In the heat of the moment, my mind racing but still not keeping pace with events, I chose caution as my watchword: though I suspected the ruffian’s voice was the one I had heard that day outside the garradge, and I was even more suspicious of the colored headscarves that resembled the cloth worn by the man killed by us at the Glass Palace, I was not positive these men here and now were enemies, and so I did not act precipitously – though I lost the element of surprise, therefore. I believed I could gain it back, but first I needs must wait and watch.
They approached Ignacio – which was all to the good, as it allowed me to draw Mistress Lopez well off to the side and out of harm’s way. While their captain spoke, I noted one crewman craning his neck, keeping a weather eye out for enemies or allies of their intended victim, while two more fanned out around Ignacio, though none came too close. I saw that the watchman had a hand under his shirt, at his belt, and I marked him as armed, though with blade or pistola, I knew not.
The captain spoke in a thick patois, which I render here as well as my poor ears and poorer memory allow. “Orralay, we didn’ ‘speck t’ see you out here, vattow. Where’s your brother at? He here? We was just talkin’ ’bout hittin’ him up at Micky Dee’s, maybe, you know, catch him on break, you know? But this is cool – we can talk to you now, instead.” He glanced at his mate, who shook his head to indicate no intruding sails on the horizon – perhaps owing to the unusual magnificence of my finery, they apparently failed to notice me, or didn’t connect me to Ignacio; the latter was a welcome advantage, the former an offense I could not let stand– and the captain grinned and stepped in closer, lowering his voice (Howbeit, since he needs must speak over the market crowd, I could still make out the lion’s share of his speech.) to say: “‘S funny who you run into when you go out, verdad? Hey, you didn’t run into ‘Lito, did you? No? Haven’t seen him anywhere?” Ignacio had not moved nor reacted to them apart from backing water a step or two as they approached; he surely wished to keep his mother out of the fray, and could not retreat without leaving her behind – so was willing to submit to a likely drubbing so that she might be safe. A good son.
One who should not fight alone.
The captain here dropped his facade of amicability, his features turning to a mask of rage on the instant as he reached out and twisted Ignacio’s shirt in his rough grip, saying, “Lessee if we can help you remember, puto.”
I recognized this as my signal flag. I pushed Mistress Lopez firmly behind a rack of wide-brimmed straw hats, holding up a hand to tell her to bide there, and then I stepped out, the sheathed sword held low in my left hand, wishing I had taken the opportunity to charge my new pistola, but glad I had more than an odd club to face four strongarms. I spoke loudly, saying: “He has not seen your shipmate. Nor will he. Nor will you, this side of Hell.” I came to stand close behind Ignacio’s left shoulder, facing the captain, whose face was now slipping from rage into bewilderment. Surreptitiously, I put my right hand close by Ignacio’s belt. I smiled at the captain and then spake: “I sent him there myself when I shot him.”
Befuddlement turned to black rage, and the captain loosed his grip on Ignacio – which action I had awaited. Quickly I seized the good son’s belt and flung him sprawling behind me; in the same motion I lunged forward with the sword in my left and planted the hilt in the captain’s belly, blowing out his wind. As the captain stumbled back, I drew my new blade with my right and flung the empty sheath at the left-most foe; it did no harm, of course, but no man can help but flinch when somewhat comes a-flying at his eyes, and that gave me some treasured seconds with only two foes.
A long lunge with now-bared steel took one through the upper arm; he howled and fell back.
The last one was he who had a weapon at his belt; he was slow to react, but now he pulled up his shirt to reveal a large and bright-gleaming pistola – one I much admired, if I may be so bold with another man’s implements. A quick step with the left and a downward slash at the uttermost of my reach, and the tip of my blade parted his belt and knocked loose the pistol ere he could draw it. His over-loose pantaloons, now untethered, slid down to tangle around his thighs as his weapon clattered to the ground.
This put me in vulnerable position, extended over my left leg with my back to the wounded man. But it did serve to put my empty left hand near my boot, wherein lay my trusty knife, and also near the captain, whose right hand closed on the pistola in his belt – though he did not draw it, rather choosing to step forward and within my reach.
One would think these people had never fought before. I suspect, in fact, that a foe who returns fire on these mongrels is indeed unusual; I assume, also, that the captain did not want to draw and fire in such a crowd, but instead sought to close and club me down with gun in fist.
Instead he got a boot-knife thrust through the back of his hand. He gasped, loosed his pistol, raised his hand to stare at his wound – and I regained my balance, rose up and planted my swinging foot into his nether region. I tell you, these Spaniards may seem swarthy, but they are white men, nonetheless – for that man’s face turned as ashy pale as any Irishman in midwinter.
The last man, he who had dodged my scabbard, now came forward with bared steel of his own, a dagger clutched in his grip and descending towards me. But the motion was too large for a short blade and close range, and I stepped back so he cut only air. I brought the sword around, reversed, and laid the dull back edge across his temple, stunning him; I finished with the hilt on his crown, which laid him out.
I spun about, expecting an assault from the first man I wounded. But lo and behold, he was well-occupied with a dread and implacable foe: the swinging arms, flashing feet, and shrill screechery of Mistress Lopez. The man backed away, arms up to defend his face, and stumbled over a pile of goods, which sent him a-sprawl. Ignacio caught his mother, who was moving forward, fire-eyed and eager for the coup de grace; though it was a struggle, he managed to draw her back to safety.
I turned to survey the field, and saw that the rearmost rogue, he of the cleft pantaloons, was down on one knee, his britches clutched in a fist as the other hand stretched out for his fallen pistola. For myself, I would have let the tatters fall; though I quail at revealing all that lies beneath the waterline, most particularly in a sunny market with women and children all about, still the loose cloth was obviously hampering his balance and movement, and I would fain be naked and alive rather than a clothed corpse.
Which fate to avoid for myself, I leapt forward and stomped down on his questing fingers. The bones crunched like empty sea-shells under my boot. The man roared and choked and spluttered until I lifted my knee into his outthrust chin, flinging him back into the darkness of unconsciousness. I bent and retrieved his pistola into my left hand; thus securely armed, I stepped back to survey my opponents.
Their fortitude in battle fails to impress. I have seen swaddling babes who dealt better with their hurts than these dogs.
I took a moment to consider my course. Of course these rogues, and any more of their bloody-minded mates, would place responsibility for my actions on the Lopezes following this day’s events; I had hoped that my admission of responsibility for the dead man would shift their sights to me, but Mistress Lopez’s intervention, howsoever kind and timely and stout-hearted, had surely linked us as allies if not shipmates.
What could I do to counteract that impression?
“Lopez! Blast your dog’s heart, thou gutless milksop, come where I can see you ‘fore I blast ye to hell – ye or your haggard witch of a mother, aye.”
Though startled, and clearly deeply confused, Ignacio stepped forward, pale and shaking, his eyes darting from one wounded rogue to another. “Bring me my scabbard, ye mawkish dastard,” I spat. I pointed imperiously with my blade while I kept the pistol and my eyes hove tight to the captain, who clutched at his nethers with one hand while he tried not to look at his knife-thrust hand, holding the shaking appendage far and away out to his side, blood a-drip, like a man averting his gaze from somewhat sacred – or profane.
Ignacio retrieved the sheath – and then stood unmoving, staring dumb as a statue at me. “Bring it here – put it through my sash.” He came, albeit slowly; his hesitation and apparent unconcern for the severity of our circumstances began to raise true impatience in me. These men, though wounded, were none of them incapacitated; they could rally at any time. And who knew how many more of these scalawags or their allies might come across this picturesque tableau we set? Our immediate departure was called for, yet I needs must tell this boy to bring the scabbard to me. And now – “On the other side, ye dolt!” I clouted him on the shoulder with my hilt, though it would have appeared to mine audience that I had sorely boxed his ear. Not that I wasn’t thus tempted.
I nodded when he had it where I wanted, and then told him to clear out and hold back his harridan of a mother (I took comfort in the sure knowledge that the stout-hearted Mistress Lopez, for whom I had and have great regard, could not understand my words.) I hurried him on his way with a boot to the stern that was of course more powder than shot. When he was clear, I bent down over the captain, who would not look at me nor at his trembling hand. I moved around so I could keep a watch on the others over his shoulder, and then I cleaned my blade on his sleeve. “I see you white-livered curs know no more of fighting than your friend did – nor no more of spirit than that ragbrained fool I sought to make my servant. I see I will need to abandon him and his brood, and find another berth to claim. ‘Tis just as well – the sister wriggles pleasantly enough, but she will not stop weeping. It wears on a man.”
He turned to look at me then, his eyes still creased with pain and the skin of his face turned now to a greyish pallor, but anger blazed into his gaze and colored spots rose on his cheeks. I grinned at him. “But look on the happy side!” I sheathed my sword and laid the pistol’s barrel against his temple, smiling all the while. “When I’ve weighed anchor, you and these other toothless rats need not fear you will cross my path again.” Here I stopped smiling. “‘Twould be a preferable fate for you, methinks.” I drew back the pistol and smiled wide once more. “Here – let me help you with that.” I grabbed the hilt of my boot knife and tore it from his wound, perhaps somewhat unkindly. He cried out and cradled his stabbed paw, arching his back and laying out flat on the ground; I quickly wiped and sheathed the blade and snatched the pistola still tucked in his belt.
I stood, now carrying a proper weight of iron. The rogues were bled dry of fight, and so I bid them a fond farewell and gathered the Lopezes to me with a curse and a vile threat, and we made off.
Upon returning to House Lopez, I asked Ignacio to waken his brother so we could have parlay. I explained the reasons for my ungallantry, saying that I hoped to convince the rogues – whom Ignacio called the Latin lions, though I think Latin kittens might be more apropos – that I was a black-hearted villain who had taken the innocent Lopez family hostage, and they had not revealed my presence previously for fear I would wreak a dread vengeance on their innocent loved ones. As much as possible, that impression had been made today; now we needs must turn these Latins’ attention away from bloodlust by giving them something to mollify their rage – their rather righteous rage, truth be told. And so far as I knew, there was only one thing we could offer that they desired.
Juan spoke to Maid Flora using these strange Verizon praying-stones; I cannot comprehend how they can cast a voice over more miles than a man could see on a clear day at sea, and the Lopezes could not explain it to me, trying words like ‘lectrissity and sattalights before throwing up their hands in surrender, but howsoever it works, Juan summoned his sister to home many hours before she would be expected. ‘Twas good, as speed was of the essence; I had no doubt that the Latins, once they had licked their wounds, would come here to find us, and we must be elsewhere when they do.
A terse Spanish conversation followed Maid Flora’s arrival, with many apparent curses and more than a few bitter, fear-sickened looks cast my way. I could not complain: my presence in their lives, begun by my action when I led my men into the Glass Palace, had brought them little but misery. Even my good deeds, saving Maid Flora and now Ignacio and his mother, were only made necessary because of me, because of my allies and my enemies.
Once this is finished, I must leave this place. I must not rely on the kindness and forbearance of others who have no reason to look kindly on my presence in their lives, and I must not force the peril of association with me on these innocents. I must have my Grace. I need my home.
Within an hour’s time, Mistress Lopez was dispatched with young Alejandro to a friend’s house across town and out of harm’s way, and myself with Juan, Ignacio, and Flora departed in a pair of beast-wagons for the Glass Palace. With shovels.
We had a corpse to retrieve.