An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 64


“If ye mean me, I am Colonel James Fraser, of the North Carolina militia.”

A momentary silence, as the master of the privateer digested that.

“Where’s Captain Stebbings?” the voice asked. The suspicion in it was undiminished, but the annoyance had waned a bit.

“It’s a bloody long story,” Jamie said, sounding cross. “But he’s no aboard. If ye want to come over and look for him, do so. D’ye mind if I put my shirt back on?”

A pause, a murmur, and the clicks of hammers being eased. At this point, I unfroze enough to look up. The rail was a-bristle with the barrels of muskets and pistols, but most of these had been withdrawn and were now pointing harmlessly upward, while their owners pressed forward to gawk over the rail.

“Just a minute. Turn about,” the voice said.

Jamie drew a deep breath in through his nose, but did so. He glanced at me, briefly, then stood with his head up, jaw clenched, and eyes fixed on the mast, around which the prisoners from the hold were now assembled, under Ian’s eye. They looked completely baffled, gaping up at the privateer, then looking wildly round the deck before spotting Jamie, half naked and glaring like a basilisk. Had I not begun to worry that I was having a heart attack, I would have found it funny.

“Deserter from the British army, were you?” said the voice from the sloop, sounding interested. Jamie turned round, preserving the glare.

“I am not,” he said shortly. “I am a free man—and always have been.”

“Have you, then?” The voice was beginning to sound amused. “All right. Put your shirt on, and come aboard.”

I could barely breathe and was bathed in cold sweat, but my heart began to beat more reasonably.

Jamie, now clothed, took my arm.

“My wife and nephew are coming with me,” he called, and without waiting for assent from the sloop, seized me by the waist and lifted me to stand on the Pitt’s rail, from where I could grab the rope ladder that the sloop’s crew had thrown down. He was taking no chances on being separated from either me or Ian again.

The ship was rolling in the swell, and I had to cling tightly to the ladder with my eyes closed for a moment, as dizziness swept over me. I felt nauseated as well as dizzy, but surely that was only a reaction to shock. With my eyes closed, my stomach settled a little, and I was able to set my foot on the next rung.

“Sail, ho!”

Tilting my head far back, I could just see the waving arm of the man above. I turned to look, the ladder twisting under me, and saw the sail approaching. On the deck above, the nasal voice was shouting orders, and bare feet drummed on the wood as the crew ran for their stations.

Jamie was on the rail of the Pitt, gripping me by the waist to save me falling.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” he said, in tones of utter astonishment, and I looked over my shoulder to see him turned to watch the oncoming ship. “It’s the bloody Teal.”

A TALL, VERY THIN man with gray hair, a prominent Adam’s apple, and piercing ice-blue eyes met us at the top of the ladder.

“Captain Asa Hickman,” he barked at me, and then instantly switched his attention to Jamie. “What’s that ship? And where’s Stebbings?”

Ian scrambled over the rail behind me, looking anxiously back over his shoulder.

“I’d pull that ladder up if I were you,” he said briefly to one of the sailors.

I glanced down at the deck of the Pitt, where a milling confusion of men was swarming toward the rail, pushing and shoving. There was a good deal of arm-waving and shouting, the naval seamen and the pressed men trying to put their cases, but Captain Hickman wasn’t in the mood.

“Pull it up,” he said to the sailor, and, “Come with me,” to Jamie. He stalked off along the deck, not waiting for an answer and not turning to see whether he was followed. Jamie gave the sailors surrounding us a narrow look but apparently decided they were safe enough, and, with a terse “Look after your auntie” to Ian, went off after Hickman.

Ian was not paying attention to anything save the oncoming Teal.

“Jesus,” he whispered, eyes fixed on the sail. “D’ye think he’s all right?”

“Rollo? I certainly hope so.” My face was cold; colder than just from the ocean spray; my lips had gone numb. And there were small flashing lights at the edges of my sight. “Ian,” I said, as calmly as possible. “I think I’m going to faint.”

The pressure in my chest seemed to rise, choking me. I forced a cough and felt a momentary easing. Dear God, was I having a heart attack? Pain in left arm? No. Pain in jaw? Yes, but I was clenching my teeth, no wonder…. I didn’t feel myself fall, but felt the pressure of hands as someone caught and lowered me to the deck. My eyes were open, I thought, but I couldn’t see anything. Dimly, it occurred to me that I might be dying, but I rejected that notion out of hand. No, I bloody wasn’t. I couldn’t. But there was an odd sort of gray swirling mist approaching me.

“Ian,” I said—or thought I said. I felt very calm. “Ian, just in case—tell Jamie that I love him.” Everything did not go black, rather to my surprise, but the mist reached me, and I felt gently enveloped in a peaceful gray cloud. All the pressure, the choking, the pain had eased. I could have floated, happily mindless, in the gray mist, save that I could not be sure I’d really spoken, and the need to convey the message niggled like a cocklebur in the sole of a foot.

“Tell Jamie,” I kept saying to a misty Ian. “Tell Jamie that I love him.”

“Open your eyes and tell me yourself, Sassenach,” said a deep, urgent voice somewhere close.

I tried opening my eyes and found that I could. Apparently I had not died after all. I essayed a cautious breath and found that my chest moved easily. My hair was damp, and I was lying on something hard, covered by a blanket. Jamie’s face swam above me, then steadied as I blinked.

“Tell me,” he repeated, smiling a little, though anxiety creased the skin beside his eyes.

“Tell you… oh! I love you. Where… ?” Memory of recent events flooded in upon me, and I sat up abruptly. “The Teal? What—”

“I havena got the slightest idea. When did ye last have anything to eat, Sassenach?”

“I don’t remember. Last night. What do you mean, you haven’t the slightest idea? Is it still there?”

“Oh, aye,” he said, with a certain grimness. “It is. It fired two shots at us a few minutes gone—though I suppose ye couldna hear them.”

“It fired shots at—” I rubbed a hand over my face, pleased to find that I could now feel my lips, and that normal warmth had returned to my skin. “Do I look gray and sweaty?” I asked Jamie. “Are my lips blue?”

He looked startled at that, but bent to peer closely at my mouth.

“No,” he said positively, straightening up after a thorough inspection. Then he bent and quickly kissed them, putting a seal on my state of pinkness. “I love ye, too,” he whispered. “I’m glad ye’re no dead. Yet,” he added in a normal tone of voice, straightening up as an unmistakable cannon shot came from somewhere at a distance.

“I assume Captain Stebbings has taken over the Teal?” I asked. “Captain Roberts wouldn’t be going around taking potshots at strange ships, I don’t think. But why is Stebbings firing at us, I wonder? Why isn’t he trying to board the Pitt and take her back? It’s his for the taking now.”

My symptoms had all but disappeared by now, and I felt quite clearheaded. Sitting up, I discovered that I had been laid out on a pair of large, flat-topped chests in what appeared to be a small hold; there was a latticed hatch cover overhead, through which I caught the fluttering shadows of moving sails, and the walls were stacked with a miscellaneous assortment of barrels, bundles, and boxes. The air was thick with the smells of tar, copper, cloth, gunpowder, and… coffee? I sniffed more deeply, feeling stronger by the moment. Yes, coffee!

The sound of another muffled cannon-shot came through the walls, muffled by distance, and a small visceral quiver ran through me. The notion of being trapped in the hold of a ship that might at any moment be sunk was enough to overcome even the smell of coffee.

Jamie had turned in response to the shot, too, half rising. Before I could stand and suggest that we go above, and quickly, there was a shift in the light, and a round, bristly head poked through the hatchway.

“Is the lady summat recovered?” a young boy asked politely. “Cap’n says if she’s dead, you’re no longer needed here, and he desires you to come above and speak to him prompt, sir.”

“And if I’m not dead?” I inquired, trying to straighten out my petticoats, which were wet round the hems, damp through, and hopelessly rumpled. Drat. Now I had left my gold-weighted skirt and pocket aboard the Pitt. At this rate, I’d be lucky to arrive on dry land in my chemise and stays.

The boy—at second glance, he was likely twelve or so, though he looked much younger—smiled at this.

“In that case, he offered to come and drop you overboard himself, ma’am, in hopes of concentrating your husband’s mind. Cap’n Hickman’s a bit hasty in his speech,” he added, with an apologetic grimace. “He doesn’t mean much by it. Usually.”

“I’ll come with you.” I stood up without losing my balance, but did accept Jamie’s arm. We made our way through the ship, led by our new acquaintance, who helpfully informed me that his name was Abram Zenn (“My pa being a reading man, and much taken by Mr. Johnson’s Dictionary, he was tickled by the thought of me being A through Zed, you see”), that he was the ship’s boy (the ship’s name was in fact Asp, which pleased me), and that the reason for Captain Hickman’s present agitation was a longstanding grievance against the navy’s Captain Stebbings: “which there’s been more than one run-in betwixt the two, and Cap’n Hickman’s sworn that there won’t be but one more.”

“I gather Captain Stebbings is of like mind?” Jamie asked dryly, to which Abram nodded vigorous assent.

“Fellow in a tavern in Roanoke told me Cap’n Stebbings was drinking there and said to the assembled as how he meant to hang Cap’n Hickman from his own yardarm, and leave him for the gulls to peck his eyes. They would, too,” he added darkly, with a glance at the seabirds wheeling over the ocean nearby. “They’re wicked buggers, gulls.”

Further interesting tidbits were curtailed by our arrival in Captain Hickman’s inner sanctum, a cramped stern cabin, as crammed with cargo as the hold had been. Ian was there, doing his impression of a captured Mohawk about to be burned at the stake, from which I deduced that he hadn’t taken to Captain Hickman. The feeling seemed to be mutual, judging from the hectic patches of color burning in the latter’s rawboned cheeks.

“Ah,” Hickman said shortly, seeing us. “Glad to see you’ve not departed this life yet, ma’am. Be a sad loss to your husband, such a devoted woman.” There was a sarcastic intonation to this last that made me wonder uncomfortably just how many times I’d told Ian to relay my love to Jamie and just how many people had heard me doing it, but Jamie simply ignored the comment, showing me to a seat on the captain’s unmade bed before turning to deal with the man himself.

“I’m told that the Teal is firing at us,” he observed mildly. “Does this occasion ye no concern, sir?”

“Not yet it doesn’t.” Hickman spared a negligent glance at his stern windows, half of them covered with deadlights, presumably because of broken glass; a good many of the panes were shattered. “He’s just firing in hopes of a lucky shot. We’ve got the weather gauge on him, and will likely keep it for the next couple of hours.”

“I see,” said Jamie, with a convincing attitude of knowing what this meant.

“Captain Hickman is debating in his mind whether to engage the Teal in action, Uncle,” Ian put in tactfully, “or whether to run. Having the weather gauge is a matter of maneuverability, and thus gives him somewhat more latitude in the matter than the Teal has presently, I think.”

“Heard the one about He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day?” Hickman said, giving Ian a glare. “If I can sink him, I will. If I can shoot him on his own quarterdeck and take the ship, I’ll like that better, but I’ll settle for sending him to the bottom if I have to. But I won’t let him sink me, not today.”

“Why not today?” I asked. “Rather than any other day, I mean?”

Hickman looked surprised; he had obviously assumed I was purely ornamental.

“Because I have an important cargo to deliver, ma’am. One that I daren’t risk. Not unless I could get my hands on that rat Stebbings without taking any great chances,” he added broodingly.

“I gather that your assumption that Captain Stebbings was aboard accounts for your most determined attempt to sink the Pitt?” Jamie asked. The ceiling of the cabin was so low that he, Ian, and Hickman were all obliged to converse in a crouching position, like a convention of chimpanzees. There was really nowhere to sit other than the bed, and kneeling on the floor would of course lack the requisite dignity for a meeting of gentlemen.

“It was, sir, and I’m obliged to you for stopping me in time. Perhaps we may share a jar, when there’s more leisure, and you can tell me what happened to your back.”

“Perhaps not,” Jamie said politely. “I gather further that we are under sail. Where is the Pitt presently?”

“Adrift, about two miles off the larboard quarter. If I can deal with Stebbings,” and Hickman’s eyes fairly glowed red at the prospect, “I’ll come back and take her, too.”

“If there’s anyone left alive on board to sail her,” Ian said. “There was a fair-sized riot on her deck, when last I saw it. What might predispose ye to take on the Teal, sir?” he asked, raising his voice. “My uncle and I can give ye information regarding her guns and crew—and even if Stebbings has taken the ship, I doubt but he’ll have a job to fight her. He’s got no more than ten men of his own, and Captain Roberts and his crew will want nay part of an engagement, I’m sure.”