An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 65

   

Jamie gave Ian a narrow look.

“Ye ken they’ve likely killed him already.”

Ian didn’t resemble Jamie at all, but the look of implacable stubbornness on his face was one I knew intimately.

“Aye, maybe. Would ye leave me behind, if ye only thought I might be dead?”

I could see Jamie open his mouth to say, “He’s a dog.” But he didn’t. He closed his eyes and sighed, obviously contemplating the prospect of instigating a sea battle—and incidentally risking all of our lives six ways from Sunday, to say nothing of the lives of the men aboard the Teal—for the sake of an aging dog, who might be already dead, if not devoured by a shark. Then he opened them and nodded.

“Aye, all right.” He straightened, as much as was possible in the cramped cabin, and turned to Hickman. “My nephew’s particular friend is aboard the Teal and likely in danger. I ken that’s no concern of yours, but it explains our own interest. As for yours… in addition to Captain Stebbings, there is a cargo aboard the Teal in which ye may have an interest, as well—six cases of rifles.”

Ian and I both gasped. Hickman straightened up abruptly, cracking his head on a timber.

“Ow! Holy Moses. You’re sure of that?”

“I am. And I imagine the Continental army might make use of them?”

I thought that was treading on dangerous ground; after all, the fact that Hickman had a strong animus toward Captain Stebbings didn’t necessarily mean he was an American patriot. From the little I’d seen of him, Captain Stebbings looked entirely capable of inspiring purely personal animus, quite separate from any political considerations.

But Hickman made no denial; in fact, he’d barely noticed Jamie’s remark, inflamed by mention of the rifles. Was it true? I wondered. But Jamie had spoken with complete certainty. I cast my mind back over the contents of the Teal’s hold, looking for anything…

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said. “The boxes bound for New Haven?” I barely kept myself from blurting out Hannah Arnold’s name, realizing just in time that if Hickman was indeed a patriot—for it did occur to me that he might merely be a businessman, as willing to sell to either side—he might well recognize the name and realize that these rifles were almost certainly already intended to reach the Continentals via Colonel Arnold.

Jamie nodded, watching Hickman, who was gazing at a small barometer on the wall as though it were a crystal ball. Whatever it told him seemed to be favorable, for Hickman nodded once, then dashed out of the cabin as though his breeches were on fire.

“Where’s he gone?” Ian demanded, staring after him.

“To check the wind, I imagine,” I said, proud of knowing something. “To make certain he still has the weather gauge.”

Jamie was rifling Hickman’s desk, and emerged at this point with a rather wizened apple, which he tossed into my lap. “Eat that, Sassenach. What the devil is a weather gauge?”

“Ah. Well, there you have me,” I admitted. “But it has to do with wind, and it seems to be important.” I sniffed the apple; it had plainly seen better days, but still held a faint, sweet smell that suddenly raised the ghost of my vanished appetite. I took a cautious bite and felt saliva flood my mouth. I ate it in two more bites, ravenous.

Captain Hickman’s high nasal voice came piercingly from the deck. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the response was immediate; feet thumped to and fro on deck, and the ship shifted suddenly, turning as her sails were adjusted. The chime and grunt of shot being lifted and the rumble of gun carriages echoed through the ship. Apparently, the weather gauge was still ours.

I could see a fierce excitement light Ian’s face and rejoiced to see it, but couldn’t help voicing a qualm or two.

“You haven’t any hesitation about this?” I said to Jamie. “I mean—after all, he is a dog.”

He gave me an eye and a moody shrug.

“Aye, well. I’ve known battles fought for worse reasons. And since this time yesterday, I’ve committed piracy, mutiny, and murder. I may as well add treason and make a day of it.”

“Besides, Auntie,” Ian said reprovingly, “he’s a good dog.”

WEATHER GAUGE OR NO, it took an endless time of cautious maneuvering before the ships drew within what seemed a dangerous distance of each other. The sun was no more than a handsbreadth above the horizon by now, the sails were beginning to glow a baleful red, and my chastely pristine dawn looked like ending in a wallowing sea of blood.

The Teal was cruising gently, no more than half her canvas set, less than half a mile away. Captain Hickman stood on the Asp’s deck, hands clenched on the rail as though it were Stebbings’s throat, wearing the look of a greyhound just before the rabbit is released.

“Time you went below, ma’am,” Hickman said, not looking at me. “Matters will be hotting up directly here.” His hands flexed once in anticipation.

I didn’t argue. The tension on deck was so thick I could smell it, testosterone spiced with brimstone and black powder. Men being the remarkable creatures that they are, everyone seemed cheerful.

I paused to kiss Jamie—a gesture he returned with a gusto that left my lower lip throbbing slightly—resolutely ignoring the possibility that the next time I saw him, it might be in separate pieces. I’d faced that possibility a number of times before, and while it didn’t get less daunting with practice, I had got better at ignoring it.

Or at least I thought I had. Sitting in the main hold in near-total darkness, smelling the low-tide reek of the bilges and listening to what I was sure were rats rustling in the chains, I had a harder time ignoring the sounds from above: the rumbling of gun carriages. The Asp had only four guns to a side, but they were twelve-pounders: heavy armament for a coastal schooner. The Teal, equipped as an oceangoing merchantman who might have to fight off all manner of menace, fought eight to a side, sixteen-pounders, with two carronades on the upper deck, plus two bow chasers and a stern gun.

“She’d run from a man-o’-war,” Abram explained to me, he having asked me to describe the Teal’s armament. “And she wouldn’t be likely to try to seize or sink another vessel, so she wouldn’t ship tremendous hardware, even was she built for it, and I doubt she is. Now, I doubt as well that Captain Stebbings can man even a whole side to good effect, though, so we mustn’t be downhearted.” He spoke with great confidence, which I found amusing and also oddly reassuring. He seemed to realize this, for he leaned forward and patted my hand gently.

“Now, you needn’t fret, ma’am,” he said. “Mr. Fraser said to me I must be sure to let no harm come to you, and I shall not—be sure of that.”

“Thank you,” I said gravely. Not wanting either to laugh or to cry, I cleared my throat instead and asked, “Do you know what caused the trouble between Captain Hickman and Captain Stebbings?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am,” he replied promptly. “Captain Stebbings has been a plague on the district for some years, stopping ships what he hasn’t any right to search, taking off legal goods what he says are contraband—and we take leave to doubt that any of it ever sees the inside of a Customs warehouse!” he added, obviously quoting something he’d heard more than once. “But it was what happened with the Annabelle, really.”

The Annabelle was a large ketch, owned by Captain Hickman’s brother. The Pitt had stopped her and attempted to press men from her crew. Theo Hickman had protested, resistance had broken out, and Stebbings had ordered his men to fire into the Annabelle, killing three crewmen—Theo Hickman among them.

There had been considerable public outcry over this, and an effort was made to bring Captain Stebbings to justice for his deeds. The captain had insisted that no local court had the right to try him for anything, though; if anyone wished to bring an action against him, it must be done in an English court. And the local justices had agreed with this.

“Was this before war was declared last year?” I asked curiously. “For if after—”

“Well before,” young Zenn admitted. “Still,” he added with righteous indignation, “they are cowardly dogs and ought be tarred and feathered, the lot of them, and Stebbings, too!”

“No doubt,” I said. “Do you think—”

But I had no opportunity to explore his opinions further, for at this point the ship gave a violent lurch, throwing us both onto the damp floorboards, and the sound of a violent and prolonged explosion shattered the air around us.

I couldn’t at first tell which ship had fired—but an instant later, the Asp’s guns spoke overhead, and I knew the first broadside had been from the Teal.

The Asp’s reply was ragged, the guns along her starboard side going off at more or less random intervals overhead, punctuated by the flat bangs of small-arms fire.

I resisted Abram’s gallant attempts to throw his meager body protectively on top of mine and, rolling over, got up onto my hands and knees, listening intently. There was a lot of shouting, none of it comprehensible, though the shooting had stopped. We appeared not to be leaking water, so far as I could tell, so presumably we had not been struck below the waterline.

“They can’t have given up, surely?” Abram said, scrambling to his feet. He sounded disappointed.

“I doubt it.” I got to my own feet, bracing a hand against a large barrel. The main hold was quite as crowded as the forward one, though with bulkier items; there was barely room for Abram and me to worm our way between the netted bulk of crates and tiers of casks—some of which smelled strongly of beer. The ship was heeling to one side now. We must be coming about—probably to try again. The wheels of the gun carriages ground on the deck above; yes, they were reloading. Had anyone yet been hurt? I wondered. And what the devil was I going to do about it if they had?

The sound of a single cannon-shot came from overhead.

“The dog must be fleeing,” Abram whispered. “We’re chasing him down.”

There was a long period of relative silence, during which I thought the ship was tacking but couldn’t really tell. Maybe Hickman was pursuing the Teal.

Sudden yelling from overhead, with a sound of surprised alarm, and the ship heaved violently, flinging us to the floor once again. This time I landed on top. I delicately removed my knee from Abram’s stomach and helped him to sit up, gasping like a landed fish.

“What—” he wheezed, but got no further. There was a hideous jolt that knocked us both flat again, followed at once by a grinding, rending noise of squealing timbers. It sounded as though the ship was coming apart around us, and I had no doubt that it was.

Shrieking like banshees and the thunder of feet on deck.

“We’re being boarded!” I could hear Abram swallow, and my hand went to the slit in my petticoat, touching my knife for courage. If—

“No,” I whispered, straining my eyes up into darkness as though that would help me hear better. “No. We’re boarding them.” For the pounding feet above had vanished.

THE YELLING HADN’T; EVEN muffled by distance, I could hear the note of insanity in it, the clear joy of the berserker. I thought I could make out Jamie’s Highland screech, but that was likely imagination; they all sounded equally demented.

“Our Father, who art in heaven … Our Father, who art in heaven …” Abram was whispering to himself in the dark, but had stuck on the first line.

I clenched my fists and closed my eyes in reflex, screwing up my face as though by sheer force of will I could help.

Neither of us could.

It was an age of muffled noises, occasional shots, thuds and bangs, grunting and shouting. And then silence.

I could just see Abram’s head turn toward me, questioning. I squeezed his hand.

And then a ship’s gun went off with a crash that echoed across the deck above, and a shock wave thrummed through the air of the hold, hard enough that my ears popped. Another followed, I felt rather than heard a thunk, and then the floor heaved and tilted, and the ship’s timbers reverberated with an odd, deep bwong. I shook my head hard, swallowing, trying to force air through my Eustachian tubes. They popped again, finally, and I heard feet on the side of the ship. More than one pair. Moving slowly.

I leapt to my feet, grabbed Abram, and hauled him bodily up, propelling him toward the ladder. I could hear water. Not racing along the ship’s sides; a gushing noise, as of water gurgling into the hold.

The hatchway had been closed overhead but not battened down, and I knocked it loose with a desperate bang of both hands, nearly losing my balance and plunging into darkness but luckily sustained by Abram Zenn, who planted a small but solid shoulder under my bu**ocks by way of support.

“Thank you, Mr. Zenn,” I said, and, reaching behind me, pulled him up the ladder into the light.

There was blood on the deck; that was the first thing I saw. Wounded men, too—but not Jamie. He was the second thing I saw, leaning heavily over the remains of a shattered rail with several other men. I hurried to see what they were looking at, and saw the Teal a few hundred yards away.

Her sails were fluttering wildly, and her masts seemed oddly tilted. Then I realized that the ship herself was tilted, the bow raised half out of the water.

“Rot me,” said Abram, in tones of amazement. “She’s run onto rocks.”

“So have we, son, but not so bad,” said Hickman, glancing aside at the cabin boy’s voice. “Is there water in the hold, Abram?”

“There is,” I replied before Abram, lost in contemplation of the wounded Teal, could gather his wits to answer. “Have you any medical instruments aboard, Captain Hickman?”

“Have I what?” he blinked at me, distracted. “This is no time for—why?”

“I’m a surgeon, sir,” I said, “and you need me.”

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