An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 63

   

I pulled it close around me, stroked his head to see if he would smile in his sleep—he did, just a twitch of the mouth—and made my way to the galley, yawning.

Another small benefit: a canister of good Darjeeling tea in the cupboard. I’d built up the fire under the cauldron of water when I came to bed; it was hot clear through now, and I dipped out a cup, using what was obviously the captain’s private china, painted with violets.

I carried this above, and after an official stroll round the decks, eyeing the two hands on duty—Mr. Smith had the helm—I stood by the rail to drink my fragrant booty, watching the dawn come up out of the sea.

If one were in the mood to count blessings—and, oddly enough, I seemed to be—here was another one. I had seen dawnings in warm seas that came like the bloom of some tremendous flower, a great, slow unfurling of heat and light. This was a northern sunrise, like the slow opening of a bivalve’s shell—cold and delicate, the sky shimmering nacre over a soft gray sea. There was something intimate about it, I thought, as though it presaged a day of secrets.

Just as I was getting well stuck into the poetic thoughts, they were interrupted by a shout of “Sail, ho!” from directly above me. Captain Stebbings’s violet-painted china cup shattered on the deck, and I whirled to see the tip of a white triangle on the horizon behind us, growing larger by the second.

THE NEXT FEW MOMENTS were filled with low comedy, as I rushed into the captain’s cabin so flustered and out of breath that I was unable to do more than gasp, “Ho!… s’l… Ho!” like a demented Santa Claus. Jamie, who could spring to instant wakefulness out of a deep sleep, did so. He also attempted to spring out of bed, forgetting in the stress of the moment that he was in a hammock. By the time he picked himself up, swearing, from the floor, feet were thundering on the deck as the rest of the Teal’s hands sprang more adroitly from their own hammocks and ran to see what was up.

“Is it the Teal?” I asked John Smith, straining my eyes to see. “Can you tell?”

“Yes,” he said absently, squinting at the sail. “Or no, rather. I can tell, and she isn’t. She’s got three masts.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” At this distance, the approaching ship looked like a wavering cloud scudding toward us over the water; I couldn’t make out her hull at all yet.

“We don’t need to run from her, do we?” I asked Jamie, who had rooted out a spyglass from Stebbings’s desk and was examining our pursuer with a deep frown. He lowered the glass at this, shaking his head.

“It doesna matter whether we need to or not; we’d no stand a chance.” He passed the glass to Smith, who clapped it to his eye, muttering, “Colors… she’s got no colors flying—”

Jamie’s head jerked sharply up and around at that, and I realized abruptly that the Pitt was still flying the Union Jack.

“That’s good, don’t you think?” I asked. “They won’t trouble a naval ship, surely.”

Jamie and John Smith both looked exceedingly dubious at this piece of logic.

“If they come within hailing distance, they’ll likely notice something’s fishy and it ain’t a whale,” Smith said. He glanced sideways at Jamie. “Still… would you maybe think of puttin’ on the captain’s coat? It might help—at a distance.”

“If they get close enough for it to matter, it willna matter anyway,” Jamie said, looking grim.

Still, he disappeared, pausing briefly to retch over the rail, and returned moments later looking splendid—if you stood well back and squinted—in Captain Stebbings’s uniform. As Stebbings was perhaps a foot shorter than Jamie and a good deal larger round the middle, the coat strained across the shoulders and flapped around the waist, both sleeves and breeches showed a much greater expanse of shirtsleeve and stocking than was usual, and the breeches had been cinched up in folds with Jamie’s sword belt in order not to fall off. He was now sporting the captain’s sword, I saw, and a pair of loaded pistols, as well as his own dirk.

Ian’s brows went up at sight of his uncle thus attired, but Jamie glared at him, and Ian said nothing, though his expression lightened for the first time since we had met the Pitt.

“Not so bad,” Mr. Smith said, encouraging. “Might’s well try to brass it out, eh? Nothing to be lost, after all.”

“Mmphm.”

“ The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled,” I said, causing Jamie to switch the glare to me.

Having seen Guinea Dick, I wasn’t worried about Ian’s passing muster as a hand in the royal navy, tattoos and all. The rest of the Teal’s hands were fairly unexceptionable. We might just get away with it.

The oncoming ship was close enough now for me to see her figurehead, a black-haired female who seemed to be clutching a—

“Is that really a snake she’s holding?” I asked dubiously. Ian leaned forward, squinting over my shoulder.

“It’s got fangs.”

“So’s the ship, lad.” John Smith nodded at the vessel, and at this point I saw that indeed it did: the long snouts of two small brass guns protruded from the bow, and as the wind drove her toward us at a slight angle, I could also see that she had gunports. They might or might not be real; merchantmen sometimes painted their sides with false gunports, to discourage interference.

The bow chasers were real, though. One of them fired, a puff of white smoke and a small ball that splashed into the water near us.

“Is that courteous?” Jamie asked dubiously. “Does he mean to signal us?”

Evidently not; both bow chasers spoke together, and a ball tore through one of the sails overhead, leaving a large hole with singed edges. We gaped at it.

“What does he think he’s about, firing on a King’s ship?” Smith demanded indignantly.

“He thinks he’s a bloody privateer, and he means to take us, is what,” Jamie said, recovering from his shock and hastily disrobing. “Strike the colors, for God’s sake!”

Smith glanced uneasily between Jamie and the oncoming ship. Men were visible at the railings. Armed men.

“They have cannon and muskets, Mr. Smith,” Jamie said, throwing his coat overboard with a heave that sent it spiraling out onto the waves. “I’m no going to try to fight them for His Majesty’s ship. Run down that flag!”

Mr. Smith bolted, and began rooting among the myriad lines for the one connected to the Union Jack. Another boom came from the bow chasers, though this time a lucky roll of the sea carried us into a trough and both balls passed over us.

The colors came rattling down, to land in an ignominious heap on the deck. I had a moment’s scandalized, reflexive impulse to rush over and pick them up, but stopped myself.

“Now what?” I asked, an uneasy eye on the ship. It was near enough that I could make out the shapes of the gunners, who were definitely reloading the brass bow chasers and re-aiming them. And the men at the railings behind them were indeed bristling with armament; I thought I made out swords and cutlasses, as well as muskets and pistols.

The gunners had paused; someone was pointing over the railing, turning to call to someone behind him. Shading my eyes with my hand, I saw the captain’s coat, afloat on the rising swell. That appeared to have baffled the privateer; I saw a man hop up onto the bow and stare toward us.

What now? I wondered. Privateers could be anything from professional captains sailing under a letter of marque from one government or another to out-and-out pirates. If the vessel on our tail was the former, chances were that we would fare all right as passengers. If the latter, they could easily cut our throats and throw us into the sea.

The man in the bow shouted something to his men and hopped down. The ship had hauled her wind for a moment; now the bow turned and the sails filled with an audible thump of wind.

“She’s going to ram us,” Smith said, his tone one of blank disbelief.

I was sure he was right. The figurehead was close enough that I could see the snake grasped in the woman’s hand, pressed against her bare breast. Such is the nature of shock that I was conscious of my mind idly considering whether the ship was more likely named Cleopatra or Asp, when it passed us in a foaming rush and the air shattered in a crash of searing metal.

The world dissolved and I was lying flat, my face pressed into ground that smelled of butchery, deafened and straining for my life to hear the scream of the next mortar round, the one that would strike us dead center.

Something heavy had fallen on me, and I struggled mindlessly to get out from under it, to get to my feet and run, run anywhere, anywhere away… away…

I gradually realized from the feel of my throat that I was making whimpering noises and that the surface under my flattened cheek was salt-sticky board, not blood-soaked mud. The weight on my back moved suddenly of its own volition, as Jamie rolled off, rising to his knees.

“Jesus Christ!” he shouted in fury. “What’s wrong wi’ you!?”

The only answer to this was a single boom, this coming evidently from a gun at the stern of the other ship, which had passed us.

I stood up, trembling, but so far past simple fright that I noticed with a purely detached sort of interest that there was a leg lying on the deck a few feet away. It was barefooted, clad in the torn-off leg of a pair of canvas breeches. There was a good deal of blood spattered here and there.

“Holy God, holy GOD,” someone kept saying. I glanced incuriously to the side and saw Mr. Smith, staring upward with a look of horror.

I looked, too. The top of the single mast was gone, and the remains of sails and rigging sagged in a tattered, smoking mass over half the deck. Evidently the privateer’s gunports were not just for show.

Dazed as I was, I hadn’t even begun to ask myself why they’d done this. Jamie wasn’t wasting any time asking questions, either. He seized Mr. Smith by the arm.

“Bloody hell! The wicked nàmhaid are comin’ back!”

They were. The other ship had been moving too fast, I belatedly realized. She’d shot past as she unleashed her broadside, but likely only one of the heavy cannonballs had actually hit us, taking out the mast and the unfortunate Teal who’d been in the rigging.

The rest of the Teals were now on deck, shouting questions. The only answer was dealt by the privateer, who was now describing a wide circle, only too clearly meaning to come back and finish what she’d started.

I saw Ian glance sharply at the Pitt’s cannon—but that was plainly futile. Even if the Teal’s men included some with gunnery experience, there was no possibility of them being able to man the guns on the spur of the moment.

The privateer had completed her circle. She was coming back. All over the Pitt’s deck, men were shouting, waving their arms, crashing into one another as they stumbled toward the rail.

“We surrender, you filthy buggers!” one of them screamed. “Are you deaf?!”

Evidently so; a stray waft of wind brought me the sulfurous smell of slow match, and I could see muskets being brought to bear on us. A few of the men near me lost their heads and rushed belowdecks. I found myself thinking that perhaps that was not such a bad idea.

Jamie had been waving and shouting beside me. Suddenly he was gone, though, and I turned to see him running across the deck. He whipped his shirt off over his head and leapt up onto our bow chaser, a gleaming brass gun called a long nine.

He waved the shirt in a huge, fluttering white arc, his free hand clamped on Ian’s shoulder for balance. That caused confusion for a moment; the crackle of firing stopped, though the sloop continued her deadly circle. Jamie waved the shirt again, to and fro. Surely they must see him!

The wind was toward us; I could hear the rumble of the guns running out again, and the blood froze in my chest.

“They’re going to sink us!” Mr. Smith shrieked, and this was echoed in cries of terror from some of the other men.

The smell of black powder came to us on the wind, sharp and acrid. There were shouts from the men in the rigging, half of them now desperately waving their shirts, as well. I saw Jamie pause for an instant, swallow, then bend down and say something to Ian. He squeezed Ian’s shoulder hard, then lowered himself on hands and knees to the gun.

Ian shot past me, nearly knocking me over in his haste.

“Where are you going?” I cried.

“To let the prisoners out! They’ll drown if we sink!” he called over his shoulder, disappearing into the companionway.

I turned back to the oncoming ship, to find that Jamie had not come down off the gun, as I’d thought. Instead, he had scrambled round so his back was to the oncoming sloop.

Braced against the wind, arms spread for balance, and knees gripping the brass of the gun for all he was worth, he stretched to his full height, arms out, displaying his bare back—and the web of scars on it, these gone red with the blanching of his skin in the cold wind.

The oncoming ship had slowed, maneuvering to slide alongside us and blast us out of the water with a final broadside. I could see the heads of men poking up over her rail, leaning out from her rigging, all craning in curiosity. But not firing.

I suddenly felt my heart beating with huge, painful thumps, as though it had actually stopped for a minute and now, reminded of its duty, was trying to make up for lost time.

The side of the sloop loomed above us, and the deck fell into deep, cold shadow. So close, I could hear the talk of the gun crews, puzzled, questioning; hear the deep clink and rattle of shot in its racks, the creak of the gun carriages. I couldn’t look up, didn’t dare to move.

“Who are you?” said a nasal, very American voice from above. It sounded deeply suspicious and very annoyed.

“If ye mean the ship, she’s called the Pitt.” Jamie had got down from the gun and stood beside me, half naked and so pebbled with gooseflesh that the hairs stood out from his body like copper wires. He was shaking, though whether from terror, rage, or simply from cold, I didn’t know. His voice didn’t shake, though; it was filled with fury.

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