Nelson looked out over the docks, squinting his tired eyes. Sleep did not come easily running from the Waltzers. Focusing harder, he noticed a half dozen navy blue figures moving through the rubble that used to be a street. A feeling of dread rushed over him like the waters on the shores of Lake Michigan.

They’re coming.

Turning back to the rest of the party, Nelson pulled himself together enough to exclaim, “Waltzers!” and gesture for the group to look out over the scene. By the time they had gathered around him, the blue figures had vanished back into the ruins from whence they came. The others looked at him, seeming very confused. He shrugged apologetically and returned to staring out over the landscape.

Several minutes elapsed uneventfully.

As the adrenaline wore off, Nelson’s eyes began to sag again. A critical moment of clarity allowed him to focus enough to see the enemy literally at the gates to the port. He could make out the Waltzers overpowering the pirate guards with relative ease. Whether the pirates were killed or simply incapacitated was unclear, but Nelson feared for the worst.

“They’re getting closer.”

The rest of the group initially hesitated to respond to the implied call to action, but the first gunshot made it clear that Nelson was not crying Wolf. The reactions from others aboard the ship were varied. Some prepared for a fight while some hid. Looking down at the shiv in his hand and remembering an old adage having to do with knives, gunfights and situations like this, Nelson joined the latter group and darted through the ship’s cabin, scrambling down a ladder into the belly of the boat.

Light below deck was sparse, provided only by a couple portholes on either side. The front two thirds of the ship was mostly dedicated to the oars that would be necessary to propel the ship out into the frigid waters of the Lake. The rear third was full of cargo. Looking for a place to hide among the crates and barrels, Nelson headed to the stern.

The footsteps of those scrambling on the top deck echoed in his ears. Muffled shouting could also be heard though Nelson could scarcely make out what was being said. It certainly did not help his comprehension that he was no longer concerned with his travel companions. Instead he was busy calming himself down, insisting to his sense of panic that he would make it out of here alive just as he always did.

It was during one such attempt to steady his nerves that Nelson heard a whimpering sound coming from one of the crates that he was crouched behind. His confusion temporarily took precedence over his anxiety.

Are these pirates smuggling puppies?

His eyes darted back toward the ladder leading from the cabin and, ensuring that no one was coming down behind him, Nelson reached for his shiv. As he thrust the rusty steel shard into a crack between what appeared to be the lid of the crate and the rest of it, an audible yelp pierced the ambient noise of trouble above. Nelson applied his weight to the handle of the shiv, using it to pry open the crate.

Jesus. H. Christ.

As light penetrated the top of the crate it tumbled over. The occupants, two boys and a girl, overcame the crate’s center of gravity and collapsed into a pile. These children stunk of body odor and feces and Nelson deduced that they had been in that crate much longer than they should. It was miraculous that the cracks in the crate had provided enough air to prevent them from suffocating.

The largest boy, blinded by the sudden influx of light, interjected himself into the space between Nelson and the other two children. It was difficult to determine this child’s age because of how starved he looked.

“Whatever the punishment is,” the boy started, “I will take it for the others.”

“Why were you in a crate?” Nelson inquired.

“You mean you aren’t here to hurt us?” The boy was single-mindedly focused on whether or not he would be punished for crimes unknown. The child's passion for the other kids, presumably his siblings, was clear and quite admirable.

“What? No!” Nelson stammered, “What is this? What’s going on?”

“We’re running away from the Waltzers,” the boy said once he determined that Nelson was not a threat and, by the looks of that poncho, definitely not a Waltzer.

“I know the feeling,” Nelson chuckled but the humor was somehow lost on the starving children.

The boy and the other children looked confused. Cocking his head to one side the boy asked, “Then why aren’t you in a crate?”

Nelson suddenly felt extremely guilty. “We, um, have a, um…” How to put it politely? “…a special arrangement with the first mate.”

The oldest boy looked back at the other two children with his dark, sunken eyes and shrugged. The children then all looked back at Nelson. “Who do we talk to for the special arrangement?” The mimicking of Nelson’s inflection was bordering on satirical.

“Forget I said anything,” Nelson murmured, trying to deflect the question, “You look hungry.”

Nelson grabbed a nearby sack of apples and handed them to the children who devoured them greedily. After a few indulgent bites, the largest boy looked back at Nelson and said, “Well, how ‘bout the others?”

“What do you mean?” Nelson pretended not to know perfectly well what the boy meant. There were at least a dozen other crates similar to the one that he had opened and, once he focused on it, he could hear the faint sounds of more children inside them over the din of approaching conflict above.

“I’m on it.”

Nelson retrieved his shiv from the floor and proceeded to open another crate. No sooner did he do that then the burly crewmember with which he had spoken before came down below and motioned for Nelson to return to the fray.

The children recoiled when they saw the pirate.

Nelson tossed them the shiv and clamored back up the ladder.