PART 27 - MANY HAPPY RETURNS
Gwen and Jane burst to the surface in the center of the pool at the end of the Mermaid's cave, gasping for breath in the cool air of the cavern. As they wiped the salt water out of their eyes and noses, Jane had to raise her voice to be heard over the air compressor as its rhythmic chugging rang noisily off of the rocky walls around them. "Dang, darlin'. That's a hell of a swim, even with that air pipe y'all got set up down thar."
The vixen nodded, as they made their way to the edge, finding their feet on the sandy floor of the pool. "Yeah, it's a good thing Junko had the compressor going."
Their heads whipped around at the sound of a feeble voice calling to them from the ledge. "J-Junko darlin'. Is... is that... Are y'... y'all back? Are..."
The voice subsided into a painful onslaught of coughing and retching. Pausing only to shake the water off of their sodden fur, the two females hurried over to a figure that lay on the tarpaulin, next to the gaping shell of the rubber mermaid's tail that had been shoved aside to make room for a bedroll and cocoon of towels and blankets. The scattered contents of a medical kit, a canteen, and an open can of vegetable broth were laying around in a disorganized clutter, all under the dim illumination of a lantern that sat on a nearby crate.
Gwen and Jane recoiled in shock when they saw her. A pale shadow of Jane Early looked up at them with glazed, glassy eyes, her face ashen and her ears and limbs drooping as she stirred and tried to focus on them, a trickle of blood running from her quivering nose and chin.
The vixen's dark-furred hands went to her mouth, as the hale Jane crouched down and took her by the hand. "It's me, darlin'. We jest got back."
A smile spread across the stricken doe's features as she feebly gripped her double's hand. Her voice was weak, and up close they could hear a rattling in her throat as she struggled to breathe "Oh thank th' good Lord y'all finally came."
Without another word, Jane reached down and pulled aside the blankets, revealing a red soaked pad of gauze tightly wrapped over her double's shuddering ribcage. Dried blood stained the padding beneath her, matting down the fur along her side.
The stricken rabbit let out a small sigh, accompanied by a feeble cough. "If'n y-y'all think that's bad, y'all shoulda seen p-poor Junko. Sh-she was covered with th' stuff, poor th-th-thang..."
A tear ran down her sunken cheek, following a trail that had been blazed through her matted fur by countless others. "It... it's all my dang fault too. If'n I hadn't been so goldurn... c-cocky we coulda all hid out down here fore them miserable, yellow bellied bush-... bush-whackin..."
She surged upward, gripping her duplicate's arm. "D-did she make it? She warned y'all, right? She's... she's okay, ain't she?"
Jane gave her wounded double a gentle smile. "She's jest fine, darlin'. Y'all should be mighty proud o' her."
She shrugged. "Anyhow, if'n she didn't make it we wouldn't be here, darlin'."
The invalid rabbit shook her head. "N-not necessarily. I... I been down th' tunnel, darlin'. A couple times in the night. The BIG tunnel... Y'know."
The healthy double let out a gasp, recoiling with wide eyes. The wounded Jane let out a strained chuckle accompanied by a grimace as she fought to keep it from becoming a cough. "Thing... thing is, anybody who'd be waitin' to lead me into th'... into th' light is either still alive or ain't been born yet... There weren't nobody t' meet me."
Her brow furrowed. "N-no, wait. That ain't... ain't true. Th'... th' last time there... there might have been somebody else thar. Didn't give a name, but they... They jest gave me a big ol' hug n' told me it weren't time yet. S-so back I came fer good..."
The healthy doe reeled back with a gasp. "M... my G...."
She was cut off by another bout of coughing and the stricken rabbit looked up at her with a lopsided grin. "Maybe. I reckon I'll f-find out someday, but fer now I was powerful glad t' come back."
A wistful look came to her face. "I didn't wanna leave Junko behind. D-didn't want t' lose th' memories o' the day I jest s-s-spent with her. Didn't wanna leave her with th' memory o' me slippin' away in her arms. That woulda been awful! That woulda..."
She subsided into more strained coughing. Her hale double reached down and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Well y'all don't gotta worry 'bout that now, darlin'. Lets git y'all fixed up."
At this, Gwen finally found her voice, quavering with despair as tears began to flow down her already dampened cheeks. She pointed a shaking finger at the massive wound in the stricken rabbit's side. "Fixed up? How the heck are you possibly gonna fix that?"
Jane looked over her shoulder and smiled. "Like this, darlin'."
With that, another duplicate appeared at her side, and laid down next to her wounded double, taking her hand in her own. A split-second later, a single rabbit lay on the tarp at the midpoint between the two vanished bodies, a half healed wound in her side. A blood-soaked lead slug laid on the spot where the gravely wounded rabbit had occupied.
As her vixen companion marveled, she propped herself
up on her elbows, looking at her unwounded duplicate with clearer eyes, a
pained smile crossing her face. "N-Next?"
A snarl spread across Klaus Ravenholt's face as he peered through his binoculars at the approaching launch. The brown tabby and tan-furred rabbit sat and looked impassively ahead, their casual attitude as they approached his floating stronghold amplifying his fury. He lowered the glasses and bellowed over at the heavyset far-eastern bear who leaned on the railing beside him, staring at the returning launch with goggling dismay. "Captain Dao! Sharpshooters! Bring out the rifles, now!"
The black furred bear turned, popping a button over his belly as he drew in breath to give a shout over his right shoulder. "MISTER PHUNG! RIFLES!"
He was startled as the angular-faced feline appeared at his left side, grasping the railing with his dark-furred hands as a trio of riflemen - A dirty-furred jackrabbit, a rawboned hyena, and a stern-faced dog who's dingy black-and-white face told of Huskian extraction - all took up positions along the railing and sighted-in.
The feline's creaking voice sounded out as he looked down the rail at them past the wolf and bear with his slightly crossed, slitted blue eyes. "The Captain has promised a gold sovereign to the one who puts a bullet between the eyes of the Sylvanian females. Is this not so, Captain?"
The bear blinked and shook his head. "I have? Yes... yes I have. A sovereign for each!"
The rabbit's ears laid back over his broad brimmed hat as he sighted down his rifle. "Aisy monneh, Mistah Phang. Two shielas, roit in th' hid."
His brow furrowed as he scanned across a placid, empty lagoon. His fellow snipers had similar cause for confusion, their rifle barrels waving back and forth without a target. A snarl came from the hyena. "Where they go?"
The Ravenholt let out a growl and raised the binoculars again, panning them over the water with his ears lying back flat against his skull. "<Damn them! DAMN them! DAMN THEM! How are they DOING that?>"
The three gunmen each in turn responded with a startled cry as three shots rang out from below, and their rifles leapt out of their hands in bursts of shattered wood and broken metal. The wolf's jaw dropped, his binoculars falling out of his hands and plunking into the water far below.
He spent a moment blinking morosely at the ripples, before turning and grabbing Phung by the scruff of his neck and shaking him. "Get the crew up here. All of them! Bring veapons! Stand ready to repel boarders."
The burly ursine captain of the Hei Long rounded on him. "From where, Herr Ravenholt?"
The wolf threw the hapless feline to the deck and bared his fangs at the black-furred bear. "Don't ask stupid qvestions, fool! Just go! NOW!"
With that, he turned, and started stalking across the deck.
Mr. Phung propped himself up on his elbow and called after him. "Where are you going, Herr Ravenholt?"
The wolf snapped over his shoulder. "Below! Now get moving, you vorthless idiots! Vhat am I paying you for?"
The feline's eyes narrowed, as the shaken jackrabbit helped him to his feet. He cursed under his breath. "Not this, I can tell you..."
A faint smile flashed across Dorothy's muzzle beneath
her glittering eyes, as she slid two fresh clips of ammunition into the
Widow's Tears. She turned her uncanny gaze toward the enthralled male
cat who sat at the the stern next to the other rope, and pointed upward.
The feline began pulling the rope in tandem with Jane, raising the boat
up toward the ship's upper deck.
One was the hulking bear who had menaced Gwen on the Casino Island docks. He carried a heavy ball-peen hammer in his left hand while his right hand was clutched to his broad chest, tightly bound and splinted. Large, ugly bruises adorned both cheeks, making his features even more grotesque than they were before.
A narrow-faced, predatory-looking caracal stood at his side, his tufted ears poking up through the folds of a black turban as he twirled a length of chain in his broad hands. They stepped up to the empty boat, peering into it quizzically.
Suddenly, three figures appeared in the launch before the two thug's startled eyes. One, their feline crew mate, slouched insensate at the back of the boat, staring into space with a line of drool slowly dangling from his lower lip. Another feline, a brown-furred female tabby, met the caracal's eyes, and intoned a command in a clear, strident voice: "The Gaze sees all. Your will is my will, and I command you to step aside!"
The caracal's sour green eyes widened into twin black moons, and he dropped his chain with a clatter to the deck, taking a shaking step backwards under the smaller female's icy-eyed glare.
All the bear saw was a cotton tail and a blur of khaki, as the rabbit doe standing before him planted her hands on the edge of the boat and did a handstand, locking her ankles around his bull neck and yanking him forward in a bellowing arc before he came to a stop with a bone-splintering crunch, face-first into the deck of the launch. With an effortless change of direction her hobnail-booted feet tapped on the floor of the boat and pushed, sending her flipping over the ledge and landing lightly on the ship's deck, grinning over her shoulder as he crumpled into a heap with a mournful groan.
The icy-eyed feline stepped down onto the deck beside her, and turned, firing two shots at either end of the launch. The ropes snapped and sent the small boat plummeting down to the water with a thunderous crash. She then turned to the mesmerized caracal as she holstered her pistols, snapping her fingers at him and beckoning him to follow.
They stood, transfixed, until a whooping battle cry sounded in the narrow space. "WHEEEE HAWKEN!"
Suddenly a sinewy, tan-furred figure leapt out of the depths of the phantom, grasping the rails and bringing her hobnail-booted feet up under the red panda's chin, causing his jaw to collide forcefully with his skull. Knocked senseless, he toppled backwards onto the coati and sable who were following closely behind him, bowling the smaller thugs down the stairs.
The huskie sniper, who was bringing up the rear armed with a bush knife, dodged frantically out of the way and allowed his crew mates to tumble past. The three sailors came to a stop at the bottom of the steps in a moaning tangle of disjointed limbs and tails, as the canine looked up with his pale eyes just in time to have a pair of thick bootheels slam down onto his face. He went down hard like a sack of hammers, sprawled on the steps like a rag doll.
The muscular rabbit doe, dressed in boots, loose trousers, and tight cotton wrappings around her chest, swung her legs back like a pendulum and plonked her heels down on the step above her, standing triumphantly and raising her arms over her head as if she'd just dismounted from a gymnastics routine. She grinned up at the feline and the identical rabbit doe clad in a loose shirt and ball cap, who gave her a wink and a thumbs up.
Dorothy glanced at the caracal following her and jerked her head perfunctorily at the bottom of the stairs. "Take them below and lock them up, and then do whatever the rabbit doe says."
The tawny-brown, tuft-eared thug nodded dully, and slouched down the stairs, and grabbed the limp body of the unconscious husky, hefting him over his shoulder.
The Jane halfway down the stairs flicked a salute up at the tabby and her duplicate, then leapt the rest of the way down to the bottom, and was suddenly two, then four identical does. The one still wearing the wrappings around her chest hastily unwound them, while the one wearing the trousers pulled the Alpine knife out of her pocket and started slicing off lengths of the cotton cloth and handing them to her duplicates, who fashioned them into loincloths and knotted wraps around their chests.
Once they'd passably clothed themselves, they knelt down and picked up the inert bodies of the other three sailors, hustling after the suborned caracal as he headed for the door to the lower decks.
Dorothy looked over at the Jane who remained at her side and jerked her head toward the wheelhouse.