Night in the jungle was darker than a ship’s bilge in a storm. Louder, too; the humid air carried the clicks and whirs of a cacophony of strange insects. Likely, Tom Blewitt thought as he lay on the rough pallet underneath the oiled canvas that served as shelter, they were all out for his blood in typical insect fashion. He should have stayed on the ship.
“Hell. I should have stayed on the farm.” Even spoken quietly, those words sounded gruff, his vowels too long, his r’s too pronounced. It was the speech of an ignorant man.
It was some kind of a cruel joke God had played on him, his rough speech. Words had always fascinated Tom. He collected them, the way some sailors stored up India-ink sketches of scantily-attired women.
Words meant adventure. Take the sea, the ocean, that great expanse of tide and wave that swallowed up the dreams of a thousand boys and spat them out in a spray of salt. The words for the ocean were as limitless as the horizon on a clear day, stretching off into the curving blue of the sky. Tom could look out over that distance and forget he had all those words trapped in his head, unable to release them except through the roughest of betraying grunts.
This trek into the jungle had seemed like such a wonderful idea when Carhart approached him aboard ship and asked him to serve as translator. At the time, Tom had felt lucky that he’d learned rough sailor’s Portuguese. After all, Carhart didn’t talk much, but when he spoke, he used words that bespoke intelligence and wealth. Tom had wanted to chase that horizon, too. He’d hoped to absorb some of that quiet eloquence.
There were words for the jungle, too. Rain forest. Woodland. Impossible green tangle. But even with the western face of the oiled canvas drawn back to let in a breeze, the jungle’s horizon at night was three feet of black shadow in front of Tommy’s nose. He felt confined in that tiny space, cabined about by darkness and humidity.
And Carhart was sitting silently at an improvised writing desk, unaware of anything but the paper in front of him.
The porters lay on pallets next to Tom, talking only to each other. “Look,” Luys was saying in Portuguese, his voice pitched low so as not to risk the ire of Mr. Carhart. “What is this?”
It was probably another insect. Tom shut his eyes and turned over, imagining what the thing might look like. Shiny enough to reflect the dim light. Probably another beetle. He was beginning to hate beetles.
“It’s fuzzy.” That was Alfonso.
Fuzzy beetles. God had never intended insects to grow fur.
“It’s not much bigger than a housecat.”
This brought Tom sitting up with a jerk, peering to see the bug for himself. But the figure he made out at the edge of the platform had no waving antennae. Its shape was all too familiar, and it sent a jolt of terror through Tom.
“Oy, you idiots!” he shouted in Portuguese, jerking to his feet. “Get it away! Don’t you know what that is?”
A few yards beyond them, Carhart looked up from the makeshift desk where he worked. His eyes narrowed in displeasure at the interruption and he turned back to his papers.
He hadn’t seen the jaguar kitten.
“But it looks so soft,” Luys complained, reaching forward. The noise of the jungle swelled around them, monkeys calling in alarm. A kitten-silhouette reached out a black paw to bat at his hand. “And friendly.” The little cat bounded onto the platform.
There fell a cold and murderous silence, more frightening than all those shrieks of warning. Tommy could hear his heartbeat in that oasis of quiet.
The shadow launched itself through the gap in the canvas. Inky darkness resolved into a massive black cat.
Luys shrieked. Alfonso fell over backwards. Mother cat curled about kitten, as if the great beast were composed of liquid midnight instead of muscle.
Beyond Alfonso, Carhart stood, finally aware that all was not well. The black cat lashed its massive tail and fixed its gaze on the man.
Tom couldn’t let himself think about what he had to do or his blood would turn craven in his veins. He held up his blanket, waving it stupidly at the creature. Claws struck out, catching against the cloth. Before he had time to reconsider, he dashed out the gap in the canvas, blanket trailing behind him like an invitation.
He turned, a few feet out, in time to see the jaguar launching itself towards him.
Its weight hit. Claws raked his chest like a splash of fire. The ground rose up to meet him in a teeth-rattling impact. He was going to die—
A roar filled his ears. A cloud of searing black powder overtook his vision. The weight lifted from his chest. As Tom coughed the acridness from his lungs, he saw Carhart standing on the platform before him, rifle in his hand.
His shot, fired in the air, had frightened the two cats away.
Tom took a deep breath. He’d been lucky. He could have been hurt worse than… than… His chest was barely lit by the spill of light from the platform. The blood seeping into his shirt wasn’t quite dark enough to be crimson. Too dark to qualify as primrose.
What ought he to call it?
That was his last thought for a very long time.
Tom coughed as he came awake, water dribbling down his chin. He tasted the bitterness of laudanum under his tongue. Carhart stood above him, as imperious as ever. How the man managed to look fresh and crisp in the middle of a jungle, Tom would never know.
His chest hurt. His hand crept up his ribs, seeking out the damage, and found those burning cuts. The wounds had been closed by a series of knots.
“Carhart. Didn’t know you could sew.” The laudanum had fuzzed his mind enough that Tom felt only a twinge of shame at his rough accent.
“The principle is simple. The execution took me inexcusably long.”
The knots seemed tidy, neatly spaced. “Not as oblivious as you look, eh?”
A slight frown touched the other man’s lips. “Oblivious? That’s quite a word for a sailor laboring under laudanum.”
“English,” Tom heard himself say, “is a language composed of parallel sets of vocabulary.” Each syllable of that last word had been steeped in the sound of his father’s farm—vah-cobbler-ee, all wrong. “There’s one set of words for folk like me. Another for you. ’Oblivious’ is a word used to describe someone too rich to be called stupid.”
“Write that down,” Carhart said dryly. “I’m sure the penny presses will pay good money for that piece of revolutionary sentiment.”
“Can’t write,” Tom admitted. “Rather limits my ability to rouse the rabble.”
“Don’t mind me, Carhart. It’s the laudanum, chipping merrily away at the natural stone of my reticence. Normally, the words stay in my head where they belong.”
A longer pause. Then: “How disconcerting. You sit there, looking like a mass of ignorant muscle, but inside you employ the vocabulary of an Oxford don. That’s deceptive, and I don’t truck with deception. Are all laborers like you?”
“Probably,” Tom said. “We’re just too dumb to admit it.”
Carhart set the glass down. “Well. I can’t have that kind of deception going on in my camp.”
“Not ready to go anywhere, if you take my meaning.”
“Too true. And then, you did save my life. Which ought to count for something.” Carhart let out a pained sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to teach you to write instead.”
A gentle rain began to fall, drumming arrhythmic fingers against the canvas overhead. “Did you just offer to teach me to write?”
Something shifted inside Tom. A new vista opening in front of him. If he hadn’t been so tired…
“Go to sleep before I change my mind.”
“Brusque,” Tom breathed out, “is what we call someone too wealthy…”
Sleep came before he could finish. He dreamed of the jungle: trees spread out underneath him, acres and acres of a wide green world, seen from a bird’s vantage point. Green stretched out until it kissed the sky. In his dream, nothing could stop him from touching his fingers to the horizon.