An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 60

   

My eyes were beginning to accustom themselves to the darkness. I could see Jamie’s form, hunched under a low ceiling, and the shape of rafters—no, timbers—overhead. A strong smell of tar and bilges. Ship. Of course, we were in a ship. But which ship?

“Where… ?” I whispered, waving a hand.

“I havena got the slightest idea,” he said, sounding rather irritable. “The Teal’s people are managing the sails—I hope—and Ian’s holding a pistol on one o’ the naval folk to make him steer, but for all I ken, the man’s taking us straight out to sea.”

“I meant… what… ship.” Though his remarks had made that clear enough; we must be on the naval cutter.

“They said the name of it’s the Pitt.”

“How very appropriate.” I looked glassily around the murky surroundings, and my sense of reality suffered another jolt as I saw a huge mottled bundle of some kind, apparently hanging in the dim air a few feet beyond Jamie. I sat up abruptly—or tried to, only at this point realizing that I was in a hammock.

Jamie seized me by the waist with a cry of alarm, in time to save me pitching out on my head, and as I steadied, clutching him, I realized that the thing I had taken as an enormous cocoon was in fact a man, lying in another hammock suspended from the rafters, but trussed up in it like a spider’s dinner and gagged. His face pressed against the mesh, glaring at me.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt…,” I croaked, and lay back, breathing heavily.

“D’ye want to rest a bit, Sassenach, or shall I set ye on your feet?” Jamie asked, clearly edgy. “I dinna want to leave Ian on his own too long.”

“No,” I said, struggling upright once more. “Help me out, please.” The room—cabin, whatever it was—spun round me, as well as heaving up and down, and I was obliged to cling to Jamie with my eyes closed for a moment, until my internal gyroscope took hold.

“Captain Roberts?” I asked. “The Teal?”

“God knows,” Jamie said tersely. “We ran for it as quick as I could set the men to sailing this thing. For all I ken, they’re on our tail, but I couldna see anything when I looked astern.”

I was beginning to feel steadier, though the blood still throbbed painfully in my throat and temples with each heartbeat, and I could feel the tender patches of bruising on my elbows and shoulders, and a vivid band across my back, where I’d fallen against the rail.

“We’ve shut most of the crew up in the hold,” Jamie said, with a nod at the man in the hammock, “save this fellow. I didna ken whether ye might want to look at him first. In the medical way, I mean,” he added, seeing my momentary incomprehension. “Though I dinna think he’s hurt badly.”

I approached the fellow in the hammock and saw that it was the helmsman who had tried to throttle me. There was a large lump visible on his forehead, and he had the beginnings of a monstrous black eye, but from what I could see, leaning close in the dim light, his pupils were the same size and—allowing for the rag stuffed into his mouth—his breath was coming regularly. Probably not badly hurt, then. I stood for a moment staring at him. It was difficult to tell—the only light belowdecks came from a prism embedded in the deck above—but I thought that perhaps what I had taken for a glare was really just a look of desperation.

“Do you need to have a pee?” I inquired politely.

The man and Jamie made nearly identical noises, though in the first case it was a groan of need, and in Jamie’s, of exasperation.

“For God’s sake!” he said, grabbing my arm as I started to reach for the man. “I’ll deal with him. Go upstairs.” It was apparent from his much-tried tone that he had just about reached the last-straw stage, and there was no point in arguing with him. I left, making my ginger way up the companionway ladder to the accompaniment of a lot of Gaelic muttering that I didn’t try to translate.

The belting wind above was enough to make me sway alarmingly as it caught my skirts, but I seized a line and held on, letting the fresh air clear my head before I felt steady enough to go aft. There I found Ian, as advertised, sitting on a barrel, a loaded pistol held negligently atop one knee, evidently engaged in amiable discourse with the sailor at the helm.

“Auntie Claire! All right, are ye?” he asked, jumping up and gesturing me toward his barrel.

“Fine,” I said, taking it. I didn’t think I had torn anything in my knee, but it felt a little wobbly. “Claire Fraser,” I said, nodding politely to the gentleman at the helm, who was black and bore facial tattoos of an elaborate sort, though from the neck down he was dressed in ordinary sailor’s slops.

“Guinea Dick,” he said, with a broad grin that displayed—no doubt about it—filed teeth. “Youah sahvint, Mum!”

I regarded him openmouthed for a moment, but then regained some semblance of self-possession and smiled at him.

“I see His Majesty takes his seamen where he can get them,” I murmured to Ian.

“He does for a fact. Mr. Dick here was pressed out of a Guinea pirate, who took him from a slave ship, who in turn took him from a barracoon on the Guinea coast. I’m no so sure whether he thinks His Majesty’s accommodations are an improvement—but he says he’s got nay particular reservation about going along of us.”

“Is your trust upon him?” I asked, in halting Gaelic.

Ian gave me a mildly scandalized look.

“Of course not,” he replied in the same language. “And you will oblige me by not going too close to him, wife of my mother’s brother. He says to me that he does not eat human flesh, but this is no surety that he is safe.”

“Right,” I said, returning to English. “What happened to—”

Before I could complete my question, a loud thump on deck made me turn, to see John Smith—he of the five gold earrings—who had dropped out of the rigging. He, too, smiled when he saw me, though his face was strained.

“Well enough so far,” he said to Ian, and touched his forelock to me. “You all right, ma’am?”

“Yes.” I looked aft, but saw nothing save tumbling waves. The same in all the other directions, as well. “Er… do you happen to know where we’re going, Mr. Smith?”

He looked a trifle surprised at that.

“Why, no, ma’am. The captain hasn’t said.”

“The cap—”

“That would be Uncle Jamie,” Ian said, sounding amused. “Puking his guts out below, is he?”

“Not when last seen.” I began to have an uneasy feeling at the base of my spine. “Do you mean to tell me that no one aboard this ship has any idea where—or even which way—we’re heading?”

An eloquent silence greeted this question.

I coughed.

“The, um, gunner. Not the one with the slashed forehead—the other one. Where is he, do you know?”

Ian turned and looked at the water.

“Oh,” I said. There was a large splotch of blood on the deck where the man had fallen when I stabbed him. “Oh,” I said again.

“Och, which reminds me, Auntie. I found this lyin’ on the deck.” Ian took my knife from his belt and handed it to me. It had been cleaned, I saw.

“Thank you.” I slipped it back through the slit of my petticoats and found the scabbard, still fastened round my thigh, though someone had removed my torn skirt and pocket. With thought for the gold in the hem, I hoped it was Jamie. I felt rather peculiar, as though my bones were filled with air. I coughed and swallowed again, massaging my bruised throat, then returned to my earlier point.

“So no one knows which way we’re heading?”

John Smith smiled a little.

“Well, we’re not a-heading out to sea, ma’am, if that’s what you were fearing.”

“I was, actually. How do you know?”

All three of them smiled at that.

“Him sun over dere,” Mr. Dick said, shrugging a shoulder at the object in question. He nodded in the same direction. “So him land over dere, too.”

“Ah.” Well, that was comforting, to be sure. And in fact, since “him sun” was over there—that is, sinking rapidly in the west—that meant we were in fact headed north.

Jamie joined the party at this point, looking pale.

“Captain Fraser,” Smith said respectfully.

“Mister Smith.”

“Orders, Cap’n?”

Jamie stared at him bleakly.

“I’ll be pleased if we don’t sink. Can ye manage that?”

Mr. Smith didn’t bother hiding his grin.

“If we don’t hit another ship or a whale, sir, I think we’ll stay afloat.”

“Good. Kindly don’t.” Jamie wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and straightened up. “Is there a port we might reach within the next day or so? The helmsman says there’s food and water enough for three days, but the less of it we need, the happier I’ll be.”

Smith turned to squint toward the invisible land, the setting sun glinting off his earrings.

“Well, we’re past Norfolk,” he said, thoughtful. “The next big regular port would be New York.”

Jamie gave him a jaundiced look.

“Is the British navy not anchored in New York?”

Mr. Smith coughed.

“I b’lieve they were, last I heard. ’Course, they might have moved.”

“I was more in mind of a small port,” Jamie said. “Verra small.”

“Where the arrival of a royal naval cutter will make the maximum impression on the citizenry?” I inquired. I sympathized with his strong desire to set foot on land as soon as possible, but the question was—what then?

The enormity of our position was only now beginning to dawn on me. We had gone in the space of an hour from passengers on the way to Scotland to fugitives, on the way to God knew where.

Jamie closed his eyes and drew a long, deep breath. There was a heavy swell, and he was looking green again, I saw. And, with a pang of uneasiness, realized that I had lost my acupuncture needles, left behind in my hasty exodus from the Teal.

“What about Rhode Island, or New Haven, Connecticut?” I asked. “New Haven is where the Teal was going, anyway—and I think we’re much less likely to run into Loyalists or British troops in either of those ports.”

Jamie nodded, eyes still closed, grimacing at the movement.

“Aye, maybe.”

“Not Rhode Island,” Smith objected. “The British sailed into Newport in December, and the American navy—what there is of it—is blockaded inside Providence. They might not fire on us, if we come a-sailing into Newport with the British colors flying”—he gestured at the mast, where the Union Jack still fluttered—“but the reception once ashore might be warmer than we might find comfortable.”

Jamie had cracked one eye open and was regarding Smith consideringly.

“I take it ye’ve no Loyalist leanings yourself, Mr. Smith? For if ye had, nothing simpler than to tell me to land at Newport; I’d not have known any better.”

“No, sir.” Smith tugged at one of his earrings. “Mind, I’m not a Separatist, neither. But I have got a marked disinclination to be sunk again. Reckon I’ve just about used up my luck in that direction.”

Jamie nodded, looking ill.

“New Haven, then,” he said, and I felt a small thump of uneasy excitement. Might I meet with Hannah Arnold, after all? Or—and there was an uneasier notion still—Colonel Arnold himself? I supposed he must visit his family once in a while.

A certain amount of technical discussion, involving a lot of shouting to and fro between deck and rigging, ensued, regarding navigation: Jamie knew how to use both a sextant and an astrolabe—the former was actually available—but had no idea how to apply the results to the sailing of a ship. The impressed hands from the Teal were more or less agreeable to sailing the ship wherever we cared to take her, as their only immediate alternative was being arrested, tried, and executed for involuntary piracy, but while all were good able seamen, none of them possessed anything in the way of navigational skills.

This left us with the alternative strategies of interviewing the captive seamen in the hold, discovering whether any of them could sail the ship, and if so, offering such inducements in the way of violence or gold as might compel him to do so, or sailing within sight of land and hugging the coast, which was slower, much more dangerous in terms of encountering either sandbanks or British men of war, and uncertain, insofar as none of the Teal hands presently with us had ever seen the port of New Haven before.

Having nothing useful to contribute to this discussion, I went to stand by the rail, watching the sun come down the sky and wondering how likely we were to run aground in the dark, without the sun to steer by?

The thought was cold, but the wind was colder. I had been wearing only a light jacket when I made my abrupt exit from the Teal, and without my woolen overskirt, the sea wind was cutting through my clothes like a knife. That unfortunate imagery reminded me of the dead gunner, and, steeling myself, I glanced over my shoulder toward the dark bloodstain on deck.

As I did so, my eye caught the flicker of a movement from the helm, and I opened my mouth to call out. I hadn’t managed a sound, but Jamie happened to be looking in my direction and whatever was showing on my face was enough. He turned and threw himself without hesitation at Guinea Dick, who had produced a knife from somewhere about his person and was preparing to plunge it into Ian’s negligently turned back.

Ian whirled round at the noise, saw what was up, and, thrusting the pistol into Mr. Smith’s surprised hands, flung himself on the thrashing ball of humanity rolling round under the swinging helm. Fallen off her steerage, the ship slowed, her sails slackening, and she began to roll alarmingly.

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