The Treasure House Awaits
A Tales of the South Seas Story
All Rights Held by
Gaumont Télévision, Network Ten, South Pacific Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures Television
Cease looking for flowers!
There blooms a garden in your own home.
While you look for trinkets
The treasure house awaits you in your own being
Lost in the Wilderness – Rumi
There was just something about horses that made Isabelle Reed lose her mind. David Grief now accepted this as a divine truth as he watched her climb over the rocks on the beach ahead of him. He was getting sick of this wild goose chase; he really ought to speak up and tell her they were going back to the Rattler. He saw Isabelle taking Mauriri's hand as she pulled herself up on a higher rock just then and the fabric of her trousers clung to her legs and backside in a way that even a blind man could not help being moved by.
Okay, another hour, Grief decided, then, he'd tell her that he'd had enough.
This wasn't even much of an island, barely more than a key, with plenty of rocks, bugs, overgrowth, and humidity. And possibly, according to the native gossip, some shipwrecked horses, which had shown up after a recent storm. The wreck was there, half submerged on a reef on the windward side of the tiny island, disemboweled. That discovery set Isabelle off to look for the horses. David tried to talk her out of it, but she refused to be deterred. Mo supported Isabelle, which David suspected had to do more with annoying David than being convinced of the possible value of the horseflesh. Good, David thought. HE can swim the horses with the dingy back to the Rattler.
"We should be getting close, from what the scouts said." Mo offered to David, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of gulls. Mo reached a hand down and grabbed David's forearm.
"Thank Christ." David muttered.
Then the smell hit him like a punch to the gut. David held his breath and swallowed hard. Mo covered his nose and mouth with his hand and Isabelle brought the back of her hand to her own face. There was no mistaking it, the cloying smell of decomposition.
On the sandy length laid out before them, David counted three, then four corpses of horses and two of humans. The humans and three of the horses were partially submerged, washed in and bloated. Marks in the sand showed how the other horse had dragged itself to shore before falling dead. The gulls screeched at each other as they feasted on the carcasses.
Isabelle turned and bent over, clearly struggling for a moment to keep from vomiting. Then, to David's bewilderment, she took off her shirt, ripped a sleeve off and tied it around her nose and mouth. She put the torn shirt back on, letting it hang untucked. Then she pressed on, jumping down to the soft sand.
"Isabelle!" David shouted. "Isabelle, come on, they're dead."
Her voice was muffled through the gag. "We don't know how many there are. You said the wreck had six stalls, there are only four horses here."
"Oh, for God's sakes!. We don't know that there were six horses! We didn't see a bloody manifest."
"So, we take a good look. Quit your whining. Next time there's a salvage of shipwrecked motorbikes, I won't complain to you for dragging me along."
"Dead motorbikes smell better!" David threw back. Damn, she was actually moving to get a closer look at one of the dead horses. He glanced at Mauriri. Mo just shrugged, pulled out a handkerchief and covered his own face. He jumped down, following the world's most stubborn woman. David yanked a bandanna from his own pocket and tied it on. "Insane. Horses just make her insane."
Using the toe of her boot, Isabelle moved the head of one of the horses so she could see it better. She crouched for a better look. David went over to her. "What?"
"This horse wasn't for restocking some guards' barn. See the shape of his head? He was an Arabian. Look how long his legs are? This was a very valuable horse. Poor thing."
"They picked a poor boat to put 'em on if they were valuable. It was pretty worn out. I wouldn't have gone far on it, myself." David swallowed to keep from gagging.
"Isabelle!" Mo called over, closer to the vegetation line. "Looks like one, maybe two, went through here."
The sand was not as firmly packed, but David saw that Mo was right; there were tracks that veered off from the dead animal remains into the undergrowth. Horses were prey animals; they wouldn't stay close to where dead things lay to attract predators and scavengers. Isabelle went to Mo, and without a word, started to follow the tracks. Mo went next and David brought up the rear.
They went on for hours that way, Mo breaking trail with Isabelle, David coming up from behind. Mo found several clumps of horse hair tangled in the brush. It became clear there were two horses, a gray and a chestnut. Mo discussed it animatedly with Isabelle, running the horse hair through his fingers. David watched the other two interact with an envy that was almost an ache. Six months ago, he never would have imagined Mo and Isabelle this easy with each other. Of course, he couldn't be sure whether it was because Mo had grown to like Isabelle more, but just as a result of trusting David less. However, David only had himself to blame for it.
Isabelle was the only reason Mo was on the Rattler now. When Mo came and told Isabelle about the shipwreck, it was she who convinced Mo to show them where it was. Mo was here in spite of David, not because of him, and it hurt. David shifted the rope he was carrying from one shoulder to the other. He didn't realize the others had stopped moving and almost tripped over a crouched Mauriri. "What?"
"Graceful." Commented Isabelle remarked. David shot her a dark look.
"The horses split up. The gray went that way, the red down this trail." Mo looked at Isabelle. "Which do you want to follow?"
"We'll take the gray." Her gesture included David and herself. Mo nodded, and went down the other trail without a look to David. It stung, but damned if David would let it show. He turned and followed his horse-mad partner.
They'd only gone a hundred yards when she suddenly stopped moving. This time David couldn't stop himself and he bumped into her with an 'oof'. He looked at her and the 'what the hell' died on his lips at the expression on her face. There was a look of such longing, such passionate breathlessness, that he'd never seen on her, even when she'd had a fortune of gold at her feet. Her jade eyes shone, and she gasped in surprised desire.
He turned to look at what she saw. Less than twenty feet away, the gray horse stood. Gray was too simple of a description, to David; it looked like a black horse with a dark silver dapple blanket laid over it, shining almost blue. The mane and tail were black, shot through with bands of silver. It had a high, broad forehead and a muzzle so delicate that he was sure it could drink out of a china cup. It had long, straight legs, a short strong back and a slender body, with a neck that arched and almost seemed too long for it. The horse's lips were cracked, and it was underweight, its ribs and hips showed clearly under the tight skin. The eyes showed the whites. The horse's ears flicked wildly, two perfect black crescent moons. The skin on the shoulders trembled violently, and the horse's nostrils flared in fear or anger. David was no judge of horseflesh, but he had to admit, this was a beautiful animal.
Isabelle approached it slowly, showing no fear, speaking in a soft tone that David had never heard her use with a human. She reached into a pocket and brought out a handful of dried fruit and leveled her palm flat, encouraging the animal. The horse's ears flickered forward at the gentle voice. The horse stretched its head forward, sniffing the treat, but pulling back nervously without taking any.
"Come on, come on, my beauty, it's all right. Take it," Isabelle coaxed. The horse brought her head forward again, and lipped delicately at the fruit on her hand. David slowly eased the rope off his shoulder, and made a loop. Quietly, he moved toward them.
At the motion, the horse threw up its head, instantly alert. David stood still. The horse stared at him, shivering, nostrils sniffing deeply, ears flat. Isabelle spoke gently to it, and after several minutes, the horse flicked an ear to listen. David stayed still, wanting to wait until the horse was fully focused on Isabelle before he moved toward it again. The creature was just way too nervous.
The horse snorted and its head shot up again. It looked first at David, and then past him. David glanced back to see Mauriri moving up to the path towards them. The horse neighed in warning and reared. Its head and neck missed hitting Isabelle by inches. David saw the horse had the smooth belly of a female. Mo stopped dead in the track, but the horse wheeled off, leaving Isabelle off balance. She stared after it.
David rushed to her. "Are you all right? Did it hit you?"
"No, no, I'm fine. Isn't she a beauty?" She didn't look at him, just stared off after the horse. Her expression made him think of a child looking through a store window at Christmas and seeing the present she only could ever dream of having.
"Beautiful." Mo agreed. "I'm sorry I scared her off."
Isabelle didn't reply, just looked off, deep in thought. David glanced at Mauriri. "Any trace of the other horse?"
Mo shook his head. "Dead. Hit by a croc, looks like. Isabelle was right, there were six. Think we can lure her back?"
"I don't know. It's awfully nervous."
"We can." Isabelle turned to them. "She's a horse. She still associates food and water with human beings. She's not a stallion that would try to form a herd of his own. We go to a level spot with fresh water and the barley I brought along, and she'll come. It'll just take time. I'd bet five francs on it." She grinned at David confidently. "If I had five francs, that is."
On the quiet stretch of beach by the dingy, they built a fire and set up a small camp. David shook out some blankets and Mo started to look over the provisions. On the edge of their camp, Isabelle opened a small barrel of fresh water, and opened the bag of barley. David could just see the wheels turning in her dark, curl-covered head as she looked across the sands.
Hesitantly, David cleared his throat and looked at Mo. "Good of you come along, Mo. It means a lot to…" he stumbled awkwardly, "Isabelle…you know, horses and Isabelle."
"Don't make so much out of it, David." Mo's voice was attempting to be light, but was still detached. "Isabelle's paying me a finder's fee."
"She's paying you? With what? How much?" David sputtered.
Mo grinned broadly at David's discomfiture. "Afraid she'll break the business? Not much, don't worry about it. How's the new partnership working? Isabelle's scratched up some pretty good contracts for you in the last months. All of them above board, even. Must be a bit of a surprise for you."
"Isabelle's turned into a fair sailor. She's a lot more charming with the businessmen than me. We've had some good luck on these last several runs." David admitted. "She's thrown herself into this. She's serious as hell."
"She seems to be pushing you along. Lavinia says you're in the bar less." Mo looked out at the water, not meeting David's eyes, not wanting to reveal too much, David was sure. "Colin hasn't seen you at the church much either."
"Isabelle's as subtle as a sheepdog at pushing me on. Good thing, too, kept us in the game." David decided to avoid mentioning that they had needed every bit of extra work to pay out Mauriri's partnership. Personally, David suspected that Isabelle had robbed Peter to pay Paul with the funds from her stable to do it. At the time, David had resented Isabelle's pushing for run after run, but now he was grateful for the work that helped drive off his moods. "She's kept me being a good boy and sticking with early nights. Very strict where business is concerned, she is. She's threatened to keep me from the tables until the rudder's replaced."
David didn't want to discuss his church attendance or lack of it. The Church was so important to Mo and his family, so David had found it easier to steer clear to avoid awkward meetings. Plus, if he had to be honest, his relationship with the Almighty wasn't on the best of terms. Just looking at Colin, knowing that Jenny had tried to kill him, - that honest and good man. Knowing that, even knowing that, David still couldn't stop longing for her. David had trouble being able to face Colin at all. The fact that Colin could understand a bit of how David felt: hearing Colin admit that Jenny had fooled him as well as David, only made David's shame deeper. Colin was a good, simple, Christian man, one who was sure to always look for the best in others. David had no such excuse for his own blind folly, except for falling in love? Needing to fall in love? Needing to lay the ghost of a woman long gone that his father had forced him to abandon – and recreating her with Jenny's beautiful face? He should have known better.
None of that changed the fact that he would still wake in the night in his bed aboard the Rattler and reach over hoping to find Jenny beside him. Other nights, nightmares full of her voice and the smell of fresh blood filled his subconscious. Finally, he'd taken to bunking down on a cot in Isabelle's tack room instead, hoping the change of environment would keep some of the dreams at bay. David turned away, shaking out the blanket, masking his expression from his former partner.
"Big job, that. A new rudder will take a dry dock." Mauriri tied some string around a banana leaf packet holding some fish. Joining it with two others by the fire, he laid them on a stone and covered them with hot sand and ash.
"Yeah, it will, but she needs one as well as some other repairs to the hull. My own fault, I'd left it too long." David put the next blanket in place. "How are Leani and the children?"
"They're well." Mauriri's reply sounded guarded, not comfortable. David almost flinched. "Same as always."
David nodded, and rose up. "I'm glad to hear it. I'd better check on Isabelle." Without waiting for a reply, he walked over to her. She was still crouched on the sand, tying the rope into a hackamore halter.
"You two are playing nice?" She asked, glancing up.
"Fine. Well as can be expected, I suppose." David changed the subject. "Are you sure this will bring that mare in? It didn't work on that stallion on Tangaroa, and you got a broken wrist for your pain."
"Stallions are different. They want to establish herds and territory. Plus, Tangaroa had more food and fresh water that the stallion could find on his own. This island doesn't have that. She's just a filly. Remember how smooth her belly was? She's not that old. She'll still think of humans as a source of food, water and home. She's just scared. Give it time, she'll smell the water and food and she'll come to us.""
"Well, catching her is one thing. Getting her back to the Rattler is another. We'll have to swim her to the boat and lift her in with the arm. Lot of risks here, Isabelle."
"For this horse, I'll take them. You saw her, David. She's magnificent." Isabelle looked at him, her face soft and her silver green eyes shining. For a brief moment, David felt irrationally jealous of the animal. "I don't think I've seen her like on any of the Islands."
"How much would she be worth if you can get her fit?"
"Thousands. In pounds, not francs. Even undocumented, there are those who would give their eyeteeth for a horse like that. There was no manifest? Could the papers been washed out of the ship?"
"No, the Captain's berth was still above the water line. All the documents and charts were there, but no manifest for any livestock. Must have been a handshake deal." David gave her a solemn look. "Or an under the table one. What if they were stolen?"
"What if they were? We can still claim her as salvage. There's proof of the wreck and she was abandoned long before we got here." Isabelle's brows furrowed in worry.
"Yes, that's true. But that doesn't mean that the owner wouldn't want her back." David pointed out, logically. "Still, they'd probably reward us, and compensate us for saving her."
"They'd have to prove she belonged to them. They'd be idiots to think we'd hand her over to just anyone." Isabelle closed her eyes and straightened her shoulders. "Anyway, let's not borrow trouble. We haven't got her quite yet."
"Come on, you two, let's eat something." Mauriri called over.
"All right." David threw over his shoulder. He rose and offered a hand up to Isabelle. "Just one more thing. What's this about a finder's fee?" He gestured to Mauriri.
"Just a small one. Positively ." Isabelle made a tiny measurement with her fingers with a smile. "Don't worry, the yard is paying for it. I keep my accounts straight."
Isabelle Reed personally believed there was a very fine line in men between honorable pride and just being a jackass. Looking over at her sleeping companions in the faint light of the pre-dawn, she decided that they were both definitely on the jackass side of the line.
She knew that both regretted the rift between them, but neither was doing a thing to mend it. David wouldn't because of the guilt he felt, and Mauriri wouldn't because of his wounded trust. Until either one forgave David, there was only this Mexican standoff which had lasted for months now. It made her want to punch both of them. They loved each other like brothers, if they would only remember and admit that. If they hadn't, what David had done wouldn't have hurt them both so much.
Isabelle hadn't absolutely needed Mauriri for the trip; she and David could have found the wreck on their own. She just wanted to get the two men back on the boat together at least for a little while. Just to let them face up that they missed each other. Her plan had limited success. Mauriri had left the sailing to David and Isabelle, mostly just stayed out of the way until they reached the wreck. He and David talked, but only about matters of the trip, nothing more. It was stiff, reserved, nothing like the easy companionship she knew they were capable of. Still, though, Mauriri had come – it was for a small fee, true – but it was still a first step.
Why was it so hard for Mauriri to forgive David? "But then again, you could forgive him anything, couldn't you, girl?" Isabelle thought, ruefully. "Yes, I probably would." Though taking her horse Dante and losing him to those warriors really pushed his luck. Risking her skin was one thing; Dante's was another matter all together.
She had to be careful. Much as she wanted Mo and David to mend their friendship, she didn't want to have things exactly as they were before. She didn't want to press herself out of her new partnership with David. She loved working the boat with David, doing shipping and trading. It was a tough balancing act, keeping both the boat and the yard going, but the challenge was intoxicating. By pressing David and pushing the yard, they'd bought Mauriri's share out and started many of the repairs that the Rattler desperately needed.
A soft sound caught her attention. She looked across the sands, alert. Was it? Yes, it was.
The filly walked slowly across the sands, almost invisible in the faint gray pink dawn light. She moved towards the water barrel, sidling up nervously. She stretched her neck and her nostrils quivered at the smell of fresh water.
"That's right, my lovely." Isabelle coaxed, softly. "Drink it."
The filly's ears flicked at the sound of her voice and she raised her head, but didn't bolt. She gave Isabelle a long look and then lowered her head to the water. She blew out her nose, and then drank deeply.
Isabelle rose from the ground and slowly picked up the halter she'd knotted earlier. Keeping it by her side, she walked slowly toward the filly.
The filly looked up at the movement, her shoulders quivering as she took a step back. Isabelle crooned gently to her. The filly listened, and lowered her head to the water again.
"Good girl, sweet, sweet, baby. There now, there now." Isabelle reached the filly's side and lightly rested a hand on the horse's neck. The skin trembled under her palm, but the filly kept drinking. Isabelle stroked the beautiful creature, delicate and nervous as any unicorn of legend. Isabelle crouched down and took a handful of barley from the sack. Rising back up, she moved her hand forward, letting the filly see the movement. The horse lifted her nose, dripping water, and sniffed the grain. Delicately, she lipped at it, tasting. Her ears went forward in interest. Isabelle used her hand to guide the filly's nose to the bag. The horse started to eat immediately.
While the filly crunched the grain, Isabelle moved the long line of the rope under the horse's neck and around. She opened the loop for the brow piece of her halter and brought it down. The filly raised her head and sniffed the rope. Isabelle spoke softly, encouragingly, and slipped the halter over the filly's head, leaving it loose and comfortable. The filly lowered her head and continued her breakfast. While the filly ate, Isabelle adjusted her hackamore to fit better, taking care not to alarm the horse. "Thank God that she's halter broken," Isabelle thought, gratefully.
Isabelle started to sing softly to the horse while she ate, letting the filly get used to her voice. Dante always liked being sung to. She stroked the beautiful animal, running her hands over her neck, shoulders and back. At first, the filly shied a little and sidestepped, then looked long at Isabelle and moved back when the woman stayed still and spoke gently. When Isabelle started singing again, the filly went back to the grain. Isabelle finished 'She Moved Through the Fair' and had started 'Peggy Gordon' when the men finally woke up. "Men can sleep through anything," Isabelle thought with a smirk.
"Well, here's where the fun really begins." David grumbled.
"Dear David, ever the optimist." Isabelle teased him, cheerfully, walking the filly on her rope halter. When one of the men attempted to hold her, the horse shied violently away, but she walked willingly, though nervously, under Isabelle's steady touch. In the full light, the horse was exquisite; she looked like something out of the stories of . She had to be the finest horse she'd ever seen. The filly stood above her other mounts like a diamond in a bowl of quartz crystals. Her beauty shone over the other Arabians she'd bought in the Islands. The only other horse she had that was close to the filly was Isabelle's beloved hunter Dante, and even she had to admit he'd fall short in conformation.
She couldn't wait for Dante to meet the filly. Isabelle was sure his sweet temper and calm nature would ease the filly's distress. She'd build this baby up and get her fit and in condition again. Isabelle could just imagine riding her along the sands of the coves, black legs scattering the water of the surf to glitter in the sun. It would be like Heaven.
David gave her a sour look. "She won't stand for Mo or me, so you'll have to swim by her. Mo will hold her long line and I'll row the dingy. It will be a long, hard swim to the Rattler and you'll have to stay by her to fix the harness off the arm. It will take both Mo and I to winch her up. She'll probably panic, Isabelle."
"She's awfully weak now, David; the swim alone will tire her. I doubt she'll have enough fight left to kick the hull out." She made her tone light and reassuring. "Is there straw in the hold?"
"Yes, and I've got a chain to tie her to." He met her eyes with a grave look. "She might kick the hell out of you, she might drag you under, and she may well try to kick out the side of the Rattler. I'm serious, Isabelle, if she panics and risks the ship, I'll put her down."
Isabelle swallowed and nodded. She understood the harsh possibilities that David was preparing her for. She knew if it came to a choice between the three of them or the horse, he'd destroy the animal. He'd hate doing it, but he would if he had to. She turned and looked the beautiful creature beside her and her chest tightened in longing. She wanted to get the filly home more than she had imagined wanting Marcel's treasure or David's black pearl. She didn't understand why she wanted this horse so badly, she just did. Her heart went out every time she looked at the beautiful creature, so hurt and alone. She could never explain that to David, he'd think she was going soft. Isabelle stroked her gently. "I'll keep singing to her. She likes that."
"Try singing a hymn." Mauriri suggested with a grin. "Might help."
"If you know any." David reached for the bow of the dingy and lifted it up.
The off-hand comment stung Isabelle. Once again, David couldn't resist a crack at her former life. Not like a dishonest woman like myself should know any songs about the glory of God. She looked at the horse again to keep the men from seeing her expression. After a second, she found her voice and sang softly. "His the doom, ours the mirth, when he came down to earth. The flower of Jesse's tree, born on earth to save us." Coolly, she tossed her boots into the boat not far from David's hands. He almost lost his grip on the bow. The filly took a step back at the thud, but kept her attention on Isabelle. "Him the Father gave us." She gave the long line to Mauriri and took the filly by the jaw strap. She smiled at her Polynesian friend. Mo smiled broadly back at her and joined her for the last line. "Ideo. Ideo. Ideo Gloria, in Excelsis Deo." She walked past David into the surf, the filly following quietly.
The water washed over her feet and the filly's ankles as they waited for the boat to be dragged out. Finally, the boat was ready and David started rowing. Mauriri slowly took up slack in the long line as Isabelle led the horse forward.
The filly's ears clamped down as they went deeper into the warm water, but she didn't fight Isabelle's lead. "Come on, my baby, ma belle ange, come on."
The horse jerked her head when she started to lose her footing in the buoyant water. Her nostrils flared. Isabelle floated and rolled, taking the cheek rope, letting her hand rest on the filly's face. She scissor-kicked in reflex for the side stroke, one of her legs passing over the horse's hips. Startled, the filly pushed forward and started to swim. Mauriri gave the horse more rope off the stern.
Isabelle could see David rowing hard, to make sure the boat stayed ahead of them. The line between Mauriri and the filly grew tighter by degrees. Isabelle kept trying to talk to the animal, but it was getting difficult to swim, keep her hold and not swallow water all the same time. The horse jerked her head frequently, keeping her wide nostrils above the water. Her legs slashed out in long kicks, Isabelle could feel the strong displacement of water under her own body. Keeping herself straight was getting harder and harder. Isabelle's body dipped in the water and she felt a blow to her lower leg. The pain startled her, and her head went under. She came up, gasping.
"Isabelle! You all right?" Mauriri called out.
"Fine!" She threw out, swallowed some water and spit. The horse's eyes rolled, looking for her human companion. "Easy baby! Good girl. Such a fine girl. Ma cherie."
Please God, please God, let us make it! She prayed.
It seemed forever before the little boat drew up to the Rattler. David yelled for Tah-mey and threw up a line and climbed aboard. Mauriri drew the lead line in, bringing the filly closer and closer to the side of the larger vessel. Isabelle trod water by the filly's head and looked up, seeing the arm swing out in its davit. She heard the rattle of chains as David was getting the harness on. The filly's head lowered, Isabelle quickly used her arms to keep it above the water. "Ideo, ideo, my darling. Almost home now, almost home."
"David," Mauriri shouted.
"Got it now!" David yelled back. "Mo, get up here as fast as you can to help with the winch once Isabelle's got that horse hooked."
The harness dropped fast, plopping into the water by Isabelle. Mauriri leanded over the stern of the dingy, grabbing the horse's halter to keep her head up. Isabelle bobbed over to grab the harness and dove under the surface. To get the harness around the horse's barrel girth put her very close to the kicking legs, but Isabelle only received a glancing blow on her hip. Her chest started to burn as she fastened the buckles on the harness against the filly's side. With both hands, she jerked the top chain, to let David know she was done. She broke surface with a gasp.
As soon as the chain had up the slack, the filly felt the tension of the girth harness tightening around her. She snorted and jerked her head several times, ears flicking madly. Her eyes rolled. Isabelle grabbed the halter. Mauriri left her to it and climbed on the Rattler. Isabelle heard the grinding rattle of the winch. "It's all right, cherie, it's all right, all right."
The filly clearly did not agree as she started to rise upwards. Her head jerked and tried to break from Isabelle's grasp, but she held the ropes with a white-knuckle grip. Achingly slow, the horse rose by inches upwards out of the seawater. Finally, Isabelle had to let go and dodged a lash from a foreleg. Falling back, she swam to the side of the boat and climbed on board. She stood on the deck, quaking, her legs feeling like jelly.
David and Mauriri kept hard on the winch, dragging the heavy animal up. Tah-mey was opening the hatch doors wide. "Isabelle!" David shouted. "Get below, to chain her when we get her down. There's some rope if you need to hobble her."
Isabelle dashed below, almost stumbling in her haste. She could hear the filly neighing pathetically outside. She saw the chain rig on the beam that David had set up to tie her baby to. She heard the dripping of water before she saw the filly floating above the open hatch doors. She wasn't kicking, just hanging limply, crying out in protest. Isabelle heard the grinding as the winch reversed. "Isabelle, she's coming down!"
"All right!" She shouted back as she watched the horse slowly descend. Water streamed off her sides and salt crystals gleamed on the blue hide. The long rope touched the hold floor first and Isabelle snatched it up. Finally, after an eternity, the horse's hooves touched the lower deck. "Stop!" Isabelle yelled. "She's down!"
The filly stood on quivering legs, too exhausted to lash out, her head drooping down. Isabelle quickly unbuckled the harness and pushed it away. It took several minutes of quiet coaxing to lead the filly to the tie post. Once she was fastened, the horse knelt into the layer of straw spread for her. She didn't move as Isabelle tossed a blanket over her and started to rub her dry. Then, she got a bucket of fresh water and guided the filly's muzzle to it. At long last, the horse drank.
When David leaned over the hold doors and called down, Isabelle didn't even look up. "I've got her. She's fine. She's better than fine."
"I hope she's worth it." Isabelle just barely heard David grumble. She didn't rise, just continued to dry her beautiful new horse.
At first, all David could see was light. Bright, white, blinding sunlight reflecting all around him. He could barely hear Isabelle's voice, "Do you want me to cover you?" and his own refusal. Then he felt the wood of the deck beneath his feet and he saw her before him. His Jenny waiting for him, her beautiful face, her shorn, black hair, and the gun in her hand. He moved towards her.
"Falling in love with you ruined my life, David." The sentence echoed in his brain, over and over.
Jenny was in front of him, backing away, lifting her pistol at him. He was talking to her, trying to reason with her, when her head turned slightly. With a snap she shifted, gun pointed away from them, firing twice, the echo loud, the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air. David realizing with horror what Jenny was shooting at. There was a flare, a red haze of blood around Isabelle's forehead as she was flung back from the mast where she stood. Isabelle, falling with agonizing slowness to the deck with her gun hand un-raised since she had only been watching, not covering him. She'd listened and followed his instructions and now she was still on the deck in her own blood.
His own voice screaming her name, and yet he couldn't hear it. Lunging towards Jenny to throw her down, a sharp bright pain in his head, feeling of heat as the blow of the side of the hot, smoking gun struck against his temple. David falling to his knees, stunned. Seeing drops of blood falling in the bright, bright sunlight.
He was looking down at Isabelle, not knowing how he got to her side. Her damp dark hair spread wildly around her. The bloody hole in her forehead, gaping, wet, and so wide that it had taken out one of her beautiful jade eyes. The blood, tracking everywhere, thick lines of red leading to her ruined face. Reaching to her neck, feeling desperately for a pulse, and finding not a flutter of that wild, wonderful life left. All torn out through the bloody hole and drained away. She was lost to him now.
"I thought she was going to kill you, David." He barely heard the whispered sound of Isabelle's voice, and the arrogance of his own reply.
"I knew better… I knew better…I knew better…I knew better…"
Jenny was falling away, leaving him in the bright, bright light.
David jerked awake with a gasp and a shudder. His skin was clammy to the touch. He opened and closed his eyes tightly, trying to banish the horrifying image from the nightmare from his mind. He felt slightly nauseous.
A cold-blooded killer, he remembered Isabelle saying. But his heart still had never wanted to believe it. If Isabelle had been less alert, would she be dead now? Did he almost lead her to her death?
David got out of his bunk and went to splash some water on his face. Reaching over to the chair back, he grabbed his trousers. He had to see her. Call it sailor's superstition; he just wanted to see that Isabelle was all right. He'd opened the adjoining door before he remembered that Isabelle wasn't there. Mauriri was asleep in her bunk at the moment. Tah-mey was on the helm. Isabelle was in the hold with that damned horse.
David headed to the hold, finding his way by touch. He opened the hatch quietly, hoping she was asleep. A faint light from a hooded lantern and a soft voice singing greeted him.
"All of my friends fell out with me, Because I kept your company, But let them say whatever they will, I love my love with a free goodwill. One I love, Two he loves, Three he's true to me." Isabelle sang, her voice soft and gentle. David moved closer, silently, trying not to startle her or the horse. She didn't see him; she wasn't even looking his direction. He heard a splashing in a bucket and the sound of a cloth being wrung. The horse was lying down, and seemed to be dozing. Isabelle had pulled together a straw bed for herself and put a blanket over it. She was undressed, save for her under-things, which took David off guard. She was beautiful in the soft light, the camisole hugging her breasts, the lace of her drawers riding a bit up her thighs, the soft gold of her skin contrasting against the white of the clothes. Her dark hair was shaken out and was a waterfall of curls down her back. She was a vision, the most glorious he'd ever seen her. "They tell me he's poor, They tell me he's young, I tell them all to hold their tongues, If they could part the sand from the sea, They never could part my love from me. One, I love, Two he loves, Three he's true to me." As he watched, she shook out the wet cloth and spread it out over her calf, which was a vicious shade of purple. She'd obviously been kicked badly.
"Dammit!" David thought, angrily. "I asked her if she got hit, and all I get is that she's fine. She could lose a limb and she'd mention it, what three days later? Son of a bitch!"
David stepped out of the darkness. "I thought you said you were fine."
"Jesus, David, wear a bell, will you?" Isabelle tossed the edge of the blanket over her legs. The filly opened her eyes and flicked her ears. David strode past the horse without a glance, making straight for his maddening partner. The horse rose to her feet in agitation.
"Dammit, David, I just had her calmed down." Isabelle said, exasperated. David ignored her, just knelt down, threw the blanket back and grabbed her leg. The bruise was wider than his hand, ugly on the lower half of her swollen calf. He ran his hands along her shin and over her ankle, to check the bones. Isabelle tugged her leg, but he held it tight. "For God's sakes, it's just a bruise. I'm taking care of it."
"When I ask you if you're hit, tell me you're hit. I'm sick of this not mentioning stuff you think you can take care of. Are you listening?"
"David, I can look after myself just fine." Isabelle protested.
"Yeah, I can tell. Dammit, Isabelle, you did the same thing when you cut your foot on the coral and almost poisoned yourself. Why the hell do you have to try to be twice the man anyone else is? You make it worse, not easier. Is this the only one?" David almost felt pleased when she flinched at his inspection. None of the bones felt broken or out of place and it didn't seem to be numb. She'd been damned lucky.
"The only one you need to see." She snapped.
"Show me." David ordered.
"David, forget it. I've been bruised up worse a hundred times. Leave it alone." Her eyes flashed in anger.
"Show me." David wasn't going to back down; he'd had enough of this.
"Fine." She sat up, curving one leg under her, passing a hand over her hip. Slowly, provocatively, her fingers went to the drawstring on her drawers and untied it. "Since you insist, David. But I thought you burned this bridge a long time ago? Didn't you?"
Her fingers slowly started to ease the waistband down, teasing. Impatiently, he reached over and took hold of the cloth and shoved it down her hip. "Oh, for God's sakes."
"Just take the fun out of everything, why don't you." She quipped dryly.
The other bruise was a curved crescent moon, over the curve of her flank to rise of her bottom. It was not as severe as the one on her leg, and clearly on flesh and not near the joint. He ran his fingers over it, checking the color.
Her skin was velvet soft to his touch. David could smell her, the fresh scent of the straw, the tang of the seawater, and subtly, underneath, the note of the most intimate fragrance of herself. He was so close; he could just see the dark shadow of her pubic fur under the white linen and lace. His body responded to his senses before his mind and he realized he was suddenly very hard. His mouth was dry. His hand was so close to her most intimate self, all he would have to do is reach a little farther, move his fingers and he would be touching her, caressing her. With just a motion, he'd have her under him, touching her – tasting her – listening to her cry out…
The filly moved backwards, circling a bit around her post, not pleased with the human interactions and the raised voices. David glanced at the animal.
Isabelle took advantage of the distraction and pushed him away. "Since you're not kissing it better, I think you've had enough viewing, thank you." Quickly, she pulled her drawers up and laced them tightly.
"Do you have to make everything so damned difficult!" David bristled in anger and in frustration. He tried to move in a way so she couldn't notice how tight the front of his trousers were. Thank God, she was too angry to look at him. "I'm trying to help you, for Christ's sakes."
"Forget this, David, I'm not another one of your lame ducks. I have it under control." She folded her arms over her breasts. Unfortunately for David, that only enhanced their curves, pressing her nipples against the thin cloth, rather than pushing them down. However, her obstinacy made him want to shake her until her teeth rattled, which was helping to douse the ardor.
"No, you don't. You haven't slept; you're not going to convince me you're not in pain. We have to swim that horse from the boat again tomorrow, and do you think you're going to do that with your leg buggered up? If it's stiffened up or you get kicked again it could cripple you." David's voice rose in frustration.
"I'll be ready, David. When have I held us back? When?" She was furious, now.
"You haven't, but you're so focused on outdoing us all you're not taking care of yourself, Isabelle. So, if you go down it's going to be hard and how the hell am I going to predict it? And I don't want to hear any bullshit that this is because you're a woman. I'd be saying it to Sparrow or Tah-mey…"
"Or Mauriri?" She spat. The filly shuffled, her ears back, stamping her feet.
"I could trust Mauriri not to hide anything serious from me, especially if it affects how he crews this boat. At the moment, I can't with you. You're too busy trying to prove something! Put some salve on the leg, take some aspirin powder, and get some sleep. That is an order." David stood and walked back to the hatch. "I'll check on you in a few hours."
"Aye, aye, Captain Grief." Isabelle's voice was thick with sarcasm. "Now, will you let me get this horse settled down again? Don't forget you'll need me to relieve you for the helm." Isabelle limped to the horse's head and stroked her neck.
"Mauriri can do it. I'll add to his goddamned fee." David slammed the hatch behind him and went to relieve Tah-mey.
David steeled himself as he pulled the canvas harness down on the chain over the horse. Isabelle held the stamping creature's head as David quickly fitted it around the barrel of her girth. The horse tried to shift away and lifted a hind leg for a kick, but Isabelle seized her lower jaw and blew a breath into her nostrils. Distracted, the filly pricked her ears. In a flash, David buckled the harness. The filly snorted in protest.
"Now," David thought, "That was the easy part." He turned to his partner, who was now petting and soothing the agitated horse. "Okay, we'll get her raised. While we do that, you get down into the boat."
"Into the boat?" Isabelle looked confused. "But you'll need me in the water to swim her."
"No. Mauriri is rowing the boat, you take the long line. I'll swim her to shore."
"What?!" Isabelle's surprise was now being taken over by temper. "David, she won't stand for you. Why are you doing this?"
"Maybe not. But she'll probably swim towards you in the boat. I'm not risking you getting kicked up again. This time it's my turn." David was firm.
"David, for God's sakes, you're making a lot over nothing!" Isabelle told him, exasperated.
"No, I'm bloody well not! What the hell are you always saying? 'You have to keep an eye on your investment?' Well, the shoe's on the other foot now. I'm not letting my business partner risk getting her leg broken and being slung up for weeks when I need her. It's Grief and Reed, remember? On board this ship, it's Grief. It's my call, Isabelle and I'm making it. You're in the boat." David didn't shout, but was close.
"You can be the most infuriating son of a bitch, David." Isabelle snarled.
"And you can be the biggest headache, Isabelle." David locked his gaze with her. Her eyes were jade green flaring with silver fire. "Are you getting in the boat or am I going to sling you over with the arm next?"
"Fine!" She snapped. "I'll get in the damn boat. But if she's hurt, I'll never forgive you."
"I figured that." David told her and turned to climb up on deck.
It had been a long night. David had taken his turn at the helm, the cool night air and the soft spray helping to ease down his temper. Then he dragged Mauriri up to relieve him. Mauriri agreed to do it after David explained Isabelle was injured and he'd ordered her to rest. Mauriri looked surprised, "She said it was just a bruise."
"Only one the size of my hand all over her lower leg." David snapped, a prickle of hurt mixed with reawakened anger. So, she'd rather tell Mauriri and not him? David had gone back to the hold, half-hoping she'd disobeyed him so he'd have an excuse to yell at her again.
He discovered the horse and Isabelle both asleep. Isabelle was on her side, rolled up in her blanket, snoring those funny little purring cat-like snores that she made which he usually found rather endearing. Somewhat mollified, he returned to his own bunk for forty winks. He slept lightly, fitfully dreaming images that he couldn't remember, that brought little rest. His head felt like he'd been rubbed with sandpaper when he woke.
David went back up topside, and took his place on the winch. The horse was only a thousand pounds at the very most, two men could haul her up, but it was faster with three of them turning. When slinging livestock, David liked to do it fast, to lesson panic. He'd once had an upset cow shit all over the boat while she was in mid-air and then tried to kick out the hold as soon as she was down. David hated hauling livestock.
All three of them worked turning the winch. The chain and pulleys creaked as it gathered up. The horse neighed loudly, objecting to the whole business. Soon, David saw her rise out of the hold like the rabbit out of a magician's hat. "Mo, get ready to swing her…Now!! Isabelle, get to the long boat!!"
David caught sight of Isabelle out of the corner of his eye as they swung the horse over the water. She dropped over the side, he heard her feet on the wood as she landed in the boat. "Is she clear below?" David shouted.
"Yes! Lower her away!"
The gears ground as they slowly guided the animal down. There were the long, anxious moments as the horse went out of sight from the boat before she went into the water below. Finally, they heard Isabelle's shout. "She's in the water!! I've got the line."
"Tah-mey, take the winch. Lift up the harness after I get it loose. Finish up with the Rattler and get to shore. I'll catch up with you later with your pay after I settle up with Isabelle." Tah-mey nodded agreeably. David turned to Mauriri. "Row the boat ahead, keep Isabelle on the line. I'll stay with the horse. I'm hoping the mare will swim towards Isabelle or head to shore."
"Think you can hold her?" Mauriri asked, with some concern, David was surprised to notice.
"Who? The horse or Isabelle?" David grinned at his old friend. Mauriri grinned back in spite of himself. "In the water, yes, I can manage the horse. On land, that's a whole new game. As for Isabelle? No chance." David finished locking the winch. Mauriri lowered himself over the side to get into the boat. David could hear the horse splashing as he chucked off his shoes and hauled himself overboard.
The filly craned her neck to look at him as he swam to her side. He didn't know if she was going to snap at him, so he cuffed her nose away. Quickly, he worked to unbuckle the harness and get it free, dodging kicks. "Tah-mey! Take it up!!"
As soon as the harness was clear, the filly surged forward. David kicked beside her and took her halter. Her ears clamped against her head and she tried to pull her head away. David kept his grip and swam strongly beside her. "No, you don't!" He told her sternly.
"It's all right, baby, we're getting you to shore. Good girl, there's the girl." Isabelle's soothing voice rolled to them. "Beatreessa, bella, darling. You're coming home."
"Damnation," thought David "If she ever spoke that way to me, I'd be in serious trouble."
Isabelle continued to talk to the filly as she swam, gathering up the line to keep it from getting too slack. Like David had hoped, the horse kept swimming towards her new Mistress. As long as the long boat could stay in front, things would be all right. David worked to swim with the horse, so he could keep himself afloat above her moving legs. The extra effort was draining, and the slow pace was maddening. After what seemed an eternity, David could see the edge of the beach landing. They were almost there. David felt the shift as the horse finally felt land beneath her feet again.
Mauriri pulled the oars in and leaped over the bow, seized the boat and dragged it in over the sand. Isabelle scrambled out, gathering line and then walking quickly into the water to take the horse from David. The beautiful filly walked out of the surf, stopped and shook like a big dog, catching David in the spray. Isabelle threw an arm around the filly's neck, and dug a hand into her pocket for a treat. Isabelle cooed to her horse as she took the dried fruit. Her green eyes were soft and shining, like a child's on Christmas morning.
Without looking away from her new pet, Isabelle addressed Mauriri. "Thank you, Mauriri. I'll bring you your money later after I've got her settled in."
"No worries. If you want, just leave it at Lavinia's. I'll get it. What are you going to call her?" Mauriri asked, curiously.
"Beatrice. What else?" She grinned. She pronounced the name in what David thought was probably French, BeaTreshe. It took a second for David's memory to jog. Beatrice was the woman who guided Dante to paradise in the Divine Comedy, his great love. Mauriri laughed.
"I'm sure that will make Dante very happy. I'd love to see the introduction, but I'll head home if you two can manage this."
"We've got it under control. Thanks, Mo, couldn't have managed without you." David held out a hand. After an endless second, Mo shook it. David's heart leaped. It was a small step, but a good one. He watched Mo walk away until he was out of sight. David turned back to Isabelle and the filly. "Well, let's show Beatrice her new digs."
It was slow going, walking Beatrice back to the yard. After every few yards, the horse had to rest a little, sniffing the vegetation and looking around before Isabelle would gently urge her along again. As they approached the stables, the filly's ears flicked and her nostrils flared as she scented the other horses. She nickered softly, and David heard another horse answer her back.
"There's an empty box by Dante." Isabelle told David. He nodded back. They didn't need to lead the horse much, now. The smell and sound of the barn, of other horses, drew Beatrice forward. Isabelle pushed the horse's shoulder toward the open box.
Beatrice went into the large box and turned around and around. Isabelle slipped out the gate and shut it. "Let's get her some bedding."
While they filled the wheelbarrow with straw, David watched Dante lift his head up to the rail on his side, looking at his new neighbor, nostrils flaring. David prodded Isabelle, grinning. "Look who's making eyes."
"Just like most males when a beauty comes by." Isabelle's voice was smug. She ducked back into the stall and reached up and rubbed Dante's nose.
"What do you think you'll do with her, Isabelle? Feed her up, sell her on?" He pushed the straw over the stall and passed it over to Isabelle to spread. "Make a bit of profit."
"Oh, no. No. She's staying mine. A horse like this? She could be my breeding foundation. She'll make this barn more than just a livery for hack rides and extra mounts for the guards. Ah, David. I've dreamed of having a horse like this all my life. Just wait until I bring her back. She's going to be worth everything."
David watched Isabelle spread the straw, all her attention on the new horse. For a moment a small thread of jealousy swelled again and David swallowed it. David remembered himself and the Rattler, then he thought of the horse in a new light. The first time he saw the Rattler in the bright sunlight and knew it was his own. His own boat, the business he would build, the futures for Mauriri and himself. What he had, what he lost, and what he had to regain. Maybe Isabelle could bring that miserable horse back. Wasn't that what she was doing for him? Bringing him back? She wasn't one of his lame ducks, she told him. He had to grin sadly. She was never a lame duck of his. What she didn't seem to realize that he was might be one of hers, just like this lost horse she brought home.
"Why don't I take this next run and let you stay here and get her eating. It's just a short run, only a couple of weeks." David offered.
Isabelle stood up, resting a hand on Beatrice's hip while the blue filly sniffed Dante's stall wall. She looked torn. " I don't know. We've been going together and it's been a bit uphill as it is, David. You haven't left on time or arrived on time for months. And there's the paperwork and you've left that for me pretty much..."
"I'll be good as gold, mother." David grinned at her as he leaned on the stall gate. "I'll make sure you have every scrap note and manifest copy. Come on, Isabelle. You've been pushing Grief and Reed ever since you bought in. Time Reed and Grief got your attention for a while."
"Reed and Grief? Since when did you get a stake in the barn, David?" Isabelle ducked out of the stall and walked to the feed bin.
"I have a share! Just not on paper." David followed her. "Look, I have to have a place to sleep on land when it's storming or I've had a few too many. I'd hate you to put up another lodger in the tack room. So it's in my best interest to keep the barn going."
"Lodger?" Isabelle laughed. " Lodgers pay rent, David." she reminded him.
"I'll help you patch the hayloft roof when I get back. How's that for rent?" David held out a hand. Isabelle smiled broadly and gave it a shake. "Deal."
Isabelle turned back at to the filly who was looking at the bucket of feed in Isabelle's hand with great interest. "When you get back, you won't recognize her."
It was three weeks when the Rattler returned. A little behind schedule, but not too bad in David's estimate. He was on the helm, rounding the Island. The early morning light was very fine and he was in a good mood at returning home. It wasn't a hard trip, but it was a lonely and tedious one with only Tah-mey to talk to. He'd missed Isabelle's company at the helm, her lively wit, her helping skill with the negotiations- and if he had to admit it, knowing she was nearby when in the night when the nightmares left him cold and empty.
The Rattler was drawing closer to land. David could see long lines of sandy beach as he headed the boat toward the docks. He saw some movement and squinted. It looked like a horse and rider. No wait, perhaps two horses. David reached for his spyglass for a closer look.
One of the horses was Dante, his sorrel coat and flax mane and tail were easy to spot. Isabelle was on his back leading the blue filly on a long lead. The beautiful horse had put some flesh on in the three weeks, and her head was high and alert. Isabelle was turned to the filly, speaking to her as they trotted to the water's edge.
As soon as Dante's forefeet touched the water, he jerked his head and lifted his feet proudly. The filly started to dance around on the end of the line. Isabelle tightened the reins and Dante hopped into a canter, the filly keeping up easily. The blue horse's tail rose proudly like a banner. She pushed forward, wanting to get ahead of Dante, but Isabelle maneuvered him to keep ahead, and then set them into a gallop together.
David watched the two horses run, casting up sea water shining like jewels in their wake. Dante's strong smooth gait, with Isabelle riding with perfect balance. Her hair flying behind her. Her body was arched as if she was an extension of the hunter. The filly, her coat almost black from the spray, moving so gracefully across the sand that she reminded him of a girl's silver grey hair ribbon caught by the wind. Isabelle was laughing and, relaxed. She was happy in a pure, open way that David had never seen before. She was unguarded, just being alive and free, happy in a way that was pure and open . She was beautiful, as beautiful as her horses.
A sudden dip to the bow reminded David where he was and what he was doing. Quickly he corrected the wheel and got back on the track for the docks. For the first time in a long time, he was looking forward to coming home and seeing what awaited him.
Author's notes: 'His The Doom' is from a medieval French carol. Connie Dover has included it in a beautiful version called 'Cantus' which is on her album 'Somebody'.
Alas, 'One I Love' is not period, though it is based around an Appalachian folk song. It was recorded by Meav Ni Mhaolchatha, currently of Celtic Woman fame, on her first album, 'Maev'. I recommend both albums highly.
This story would not have been written without the assistance and encouragement of Lyn, Rann, Dot and Carol. Thank you. It is to them that this story and any following chapters are fondly dedicated.