The aircraft carrier dropped its four anchors, two forward and two aft, into crystal clear waters two miles from Bartoba. A tiny dot on a world map, the island nation was slightly larger than Manhattan, New York, but there any resemblance ended.
Most of the populace was of Hawaiian descent, their ancestors having fled from losing tribal conflicts hundreds of years before. Cruel intentions were their past, and the fact that they were on the losing end of these long ago conflicts did nothing to dull their cruel intentions of the present. The island’s proximity to Hawaii, just over four hundred miles, made it a strategic pawn in the United States defense posture, plus it’s perfect climate and satiny beaches gave generals and admirals the perfect excuse to spend time pretending to prepare for war. A small naval port was maintained in return for exorbitant rents, which were actually a back door method of giving aid to the ruling dictatorship, a brutal fifth generation madman whose cruelty and mindless excesses were legendary. The citizens lived in horrible poverty, working for an average of thirty cents per day in the island’s designer clothing factory, a place with equipment so dangerous and conditions so terrible an average of seven workers died every day. However, and obviously most important, the clothing produced was of superior quality and in great demand worldwide. Those that were not unfortunate enough to be hired on at the factory, and each opening had hundreds of applicants begging for the next opportunity to face the bleak twelve hour days, hustled American sailors who came into port. The small percentage of the population with a decent education, which was a very privileged few, worked for the government or taught school. These were the fortunate few who lived a normal life by most standards and were considered wealthy by Bartoba’s standards. There was no attempt to bring change from the privileged class, a combination of gratefulness to be in their positions and fear of the establishment.
The low rumbling of the anchor chains pulled Bruce Manson from an uneasy slumber, the different sounds of the city sized ship always able to either sing him to sleep or rouse him from his dreams, depending on the sound and how it affected him. He had heard of Bartoba, his fellow shipmates telling him of snow-white beaches, beautiful women, and fabulous nightlife entertainment. After three months at sea, a desert island would have been welcome, and the added promise of a paradise made him even more excited, yet he loved the ship, and to him it was home. He looked at leaving its security as a family leaving for vacation is excited, but before the vacation ended the desire to be home again was stronger.
Bruce was on the first transport to shore, a random luck of the draw of ship personnel giving him the honor. He turned down over twenty offers to sell the spot, the highest being two hundred dollars, because money was not his strongest motivator. He was just ready for a vacation. The confined quarters of the ship, with its tiny sleeping quarters and each bunk shared by two men, one on duty while the other slept sometimes was overwhelming. He could smell the sweat of his bunkmate, feeling the warmth of the other man’s body when he tumbled in minutes after the other had vacated the space, and yet they had never met. He would hurry back, likely before his allowed time expired, but right now he just wanted a break.
He showered, shaved twice to insure the closest cut possible, then dressed in starched Levi’s and a powder blue cotton shirt. A new pair of Nike’s purchased a week ago at the ship’s store finished his ensemble. A spray of Old Spice, yes a cliché but still his favorite fragrance, and a quick inspection in a mirror made him appear as any typical American tourist, except for the white sidewall military cut of his light brown hair, a dead giveaway, but then there was nothing to be done. After a moment’s hesitation he snapped his fingers in decision, opened a padlocked footlocker at the end of his bunk, and removed a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. He pulled it on his head, Chief Wahoo grinning with his yellow face prominently displayed on the front of the hat, and the military cut almost disappeared. Not perfect, but it was the best he could do.
The transport held two hundred sailors, all excited and anxious to begin their leave. Bruce was quiet, never having been one to mix with crowds or join in cliques. Many of the men made plans together concerning which bars and clubs they would visit. Bruce had no intention of spending his leave time drunk and in bed with a prostitute, plus it was against his personal beliefs, so he just kept to himself and intended to enjoy the sights and prowl the tiny island by himself.
There was a brief, superficial customs check when they landed, the bored official not really caring what went in or out of the country, and there were many things that broke both international and military laws leaving with each shipment of sailors returning to their respective ship. Bruce walked from the reception area into an outdoor bazaar consisting of hundreds of booths selling everything from sea shell ash trays to tee shirts with Bartoba Beach Club emblazoned on the back. People were everywhere, some encouraging the sailors to visit a particular booth, some offering coupons for free drinks at various bars, and others selling visits to local houses of prostitution. All were vocal and insistent, but there was no life in their eyes, no joy in their entreaties. They were all insincere, their motives only to survive for another day.
Children darted into the crowd of service men, begging for coins and looking for opportunities to steal a wallet. Brad knew their tactics because all remote island ports are pretty much alike, his first costing him forty dollars in cash and his military I.D. He missed most of his shore leave explaining to the local authorities that he was a victim and not just another foreigner with no money or identification, and then spent two weeks when back on the ship doing extra duty as punishment for losing his credentials. His identification card was now secure in a clear plastic holder attached to a chain around his neck, hiding behind the white issue undershirt that fit almost like a turtleneck. One hundred dollars was in each sock, another hundred was in his buttoned shirt pocket, and eight hundred was in a zippered pouch in his money belt. Only a gun, a gang, or a bang on the head would cause him trouble this time, and even though he was young and corded with sinewy muscle, he did not intend to put himself in a position of danger. He intended to stay at the best hotel and eat in the finest restaurants on the island, as well as buying souvenirs for his mother and two sisters, all which would not be expensive and probably send him back to the ship with over half his money. U.S. currency was valuable on the island, as the Barbota currency was close to useless, and everything was available for less than the asking price.
Two hundred pennies jiggled in his pants pockets, all intended for the children working the crowd. Soft at heart but unwilling to acknowledge it, even to himself, Bruce couldn’t resist the eager children and their joy at receiving even a penny from a kind stranger. It saddened him almost as much as it made him feel good about himself, his meager Navy pay a fortune to these people. He handed a penny to a small boy whose face beamed with excitement and shock, as most sailors brushed them aside in their rush to get to adult entertainment. He jammed the copper coin into his pocket and moved quickly to the next person, hand held out expectantly. Several children saw Bruce give the boy the penny and moved to him like ducks to bread on the water. He handed each a coin and smiled as they rushed away, silently cheering for the smaller ones who would have their prize taken away by the bigger boys if they did not move with catlike speed.
Suddenly he had a swarm of children around him like bees in a field of clover, a sea of grimy little hands reaching and grabbing, their voices shouting in their adolescent shrillness, sounding like screeching gulls in their native tongue. Bruce laughed at the sight, reaching into his pocket and scooping out a handful of pennies. He threw them high into the air, the delightful sound of the children music to his ears. They raced after the treasure with the thrill that children were intended to have as youth, and at least for a few moments they were just kids playing and enjoying the game. He moved quickly into the crowd and kept moving.
Walking along the narrow street where the vendors crowded in on each side, Bruce ignored the waves and encouraging calls from the eager merchants wanting his attention and money. His leave was two days, plenty of time for shopping and buying souvenirs at attempted inflated prices, and decided he wanted to see the island first, not at the dock where the tourism was at its peak, but into the island where real people lived.
He secured a room at the Marriott, a virtual palace of a room for a bargain basement amount, and fell on the queen size bed with a sigh, relishing the act that for two days this bed was his, and no one would use it while he was awake and away from the room. He pushed his face into the clean white sheets, smelling only freshness instead of stale sweat. He ate a buffet lunch that featured fried conch and fist sized shrimp, stopping when he knew eating more could make him sick, and he could not risk his leave being sick. Then, stomach full and spirits high, he was ready to begin his exploring. No real preparation was needed, the island being small enough that he knew there would be no problem finding his way. Hours of exercise on board the ship left him trim and solid, able to walk the width or length of the country with no great difficulty. Bruce found a rutted dirt road as he exited the hotel and headed west for no better reason than the sun would be at his back until late afternoon, when he would reverse his course and again not be concerned with shielding his eyes.
He strolled past fields of pineapple and cane sugar, occasionally waving to a farmer hoeing weeds, smiling at the friendliness these island people displayed despite their meager existence. A small village appeared at a bend in the road, really little more than a flat parcel of land cleared of rocks and tall grass. The poverty was incredible, the poorest families using a combination of cardboard boxes and sticks as a shelter, while the more fortunate people had sheets of tin lashed together with pieces of rope and vines. Just as in the market square, children ran to him, expectant smiles on their faces, hands extended, waiting for a coin. Bruce repeated his earlier action, throwing a large handful of pennies into the air and enjoying their squeals of delight.
One child did not run after the pennies, standing in place like a statue in the middle of Town Square. She was perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, already showing the shapes and curves of a woman yet still very much a child. She was incredibly beautiful, large doe eyes shining softly in a round, gentle face, and blue-black shoulder length hair flared over her shoulders. Her beauty almost made him gasp, despite her youth, so unexpected was her appearance. They stared at each other for a long moment, the sounds of the children’s excited voices as they scrambled for the pennies muted in his brain.
She took several steps toward him, stopping almost five feet away and looking up into his eyes. She was a head shorter than he, and her upturned chin revealed a tiny shell necklace, a crude device consisting of a hole punched through a shell and held on her neck with a piece of what appeared to be kite string. “You have come here from a ship,” she said in a matter of fact tone.
“Yes, I came to your island for the first time today,” he replied. His voice seemed small and far away after hearing her soft alto, and Bruce wondered why he felt so nervous. He swallowed, but his mouth was dry and he heard a click in the back of his throat, almost painful and he blinked his eyes in surprise.
She held out her hand, soft and brown, her fingernails scrubbed clean with sand and water. He automatically reached out and took her offered hand in his own, stifling a shudder as he felt an electric shock run through his body. He nearly dropped her hand before realizing the sensation was mental, not physical.
“I am Cara,” she said.
A woman of few words he thought to himself. Out loud he said, “I am pleased to meet you Cara. My name is Bruce.”
“Why have you come to our village?” she asked, still holding his hand, although he made no effort to pull it away.
“I’m just enjoying the beauty of your island,” he said. “I started walking in this direction by chance and, well, here I am. I am grateful that I choose this path because I got to meet you.” He smiled and blinked hard when she returned a radiant smile with a display of even, pearl white teeth.
“Are you looking for company today?” she asked, moving closer, trying to be alluring and doing quite well despite her youth.
He could smell her hair now, the delicate scent of lilacs reaching like wavy fingers to his nose. Bruce loved the fragrance, and as a boy growing up in Ohio two large lilac bushes flourished under his window. He always opened his window in the spring, ignoring the forty-degree nights and blustery winds, risking colds and flu to allow the gentle, sweet fragrance access to his room. Every night his mother quietly entered the icy room and closed the window after he fell asleep. Sometimes he feigned sleep because he was comforted by her love and caring for his welfare, hence the fragrance always brought back this treasured childhood memory.
Leaning slightly forward, he pulled a deep breath through his nose and smiled. “Are you offering to be my guide?” he asked, arching his eyebrow with interest.
“If that is what you wish,” she said, dropping her eyes and bowing slightly. “My family is very poor and I need to earn money to help them buy food. Unfortunately I am not old enough to work at the factory and I need more education to work for our government. So, if I can in some way be of service to you I would be grateful.”
“How about twenty dollars to show me the sights of the island,” Bruce said, reaching for his shirt pocket and his money.
Her eyes grew large, the surprise showing despite her immediate attempt to mask it, and she swallowed hard before speaking. “Twenty dollars is more money than most of the people in our village make in three months Mr. Bruce. Surely you don’t want just a guide for that much money.”
Bruce smiled and deftly peeled a twenty and a five from his fold of money in his shirt pocket. He held the two wrinkled bills at arms length toward her, the picture of Andrew Jackson and Honest Abe flapping back and forth in the breeze like signal flags. “Let’s make it twenty five. The extra five is yours if you drop the mister and just call me Bruce.”
Her hand was trembling when she reached out for the money, more than she had ever seen in her life, and she touched it tentatively as if afraid she might be burned. She caressed the unique texture of the cloth made to feel like paper for a long moment, and then the money disappeared into a tiny leather bag tied to her waist with the speed and dexterity of a magician. “Thank you M..., I mean Bruce,” she said. Her lips were trembling and tears pooled in her eyes.
“You’re welcome Cara,” he answered; wishing she were a grown woman because he realized this young girl had grasped his heart. He reached out to touch her shoulder but drew his hand away. It was ridiculous to feel this way about a mere child and he didn’t want to be tempted to do anything really stupid. He started walking again, heading in the same direction he had started that morning. Looking over his shoulder he said, “Come on, let’s get started.”
She moved forward with a skip and then a step as if she were jump starting her legs, falling in beside him and walking with a graceful, womanly stride. They moved along at a leisurely pace, stopping now and then to inspect clumps of wild flowers or to watch a beautiful rare bird. The day seemed to fly along, his attention drawn more toward her than the sights of the island.
They stopped to rest at a clear, icy cold stream in the middle of what Bruce perceived as nowhere. Scrub grass and palm trees dotted the sandy soil as far as he could see, the horizon bending over in the illusion of the world ending at that visual line. They sat down on the sandy ground, their backs against a boulder and their feet stuck in the stream, the cold water fed from an underground source and driving some of the heat from their bodies.
Cara lowered her head and studied her hands, moving them from front to back as if she were looking for a hidden flaw. She sighed heavily and spoke in a soft voice. “Would you like to take me here? This is a very remote spot and it is not likely that anyone will come by.”
Bruce sat still for a few seconds, his eyebrows furrowed in question as he registered the meaning of her words, and then with horror he slowly began to understand. He sprang to his feet, water splashing from the stream only to be pulled into the sandy soil. He stood over her, his astonishment bubbling over into excited flapping of his arms. “What in the devil are you talking about,” he barked, much more harshly than he had intended. He was angry, almost as if a third party had offered this child to him. “Do I want to take you? You’re a child for goodness sakes. Why would I do such a thing to a child?”
She raised her head and looked up at him. Tears were pouring down her cheeks like a waterfall, landing in her lap in huge drops. “I know that for twenty five dollars you must want more than just a guide,” she sobbed. “The girls in town only get two dollars and I thought, since I was young and have never been with a man, that you were willing to pay more. I’ve been terrified all day because I’m afraid to be with a man, but I can’t turn that much money away.” She dissolved into shuddering sobs and covered her face with her hands.
His anger melted away with the force of her tears and he flopped down beside her with a sigh. He reached out a hand to her, hesitated, and then pulled it back. Bruce pulled his legs up, wrapped his arms around his knees, and rested his chin between them. He waited until she stopped crying before he spoke, carefully measuring his words. “I am truly sorry Cara. I had no idea that my offer would make you believe something more was necessary. I offered the money because I knew you needed it and, well, you are beautiful. But that doesn’t mean I would ever do something indecent,” he quickly added.
Cara lifted her head and looked at him doubtfully. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying and her lower lip still trembled. She wiped the back of her hand over her cheeks and sniffled. “Most of the sailors who come here and pay our girls money want sex,” she said bluntly. “You are very kind to treat me well, but the time will probably come when I will be forced to give myself to a man anyway.”
Bruce scratched his head in thought, amazed and chagrined at what he had just heard. “Cara, why are you doomed to this. Can’t you just grow up, meet some nice boy, and get married?”
She shook her head, a sad smile playing around the corners of her mouth. A bright yellow butterfly fluttered near her face, drawing her eyes away for a moment. Bruce thought how much more beautiful she was than the butterfly. Cara stretched out her index finger and the delicate creature landed demurely. It moved its wings in finely practiced balancing movements that any of the Flying Lowndes would have admired. “Just as this butterfly is free to fly across our island, we are free as well. But freedom can be an illusion, as fleeting as a moment of forgetting to be cautious.”
Cara cupped her free hand gently over the butterfly, not harming it but still preventing its escape. “You see Bruce, our lives are never as open and perfect as we may think. Traps are everywhere, some more obvious than others.” She lifted her hand and the butterfly leaped into the sky, its wings carrying it away in a drunken pattern that seemed to have no real purpose. “My trap is this is where I was born. This is my life.”
Cara rubbed her thumb over her index finger that moments ago served as a perch, feeling a silky layer of butterfly dust on her skin. “You see, I have a family obligation that is higher than my own needs. If possible, I will find someone to buy me. As the oldest child in my family, this would possibly secure the future of my sisters. My sacrifice would be small to do this for them.”
Bruce lifted his head from his knees, an idea taking form in his mind. “What happens if someone buys you,” he asked.
“Then they own me and can do whatever with me they want. Some of the women who work the streets at the port were bought by sailors and then put to work. Some never see their owner again; others must keep a portion of their earnings and give it to their owner when he again comes to port. Some use the girls while they are here and then sell her to someone else when they leave.”
Bruce felt like banging his head against the rock at his back. The inhumanity of it all was almost more than he could tolerate. He knew at least some of the sailors of whom Cara spoke were Americans, and maybe even some of his shipmates. He made an instant decision. “Tell me how much money your family needs and what it would be used for.”
Cara settled her back against the rock and turned toward him. Her face was flushed from the heat of the day, embarrassment, and the emotion of the story she was telling. A thin line of perspiration beaded her upper lip and she brushed it off with a swipe of her forearm. “Our people may go to school for eight years. Those that complete this course can only get lower paying jobs or no jobs at all. The prettier girls sell their bodies to sailors in port.
“If we want to go to school after the eighth year, we must pay fifty dollars each year. With ten years of schooling we qualify for government office jobs, teaching positions, and other more favorable positions. Nearly all people with ten years of schooling escape the poverty of villages like ours.”
“Now wait a minute,” Bruce interrupted. “You’re telling me that a hundred dollars is all that stands between each person and a decent life?”
She smiled, reached over to him, and patted his knee. “You say only a hundred dollars, but to our people this is a fortune, a king’s ransom.”
“So three hundred dollars is way beyond your family’s ability,” Bruce said.
Cara nodded. “My father, when he is able find work, makes around eighty cents for a day of labor. Out of that he must buy food and clothes for my mother, my sisters, and me. We barely survive without any added expense. School, although the only way to better us, is impossible. It is just the way things are.”
“And there is you and your two sisters,” Bruce said. “No babies, older brothers, nothing like that.”
“No, it is just we three children,” she replied. “My mother had a very difficult time with my youngest sister and the village midwife told her she was damaged and could have no more babies.”
“I see,” Bruce said and jumped to his feet. “Where do you shop for food and supplies, things like that? Does everyone go to the port shops I saw when I came ashore?”
Cara laughed and sprang to her feet to stand beside him. She brushed the sand from the back of her legs and then pointed in the direction they had gone that morning. She seemed relieved now that her employer did not seem to mean her harm. “There is a marketplace on the other side of the island where our people go to shop. Prices are half of the tourist center where you landed and a lot of the items that can’t be purchased anywhere else are found there. You would be cheated badly if you went by yourself, but I can help you shop. Are you looking for souvenirs for your family in the United States?”
“Actually, I do want to send something home,” he said. “My sisters like to know I’m thinking of them.”
“Then come.” Cara took his hand and led him back to the trail. She did not loosen her grip when they were underway and Bruce held onto her hand without comment.
He smelled the market a full fifteen minutes before it was in sight, a mixture of cooking food, body odor, human and animal waste, and spices covering the area like a mushroom cloud of foul smelling fallout. The heart of the explosion was the market itself. Bruce thought perhaps a riot was in progress, then realized it was just people doing business, kind of a hard goods version of the New York Stock Exchange.
“Come this way,” Cara shouted over the din. “The best place for authentic Island souvenirs is over here. The junk they sell at the port is mostly made in China or Taiwan, but the true craftsman sell here.” She pulled him in the direction she wanted to go and he happily followed.
Bruce saw some of the most beautiful artwork he had ever encountered in a small square of area that was not separated in any way from the other vendors. The place looked like a huge flea market with no boundaries, yet each merchant watched over his area like a Dodge City Marshall. Some had long tables like most churches use for socials; others used cement blocks stacked waist high with weathered two by fours between them. Some just placed their merchandise on the ground and left small walkways through, creating a maize of items for sale.
Hundreds, and maybe as many as a thousand people ran about like ants in a fire, offering to buy this or that, always very vocal in their opinion concerning the price of an item. Bruce found a jewelry box and a brush with combs set for his sisters, and then chose an onyx pyramid paperweight for his father. An intricately carved mahogany picture frame caught his eye and he chose it for his mother. He looked for the merchant to make the purchases and the moment his eyes came up the man was there, his face a mixture of eager excitement and greed. “Thirty dollars for everything,” the man screeched, spittle flying from his lips in a thin filmy lather as he pushed his head forward like a turkey. He was thin and wiry, his face wrinkled and eyes sunken like a bloodhound dog. Skin cancer lesions patterned his face like a dot-to-dot picture book, and black rotted teeth caused his feted breath to waft forth in an almost visible presence. When Bruce didn’t immediately respond he roared, “Okay, twenty five, but that’s it. You take it now alright?”
Bruce reached for the button on his shirt pocket, prepared to pay the asked price, but he paused when Cara gently pulled his arm away. She shook her head and looked at the merchant with a pained expression. “Don’t buy here Bruce,” she said. “He offers inferior merchandise and charges the price of a thief and we do not do business with descendents of pirates.” She shook her head in an expression of finality, the gleam in her eyes hidden as best she could.
“But I really like...” he began, but closed his mouth as her eyes flashed him a warning look.
“Perhaps I was a bit hasty,” the vendor exclaimed, clasping his hands at his bosom and appearing to be ready to drop to his knees in supplication. “One of your items is different than I had thought so, like a fool, I gave you the wrong price. Please, forgive a foolish old man his mistake. Could we say maybe twenty?” He looked from Cara to Bruce with a child’s expectation.
“Twelve,” Cara said, walking away to show her lack of interest.
“Fifteen?” the beleaguered vendor begged, not wanting to lose a sale. “Please, my family needs so much and I am selling you these items at a loss.” He patted his hands together softly to emphasize his plight.
“We will reluctantly accept fifteen,” Cara said, turning back to secure the deal.
Bruce shook his head in wonder and paid the man. They walked away with his purchases nestled in an old grocery bag for which he quickly paid a quarter before Cara could argue with the man. “You are a crafty bargainer,” he said, suppressing a smile as he appreciated the smug look on Cara’s face.
She stood a bit taller and thrust out her chin as they walked. “We must be very careful with our money,” she said with pride. “I am the best bargainer in my family.”
“I’m not surprised,” he agreed with a laugh. “By the way, where do they sell food here?”
“Over there on the far side of the market.” She gestured toward an equally loud mob scene across from where they had shopped.
“Let’s check it out,” he said.
They moved into the middle of the arguing and bargaining, the vendors reacting like wounded animals as their customers said no to their first offer. Bruce let Cara do all of the bargaining, knowing when he was in the presence of a master. They bought cans of peaches, pears, corn, beans, and soups. Meat in cans was the most expensive item, Cara explaining that their long shelf life and the value of livestock increased the price.
Bags of grain with the Red Cross insignia and others stamped Gift From The United States of America sat stacked ten feet high as the vendors sold their black market spoils at bargain prices. Bruce refused to buy anything obviously stolen until Cara explained with a bemused smile that most of the items in this market were stolen. He finally realized his stance was equal to pretending an American car had no foreign parts just because it said Chevrolet or Ford on the front bumper.
A few dollars purchased as much food as they both were able to carry and at last Bruce seemed satisfied. He hoisted a twenty-pound sack of Pillsbury flour onto his shoulder, the dough boy’s face pressing against his cheek like he was getting an affectionate kiss. “Let’s be on our way Cara,” he shouted over the noisy market and grabbed several other bags of food.
Cara, equally burdened with more food than she had ever carried at one time, hurried after him as he retraced their steps. “This is enough food to feed a family for three or four months. Where are we taking it Bruce?”
He waited until they were back on the trail before answering. He saw a long stick just off the trail and stopped to pick it up. Sliding the stick through the handles of the bags, he fashioned a carrier that could be put on their shoulders to ease the burden of the load. “We’re taking this to your parents,” he finally answered.
Cara dropped her end of the pole because she stopped walking, the bags sliding along and falling to the ground. Bruce held his end like a pole-vaulter going backwards, looking over his shoulder with a curious look on his face. The look he received in return was astonishment.
“What’s the problem,” he said in an amused tone.
“This is like giving my family a small fortune,” Cara whispered like she was afraid to voice it aloud. “My father will fall to the ground in shock. He will probably offer to sell me to you himself because of your great wealth, or he will at least beat me because he will think I gave myself to you and then shamed him by bringing you to meet him.”
Bruce lowered his flour sack to the ground and bent to stick the bag handles back on the pole. He slapped at a large deer fly biting his neck and then motioned to her with an index finger. “No one is going to beat you. Now, come on, let’s get moving. I want to get back to the other side of the island before dark.” They were momentarily under way again and he said, “What would you think if I told you I wanted to buy you from your father?”
Cara almost dropped the pole again, but steadied her feet and maintained her pace. “I guess if anyone were to buy me I would like that person to be you.” She looked at his broad back, accented by the V of sweat stain from his shoulders to the small of his back. Images of the rat-infested brothels flashed through her mind and increased her pulse rate with fear. She swallowed with a wad of fear stuck deep in her throat and forced her feet to keep pace with him.
The little village looked even less inviting than usual as they walked with their unusual trophy slung between them. The children came at them again; their excited chatter blending with ear piercing shrills. Another handful of pennies sent them scampering away again, clearing the way to Cara’s meager home. Bruce waited outside as she went in to tell her parents about his presence. He stood with the plastic bags full of groceries surrounding him like a fort.
Cara finally waved him in, the dark interior of the little hut taking a few moments to adjust his eyes. The entire living area consisted of one room, four sleeping mats, and a small table with one rusted metal chair. The dirt floor was packed hard and smooth like tile, and from what Bruce could see appeared to be spotless. A woman, bent and frail as an old maid, stood beside a man sitting in the chair. Both were wrinkled like raisins, their leathery skin pulled in odd angles across their skulls, but their eyes were bright and alert, the eyes of survivors.
Cara sat by her father’s feet, her eyes cast down toward Bruce’s feet. He had grabbed the bags as he went in, loaded to the point of having to push the bag of flour with his foot. The dough boy ended up face down on the floor, his cute little smile pressed against the dirt.
The man pushed to his feet, arthritic joints creaking and snapping like muffled gunshots. At the sight of the food his eyes turned to wet pools in his dry face, his expression one of wisdom and yet devoid of hope. He stepped aside, the muscles in his jaw clenching in pain with the movement, but no other emotion showed. He pointed a finger that was missing from the tip to the first knuckle, the long ago result of an accident while digging a drainage ditch, and spoke in a rusty, high pitched voice. “Please do us the honor of sitting in our home. We are humbled to have an American sailor visit us.”
Bruce bowed slightly, not quite sure what the proper showing of respect would be, and said, “Sir, it is I who am honored to be in your home. If I may be so bold, I would say please be seated yourself. I would be most comfortable right here.” He crossed his legs at the ankles and lowered himself to the floor, sitting Indian style.
Apparently his gesture was correct because the man smiled a toothless grin of pleasure and slowly moved back to the chair. He regained his position and looked at his daughter, fondly patting the top of her head. “Cara tells me you wish to discuss her future,” he said, a tear pooling under each eye as he spoke.
“Yes sir, we have discussed some things and I have come to offer you these things as a gift to help us decide.”
With a slight gesture to his wife, she came forward and gathered the bags. Each was emptied and sat on the table, and when it was filled she stacked cans on top of one another, making a second layer. Small sounds of delight escaped her as each item was studied and stacked. Her husband sat still as stone, emotionless and quiet as each treasure came from a bag. “You are most generous,” he finally said when all the food was displayed. “My daughter must have pleased you very much.”
“She did indeed,” Bruce agreed, “But I think perhaps not the way you believe. Cara was my guide today. She showed me the sights around your island and took me shopping, nothing else.”
“I see,” the old man said, his strong face unable to hide his relief. “Then may I ask what other purpose you might have?”
Bruce nodded slowly, thinking through each word in his mind before speaking. He pretended to study the backs of his hands, gaining a few extra moments to insure that he would make himself clear. “I would like to make a purchase from you sir,” he said at last. “Although I know your people’s custom is to bargain over each transaction, I wish to break that tradition by making it very clear that my offer is unconditional and it is firm. Absolutely no bargaining is acceptable. It’s very important to me that you understand this, sir. Have I made myself clear?” His heart pounded, hoping he had not made a fatal error by showing a lack of respect.
Cara’s father studied his guest for a full two minutes before answering. His eyes swam in dark pools that seemed to push into Bruce’s mind in an attempt to discern his true intent. Cara shuffled her legs uneasily on the dirt floor as if she were getting cramps in them and waited as the silent seconds ticked by. Her father never spoke, and at last just gave a slight nod of his head indicating his acceptance.
Bruce stood slowly, making his movements deliberate and calm. When he was on his feet he crossed the short distance to the small table and stood in front of Cara’s father. The old man sat placidly in the chair, showing no outward emotion as he waited for Bruce to speak. His wife, however, was trembling with fear and concern. Her eyes kept darting protectively toward Cara.
“My offer,” Bruce began, looking directly into the tired eyes, “is to pay you six hundred dollars.” He stopped because Cara’s mother cried out and crumpled in a faint to the earthen floor. The old man did not move or even twitch; his eyes locked with Bruce’s like two gunfighters in the street.
“My offer is for all three of your daughters,” Bruce went on when he realized Cara’s mother would not be attended. Even Cara stood frozen in place, her mouth unhinged and hanging down like it was broken. Her mother stirred on the floor, moaning softly but alert and listening to his words.
“You have not seen two of my daughters,” the old man said softly. “Perhaps you will regret your offer when you see them.”
“Their looks are not in consideration with this offer, although I am sure they are beautiful children,” Bruce said, “just as Cara. My motivation is to insure that they are not sold to anyone else and to direct where half of the funds are to go, which brings me to the only other stipulation of my offer. Each child is to be given one hundred dollars of the money to finish her education. That money is absolutely to be used for nothing else. The other three hundred you may use as you wish.” Bruce raised his eyebrows, the only outward sign that he was finished. His eyes remained, unblinking, on his host.
A single tear ran from the corner of each eye and the old man dropped his gaze, his first sign of emotion. In a trembling voice, the emotion threatening to burst forth like a geyser, he said, “Will you require anything of my children if you own them? They will truly be your property.”
“I will require something of each,” Bruce said with a smile. “As their owner I demand that they live their lives as free people as everyone should be, and I want them to make decisions as if they were never bound, except that they may never be sold to anyone else. I want to be sure they are forever free people. That is all I require.”
The old man stood and moved with surprising grace and speed despite his age and infirmities as he moved in front of his guest. “On our island our word is our bond. If I accept your offer all of what you said can never be changed.”
“That’s exactly the way I expect our agreement to work. I can tell you are a man of honor, just as I too live by my honor,” Bruce said. “So, do we have an agreement?”
“We have an agreement,” the old man said and extended his hand.
Bruce heard Cara’s mother weeping as he reached for his hand as well. Glancing her way, he saw that her weeping was tears of joy. He intentionally pulled out the eight hundred dollars from his shirt pocket and placed it on the top of the table. “There you are sir, as we agreed,” he said.
The old man picked up the money, counted it, and with a shaking hand held out the extra two hundred dollars to Bruce. “You miscounted,” he said levelly.
Bruce smiled and nodded his head. “I gave Cara money to be my guide today. Please give your other daughters twenty-five dollars each when they come home so they won’t feel slighted. And the rest of the additional money is for your beautiful wife. I would like her to buy some clothes and more food for the family. She deserves that because I earlier caused her to faint.” He turned and exited the sparse dwelling before the old man could object, missing the smile on the man’s face.
The sun was dropping rapidly behind him as he stepped onto the path. He would have to hurry if he was to reach the hotel before dark. With a feeling of joy in his heart unlike he had ever felt before, Bruce began his journey.
“Bruce.” Her voice caused him to stop and turn as she ran toward him. She stopped at his side and put her hand into his. Tears ran like a small tributary down her face and dripped one by one from her chin. “Do you know what you just did for my family?” she asked.
“I guess I’m not totally sure,” he said truthfully. “I wanted to make sure you and your sisters could get an education and would never be faced with selling your bodies to sailors. I added the extra money to help your mother and father.”
“My father is in very poor health,” she confided. “He works when he physically can, but sometimes he isn’t able to find any work because he can’t do as much as the younger men. The extra money you gave him will allow him to not work any more. He’ll be the wealthiest man in our village and undoubtedly will become our next mayor. Basically, you’ve given my father the world.”
Bruce smiled with pleasure at the thought of Cara’s father running the local government. His children would likely rise in esteem with the little village as well, that mental image pleasing him as well. “I’m glad I had such a major impact Cara. Your family deserves this.”
“But I still don’t understand,” Cara said. “Why did you do this for us? You gave us a fortune and asked for nothing in return.”
“I did it for you, Cara,” he replied. “Look, I’m young, I don’t have a wife and children, and the money I gave you is not that much for me. I just couldn’t stand the thought of you ending up in a brothel. You’re much too special for that. You know, if every sailor would just save one person when they landed on this island, we could help turn this into a true paradise. I can’t save the world, but I can certainly save you.”
Cara pulled him gently to her and kissed him on the cheek. She held him for a moment and then whispered in his ear, “God bless you Bruce.”
“He does every day,” Bruce answered and gave her a hug. She broke away from him and started back to her home. Her mother and father were standing out front, and Bruce waited until she reached them.
Cara and her parents stood together, the setting sun backlighting them with fiery warmth, then as one they each raised an arm in farewell. Bruce lifted his own arm and waved in return, a feeling of peace washing over him like a comforter on a cold day. “Have a good life,” he whispered, then turned and went on his way.