Triumphant shouts from the boat, and a spreading circle of deep red in the water. There was a tremendous thrashing as one shark was gaffed and hauled behind the small boat by a rope about its tail. Then everything was confusion, as the men in the boat noticed what else was going on in the water nearby.
Lines were thrown over one side and then the other, and crewmen rushed back and forth in high excitement, undecided whether to help with rescue or shark, but at last Jamie and his burdens were hauled in to starboard, and dumped dripping on the deck, while the captured shark—several large bites taken out of its body by its hungry companions—was drawn in, still feebly snapping, to port.
“Je…sus…Christ,” Jamie said, chest heaving. He lay flat on the deck, gasping like a landed fish.
“Are you all right?” I knelt beside him, and wiped the water off his face with the hem of my skirt. He gave me a lopsided smile and nodded, still gasping.
“Jesus,” he said at last, sitting up. He shook his head and sneezed. “I thought I was eaten, sure. Those fools in the boat started toward us, and there were sharks all round them, under the water, bitin’ at the gaffed one.” He tenderly massaged his calves. “It’s nay doubt oversensitive of me, Sassenach, but I’ve always dreaded the thought of losing a leg. It seems almost worse than bein’ killed outright.”
“I’d as soon you didn’t do either,” I said dryly. He was beginning to shiver; I pulled off my shawl and wrapped it around his shoulders, then looked about for Mr. Willoughby.
The little Chinese, still clinging stubbornly to his prize, a young pelican nearly as big as he was, ignored both Jamie and the considerable abuse flung in his direction. He squelched below, dripping, protected from physical castigation by the clacking bill of his captive, which discouraged anyone from getting too close to him.
A nasty chunking sound and a crow of triumph from the other side of the deck announced Murphy’s use of an ax to dispatch his erstwhile nemesis. The seamen clustered round the corpse, knives drawn, to get pieces of the skin. Further enthusiastic chopping, and Murphy came strolling past, beaming, a choice section of tail under his arm, the huge yellow liver hanging from one hand in a bag of netting, and the bloody ax slung over his shoulder.
“Not drowned, are ye?” he said, ruffling Jamie’s damp hair with his spare hand. “I can’t see why ye’d bother wi’ the little bugger, myself, but I’ll say ’twas bravely done. I’ll brew ye up a fine broth from the tail, to keep off the chill,” he promised, and stumped off, planning menus aloud.
“Why did he do it?” I asked. “Mr. Willoughby, I mean.”
Jamie shook his head and blew his nose on his shirttail.
“Damned if I know. He wanted the bird, I expect, but I couldna say why. To eat, maybe?”
Murphy overheard this and swung round at the head of the galley ladder, frowning.
“Ye can’t eat pelicans,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval. “Fishy-tasting, no matter how ye cook ’em. And God knows what one’s doing out here anyway; they’re shorebirds, pelicans. Blown out by a storm I suppose. Awkward buggers.” His bald head disappeared into his realm, murmuring happily of dried parsley and cayenne.
Jamie laughed and stood up.
“Aye, well, perhaps it’s only he wants the feathers to make quills of. Come along below, Sassenach. Ye can help me dry my back.”
He had spoken jokingly, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, his face went blank. He glanced quickly to port, where the crew was arguing and jostling over the remains of the shark, while Fergus and Marsali cautiously examined the severed head, lying gape-jawed on the deck. Then his eyes met mine, with a perfect understanding.
Thirty seconds later, we were below in his cabin. Cold drops from his wet hair rained over my shoulders and slid down my bosom, but his mouth was hot and urgent. The hard curves of his back glowed warm through the soaked fabric of the shirt that stuck to them.
“Ifrinn!” he said breathlessly, breaking loose long enough to yank at his breeches. “Christ, they’re stuck to me! I canna get them off!”
Snorting with laughter, he jerked at the laces, but the water had soaked them into a hopeless knot.
“A knife!” I said. “Where’s a knife?” Snorting myself at the sight of him, struggling frantically to get his drenched shirttail out of his breeches, I began to rummage through the drawers of the desk, tossing out bits of paper, bottle of ink, a snuffbox—everything but a knife. The closest thing was an ivory letter opener, made in the shape of a hand with a pointing finger.
I seized upon this and grasped him by the waistband, trying to saw at the tangled laces.
He yelped in alarm and backed away.
“Christ, be careful wi’ that, Sassenach! It’s no going to do ye any good to get my breeks off, and ye geld me in the process!”
Half-crazed with lust as we were, that seemed funny enough to double us both up laughing.
“Here!” Rummaging in the chaos of his berth, he snatched up his dirk and brandished it triumphantly. An instant later, the laces were severed and the sopping breeks lay puddled on the floor.
He seized me, picked me up bodily, and laid me on the desk, heedless of crumpled papers and scattered quills. Tossing my skirts up past my waist, he grabbed my hips and half-lay on me, his hard thighs forcing my legs apart.
It was like grasping a salamander; a blaze of heat in a chilly shroud. I gasped as the tail of his sopping shirt touched my bare belly, then gasped again as I heard footsteps in the passage.
“Stop!” I hissed in his ear. “Someone’s coming!”
“Too late,” he said, with breathless certainty. “I must have ye, or die.”
He took me, with one quick, ruthless thrust, and I bit his shoulder hard, tasting salt and wet linen, but he made no sound. Two strokes, three, and I had my legs locked tight around his bu**ocks, my cry muffled in his shirt, not caring either who else might be coming.
He had me, quickly and thoroughly, and thrust himself home, and home, and home again, with a deep sound of triumph in his throat, shuddering and shaking in my arms.
Two minutes later, the cabin door swung open. Innes looked slowly round the wreckage of the room. His soft brown gaze traveled from the ravaged desk to me, sitting damp and disheveled, but respectably clothed, upon the berth, and rested at last on Jamie, who sat collapsed on a stool, still clad in his wet shirt, chest heaving and the deep red color fading slowly from his face.
Innes’s nostrils flared delicately, but he said nothing. He walked into the cabin, nodding at me, and bent to reach under Fergus’s berth, whence he pulled out a bottle of brandywine.
“For the Chinee,” he said to me. “So as he mightn’t take a chill.” He turned toward the door and paused, squinting thoughtfully at Jamie.
“Ye might should have Mr. Murphy make ye some broth on that same account, Mac Dubh. They do say as ’tis dangerous to get chilled after hard work, aye? Ye dinna want to take the ague.” There was a faint twinkle in the mournful brown depths.
Jamie brushed back the salty tangle of his hair, a slow smile spreading across his face.
“Aye, well, and if it should come to that, Innes, at least I shall die a happy man.”
We found out the next day what Mr. Willoughby wanted the pelican for. I found him on the afterdeck, the bird perched on a sail-chest beside him, its wings bound tight to its body by means of strips of cloth. It glared at me with round yellow eyes, and clacked its bill in warning.
Mr. Willoughby was pulling in a line, on the end of which was a small, wriggling purple squid. Detaching this, he held it up in front of the pelican and said something in Chinese. The bird regarded him with deep suspicion, but didn’t move. Quickly, he seized the upper bill in his hand, pulled it up, and tossed the squid into the bird’s pouch. The pelican, looking surprised, gulped convulsively and swallowed it.
“Hao-liao,” Mr. Willoughby said approvingly, stroking the bird’s head. He saw me watching, and beckoned me to come closer. Keeping a cautious eye on the wicked bill, I did so.
“Ping An,” he said, indicating the pelican. “Peaceful one.” The bird erected a small crest of white feathers, for all the world as though it were pricking up its ears at its name, and I laughed.
“Really? What are you going to do with him?”
“I teach him hunt for me,” the little Chinese said matter-of-factly. “You watch.”
I did. After several more squid and a couple of small fish had been caught and fed to the pelican, Mr. Willoughby removed another strip of soft cloth from the recesses of his costume, and wrapped this snugly round the bird’s neck.
“Not want choke,” he explained. “Not swallow fish.” He then tied a length of light line tightly to this collar, motioned to me to stand back, and with a swift jerk, released the bindings that held the bird’s wings.
Surprised at the sudden freedom, the pelican waddled back and forth on the locker, flapped its huge bony wings once or twice, and then shot into the sky in an explosion of feathers.
A pelican on the ground is a comical thing, all awkward angles, splayed feet, and gawky bill. A soaring pelican, circling over water, is a thing of wonder, graceful and primitive, startling as a pterodactyl among the sleeker forms of gulls and petrels.
Ping An, the peaceful one, soared to the limit of his line, struggled to go higher, then, as though resigned, began to circle. Mr. Willoughby, eyes squinted nearly shut against the sun, spun slowly round and round on the deck below, playing the pelican like a kite. All the hands in the rigging and on deck nearby stopped what they were doing to watch in fascination.
Sudden as a bolt from a crossbow, the pelican folded its wings and dived, cleaving the water with scarcely a splash. As it popped to the surface, looking mildly surprised, Mr. Willoughby began to tow it in. Aboard once more, the pelican was persuaded with some difficulty to give up its catch, but at last suffered its captor to reach cautiously into the leathery subgular pouch and extract a fine, fat sea bream.
Mr. Willoughby smiled pleasantly at a gawking Picard, took out a small knife, and slit the still-living fish down the back. Pinioning the bird in one wiry arm, he loosened the collar with his other hand, and offered it a flapping piece of bream, which Ping An eagerly snatched from his fingers and gulped.
“His,” Mr. Willoughby explained, wiping blood and scales carelessly on the leg of his trousers. “Mine,” nodding toward the half-fish still sitting on the locker, now motionless.
Within a week, the pelican was entirely tame, able to fly free, collared, but without the tethering line, returning to his master to regurgitate a pouchful of shining fish at his feet. When not fishing, Ping An either took up a position on the crosstrees, much to the displeasure of the crewmen responsible for swabbing the deck beneath, or followed Mr. Willoughby around the deck, waddling absurdly from side to side, eight-foot wings half-spread for balance.
The crew, both impressed by the fishing and wary of Ping An’s great snapping bill, steered clear of Mr. Willoughby, who made his words each day beside the mast, weather permitting, secure under the benign yellow eye of his new friend.