by London Lampy
"Sarge, do you need any help?" a man asks as a group of three guards surround the pair of us.
"Don't think so, can one of you grab his gun though?" Jack says. He shifts his weight off me then stands up, never once breaking eye contact.
"Is he dangerous?" another voice asks.
"Not without a gun, but he might be injured, and I don't think he can understand our language." As he says this he widens his eyes and gives me a tiny nod, telling me to go along with him.
With armed guards everywhere and my ankle throbbing I'm not going to try running again. I have no idea if Jack is trying to help me or not, but I'd guess not if he's out here defending a slave owners property. However I can see it might be to my advantage if they think I can't understand them.
Jack and another man pull me to my feet, my ankle spiking with pain when I put weight on it, and they walk me back toward the house. Jack supports me on one side while a different guard trains a gun on me, I can't imagine what he thinks I might try.
As we approach the house I see the fire that started in the kitchen has now spread through most of the downstairs. Some of the guards have formed a chain and are trying to put it out with buckets of water drawn from a well, I can't see that they are making any difference, the place is an inferno. I hope the cook and maid got out safely, and as for Ev the chances are he's dead by now, I doubt he would have got far with a bullet in his knee cap. I feel a horrible sickly sensation in my stomach knowing that I've probably caused him to burn to death.
We skirt around the side of the house and on the other side is another huge field, this one unploughed and unplanted, overgrown with grass and weeds. They lead me into the field and I start to wonder where I'm being taken until I see a small encampment of canvas tents some distance away, this must be where Jack and the rest of the guards are living. They take me to an open area in the middle of the tents where they've set up a cooking fire and surrounded it with logs to act as benches. Jack indicates for me to sit on one, then he kneels in front of me and takes my ankle in his hands.
"Sarge, should we go and help put the fire out?" one of the men asks Jack. I look at him, he has a face like a potato.
"No point," Jack replies, turning my foot and making me wince in pain. "They might as well be pissing on it for all the good they're going to do, anyway, we've got a prisoner to guard now." He feels my toes and flexes my foot. "It's not broken," he says, looking up at me and giving me a tiny smile. I don't return it.
He must know, he must have seen the slaves in that barn, seen how sick they were, how badly they were treated. How can he think I'd want to smile at him, or want a smile from him, when he works for a slave owner? Or for that matter after the way he ran off four years ago. If I had any energy, and if I wasn't surrounded by men with guns, and if he wasn't twice my size I'd punch him; instead I settle for glaring at him. He looks a lot older than he did last time I saw him, older than nineteen certainly. His curls are gone, his hair is cropped almost to his scalp like all the other men here, he needs a shave and his skin is deeply tanned, or at least the bits I can see are. As he stands back up I could swear that he's got taller, and broader in the shoulder, but then so have I. Of course he's still stupidly good looking, that was the first thing I ever noticed about him.
Another man in uniform approaches us, older than Jack and the other three guards he has sandy hair that's thinning on top and a large moustache. He looks tired and has ash from the fires smudged across his face.
"What have you got there Bryce?" he asks Jack. Jack has my second name? Of course he does, he was in the same orphanage as me. I never knew he didn't have a family name of his own, but then he had never met his parents so it makes sense. It sounds strange though.
"Prisoner Sir, caught him escaping through the field at the front." Jack answers.
"One fucking scrawny little echoback, that's all we have to show?" the man rubs his hand over his face, spreading the ash further. I'm not scrawny, not since the time I spent as a sailor anyway. "This whole thing has been one giant sodding abortion. I honestly don't give a flying fuck about the house or the crops, and as for the slaves escaping? Saved us a damn job," he lowers his voice as he says this. "Not that that little piece of information is to go beyond us, but we cunting well lost Sampson," this man could out swear Vio. "Lump of fucking stinking, shit, this whole job," he kicks the nearest log hard enough to make it shift. "And who's going to get the fucking blame? Me, that's who."
Why does he care about having lost Sampson, but not about his employers house and crops being destroyed by fire? And what does he mean about the slaves escaping saving them a job?
"Have you got anything out of him?" the man points to me.
"No Captain, he doesn't understand us," Jack says quickly.
"Let me try," the man sits down opposite me and says something in the echoback language. Shit. When I don't reply he repeats himself, I think he's asking me my name.
"Na," I say, shaking my head, hoping he'll think I'm refusing to co-operate. He tries again, this time a question I can't translate. "Na," I say firmly once more.
"He either doesn't understand my accent, or he doesn't want to talk," the man sighs. "Anyway, that's all I know, what's your name and what tribe are you from. Well, I can say "your mother looks like a bush pig", but I can't see that insulting him would help any. We need to take him back to Shelly, we'll have no problem finding a translator there, and a few nights locked up in the cells should loosen his tongue," the man rubs his face again. "Keep a close watch on him, if he runs you'll never catch him, and don't let him get near the fucking forest whatever you do, if he goes up a tree we'll have lost him for good."
"Will do Sir. He's twisted his ankle, only reason we caught him in the first place, so he can't run too fast," Jack replies.
"Even so, this is their territory, not ours. We're like a bunch of blind sodding sheep blundering about out here compared to them," a loud crashing sound comes from the direction of the burning house. We all look round, the fire appears to have spread to the upper levels and part of the roof has just caved in, causing a noise loud enough to be heard this far off. "Shit!" the sandy haired man exclaims. "I'd better call off our fire fighting efforts before some fucker gets himself killed, I'll be back later, and Bryce? Good work."
"Thanks Sir," Jack says, watching the man jogging back toward the house.
"Poor Captain Samuels," the potato faced one puts in once the man is out of earshot. "He's going to be in deep shit for loosing Sampson, isn't he?"
Something is not right here, why would hired guards be that bothered about my boss, to the extent one of them is going to be in trouble for loosing him? Surely the whole place being destroyed by fire should bother them more.
"Yeah," Jack runs a hand over his shaved head. "But we weren't expecting that," he points at the burning house. "We should have just hung onto Sampson and the woman when they turned up, not bothered to try and catch the bloody kidnappers. Our orders were only to get him back home to the Twin Islands safely, nothing more."
"Hindsight is a wonderful fucking thing," a lanky man whose uniform bags on his bony body mutters.
And then I work it out, Ev got it wrong. He saw armed men and assumed that they were here to protect the place from attack, and none of us question that. These men aren't hired guards they're the army, the Twin Island's army, sent out here to find Sampson. They just happen to be camping on the plantation's empty field, I guess because it's the largest clear space in the area. This realisation makes me feel a tiny bit better about the whole situation. While not exactly on the same side as me they're also not nearly as much of an enemy as hired thugs would be, and Jack's not working for slave owners. I don't know why that should matter to me, but it does.
I notice that the potato faced man is staring at me. "I don't know why people call them monkeys, he don't look like a monkey to me, just looks like a short person."
"It's 'cos they have tails and live in the trees idiot," the lanky one sighs. "Haven't you ever seen one up close before?"
"Yeah, in Shelly, didn't think they looked like monkeys there neither."
The third solider, a freckly young man speaks up for the first time. "Sarge, why's he got short hair? All the others I've seen before had one long braid."
"Don't know," Jack shrugs, briefly glancing at me. "Not all the tribes are the same."
"What do they eat?" potato face then asks.
"Food, fuckwit," lanky replies. "Same as us, probably better than us, they don't have to live off army rations."
I wonder what he'd say if he knew the tribes eat monkeys?
"So if they're people like us, why's it alright to keep them as slaves? I mean, it don't seem right to me," potato face frowns in thought.
"It's not," Jack replies. "That's why Captain Samuels was planning on freeing the ones in the barn before we left, except now they're gone he doesn't need to."
"Sarge," the one with the freckles speaks up again. "The monkeys kidnapped Sampson 'cos they wanted the people back home to stop buying stuff made with slave labour, and we came up here to get him back, so doesn't that put us on the same side as the slavers?"
"What, you think it's one side against another, that we're going to war?" lanky says with much sarcasm before Jack can open his mouth. "All we're doing is following orders, get Sampson home, that's it."
As they continue to talk about the rights and wrongs of slavery between themselves Jack tries to catch my eye, so I end up folding my arms on my knees and resting my forehead on my arms, looking down at my feet. I don't look back up until I hear the sound of the rest of the soldiers coming back to their camp. Including the sweary captain there are fifteen in all, and those who have been over at the house most recently are covered with ash and soot. The house itself is completely ablaze now, flames leaping high into the sky form the roof, thick smoke streaming out of the the shattered windows.
The captain comes and joins us again, swigging water from a canteen. "Found a cook and a maid hiding out at the edge of the forest so I left the rest of the fuckers in their care. If I know my echoback poisons they should be awake come sunrise, feeling like they've got the worst fucking hangovers of their miserable lives. Tell you what," he swills some water around his mouth then spits it onto the ground. "If I were the echobacks I'd have simply killed the cunts, fuck, I was tempted myself when I saw the state of those slaves." I like this man. "If it weren't my sodding skinny ass on the line right now I'd say let that one go," he gestures at me. "But unfortunately for him we need to salvage something from this god's almighty cock up. Bryce, once the sun is up pick a couple of the men to escort him back to Shelly for questioning."
"Sir, I going to take him," Jack says quickly. I have to try very hard not to react as I'm not meant to be able to understand any of this.
"Is that really the best use of a sargent's time?" the captain questions him.
"Um...yeah," Jack runs a hand over his head. "He won't get away from me, I guarantee I'll get him there Sir."
"You guarantee?" the sandy haired man says to him with amusement. "Really, how?"
Jack pulls something out of his pocket and comes to sit beside me, taking hold of my wrist he suddenly snaps a handcuff onto it. I'm expecting him to cuff my other wrist, but instead he clicks it shut over his own wrist, so we're cuffed together. I stare at him in shock.
"Like that Sir," he grins, lifting his arm and pulling mine up with it.
"That is fucking ingenious Bryce," the captain laughs. "Do you need to take another man with you?"
"No Sir," Jack shakes his head. "I'll be fine by myself with him."
I've been handed a plate of some sort of tinned meat cooked up with dried peas that a couple of the soldiers made in a large pan over the fire. It's kind of hard to eat handcuffed to another person, my right hand is the one that's trapped and I'm not used to eating with my left. I could easily get out of the handcuffs, I still have my lock picks in my pocket, but if I did what would I do then? The others must be long gone by now and I doubt I'd be able to find my way back to the village alone. I think the best thing to do is to let myself be taken to Shelly by Jack, and when I get there try to meet up with Vio, Sampson and maybe even Vin again.
Jack keeps giving me smiles when he thinks no one else is looking, I don't know why he seems so happy to see me when he ran off and left me. He must realise that as soon as we are out of earshot of the other soldiers I'm going to tell him what I think of him. Maybe.
As we eat I listen to the men talking, they're very unhappy happy about having lost Sampson. It seems that him and Vio gave them the slip when they got back to the plantation, and none of them can understand what happened. I wonder how long it took the other two to work out that they weren't hired guards? Not long I'd guess, both of them would have recognised the uniforms pretty quickly. It doesn't occur to any of the soldiers that the whole thing was a plan to lure them away, but then why would it? They were never actually here to defend the place, and who would believe that the head of Municipal Works was working with a group of outlaw echobacks? I just hope that the pair of them got away safely.
After we've finished the food a few of the men are ordered to stand watch while the rest head to their tents to sleep. Jack seems to be sharing a tent with potato face and lanky, and the only option he has is to take me with them. The tent is just about big enough for three men, and as one of those men is Jack who's much larger than most people I end up uncomfortably squashed up against the canvas wall, lying on my back as I can't turn over because of the handcuffs.
I lie still, listening to the sounds of the men breathing, trying to sort out the events of the past few hours in my head, trying to make sense of how I set out with Barney and the others to free the slaves and ended up handcuffed to the person I lost my virginity to. It all feels like some very strange dream, or nightmare, and I half wonder if I'm still in the clearing with Barney and Sosa and have hallucinated the whole thing. One image comes back to me again and again, the slaves in the barn, the horror of how they were kept and the condition they were in. It's one thing to know about slavery but quite another to see it close up, and for all his faults Barney is right, we have to stop this however we can.
The breathing turns to snoring but I can't sleep, I can't rid my mind of the awful memory of the slaves. To try and distract myself I turn my head and look at Jack sleeping beside me, and I recall how I used to do that back in the orphanage, watch him in the darkness, thinking about how he was the best looking boy I'd ever seen. As I'm assuming that he's asleep when he opens his eyes and looks back I jump.
"I can't believe it's really you," he says in a whisper, a smile spreading across his face. I close my eyes and turn my head away, I have too much I want to say, and this isn't the place or the time.
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