Sarah made an irritated noise and stood. "Give me your wrist." Still coughing, he regarded her grimy hand with apprehension. "Do you wish for my help or not?"
He held out one pale, slim, clean hand.
Sarah snatched up the proffered limb. His pulse was irregular and fast, and his skin hot and damp.
She dropped his arm. "I will need to look in your ears and mouth."
He leaned forward, and she took his angelic, clean face with her filthy hands and tilted him toward the light streaming through the porthole window. "Open your mouth and depress your tongue with your finger." He did so, and Sarah looked her fill before resuming her seat and meeting his frightened gaze.
"You have the choking fever," she lied, adding a silent prayer.
"The choking fever," he repeated, as if in a trance. "And the cure?" The hope in his eyes was painful to witness, no matter how much he deserved his suffering.
"Only the thorn of Christ will cure it." Sarah offered more prayers for forgiveness of the lies pouring from her mouth. Surely the dire circumstances would excuse her dishonesty?
"Thorn of Christ?" he repeated.
"Yes, a rare herb." So rare as to be nonexistent.
"Where can we procure this herb?"
It was the question Sarah had been hoping for.
"It only grows near coastal marshes." It was imperative she convince him to take the ship back to shore. It was the only chance for her and the people in the hold—if she could get the door open.
Sarah pushed the thought away. First things first.
She examined the room while the captain pondered her words. A pair of dueling pistols hung over the desk, the guns so ornate Sarah could hardly believe they were real. She was imagining ways to get her hands on one when a deafening crack shook the room.
She jumped to her feet. "What was that?"
The Dutch captain gave her a grim look. "That, Miss Fisher, was the sound of cannon fire."
"Cannon fire?" Sarah repeated, the words hanging in the air between them like so much smoke.
Graaf uttered several uncivil-sounding words in Dutch and made for the door. "I will return directly." He slammed the door, and a key scraped in the lock; so, he was not distracted enough to forget to lock the cabin door behind him.
Sarah waited until his footsteps receded before lunging for one of the pistols. She tripped over her sodden skirts and banged into the captain's heavy teak chair in the process.
"Blast," she muttered, standing on tiptoe to pluck the ornate pistol from the wall. She broke open the breech and almost sobbed—the gun was real.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she whispered frantically beneath her breath.
She jammed a gun in each of her tattered skirt pockets and commenced to riffle drawers and cabinets, her hands shaking so badly, she dropped clothing, books, and other items all over the cabin floor. Just when she thought the search was fruitless, she spied a polished wooden box. It contained powder, lead balls, and pistol-shaped indentations lined with red silk.
"Oh, thank you!" she said with a sob, dropping to the floor and beginning the process of loading the guns. Her father had owned an ancient pistol and had taught her to load and clean the weapon one year when three lions had menaced their village. This gun, although far fancier, was, in all important aspects, the same.
When she'd finished loading the second gun, she secured it in the waistband of her skirt and placed the remaining powder and balls into the pocket of her tattered petticoat. She'd just taken up a position behind the door and pulled back the hammer when a key clicked in the lock.
The squawk of surprise that tore from Graaf's mouth when the barrel of his own pistol touched his temple was more than a little satisfying.
"This pistol is loaded, and I will not hesitate to use it." Sarah was proud of her steady hand and voice. "Now, sit down."
The captain sat, his shoulders sagging with defeat. "Whatever it is you want, you probably will not get it. That cannon was fired by the privateer who has been following us."
"Privateer?" Her fingers tightened on the pistol, and the Dutchman grimaced, his eyes wide as he stared at her hand.