A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 90

   

“Come on,” he said to Ian.

“Oh, aye.”

Roger was halfway to the door when he realized that Ian was not with him. He looked back, and was just in time to see his cousin-by-marriage take Forbes gently by one ear and cut it off.

104

SLEEPING WITH A SHARK

STEPHEN BONNET was as good as his word—if that’s how one would describe it. He made no sexual advances toward her, but did insist that she share his bed.

“I like a warm body in the night,” he said. “And I think ye might prefer my bed to the cargo hold, sweetheart.”

She would most emphatically have preferred the cargo hold, though her explorations—once free of land, she was allowed out of the cabin—had revealed the hold as a dark and comfortless hole, in which several hapless slaves were chained among a collection of boxes and barrels, in constant danger of being crushed should the cargo shift.

“Where are we going, miss? And what will happen when we get there?” Josh spoke in Gaelic, his handsome face small and frightened in the shadows of the hold.

“I think we’re going to Ocracoke,” she said in the same language. “Beyond that—I don’t know. Do you still have your rosary?”

“Oh, yes, miss.” He touched his chest, where the crucifix hung. “It’s the only thing that keeps me from despair.”

“Good. Keep praying.” She glanced at the other slaves: two women, two men, all with slender bodies and delicate, fine-boned faces. She had brought food for Josh from her own supper, but had nothing to offer them, and was troubled.

“Do they feed you down here?”

“Yes, miss. Fairly well,” he assured her.

“Do they”—she moved her chin a little, delicately indicating the other slaves—“know anything? About where we’re going?”

“I don’t know, miss. I can’t talk to them. They’re African—Fulani, I can see that from the way they look, but that’s all I know.”

“I see. Well . . .” She hesitated, eager to be out of the dark, clammy hold, but reluctant to leave the young groom there.

“You go along, miss,” he said quietly in English, seeing her doubt. “I be fine. We all be fine.” He touched his rosary, and did his best to give her a smile, though it wavered round the edges. “Holy Mother see us safe.”

Having no words of comfort to impart, she nodded, and climbed the ladder into the sunlight, feeling five sets of eyes upon her.

Bonnet, thank God, spent most of his time on deck during the day. She could see him now, coming down the rigging like a nimble ape.

She stood very still, no movement save the brush of windblown hair, of skirts against her frozen limbs. He was as sensitive to the movements of her body as was Roger—but in his own way. The way of a shark, signaled to and drawn by the flappings of its prey.

She had spent one night in his bed so far, sleepless. He had pulled her casually against himself, said, “Good night, darlin’,” and fallen instantly asleep. Whenever she had tried to move, to extricate herself from his grip, though, he had shifted, moving with her, to keep her firmly by him.

She was obliged to an unwelcome intimacy with his body, an acquaintance that awoke memories she had with great difficulty put away—the feel of his knee pushing her thighs apart, the rough joviality of his touch between her legs, the sun-bleached blond hairs that curled crisply on his thighs and forearms, the unwashed, musky male smell of him. The mocking presence of LeRoi, rising at intervals during the night, pressed in firm and mindless hunger against her buttocks.

She had a moment of intense thankfulness, both for her present pregnancy—for she was in no doubt of it now—and for her certain knowledge that Stephen Bonnet had not fathered Jemmy.

He dropped from the rigging with a thud, saw her, and smiled. He said nothing, but squeezed her bottom familiarly as he passed, making her clench her teeth and cling to the rail.

Ocracoke, at the dark of the moon. She looked up into the brilliant sky, wheeling with clouds of terns and gulls; they could not be far offshore. How long, for God’s sake, ’til the dark of the moon?

105

THE PRODIGAL

THEY HAD NO TROUBLE IN FINDING persons familiar with Anemone and her captain. Stephen Bonnet was well-known on the Edenton docks, though his reputation varied, depending on his associations. An honest captain was the usual opinion, but hard in his dealings. A blockade runner, a smuggler, said others—and whether that was good or bad depended on the politics of the person saying it. He’d get you anything, they said—for a price.

Pirate, said a few. But those few spoke in low tones, looking frequently over their shoulders, and strongly desired not to be quoted.

The Anemone had left quite openly, with a homely cargo of rice and fifty barrels of smoked fish. Roger had found one man who recalled seeing the young woman go aboard with one of Bonnet’s hands: “Great huge doxy, with flaming hair a-loose, flowing down to her arse,” the man had said, smacking his lips. “Mr. Bonnet’s a good-size man himself, though; expect he can handle her.”

Only Ian’s hand on his arm had stopped him hitting the man.

What they had not yet found was anyone who knew for sure where Anemone was headed.

“London, I think,” said the harbormaster, dubious. “But not directly; he’s not yet got a full cargo. Likely he’ll be going down the coast, trading here and there—perhaps sail for Europe from Charlestown. But then again,” the man added, rubbing his chin, “could be he’s bound for New England. Terrible risky business, getting anything into Boston these days—but well worth it if you do. Rice and smoked fish like to be worth their weight in gold up there, if you can get it ashore without the navy’s warships blowing you out of the water.”

Jamie, looking a little pale, thanked the man. Roger, unable to speak for the knot in his throat, merely nodded, and followed his father-in-law out of the harbormaster’s office, back into the sun of the docks.

“Now what?” Ian asked, stifling a belch. He had been trawling through the dockside taverns, buying beer for casual laborers who might have helped load Anemone, or who might have spoken with her hands regarding her destination.

“The best I can think of is maybe for you and Roger Mac to take ship down the coast,” Jamie said, frowning at the masts of the sloops and packet boats rocking at anchor. “Claire and I could go up, toward Boston.”

Roger nodded, still unable to speak. It was far from being a good plan, particularly in light of the disruption the undeclared war was having on shipping—but the need of doing something was acute. He felt as though the marrow of his bones was burning; only movement would quench it.

To hire a small ship—even a fishing smack—or take passage on a packet boat, though, was expensive business.

“Aye, well.” Jamie curled his hand in his pocket, where the black diamond still lay. “I’ll go and see Judge Iredell; he can maybe put me in touch with an honest banker who’ll advance me money against the sale of the stone. Let’s go and tell Claire what’s to do, first.”

As they turned off the docks, though, a voice hailed Roger.

“Mr. MacKenzie!”

He turned, to find the Reverend Doctor McCorkle, his secretary, and the Reverend McMillan, carrying bags, all staring at him.

There was a brief scuffle of introduction—they had of course met Jamie when he came to fetch Roger, but not Ian—and then a slightly awkward pause.

“You—” Roger cleared his throat, addressing the elder. “You are leaving, then, sir? For the Indies?”

McCorkle nodded, his large, kindly face set in concern.

“I am, sir. I regret so much that I must go—and that you were not able to—well.” Both McCorkle and the Reverend McMillan had tried to persuade him to return to them the day before, to take his place at the service of ordination. But he could not. Could not spare hours to such a thing, could not possibly engage himself to undertake the commitment with anything less than a single mind—and while his mind was in fact single just now, it was not toward God. There was room in his heart just now for only one thing—Brianna.

“Well, doubtless it is God’s will,” McCorkle said with a sigh. “Your wife, Mr. MacKenzie? There is no word of her?”

He shook his head, and muttered acknowledgment of their concern, their promises to pray for him and for the safe return of his wife.He was too much worried to find this much solace, yet still, he was touched by their kindness, and parted from them with many good wishes in both directions.

Roger, Jamie, and Ian walked silently back toward the inn where they had left Claire.

“Just by way of curiosity, Ian, what did ye do with Forbes’s ear?” Jamie asked, breaking the silence as they turned into the wide street where the inn was.

“Oh, I have it safe, Uncle,” Ian assured him, patting the small leather pouch at his belt.

“What in the name of G—” Roger stopped abruptly, then resumed. “What d’ye mean to do with it?”

“Keep it with me until we find my cousin,” Ian said, seeming surprised that this was not obvious. “It will help.”

“It will?”

Ian nodded, serious.

“When ye set about a difficult quest—if ye’re Kahnyen’kehaka, I mean—ye generally go aside for a time, to fast and pray for guidance. We havena time to be doing that now, of course. But often, while ye’re doing that, ye choose a talisman—or to be right about it, it chooses you—” He sounded completely matter-of-fact about this procedure, Roger noted.

“And ye carry it with ye through the quest, to keep the attention of the spirits upon your desire and ensure your success.”

“I see.” Jamie rubbed the bridge of his nose. He appeared—like Roger—to be wondering what the Mohawk spirits might make of Neil Forbes’s ear. It would, probably, ensure their attention, at least. “The ear . . . did ye pack it in salt, I hope?”

Ian shook his head.

“Nay, I smoked it over the kitchen fire at the inn last night. Dinna fash yourself, Uncle Jamie; it will keep.”

Roger found a perverse sort of comfort in this conversation. Between the prayers of the Presbyterian clergy and the support of the Mohawk spirits, perhaps they had a chance—but it was the presence of his two kinsmen, stalwart and determined on either side of him, that kept him in hope. They would not give up until Brianna was found, no matter what it took.

He swallowed the lump in his throat for the thousandth time since hearing the news, thinking of Jemmy. The little boy was safe at River Run—but how could he tell Jem that his mother was gone? Well . . . he wouldn’t, that was all. They’d find her.

In this mood of resolution, he led the way through the door of the Brewster, only to be hailed again.

“Roger!”

This time, it was Claire’s voice, sharp with excitement. He turned at once, to see her rising from a bench in the taproom. Seated across the table from her were a plump young woman and a slightly built young man with a cap of tightly curled black hair. Manfred McGillivray.

“I SAW YE BEFORE, sir, two days ago.” Manfred bobbed his head apologetically toward Jamie. “I . . . er . . . well, I hid myself, sir, and I do regret it. But of course, I’d no way of knowing, until Eppie came back from Roanoke and showed me the ring. . . .”

The ring lay on the table, its cabochon ruby casting a tiny, calm pool of ruddy light on the boards. Roger picked it up and turned it in his fingers. He barely heard the explanations—that Manfred lived with the whore, who made periodic expeditions to the ports near Edenton, and upon seeing the ring had overcome his sense of shame and come to find Jamie—too much overcome by this small, hard, tangible evidence of Brianna.

Roger closed his fingers over it, finding the warmth of it a comfort, and came to himself in time to hear Hepzibah say earnestly, “Ocracoke, sir. At the dark of the moon.” She coughed modestly, ducking her head. “The lady did say, sir, as you might feel some gratitude for the news of her whereabouts. . . .”

“Ye’ll be paid, and paid well,” Jamie assured her, though he was clearly giving her no more than a fraction of his attention. “The dark of the moon,” he said, turning to Ian. “Ten days?”

Ian nodded, his face shining with excitement.

“Aye, about that. She didna ken whereabouts on Ocracoke Island this was?” he asked the whore.

Eppie shook her head.

“Nay, sir. I ken Stephen’s got a house there, a large one, hidden in the trees, but that’s all.”

“We’ll find it.” Roger’s own voice surprised him; he hadn’t meant to speak aloud.

Manfred had been looking uneasy throughout. He leaned forward, putting his hand on top of Eppie’s.

“Sir—when ye do find it . . . ye’ll not say to anybody, will ye, about Eppie telling ye? Mr. Bonnet’s a dangerous man, and I wouldna have her imperiled from him.” He glanced at the young woman, who blushed and smiled at him.

“No, we won’t say anything about her,” Claire assured him. She had been scrutinizing both Manfred and Hepzibah carefully while they talked, and now leaned across the table to touch Manfred’s forehead, which showed a stippling of some sort of rash. “Speaking of peril . . . she’s in a great deal more danger from you, young man, than from Stephen Bonnet. Did you tell her?”

Manfred went a little paler, and for the first time, Roger noticed that the young man looked truly ill, his face thin and deeply lined.

“I did, Frau Fraser. From the first.”

“Oh, about the pox?” Hepzibah affected nonchalance, though Roger could see her hand tighten on Manfred’s. “Aye, he did tell me. But I says to him as it makes no difference. I daresay I’ve had a few men what are poxed before, not knowing. If I should get it . . . well. God’s will, innit?”

“No,” Roger said to her quite gently. “It isn’t. But you’ll go with Mrs. Claire, you and Manfred both, and do exactly what she tells you. Ye’ll be all right, and so will he. Won’t they?” he asked, turning to Claire, suddenly a little uncertain.

“Yes, they will,” she said dryly. “Fortunately, I have quite a bit of penicillin with me.”

Manfred’s face was a study in confusion.

“But—do ye mean, meine Frau, that ye can—can cure it?”

“That is exactly what I mean,” Claire assured him, “as I tried to tell you before you ran away.”

His mouth hung open, and he blinked. Then he turned to Hepzibah, who was staring at him in puzzlement.

“Liebchen! I can go home! We can go home,” he amended quickly, seeing her face change. “We will be married. We will go home,” he repeated, in the tones of one seeing a beatific vision but not quite trusting in its reality yet.

Eppie was frowning in uncertainty.

“I’m a whore, Freddie,” she pointed out. “And from the stories you tell about your mother . . .”

“I rather think that Frau Ute will be so happy to have Manfred back that she won’t be disposed to ask too many questions,” Claire said, with a glance at Jamie. “The Prodigal Son, you know?”

“Ye won’t need to be a whore any longer,” Manfred assured her. “I’m a gunsmith; I’ll earn a good living. Now that I know I shall be living!” His thin face was suddenly suffused with joy, and he flung his arms around Eppie and kissed her.

“Oh,” she said, flustered, but looking pleased. “Well. Hm. This . . . er . . . this penny—?” She looked inquiringly at Claire.

“The sooner, the better,” Claire said, standing up. “Come with me.” Her own face was a little flushed, Roger saw, and she put out a quick hand to Jamie, who took it and pressed it hard.

“We’ll go and see to things,” he said, glancing at Ian and Roger in turn. “With luck, we’ll sail this evening.”

“Oh!” Eppie had already stood up to follow Claire, but at this reminder of their business, she turned to Jamie, a hand to her mouth. “Oh. I’ve thought of the one more thing.” Her pleasant round face was puckered in concentration. “There are wild horses that run near the house. On Ocracoke. I heard Stephen speak o’ them once.” She looked from one man to the other. “Might that help?”

“It might,” Roger said. “Thank you—and God bless you.”

It wasn’t until they were outside, heading for the docks again, that he realized the ring was still clutched tight in his hand. What was it Ian had said?

“Ye choose a talisman—or to be right about it, it chooses you.”

His hands were slightly bigger than Brianna’s, but he pushed the ring onto his finger, and closed his hand around it.

SHE WOKE FROM a damp and restless sleep, mother-sense at once aroused. She was halfway out of bed, moving by instinct toward Jemmy’s trundle, when a hand grabbed her wrist, a convulsive grip like the bite of a crocodile.

She jerked back, groggy and alarmed. The sound of footsteps came to her from the deck overhead and she realized belatedly that the sound of distress that had wakened her had not come from Jemmy, but from the darkness at her side.

“Don’t go,” he whispered, and the fingers dug deep into the soft flesh of her inner wrist.

Unable to wrench free, she reached out with the other hand, to push him away. She touched damp hair, hot skin—and a trickle of wetness, cool and surprising on her fingers.

“What is it?” she whispered back, and leaned toward him by instinct. She reached again, touched his head, smoothed his hair—all the things she had waked prepared to do. She felt her hand rest on him and thought to stop, but did not. It was as though the spurt of maternal comfort, once called forth, could not be pressed back into her, no more than the spurt of breast milk summoned by an infant’s cry could be recalled to its source.

“Are you all right?” She kept her voice low, and as impersonal as the words allowed. She lifted her hand, and he moved, rolling toward her, pressing his head hard against the curve of her thigh.

“Don’t go,” he said again, and caught his breath in what might have been a sob. His voice was low and rough, but not as she had ever heard it before.

“I’m here.” Her trapped wrist was growing numb. She laid her free hand on his shoulder, hoping he would let go if she seemed willing to stay.

He did relax his grip, but only to reach out and seize her by the waist, pulling her back into bed. She went, because there was no choice, and lay in silence, Bonnet’s breathing harsh and warm on the back of her neck.

At length, he let go and rolled onto his back with a sigh, allowing her to move. She rolled onto her own back, cautious, trying to keep a few inches between them. Moonlight came through the stern windows in a silver flood, and she could see the silhouette of his face, catch the glint of light from forehead and cheek as he turned his head.

“Bad dream?” she ventured. She’d meant to sound sarcastic, but her own heart was still tripping fast from the alarm of the awakening, and the words had a tentative sound.

“Aye, aye,” he said with a shuddering sigh. “The same. It comes to me over and over again, see? Ye’d think I’d know what it was about and wake, but I never do. Not ’til the waters close over my head.” He rubbed a hand under his nose, sniffing like a child.

“Oh.” She didn’t want to ask for details, didn’t want to encourage any further sense of intimacy. What she wanted, though, had nothing much to do with things anymore.

“Since I was a lad, I’ve dreamed of drowning,” he said, and his voice, normally so assured, was unsteady. “The sea comes in, and I cannot move—not at all. The tide’s risin’, and I know it will kill me, but there’s no way to move.” His hand clutched the sheet convulsively, pulling it away from her.

“It’s gray water, full of mud, and there are blind things swimmin’ in it. They’re waitin’ on the sea to finish its business wit’ me, see—and then they’ve business of their own.”

She could hear the horror of it in his voice, and was torn between wanting to edge farther away from him and the ingrained habit of offering comfort.

“It was only a dream,” she said at last, staring up at the boards of the deck, no more than three feet above her head. If only this were a dream!

“Ah, no,” he said, and his voice had dropped to little more than a whisper in the darkness beside her. “Ah, no. It’s the sea herself. Callin’ me, see?”

Quite suddenly, he rolled toward her, seizing her and pressing her hard against him. She gasped, stiffening, and he pressed harder, responding, sharklike, to her struggles.

To her own horror, she felt LeRoi rising, and forced herself to be still. Panic and the need to escape his dream might all too easily make him forget his aversion to hav**g s*x with pregnant women, and that was the very last thing, the very last thing . . .

“Sshh,” she said firmly, and clutched him round the head, forcing his face down into her shoulder, patting him, stroking his back. “Shh. It will be all right. It was only a dream. I won’t let it hurt you—I won’t let anything hurt you. Hush, hush now.”

She went on patting him, her eyes closed, trying to imagine herself holding Jemmy after such a nightmare, quiet in their cabin, the hearth fire low, Jem’s little body relaxing in trust, the sweet little-boy smell of his hair near her face. . . .

“I won’t let you drown,” she whispered. “I promise. I won’t let you drown.”

She said it over and over, and slowly, slowly, his breathing eased, and his grip on her slackened as sleep overcame him. Still she repeated it, a soft, hypnotic murmur, her words half-lost in the sound of water, hissing past the side of the ship, and she spoke no longer to the man beside her, but to the slumbering child within.

“I won’t let anything hurt you. Nothing will hurt you. I promise.”

106

RENDEZVOUS

ROGER PAUSED TO WIPE the sweat out of his eyes. He’d tied a folded kerchief round his head, but the humidity in the thick growth of the tidal forest was so high that sweat formed in his eye sockets, stinging and blurring his vision.

From a taproom in Edenton, the knowledge that Bonnet was—or would be—on Ocracoke had seemed all heady conviction; the search narrowed suddenly to one tiny sandbar, versus the millions of other places the pirate could have been; how difficult could it be? Once on the bloody sandbar, the perspective had altered. The frigging island was narrow, but several miles long, with large patches of scrub forest, and most of its coastline fraught with hidden bars and dangerous eddies.

The skipper of the fishing boat they’d hired had got them there in good time; then they’d spent two days sailing up and down the length of the damn thing, looking for possible landing spots, likely pirate hideouts, and herds of wild horses. So far, none of these had appeared.

Having spent long enough retching over the side—Claire hadn’t brought her acupuncture needles, having not foreseen the need of them—Jamie had insisted upon being put ashore. He would walk the length of the island, he said, keeping an eye out for anything untoward. They could pick him up at sundown.

“And what if you run smack into Stephen Bonnet, all on your own?” Claire had demanded, when he refused to allow her to accompany him.

“I’d rather be run through than puke to death,” was Jamie’s elegant reply, “and besides, Sassenach, I need ye to stay here and make sure yon misbegotten son of a—of a captain doesna sail away without us, aye?”

So they had rowed him ashore and left him, watching as he strode away, staggering only slightly, into the thicket of scrub pines and palmetto.

Another day of frustration, spent sailing slowly up and down the coast, seeing nothing but the occasional ramshackle fishing shack, and Roger and Ian had begun to see the wisdom of Jamie’s approach, as well.

“See yon houses?” Ian pointed at a tiny cluster of shacks on the shore.

“If ye want to call them that, yes.” Roger shaded his hand over his eyes to look, but the shacks looked deserted.

“If they can get boats off there, we can get one on. Let’s go ashore and see will the folk there tell us anything.”

Leaving Claire glowering behind them, they had rowed ashore to make inquiries—to no avail. The only inhabitants of the tiny settlement were a few women and children, all of whom heard the name “Bonnet” and scuttled into their homes like clams digging into the sand.

Still, having felt solid ground under their feet, they were less than eager to admit defeat and go back to the fishing shack. “Let’s have a look, then,” Ian had said, gazing thoughtfully into the sun-striped forest. “We’ll crisscross, aye?” He drew a quick series of X’s in the sand in illustration. “We’ll cover more ground, and meet up every so often. Whoever reaches the shore first each time will wait on the other.”

Roger had nodded agreement, and with a cheery wave at the fishing boat and the small, indignant figure on its bow, had turned inland.

It was hot and still under the pines, and his progress was impaired by all sorts of low bushes, creepers, patches of sandburs and other stickery things. The going was a little easier near the shore, as the forest thinned and gave way to stretches of coarse sea oats, with dozens of tiny crabs that scuttled out of his way—or occasionally crunched under his feet.

Still, it was a relief to move, to feel that somehow he was doing something, was making progress toward finding Bree—though he admitted to himself that he wasn’t sure exactly what they were looking for. Was she here? Had Bonnet arrived on the island already? Or would he be coming in a day or two, at the dark of the moon, as Hepzibah had said?

Despite the worry, the heat, and the millions of gnats and mosquitoes—they didn’t bite, for the most part, but insisted upon crawling into his ears, eyes, nose, and mouth—he smiled at the thought of Manfred. He’d been praying for the boy ever since his disappearance from the Ridge, that he might be restored to his family. Granted, to find him firmly attached to an ex-prostitute was likely not quite the answer to prayer that Ute McGillivray had been hoping for, but he’d learned before that God had His own methods.

Lord, let her be safe. He didn’t care how that prayer was answered, provided only that it was. Let me have her back, please.

It was well past mid-afternoon, and his clothes stuck to him with sweat, when he came to one of the dozens of small tidal inlets that cut into the island like the holes in Swiss cheese. It was too wide to leap across, so he made his way down the sandy bank and into the water. It was deeper than he’d thought—he was up to his neck by mid-channel, and had to swim a few strokes before he found solid footing on the other side.

The water pulled at him, rushing toward the sea; the tide had begun to turn. Likely the inlet would be much shallower when the tide was out—but he thought a boat could make it up the inlet easily, with the tide coming in.

That was promising. Encouraged, he crawled out on the far side and began to follow the channel inland. Within minutes, he heard a sound in the distance and stopped dead, listening.

Horses. He would swear it was the sound of neighing, though so far away he couldn’t be sure of it. He turned in a circle, trying to locate it, but the sound had vanished. Still, it seemed a sign, and he pushed on with renewed vigor, frightening a family of raccoons washing their meal in the water of the channel.

But then the inlet began to narrow, the water level dropping to no more than a foot—and then less, only a few inches of water running clear over dusky sand. He was loath to give up, though, and shoved his way under a low canopy of pine and twisted scrub oak. Then he stopped dead, skin tingling from scalp to sole.

Loading...