ESCAPE

Excerpt from The Smuggler's Secret by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2024)

Beneath a dawn-streaked sky, Min Jing shrank toward the deckhouse of the barque Nation, wearing a silk dress finer than any she had ever owned. Panicked sailors scrambled across the tilting deck, working the ropes as they struggled to free the vessel from the Columbia River's clutches.

Waves battered the hull, and the masts creaked ominously in the wind. Min Jing pressed herself into the shadows as a pair of sailors rolled yet another barrel toward the stern.

“Ain’t the right spot,” one said.

“Don’t matter,” said the other.

They heaved the barrel over the side. It bobbed in the chop, at the mercy of the waves.

Back home in China, the waters of the Huáng Hé were placid and yellow with silt. But the waters of this foreign river roiled as if a dragon stirred beneath the waves. During these many weeks at sea, Min Jing had found little that reminded her of home, except on the rare occasions when Charley Yong, her unlikely confidant, had spoken with her in her native tongue.

Overseer of the ship’s human cargo, Charley had nearly died on the voyage across the Pacific. With her grandmother’s medicines, tucked in a pouch tied about her waist, Min Jing nursed him back to health. In return, Charley told her the harsh truth her father had concealed. She was not being sent to America for education and a wealthy husband. Her father had sold her into servitude to pay his gambling debts. With sons to carry on the family name, his daughter was expendable.

But to her captors, Min Jing was valuable cargo. Purchased for fifty dollars, a pretty girl like her could fetch a thousand dollars at auction, Charley said. Sold to the highest bidder, her life would be misery. Sailors, drunks, men riddled with diseases of the lowest sort—they would pay, and she would have to please them all. That was how Charley put it, as delicately as he knew how.

Confronted with this bitter reality, Min Jing had repeated her grandmother’s wisdom over and over: To tame a tiger is difficult. But it is not impossible. So it is with fate. One must be clever and seize opportunity.

The ship lurched, its timbers groaning under the strain. Caught off balance, Min Jing stumbled. A man’s grip tightened over her arm.

She wheeled around. Charley was at her side, his presence both startling and reassuring. His weathered face was tight with tension, but his eyes held a fierce determination as he leaned close.

"Now is your chance.” Over the ship’s groans and the men’s shouts, his voice was barely audible. "When the last barrel goes over, dive in and swim for it with all your strength. Grab hold. Hang on. Let the current carry you to shore. Don't look back. This is your path to freedom, Min Jing. Seize it."

She nodded, her throat tight with fear, her heart filled with gratitude. She felt the weight of Charley's sacrifice, the enormity of the gift he was giving her. He would face harsh punishment, even death, for this act of defiance. Yet here he stood, unwavering in his commitment to her liberation.

"You must save yourself too,” she said.

"Seeing you to safety is my only redemption." He had been a father himself until death claimed his daughter. During his illness, she had come to him in a fevered dream, urging him to help Min Jing. “You know what to do. What to say. How to get by.”

Swallowing hard, she nodded. Recovering from his illness, he’d taught her as much as he dared.

"If things go wrong, you have your other escape," he reminded her.

Min Jing patted the pouch at her waist. A noble death, if it came to that.

Beneath her feet, the hull shuddered and creaked. From belowdecks came a loud crack. "Lower the boats!" the captain shouted from the prow. In the scramble for safety, a sailor rolled the last of the barrels into the water.

Charley nudged her toward the stern. Clinging to his sleeve, she lifted her skirt and climbed over the railing. Poised above the whitecaps, she braced herself, not wanting to look down.

“You can do this,” he said. “You carry the power of your ancestors within you.”

The wind whipping her hair, she gripped the rail.

“Now, Min Jing. Now.”

She released her hold and plunged into the waves. The water was shockingly cold, the current overwhelming. She was no match for these deep, dark waters. Nothing more than a twig swirled by forces too great to counter.

You carry the power of your ancestors within you.

She kicked hard against the water, stroked upward with the broad reach of her arms. Breaking the surface, she gasped for air and locked her eyes on the barrel.

Grab hold. Hang on. How simple that had sounded when Charley said it, and how impossible it seemed now.

from The Smuggler's Secret: Book Five of The Tidewater Chronicles

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Secrets of the Blue and Gray

The Tidewater Chronicles

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