The Doctor

El Lobo Del Mar

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Three days after Rhys arrived in St. Lawrence, he left again, this time aboard El Lobo del Mar. He had convinced Briggs to dismount the heavy culverines and replace them with regular guns. Their additional weight would have slowed their progress more than Rhys cared to imagine. Never mind that one ship was useless against a fortress, if there indeed was one. If Jack was going to be rescued, stealth was the key. Not a short-lived, futile artillery battle.

Rhys had plotted a course that would take them to Rio de la Hacha, a town on the northern coast of South America just west of the centre of the Spanish Main, in just under a week if the winds stayed in their favour. He wished that if this rescue mission had to happen at all, that it had been launched from Port Royal. A fast sail almost due south, and no islands or coastline to skirt or heavily travelled shipping lanes to avoid. But fate demanded that they take a course that would bring them dangerously close to the Spanish ports of Caracas, Coro, Portobello, and Maricaibo, and the Dutch ports of Aruba and Curacao. Each one could be counted on for complete intolerance of a pirate vessel in their waters. As an added measure of security, Rhys had the distinctive wolf figurehead replaced with the original carving of Mercedes Mendoza herself. Briggs understood the reasoning, since the wolf was unique to El Lobo, but he wouldn't quit grumbling about how the change was "ruining Jack's ship" and that it was a "bad omen for sure" until her hair and dress had been painted appropriate shades of red. Rhys and Dolan had a good chuckle over how even Briggs' highly superstitious nature could be calmed by a pretty redhead, even in effigy.

Dolan's talents as a master forger would serve them well should any patrol ships intercept them. Thanks to an impressive collection of official seals they had appropriated over the years, he was able to produce impressively faked official papers from the Dutch and Spanish governments that they hoped would satisfy even the most suspicious naval officer even if flying the proper flags didn't.

What caught Rhys by surprise, almost as much as Jack's being taken, was Briggs' insistence that he not only lead the rescue, but take command of El Lobo herself.

"What? Me?" stammered Rhys. "No, Josiah, I can't. You know this ship and her crew best. They trust you."

"Aye, and I trust ye," said Briggs. "That's good enough for them." He took a ragged breath. "Rhys, it took me days to come up with a plan, and my best thinkin' would have got us blown out of the water without ever gettin' close enough to help Jack. I ain't got the head for this sort of thing. But ye most certainly do. If we're to save Jack Wolfe, you're the man what's gonna make it happen."

Rhys leaned back against the heavy wooden table and looked at the floor. As he thought about what Briggs said, he wished his Uncle Henry were there to talk it out with. But he knew what the advice would be: "You're in the yoke already, lad. What's one more bit of burden? That's why God gave you those broad Morgan shoulders. Use 'em."

"All right," he said quietly.

"Ye'll do it, then?"

"Yes, Josiah. I'll do it. The important thing is that we get Jack home and safe. If this will help that cause, I'll do it."

Briggs breathed a sigh of relief. "I knew ye'd see it that way! Ye won't regret it, Rhys."

"I already do."

"Ye're talkin' about that lass back in Wales, ain't ye?"

"Rhiannon. Yes. I promised her I'd be back in three months. Heaven only knows how long I'll be delayed now."

"She'll still be waitin' for ye, if it's meant to be. Ye'll have her in yer arms again before ye know it."

"I hope you're right, Josiah. But life didn't stand still here whilst I was gone. How can I expect it to there?"

"The same reason I believe Jack is still alive. Faith. It's all we got. Let that sustain ye."

Rhys was heartened at the crew's reaction to Briggs' announcement that he would be the acting captain of El Lobo for the rescue. The men seemed to go about their work with renewed vigour and purpose, eager to put to sea. They responded even better than the Neptune Rising's crew, much to his amazement. Either they respected Rhys that much, or they wanted their old captain back so badly they'd endure any master that would fulfil that end. Rhys was content to split the difference. He wanted this ordeal over and done with as soon as possible, preferably with Jack alive to resume command and let Rhys get on with his life.

Much to everyone's relief, the voyage went swiftly, without incident. Their closest call was with a Spanish war galleon that fell in step with them as they passed the bay that let to Maricaibo and Portobello. The galleon raised the flag of Spain, and El Lobo raised theirs in kind. Things got tense when the galleon fired a salute, and the crew thought they were under attack. Fortunately, Rhys realised the flag they were flying was that of the Spanish royal court, of which Mendoza was a dubious member. He swiftly instructed the gun crews to fire a return salute of six guns, without shot, in rapid succession. Once the salute was returned, the war galleon broke off and allowed the pirate ship to continue on.

They hugged the coast after that, finding themselves harassed only once by a group of Native war canoes, who attacked solely because of the Spanish flag they'd forgotten to take down. Briggs quickly ran up Jack's flag, a rampant wolf astride two crossed swords, and the Indians broke off, choosing to fall in beside the ship shouting cheers. Rhys had the ship slow at that point, and invited some of the natives aboard. They told him, in broken Spanish, that they were indeed on course to Rio de la Hacha, but that they had best not approach the city directly. Instead, there was a large bay just to the northeast where they could anchor and hide the ship among the huge mangroves that crowded the shoreline. From there, it would be a hike of roughly a mile to the town. In an incredibly generous gesture, they offered to serve as guides.

"Why would you tell me this?" asked Rhys.

"Because," said the chief, who called himself William. "You are the enemy of Chief Mendoza. He has brought much sorrow to my people. He makes us slaves. Mendoza makes everyone slaves, even his own kind. If rescuing your chief brings grief and anger to Mendoza, then my people will help any way we can. Anger makes him foolish. We will strike at that time, once you are away, to avenge my people."

Rhys pushed bowls of meat and rum forward to William.

"We accept your offer, and we promise to bring much grief to Chief Mendoza."

William nibbled at the meat, and spat it out. Apparently the salt taste disagreed with him. But the rum was a far different story. Thanks to Jack's impressive collection of Caribbean rums, it wasn't long before the chief was pledging undying loyalty, if Rhys agreed to leave several barrels of the amber liquid behind after the rescue was complete. Rhys promised William eight barrels of rum as payment for his assistance, which William gladly accepted.

"Y'know, Jack ain't gonna be much too pleased with ye emptyin' the rum stores to a bunch of Indians," Briggs commented the next morning as they watched a still drunken William and his men row out ahead of the ship.

"I think Jack will understand why I did it," said Rhys. "We need every bit of help we can get at this point. Rum is the least of my worries."

Briggs shook his head. "Ye don't know Jack and his rum. Tell me; how many time you reckon ye've seen Jack sober?"

"I assumed almost always."

"As Jack would say, to assume the obvious is to overlook the obvious. That man ain't drawn a sober breath in the past five years, at least."

"Why on earth would he do that to himself?"

"Why does he do anything he does? God only knows, and He ain't tellin'."

"Then Mendoza can't torture Jack any more than he's tortured himself. I can't imagine what's driven him to... wait! What's William doing?"

William was standing up in the lead war canoe, waving and pointing wildly toward the shoreline. As Rhys and Briggs watched, a bay opened up before them. The mouth of it wasn't very wide, but it was sufficient for El Lobo to pass without trouble. It was ringed by mangrove trees, which would provide excellent cover from passing vessels.

"Think you can get us in there, Master Briggs?" asked Rhys.

"Just you watch me!" grinned the quartermaster, who went immediately to the forward rail of the quarterdeck and began shouting orders to the crew. Within a few minutes, the sails were struck just enough to carry the ship gently into the mouth of the bay.

The easy part was over. They'd made it to Rio de la Hacha. Now the real work began. Get into the city, find a way into where Jack was being held, and get him to safety.

That is, if he was still alive.

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As the sun set behind the bay where El Lobo was anchored, Rhys, Briggs, and Dolan met with Chief William and four of his men. William drew a rough map in the sand of the route they would take through the jungle that skirted a makeshift road that ran near the water, and a crude representation of the town itself. Rio de la Hacha was typical of many well established Spanish colonies in that the town had originally been contained within the fortress walls, but thanks to success and population growth spilled outside of the stone walls. As Mendoza increased his power, he forced the general populace out of the fortress complex entirely, including the church, and converted any housing into barracks for the garrison. To quell the outcry of the citizenry over this move, Mendoza threw a considerable amount of gold into a new, ornate church, complete with an abbey. He put even more into additional fortifications guarding the town and his de facto castle.

William promised that he and his men would camp on the shore near the ship, waiting to create a diversion when Rhys and company returned with Jack. His plan was for them to rush to the outskirts of the town and cause a commotion, with the intent of buying El Lobo time to get out of the bay unnoticed. If the sentries were busy combing the jungle for marauding natives, reasoned William, the less likely anyone would take note of a departing vessel. No one could argue with his logic.

Still, there were misgivings.

“I don't know if I trust this one,” said Briggs as they moved through the jungle. Broken moonlight served as their only illumination as they negotiated the dense foliage slowed their progress. “Seems like he's goin' to a lot of trouble just to see Mendoza get egg on his face.”

“Don't worry yourself, Josiah,” answered Rhys. “I trust him, but only so far. He seems sincere enough. We know the Spanish have enslaved every Indian they can get their hands on. If we're successful, he'll probably go back to his people with a bloody great tale of how he led a coup against Mendoza. As long as we get Jack back and alive, let him have his story. Maybe he can use it to rally his people and really have a go against the bastard.”

“I suppose,” grumbled Briggs. “As long as he's there to make a ruckus like he promised, that's all I care.”

“If we're inventive enough, then it won't matter if he's there or not,” offered Dolan.

Rhys chuckled. “You're the optimist tonight!”

“I figure we'd snuck in and out of enough places in our time,” Dolan said, “this oughta be easy.”

“Just how many Spanish fortresses have ye slipped in and out of, unseen and unheard?” asked Briggs.

Dolan took his time answering. “Well... this'll be the first. But we're very good!”

Briggs snorted. “I'm feelin' better about this already.”

“We'll worry about getting into the town first, then Mendoza's keep,” said Rhys. “One step at a time.”

Finally, they reached the first outlying houses. They were modest, built of stone and mud brick, with thatched roofs. No lights could be seen in any of the windows. It was late enough that everyone was asleep. Hopefully they would stay that way.

William put his hand on Rhys' shoulder. “Here is where we part ways, for now,” he said quietly. We will see you again at your ship with your friend. May the spirits guide you and keep you safe.”

“In four days, if not sooner,” replied Rhys. “Thank you again for your help.”

William nodded, then motioned to his men. With barely a sound, they disappeared into the jungle.

The three men moved quietly and carefully between the houses, trying not to disturb any of the chickens and other animals that either slept or stood in their pens. They spotted a lane just beyond the last house in their path. As they rounded the corner of the house, Rhys froze and held up his hand for the others to stop.

“Company,” he whispered.

All three hid in the shadows and waited. A man on horseback was slowly making his way up the lane in their direction.

“Patrol?” whispered Dolan. Rhys motioned for his friend to stay quiet.

The horse continued on the road until it was in front of the house where the three men were hiding. It paused, then stepped onto the narrow dirt path that led to the house. When horse and rider got to about twenty feet from the house, they stopped.

The three men held their breath. But the rider, who they were certain suspected their presence, said nothing. After a short while, the horse shifted, as if fidgeting in boredom. The rider remained silent. Rhys nodded to Briggs and Dolan, and all three drew their pistols and stepped into the moonlight. They waited for the rider to respond, but nothing happened.

Finally, Rhys made a few cautious steps forward. The horse looked at him, but the rider did not move. Dolan and Briggs joined Rhys, and they approached the rider. That's when they heard a strange noise.

Snoring.

The rider was fast asleep, probably after far too much to drink at the tavern. In a ritual that had no doubt played out many times before, the trusty animal had carried his slumbering master safely home.

Quietly chuckling more in relief than anything else, the trio looked around for any other surprises, then set off down the worn road toward the centre of town.

Rio de la Hacha was a run of the mill Spanish settlement in the Caribbean, save for the stone-walled fortress that loomed over it. Thirty-foot walls sprang up at the city's centre, with large, domed watchtowers at each of its four corners. A multitude of notches were built into the top rim of the walls, with a cannon barrel protruding from each one. Smaller swivelling guns, called patereros, were mounted on the parapets beside each cannon. Their use was more anti-personnel in nature, which undoubtedly sent a message to the general populace to accept whatever Mendoza decreed.

The sight sent a chill through Rhys. They weren't dealing with just any vengeful man. Diego Mendoza was a full-fledged despot, with the arms and manpower to enforce his every whim.

“Our informants fell short,” Rhys said quietly.

“I hate bein' right,” Briggs grunted.

Dolan was a bit more philosophical. “All right, it's a tad bigger'n what I expected. But there's a door, yeah? A door is a way in and out. We'll be fine. Have to get inventive, but we're fine.”

“Optimistic bugger,” grumbled Briggs.

“Look,” said Dolan. “I know you'll move Heaven and Earth, and Hell if need be, to save Jack. Same with Rhys. All we need is a way in. It's there, which means we'll find it. It's up to Jack to hold on 'til we get there.”

“Where'd ye hire this one, Rhys?” Briggs asked. “He's crazy enough to be one of Jack's own crew.”

Rhys gave a small laugh. “I guess Jack rubbed off on me more than I realised. Otherwise I never would have hired him.”

Dolan grinned, but the grin faded as the jibes settled in. “Oi, wait a minute!” he said in mock protest.

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"What we need to do is get our silly arses off the street before a patrol comes round," said Briggs warily.

They could hear the muted sounds of a busy tavern just around the corner. Above its door was a sign that read "Le Feliz Bol."

"'The Happy Bull'," read Rhys. "Sounds lively enough. Shall we? Tongues should be wagging freely enough, perhaps we'll learn a few things about this fair town."

Tavern was like any other in a port town. The patrons were primarily sailors from other lands, but a few hard-partying locals were still there enjoying themselves, and the tavern girls were enjoying everyone's money. The trio nonchalantly took up a table with a clear view of the door and window. It wasn't long before a tavern wench was there to take their orders.

"What can I get you boys?" she asked in surprisingly good English. Beaming with pride at their reaction, she added, "Consuela speaks fine English, no?"

"Yes, ye do!" said Briggs. "But how'd ye know we be English?"

"I have been in taverns since I was a little girl. Seen lots of men from everywhere. You are not haughty like the French," she turned her nose up and brushed the underside of it with her forefinger, "and you are not Dutch. They are too fat." Consuela smiled coquettishly at Briggs. "And Englishmen are so handsome."

Dolan and Rhys exchanged bemused looks, and Briggs began to blush. "Um, I think we'll all be havin' ale, if ye please," the quartermaster said sheepishly.

Consuela smiled and went off to fetch their drinks. Briggs looked back at his comrades who were still smiling at him.

"What the hell are ye grinnin' at?"

"I think Consuela likes you, Josiah!" Dolan said.

"Like?" said Rhys. "Painting the nursery is more like it."

"All right, have ye had yer fun?" Briggs groused.

Dolan chuckled. "Not even close!"

Rhys was quick to interject. "Josiah, this may be a valuable turn for us. She doesn't miss much. If you can get her talking, maybe she knows something that will help."

Briggs sighed heavily. "Well, she ain't much to look at..."

"When did you get particular?" asked Dolan. Briggs shot him a look and started to open his mouth.

"It's not like we're asking you to sleep with her," interrupted Rhys. "Fine, she's not a redhead, and she's seen better days. Just make her feel appreciated, chat her up a bit, use your charm..."

Dolan snorted.

"... and see if she has anything to say that can help us find Jack," Rhys finished.

"Aye, for Jack," Briggs agreed.

Consuela returned with mugs filled to the rim with ale. She deftly placed a mug in front of each man, smiling proudly when she finished.

"Look!" she announced, holding up her tray. "Not a drop spilled!"

The men gave her a brief round of applause, and Briggs slipped a few coins into her hand for payment. Her eyes grew wide when she say how much he'd given her. She quickly stuffed the money into a pocket in her apron, then leaned close to Briggs and whispered something in his ear.

He smiled back, and said, "Aye, I'd like that!"

Consuela went back to her rounds with an obvious spring in her step. Briggs sat there, looking pleased with himself.

"Well?" asked Dolan. "What did she say?"

"That she's done workin' in a little while, and wanted to know if I'd be interested in some food and talk." He straightened the lapels of his waistcoat. "She thinks I'm right handsome."

"Warms the heart, them employing the blind such," Dolan said to Rhys.

"Ignore him, Josiah," said Rhys quickly. "His mouth gets smarter than the rest of his head sometimes. But this is perfect! Hopefully she'll know something to set us in the right direction."

Briggs stared into his ale. "Or let us know we're too late."

Less than half an hour later, Briggs and Consuela were off in a quieter corner of the tavern talking away over a hot meal, Consuela doing most of the talking. Rhys and Dolan had something to eat as well, and Dolan secured a room at the tavern for them to stay in for the next few days. When Dolan came back to the table, he found Briggs and Consuela were still talking.

"Is the poor blighter getting a word in edgewise?" he asked Rhys.

Rhys studied the bottom of his nearly empty mug. "I've seen him nod at least half a dozen times, if that counts."

"I wish they'd hurry up! Either she knows something, or she doesn't."

"She knows plenty," announced Briggs as he took his seat at their table.

"Thank God," said Rhys. "We were afraid you were busy making wedding plans and forgot all about Jack."

Briggs gave him a sour look. "She's already married, not that she was gonna let such get in the way. But there ain't much goes on around here she don't know about. First off, she said a bunch of Mendoza's men were throwin' a lot of coin about less than two weeks after Jack went missin'. Said that Mendoza rewarded 'em for 'removin' a piratical thorn from his side'. They wouldn't give a name, but Consuela said once a couple of 'em got good and liquored up, damned if they didn't start howlin' like wolves, with the others tryin' to shut 'em up."

"So that confirms it. He's got Jack, just as we thought," said Dolan. "Too bad she doesn't know if he's alive."

"From what she says, Mendoza likes makin' a big display of his enemies he's beaten. Displays their heads on tall stakes outside the entrance to the fort that faces the main street here in town. There ain't been a fresh one in over six months. I take it to mean Jack's still alive."

"That's enough to keep my hopes up," said Rhys.

Dolan nodded. "For me, too. Now to find a way in there. I doubt Mendoza would be willing to let Jack have visitors."

"The only livin' souls any of the prisoners get to see other than Mendoza and his men are the monks from the abbey." Briggs leaned in toward the middle of the table. "Consuela says the abbot, a Brother Rodrigo, put the screws to Mendoza a while back for not allowin' prisoners care for their bodies and their souls. It took him a long time and a lot of playin' off that black-hearted devil's Catholic guilt, but he won. So once a week, the abbot and his boys are let in to try and patch up the ones they can, give last rites to them they can't, and preach the gospel to the rest. And they make sure the ones that butcher is through with get a proper Christian burial."

Rhys began to smile. "I take it Brother Rodrigo and Mendoza aren't exactly on the best of terms, then?"

"Mendoza would get rid of the monk if he could, but everybody in town loves him. And Rodrigo seems to enjoy bein' a pain in that pompous Spaniard's arse."

Now Dolan began to smile. "I think I've got a sudden urge to give confession, Rhys. How about you?"

Rhys grinned and lifted his mug. "I don't know about confession, but I do feel like making a friend with strong ties to the Church!"

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A quiet knock came on the door, breaking Brother Rodrigo's concentration from the holy tracts he was studying. He looked up to see Brother Alejandro standing in the doorway with a worried look on his face. Rodrigo thought nothing of if it, as Alejandro was usually worried about something. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment.

“Yes, Alejandro?” he asked, trying not to sound too impatient. The day had brought almost continual interruptions, and it was still morning.

“Your pardon, Brother Rodrigo. I'm sorry to take you from your studies. But there are three very unusual men here.”

“Surely you or another of the Order can assist them. What do they want?”

“You, Brother.”

Rodrigo blinked. “Me? Whatever for?”

“The will not say, except that you are the only one that can help them They say it is urgent.” Alejandro paused. “They are Englishmen. Sailors, by the way they dress.”

Rodrigo took a deep breath. “Where did you leave them?”

“They are in the courtyard, out of sight from the street. Should I send them away?”

Three English sailors, at the door of an abbey in the heart of a Spanish stronghold, seeking out a solitary monk. Could it be?

“No, there is no need. I'll see them.” Rodrigo marked his place in his bible and rose. “You did well by keeping them from prying eyes. But I must ask something of you before we talk to them.”

“What is that?”

“That you speak of it with no one, inside or outside of these walls, save me. The Colonel would use their very presence here against us, regardless of their purpose here.”

Alejandro nodded. “You have my solemn word.”

The two monks left the cell and walked down the long hallway to the main areas of the abbey. As they passed the cloister, where the monks came for meditation and reflection, they were stopped by another of their Order.

“Peace to you, Brother Rodrigo, Brother Alejandro,” he said with a nod.

“And peace to you, Brother Esteban,” said Rodrigo.

“You seem to be headed somewhere with a purpose,” Esteban commented.

“The Lord's work is always an urgent purpose, wouldn't you agree?” countered Rodrigo.

Esteban smiled at the gentle rebuke. “Yes, of course. Then I shan't detain you further. Peace, my brothers.”

He stepped aside to let the two pass. As they continued on to their way, Esteban's face clouded with suspicion. He waited until they rounded the corner, then began to follow them at a discrete distance.

“Perhaps I worry too much,” said Alejandro quietly, “But I find myself unable to fully trust Brother Esteban.”

Rodrigo clenched his jaw. “Our Brother Esteban is better suited to political pursuits than spiritual ones. If he devoted only a fraction of the effort he spends minding everyone else's business to the Holy scriptures, he'd make a fine monk.” He paused and smiled. “Forgive me. As you can tell, I don't trust him either.”

“I feel better knowing my misgivings are real.”

“Not to worry. He's meddlesome, but not bold. When he becomes that, then it's time to be concerned. Did these men give their names?”

“Only one did. Morgan, I'm sure he said.”

Rodrigo looked sidelong at the other monk. “Morgan, you say?”

“Yes. Is that important?”

He quickened their pace. “Perhaps, Alejandro. It may mean nothing. Or everything.”

They entered the small courtyard area to find the three men waiting more or less patiently. Just as Alejandro had said, they appeared to be sailors, rough-hewn and rugged, their clothes well worn though not shabby. There was a grim intensity to them that was almost palpable. One of them stepped forward, a young man with grey-green eyes that belonged to a man far older. Despite his age, he had the bearing of a leader.

“Brother Rodrigo?” he asked.

“I am. And you are Mister Morgan?”

Rhys smiled with relief. “Yes. Please, call me Rhys.”

Rodrigo's eyebrows went up at the name.

“... And these are my friends, Josiah Briggs and Johnny Dolan.”

“Please forgive my forwardness,” said Rodrigo, “but I am curious why three men, strangers to this place, would seek out a lowly monk as myself?”

“We learned about you from some of the people in town,” said Rhys. “We're hoping you can help us. It's very urgent...”

“A friend of ours is in bad trouble,” interrupted Briggs. “Can ye help, or not?”

Rodrigo took a deep breath and looked at the three men. He could see the desperation in their eyes. He knew what he had to do.

“Brother Alejandro, please tend to the gardens,” he said quickly.

The monk looked at him in confusion. “Brother, the gardens are--”

“In need of tending, brother. Please.”

Alejandro looked at the other men, then back to Rodrigo. “Of course, brother.” He quickly left the courtyard, leaving the four men alone.

“Please, follow me,” said the abbot. “There is a place where we can talk privately.”

He led them back toward the cloister, then off down another, shorter hallway to a fairly large room. It had a bed against the back wall and desk with chair against another, and large chest at the foot of the bed. Rodrigo quickly and quietly closed the door behind them.

“These quarters are for visiting abbots and priests,” he explained. “No one is using them, so we will not be disturbed.”

He turned to the men, looked up at the ceiling for a moment as he crossed himself, and swallowed hard.

“Your friend. His name is Jack Wolfe, yes?”

“Yes!” answered Briggs, a little too loudly.

“We knew he was here,” said Rhys. “What do you know about him?”

“He said you would come for him,” Rodrigo said, his voice full of wonder. “And, thanks be to la Santísima Madre, here you are! I only pray you have arrived in time.”

“He's still alive?” asked Dolan.

“Your friend is alive, yes. But he is weak, so very weak after the tortures that monster has put him through.”

“We're gettin' him out,” growled Briggs. “We're gettin' him, and if I can get my hands on that bastard Mendoza - beggin' yer pardon, brother - so help me...”

“Is there a way into Mendoza fortress, Brother?” asked Rhys. “A poorly guarded entrance, a low wall, tunnels, anything like that?”

Rodrigo shook his head. “No. Mendoza has men everywhere at all times. He is afraid of an uprising by the people. Every wall, every gate is well guarded.”

“We didn't come all this way for naught,” said Dolan. “We're leaving with Jack. There's got to be some way in. What if we create a diversion, and sneak in during the ruckus?”

“That gets us in, if it works at all. What about getting out?” asked Rhys. “You said Jack is in bad shape, Brother?”

Rodrigo nodded.

“Then I doubt he's up to much sneaking about, and we can't move quickly carrying him.” “You lot come and go from there on a regular basis,” Dolan said. “What if we hid on one of your carts?”

“Aye, that'd work!” said Briggs. “We hide in barrels or under tarps, and roll through the gates right under their noses!”

“I am afraid we walk in,” Rodrigo said sadly. “Mendoza allows us to carry medicines only. Everything else, bandages, water, bread, he provides. I convinced him it would be viewed as penance for his sins if he did that for us. I am so very sorry. I want to see your friend away from that prison as much as you do. He is a good soul, and cannot deserve what Mendoza has put him through.”

“First time I've heard anyone say that about Jack,” said Briggs.

“There is much good in him,” Rodrigo insisted. “Otherwise, why would he have three friends willing to risk their lives to save his? A truly wicked man would be forsaken. He is not.”

“He's got you there, Briggs,” said Dolan.

“All right, back to matters at hand,” Rhys said. “We'll contemplate the worth of Jack's soul after we've finished saving his hide. Now, Brother, you say you walk in. How many of you, usually?”

“Five, sometimes six or seven.”

“Is it always the same group of people? The same faces?”

“It is always myself and Brother Alejandro. The others take turns, so that all the brothers may help and minister to the tormented in time.”

Rhys crossed his arms as he thought. “Different monks, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Gentlemen,” said Rhys to his shipmates. “How do you feel about trading your boots for sandals?”

Dolan's eyes went wide, and Briggs began to laugh.

“Aye, now ye be thinkin' like Jack!” the quartermaster said.

Rodrigo shook his head. “I'm sorry, but your idea cannot work.”

“Why not?” asked Rhys.

“We are of the Dominican Order, Rhys.” Rodrigo brushed his cheeks. “Mister Briggs, you would not be believable as a monk.”

“Fine,” said Rhys. “He shaves.”

“Now, just a damned minute...” Briggs started.

“Two weeks, and you'll be brushy as ever, Josiah,” Rhys said. “Remember, it's for Jack.”

Briggs took a deep breath, and exhaled noisily. “All right, fine. For Jack.”

“But there is the matter of you, Rhys Morgan,” said Rodrigo.

“Me? What about me?”

Rodrigo ran his fingers through his close cropped hair. “You have hair like a woman. That will not do.”

Dolan laughed out loud. “He's got you there, pretty boy!”

“Remember, Rhys,” said Briggs. “It's for Jack. I shave, and ye cut yer locks. Or this plan of your'n will never work.”

Rhys sighed, remembering the feel of Rhiannon's delicate fingers running through his hair, gently tugging at it as they kissed...

“Fine,” he said. “I'll do it. We have to rescue Jack. And what are you smirking at, Dolan?”

Dolan took off his hat and ran his hand over his smooth scalp and clean chin. “I'm just happy I decided a while back to shave it all off! I'd hate to have to make the terrible fashion sacrifices you two are faced with.”

Rodrigo stepped forward and nodded his approval. “Then it is settled. Rhys, I do believe we can make your plan work, and we can get you to your friend. I understand now why Jack has spoken so highly of you. You as well, Mister Briggs. He said you have a heart as big as the oceans, and I believe him.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “We will enter the fortress the day after tomorrow. You will need to be here at dawn, if not earlier. A prayer must be given at the start of this enterprise if we are to succeed. And we will give you instruction on how to behave so that you may be believable monks. Together, we will save your friend.”

“Thank ye mightily, Brother,” said Briggs.

“We can't thank you enough,” added Rhys. “We know you didn't have to help us.”

“Diego Mendoza is a terrible, wicked man,” said Rodrigo. “If I can help stop him from taking but one life unnecessarily, then it is a triumph for God. If stopping him causes great upset for Mendoza, then it is a most glorious triumph.”

Briggs chuckled. “If there's one thing Jack's good at, it's causin' great upset!”

“Then may God smile on us, my friends. We shall serve Him well!” smiled Rodrigo.

Rodrigo showed the trio back to the courtyard gate.

“Day after tomorrow, at dawn, my friends. May the blessings of the Lord be upon us all,” he said quietly.

He shut the gate behind them and locked it. He paused to cross himself, then started back toward his cell. If this endeavour were to succeed, much prayer would be needed.

Rodrigo quickly walked down the pathway that skirted the cloister. As he entered the long hallway back to his cell, a figure emerged from the shadows near the courtyard arch. With narrowed eyes, Brother Esteban watched the abbot disappear into the hallway.

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Two days later, as planned, Rhys, Briggs, and Dolan were at the abbey. It was well before dawn when they ran the bell at the gate. Brother Alejandro was there to greet them and swiftly usher them in off the street. Wordlessly, they followed him to the visiting abbot's cell where their plot had been born. There they found Brother Rodrigo waiting. Rhys was immediately taken with how calm the abbot seemed, given the nature of what they were about to attempt. He himself felt wound tighter than the mainspring of a mechanical clock. The last time he could remember being so nervous was the first time he had been taken part in a boarding action as part of his uncle Henry's crew. At least the boarding had been straightforward: jump across to the enemy ship, weapons at the ready, and hurl yourself into battle. Try your best to stay alive and deprive the opposing fellow the opportunity of doing the same at your expense. If only this situation lent itself to such simplicity.

Brother Rodrigo warmly greeted each of the men.

“Rhys! It is so good to see you all!” he beamed. “The hair, it is much better now, no?”

Rhys ran his hand through his radically shorter hair. He hoped Rhiannon would understand. And not laugh too much. “Well, no,” he answered.

The abbot laughed. “It is small sacrifice God will reward greatly! Mister Dolan! You look rested and well?”

Dolan couldn't help but smile at the optimistically exuberant monk. It felt a bit like the commander reviewing his troops before a battle. And in many was, it was.

“Ready for anything, brother!” he said smartly.

“Good, good! Now, speaking of sacrifices...”

Josiah Briggs stood there looking like a little boy forced to wear his Sunday best on a day with fresh, sloppy mud puddles as far as the eye could see.

“Careful, Brother,” said Dolan. “He's a might testy since getting shorn.”

Brother Rodrigo smiled at the clean-shaven quartermaster. “Again, God rewards all sacrifices, no matter how small. See? You look ten years younger, Mister Briggs! A reward already realised.”

“I ye say so,” grumbled Briggs.

“In two weeks, you'll be getting back to your scruffy self,” Rhys said. “It's going to take much longer for me.”

Dolan rolled his eyes. “Will you ladies stow it? I've had to listen to this all night long. Let's worry about saving Jack now, and your vanity later, shall we?”

“Yes, we have much work to do,” said Rodrigo. He went to the trunk at the foot of the bed and retrieved three monk's habits and three pairs of sandals. He gave a set to each man.

“Here. Put these on. You may put these over your clothes if you so wish.”

The three men pulled off their boots and slipped their feet into the sandals.

“This'll take a bit of getting' used to,” Briggs said.

“Why?” asked Dolan. “They're shoes.”

“I been wearin' boots since I was a lad of ten.”

“Thank goodness. I half expected you to say you were born wearing boots.”

“Are they always like this?” Rodrigo asked Rhys.

“Oh, yes. Can you tell they're good friends?”

“I was afraid they were bitter enemies. What we are about to do is dangerous enough without any more complications.”

“I'll take care of it,” said Rhys. “Oi! You two, save the banter for later! You're worrying the good brother. Now, finish dressing. In quiet, if you please?”

Briggs and Dolan looked at Rhys like a couple of scolded children, and went about pulling on their monk's robes. Rodrigo helped them all make sure the layers laid correctly, then showed them how to properly tie the rope belt around their waists. He stood back and admired his temporary novitiates.

“What do ye think?” asked Briggs.

Rodrigo nodded approvingly. “You look like fine monks, ready to do God's work. Now, do any of you speak Espanol well?”

“I do,” said Rhys.

“Let me hear.”

Rhys took a deep breath, and began to recite the Lord's Prayer. “Padre nuestro que Estás en los cielos: santificado sea tu nombre. Venga tu reino, sea hecha tu voluntad, como en el cielo así también en la tierra... ”

Rodrigo held up his hand.

“How was that?”

“Very good. Except that you speak Spanish like an Englishman.”

“How do you say 'I fancy a pint and a meat pie with vinegar' in Spanish, Rhys?” Dolan snickered.

“Can you be serious for two minutes, damn it?” snipped Rhys. Normally he relied on Dolan's wisecracks to keep the mood light, but he found himself out of patience. Too much was at stake.

Dolan's face fell in the realisation he had made one joke too many. “Sorry, Rhys.”

“It is fine,” interrupted Rodrigo. “Do not worry. If the guards ask, I shall tell them that you are new novitiates and have taken a vow of silence to prove your devotion to God.”

“We appreciate everything ye're doin' for Jack, Brother,” said Briggs. “I mean, not just the robes and such, but all the... well....”

“The lies?” said Rodrigo. “If I tell a lie or two to prevent a murder, I believe God will find a way to forgive me. Diego Mendoza is an evil man. I cannot change him or stop him. But if I can frustrate him by prevent his committing an evil act, then I shall do it.” He took a deep breath, and a determined look came over him. “But enough about my soul. We have Jack Wolfe's life to save. Now, we have your clothes. You will need names. Rhys, I shall call you 'Reyes'. Mister Dolan, you will be called 'Juan'. And Mister Briggs, you shall be 'Isaias'. Please, remember these names. They mean life for your friend.”

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The three men nodded their understanding. Rodrigo spent the next several minutes acquainting them how to properly convey a blessing in silence with the rosary, and what kind of medical supplies they would be carrying in. Finally satisfied that he had prepared them as well as one could hope, they all went to the courtyard to meet up with Brother Alejandro. The monk was trying mightily not to pace in worry. He hated going inside the fortress, but this was far riskier than one of Rodrigo's displays of defiance to Mendoza's authority. If they were found out, Mendoza would surely kill them.

“Thank Heaven!” he said to Rodrigo as they entered to courtyard. “I was beginning to worry.”

“Alejandro, you always worry,” Rodrigo said with a reassuring smile. “These are the novitiates who will be with us today,” he continued with a wink. “Brothers Reyes, Juan, and Isaias.”

Alejandro smiled nervously. “Yes, of course. You've spoken very highly of them before.” He knew the importance of the charade starting before they left the abbey, in case any prying ears were nearby. But it only served to set him more on edge.

Rodrigo said a brief prayer, and motioned for Rhys, Briggs, and Dolan to pull up their hoods. He hoped it would be enough to disguise their English features.

“May God bless us and protect us,” he said quietly as he unlocked the gate.

They made their way through the streets, and Rhys couldn't help but notice the grim looks on the faces of the people as they passed. It seemed that everyone knew where they were headed and why. He found himself saying a silent prayer not only for Jack, but for them all. This had to be the craziest scheme he had ever been involved in. But Jack had a way of being at the centre of enterprises anyone else would think completely mad.

Finally, they arrived at the north gate of the fortress. Four imposing looking guards stood at their stations. One of them was a brawny fellow wearing a red shirt under his armour, and by his bearing he was the captain of the guard. He stepped forward as the monks approached, a cruel sneer on his face.

“If it's Thursday, it must be time for a visit from the merciful Brother Rodrigo and his friends!” he jeered.

“Yes, it is Thursday, Ernesto,” said Rodrigo. “And once again, I shall say a prayer for you. Now please, let us inside. No doubt your master has been busy again this week.”

“In time, brother, in time. Hello, Alejandro.” Two simple words, but the way he said them made the monk flinch.

“H-hello, Ernesto.”

“And who are these? A warm day, and they are wearing hoods?” Ernesto reached for Briggs' hood to pull it back.

“Ernesto!” barked Rodrigo. “Have you no shame? These brothers have taken a vow of silence. They cover their heads to demonstrate their devotion to God, just as you wear that uniform to show your devotion to your employer.”

Ernesto glared at the abbot, but his gazed faltered as guilt began to do its work. “You monks and your vows,” he grumbled. Finally he turned and went to the gate. “Open up!” he ordered loudly.

With a heavy thud, the thick wooden doors of the gate began to swing inward. Rodrigo smiled politely at the captain, then motioned for the monks to follow him inside.

They walked across a large, open area that was used primarily for Mendoza to conduct troop reviews when he was in the mood to play military man. Rodrigo and Alejandro led them toward a low stone building situated between two barracks. A single guard stood by the heavy metal door. Wordlessly, he unlocked it and swung it open as the monks approached. Rodrigo nodded in gratitude as they stepped inside.

The inside of the building was outfitted more as an armoury that a gaol, with muskets and swords lining the walls, ready to be quickly distributed. In the centre was a spiral staircase that led downward. Alejandro was the first one to the stairs, and the rest followed.

Rhys fought the urge to cough when the fetid stench first hit his nostrils. They were a little over halfway down the staircase, which seemed ridiculously long. The robes and sandals only served to slow their progress. It felt like they were truly descending into the Pit.

When they reached the bottom, they found themselves in the heart of what could only be described as a dungeon. Large cells of stone and iron bars, their floors strewn with filthy straw, went off in all directions. Rhys caught a glimpse of Briggs' face in the flickering torchlight. Never before had he seen the quartermaster so angry. Rhys put a hand on his friend's shoulder to let him know his feelings were shared. Now to find Jack, and try to find a way out.

“Brothers, come here.”

Rodrigo and Alejandro were standing further down the hallway. Alejandro's face was ashen as he looked into the cell. Dolan, Rhys, and Briggs quickly joined them.

“This is the man I told you of. The one was have tried so very hard to take care of.” Rodrigo leaned close to Rhys. “I'm sorry,” he whispered.

Rhys' heart sank as he looked into the cell. There lay Jack Wolfe, slumped against the wall, shackled like an animal. The man he had known to be so vital, so energetic, so irrepressible, stared back at him with sunken, vacant eyes.

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“Guard!” called Rodrigo. “Open the cell.”

One of the two guards very casually retrieved his keys and unlocked Jack's cell. Rodrigo shot him a withering look when the guard smiled with satisfaction at Jack's suffering. The abbot brushed past him, with Rhys right behind. Briggs and Dolan hovered outside in spite of their desire to rush in and help their fallen friend, or strangle the guards who stood by and did nothing.

Rodrigo and Rhys knelt at Jack's side. Rodrigo took Jack's hand, then brushed the matted hair away from his face. To their mutual relief, Jack blinked slowly. He was still alive.

“Muchas gracias, Dios,” Rodrigo said quietly. “Jack, can you hear me? It is Brother Rodrigo. Do you remember me?”

Jack's eyes shifted to the abbot's face, and a faint smile formed on his parched, cracked lips.

“Rod...rigo...” he whispered. “My... friend.”

“Yes, Jack, that's right. Very good. But you do not look so good, my friend. You were stronger only a week ago!”

“Lost... lost again at... dice...”

Rodrigo smiled at Rhys. “Even now, Brother Reyes, he makes jokes! Save your strength, please, Jack.” He looked up at Dolan and Briggs. “Bring us water, quickly!”

Briggs picked up a bucket that was half full of water and tasted it. The water was starting to go bad, but was still drinkable. Now was not the time to be picky. He quickly brought the water into the cell and gave it to Rhys, who wasted no time cupping water to Jack's mouth. Briggs wanted badly to say something – anything – to his friend and captain that might him hang on. But he knew that would be a death sentence to them all.

As Rhys helped Jack to drink, Rodrigo pulled a small vial from a pouch and mixed its contents with the water in Rhys' hand.

“Something for the pain,” he whispered. The abbot then got to his feet and left the cell.

“Alejandro, please go to Jack's side. I'm afraid his time may be near.”

Alenjandro took a deep breath and entered the cell. He knelt beside Jack and took from a pouch a small crucifix, which he placed on the pirate's chest.

Rodrigo went to one of the guards, his eyes full of fire.

“Where is your lord and master?” he demanded.

“Colonel Mendoza is busy--”

“I don't care! Bring him here! I want him here when yet another of his sins comes to fruition!”

The guard hesitated, then thought better of arguing and went to fetch Mendoza. He knew better than to anger the abbot any further. There was only one man who intimidated him as much or not more than the Colonel. And that was Brother Rodrigo.

“Hello, Jack. Do you remember me?” asked Alejandro.

“Brother Ale...jandro. The nervous one.”

“You're an observant man,” smiled Alejandro.

“Occupational hazard. Is this... it?”

“Only you and God have any idea.”

“So... so tired...”

Alejandro nodded, then made the sign of the cross with his right hand. He began reciting the last rites just loud enough for everyone to hear.

Rhys continued to give Jack water as Alejandro spoke, but Jack began to shake his head no. He leaned closer as Jack looked at him, and smiled as the light of realisation began to shine in his friend's eyes.

“Reyes?” he said in a rough whisper. A genuine smile brightened his face. “Reyes? Rhys! Why, it's Rhys Mor...”

Rhys' eyes went wide, and he help up his hand. Jack fell silent, but continued to smile.

“I'm glad I... got to see you... one last time.” He began to cough, and Rhys gave him another sip of water. “Are any... other 'brothers' here?”

Rhys nodded, and Jack looked up at the monk standing before him. The monk cocked his head just enough for some light to reach his face. Jack gave him a supremely puzzled look, and Briggs nodded in acknowledgement.

Jack looked back to Rhys and shook his head. “You damned fools,” he whispered. “You damned, wonderful fools... It's a good... good thing... you're not... real.”

Rhys grabbed his hand and squeezed it tight. He nodded vigorously to let Jack know he was indeed real.

“Just my luck... I hallucinate... and do I get a... blonde wench? No...”

Alejandro caught Rhys' eye and gave him a quick nod, and began to speak just a little louder.

Rhys leaned close. “Jack, it's me,” he whispered. “Rhys. I'm really here. So is Briggs and Dolan.”

“Then, I'm not... not dreaming?”

“No.”

Jack blinked a couple times and sighed. “Then you're all... crazier... than me... That's saying something.”

“Lay back and rest. We're going to get you out of here.”

“No coffins. I... hate pine.”

“No coffins, I promise.”

Jack smiled, but was overtaken with racking coughs. Alejandro paused and helped Rhys keep the weakened man from tipping over until the coughing subsided.

The sound of heavy boots with spurs could be heard descending the stairs into prison. Rodrigo looked away from Jack's cell into the face of the man he had come to regard as the earthly incarnation of Satan himself.

Colonel Diego Mendoza.

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“Ah, Brother Rodrigo!” Mendoza said gloatingly. “I understand there is something you want me to see?”

Rodrigo pointed at Jack's cell. “Your latest handiwork,” he spat. “Another life wasted, by your hand.”

Mendoza's face clouded with disappointment. “Oh, no. Did Wolfe die, and I wasn't here to see it?”

Rodrigo could barely contain his anger at Mendoza's flippant attitude. “No, Diego. Not yet. I did not bring you here to gloat. I brought you here to bear witness, in hope that you might, for once in your life, feel some remorse for the sins you commit!”

“Jack Wolfe committed crimes against me!” said Mendoza angrily. “I demand vengeance, and I shall have it!”

“No,” replied Rodrigo.

Mendoza's eyes flared with rage. “No? How dare you tell me no?!”

“Vengeance belongs to God, and God alone. You commit a sin in killing this man. You commit another by being prideful enough to think you may take that which belongs to God. Sin upon sin, Diego. When does it stop?”

“So help me, Brother Rodrigo...”

“What? What will you do? Silence me as well? Another sin? More blood on your hands?”

Mendoza knew what would happen if he murdered the abbot. The entire town would rise up against him, and the truth was he did not have sufficient forces to put down an insurrection. His garrison was a mere 125 men, not the 500 his propagandists had led the townspeople to believe.

“You try my patience, Brother,” he said icily. “I will not be judged by you.”

“I am but a messenger, Diego. I judge no one. Only God can. If my reminding you of God's laws and His word angers you, then it is you who is in the wrong.” Rodrigo knew he was on dangerous ground, but if there were to be any chance of rescuing Jack, Mendoza had to be driven to distraction.

“Would... would someone tell those two... to shut it, and... and let me die... in peace?” Jack rasped.

“You're not going to die,” whispered Rhys.

Jack smiled at his friend. “Always the optimist.” He leaned toward Rhys so he could whisper and still be heard over the argument raging outside the cell. “Get yourself... out of here. Stay alive... for that pretty girl... in Wales What's her name? Something... with lots of consonants...”

“Rhiannon. And you're gonna be at the wedding.”

“Oh no. I hate weddings. They scare me. Smell like... commitment.”

Jack was suddenly overcome with another coughing fit, this one worse than the last. When it was over, his eyes were wide, almost panicked. He looked at Rhys, then to Briggs. Josiah had never seen his friend's eyes so full of fear. Every breath was a struggle, and Jack Wolfe was losing.

“This is it, lads,” he wheezed. “Too tired... have to sleep...”

“Stay awake, Jack,” implored Alejandro. “You can't go to sleep. Not yet.”

Jack ignored the monk, and looked to his friends. “Fat lot of good you sods did. But thanks... for trying.” He blinked a few times, swallowed hard, and gave a short, coughing gasp. “Blimey...”

Briggs could only stare in stunned silence as his best friend's eyes slowly closed. Rhys felt Jack's hand gradually go limp. He looked at Alejandro, who's face was the picture of serenity and comfort.

“It's all right,” the monk said quietly. “You'll see.”

He said a quiet blessing and made the sign of the cross on Jack's forehead. He then rose and walked toward the cell door. When he reached Briggs' side, he paused and leaned close.

“Faith, brother. Faith.”

Briggs gave him a pained, confused look. A solitary tear ran down the gruff quartermaster's cheek.

Alejandro nodded, then went to the open cell door and cleared his throat. Rodrigo and Mendoza didn't hear over their own quarrelling. With uncharacteristic strength in his voice, he said, “Gentlemen!”

The two warring men stopped and looked at him with a mixture of annoyance and curiosity.

“Gentlemen,” Alejandro repeated calmly. “Jack Wolfe is dead.”

Dolan stepped to the bars of the cell and looked at his friends. Briggs was now at Jack's side as well. Rhys looked back at Dolan and shook his head.

Rodrigo sighed and crossed himself, and said a silent prayer.

A cruel, satisfied smile curled Mendoza's lips.

“Well, Brother Rodrigo. It would seem I win after all.”

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Mendoza's words were the last straw for Briggs. He had contained his anger and hatred for the Spaniard far longer than even he could believe. The quartermaster's face contorted into a mask of wordless rage. Enough was enough. Mendoza was going to pay for this latest crime with his life. He began to get to his feet when Rhys grabbed him by the arm. Josiah tried to pull free, but Rhys gave him a stern look and slowly shook his head. He understood the desire for revenge, but acting on it would only serve to get them all killed. One death today was already too much.

“And what is it you have won, Diego?” Rodrigo asked wearily.

Mendoza buffed the polished handle of his walking stick with his sleeve. “Honour is served.”

“You have a twisted definition of the word.”

“I would not expect you to understand, Brother Rodrigo. What is honour to a monk?”

“You are the one who doesn't understand, Diego. Honour is best served in mercy. Something you know nothing about.”

“This grows tiresome to me...”

“What is tiresome is your capacity for cruelty. Is there no remorse left in your heart? Not one shred of regret?”

“Oh, I have a regret,” said Mendoza. “I regret that Jack Wolfe was far weaker a man than the legends would have us believe. If only half of them were true, he would spring back to life before our eyes. But the invincible pirate was no more than a pathetic mortal.”

“As we all are,” Rodrigo reminded him. “Pathetic, flawed, and in need of forgiveness. Some more than others.”

Mendoza tried to pretend the abbot's words didn't bother him. “As per our agreement, Brother, you may remove the body. Preferably before the rats take an interest in it?” He nodded to the guard who had brought him. “Fetch the mule cart.”

The guard quickly departed to order up the narrow mule-driven cart Mendoza regularly loaned to the monks for the removal of his expired “guests”. It was common for the livery to have the mule hitched and ready when the monks came to visit, just in case.

Rodrigo shook his head in disgust. He then turned his attention to Alejandro.

“Brother Alejandro, attend the body, please.”

Alejandro nodded, and loosened what appeared to be a small bedroll from the small of his back. In fact, it was a shroud for carrying dead bodies from the prison. He gave one end to Rhys, and the other to Briggs.

“Lay it out flat on the ground, and lift him gently onto it,” he instructed.

Briggs looked at Rhys, still in a state of disbelief and shock. Rhys walked to Alejandro's side and spread his end out on the dirt floor. Briggs mechanically followed suit at his end. Without hesitation, Rhys went to Jack's body and hooked his hands under Jack's arms. Briggs hesitated, then took hold of Jack's boots at the ankle. Together they lifted him onto the shroud, and folded it over his prone form. Alejandro crossed himself, and gave them a sympathetic smile.

“Brothers, please lift him and follow me. Brother Juan, attend them.”

They lifted Jack's body and followed Alejandro out of the cell toward the stairway. As they passed Mendoza, the man's face grew concerned.

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“Wait!” he cried.

Rhys and Briggs froze, not knowing what to do.

“What is it now?” Rodrigo asked, his tone fully exasperated.

“I want to see the body.”

“You made this just a body. Why do you need to see it again?”

The truth was, Mendoza was a superstitious man. And many of the stories surrounding Jack Wolfe were built on common superstitions. And that worried Diego Mendoza.

“I want to see that he is indeed dead.”

Rodrigo sighed, and motioned to Rhys and Briggs to set Jack's body on the ground. Rodrigo pulled back the shroud from Jack's face.

“Look, Diego. Look into the face of death. The face you killed. Are you satisfied?”

Mendoza shook his head. In one motion, he pulled free a short, thin sword from his ornate cane and held it aloft.

“I shall be, once I am certain once and for all he is dead!”

Rodrigo did his best to interpose his body between Jack and Mendoza's blade.

“Diego Mendoza! You will not defile this body! You have done enough to cause this man's death. You will not mutilate him, not without killing me!”

Mendoza's eyes were wild, almost panicked. Slowly, he regained control and sheathed the sword.

“What assurance can you give me that he is indeed dead?”

“Brother Alejandro's word is not enough?”

Mendoza shook his head. “No. I require more.”

Rodrigo gritted his teeth. “Fine. Then I shall give it to you.”

He dug around in his pouch and produced a small metal mirror wrapped in cloth. He took the mirror and placed it under Jack's nose. If a person were alive, their respiration would produce fog on the mirror's surface. Rodrigo held it there a good thirty seconds, and the mirror never fogged.

“Are you satisfied now?” he demanded. “Jack Wolfe does not breathe. He is dead. By your hand.”

Mendoza took a long, hard look at Jack's body, his jaw visibly clenched. Without unclenching his jaw, he muttered, “Yes.”

Rodrigo motioned to Rhys to cover Jack's face and continue on. Rhys did so, and the small precession began ascending the staircase.

“I never thought I'd see this,” remarked Rodrigo.

Mendoza looked at him dismissively. “See what?”

“I never thought I would ever see you so afraid of another man, especially a dead one.”

“I don't know what you mean.”

“Jack Wolfe is dead. You saw to it. Yet that wasn't enough for you. You wanted to plunge a sword through his dead heart, just to make sure he wouldn't spring back to life like in the tavern stories you spoke of.”

Rodrigo cocked his head and smiled.

“Deigo Mendoza, afraid of a corpse. Jack Wolfe was indeed a greater man than you will ever be.”

Mendoza's eyes flared. “Get out. Get out, now! I will not tolerate this talk!” he raged, spittle flying from his mouth. “Never forget this, Brother Rodrigo! I am a great man! Do you hear me? A great man! I fear no one! No one!!”

Rodrigo smiled and gave a half bow.

“So you say, Diego. So you say. I take my leave of you.”

Rodrigo quickly ascended the staircase and left the makeshift armoury to find Jack's body loaded on the mule cart. Alejandro was already in the driver's seat.

“Make swift, brother,” said Rodrigo. “We have much to do.”

Alejandro nodded, and slapped the reins against the little mule's flanks. The mule gave a half-hearted buck and began to pull forward.

Rodrigo looked to Rhys, Briggs, and Dolan, and found bewildered faces.

“Come. Quickly. Our work has just begun.”

He turned and walked away quickly, and the three fell in line behind him. They followed the cart out of the main gates of the fortress. There was no way they could keep up with the trotting little mule, but they walked as quickly as humanly possible.

No,

Once they were two blocks away from the fortress, Briggs jogged caught up to Rodrigo.

“What in the hell, pardon my language, is goin' on? What work is left to do besides buryin' him?”

“You will see, soon enough,” said Rodrigo, never breaking stride.

“That's it? I'll see?”

“Yes, you will see.” Rodrigo looked over at Briggs. “And if you want to see your friend alive, you will be quiet and walk swiftly. There is not much time.”

Briggs' eyes went wide. Without another word, he fell back with Rhys and Dolan, and walked as fast as his sea legs would carry him.

“What did he say?” asked Dolan.

“Jack's alive, mates. So we'd best talk less and walk more!”

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Rodrigo led the three men to the back side of the abbey property. The cobblestones turned into a dirt trail, and they could see the fresh tracks of Alejandro's cart. They continued to walk quickly, not wanting to lose a single precious moment. Alejandro appeared at the gate. He opened it, urgently ushering them through, and locked it behind them. The nervous monk fell in behind the group, whispering prayers the entire time.

They reached the cart that carried Jack. The mule was content to stand and doze after the vigorous trot Alejandro had asked of it. Rodrigo crossed himself for the benefit of anyone who might be watching, then drew back the tarp that had served as Jack's shroud. Jack's features were still slack and seemingly lifeless. Briggs had seen him asleep or passed out plenty of times before, and his friend never looked like this.

“Are ye sure he's still alive?” whispered Briggs.

Rodrigo nodded, and proceeded to pinch Jack's nose closed. After a few long seconds, Jack's mouth opened as he involuntarily gulped a breath of air.

“We must get him inside,” said Rodrigo urgently.

“Ye ain't got to tell me twice!” said Briggs. “Dolan, grab his legs. Lively now!”

The two men pulled their unconscious friend from the cart and carried him between them as they followed Alejandro into the abbey.

Rhys walked alongside Rodrigo. He tried unsuccessfully to ignore the small graveyard off to one side, and the two freshly dug graves that gaped patiently skyward.

“We open one or two graves before we make our weekly call on Mendoza's prison,” said Rodrigo. “Then pray they will not be needed.”

“I can't tell you how glad I am they won't be,” Rhys said. “I'd call that lucky.”

“God chose to smile today. We can all be grateful for that.”

“And that we are. Your ingenuity saved Jack, and all of us. Brother, I must ask, what was that you put in his water? Something to drug him, to give the appearance of death?”

Rodrigo shook his head. “Your friend is close enough to death without such help. No, it was something much simpler. An extract from the roots of the valerian plant. The Indians here have a name for it that means 'all heal'. It eased his breathing, calmed him and helped him fall into a deep sleep, nothing more.”

“But, I don't understand,” said Rhys. “You held a mirror to his face. He wasn't breathing.”

“A parlour trick. Its surface was coated with lye soap and polished several times.” Rodrigo smiled. “Such a mirror will not haze from your breath.”

“Brilliant!” laughed Rys. “I'll have to remember that trick! I'm glad you were able to sell it so effectively. For a moment, it looked like Mendoza was going to make doubly sure.”

“Diego is a murderer and a coward, and carries the guilt that goes with it no matter what he pretends. That I can still reach it is all that matters. But enough of our little deception. The work of saving Jack has just begun.”

They hurried between side of the abbey that housed the monk's cloisters and an outbuilding containing the abbey's kitchen and bakery. They went through a heavy wooden door, and Rhys knew instantly where they were. It was the end of the hallway near the cell where they had dressed that morning. He and the abbot quickly slipped inside the cell and shut the door.

Jack was laid out on the bed, still unconscious. Alejandro was putting leaves and roots from a compartmented box into a stone bowl. He then ground them together with a pestle made of the same dark stone as the bowl, pausing to add water every now and again as he made a paste.

“He says it's medicine they learnt from the local Indians,” said Briggs.

Rhys looked at Rodrigo. “More herbs to help him rest?”

“No,” replied the abbot. “These are to give him strength and encourage his body to heal. We teach the Indians God's word, and they teach us new ways to heal. It is a good trade.”

They watched as Alejandro poured some wine into the bowl and create a thickened solution.

“The wine makes it taste better and will help dull his pain a little,” he said.

“Ye don't know Jack,” said Briggs. “It'll take more than that for him to notice it at all.”

Alejandro transferred some of the dark, pungent liquid to a cup.

“Lift his head.”

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Briggs propped Jack up, using one of the monk's robes as an additional pillow.

“Jack? Hey, Jack. It's me, Briggs,” the quartermaster said quietly. He gently patted his friend's face, trying to roust him from sleep. “Wake up, mate. Come on, that's it! That's a good lad!”

Jack's eyes fluttered, then slowly opened. He winced as he looked around, trying to get his eyes to focus. Finally his eyes rested on Briggs' face.

“Oh, no,” he mumbled, his mouth dry and tongue thick. “You dead, too?”

“No, and ye ain't dead neither, Jack. We got ye out of that stinkin' hell hole of Mendoza's.”

Jack frowned as he tried to understand. “Not... not dead?”

“No. A little worse for wear, but that be it.”

“Thirsty.”

“We got ye somethin' for that,” said Briggs.

He moved so that Alejandro could bring the cup to Jack's lips. Jack smiled a little in recognition at the monk, and opened his mouth. Alejandro poured some of the liquid into his mouth. He swallowed, and immediately began to choke and sputter.

“Gah!” he gasped. “Take me... back to Mendoza. He... was more... humane.”

“You must drink more,” urged Alejandro. “It will make you stronger.”

“Lucky for... you... I'm so weak.”

“Why is that, my friend?”

“You'd be the... first monk... I ever punched.”

“First get your strength back, then worry about someone to hit.” The monk brought the cup back up to Jack's mouth, and this time Jack was able to drink more of it. Though from the faces he made, the healing elixer tasted awful.

“Taste pretty bad there, ol' Jack?” asked Dolan.

“Tasted better dirt,” Jack replied. “Do I have... to drink more?”

“You must finish it all, as quickly as you can,” said Alejandro.

“Yeah,” said Jack. His eyes began to grow heavy. “You're definitely getting punched. When I'm not... so tired.”

“You need to stay awake a little longer and drink the medicine, Jack.” Alejandro smiled as he helped Jack drink some more. He was astonished at the pirate's irrepressibility. It gave him hope that Jack might just pull through.

A sharp, insistent knock came at the door.

The men looked to Rodrigo, who seemed just as surprised as any of them. The abbot held up his hand for them to remain silent as another set of raps sounded. He turned and opened the door just enough to reveal his face and nothing more. There in the hallway stood Brother Esteban.

“Was is it that you need, Brother Esteban?”

Esteban tried in vain to see around Rodrigo, but the taller abbot blocked his view entirely.

“I would speak with you, Brother Rodrigo,” he said curtly. Sweat beaded up on the monk's forehead.

“It will have to wait...”

“No! We will talk now!”

Rodrigo expression did not change, save to raise an eyebrow at the monk's agitation.

“Very well, Esteban. As you wish.”

The abbot opened the door and slipped through, quickly turning his back on Esteban to keep the monk's view of the room's interior. Rodrigo paused and locked eyes with Briggs. He gave a reassuring nod, and closed the door solidly.

“All right, you have my attention. What is it you want, Esteban? And why are you in such a state?”

“I will ask the questions, Brother,” Esteban snapped. “Not enough questions are asked around here, or of you. That changes today.”

“Is there a problem with your work assignments? Everyone contributes equally here, you know that.”

“The problem is the secrecy that surrounds you and the workings of this abbey. Something underhanded is going on here, and I want to know what it is!”

“Brother, you are overwrought. There is no secrecy here, I assure you. Perhaps your answers are better found through prayer than accusations.”

Esteban reached within his robe and produced an ornate flintlock pistol. With a shaking hand, he pointed its barrel at Rodrigo's chest.

“Esteban, do not be a fool. Put the weapon away.”

“Get away from the door, Rodrigo. I am going to find out for myself what is going on here.”

“What are you doing with a pistol, anyway? You know weapons are forbidden within these walls.”

Esteban gave him an oily smile. “A gift from a benefactor, who is also curious about what goes on here.”

“Diego Mendoza,” said Rodrigo, the contempt in his voice unhidden.

“He and I struck up something of a friendship a few months ago. If I provided him with information, he would be generous with his rewards. I have asked to meet with him again this afternoon, to tell him about the strangers I have seen you with.”

“Tell me, Esteban. What did Diego promise you for the betrayal of your brothers?”

“That I will be the next abbot, once you are gone. Which, I am certain, will be very soon.”

He waved the pistol to one side. “Step away, Rodrigo. I will not ask again.”

Rodrigo sighed in resignation, and moved away from the cell door. He kept his eyes locked with those of the treacherous monk.

Esteban pushed the door open and raised his pistol as he stepped inside. His eyes went wide at the sight of an Englishman standing near the foot of the bed, and Alejandro tending to another beaten, dishevelled Englishman. The Englishman that was Mendoza's prize prisoner!

“Alejandro! Get away from him!” he ordered.

Alejandro stood slowly, but kept himself between Esteban and Jack.

“Do it now!” said Esteban, his voice cracking with stress.

“Oi! What you doin', playin' with guns?” a strange, gruff voice said to his immediate left.

The monk turned and found a rough looking man with shaggy brown hair glaring at him. He raised the pistol quickly and started to pull the trigger in panic.

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Esteban felt a strong man's arm grab him from behind, forcing his gun arm up and away from the stranger with the gruff voice. But before he could struggle or cry out, he became aware of a sensation in his back that was cold and seared at the same time. It seemed to go all the way through his body, through his very heart. His legs felt like wet ropes, unable to support him any more. Someone was lowering him to the floor, and a terrible darkness came rushing in like the ocean...

“Oh, yeah. That's what dead looks like,” said Jack. “Don't worry, Josiah. You look much better than him...” With that, he drifted off to sleep again.

Dolan looked up at Rodrigo apologetically.

“I'm sorry, Brother. He came in here waving that gun, and he was gonna shoot Briggs...”

Rodrigo closed the door. He turned and looked down at Esteban's body, and crossed himself.

“Judas will not get his silver today. You did what you had to do, Mister Dolan. Esteban made many, many poor choices. One of which was getting word to Mendoza that you are here.” He turned to Rhys next. “I'm sorry, Rhys. But we will not have time to make your friend strong enough to travel. Mendoza will be here with his soldiers, and they will search this entire abbey. There is no place I can hide you and your men, or Jack, with any certainty.”

Rhys bit his lip. “No, I suppose we don't have a choice. If Mendoza thinks Jack is alive, he'll tear this place down brick by brick. Can we borrow the cart and mule?”

Rodrigo smiled. “It is not mine to lend. It belongs to Mendoza. And despite his iron-fisted ways, Rio de la Hacha is somewhat of a lawless town. One turns their back on an unattended bit of property, it may well disappear.”

“I do like the way you think, Brother! Briggs, Dolan, let's get Jack loaded on the cart again. Either of you know how to drive a mule?”

“Aye, me grandpappy was a coachman!” said Briggs. “Taught me the basics. And he told me some stories that'd--”

Rhys jerked a thumb towards the abbot.

“-- not be polite to repeat in present company, I'm thinkin'. Come on, Dolan. Let's get Sleepin' Beauty into his carriage.”

“Wait a moment!” said Rodrigo. “Please remove his boots and leave them here.”

“What? Them's Jack's favourite boots!” protested Briggs.

“We are a poor monastery, Mister Briggs. I can sell those boots to buy more medicines with which to help Mendoza's victims, and you know there will be more.”

Briggs thought about it for a moment. “It's a small price for all ye've done, Brother. It ain't like he can't get more.” He pulled off Jack's boots and left them on the trunk.

Dolan and Briggs lifted Jack carefully and carried him out of the room. Alejandro picked up a blanket and went with them to help, and to field any questions that might arise.

Rodrigo began silently packing up the medicine box.

“Brother Rodrigo, I want to thank you again for everything you've done to help Jack. I know you've put yourself at risk, and...”

“I would do it again, Rhys, to stop a life from being needlessly and cruelly taken.” Rodrigo closed up the medicine box and latched it. Then he picked it up and held it out for Rhys to take. “You will need this. I pray there will be enough to keep him alive until you make it back to your home port.”

“But, he seemed so much stronger with that little bit Alejandro gave him.”

“It was the first nutrition he has taken in a long time. His body will burn it up quickly. There are instructions in the box to tell you how to mix the herbs. Now, go. Take your friend back to your ship and get him home as soon as you can. Mendoza will be here any time now, and I do not want him to find you here.”

Rhys took the box and nodded. “We'll leave with the tide at first light tomorrow. Thank you, Brother. I wish there was something I could do for you in return.”

“Get your friend home alive, so he may bedevil Mendoza once more. That will be payment enough. Now, go with God, and quickly!”

Rhys smiled, and left the cell. Rodrigo looked down at the lifeless body of the traitor, Esteban, and shook his head.

“Your role is not played out yet, brother,” he said quietly.

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Rhys hustled out the door and jogged toward the cart. As he approached, he could hear Alejandro giving Briggs instructions.

“Yes, it is the same road the Indians had you skirt as you came into town. It is quite rough, but it will take you all the way to the bay in half an hour's time.”

“As long as it takes us where we're goin', I can handle it from there,” said Briggs confidently. He checked the mule's harness and bridle. After making a few quick adjustments, he patted the mule on the neck.

Jack was laid out in the back of the cart once again. The blanket had been put down as a palette for his comfort. Rhys secured the box of medicine in the cart, then took a step back to figure out their next steps.

“There's not enough room on the bench for all three of us,” he said with a sigh. “And Mendoza probably knows there are three of us, thanks to Esteban.”

“I know you, Rhys,” Dolan said. “There's an idea cooking up, I can tell.”

Rhys gave a wry smile. “We hide in the cart with Jack. It will be cramped, but there's no other way.”

“We're all one big happy crew,” laughed Dolan. “Not like we've never been shoulder to shoulder with mates before.”

“It's settled then. Briggs, are you and your steed ready?”

“Aye, as ready as we'll ever be. We lucked out, I reckon. This one's still pretty young. I think I can coax some speed out of him.”

Rhys turned back to Alejandro. “Thank you for everything, Brother. I wish we could repay your kindnesses.”

“Be safe. That will be payment enough.” The monk made the sign of the cross and said a short prayer for their protection. “Now, my friends. Farewell. Vaya con Dios.

Dolan and Rhys climbed into the cart and pulled the tarp over themselves. It was tight fit, but it would have to do. Briggs took his seat on the bench while Alejandro swung open the gate.

“Right, then!” he said as he took the slack out of the reins. “Let's see what ye got!”

He shook the reins and make two sharp clucking sounds. The mule flicked an ear, and did not move. Cursing under his breath, he looked around for a buggy whip, but found nothing.

“We ain't got time for this,” he grumbled. Remembering a trick his grandfather taught him, Briggs flicked the reins hard, causing them to slap the mule hard on the rump with a loud pop. The surprised mule gave a little buck and began to move forward.

“That got yer attention! Move yer lazy arse! Hyah!

The mule didn't seem interested in going any faster than a walk, so Briggs gave him another crack with the reins. That got the mule trotting. Briggs doffed his hat to Alejandro as they went through the gate and turned down the dirt lane.

As he quickly approached the main road, the mule began to slow down.

“Oh no, ye don't!” Briggs flicked the reins again, but this time the mule ignored him.

“Damn it all, what I wouldn't do for a whip right now....” He looked under the bench again, and found a half dozen stones, each a little smaller than a peach and fairly flat. He picked one up and hefted it, then tapped it loudly on the bench four times. Once they had made the turn onto the road, Briggs threw the rock hard and hit the mule squarely on the right side of his rump. To the quartermaster's satisfaction, the mule found the inspiration to start running.

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People on the street turned and looked when they heard the clatter of hooves and wagon wheels on the cobblestones. They saw the mule-drawn cart racing down the street, weaving around obstacles, the driver clearly unwilling to slow down. Pedestrians dodged out of harms way and took refuge in doorways and alleys. A shopkeeper shook his fist and shouted angrily, upset over a large table of casaba melons that had gotten side-swiped by the passing cart as it turned onto a crossing street.

Brother Alejandro had told Briggs where to take jog off the main street to avoid going past the fortress gates where there were sure to be armed guards. And Briggs new that if the mule caught sight of home, there would be no getting him to go past.

"Ye all right back there?" he called.

"Still here!" replied Dolan. "In spite of your crazy driving!"

"Think ye can do better, Mister Smart Mouth?"

"Best speed, Mister Briggs!" interrupted Rhys. "We'll hang on!"

"Aye, cap'n!" The quartermaster flicked the reins. "Shift, ye miserable son of a glue pot!"

They took another sharp corner, heading once again for the road out of town toward the bay. Briggs smiled, confident they were home free. The smile evaporated when he saw a patrol of four men emerge from the alley.

"Blimey," he muttered. "Hold tight and heads down! We got company!"

The soldiers reacted in surprise, and quickly formed a barrier across the street with their bodies. The head of the patrol, wearing a red shirt under his cuirass, held his hand up for the cart to stop.

Briggs clucked and flicked the reins, urging the mule on.

The leader said something to his men, and they raised their muskets.

The cart sped onward.

The leader raised his own musket and barked an order. His men adjusted their aim.

Briggs held his breath, but kept the mule running right at them.

The leader shouted another order. The crack of gunfire rang through the street.

One of the soldiers fell backward onto the cobblestones, his armour chestplate dented inward by the ball from a pistol. The others were momentarily distracted by their comrade's fall, and realised their chance to fire had passed. They dove to the sides of the street as the cart rumbled past them. One man got a shot off as Briggs slowed enough to turn onto the main road.

Briggs shielded his face as splinters erupted from the bench beside him. He laughed nervously with relief that the shot had gone wide, missing him, his friends, and the mule. This time the mule didn't need any encouragement to keep running.

"Nice shootin' back there, Dolan!"

"Nice shooting, my arse! I wanted the commander!"

"Ye did? Then yer shootin' stinks like usual!"

Dolan laughed as he pulled the tarp back into place over him once again. He looked over to Rhys, who was keeping a watchful eye on Jack.

"I can't believe he slept through all that."

Rhys shook his head. "He's still terribly weak. We'll need to get him back to Barbados as soon as possible."

Jack frowned in his sleep. His eyes were clenched, and he seemed to be muttering.

"I'm almost afraid to wonder what he could be dreaming about," Rhys continued.

"Briggs' driving, most likely. I know I'll be having nightmares over it!"

To call it a proper road was a stretch. In the early days of Rio del la Hacha, the small bay where El Lobo lay at anchor had served as the main port. Now that the town had its own port facility, the bay and the road leading to it had fallen into disuse, visited only by Indians, smugglers, and pirates. The jungle was already beginning to reclaim large portions of the road. Briggs tried to keep the wheels in the ruts, doing his best to avoid where it had eroded or collapsed. The cobblestone streets of town seemed glassy smooth in comparison. He let the mule slow a bit, not wanting the animal to stumble or injure a leg. The mule, however, took Briggs' leniency as a signal to stop.

"Oh, no ye don't!" He reached under the bench and retrieved another rock. As before, he tapped it loudly on the bench four times.

The mule's ears went up in alarm, and it lunged forward, practically knocking Briggs off his bench. He was quickly able to get the mule under control, but kept him at a trot this time.

When the mule jumped forward, the cart was jerked so hard that all three men in back could not avoid hitting their heads against the front end of the cart.

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“Ow!” cried Jack. He opened his eyes and looked around. “What the... where the hell am I? And what the hell am I doing under a sheet with the lot of you?”

“It's not a sheet, Jack, it's a tarp,” Rhys explained. “You're in the back of a cart headed out of Rio de la Hacha, back to the ship. We're rescuing you!”

The cart hit another washed out section with bone-jarring force.

“Did it occur to anyone to take an actual road?”

“This is a road, Jack!” Briggs replied. “Or what passes for one in these parts! Glad you're back with us!”

“Only if we survive this wagon ride!” Jack's head rebounded off the bed of the cart as they hit another collapsed bit of road. “Ouch! Damn it! And what's that stench? Casaba melons? I hate those things!”

“Easy, Jack,” said Rhys. “The medicine has you overstimulated. You have to save your strength.”

The cart shook with bone-jarring violence, as if they were rolling across a giant washboard.

“I think I chipped a tooth! Damn it, I did! Worst rescue EVER!!” Jack bellowed.

“Anything in that box to knock him back out? 'Cause I'm about to!” yelled Briggs.

“Wait, wait,” said Jack. “The monks... where's Mendoza? I was dead! Oh God, my head is fuzzy.”

“You've been in and out of consciousness all day,” Rhys explained. “The monks tricked Mendoza into thinking you were dead.”

“They had me fooled, too. Hearing someone giving you last rights isn't a pleasant experience. I like Latin, but... at a distance.”

“Had us all fooled, you did,” said Dolan. “You make a pretty convincing stiff.”

Rhys continued on. “We pulled you out of that hell hole of his and got you back to the abbey, where the monks gave you some medicine. But brother Rodrigo tells me that your body will use it up quickly, which is why you need to be still and rest.”

Jack closed his eyes. “Too bad there's not more of it. I feel as wretched as this road rides. Wretched and tired. All Billingsly knows how to do is bandage up what he's cut off. Gives a good shave, though,” he said as he rubbed his face. “I'm overdue.”

“Don't you worry,” said Dolan. “The brothers packed us off with plenty more, eh, Rhys? You'll be right as rain, just you watch!”

Rhys remembered Rodrigo's words. “I pray there will be enough to keep him alive until you make it back to your home port.” But now was not the time for truth. Jack had been through enough. What he needed now was hope.

“Plenty more, Jack,” said Rhys. “You're going to be just fine with a little food and rest. That's a promise.”

The road mercifully smoothed out as they reached the bay. Briggs pulled the cart to a stop well in sight of the ship. He stood and waved his hat in the air, and he could see someone on the quarterdeck wave back. He then made an exaggerated beckoning motion, indicating that they needed a boat, and quickly. When the crewman waved again, Briggs jumped down from the bench and went to see if he could be of help with Jack.

“He's asleep again,” said Rhys. “That last bit of smooth road lulled him right out.”

Briggs nodded, his face clouded with concern. “I signalled for a boat. They oughta have one over double quick. If not, I'll find out why.”

“Spoken like a true quartermaster. Dolan, you and Briggs fold the tarp up so we can use it as a litter when the boat arrives. I'm going to have a look at this medicine chest.”

Briggs and Dolan set about their task while Rhys opened large wooden box Brother Rodrigo had given him.

Inside where several linen bags, each filled with dried leaves or roots. Each one was labelled in Latin. There was a stone mortar and pestle, and to his relief a folded piece of paper with instructions how to make the medicine for Jack and how often he should be given it. He knew the responsibility would fall to himself, Briggs, and Dolan to care for Jack. The ship's barber-surgeon, Jonas Billingsly, was handier with a rum bottle and saw than he was the finer points of the healing arts.

Rhys looked at the ship, wishing it was the Neptune Rising instead of El Lobo. Then setting foot aboard her would mean not returning to Barbados, but to Wales, and his beloved Rhiannon.

“I hope you can forgive me, my love,” he said softly. “I'm sorry, but I have to see this through. I'll make it up to you. I promise.”

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His reverie was broken when he saw the longboat appear from around the far side of the ship and head toward shore. He sighed deeply and closed the medicine box.

“The boat is on the way, lads,” Rhys said, trying to sound upbeat. “It should be here in a couple minutes.”

“Hmph,” grunted Briggs. “It'll be a damned sight sooner, I think!”

He went toward the beach, waving his arms and shouting. “Oi! Shift it! The captain's hurt! Faster, ye gobs!”

He watched for a moment, and gave a satisfied nod when he saw the tempo of the boat crew's rowing pick up. He turned around, and saw the mule staring back at him, still breathing heavily from all the running.

“Aw, don't give me that look,” Briggs said as he went to the mule's side and patted its neck. “I know ye ain't used to that much work, but it was for a good reason. And ye did good. I wish I had a carrot for ye, or some cane sugar. Ye earned it, that's for sure.”

Briggs took off the mule's bridle, and had just started to remove the harness when he heard the boat beach behind him.

“Well, it's about time ye showed up!” He took a few steps toward the men. “Captain's in the back of the cart. He's hurt real bad, so be careful of him! Take him over now and get him aboard, then come back for us. No dawdlin'! Off with ye!”

The men went to Jack, and lifted him out of the cart using the tarp as a stretcher. Swiftly but gently, they got him into the boat and started back to the ship. Briggs looked on as they rowed away.

“YEOUCH!!!” he yelled, and grabbed his backside. He turned quickly, and found that the mule had stepped up behind him and registered his opinion of all the work Briggs had made him do. As Briggs rubbed his injured behind, Rhys and Dolan stood to the side, doubled over in laughter.

“Why didn't ye tell me he was makin' a sneak attack?” he complained.

Dolan tried to catch his breath. “We figured he was trying to settle the score! I pity the next person handling him when he hears four knocks!”

Briggs tried to stay upset, but the laughter was too infectious. He burst out in laughter himself, and rubbed the mule's forehead.

“We'll call it a draw, you and me,” he chuckled. He unfastened the mule's harness, and the animal took a few steps forward and looked at him.

“Aw, now don't go thinkin' ye got a new home! Shoo! Off with ye!”

The mule took a few reluctant steps toward the road, and looked back.

“Sweet Mother Mary, he thinks I'm his new best friend. Shoo! Go!”

Briggs ran at the mule, shuffling his feet in the rocks and clapping his hands. The mule trotted a couple steps, but came to a stop and looked back again.

“That does it,” said Briggs. He picked up a rock and knocked it again the side of the cart once, twice, three times....

On the fourth knock, the mule brayed in alarm and began trotting down the road. Briggs smiled to himself in satisfaction.

“Poor fellow,” said Dolan. “A shame he has to go. He finally met his equal in you.”

Briggs smiled proudly, but quickly realised he'd just been insulted.

“Why, I oughta...” he started.

“Save it, lads,” said Rhys. “Here comes the boat. Finish when we're back aboard. I'm sure the men will enjoy the distraction.”

Once back aboard El Lobo, Rhys made sure Jack was carried below to the surgery. He was still asleep, but fitfully. Rhys could feel warmth in Jack's forehead. A fever was setting in. It would be a long trip home.

Rhys went to the quarterdeck to find out what had transpired aboard while he was away. A man named Riley had the watch.

“So, what happened to our Indian friends? I thought they were supposed to be at the ready to provide a distraction.”

Riley shook his head. “They pulled a fast one, they did. Said you promised them half the liquor up front. We delivered, and the next thing we knew they were paddling back out to open water, laughing their fool arses off!”

Rhys sighed. “Then let's hope the good brothers bought us enough time to get away. Make the ship ready. We sail tomorrow morning with the tide.”

A loud knock came at the door to the great cabin. Rhys was startled awake. It was early in the morning, and he had just fallen asleep after tending to a feverish Jack.

“What?!” he said sharply.

The door opened, and Briggs stepped inside.

“Don't you ever sleep?” Rhys asked testily.

“Not near as much as I'd like to,” Briggs replied. “I hate to bother ye, but we've got a bit of a situation topside.”

Rhys rubbed his eyes. “God, what now?”

“Visitors.”

Rhys strode onto the weather deck a pace behind Briggs. He hadn't bothered to put on a shirt, so he pulled a frock coat around him to ward off the cool night air.

“There, on the shore,” said Briggs.

Two men stood on the beach. One was waving a lantern. Beside them were what looked to be two oversized duffel bags.

“A glass, and quick,” he ordered. A crewman brought him the spyglass from the quarterdeck. He looked through it for a moment, and snapped it shut.

“Send the boat and bring them aboard now. No questions,” he said urgently.

“Who is it?” asked Briggs.

Rhys stared out at the two figures on the beach. “Rodrigo and Alejandro. Bring them to the cabin once they're aboard.”

He picked up a lantern and waved it in response. The lantern on shore waved again, then was extinguished. Without another word, he left to make himself presentable for their guests.

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“Right this way, brothers,” said Briggs as he ushered the two monks into the ship's great cabin. Alejandro was his usual nervous self. Rodrigo, on the other hand, simply looked tired.

Rhys had the large wooden table cleared off save for a decanter of wine. With a smile, he stood and motioned for them to sit down. Briggs took his customary seat at the end of the table to Rhys' left.

“Please, make yourselves comfortable.” Rhys waited for them to be seated. “May I pour you both some wine?”

Rodrigo smiled wearily. “Normally we would only take wine as part of the Sacraments, but after the events of today, I believe I shall accept your offer.”

Rhys began pouring. “For you, Brother Alejandro?”

“Yes, please,” the monk said quietly.

“So, what brings you aboard? I have an idea, but I'd rather hear it from you.”

Rodrigo took a large sip of wine, and he began to visibly relax as he savoured it's taste. “It was made abundantly clear to us that our lives are no longer protected by our positions in the Church.”

“From Mendoza?” Rhys asked.

“Who else? He arrived at the abbey two hours after you left us, with a dozen of his soldiers. One of the brothers tried to stall them, but they threatened to tear the place apart unless Diego was taken to me immediately.” Rodrigo paused for another sip of wine. “So they brought him to where Alejandro and I were. In the graveyard.”

“For Esteban?” Briggs asked.

Rodrigo nodded his head. “Diego demanded that I turn over the three Englishmen Esteban had told him about, as well as Jack's body. I told him I could do no such thing, as there were no Englishmen at the abbey to give him. Of course, he demanded to see Brother Esteban as well. I told him Esteban had left the abbey earlier in the day to buy leather for sandals.”

“But, how did ye get around him askin' for Jack's body?” said Briggs.

A self-satisfied smile graced Rodrigo's lips. “Diego believed that we were in the midst of burying Jack.”

“I'm afraid I don't follow,” said Rhys.

“We were indeed burying a body. Esteban's. Alejandro and I had begun filling in the grave when Diego arrived. As per custom, the head is covered with dirt first, then downward to the feet. Before he could demand proof, I pulled the shroud from around Esteban's feet...”

Briggs began to laugh. “And lo and behold, there be Jack's boots! Ye weren't goin' to sell 'em, ye used 'em to buy time!”

“Time was the most precious commodity we have, and the boots bought us all a great deal. But not an infinite supply. Diego was already angry about his cart being stolen, which he had heard about from one of his patrols. When tomorrow comes and Brother Esteban is not there to give him the information he promised... It was clear our time in Rio del la Hacha was at an end.”

“What can we do for you both, Brother?” asked Rhys. “Just ask.”

Rodrigo finished his wine. He looked at Alejandro, who was still toying with his cup. “We ask passage to Barbados with you. But we have no money with which to pay, so we offer our services in caring for Jack on the journey there.”

“Done!” said Briggs and Rhys, almost in unison.

“Mister Briggs will find quarters for you,” Rhys went on to say. “I'll not ask you to bed down with the crew.”

“If possible, may we be close to Jack, that we may keep a close watch on him?” asked Alejandro.

“Aye, that should be easy enough,” said Briggs. “We set ye up in the surgery. There be empty bunks for ye both, and Billingsly don't make much noise unless he's snorin'.”

“We do not wish to impose,” said Rodrigo.

“Nonsense,” Rhys said. “You're honoured guests aboard this vessel. It's the least we can do after all the help you've given us.”

“Thank you, Rhys and Josiah,” Rodrigo said. “Your kindness is indeed a blessing.”

“As is yours, brother. Briggs, would you kindly show our guests to the surgery? We sail in a few hours, and I think we can all use our rest.”

As the first rays of light broke over the hills outside Rio de la Hacha, the upper sails of El Lobo del Mar were unfurled to catch the morning breeze coming off the land. Slowly she eased forward out of the bay and into the open waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Rhys Morgan watched the sunrise from the quarterdeck, and said a silent prayer for their journey home to be a swift and uninterrupted one. Rodrigo had assured him that Jack's fever was controllable between the Indian's herbs and the limited medicines in the surgery, but by no means was Jack in the clear.

“Ten days to Barbados,” said Briggs. The relief of being back at sea was evident in the quartermaster's voice.

Rhys tapped his knuckles on the gunwale. “Pass word to the men. Bonus money if they get us home in 8 days.”

“Are ye daft? We ain't got that kind of money layin' about!”

“You let me worry about that, Josiah. Just get the word around, please?”

“Aye,” Briggs sighed. “I sure hope ye know what ye're doin'.”

“We'll find out in eight days,” smiled Rhys. “Full sails as soon as we're free and clear, Mister Briggs!”

Briggs gave him a small salute. “Full sails, aye!”

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Beaumaris, Wales

"Come on, Muir--let's go check."

The wolf-dog raised his head and gave what passed for a sigh. He trotted off to the docks with his mistress.

Rhiannon scanned the port, then to the horizon. No sign of the sails she longed to see. She tried to keep the tears that welled in her eyes from spilling over.

'Two months now. He promised, Muir....he promised."

Muir put his muzzle in Rhiannon's hand. She pet her faithful companions head, then hugged his neck.

'Why, Muir? Why is he not here?'

She felt a hand on her shoulder. Turning quickly, she came face to face with one of the novitiates.

"Mary Agnes."

"Come with me, Rhiannon. Mother Superior wants to see you on a matter of grave importance."

"What now?"

"I have no idea."

"Oh, bother! I forgot to make the beds."

Rhiannon stood in front of the Mother Superior.

"Your dog stays out of the office."

She lifted her head in defiance.

"Muir stays with me."

Mother Superior drew her mouth into a tight line.

"Very well. How long has it been going on?"

"How long has WHAT been going on?"

"You and...that man."

Rhiannon felt her heart sink.

"What--what do you mean?"

Mother Superior stood up, her face a mask of contorted rage.

"You have been meeting that man. Often and in a most unseemly manner."

Rhiannon's mind raced. How? How did Mother Superior find out?

She drew up her courage. "I don't know what you are talking about," she said haughtily.

Mother Superior took her switch and smacked it so hard on her desk that it broke in two.

"Do NOT add lying to your sins, Rhiannon."

At this point, Rhiannon knew she had been found out so she mounted her counterattack.

"So I was seen talking to a man. That doesn't mean anything. I have talked with lots of sailors. I find them alot more fascinating than burying my nose in a hymn book and wailing a dirge like the Benedictine monks. If talking to colourful and interesting people is a sin, then yes, I am guilty."

The nun's face twisted in rage. "You have been found out, Miss Conaway. Someone finally came forward. Her conscience bothered her and she confessed what she saw to a priest."

Rhiannon couldn't believe what she was hearing. Not so much that she had been confessed to a priest but the fact that a priest violated the sanctity of confession.

"The priest felt it was his duty to tell me to save your immortal soul. Little did he know the problems I have had to endure because of you. Your father has been generous to us as our benefactor. But it seems your time has run out. I am sending you back to your father."

"You-you're sending me away?"

"He can deal with you and your sinful ways."

"Sinful ways. If talking to a few sailors is a sinful way, then yes, I am guilty of that."

Mother Superior took great delight in her next words.

"Your sinful ways consist of more than chatting. More like pleasures of the flesh. Oh, yes! You were seen coming out of a cave with a--a pirate! The person who observed you on more than one occasion had seen you come out arm-in-arm with a man who is renowned in these parts as a pirate who uses the cliffs and caves for his smuggling operation. The last time you trysted in there, you left behind a blanket and a candle. It wasn't hard to deduce what had been going on in that cave!"

Rhiannon was beginning to see there was no defense. She was being sent back to Lord Conaway. Her head bent down in defeat and her shoulders sagged.

The Mother Superior then went in for the kill.

"You have been looking more pale every day and losing weight. You are not with child, are you?"

At that Rhiannon snapped back to reality.

"With child? No, I am not with child. I almost wish I was! I'd have someone to love me. And you'd best hear it from me, Mother Superior! I would raise that child in love and not with alot of detestable and harsh rules--or with beatings. And my child would be the child of the most feared and awesome pirate in Wales---in the world!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

That day, Rhiannon Conaway packed her meager belongings. She carefully folded the yellow dress that she wore the first day she and Rhys had made love. Muir stood beside her, his tail wagging. Almost as if he knew they were breaking free from the chains of the Order of St Brigid.

Mother Superior had arranged for a carriage to transport them back to Lord Conaway.

As Rhiannon walked down the hall, the nuns and novitiates were lined up. She looked each one of them straight in the eyes.

Each one met her gaze. Some with pity, some with compassion. One or two with a faint amusement.

And one who stood with her eyes cast down.

Mary Agnes.

The novitiate.

Mother Superior stood at the door. Stiffly she said, "God be with you."

Rhiannon replied, 'Whatever."

"Your carriage is waiting."

Rhiannon said, "I would like to say goodbye to Cedric if you don't mind. It will only take a few minutes. You can grant me that one favor, can you not? I mean, since you made so much money by my being here...."

Steely, the Mother Superior said, "Alright. Ten minutes. No more."

Rhiannon nodded silently.

As Muir trotted beside her, she said softly to him, 'Don't question, Muir. Just stay with me. I know what I am doing.'

She went to the side door of the stable and opened it up.

There stood one of the horses of the Order of St Brigid.

A white stallion by the name of Taliesin.

Muir started to bark.

"Hush, Muir! The way I understand it was Father gave alot of money to the Order to keep me here. So, in a sense, I think this horse belongs to the Conaways."

She quietly bridled Taliesin. He was a stallion seventeen hands high.

She took Muir and hoisted him over the crossbars of the stall so his feet were dangling over each side. He whimpered as he hung there.

"Quiet, Muir. It is just for a minute."

Throwing her bag over the back of the horse, she climbed the crossbars and jumped expertly onto Taliesin's back. Reaching over, she scooped up her wolfdog into her waiting arms.

She whispered, 'Think you are going to send me home in a rented conveyance like some Scottish woman? Think again, you old battle-ax! Lady Rhiannon Conaway will go home in her OWN way."

She touched Taliesin's neck and whispered, 'Off to the meadows, Taliesin. I heard the hay is good and that pretty little mare is usually out there.'

He whinnied and tossed his head, walking briskly towards the door. She murmured, 'Just like a man to trot off if there is a good bedding to be had....'

As the horse cleared the door, she kicked him hard in the flanks. Taliesin leaped and galloped across the meadow.

Towards Rhiannon's childhood home.

For all six years of her life.

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Caribbean Sea, near the Grenadines

Rhys heard a tentative knock at the cabin door. He was plotting the ship's latest position, attempting to determine just how far away they were from their destination of Barbados. With a sigh, he put his instruments down and took a sip of brandy.

"Come," he announced.

The door slowly opened, and Brother Rodrigo stuck his head into the cabin.

"I hope I am not disturbing you," the abbot said.

"No, not at all, Brother! Please, do come in." Rhys picked up his measuring rule again as Rodrigo closed the cabin door and took a seat across from El Lobo's acting captain. "I was double-checking our position. I have to say that I'm quite proud of the crew! They're going to earn that incentive money I promised at this rate."

"You have a fine crew, Rhys. They have been most respectful of us. Not at all like what I had been told about life aboard English ships. Certainly not what I expected on a pirate ship."

Rhys smiled. "You'll find this is no ordinary pirate ship."

"Of course it is not! She is as unusual as her master."

"Yes, well... Jack is, to say the least, unique."

"I can see that from the fierce loyalty he inspires in his friends." Rodrigo shifted in his seat. "Josiah told me of your sacrifice to lead Jack's rescue."

"Not a sacrifice," sighed Rhys. "Just a delay. The moment I'm sure Jack will recover fully, I'll be bound for Wales as fast as my ship will take me."

"She must be extraordinary."

"She's fast and hearty, worthy of my last ounce of pride. I inherited her from my uncle when he retired to a life on dry land."

Rodrigo chuckled. "I was referring to the reason you want to get back to Wales so urgently, Rhys."

"You... OH!" Rhys felt his face grow hot. "Yes, extraordinary is a good word for Rhiannon. It feels like I've been away from her for an eternity. I would have been back already, if Jack hadn't gotten himself kidnapped."

Rodrigo nodded, choosing to ignore the bitter notes in Rhys' voice. Rhys was a man in love and a man delayed. Some resentment was natural.

"Speaking of Jack... how long before we make port?"

Rhys made a measurement and checked the number against some others he had jotted down earlier.

"By this, just under two days. The crew have done a fine job! I asked them for eight days instead of ten, and that's what they're giving me."

"I see," Rodrigo said grimly.

"I don't like the sound of that," said Rhys. "What's the matter?"

"We have run out of the medicine to treat Jack. Our attempts to fight his fever caused us to use it up too quickly."

Rhys exhaled slowly. "Damn."

Rodrigo nodded in agreement. "Alejandro and I shall do what we can, but he will need a doctor's care immediately once we reach land."

Rhys slapped the ruler down on the table in frustration. "There's no more speed to be had. The masts are already at the breaking point as it is."

"Then it is is God's hands."

"I pray He's in a charitable mood."

"He is always charitable, Rhys," said Rodrigo. "But like any charitable father, sometimes He says no."

The next two days passed slowly, even as El Lobo sliced through the sea, her masts and hull groaning in protest. Briggs had the ship's cooper adapt some of the metal bands used to reinforce barrels to serve the same purpose for the masts. Jack's fever returned just as the monks feared, quickly driving him into delirium. Rodrigo and Alejandro tended to him with diligence and patience in spite of his ravings. Billingsly, the barber-surgeon, insisted on bleeding Jack to "correct an obvious imbalance of the humours" and bring down the fever. The monks vehemently opposed this, going so far as to wait until Billingsly passed out once again from too much liquor and stealing his keys to the surgery. He awoke to find himself deposited on the main deck, locked out of his own domain. His complaints to Rhys fell on deaf ears, and he resigned himself to finishing out the trip bunked with the rest of the crew on the gun deck.

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Finally, El Lobo reached home. She charged into the harbour at Bridgetown late at night, blazing lanterns hanging from the yards, bowsprit, and gunwales. They did not wait for a pilot to guide them in safely. Instead, Briggs brought them in as close to shore as he dared and dropped anchor. Even before the anchor cable had been drawn taught, the ship's longboat was being lowered over the side. Inside it, bundled in blankets for warmth and restraint, was Jack, with Rodrigo and Alejandro at his side. No sooner was the boat in the water than Rhys, Briggs, and Dolan clambered down the ship's side and began rowing for all they were worth.

"I still don't know where you expect to find a physician in the middle of the night," said Dolan.

"Neither do I," said Rhys grimly.

"That's why we're goin' to see somebody what knows every doctor in Bridgetown," Briggs said.

"And they won't shoot us for coming round at this ungodly hour?" asked Dolan.

Briggs chuckled. "Not this someone."

"All right, all right! Hold your horses, damn it!" the woman shouted at the pounding coming from the back door. She walked as quickly as she could, the jade green fabric of her skirts rustling loudly as she did. "Stupid drunken tars, banging at the wrong door again! It won't get you served any faster, I'll see to that!"

She angrily flung the door open and drew a deep breath to start her normal tirade about which entrance was the proper one for patrons to use at her establishment.

"Listen up, you silly-arsed--- RHYS!"

She threw her arms around his neck and gave him a hug. But her mood quickly changed when she looked behind him to see Briggs and Dolan carrying an unconscious Jack. Behind them stood two very uncomfortable looking monks.

"Oh, sweet weeping Jesus..." She held up her hand quickly. "Begging your pardon, brothers. What did he get himself into this time?"

"Sorry to show up on your doorstep like this, Renee," said Rhys. "But he needs a doctor, and a good one, straight away."

"I can see that. You did right by bringing him here. Well, don't just stand there, get him out of this night air!" said Renee. "Take him up the stairs, first room on the left. Nobody's using it, and the linens are fresh. I'll not have him on my parlour couch smelling that that! He'll scare off the clientèle!"

"You're all heart, Renee!" teased Briggs as he passed her.

Renee's red curls danced as she laughed. "And it's solid gold from what they say!"

A few curious faces peeked around the corner from the parlour to see what the commotion was about.

"Shoo! Nothing to see! Get back to your gents, the lot of you!" Renee gave the monks a polite smile as they followed after Jack. It was hard to say who was more uncomfortable with the situation, her or them. She waited until they were on the stairs before turning to Rhys.

"All right, what gives?" she demanded. "You pop in here, middle of the night, Jack looking like three miles of bad road? And with monks? If the gents see those two they might suddenly get a conscience, and that's bad for business!"

"It's going to take a while to explain," said Rhys.

Renee held up a finger, then walked quickly to the front parlour. Rhys could hear a burst of giggling as she returned with a nearly full bottle of rum and two glasses.

"What was all that?" he asked.

She flashed him a demure smile. "The girls think we're going to do more than chat. Not that I wouldn't mind it. Any of them would love to have a go with you."

Rhys smiled and felt himself blush. "Now, Renee..."

"I know, I know. That girl in Wales has your heart and everything else locked up for herself. What's her name again? I remember it's lovely, with lots of consonants."

"Rhiannon."

"It sounds so pretty when you say it! How I do envy her," Renee said as she eyed Rhys. She put the glasses on a table and filled them with rum. Then she took a seat, and motioned for him to join her. "Down to business, then. What the hell happened to Jack?"

Rhys took a sip from his glass. "Mendoza."

Renee went pale. She drained her glass and refilled it. "Blimey. He's lucky he's alive at all. Right! From the start, then..."

For the next half hour, Rhys told the tale of Jack's abduction, the intrigue at the abbey, and his subsequent rescue. Renee listened with rapt attention, reacting in horror, anger, disbelief, and laughter at the twists and turns of the adventure.

"Now the monks make sense," she said as she finished off another glass of rum. "Mendoza would have killed them both sooner than later. Kind of you to give them a lift. It's a pity that Alejandro went and took the vow, though. I wouldn't mind a religious experience with him! Yelling 'Oh God!' counts, right?"

Rhys couldn't help but laugh. "I don't see how it wouldn't! They really were invaluable for keeping Jack alive this long. And they'll be able to explain the workings of the herbs to the doctor better than I could hope to."

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“Speaking of which, we need to find that doctor! I know all of them in this town.”

“Briggs thought you would.”

“Ain't he the sweetheart? And he's right. Only the best for my girls, I say!”

Rhys got to his feet and offered a hand to Renee. She stood up quickly, and pitched forward into Rhys' arms.

“Oh!” she laughed. “I think that rum went to my head!”

“Renee, you can drink me under the table any day.”

She slapped his chest. “Fine then, you're on to me. But I knew you'd catch me in your arms.”

He looked down at her and raised an eyebrow. “The doctor, Renee?”

“Yes, fine, the doctor. God, you're no fun!”

She went back to the front parlour and took one of the girls aside. After a few moments, she walked down the hallway toward Rhys again.

“All right, dreamboat, come with me! I know just the doctor we need.”

Renee opened the door and stepped through. Rhys followed her outside.

“I hope he won't mind us waking him up,” he said.

She shook her curly red tresses. “I seriously doubt he's asleep. The sun isn't up yet.”

“The sun isn't...?”

“You might say he's working through a few things. Oi, keep up! Over this way. We're going to the White Hart.”

“And just what is he 'working through'?”

Renee sighed. “He moved to the island some five or six months ago with his new bride. Emily, I think her name was. Anyway, after about a month of paradise, she decides she's homesick and wants to go back to England. Problem is, he's under contract to the governor here. If he goes back, he breaks the contract and has to repay all the expenses for moving them here plus a year's wages. I don't have to tell you they moved here with the clothes on their back and little else. Poor bastard did everything he could think of to keep Emily here, but she wouldn't have it. She wrote daddy, who sent money to get her back home. So off she went.”

“That had to be devastating for him!” said Rhys.

“Oh yes. Not that he let on at first, mind you. He was gallant and understanding as she made ready to leave, and kept a stiff upper lip after she left. For about two weeks. After that he fell apart, bless. Now if he's not doctoring, he's drinking. Ah! Here we are.”

Renee waited for Rhys to open the door for her. He did so with a gentlemanly bow, and she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Gotcha!” she giggled.

Rhys shook his head and smiled, and followed her inside.

The White Hart was a typical tavern, with an expansive common room filled with tables of varying sizes. A bar where the tavern keeper poured drinks and dished up food was near the back, away from the door. A large hearth was behind him, with a crackling fire for heat and cooking blazing away. A wooden staircase near the bar led up to the private rooms that could be rented by the night.

Only a handful of people were in the tavern, scattered all about the room. The tavern keeper rolled his eyes when he saw Rhys and Renee enter. Two more people to bother with. His relief was evident when Renee held up her hand and shook her head to let him know they didn't want anything. She pointed over to a table where a dishevelled was sitting hunched over what was left of his drink.

“There he is,” she said with satisfaction.

“Him? He's a wreck!”

She gave Rhys a pained look. “Fine! Go back and get Billingsly if you think that butcher can do any better. I'd rather not lose my business partner, thank you kindly! You want the best for Jack? So do I. And he's it.”

Rhys held up his hands in front of himself. “All right! Sorry! Lead on, Madame Renee.”

Renee rolled her eyes. “Oh, very cheeky! Come on, pirate boy! Time for you to meet the one and only Doctor Drake Gander.”

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She led Rhys to the doctor's table and took a seat on the bench next to the drunken man.

“Drake?” she said softly. “Are you all right? You look a bit peaked.”

Gander wobbled a little, then he turned to look at her. His face went through several puzzled expressions as he tried to get his eyes to focus on her. The light of recognition finally went on.

“Why, Renee! How good of you to let me come by for a visit,” he slurred. Rhys stifled a laugh.

Renee shook her head. “No, Drake, you're still at the White Hart. We came to find you.”

“And did you?”

“Yes, yes we did, Drake. We found you just fine. But we need you to come with us now. This nice young man and I will help you. His name is Rhys.”

Drake looked around woozily at Rhys, then back to Renee. “Whatever for? I'm not done with my drink!”

“A friend of mine is terribly ill, and he needs your help.”

“Surely a dose of clap can wait until tomorrow...”

Renee sighed, her patience clearly beginning to wear thin. “Drake, we're afraid he might be dying. We need you to see him now. Please?”

A scowl came over Drake's face. “Dying? That won't do at all. We should get moving!”

He tried to stand quickly, and found his legs were like rubber. Rhys caught him before he could fall.

“I fear I may need a little assistance.”

Rhys gave Renee a dubious look. She shot him an equally stern one in response as she took Drake's other arm. Together they manoeuvred the drunken physician away from the bench and toward the door.

“Hey, what about my money?” the tavern keeper yelled. “He owes me two pounds and six!”

“I'm good for it, Aidan!” replied Renee. “Two pounds six?” she asked Drake. “When did you start drinking today?”

“Um, noon, maybe?”

“And this is the doctor that will save Jack?” said Rhys.

“He sobers up fast, Rhys, don't worry.”

“I do?”

“Yes, Drake, you do. Remember?”

“Oh, ah.... no.”

“Trust me, you will,” she said. “And you trust me, too. Rhys. This will work!”

“For Jack's sake, I hope you're right.”

They managed to guide Doctor Gander out the door into the quiet streets of Bridgetown.

“How does the night air feel, Drake?” asked Rhys.

“Much better, thank you. That tavern was awfully stuffy. I feel positively light!”

“Then how's about using your legs instead of us doing all the work?” Renee groused.

“Oh my! I'm so sorry!” said Drake, promptly dissolving into a fit of giggles.

“Renee...” said Rhys warily.

“Don't make me drop this drunken sod and smack you, Rhys Morgan!”

Once inside the back door of the house, Renee motioned to where Dolan and Briggs had carried Jack earlier.

“Here, let's take him up the back stairs.”

“I suppose we should afford him some dignity,” said Rhys.

“Dignity, hell! The girls will mob him if we take him round front.”

“He's that much of a ladies man?”

“No, the girls love him because he keeps them working. 'Doctor Magic', they call him.”

“HE is still awake and listening to everything you say,” hiccuped Drake.

“Thanks for warning us, pet,” said Renee. “Now lift those feet. There we are! Just a few more to go... Oops! Sorry! It's a narrow stairs. Did you even feel it? I thought not. Up and up, almost there....”

Renee got in front of Drake and held his hand to help steady him. Rhys got in behind, keeping a hand on Drake's back to keep him from falling backwards down the stairs. When he reached the top step, he stumbled and fell forward into Renee. Rhys tried to hold on to him, but was pulled off his feet as well. The trio landed on the floor in a heap with Drake on top of Renee, giggling like a fool.

“Oof! Get off me!” she complained, wriggling out from underneath him. “I charge extra for this sort of thing!”

A door opened behind them, and Briggs looked out into the hall.

“Would you three quick muckin' about and get in here? And don't tell me that's the doctor.”

“Fine,” said Rhys as he helped Renee to her feet. “We won't.”

Briggs rolled his eyes and swore under his breath before coming out into the hall. Together, he and Rhys helped the inebriated Drake to his feet.

“I'll get the coffee started,” said Renee. “He's going to need it by the gallons.”

“Come on, Doctor Magic,” Rhys said. “Time for you to meet your patient.”

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They half walked, half dragged Drake into the room. The doctor squinted, trying to process the scene before him. A man with long brown hair and a full beard lay in the bed, obviously feverish. Hovering over him were two monks, both of them eye Drake with suspicion. Drake took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” he said, his words a bit less slurred than before. “I'm quite all right. I'll have a look at my patient now.”

He walked unsteadily toward the bed, pausing once to check his balance. “Perdoneme, amigos,” he said to the monks with a deferential nod. “Por favor.”

Rodrigo looked to Rhys, who gave a single nod of approval. The monks stepped aside, allowing Drake to sit on the edge of the bed. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed the sweat away from Jack's face. Then he touched Jack's forehead with the back of his fingers, and shook his head slowly in disapproval.

“Rhys, what is his name, please?”

“It's Jack.”

Drake gave a little smile. “I should have guessed. Hard to find a sailor not named Jack. It's the most common nickname of those employed in the nautical trade. So tell me, how long has he been like this?”

“We have been fighting the fever for just over a week now,” said Rodrigo. “But we ran out of medicines two days ago. He has been asleep since this morning. A few times he has cried out from bad dreams.”

“What were you treating him with?”

“A variety of native herbs and roots. I do not have a full list of them with me. It is back on the ship.”

“Whatever they were, you've done an admirable job of keeping him alive. I'm curious to see that list.” He patted Jack's face gently. “Jack? Jack, I need you to wake up. Come on! That's a good man. Eyes open!”

Jack's eyes fluttered open. They darted back and forth as he fought to focus them.

“That's it, Jack. Stay with us. Keep your eyes right here on my face. Can you understand me?”

Jack looked away for a moment, then back to Drake. He nodded. “Uh huh.”

“Don't worry, your friends are right here. I'm going to be looking after you now. My name is Doctor Gander. But you may call me Drake.”

Jack's eyebrows knitted together. “Drake.... Drake Gander?” he said through parched lips.

“Yes, that is my name, Jack. Good for you! You're with us in the here and now--”

“Duckie?”

Drake stared at him in disbelief. “How did you know that name? No one has called me that in a very, very long time.” He though for a moment, and his eyes grew wide. “No, it can't be!”

“Oxford,” croaked Jack. “You and me.”

“Sweet mercy... Jack? Jack Wolfe?”

Jack gave a slow nod.

“But how? Why?”

“Long story...”

“What? Oh! Of course it is! Where's my head?” Drake turned to Rhys. “I need you to fetch my doctor's bag.” He dug in a pocket and produced a key, which he tossed to Rhys. “My office is on Chapel Street, at the corner with Lower Broad. It's the next street over, um, that way. You'll find the bag under the desk. And do tell Renee to hurry with that coffee! Have her bring water, too.”

Rhys stood there, stunned by the sudden transformation of the man he had only minutes before dragged out of a bar and up the stairs.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” demanded Drake. “Off you go!”

Rhys blinked, then headed for the door. “I'll be back shortly!”

“See that you are, Mister Morgan!” Drake turned back to Jack, who was smiling up at him. “Well, well. Jack Wolfe! I never thought I'd lay eyes on you again. Don't you worry. Whatever malady you have, I shall cure you of it.”

“I know.”

“Now close your eyes and rest. I'll be waking you soon enough to pour awful tasting things down your gullet.”

Jack managed a smile, and let his eyes drift closed.

Drake looked at his old friend and shook his head. Whatever separate roads they had taken, for whatever reason, they had converged again. Where would they lead next?

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“Well, look who's got his colour back!” said Renee cheerily. She stood at the door of Jack's room with a steaming bowl of soup in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.

Jack sat up in bed a little more, setting aside the book he was reading. “Are both of those for me? Or do I have to choose?”

She stepped inside and set the bottle down on the table. “You get both, but in proper order! I know better than to let you choose. You'd have the wine over food any day of the week, but it's for medicinal purposes. To build up your blood. What's that you're reading?”

“Nothing, really. Something I'd started before this whole fiasco took place. I had Briggs fetch it for me to pass the time.”

She peered at the cover. “Another of your egghead books. I can't even begin to pronounce that.”

Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” he said with a smile as he took the bowl from her. “Some German bloke thinks he's figured out how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs, 1500 years after everyone else forgot. I don't buy it, but he's got some interesting ideas. Might lead to something someday. Mmm, this is good! Where'd you find leeks?”

“One of the farmers took a notion to try growing them, and they turned out! I thought you'd like a little taste of home.” Renee pulled the chair over beside the bed and sat down. “You had us terribly worried, Jack.”

“Worried about me? What on earth for?”

“You were asleep four whole days, for starters. Drake wasn't sure you'd make it.”

“Duckie worries too much. And so do you, Pip.”

She gave Jack a stern look. “Oi! You can call me Renee like everyone else. It was your idea after all. Pip Woolston from Cornwall ceased to be when Renee de Bertrand was born.”

“You wanted to run the classiest house in all of Barbados, so you needed a classy name. Even if you don't speak a lick of French.”

“I know all the really good words,” she winked. “Including lécher.”

“Ow!! Don't make me laugh!” said Jack. “Not until these ribs heal!”

Renee looked at Jack, and he could see the worry in her eyes.

“You're hovering, Renee.”

“Damned right, I'm hovering. This time was really close, Jack. Briggs said he thought you were a goner more than once.”

Jack looked at his soup bowl and toyed with the spoon. “So did I.”

“And?”

He gave her a confused look. “And what?”

“Maybe you should give a thought to changing tack, Captain.”

Jack stayed silent for several seconds. “You have an annoying habit of reading my mind.”

“No, it's that for once you're actually thinking ahead. All I ask is that you don't shove it aside. Some of us like having your worthless arse around, Jack Wolfe. You know, for laughs.”

“Oh, is that all I'm good for?” he said in feigned shock. “A few laughs, nothing more?”

“Not with your ribs cracked up like they are, you're not! If you think I'll do all the work, you're more addled than usual,” she said with a bawdy giggle. “I'm not that charitable.”

“You're all heart, Pip.”

“So they tell me, but you and I know different.” She leaned over and took his hand.

“Promise me you'll think about it, Jack?”

He nodded and gave her a little smile. “I promise.”

“Good. Now finish your soup. I'll be back in a while to fetch the bowl. If you're up to it, we'll crack that bottle of wine. Maybe tomorrow we'll see about giving you a shave. ”

Renee got up from the chair and went to the door. She paused for a moment as if she had more to say, then turned and left the room.

Jack took another bite of soup and let his gaze go far away. Maybe this was a wake up call? A tap on the shoulder to let him know that perhaps his days as a pirate were numbered? He sighed and shook his head.

“No. Not today. I'll think about it tomorrow.”

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