They were not there. The boat floated silently, empty in the shadows of the big cecropia where we had left it, but of Jamie and the rest, there was no sign at all.
One of the cane fields lay a short distance to my right, between me and the looming rectangle of the refinery beyond. The faint caramel smell of burnt sugar lingered over the field. Then the wind changed, and I smelled the clean, damp scent of moss and wet rocks from the stream, with all the tiny pungencies of the water plants intermingled.
The stream bank rose sharply here, going up in a mounded ridge that ended at the edge of the cane field. I scrambled up the slope, my palm slipping in soft sticky mud. I shook it off with a muffled exclamation of disgust and wiped my hand on my skirt. A thrill of anxiety ran through me. Bloody hell, where was Jamie? He should have been back long since.
Two torches burned by the front gate of Rose Hall, small dots of flickering light at this distance. There was a closer light as well; a glow from the left of the refinery. Had Jamie and his men met trouble there? I could hear a faint singing from that direction, and see a deeper glow that bespoke a large open fire. It seemed peaceful, but something about the night—or the place—made me very uneasy.
Suddenly I became aware of another scent, above the tang of watercress and burnt sugar—a strong putrid-sweet smell that I recognized at once as the smell of rotten meat. I took a cautious step, and all hell promptly broke loose underfoot.
It was as though a piece of the night had suddenly detached itself from the rest and sprung into action at about the level of my knees. A very large object exploded into movement close to me, and there was a stunning blow across my lower legs that knocked me off my feet.
My involuntary shriek coincided with a truly awful sound—a sort of loud, grunting hiss that confirmed my impression that I was in close juxtaposition to something large, alive, and reeking of carrion. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted no part of it.
I had landed very hard on my bottom. I didn’t pause to see what was happening, but flipped over and made off through the mud and leaves on all fours, followed by a repetition of the grunting hiss, only louder, and a scrabbling, sliding sort of rush. Something hit my foot a glancing blow, and I stumbled to my feet, running.
I was so panicked that I didn’t realize that I suddenly could see, until the man loomed up before me. I crashed into him, and the torch he was carrying dropped to the ground, hissing as it struck the wet leaves.
Hands grabbed my shoulders, and there were shouts behind me. My face was pressed against a hairless chest with a strong musky smell about it. I regained my balance, gasping, and leaned back to look into the face of a tall black slave, who was gaping down at me in perplexed dismay.
“Missus, what you be doin’ here?” he said. Before I could answer, though, his attention was distracted from me to what was going on behind me. His grip on my shoulders relaxed, and I turned to see.
Six men surrounded the beast. Two carried torches, which they held aloft to light the other four, dressed only in loin cloths, who cautiously circled, holding sharpened wooden poles at the ready.
My legs were still stinging and wobbly from the blow they had taken; when I saw what had struck me, they nearly gave way again. The thing was nearly twelve feet long, with an armored body the size of a rum cask. The great tail whipped suddenly to one side; the man nearest leapt aside, shouting in alarm, and the saurian’s head turned, jaws opening slightly to emit another hiss.
The jaws clicked shut with an audible snap, and I saw the telltale carnassial tooth, jutting up from the lower jaw in an expression of grim and spurious pleasantry.
“Never smile at a crocodile,” I said stupidly.
“No, ma’am, I surely won’t,” the slave said, leaving me and edging cautiously toward the scene of action.
The men with the poles were poking at the beast, evidently trying to irritate it. In this endeavor, they appeared to be succeeding. The fat, splayed limbs dug hard into the ground, and the crocodile charged, roaring. It lunged with astonishing speed; the man before it yelped and jumped back, lost his footing on the slippery mud and fell.
The man who had collided with me launched himself through the air and landed on the crocodile’s back. The men with the torches danced back and forth, yelling encouragement, and one of the pole men, bolder than the others, dashed forward and whacked his pole across the broad, plated head to distract it, while the fallen slave scrabbled backward, bare heels scooping trenches in the black mud.
The man on the crocodile’s back was groping—with what seemed to me suicidal mania—for the beast’s mouth. Getting a hold with one arm about the thick neck, he managed to grab the end of the snout with one hand, and holding the mouth shut, screamed something to his companions.
Suddenly a figure I hadn’t noticed before stepped out of the shadow of the cane. It went down on one knee before the struggling pair, and without hesitation, slipped a rope noose around the lizard’s jaws. The shouting rose in a yell of triumph, cut off by a sharp word from the kneeling figure.
He rose and motioned violently, shouting commands. He wasn’t speaking English, but his concern was obvious; the great tail was still free, lashing from side to side with a force that would have felled any man who came within range of it. Seeing the power of that stroke, I could only marvel that my own legs were merely bruised, and not broken.
The pole men dashed in closer, in response to the commands of their leader. I could feel the half-pleasant numbness of shock stealing over me, and in that state of unreality, it somehow seemed no surprise to see that the leader was the man called Ishmael.
“Huwe!” he said, making violent upward gestures with his palms that made his meaning obvious. Two of the pole men had gotten their poles shoved under the belly; a third now managed a lucky strike past the tossing head, and lodged his pole under the chest.
“Huwe!” Ishmael said again, and all three threw themselves hard upon their poles. With a sucking splat! the reptile flipped over and landed thrashing on its back, its underside a sudden gleaming white in the torchlight.
The torchbearers were shouting again; the noise rang in my ears. Then Ishmael stopped them with a word, his hand thrown out in demand, palm up. I couldn’t tell what the word was, but it could as easily have been “Scalpel!” The intonation—and the result—were the same.
One of the torchbearers hastily tugged the cane-knife from his loincloth, and slapped it into his leader’s hand. Ishmael turned on his heel and in the same movement, drove the point of the knife deep into the crocodile’s throat, just where the scales of the jaw joined those of the neck.
The blood welled black in the torchlight. All the men stepped back then, and stood at a safe distance, watching the dying frenzy of the great reptile with a respect mingled with deep satisfaction. Ishmael straightened, shirt a pale blur against the dark canes; unlike the other men, he was fully dressed, save for bare feet, and a number of small leather bags swung at his belt.
Owing to some freak of the nervous system, I had kept standing all this time. The increasingly urgent messages from my legs made it through to my brain at this point, and I sat down quite suddenly, my skirts billowing on the muddy ground.
The movement attracted Ishmael’s notice; the narrow head turned in my direction, and his eyes widened. The other men, seeing him, turned also, and a certain amount of incredulous comment in several languages followed.
I wasn’t paying much attention. The crocodile was still breathing, in stertorous, bubbling gasps. So was I. My eyes were fixed on the long scaled head, its eye with a slit pupil glowing the greenish gold of tourmaline, its oddly indifferent gaze seeming fixed in turn on me. The crocodile’s grin was upside down, but still in place.
The mud was cool and smooth beneath my cheek, black as the thick stream that flowed between the lizard’s scales. The tone of the questions and comments had changed to concern, but I was no longer listening.
I hadn’t actually lost consciousness; I had a vague impression of jostling bodies and flickering light, and then I was lifted into the air, clutched tight in someone’s arms. They were talking excitedly, but I caught only a word now and then. I dimly thought I should tell them to lay me down and cover me with something, but my tongue wasn’t working.
Leaves brushed my face as my escort ruthlessly shouldered the canes aside; it was like pushing through a cornfield that had no ears, all stalks and rustling leaves. There was no conversation among the men now; the susurrus of our passage drowned even the sound of footsteps.
By the time we entered the clearing by the slave huts, both sight and wits had returned to me. Bar scrapes and bruises, I wasn’t hurt, but I saw no point in advertising the fact. I kept my eyes closed and stayed limp as I was carried into one of the huts, fighting back panic, and hoping to come up with some sensible plan before I was obliged to wake up officially.
Where in bloody hell were Jamie and the others? If all went well—or worse, if it didn’t—what were they going to do when they arrived at the landing place and found me gone, with traces—traces? the place was a bloody wallow!—of a struggle where I had been?
And what about friend Ishmael? What in the name of all merciful God was he doing here? I knew one thing—he wasn’t bloody well cooking.
There was a good deal of festive noise outside the open door of the hut, and the scent of something alcoholic—not rum, something raw and pungent—floated in, a high note in the fuggy air of the hut, redolent of sweat and boiled yams. I cracked an eye and saw the reflected glimmer of firelight on the beaten earth. Shadows moved back and forth in front of the open door; I couldn’t leave without being seen.
There was a general shout of triumph, and all the figures disappeared abruptly, in what I assumed was the direction of the fire. Presumably they were doing something to the crocodile, who had arrived when I did, swinging upside-down from the hunters’ poles.
I rolled cautiously up onto my knees. Could I steal away while they were occupied with whatever they were doing? If I could make it to the nearest cane field, I was fairly sure they couldn’t find me, but I was by no means so sure that I could find the river again, alone in the pitch-dark.
Ought I to make for the main house, instead, in hopes of running into Jamie and his rescue party? I shuddered slightly at the thought of the house, and the long, silent black form on the floor of the salon. But if I didn’t go to either house or boat, how was I to find them, on a moonless night black as the Devil’s armpit?
My planning was interrupted by a shadow in the doorway that momentarily blocked the light. I risked a peek, then sat bolt upright and screamed.
The figure came swiftly in and knelt by my pallet.
“Don’ you be makin’ that noise, woman,” Ishmael said. “It ain’t but me.”
“Right,” I said. Cold sweat prickled on my jaws and I could feel my heart pounding like a triphammer. “Knew it all the time.”
They had cut off the crocodile’s head and sliced out the tongue and the floor of the mouth. He wore the huge, cold-eyed thing like a hat, his eyes no more than a gleam in the depths beneath the portcullised teeth. The empty lower jaw sagged, fat-jowled and grimly jovial, hiding the lower half of his face.