An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 61

   

I took two steps across the slanting deck and plucked the pistol neatly out of Mr. Smith’s hand. He looked at me, blinking in bewilderment.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” I said apologetically. “It’s just that I can’t take the chance. All things considered.” Calmly—all things considered—I checked the pistol’s priming—it was primed and cocked; a wonder it hadn’t gone off by itself, with all this rough handling—and aimed it at the center of the melee, waiting to see who might emerge from it.

Mr. Smith looked back and forth, from me to the fight, and then backed slowly away, hands delicately raised.

“I’ll… just… be up top,” he said. “If wanted.”

The outcome had been a foregone conclusion, but Mr. Dick had acquitted himself nobly as a British seaman. Ian rose slowly, swearing and pressing his forearm against his shirt, where a jagged wound left red blotches.

“The treacherous bugger bit me!” he said, furious. “Goddamned cannibal heathen!” He kicked his erstwhile foe, who grunted at the impact but remained inert, and then seized the swinging helm with an angry oath. He moved this slowly to and fro, seeking direction, and the ship steadied, her head turning into the wind as her sails filled again.

Jamie rolled off the supine body of Mr. Dick and sat on the deck beside him, head hanging, panting for breath. I lowered the gun and uncocked it.

“All right?” I asked him, for form’s sake. I felt very calm, in a remote, strange sort of way.

“Tryin’ to recall how many lives I’ve got left,” he said, between gasps.

“Four, I think. Or five. Surely you don’t consider this a near-miss, do you?” I glanced at Mr. Dick, whose face was considerably the worse for wear. Jamie himself had a large red patch down the side of his face that would undoubtedly be black and blue within hours, and was holding his middle, but seemed otherwise undamaged.

“Does nearly dyin’ of seasickness count?”

“No.” With a wary eye on the fallen helmsman, I squatted beside Jamie and peered at him. The red light of the sinking sun bathed the deck, making it impossible to judge his color, even had the color of his skin made this easy. Jamie held out a hand, and I gave him the pistol, which he tucked into his belt. Where, I saw, he had restored his dirk and its scabbard.

“Did you not have time to draw that?” I asked, nodding at it.

“Didna want to kill him. He’s no dead, is he?” With a noticeable effort, he rolled onto hands and knees and breathed for a moment before thrusting himself to his feet.

“No. He’ll come round in a minute or two.” I looked toward Ian, whose face was averted but whose body language was eloquent. His stiff shoulders, suffused back of neck, and bulging forearms conveyed fury and shame, which were understandable, but there was a droop to his spine that spoke of desolation. I wondered at that last, until a thought occurred to me, and that odd sense of calm vanished abruptly in a burst of horror as I realized what must have made him drop his guard.

“Rollo!” I whispered, clutching Jamie’s arm. He looked up, startled, saw Ian, and exchanged appalled glances with me.

“Oh, God,” he said softly.

The acupuncture needles were not the only things of value left behind aboard the Teal.

Rollo had been Ian’s closest companion for years. The immense byproduct of a casual encounter between an Irish wolfhound and a wolf, he terrified the hands on the Teal to such an extent that Ian had shut him in the cabin; otherwise, chances were that he would have taken the throat out of Captain Stebbings when the sailors seized Ian. What would he do when he realized that Ian was gone? And what would Captain Stebbings, his men, or the crew of the Teal do to him in response?

“Jesus. They’ll shoot the dog and drop him overboard,” Jamie said, voicing my thought, and crossed himself.

I thought of the hammerhead again, and a violent shudder ran through me. Jamie squeezed my hand tightly.

“Oh, God,” he said again, very quietly. He stood thinking for a moment, then shook himself, rather like Rollo shaking water from his fur, and let go my hand.

“I’ll have to speak to the crew, and we must feed them—and the sailors in the hold. Will ye go below, Sassenach, and see what ye can do wi’ the galley? I’ll just… have a word with Ian first.” I saw his throat move as he glanced at Ian, standing stiff as a wooden Indian at the helm, the dying light harsh on his tearless face.

I nodded, and made my way unsteadily to the black, gaping hole of the companionway, and the descent into darkness.

THE GALLEY WAS NO more than a four-by-four space belowdecks at the end of the mess, with a sort of low brick altar containing the fire, several cupboards on the bulkhead, and a hanging rack of coppers, pot-lifters, rags, and other bits of kitchen impedimenta. No problem in spotting it; there was still a sullen red glow from the galley fire, where—thank God!—a few embers still lived.

There was a sandbox, a coal box, and a basket of kindling, tidied under the tiny countertop, and I set at once to coaxing the fire back into life. A cauldron hung over the fire; some of the contents had slopped over the side as a result of the ship’s rolling, partially extinguishing the fire and leaving gummy streaks down the side of the cauldron. Luck again, I thought. Had the slop not put the fire mostly out, the contents of the pot would long since have boiled dry and burned, leaving me with the job of starting some kind of supper from scratch.

Perhaps literally from scratch. There were several stacked cages of chickens near the galley; they’d been dozing in the warm darkness but roused at my movement, fluttering, muttering, and jerking their silly heads to and fro in agitated inquiry, beady eyes blinking redly at me through the wooden lattice.

I wondered whether there might be other livestock aboard, but if there was, it wasn’t living in the galley, thank goodness. I stirred the pot, which seemed to contain a glutinous sort of stew, and then began to look for bread. There would be some sort of farinaceous substance, I knew; sailors lived on either hardtack—the very aptly named unleavened ship’s biscuit—or soft tack, this being any kind of leavened bread, though the term “soft” was often relative. Still, they would have bread. Where … ?

I found it at last: hard round brown loaves in a netting bag hung from a hook in a dark corner. To keep it from rats, I supposed, and glanced narrowly around the floor, just in case. There should be flour, as well, I thought—oh, of course. It would be in the hold, along with the other ship’s stores. And the disgruntled remnants of the original crew. Well, we’d worry about them later. There was enough here to feed everyone aboard supper. I’d worry about breakfast later, too.

The exertion of building up the fire and searching the galley and mess warmed me and distracted me from my bruises. The sense of chilled disbelief that had attended me ever since I went over the Teal’s rail began to dissipate.

This wasn’t entirely a good thing. As I began to emerge from my state of stunned shock, I also began to apprehend the true dimensions of the current situation. We were no longer headed for Scotland and the dangers of the Atlantic, but were under way to an unknown destination in an unfamiliar craft with an inexperienced, panic-stricken crew. And we had, in fact, just committed piracy on the high seas, as well as whatever crimes were involved in resisting impressment and assaulting His Majesty’s navy. And murder. I swallowed, my throat still tender, and my skin prickled despite the warmth of the fire.

The jar of the knife hitting bone still reverberated in the bones of my own hand and forearm. How could I have killed him? I knew I hadn’t penetrated his chest cavity, couldn’t possibly have struck the large vessels of the neck…. Shock, of course… but could shock alone… ?

I couldn’t think about the dead gunner just now, and pushed the thought of him firmly away. Later, I told myself. I would come to terms with it—it had been self-defense, after all—and I would pray for his soul, but later. Not now.

Not that the other things presenting themselves to me as I worked were much more appealing. Ian and Rollo—no, I couldn’t think about that, either.

I scraped the bottom of the pot determinedly with a big wooden spoon. The stew was a little scorched at the bottom, but still edible. There were bones in it, and it was thick and gummy, with lumps. Gagging slightly, I filled a smaller pot from a water butt and hung it to boil.

Navigation. I settled on that as a topic for worry, on grounds that while it was deeply concerning, it lacked the emotional aspects of some of the other things on my mental agenda. How full was the moon? I tried to recall what it had looked like the night before, from the deck of the Teal. I hadn’t really noticed, so it wasn’t near the full; the full moon rising out of the sea is breathtaking, with that shining path across the water that makes you feel how simple it would be to step over the rail and walk straight on, into that peaceful radiance.

No, no peaceful radiance last night. I’d gone up to the ship’s head, though, quite late, instead of using a chamber pot, because I’d wanted air. It had been dark on deck, and I’d paused for a moment by the rail, because there was phosphorescence in the long, rolling waves, a beautiful eerie glimmer of green light under the water, and the wake of the ship plowed a glowing furrow through the sea.

Dark moon, then, I decided, or a sliver, which would amount to the same thing. We couldn’t come close into shore by night, then. I didn’t know how far north we were—maybe John Smith did?—but was aware that the coastline of the Chesapeake involved all kinds of channels, sandbars, tide flats, and ship traffic. Wait, though, Smith had said we’d passed Norfolk…

“Well, bloody hell!” I said exasperated. “Where is Norfolk?” I knew where it was in relation to Highway I-64, but had no notion whatever what the blasted place looked like from the ocean.

And if we were obliged to stand far out from land during the night, what was to keep us from drifting very far out to sea?

“Well, on the good side, we needn’t trouble about running out of gas,” I said encouragingly to myself. Food and water… well, not yet, at least.

I seemed to be running out of good impersonal worrying material. What about Jamie’s seasickness? Or any other medical catastrophe that might occur aboard? Yes, that was a good one. I had no herbs, no needles, no sutures, no bandages, no instruments—I was for the moment completely without any practical medicine at all, save boiling water and what skill might be contained in my two hands.

“I suppose I could reduce a dislocation or put my thumb on a spurting artery,” I said aloud, “but that’s about it.”

“Uhh …” said a deeply uncertain voice behind me, and I spun round, inadvertently spattering stew from my ladle.

“Oh. Mr. Smith.”

“Didn’t mean to take you unawares, ma’am.” He sidled into the light like a wary spider, keeping a cautious distance from me. “ ’Specially not as I saw your nephew hand you back that knife of yours.” He smiled a little, to indicate that this was a joke, but he was plainly uneasy. “You… um… were right handy with it, I must say.”

“Yes,” I said flatly, picking up a rag to mop the splatters. “I’ve had practice.”

This led to a marked silence. After a moment or two, he coughed.

“Mr. Fraser sent me to ask—in a gingerly sort of way—whether there might be anything to eat soon?”

I gave a grudging snort of laughter at that.

“Was the ‘gingerly’ his idea or yours?”

“His,” he replied promptly.

“You can tell him the food is ready, whenever anyone likes to come and eat it. Oh—Mr. Smith?”

He turned back at once, earrings swinging.

“I only wondered—what do the men … well, they must be very upset, of course, but what do the hands from the Teal feel about… er… recent developments? If you happen to know, that is,” I added.

“I know. Mr. Fraser asked me that, not ten minutes ago,” he said, looking mildly amused. “We been a-talking, up in the tops, as you may imagine, ma’am.”

“Oh, I do.”

“Well, we’re much relieved not to be pressed, of course. Was that to happen, likely none of us would see home nor family again for years. To say nothing of being forced maybe to fight our own countrymen.” He scratched at his chin; like all the men, he was becoming bristly and piratical-looking. “On t’other hand, though … well, you must allow of our situation at the moment being not all our friends might wish. Perilous, I mean to say, and us now minus our pay and our clothes, to boot.”

“Yes, I can see that. From your point of view, what might be the most desirable outcome of our situation?”

“Make land as near to New Haven as we can get, but not in the harbor. Run her aground on a gravel bar and set her afire,” he replied promptly. “Take her boat ashore, then run like the dickens.”

“Would you burn the ship with the sailors in the hold?” I asked, as a matter of curiosity. To my relief, he appeared shocked at the suggestion.

“Oh, no, ma’am! Might be as Mr. Fraser would want to turn them over to the Continentals to use for exchange, maybe, but we wouldn’t mind was they to be set free, either.”

“That’s very magnanimous of you,” I assured him gravely. “And I’m sure Mr. Fraser is very grateful for your recommendations. Do you, er, know where the Continental army is just now?”

“Somewhere in New Jersey is what I heard,” he replied, with a brief smile. “I don’t suppose they’d be that hard to find, though, if you wanted ’em.”

Aside from the royal navy, the last thing I personally wanted to see was the Continental army, even at a distance. New Jersey seemed safely remote, though.

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