Monday, June 22, 2015

Chapter 19


Emi woke up to the unfortunate sound of retching.  She thought it was Barb but it turned out to be a couple of crew who had been out all night and who had been brought back by the Harbor Patrol.  She also realized the sun was full up and they were already on their way up the river. 

When she tried to move she realized that she was so sore that she wanted to take her turn retching.  She sat up all the way and found Barb looking nauseatingly cheerful.  With a complete lack of sympathy Barb laughed.  Patting her middle she said, “Cast iron stomach.” 

Holding back what she really wanted to say she instead asked, “How long have we been under way?” 

“About an hour.  They had to wait for an unexpected fog to dissipate.  Nate ordered us all to let you sleep.  And speaking of … you don’t look so good.  I don’t remember you drinking much.” 

“I didn’t.” 

Suddenly concerned she asked, “Is it the arm?  Is it warm to the touch?” 

“No.  Just sore.  It tried to get infected but it’s healing now.  No redness.” 

“You sure?  I can …” 

“It’s just sore.  I think I slept on it a bit last night.” 

“Mmm hmmmm.  You are one stubborn chica.  Don’t let that go and make sure and keep it clean.  Rest the arm when you can.  But change the bandage if you get sweaty.” 

“Si, abuela,” Emi smarted off. 

Barb snorted a laugh then added, “These river boat men are just as bad as the others.  They don’t like having females on board.  Except for visiting the … the head … which is nothing but a bucket behind that screen over there … we are to remain here and quiet so we don’t upset the big babies.” 

“Idiotas supersitious,” Emi muttered beneath her breath.  “How long until we …” 

“Dock?” Nate asked finishing her question for her.  He’d been watching her the entire time and as soon as she woke he came to check on her.  “Another hour or so depending on the traffic.  It has been pretty heavy with people bringing things to market but they are traveling down river rather than up.  Here, eat this.”  He handed her a piece of banana.  “It isn’t much but you aren’t going to want to eat the fish stew the crew had for breakfast.” 

Emi shook her head, barely holding back a shudder.  She did accept the banana and ate it in small bites while Nate explained how the next couple of hours would run.  “We’ll dock and things will get busy.  They should be expecting us and after the way the elders reacted we’ll probably be helped with the unloading so they can get reimbursed.”  Nate’s voice dripped cynicism.  “They’ll expect to dicker but Miguel and I spent the night dividing up the cargo so it should run more smoothly and get us out of there faster than they’ll try to hold us.  The other issue will be people are going to have heard about us bringing salvage from a cruise ship.  People will be curious if nothing else.” 

Emi rolled her eyes and made to stand up but then dropped quickly when a bullet bit the wooden railing beside her.  She let out a low, long, mean series of curses in Spanish, English, with some German and Portuguese thrown in for good measure.  “I am getting tired of this,” she growled. 

After the first bullet a veritable volley of bullets were sent their way and some were returned in kind as well.  Nate and Miguel were leading the return volleys but Emi’s blood was up.  She had the rifle out and held her fire until she spotted a sniper hanging out ahead of them waiting to catch them in a cross fire.  Emi didn’t allow that to happen.  One shot and he fell out of the tree into the river.  She caught several more just as flatfooted and made them just as dead.   

She was taking aim at another one when something large banged into the boat throwing her aim off.  “Cabron!” Emi snarled and looked over the side.  What she saw made her grin a little wickedly and call over to Nate, “Do you need some new boots?” 

“What the?!  Emi!  Dammit!  What are you getting up to?” 

“Caimanes demonio.  There’s a nest of them over here and I plan on having some fun with those cabrons that disturbed my breakfast.” 

Those of the crew that spoke Spanish grew wide-eyed as Emi stirred up the nest of DV infected alligators.  Then she proceeded to selectively shoot – injure but not kill – some of the river pirates.  It gave her great pleasure to see them realizing just how big a problem they suddenly had on their hands.  They kept shooting but it was no longer at the river boats but at the gators that were beginning to swarm them. 

The captain of the river boat they were on came out of the bridge to stand beside them.  Cheerfully he asked, “Do you mind if we take a few?  The hides of the big ones are worth quite a bit.” 

Nate looked at Emi who was still grinning and nodded and added, “Will you go ashore? The bandits might have a stash of supplies.” 

“Not these.  I recognized their insignias.  The rumor is they have their headquarters in Denaud.” 

Nate looked at him sharply and filed that bit of information away.  He sensed that Emi had also heard it but he was thankful she didn’t remark on it.  But then he saw her arm.  “Dammit woman, you’re bleeding again.” 

Emi looked over in surprise and said, “I guess I am.”  Right before her knees buckled and she passed out.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Chapter 18


Looking around the cabin Emi said, “For a sailor you are clean.” 

“Doubtless Arden would not agree.  She says I make more work than any man should.” 

“Arden.  Your … your sister in law.” 

“Yep.” 

“If you were married before the First Wave your children cannot be very old.” 

“Sebastian is seven, he’s Gina’s son from a … a previous relationship.  Darla is two.” 

“Two?  How … how long …?”  Emi knew she was treading on thin ice but the question about his ex-wife just kind of fell out of her mouth. 

“Gina left me then came back after she found out she was pregnant.  She says Darla is mine.  Could be; isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.  She … well, it’s possible.  I’ve decided to raise her that way whether she biologically is or not.  It’s my name on the birth registry.  When she came back we agreed to work things out but things got bad towards the end of the pregnancy.  Gina … she was stubborn and headstrong all along but I used to find it exciting … even endearing.  But then the way she was no longer worked very well with the world the way it is.  She became … brittle, unyielding … then unstable if she wasn’t given way to.   Her mother blames me for where Gina’s choices have taken her.” 

“So your mother in law is also in the picture?” 

“Ex-mother in law and only occasionally.  She lives in Charleston Park across on the other side of the river.  Gina is shacked up with a guy in Denaud.  Arden … she tries to be a bridge builder but neither her mother nor Gina cooperate very much unless they want something in return.  We might get a visit when they hear about you but that’s not for certain.  Gina’s current lover is a smuggler of anything that will make him money and abusive doesn’t even begin to describe how he treats her.   But she won’t listen, says she finds him virile and manly and exciting and available … all the things I’m not according to her.  He’s just one of the reasons why she’ll never get the kids.  Once Arden moves out and on with her life likely the only time you might run into any of them is when Alva hosts the monthly river market … three or four times a year depending on the weather.  Is that a problem?” 

“If I can manage to be civil to la gran bufalo – my cousin’s wife – then I can be civil to anyone.  Besides, it wouldn’t be part of the deal to bring down trouble on you.” 

Nate stood up with his bag of clothes and tried to figure out what to say in response.  “Emi … I expect this deal to have two sides to it, not just you acting grateful so you don’t go on the auction block.” 

“You’re already …” 

“Whatever is scrambling around in your head get it under control,” he said in irritation.  “All I want is some companionship and a minimum of arguing, someone that knows how to – and will – take care of things when I’m not around.  I’ve never been attracted to little helpless balls of fluff that some women insist on acting like, and I’m done with women that are high maintenance and argumentative.” 

Emi just looked at him until he snapped, “What?” 

“I don’t know.  You make it sound like an easy thing when …”  She shook her head.  “I just don’t know.” 

“You gonna argue with me all the time?” 

Emi shrugged.  “Since my family died, mostly all I ever wanted was to be left alone.  The few times I’ve tried to join a group or gang it blew up in my face.”  Nate took note that there was something dark and nasty in the memories behind her eyes.  “I just want someplace … someplace …” 

“Quiet?” 

“It doesn’t have to be quiet all the time.  Just quiet sometimes.  I don’t want to argue either … I’m just not sure I know how to not argue and fight anymore.  It’s all I’ve known for too long.   I’ll try.  But I know me … even when I don’t pick the hard road the one I’m on seems to change into that without my say so.”  Emi finally looked at Nate full in the face.  “You willing to let me bargain for some time to … to learn your way of doing things?” 

Nate put down the box he’d been carrying under his arm to reach out and touch her hands where they were clasped tightly together.  “You don’t need to bargain for time.   I expect you’ll have to give me some time to figure out things as well.” 

Where the conversation would have gone was anyone’s guess because at that moment Miguel interrupted and said, “Nate, the buyer is here.  He’s asking for permission to come aboard early.” 

Quickly changing gears Nate asked, “Is all the cargo off?” 

“Last is coming off now but there are a couple of more hours to go on the other hold.  The investors that hold the note on that other boat will send over the finder’s fee as soon as we finish unloading it.” 

“Fine.  Bring the buyer aboard.” 

“I’ll send Les down to grab your gear and take it over with mine.” 

“Agreed.  Except for my personal kit … and Emi’s back pack and rifle.”  Emi nodded at his look. 

After Miguel exited the cabin Nate turned to Emi and said, “This guy …” 

“Where can I find a spot to get out of the way?” 

Nate relaxed sensing that Emi understood about some Captains being just as superstitious as their crew.  “There’s a cantina two blocks up.  They don’t have a problem with customers carrying side arms but you’ll need to check the rifle.  Kiko is probably already there.  I’ll meet you there as soon as I’ve finished my business.” 

Emi disembarked and started walking down the wharf with only one glance back towards Nate.  She relaxed when she realized he might have been talking to the buyer but he was also keeping an eye on her as long she was within sight.  That was fine.  And this also gave her the chance to prove she wasn’t going to just run off.  But there wound up being a snag.  She got to the cantina only to find a message left for Nate letting him know that Kiko had caught a ride back with a couple of the elders as he had wanted to get back to Dora as soon as possible. 

The manager of the cantina said, “You’re a friend of Kiko’s?” 

“Sort of.  More a … a friend of Nate’s.  He told me to wait for him here.  But on second thought maybe I’ll wait outside.” 

In a growl he asked, “Not good enough for you?” 

“Not too crazy about being the only female amongst a bunch of soon to be drunk sailors.  There will be less trouble if I find someplace else to be for a while.”  She turned around and nearly bumped into Barb and another woman.  “I thought it was you.  I told Millie here that we’d better come fetch you upstairs.  You can leave a note on the board to let your man know where you are.” 

 Several sets of ears tuned in at those words.  “So your man is meeting you here too?” 

The woman named Millie very casually said, “I don’t know about ‘too’ but Nate will doubtless be along as soon as he’s done getting Henderson to sign on the dotted line.” 

It took a few seconds for the manager to exclaim, “Wait … you’re saying?!” 

Barb grinned and pulled Emi away and up an exterior stairwell before she got stuck answering uncomfortable questions.  A laughing Millie quickly followed them and soon they were in an area of the cantina that was just as noisy but occupied by family groups rather than single men.  She did have to check the rifle but no one said anything about the rest of her gear. 

Emi asked Barb, “How did you find this place?” 

“Miguel walked me down here one of the times he was checking that the river boats were being loaded properly.  And this,” she said introducing the other women.  “Is Millie … Milagros … the same way I’m Barbarita and your Noemi.  She’s Miguel’s brother’s sister in law.” 

If Emi thought it strange she didn’t remark on it.  Instead she concentrated on ignoring the hunger she’d begun to feel as soon as the smells coming from the kitchen had hit her nose.  Her last solid meal of any significance had been several days ago, and she’d been running on short rations long before that.  In fact she’d been ignoring it so hard that she jumped when Barb touched her.  “Need me to take a look at that arm?” 

“No.” 

“You sure?  You’re looking a little spacey and that’s not like you.” 

Emi wanted to ask how she knew what she was and wasn’t like but didn’t want to alienate a potential compatriot.  Instead she muttered, “Too many people.  Reminds me of the holding pins.” 

Barb grinned.  “I hear that but at the same time … at least we aren’t having to scramble for a few crumbs to eat.” 

Millie wasn’t the prejudiced type and said, “Market day coming up.  People are coming in from all over so it promises to be a big one.  Things are better than they have been since the chaos of the Third Wave.  You still have to be careful with your money but at least there is enough to spend for special occasions.  And I say marriage is a special occasion.  Let me at least order some …” 

“Uh …” Emi wasn’t sure she wanted to get that friendly or risk starting a tab she had no way to pay.  But Barb wasn’t so particular.  

“Any family of Miguel’s is a family of mine.”  Both women giggled letting Emi know that they’d both had a glass or two of something more than water.  She stayed apart from it when they let her – which wasn’t often enough for Emi’s peace of mind – and she finally got up to go catch a breath of air on the patio.  That’s where Nate found her. 

“I didn’t know Kiko was going to …” 

“Nate!” 

“Well, hello,” Nate said grinning at the unexpected welcome.  He took a closer look at her face and realized she was upset.  “What’s wrong?” 

“I didn’t start the tab.  I’ve tried to control things, only had water, but I’ve never … they … the staff … and things just appear on the table.” 

Grumpily he asked, “You don’t think I can pay for things?” 

“Don’t be un hombre estupido.  Between your bullets and mine we could pay the tabs on most of these tables more likely.  It’s just … you don’t sling money around like that.  And you didn’t say one way or the other … and now here you are and …”  A long, low string of Spanish cursing left Emi’s mouth highlighting just how frustrated she was at the out of control feelings she was having. 

“For you to not have learned Spanish until you went to Honduras you have certainly taken to the language,” Nate said with a grin after being mollified that her objections wasn’t over that he was a poor man.   

“It suits how I feel.  Normally when I say no people understand I mean no.  This is just la locura … craziness.  You’re starting a new business … have kids that probably need things … all of it … the works.” 

Nate’s grin widened.  “Tomorrow.  Tonight we celebrate.  Have you eaten yet?  I’m starved and they have some of the best food here.” 

Nate guided Emi back to the table and was greeted raucously by Miguel and another man who turned out to be Millie’s husband who also turned out to be one of the cooks.   There was no way of getting out of a big, fancy meal. 

“Stop worrying about the tab,” Nate whispered in her ear when she kept turning down dishes. 

“Gringo … tu es un hombre estupido for sure.  I’d eat if I could but I can’t remember when I’ve had food as rich as all this looks.  I have no wish to embarrass either of us with the predictable results if I was to start suddenly pigging out.” 

Finally Nate understood.  Apparently so did Millie’s husband.  He leaned over and said, “The kitchen does a good vegetable broth made with just a touch of white wine to make it special.  I can ask them to put a few dumplings in there or a bit or wild rice if you prefer.” 

Emi looked at Nate who nodded encouragingly.  She sighed and said, “Rice please.”  If the others noticed that she was using manners she hadn’t before that moment they didn’t comment. 

Millie’s husband’s name turned out to be Phillip and he excused himself to get back to the kitchen but promised to take care of their order personally.  For dessert he also sent out a pear and goat cheese tartlet for Emi while the others had richer fare.  Finally it was agreed by all that it was time to head to the river boat before the good food and good company had them forgetting their responsibilities.  The tab and accompanying tip was large enough to make the manager and wait staff happy.  Barb and Miguel were more than a little tipsy and Nate and Emi had to help them up the gang plank of the riverboat.  As soon as they were back on the water Miguel sobered up but Barb quickly fell asleep next to their baggage. 

Nate too became all business.  He told Emi to roll out a blanket and get some rest, that he and Miguel would likely be some time going over the manifest to make sure it was all in order so they could get under way at first light.  Rather than lie down however, Emi arranged Nate’s bags so that she could lean against them and rest but remain upright.  From bitter experience she knew what it would cost her to try and sleep prone when she was as full as she felt.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Chapter 17


Emi retreated to the bridge and missed the animated conversation between the priest and Nate.  Had she been privy to what was said she would not have been happy.  Nate wasn’t exactly happy either but the priest had at least confirmed the truthfulness of part of Emi’s story and he decided he was willing to wait to see if she would reveal the rest.  For some reason however he wasn’t sure whether he wanted her to or not.  Some of it he wanted to be assured didn’t matter by her forgetting to bring it up.  One bit of information definitely bothered him and as soon as his business was concluded Nate went to find her. 

He found Emi looking pale green and shaky as she tried to change the bandage on her arm.  Immediately Nate changed his tact and eased her gently down into the chair she’d occupied most of the night.  “What am I to do with you?” 

Emi misinterpreted his words and turned defensive, “We had a deal!” 

Nate tut-tutted at her tone and said, “Have a deal, not had.  You’re not wiggling your way out with semantics.” 

“I’m not the one wiggling out, you are.” 

“Not hardly I’m not.  And I mean it when I say I mean to make sure everything is tied up right.  You’re mine Emi, by your word and mine.  Now let me undo this mess you made.  What do you call this knot anyway?” 

“A one-handed make do,” Emi answered slowly letting go of the worry that had been eating at her. 

Nate chuckled unwillingly at her bald-faced honesty.  “Well that’s a good name for it.” 

As the quiet stretched into an uncomfortable one Emi said, “If you’re waiting on an explanation I don’t have one.  All I can tell you is it wasn’t planned.” 

Nate sighed.  “I saw your face.  You were too shocked and upset to have planned this.  And as for the rest of it, you had no way of knowing where we would land and Kiko said he never discussed anything with you or the other women.  At best you knew you were heading for Florida, not the exact location.”  He carefully unwrapped and rewrapped the bandaging making sure it was tight enough to stay on but not so tight that it would cut off her circulation.  “If you wish to speak with your family …” 

“No,” Emi snapped revealing a deep well of anger.  “He’s no family to me and there’s no one else as far as I know.” 

“You sure?” 

“Yes.” 

“And that’s the way you want it?” 

When he stepped back to look at his handiwork Emi tried to explain.  “Want is the wrong word.  My wants haven’t mattered for years, certainly they never mattered to him. You can want yourself to death.  I choose to live with what is, not what might have been or what could be.” 

Gaining more insight into Emi than she doubtless thought she was giving him Nate brushed a finger gently against her cheek and told her, “Then let me tell you what is.  That old man was shaken.  He tried to justify what happened.” 

“Don’t tell him my business.” 

“I didn’t but I did tell him that you weren’t treated very well even before they threw you out on the street through no fault of your own.  He may be a priest but he is still a man like any other and doesn’t want to believe what he doesn’t want to believe.  He may come around, he may not.  If he contacts me I’ll let you know but I don’t think either of us should hold our breath on it happening.” 

“As if I would.  And before you ask the answer is no.  I don’t hold anything against the church.  My father explained it to me when I became old enough to notice.  He said contrary to the way people act, they don’t get to hide behind anything when it comes their time to be judged.  We each stand before our Creator as individuals.  No excuses, no rationalizations, no justifications.  No church, organization, nor its leaders, are going to protect us from our own choices.  I may not like how my father’s uncle hides behind his vestments and ceremony but that doesn’t mean that I blame other people in the church for how he is.” 

“You sure you don’t have any other family left?” 

“About as sure as anyone else can be these days.” 

“Will you tell me about them?” 

Emi sighed.  “Right now?” 

“I suppose not,” Nate said disappointed but unsurprised that she obviously didn’t trust him but so far.  Especially as he was feeling much the same way.  “We’ve been given the use of the town’s river boats – for a price of course.” 

“Of course.” 

“The men have started the unloading process.  It will be completed within a couple of hours but not soon enough to be worth the risk of entering the mouth of the river against the tide.  The river boats have their own crews and security but Miguel and a couple of the other men that are returning to Alva will remain onboard with the goods.  Barb has opted to stay with Miguel.  My plan was to stay with the cargo as well but …” 

“But?” 

“Would you rather we rent a room for the night?” 

“That’s up to you.  I’m perfectly capable of sleeping on deck so that you can stay close to your stuff.” 

“Good.  And you are right, I would rather stay close to the cargo.  I suspect after they are cut free the remainder of the crew will take their share and go try and trade it for some … entertainment.   That will get the word on the street that we have valuable cargo.  Normally I would trust my crew with my life but after Ernie and then the mutiny … I’m preferring caution to trust.  The first night back in port is usually … uh …” 

“Like I said Nate, I know sailors … and men in general are about the same to some degree or other.  And now, tell me what I can do.  It makes my skin crawl to just stand around.” 

“Nerves?  You?” 

“I would be a fool not to feel something about this deal we’ve agreed to.  Perhaps for you it is …” 

“Mmm,” Nate said running another finger along her skin, this time along her the bare skin of her uninjured arm.  “For me as well.  But there is … anticipation as well.  I enjoyed marriage until the last year.  Have you ever …” 

“Ever what?” Emi asked in alarm. 

“Emi I’m trying to ask without looking like a fool.  You are a very … resourceful … young woman but … dammit … you’re eighteen.” 

Emi snarled, “You WERE talking about my business.” 

“Not intentionally.  I put two and two together.  Certainly no one else remarked on it, if they even bothered doing the math.” 

A little more calmly Emi said, “What does a number matter?  One of my cousin’s daughters was out of the house and married at fourteen to an hombre ten years older than she was.  All that mattered is that he had a job as a clerk in his father’s carneceria.”  A little morosely Emi added, “She’s the only one that didn’t act like I was …”  Emi whispered the awful memory.  “She was pregnant when her brother in law went crazy from the smell of the bloody butcher shop and tore her apart when she went to check to see if he was ready for almuerzo … the noon day meal.  I was one of the ones that had to … to clean …”  She stopped and shook her head.  “You see I carry antibodies but never exhibited the symptoms of the virus.  Uncle Roger and I are both immunes.  It’s why the Honduran government approved the application for immigration that the judge filed on my behalf.  It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t even speak the language.” 

“Wait .. .what?  You didn’t speak Spanish?” 

“Nope.  And the family that didn’t want me spoke no English.  When I was born my parents and grandparents agreed that I was going to be raised Anglo.  Knowing the culture was ok though my grandparents had already been in the country over three decades by the time I was born and had Americanized.  They spoke both Spanish and English at home with some of my older cousins but my brothers and I spoke only English.” 

“Brothers.” 

“Yeah.  I was the middle child and only girl with two older and two younger.” 

“Emi …”

Emi avoided the hand he’d reached towards her with and went to look out the forward window.  “Yes, the story is sad and horrible but not unusual.  Ft. Myers … well you heard the stories I’m sure.” 

“I was here.  And just because I’d left the seminary didn’t mean that I’d totally left the life.  Gina and I had just married … I …I worked in the grief counseling center at Lee Memorial.” 

Still not looking at him Emi said, “Rough assignment.  My family never made it into the hospital system but were triaged outside of Southwest Regional in the big tents.  They all … expired … within twenty-four hours of each other which supposedly meant that they caught it all at the same time and place.  Only way that could have happened is if they caught it at my recital two weeks earlier.” 

“You danced?” 

Emi snorted, “No.  Music.  My Poppy … my mother’s father … classical acoustic guitar … look, I’m done talking about this.” 

“For now?” 

Uncomfortable but understanding that this sharing was part of getting to know each other so they could fulfill the deal Emi slowly nodded.  “For now.” 

“Then let me ask you to help me pack up my personal items and get them stowed on the river boat.  And while we are at it perhaps you will have some questions for me.”

Friday, June 5, 2015

Chapter 16


Shocked silence followed Emi’s statement.  No one seemed to know how to react.  Finally the old priest gasped, “Noemi.  My child …” 

Emi’s chin went up a notch.  “Forget it.  I’m not ‘your child’, just your nephew’s daughter.  You ignored me easy enough when they packed me off; it shouldn’t be a strain for you to keep on ignoring me.” 

Regardless of his shock, the man in the frock was not used to being spoken to in such a disrespectful tone and tried to assert control of the situation.  “I had my responsibilities ministering to the grieving and serving on the Council.  There was no way for me to take in a … willful … wild ….  And you went to a better place.  Where you could be with your people.” 

Emi heard the same tired prejudice hiding behind his words that had always been there.  It wasn’t a racial prejudice so much as it was one based on the socio-economics of her mother’s family.  In response she shrugged and told him, “Believe what you want.  You always have.”  Emi turned to look to Nate almost willing him to back her in this.  “Are we done here?  You need to get home to your kids.” 

Nate saw what she didn’t want him or anyone else to see, that she was badly shaken and wouldn’t be able to hide it for much longer.  There were a lot of things he could have said or done but didn’t.  Instead he said, “We’re done as soon as he hands over our copy of the stamped license.  I’ll be making sure that it gets filed with the diocese myself.” 

As a jab it was on the surface a mild one, but everyone was able to read into it that Nate was taking a personal interest in making sure that the registry of their marriage and addendum contract was handled properly.  He let them form their own conclusions, some simply taking it at face value while for some all it did was deepen the mystery they were witnessing. 

Emi nodded her acceptance and walked away, unable to bring herself to remain in the priest’s presence another moment.  She knew she’d make a fool of herself one way or the other if she didn’t.  Reliving her terror and tears or showing her fury, both would have let everyone see a vulnerability she didn’t wish them to know she had.  She also knew that Nate would have questions …questions about a life she wasn’t ready to reveal.
 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Chapter 15


Nate had to go back to the bridge and invited Emi to go with him.  Emi shrugged her agreement thinking anything was better than being caged up and Nate told himself it was so he could keep an eye on his investment.  It didn’t take long however until they were both busy with their own thoughts; Nate with making sure the boat ran smoothly with the trimmed down crew and Emi watching the sky like she was bored.  She wasn’t. 

Emi had been marking their passage by the stars.  She had no sextant but she knew they’d changed headings after leaving the cruise ship and were heading on a more ESE course.  Knowing they had left out of Galveston that could only mean the coast of Florida and if she had to guess based on the charts she got a glimpse of, it looked like maybe she was going “home” after all.   

Emi dozed off and on through the night to the thoughts of the strange, strange turns her life had taken.  She woke up once to find a coat draped over her and another time to find her feet propped up on another chair.  That time she cursed softly.  Nate who was leaning beside her drinking a cup of strong Cimarron asked quietly, “Your arm hurting?” 

“I didn’t wake up.”   

He tilted her face up to him and said, “You look awake to me.” 

“I mean when you did this.  I … I shouldn’t …” 

“Relax Emi.  You’re run down and tired.  You sense you are safe here … with me.  Go on sensing that ‘cause it’s true.  Rest.  I’ll wake you when we sight land.” 

Emi snorted and then with as much attitude as she could muster she told him, “You think a whole lot of yourself Gringo.” 

Nate said nothing but he did brush the habitually misbehaving hair out of her eyes.  “Rest Emi.  I’m keeping watch.”  Emi snorted her opinion again but did relax and doze back off after only a moment. 

Just after daybreak Nate woke Emi as promised when land was sighted.  Within two hours they had an armed escort ushering them into port.   Still reeling from the sudden fulfillment of a dream she’d never expected to realize, Emi couldn’t decide how she felt so she decided not to feel anything. 

The harbor security made a production out of boarding both boats and ordering that all “cargo” remain below deck.  Emi curled her lip at the implied slur but did as she was told after seeing the cautious look on Nate’s and Kiko’s faces and the confusion on the faces of some of the crew.  Whatever was going on wasn’t the normal procedure. 

Going to the cabin with the other women Emi found she wasn’t impressed by the so-called security measures.  She looked at Barb and they both silently agreed that what was called security was a bit of a joke.  One blaring error was that while they’d made a big show of checking the men for weapons they hadn’t even thought to do the same to Emi or the other women. 

Barb asked, “So where have we wound up?” 

“Ft. Myers … west coast of Florida,” Emi answered.  “But something is off.  This ain’t normal if I can believe the looks on the crews’ faces … this being boarded and checked out.  Plus, there are too many people on the wharf area.  Either safety or security would have them clearing the wharf, not boat by boat when they come in.” 

Barb nodded, “And plenty of the people on the wharf look female.  Thought they said there was a shortage.  No way all of those dressed that way are … you know … travestido.” 

Emi shook her head.  “They ain’t ... ‘cause if they are they are the prettiest ones I’ve ever seen without makeup.” 

Alfredo had come down at Nate’s orders to make sure the women had some kind of protection from any potential “investigation of the cargo.”  He overheard their discussion and said, “The new head of security and the Captain have gotten into it before but never quite this bad.  Singletary ain’t no nice guy.  He gets off on giving everyone a hard time ... on throwing his authority around.  But knowing the Captain, he’ll work it out.  Singletary is probably looking for a bribe then he’ll look the other way.   And this is just port, not home.  Home is up the river.” 

Barb asked, “What river?” 

They were both surprised when it was Emi who answered, “The Caloosahatchee.” 

Alfredo then assumed that the Captain had told her and went back to stand by the door but Barb took a look at Emi’s face and said in a whisper, “You know this area.” 

“Grew up here.” 

“Don’t sound like a happy home-coming.” 

Before Emi could form any kind of response there was a knock on the door and the women were directed to head topside for “inspection.”  Emi and Barb fell into their previous habit and Emi took point while Barb played shepherd, herding the women in a tight circle to make a smaller target. 

A quick glance at Nate and Emi saw he was slightly irritated but not behaving threatened.  Kiko was giving off the same vibe.  She also took in the fact that there were several men standing as if they were to be recognized as important.  Because of that alone she made like she ignored them as if they were nothing.  She went to go stand beside Nate but was prevented when one of the guards intentionally jabbed her bandaged covered arm with the butt of his rifle.  Emi dropped to one knee and Nate started forward only to have a gun stuck in his face.  Emi was ugly angry just that quickly and had all she was taking.  She calmly grabs the pant leg of the man that jabbed her and stood up at the same time, essentially causing the man to lose his balance and fall back against the railing and crack his head, nearly going over if some of the crew hadn’t caught him … and in the process disarm him. 

Kiko caught her eye and gave a brief shake of his head.  Emi stopped her follow through action but only with a great deal of effort.  She was breathing heavy and Barb touched her arm making her jump.  “You’re bleeding through the bandage.” 

After swallowing hard to keep the contents of her stomach from coming up Emi told her, “I’ll live.” 

Barb nodded and kept the other women out of any possible repercussions. 

It was Nate who growled to the one that looked like he enjoyed being in charge, “Control your men.” 

“You don’t have any authority …” 

“Someone under my protection …” 

“A whore cannot be under your …” 

“Watch your mouth Singletary!” 

One of the Elders shouted, “Enough!  Mr. Singletary the behavior of your man was completely out of bounds.  I was assured that everything was all taken care of and now you …” 

“They come back with a known gang banger, missing half their crew, in company of a boat that was reported missing two months ago …” 

“We have the logs to prove …” 

“That don’t prove nothing.  It’s your word against …” 

There was another fifteen minutes of back and forth but finally Singletary had to back off when he ran out of excuses for hassling Nate after his boss showed up and wanted to know what the problem was.  Emi had maneuvered her way around to Nate’s position and Kiko gave her a wink realizing she was covering an angle that would have been difficult for them to defend against had an attack come from that direction.  He approved and it made her feel like a child that had gotten a lesson right and a little perverse at the same time because she caught herself feeling like that. 

After Singletary and his men reluctantly disembarked the Elders started their own interrogation.  Emi tried to listen but it was all she could do to watch for a potential attack while dealing with the pain in her arm.  She was reaching the point where she would have to let her discomfort show when Kiko stepped into things, signifying that his word carried some weight in the community regardless of Singletary’s previous remarks. 

“Everyone involved knew it was a dangerous venture and signed a statement to that effect before we headed out.  There were no guarantees asked for and none given, and don’t try and play like there were.  I’m the only one that returned but probably not the only one left alive.  Most of the others decided they wanted to do things their own way and took off after they failed to assassinate me.  If the others do ever make it back they’ll bare watching but I don’t look for them to get back anytime soon, not with thousands of miles to cross and rumors of another wave of DV starting up around New Orleans.   As for the number of women, from what I hear you had your own bit of trouble with young men deciding to go their own way.  Instead of placing blame let’s say we broke even.  You’ll get your investment back either way.” 

“And how is that?  You …” 

Kiko stepped up to the elders and whispered, “Because Singletary is so dumb he didn’t bother looking below the second layer of boxes down in the hold and some of that was brought back for you.” 

Emi saw the men’s expression change and a couple even licked their lips.  She’d seen it before.  Greedy men willing to look the other direction so long as they gained in the process.  She shrugged mentally trying not to care too much since this time it was working to her advantage.  But of course now those same men began to try and prove their own high morality. 

Addressing Nate one of them said, “You seem … taken … with this particular female.” 

Nate, having read the situation correctly simply said, “We need a priest.” 

“So you’ll do the right thing?” 

“That was the plan all along.” 

Emi, sticking her two cents in to nudge them a bit said, “He’s willing to take me off your hands so it doesn’t cut into your profit margin.” 

A couple of the men looked angry at her bringing it back up but most of them just looked uncomfortable and trying to deal with their own shameful hypocrisy.  Seeing this Emi backed off.  Perhaps they weren’t completely without conscience.  More words were exchanged but Emi retreated several feet and didn’t hear what was said.  She just wanted it done and over with.  She looked at the skyline and it was both different and familiar.  She didn’t know how much was due to the fact she was so young the last time she’d seen it or if it really was different.  It seemed that some of the buildings were missing from the skyline. 

There was a commotion at the bottom of the gangway and she could see a priest being helped aboard.  When she got a good look at the scar on the side of his face she grew pale.  Nate noticed that something had changed and stepped over to Emi.  Most wouldn’t have noticed but he himself was having second thoughts and he thought she was getting cold feet as well … but he could tell something else was going on too. 

“Emi,” he said trying to get her attention when she didn’t notice him.  “Emi?  Is the deal going bad?” 

She jumped and tried to control the shaking of her hands.  “No.” 

“You sure?” 

“Yeah.” 

Then Miguel stepped forward and held out his hand to Barb creating another small bit of drama.  Emi looks questions at Barb but she glances away and makes a production out of telling the other young women to be good. 

“But Barb …” a couple of them moaned. 

“None of that.  For pity sake, stiffen your spines and make something of this opportunity.  I am.  Life is too short to not grab at the gold ring when it gets within reach.”  She looks over at Miguel then actually blushes much to Emi’s amusement.  Then she shakes her head and laughs like life had just handed her a good joke.  Her laughter triggers something in Miguel who up to that moment had been serious to the point of taciturn grumpiness and he slowly smiles showing a gap where an incisor once resided.  He too nods and pulls her to stand before the priest to have the age old words said over them. 

The elders look around to find there are some men looking their way with more than mild interest.  They quickly move the remaining girls to a bus type of contraption, all the while assuring them that there will be opportunities in the coming days for them too to meet some men from the surrounding communities.  Emi didn’t know whether to believe them or not but she wasn’t in a position to question it either, and wasn’t sure she cared.  Several of the women had actively worked against her more than once, especially when it had come to not leaving Kiko behind.  Emi wasn’t the type to forget something like that. 

Still, Nate sensed her mild unease and said, “They’ll fix it.  And without having to call an auctioneer.  Berto … he was the elder with the handlebar mustache … he said they’ve already gotten several requests for any extra girls to be brought to the matchmakers.  There are offers for them even sight unseen.” 

“Whatever.” 

Nate looked at her sharply but was unable to take the conversation further because Kiko had pointed the priest in their direction.  The old man was obviously tired and roasting in his vestments but was all business when he addressed Nate. 

“You mean to do this my son?  There will be no annulment under these circumstances.” 

“I’m not looking for one otherwise I wouldn’t do this to begin with.” 

They go through the same motions as Barb and Miguel did only in place of her name and his all the priest said was “man” or “woman”.  Then Nate hands the priest a handwritten contract outlining the rest of their agreement.  Emi was momentarily surprised that he’d thought to do it but her attention remains riveted on the priest before her.   

The old priest pinches up at the crude wording but then sighs and nods.  “I’ll need two other witnesses who will sign as well as your full, legal given names and signatures for the church registry.” 

Nate told him, “Nathaniel Morris Bale.” 

When Emi didn’t immediately say anything the priest showed some irritation at wasted time when he asked, “And yours?” 

Slowly she answered, “Noemi … Sophia … Marlena … Jensen.” 

The priest is in the process of writing it out when his hands start to shake.  He drops the pen and truly looks at Emi for the first time.  His eyes widen and the clipboard he was holding followed the pen.  The priest himself nearly winds up sitting on the deck and would have if a crewman hadn’t automatically reached over to balance him. 

Emi stiffens her spine at the shock and disbelief she sees on the old man’s face.  “Relax Uncle Roger.  I’m not here to ask anything of you.  I certainly don’t expect you to claim me as family.  You and your buddy the judge made sure I got a good education in how to take care of myself.  Just do what you gotta and we’ll be out of your hair.  You’re obviously still a very busy man.”