Gelsomina held on to the busted mast of the Happyland. Clinging to the floating wreckage was the rest of her team, awed by the sight of the great pirate vessel blown to kindling by the mighty Maka.
Debris was everywhere. Pirates were sprawled on the ruins of the Happyland that rode the now calm waters that had just moments ago swallowed the boat and spit out its splintered pieces as if seeds from a watermelon.
An eerie quiet covered the water’s surface, made even stranger after the raucous sounds of battle that had previously filled the air. Moans and groans from the injured pirates broke the silence. Gelsomina was the first to speak.
“Is everyone okay?” she asked.
The team nodded, too shocked to talk.
Gelsomina was silent again.
Words were unnecessary. Everybody was thinking the same thing: where was Nickelan Wand?
The last thing they saw was Nickelan going down with the Happyland. Baber Groan and Selwyn Harris, Dollar Green and the Maka henchmen, were joined in battle tighter than a sailor’s knot. Then they were all gone with the ship into the depths of the hungry sea, which burped up large bubbles that popped into the air with a sickening belch.
Forcing her eyes off the site of the ship’s demise, Gelsomina surveyed her surroundings and spied land only a short swim from where they were stranded. She turned back to the flat sea, pockmarked with scraps from the Happyland, hoping that Nickelan would suddenly appear and fearful that Baber Groan might. The sea refused to give up what it had taken.
“So much for your Redeemer,” Fischel Bocephus said, breaking the silence with bravado and blasphemy.
“Shut up,” snapped Spike, swinging his bat at Fischel. He missed the target. Spike’s voice was choked with emotion. He was too upset to back his anger with real violence.
“Hey,” Fischel backed away from Spike’s blow. “I kind of liked the guy, too. Didn’t believe for a moment that he was one of us, mind you, but, overall, Nickelan was all right. I mean, I didn’t want him dead.” The more Fischel spoke, the more ugly stares he got from the other kids. “He did bring Baber Groan and his henchmen after us! We’re still a team, right, Gelsomina?”
“What are we going to do?” Shiny Buttons asked.
“We’re going to swim to shore and get ourselves back to Kid City,” Gelsomina answered. “Same plan as always, nothing’s changed.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Shiny said. “What are we going to do without Nickelan,” then she said softer, “without the Redeemer?”
“Nickelan Wand is dead,” Gelsomina said definitively, “but we’re alive, and if we want to stay that way we better get ourselves out of the water and onto dry land and back to Kid City before more Makas come.”
“Yeah,” Fischel chimed in, “unless you want to be enslaved in Thunder World or join the Redeemer at the bottom of the sea!”
“Shut up, Fischel,” Gelsomina said sharply.
Tears welled up in Shiny’s clear blue eyes. Spike shrank into his baseball uniform as if it was many sizes too big. The brim of Hop Long’s cowboy hat was broken. Hooken Ladder’s fireman’s hat was twisted the wrong way, which emphasized his long face. Chairman Meow’s whiskers drooped, and Count Blood was chewing nervously on his fangs.
“I’ve never lost a member of my team,” Gelsomina said solemnly, “until today. I’m not going to lose another. We’ll mourn for Nickelan in Kid City. Right now, we got to get out of here.”
“Do you hear that?” Fischel asked.
Everyone heard drums. The last time they heard drums was on the shore after tangling with the giant crocodile. That’s when they encountered the pirates, but the pirates were all floating on bits and pieces of the Happyland, waterlogged and beaten and not in a festive mood.
The drums were coming from the land. When Gelsomina returned her attention to the shoreline she discovered the source of the drumming. A dozen canoes were in the water and paddling swiftly towards the wreck of the Happyland.
“Indians,” Gelsomina observed.
“They’re going to scalp us!” Fischel panicked.
Gelsomina gave him a hard look and then said, “Stay calm.” There was nothing else they could do.
Indians. In all of her travels from Kid City through the Lands Between and to Thunder World, over countless missions, Gelsomina had never come into contact with Indians, though she had heard tales of their existence. The stories were farfetched. The Indians were cannibals, headhunters, savages. They spoke no known language, were reclusive and legendary in their cruelty to those unlucky enough to be captured by them. Indians drank blood and wore the bleached bones of their victims. No one ever returned alive after meeting up with an Indian, let alone an entire tribe. Then again, no one had ever seen any Indians. The scandalous hearsay was obviously exaggerated, but as the canoes got closer Gelsomina couldn’t help feeling apprehensive.
A long canoe glided up besides the floating mast and a male Indian dressed in tanned animal hides and feathers stood up to address Gelsomina and the other kids.
“How—” he said before being interrupted by Fischel.
“Me heap big fan of Indians,” Fischel said slowly and deliberately. “I’m no paleface, part Indian. Really. Love to smoke the peace pipe, shoot bow and arrow, live in a wigwam, all that jazz—I mean, wampum.”
“I was going to say, ‘How can we help?’ before you rudely cut in,” the Indian said.
“Wait,” Fischel noted suspiciously, “you’re no redskin.”
The Indians were quite pale, some with blond hair and light eyes. They were just old men dressed up like Indians.
“That’s prejudiced, young man,” the Indian said. “We prefer the term ‘natives.’”
“But you just look like some rejects from Thunder World.” Fischel was confused.
Gelsomina was relieved. “Please excuse my companion,” Gelsomina said. “He’s in a state of shock. As you can see, we’ve been shipwrecked and would be happy if you could assist us to the shore.”
The natives ferried Gelsomina and her team, as well as the pirates, to landfall. The pirates, demoralized by their total and devastating defeat, chose not to follow the natives to their camp. The natives may have been living in the Lands Between, but they were still grown-ups in the eyes of the teenage pirates, who wanted nothing to do with them. They tolerated Selwyn Harris, served under him because he provided a seafaring vessel, but the Happyland was no longer seafaring and Selwyn Harris had followed her down to the bottom of the sea with the first mate, Dollar Green. The pirates thanked the natives for rescuing them and moved on in search of a port and a ship and a barrel of rum and songs to sing before they grew too old.
“Thunder World is no place for us,” Mumbo Jumbo, the native who had rescued Gelsomina and her team, spoke as they walked to the natives’ camp. “We tired of the constant fighting. Fighting for breakfast, fighting for lunch and fighting at suppertime. Fighting for work, fighting for play. Everybody was so mad all the time. We longed for a different life, living off the land.” Mumbo pulled at a necklace of animal bones around his neck.
“But the stories,” Gelsomina asked, “about savages boiling people alive in caldrons?”
“Yes,” Mumbo laughed. “Lurid stuff, but it serves a purpose. You wouldn’t go out of your way to meet up with an ‘Indian,’ would you?”
“No,” Gelsomina agreed.
“That’s the way we like it,” Mumbo added seriously, “left to ourselves.”
“Then why’d you save us?” Gelsomina asked.
“The Redeemer told us to,” Mumbo said casually.
Gelsomina stopped in her tracks, as did the rest of her team.
“Nickelan,” she asked, “is alive?”
“The Redeemer is most certainly alive,” replied Mumbo. “You don’t think a gnat like Baber Groan could disrupt destiny? A power far greater than the Makas has arrived and with it sounds the final days of Thunder World. The adult will live with the child as it has been foretold. We natives will no longer be exiles, but free to live as we choose and where we choose. It will truly be paradise.”
“Nickelan Wand is alive!” Gelsomina turned to her team and grabbed each and every one by the shoulders, pulling them to her for a strong embrace. Even Fischel Bocephus happily hugged Gelsomina.
“Where is he?” Gelsomina said, turning back to Mumbo Jumbo.
“At camp,” Mumbo said. “Here…”
Mumbo Jumbo pulled aside some hanging vines to reveal the natives’ camp, which looked like a painting of the Old West come to life. There was the expected scattering of teepees, a fire burning in front of each, with squaws and braves on their haunches stirring pots and sharpening arrowheads. The scene lost its authenticity on closer inspection, as the natives were mostly a pasty and potbellied crew, more traveling circus than fierce war party. Grown-ups at play, Gelsomina thought. They couldn’t pull it off, weren’t built for fun, and she smiled at the absurdity of adults playing games. Her smile grew broad and opened to a joyful scream when she spied Nickelan among the Indians.
“Nickelan!” Gelsomina ran towards him at full speed.
“Gelsomina,” Nickelan said, looking up from the piping hot bowl of soup he was spooning into his mouth. “Good to see you.”
Adoring natives surrounded Nickelan, caring for him hand and foot, literally. One had Nickelan’s free hand in her lap and was polishing his fingernails. Two others were at his feet, massaging them. Another fanned the flames of the fire to ensure that the chill from the sea was quickly vanquished. Yet another stood behind Nickelan, rubbing his back through the thick blanket that covered him. Others were cooking over the open fire, and one more stood attentively nearby with a water sack. There was a circle of natives beyond the fawning ones orbiting Nickelan, erect, on guard.
“Who goes there?” demanded one of the guards, thrusting a tomahawk between Gelsomina and himself.
Gelsomina knocked the tomahawk aside with her arm and placed her right leg behind the legs of the guard. She then pushed his chest with her left hand and the guard tripped over Gelsomina’s leg and fell hard to the ground.
A dozen other guards were on Gelsomina before she could take another step towards Nickelan.
“Get off of me!” Gelsomina growled from beneath the pileup.
“Hey,” Nickelan jumped up, the soup splashing to the ground, “leave her alone!”
Just as quickly as they had tackled Gelsomina, the guards leaped off her and stood at attention. They were awaiting Nickelan’s command. The guards, the entire tribe, were under Nickelan’s rule.
“She’s my friend,” Nickelan dressed down his troops. “I told you to save her not harm her.”
“We were just protecting you, Redeemer,” explained one guard timidly.
“Are you all right?” Nickelan asked Gelsomina.
“It takes more than a bunch of nutty grown-ups playing dress-up to hurt me,” Gelsomina said, staring down the humbled guards. “Nickelan.” Her face brightened as she turned to him. “You scared us to death. We thought you were dead.”
“That’s been happening a lot.” Nickelan smiled and sat back down. Natives grabbed his hands to continue their manicure. Kneeling admirers again massaged his feet.
“I guess I’m a lucky guy,” Nickelan mused, “or perhaps there’s some truth to this Redeemer nonsense.”
“Nonsense is right,” Gelsomina said under her breath.
“When Baber Groan punched the Happyland and it broke apart, I felt myself fall into the sea,” Nickelan said. “Selwyn Harris had Baber Groan in a headlock and Dollar Green was still struggling with Baby Booba. It happened so quickly. I couldn’t really see. The sea was thick with the broken Happyland. Something hit me. It must have been a piece of the ship. I don’t know. But the next thing I knew I was washed up on shore with a tribe of Indians poking at me.”
“Natives, Redeemer,” Mumbo Jumbo corrected him. “We prefer the term natives.”
“Whatever.” Nickelan shrugged. “There was something else. Just before I was knocked out I heard a voice.”
A murmur rose up. “Redeemer,” many said. “Salvation,” said others.
Gelsomina rolled her eyes, then directed them to Nickelan. “What did it say?”
“It was the same voice,” Nickelan addressed Gelsomina, “the same voice that I heard falling through the Pipes and after battling the giant croc. I didn’t catch most of what it said, but before I passed out I did hear it tell me to seek out the Indians.”
“Natives,” Mumbo amended.
“That they would take me to The Septic,” Nickelan added, “and finally to Kid City.”
“Yes.” Mumbo grinned. “It’s true. The Septic is not far from our camp. No one wants to cross The Septic. It keeps the curious away. We like our privacy.”
“That’s when I told the Indians,” Mumbo frowned, and Nickelan paused, “that is the natives, that’s when I told them to rescue you from the wreckage. We’re a team.”
“Whatever the Redeemer wants,” Mumbo joined in, “I, Chief Mumbo Jumbo, will provide.”
“Just how did you convince these clowns that you are the Redeemer?” Gelsomina wanted to know.
Mumbo took offense. He stepped forward to express his displeasure at Gelsomina’s rudeness when Nickelan stopped him simply by raising a manicured hand.
“I didn’t convince them of anything,” Nickelan protested. “They knew me. Mumbo said that word of the Redeemer’s arrival preceded me. My legend is spreading. It seems I’m a big deal,” he added smugly.
“Yeah,” Gelsomina said cynically, “and to think, I knew you when you were just a nice guy.”