleeve, visualizing the small slip of a girl. Barely fifteen, she had all the innocent sparkle of a girl, breathily in anticipation of life ahead. A future husband was all she had been able to talk about. Kate slowly closed the trunk, her hand resting on the lid in benediction.
The third trunk bore the same crest, the same broken padlock, though considerably smaller than the other two. Again, the main section of the trunk had been ransacked. Instead of clothing, this trunk contained all the essential necessaries of a lady in travel: handkerchiefs, scarves, shawls, journals, handwork, sewing kits, and slippers. All the things a true lady would find absolutely essential for travel.
What truly struck her, however, was the trunk's top insert tray, reverently arranged with a silver-backed brush, comb, mirror and a few hairpins. A small powder jar, a length of pink ribbon and a handkerchief completed the vignette; all the things a lady in travel might need...on a pirate ship, at least, according to the pirates.
The thump of boots and a soft jingling, announced Jack’s arrival. Kate rose from her knees, grasping the quilt, as he entered. He gestured toward the trunks with a quick wave of his hand and an inclination of his head.
“The crew thought perhaps there were things….” He cocked an eye at her, seemingly a little at loss for words. “…maybe clothes you may need,” he ended lamely.
“Tell the men ‘Thank you’!” she said, bobbing a quick bow. She looked down at the trunk, trying to hide a smile. “It’s a lovely thought, but there’s only one small problem: Mrs. Winstead was a good six inches shorter and ten inches wider at the waist than me and Lucy was a girl of fifteen and considerably smaller.”
Jack frowned, clearly befuddled.
“Can’t you just fix up something?” he said, with a dismissive flap of his hand. “I thought you said you were good with a needle.”
She looked down at the trunk, fingering a blue-flowered silk. “I’m not sure how practical some of this is going to be.”
He peered over to the chests, scowling, his mouth turning sharply downward at the corners. “Women’s things, aren’t they?”
A rapid thud of boots interrupted them, Jack turning as Gibbs strode into the room.
“Cap’n” Gibbs huffed. “Ye need to come down below deck.”
“What is it?” Jack was already in stride next to Gibbs as he spoke.
“It’s Chin, sir. He took a blade ‘cross the leg yesterday and it won’t stop bleedin’.”
Their voices were already fading away by the finish of Gibbs’ sentence. Kate could hear their foot on the steps of the gangway that led to below decks. Tossing off the quilt, she scrambled through the largest trunk until she found a shift and slid it on over her head, following the men. Half down the gangway, she looked down to see how huge the shift was on her. It sagged dangerously at the shoulders, gapping considerably at the neck. She gathered up a large handful of fabric at her back, never really pausing to verify how presentable she was.
The crew was gathered around a man in the floor. Propped against one of the cannons, a rough sack of something as his pillow, Jack knelt next to him, holding up a piece of cloth thoroughly darkened with blood.
“Why didn’t you tell someone about this sooner, man?” Jack scolded.
Chin clutched his leg, a worried scowl on his face. “I thought it would close up on its own, sir.” His voice was deep, with an odd mixture of accents, Chinese and something else.
“Blast it!” Gibbs bellowed. “Any fool could see a thing like that won’t close on its own!”
Without ceremony, she elbowed her way between the men and fell to her knees at the man’s side. Jack’s eyes widened a bit as she took the soggy cloth from his hand, and proceeded to inspect the wound.
It was an ugly gash, a good five to six inches long, running diagonally across the widest part of his thigh. The edges of skin were already curling back, the blood welling in a steady flow, the deck underneath already darkening.
“It’ll have to be sewn,” she announced, giving the man a steady look. “Are you ready for that?”
“It seemed to stop for a bit, ma’m, then it started again this morning.”
Chin, round faced with a pigtail hanging from the side of an otherwise baldhead, nodded slowly. Sweat was streaming down his face and chest, his shirt stuck to his body. She stood up to a collection of agape faces and wondered what had stunned them so. Surely, they had seen a man needing stitching before. Perhaps it was her, a woman. Actually, she didn’t care. Seeing someone in need was all she needed; experience took over the rest. Remembering her attire, she clutched the back of the shift again.
“We’ll need to get him up on a table, with some light. We’ll need hot water, bandages, rum…” Her voice faded off as she realized they were all frozen in place, mouths still slightly open. Feeling a little too exposed for the first time, she focused on the captain, standing next to her.
"Captain, we’ll need hot water and some clean bandages.”
He hesitated then barked at his crew. “You heard her, mates. Snap to it!”
Several scrambled off, others lingered, unclear what to do.
“We’ll need something to sew with. Does anybody have a needle and thread?” She looked from face to face, waiting for an answer.
It was pointed out that Gibbs or Kirkland usually did the sewing, but declined, in deference to her. Kirkland ran to get his supplies, which proved to be a large, sail maker’s needle that had been sharpened and a spool of heavy, nearly cord-like thread.
“That’ll never do,” she muttered, poking a finger at the thread. Then she brightened, turning to Jack. “In those trunks there was a sewing kit; in the smallest one, I think.”
Jack jerked a thumb at one of the men. “Get it!”
“Bring some of those petticoats, too,” she called after the running sailor. “They’ll make good bandages. I suspect they’ll be cleaner than anything else.”
It wasn’t a judgmental statement, only offered, as a point of fact and everyone seemed to take it as such. The Pearl was a pirate ship; few niceties were available.
“Do you have anything like brandy or whiskey?” she asked, looking to Jack again.
“Oh, yes, well, better get it and start pouring it down him.” She cast a sympathetic eye toward Chin, grunting in agony, as he was moved to a table. “He’s going to need all the help he can get.”
The rum was fetched and Chin was liberally dosed. Kate ripped petticoats, meanwhile, as best she could, still struggling with her own garment. A small dish was brought upon request, the group wide-eyed as she poured a bit of the rum into it, dropping in several lengths of thread from the sewing kit. Two needles bent into a requested crescent shape also from the sewing kit, were dropped in as well.
When Chin seemed as numb as he was going to get, she began. With hot water and a piece of ripped cloth, she cleared the dried blood and dirt, then stooped to examine the wound more carefully, pulling away more debris embedded in the gaping flesh, well—aware of eyes following her every move. The press of unwashed male bodies gathered around hung over her like a blanket, warm and oppressive. Progress was definitely being slowed by the slumping shift. Exasperated and flustered, with both hands already busy, she asked for help. Since Jack was the closest, he was pressed into service.
“Just hold it here,” she gestured, more irritably than she intended.
He tried reaching from the side, but to no avail.
"No, no! Just stand behind me and hold it. Yes, that’s it! Now I can work.”
She touched Chin lightly on the arm, trying to make eye contact, but his head lolled from one side to another, lost in drink.
“This is going to hurt.” She waved a hand to the crew. “Better hold him down.”
She took a deep breath and poured the rum over the wound. The bulkheads vibrated with Chin’s scream. He twisted and writhed and it take every bit of the men's strength to hold him.
It was the scream that brought it all tumbling back. The feel of his flesh under her fingers, warm, slicked with blood and the coppery tang of it in the air was a sharp jerk back to a brutal reality she had tried to forget. The moans and screams, they too came back. She shook her head, not to clear away the hair that drifted across her face, but to rid herself of the haunts that fogged her vision. Plaids, darkened and saturated, sprawled nearly lifeless in a field, under dismal skies of gray scudding clouds. Sleet pattered the upturned faces.
Cursing herself for her weakness, she considered a tot of the rum at her elbow for her own purposes, to numb the brain, freeze out the ghosts, making it possible to work with a clearer mind.
“Focus! Damn it, girl, focus!”
She risked only a small glance to see if any the men noticed the hesitation in her hand, a lack of deftness in her movements. It seemed not.
Summoning further resolve, she silently pledged to the men she had failed, those who had died before she could help, and those who had also died, because she could not help enough. Standing over their stone cairns, she had given an oath, to do her best, to never allow such a thing to happen again.
“Hold him still.” Concentrating her full attention, she bent to work.
Jack stood quietly behind Kate, trying to watch as she stitched, her hands moving with a confidence he hadn't expected. But he was having a few problems of his own. Initially, when she was standing up, everything was fine. But now, bent over, her rear was snug against his thighs—and there was a definite problem rising. And it was rising fast! He tried shifting a bit, but it was not enough to solve the problem. The table Chin lay upon on was suspended by ropes from the overhead beams, braced on the back of the cannon underneath. It tended to sway a bit, compelling her to move with it, back and forth, side to side.
To his relief, she straightened at last, swiping at her hair with a forearm, making a frustrated noise.
“Can someone tie this hair back, please?” She held up her hands, bloody to the wrist, to clarify the situation.
Releasing the shift to pull off his scarf with one hand, he tried to pull back her hair with the other. Her hair was abundant and heavy, with coiling curls at the ends. It was like running his hand through thick silk, up, from underneath, along the length of her neck. Too much of it slipped away, and he had to start again, his fingers tracing the curve of her neck. He closed his eyes to collect himself. This was not the distraction he had been hoping for a few moments ago. There was an overwhelming temptation to let his fingers linger, feeling the velvet of her skin. She was beginning to perspire, collecting at her hairline, making her skin just a bit slick, which he found even more alluring. He swore silently, finally gaining control of himself and the hair, containing it in a large knot at the back of her head. Victorious, the scarf was secured snugly across her forehead.
She thanked him briefly, and bent back to work. Resuming his task of holding the shift, his problem began to arise, again. He tried to focus on the saber-shaped scar partially visible on her shoulder, but the movement of her shoulder blade under her skin only made matters worse. He tried to focus on Chin yelling and writhing. He tried to step to one side, hence avoid the situation, but she complained he was in her light and he was forced to move back. He considered letting someone else take over, but the thought of one of his crewmen against her, with his...no, that was completely out of the question.
And then, she was done. She slowly straightened, wincing. Mr. Kirkland offered warm water and a basin, ready for her to wash the blood from her hands. She stood in front of Jack, drying her hands on one of the remaining petticoats, her face flushed. Beads of sweat stood on her upper lip, the front of the scarf was dark with moisture. He tried not to stare as one bead of moisture made a long, slow trail from her hairline near her ear, along her jaw line, down her neck, followed the crest of her collarbone and then plunged downward.
“…keep him quiet and clean and he should be all right.”
He only heard the end of what she was saying and shook his head a little, causing her to frown.
“Are you well? You look like you might want to faint.”
“No, no, I’m fine!” He gave a weak smile, backing away a bit, holding up a hand. “I’m fine.”
The crewmen were milling about, murmurs of approval passing among them. Within a matter of a few minutes, one of them stepped forward, a bit shyly, holding out his arm, displaying a rather nasty slash. She sat him on a bench and bent to her work.
A line began to form of waiting patients, bearing injuries and wounds from the day before. Seeing this was going to take a while, Jack pulled the striped shawl from around his waist. With a few adroit swirls, something loosely resembling a sarong was fashioned to help hold the shift in place, and he stepped away, grunting with relief.
She seemed to be in her glory. He watched as she listened patiently to each complaint, making sympathetic faces. Her hands moved with a quickness and confidence. Occasionally, she paused to wipe sweat from her face or neck, but she never hesitated; cuts, bruises, splinters, burns, dislocations and gashes, she tended them all.
Quietly, Jack slipped away above decks.