—Caribe Coast, New World Southern Continent near Cumaná
Boots blurred into focus. Crocskin. Kneehigh. Tribal soled with an English cut. Very strange. A heap of canvas was tossed within his narrow field of vision. The sun angled west enough now to turn the foam crimson, as though the tide were of blood.
“Aye, Lord,” Ezekiel Tanner gasped. He hung on a cross made from the mainmast of a wrecked skiff, over a dune and face down. Pain had long ago given way to bone-deep lethargy. Crabs scurried over his riven flesh, clipping away at the scores where he had been scourged.
Something dropped atop the canvas bundle. Zeke squinted the long, thin thing into focus. A bell-hilted rapier, sheathed and coiled with a familiar belt. The bell hilt had been reworked, but he knew the rapier as the one from the Jaguar-tooth-huaca, a holy place far in the interior of the savage southern continent of the New World. How had it come . . .
“I knew the man belongin’ ta tha’ sliver o’ fine steel,” grated a familiar voice. “Cut ‘im down, Jon Luden.”
Later in a tavern dubbed the Drab Easterly, down the coast a far way, Ezekiel Tanner chuckled a bit madly over a chowder of scallops and crab. He looked up suddenly to his rescuer.
“What brings ye back ta these waters, James Garr?” he asked.
“Commerce,” replied the other. “Same as always.”
“A’course.” Zeke plunged his spoon in for another bite.
“Ye’ve not spoken since ye’re grace-sayin’,” Garr prompted. “How’d ye come to be christified on such a fine beach?”
“Cap’n name o’ Dalgatto,” Zeke answered shortly. His eyes bled weariness, and yet his iron will kept his back straight.
“Gatto? The one they call the Rollin’ Caiman?” Garr’s gaze narrowed. “Bad man ta cross.”
“It’s him what chose ta cross the wrong man,” Zeke said coldly.
“And your Lord’s aright with vengeance?” Garr’s smile twisted, but his clever green eyes belied the mockery.
“Aright?” Zeke looked him in the eye for the first time since being cut loose. “It is His vengeance what I seek, Cap’n, and none my own—though I grant ye I’ll nay be dimmed by the task.”
“What befell ye, Tanner?” Jon Luden asked, eyes pained with his friend’s pain.
“When we came fro’ killin’ tha’ fell son o’ Perdition, I took my share to buy the tribes back from slavers,” Zeke said, sipping at a tankard of watered wine. “Bought well nigh a thousand over a season. It seemed the righter course. But then I killed a man for beatin’ a native girl near ta death. They put a bounty on me. So I made north and went whalin’ two years . . .”
He trailed off as a number of tavern patrons fell into frenzied fighting. Tanner kept his head down. Garr had been friend enough to furnish him another shirt and lend him a modest slouch hat, but he was in no mood to be recognized if any of Dalgatto’s pirates remained ashore. He watched, vexed, as Jon Luden, cursing fiercely, rose and sprang on a man about Zeke’s height. Tanner stayed seated, too weak from his travails to be good in a scrap.
“Here, friend,” Jon Luden handed Zeke a bundle of black cloth. “Beseems a thief to return ‘is spoils when he’s rightly called fer theft o’ such.”
Zeke grinned, thanking Providence and the Lord. Luden had returned to him his old black coat. The one the Jesuits gave Zeke when he departed their seminary. The one he had sewn to cover the sheath of a slight sword and conceal a flat-handled gauche. Both weapons remained in the coat, though the pockets were all empty. Even his Bible and Book of Common Prayers were gone.
“I thank ye, Jon Luden, and ask the Almighty His blessin’ upon ye,” Zeke’s eyes filled with tears. Not because he was consumed with gratitude, which he was, but because his body, mind, and spirit were overwhelmed with the events of the last three days.
The fight broke up as six guardsmen tossed the drunken miscreants from the Drab Easterly. Zeke watched, recognizing two of the guardsmen and biting back on his own anger. When they were gone, he continued his tale.
“As I was sayin’. After two seasons, the Lord called me back to find Kaibo. Dunno what fer. So I caught a series of vessels back to dear ol’ Tortuga. Some slaves somehow got freed from Dalgatto’s merchant marine—he brings Afrikars here and takes the more robust tribals from here up to the English plantations on the upper continent on ‘is way back fer more blacks—”
“So you had what to do with this?” Garr asked.
“Only the Lord’s will, Cap’n,” Zeke avoided his eyes. “And so ‘twas that Gatto brought me here to Cumaná. He and six of his dogs crucified me as you found. Thanks be to God they had no nails!”
“They flogged you?” Luden asked.
“Sayin’ a man who frees slaves should be treated like one,” Zeke said, nodding.
“So what is it you did that your Lord seen fit ta ‘umble ya this time?” asked Garr.
“Pride, as always,” Zeke grinned wearily.
“We’re out tomorrow’s tide, Ezekiel Tanner,” Garr growled. “Bein’ as we’re brothers in the faith as ‘t were, I’ll see tha’ ye have means. But that’s the end of it.”
“Lord bless ye, James Princeton Garr,” Zeke said in a low voice. “Ye’ll need it same as me. And I thank ye for doin’ as the Lord asks.”
“Weren’t the Lord’s doin’,” Garr told him. “I overheard a fisherman say he’d seen Christ ‘imself in the sunset on the beach. Thought it a good omen. I wanted the truth of it, and there ye be. Strange circumstance, I’ll grant ye, but no intervention by the Almighty.”
They saw him safely to a room in Delilah’s Cottage, a brothel too unlikely for anyone to seek the evangelist. Madame Delilah, a dark-skinned woman of the islands, owed Garr too many favors to ask questions.
“See that he’s well enough before he finds more adventure,” Garr told her. “I’ll vouch—”
“Ye’ve no need, James,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “I’ve known the evangelist since I was a child.”
“Child?” Garr gazed at her. “You were but barely a woman when I stole you from that dastard in Haiti.”
“He missioned there four summers before you came from England,” Delilah purred. “The first white man I ever took a shine to—oh, don’t be gettin’ jealous on me, dear. He was a true priest at the time. A Jesuit through and through.”
“And now?” Garr seated himself, intrigued.
“He’s much more handsome with character these days,” she teased, acting obtuse from habit.
“What is he now?” Garr growled. “He’s no Jesuit. I think not even Catholic—seems unbeholden to the Pope, the Vatican, or the Church at large. Though I suspect he gave a king’s fortune ta the Reductions before he gave the rest to buyin’ slaves what were just recaptured and resold.”
“He came back Anglican after a few years back in Wales,” Delilah told him. “Carries a crucifix and calls himself a man of God, but doesn’t much speak of the Church—any church. Why matters a mere priest to James Princeton Garr?”
“We shared a hard road,” Garr muttered, pulling her into his lap. “I’ll not go preachin’, but I suspect the man’s touched by something good as Providence.”
“A man who lives his faith has its power to see ‘im through,” she said, running elegant cocoa fingers through Garr’s newly washed chestnut hair. “You have commerce—”
“And Zeke Tanner has his Lord,” Garr said, tossing his favorite madame onto the down bed and forgetting all else in the musk of her primordial appeal.
“Advance no further,” the Spaniard ordered, holding out a long flintlock pistol.
“No good that’ll do ye,” Zeke said calmly, gazing into the eyes of the man in charge of the Cumaná Customs office. “The Almighty ‘n me struck a deal, see—”
“I’ve been champion of this province—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Zeke said, advancing. “The Almighty done said I’m ta die by th’ sword.”
The Spaniard took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. Zeke watched his eyes and his hand. The man’s hand was steady, eyes filled with confidence. The moment the hammer and lock connected, Zeke swirled his long black coat dramatically, drawing slightsword and gauche in the same movement. By the time the smoke cleared, the point of his gauche was beading with the drop of blood he drew from the Spaniard’s throat.
“I told ye,” Zeke Tanner hissed. “Now. On to business. I want to know what scripts was given Dalgatto.”
“Dalgatto?” The officer looked him defiantly in the eye. “I know no—”
Zeke put the slightsword blade against the man’s skull behind his left ear. “Lie again and the Lord shall ha’ me take yer ear for the sin.”
“I was at both Confession and Mass just this afternoon,” replied the Spanish captain.
“Dalgatto,” hissed Tanner.
Another Spaniard broke though the door, leveled a flintlock rifle, and fired. Zeke dropped as though hit. Before the soldier understood the feint, Zeke sprang over the intervening desk and knocked him unconscious.
“What said you about dying by the sword?” asked the captain from behind the desk, his own rapier drawn.
“A thrill it’d be to duel ye fair,” Zeke said, grinning with earnest mirth. “But I hear yon guard and must be about my Lord’s work.”
He fell on the captain with the speed of a jungle cat. One parry and a weak thrust is all the captain could manage before Zeke disarmed him and pushed him to the wall, this time with the point of his gauche pressed below the captain’s belt. “Give me the nearest port at which ta find ‘im!”
—Port of Prince Customs Office
“Lord preserve ye if ye be found a liar,” Ezekiel Tanner told the Port of Prince merchant. “I’ll be back to punish any who stand in His way.”
“Wait!” The merchant’s eyes were full of inner conflict, but fear of Zeke Tanner was fresher in his mind than that of Arsenio Dalgatto. “He’ll be stoppin’ by way of Virginia before crossin’ over.”
“Virginia?” Tanner nodded, knowing little about the New World’s northern continent.
“He’ll be takin’ on sotweed and unloadin’ what slaves he took here—less than a half-load,” replied the merchant, a fat man with ungainly wattles under his chin but redeemed somewhat by kindly loam eyes.
“Th’ Lord bless ye, Rawlins,” Zeke bowed. “By way of Ezekiel Tanner. Should ye engage in commerce wi’ good Cap’n James Garr, tell ‘im I said ‘twas a blessing I gave ye. Fer as ye reap, so shall ye sow.”
—St. James Rectory, Jamestown, Virginia Colony
“The Lord bless and keep ye, Father,” Zeke hissed, his blade to the Cardinal’s throat. “I thought not to meet ye again beneath th’ sun.”
“Unhand me,” Cardinal Ribissi Sandradinni said calmly. “Our Lord works in mysterious ways, brother—even amongst the Jesuit order and its outcasts.”
“Not outcast,” Zeke said quietly, releasing the portly priest. “I left as my faith demands.”
“Mother Church—even your own beloved Church of England—has cast you into outer darkness, Ezekiel Cameron Tanner. What brings you to harass me in this the midst of my exile amongst red-skinned heathens, Puritans, Pilgrims, and other roustabout savages?”
“Come, Bissi,” Zeke jammed his gauche back in its sheath and embraced the red-clad Cardinal. “Mother Church may ha’ turned me ta the outer darkness, but I hold the Lord Himself counts me of His flock.”
“Even our glorious Saviour needs a black sheep in His unblemished flocks,” Ribissi said mournfully. “Though I say it not from the Collar, I tell you, old friend, I do hold hope and faith that . . . I pray for you daily, brother.”
“Be that as it is, Bissi,” Zeke smiled grimly. “I come . . . with a mission. Perhaps a man of no means might find mercy?”
“What mercy seek you?” Ribissi Sandradinni moved to a small cabinet to remove a magnum of brandy and two fine crystal glasses, pouring one for himself and a lesser portion for his friend.
“This is mercy itself,” Zeke said reverently, sipping the fine brandy with great pleasure. “And what grace that such an esteemed clergyman as your Lordship should bless a crusty beggar—”
“Yes, Brother Tanner,” Ribissi turned his nose up, then stuck it in his brandy snifter to block out the perfidious stench of his friend. “You smell of bilge water.”
“In truth,” Zeke smiled. “For I’ve just come from a slaveship in the bay—”
“Tell me no details!” Ribissi commanded in his most authoritarian voice, hand raised.
“Naught ta tell, Bissi,” he shrugged. “Obvious as the nose on yer face what I come fer.”
“Rose water?” Ribissi raised an owlish eyebrow.
“Oh, any old water’ll do,” Zeke smiled. “Long as it’s fresh and hot and followed with clean clothes. I can do tha’ fer myself—”
“Remain unseen,” Ribissi scowled. “Rumors abound even here that Zeke Tanner is worth a fortune to certain authorities—and other, less officious, manner of men.”
“I bear gifts,” Zeke said.
“Gifts?” Ribissi looked him over critically, noting the shadows under his eyes, sunken cheeks, and general pallor. “You look to have crawled from a plague wagon.”
“Seemed unseemly to offer such treasures before receiving charity,” Tanner said, tossing a pouch to the Cardinal. “The gem should be cut six ways and sent abroad, never to be reunited. The lesser stones should go a long way to support local widows and orphans.”
“What brings you here, Brother Tanner?” Ribissi asked the next evening over brandy. Zeke had rested after his bath. Freshly bathed, beard clean and groomed well, hair pulled back, he looked a different man. His clothes were clean, but otherwise unremarkable. Ribissi was amazed how clean the black missionary’s coat had been scrubbed.
“A certain slaver hereabouts has found wrath in the Lord’s eyes,” Zeke told him, sipping the brandy with polite attention. Where he had seemed a skulking fiend the previous night, he presented now as a cultured gentleman. He knew himself to be both, as surely as he was both sinner and saint.
“Bad business threatening slavers in the Virginia Colony, Brother Tanner,” Ribissi said in friendly threat. “It’s half the commerce . . . Speaking of which, I had a strange encounter with a merchant marine name of Garr. Said he was acquainted with you.”
“How did that chance to come about?”
“He came to offer a remarkable ruby to the diocese,” Ribissi mused. “One of precisely the size of that emerald you gave me last evening.”
“That, my dear friend . . .” Zeke flashed a smile and wink before growing somber. “The Lord wills it. Those stones were best sent far from each other. Tis a tale I cannot yet relate, but one I promise you in the fullness of time, Bissi.”
“Apart from that—including that, actually,” Zeke stood and began to pace. “I assure you the treasures were gainly got, and without action nor intent reprehensible to the Lord—or even the Church and her tender conscience.”
“What have you come for, Ezekiel Cameron Tanner?” Ribissi retained his seat, intent gaze fixed on the haunted eyes of his guest. He had never known fear from this man. Not as a youth in the Amazonia jungles. Not as a hellion evangelist in the Reductions. Not as a dissident returning from the Holy Land. But what he thought at first was the shadow of fear he now discerned as horror recalled.
“I’ve set myself against certain slavers,” Tanner replied. “Not the ignorant man doing what he can to feed the Empire and his own, but the profit-mongers whose crimes go deeper—”
“Who is it, Brother Tanner?” Ribissi had no love of slavers, but he was also of the opinion that they were offering the heathen savages a better life—a Christian life. Salvation was worth far more than freedom.
“Arsenio Dalgatto,” Zeke said coldly, eyes full of an emotion too primordial to label plain hate. His voice resonated with a conflict as old as mankind, deep as the jungle, dark as Africa herself. Ribissi shivered with a sudden chill.
“It comforts me to know that your enemy is no friend of the Church,” Ribissi mused, inwardly praying his thanks. “Dalgatto is not one to have friends, actually. He’s a Portuguese captain working for Spain. At least that is what I am given to know. I believe his ship, the Ocean Fox, sails for Venice in three days. He even now loads several tons of sotweed and staples enough to make the voyage. It may be he has a berth or two to rent, if not commission for an officer to replace one mysteriously killed in the tropic islands.”
“He knows yer face too well,” Garr broke in, striding through a curtain separating the antechamber beyond.
Zeke shot to his feet, hands on his blades. He relaxed, recognizing the other. “Garr? What brings ye—”
“Just got in with a cargo of tropical birds and crocskins,” Garr smiled, shaking Zeke’s hand. “Overheard a familiar name and followed the echoes here.”
“Good ta see ye, Garr,” Zeke told him. “But I’ve a mission of my own.”
“Not on yer own, you don’t,” Garr said lightly, accepting a snifter of brandy from the Cardinal. “Seems a crewman o’ mine got ‘is fool neck in a bind, and Captain James Princeton Garr leaves no man behind.”
“What crewman?” Zeke challenged. “You and I parted wi’ the understanding we were square.”
“Kaibo,” Garr shrugged. Zeke saw the fire in his eyes now, deep and lethal like the waters Garr preferred. “One o’ the freedmen I hired confirmed Kaibo’s passage on the Ocean Fox.”
“Perhaps, gentlemen,” Ribissi hefted himself to his feet, “you were better served speaking over wine at Lady Swan, one of only a few establishments I can conscionably endorse here in Jamestown.”
Four days later, Jon Luden delivered a note to inform Zeke Tanner of the scheduled departure of the Ocean Fox.
Leaving no word of his intentions, Tanner slipped through alleys and shadows to find Garr.
“We can’t confront him in the port,” Garr said without preamble. “We have to chase him down in the open sea.”
“Sooner is better,” Tanner said, shrugging.
“Dalgatto is your mission, Zeke,” Garr told him sternly. “My crew and I are there only to retrieve friend Kaibo and take our due recompense for the trouble of it.”
“So be it, Cap’n Garr,” Tanner assented. “The Lord and I shall take care of the Rolling Caiman.”
—Two days voyage east of the New World, Atlantic Ocean
“I’m here for you, Dalgatto!” Zeke Tanner growled across the Ocean Fox’s burning deck. Arsenio Dalgatto scowled at him, black eyes full of hatred older than mankind.
“From my master to yer Lord!” he barked, Hell-deep scorn in his voice. He lifted a long pistol from where it hung on a lanyard beneath his shoulder. Zeke stepped toward him, rapier in his hand. Dalgatto fired. Pain seared into Tanner’s chest. He gasped, but strode despite the pain and shock to meet the man he now considered his mortal foe.
“Lo! I shall bring thee victory!” Zeke howled scripture, lunging to cross blades with the slaver.
“We are many!” Dalgatto shrieked in a strange voice, as though a horde of locusts cried out in unison. Zeke could see now the hatred and rage within the slaver’s eyes, a hatred begun before was uttered the words of Origin: let there be light. That demonic hatred that had caused the heavenly rebellion.
“Though I rush through the shadow of death!”
Zeke flicked his rapier past the slash of his enemy’s cutlass, slicing into the forearm, piercing the veins inside the crux of his elbow. Dashing right, he realized suddenly that his left arm would not raise, that he could not ward off blows with the stout blade of his gauche. He rolled into his lunge, feeling cold steel tear through his thigh.
“Ye are but a louse on a great blue whale, son,” grated Dalgatto, chasing Zeke over the deck with wide, hateful arcs of his cutlass. Then, he called aside, “Put those flames out!” The flames died.
Ezekiel Tanner’s faith never wavered. He felt the pain in his chest from the musket blast—the first time in fifty he had taken such a wound. Left arm numb, he held his place on the deck and awaited the captain of the Ocean Fox, knowing him now for what he was—demon-possessed.
Dalgatto pursued him leisurely, secure in the knowledge that Ezekiel Tanner was no threat. He delighted in seeing a man’s fear and doubt in his dying face. But he saw none of this now; where he thought to see it, he saw resolved faith and dangerous cunning. It held him a moment too long.
Tanner watched, ignoring the sucking noise his chest made as he breathed. The Lord had sent him here; the Lord would see him through. “The Lord helps them who help themselves,” he said into the demoniac malice of Dalgatto’s glare. He leapt, feinted, and spun low to kick the man’s legs out from under him. Silver flashed. Dalgatto screamed. Tanner sang out in hymn.
Tanner struggled to his feet. “Another time,” he promised Dalgatto, who lay pinned to the deck with his own long dagger. Quoting one of the Psalms in a bubbling wheeze, Tanner made his way over the side with a gang of freed slaves back to Garr’s new ship, Delilah’s Pearl.
© 2008 David M. Pitchford
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens
Discuss this story at ResAliens Forum at SFReader.com.
(Note: Story illustration found at Spirit of Albion.)
David M. Pitchford is a poet, novelist, editor, and teller of tales. He currently lives in Illinois with his poet-wife Siobhan, with whom he recently released the sonnet collection After the Vows: Poems Between Lovers. He blogs at Fringe Monkey (r)Evolution.