Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 122

   

“Fevered,” the girl answered, indifferently. It was nothing out of the way; half the emigrants in line were coughing and sneezing, three days in darkness and damp clothes having done nothing for their precarious state of health.

“Have ye seen a Cirein Croin, then?” she asked, leaning far over the rail, a hand shading her eyes. “Are they really big enough to swallow the boat?”

“Myself has not seen one.” Roger dropped his dipper and grabbed her by the apron sash, pulling her firmly off the rail. “Have a care, aye? It would take no more than a spratling to swallow you, lassie!”

“Look!” she shrieked, leaning farther over in spite of his grasp. “Look, it is, it is!”

Drawn as much by the terror in her voice as what she said, Roger leaned over the rail involuntarily. A dark shape hovered just below the surface, smooth and black, graceful as a bullet—and half the length of the ship. It kept pace for a few moments with the racing vessel, then was outdistanced and left behind.

“Shark,” Roger said, shaken in spite of himself. He gave the girl a small shake, to stop her steam-whistle screeches. “It’s no but a shark, hear? Ye ken what’s a shark, do ye not? We ate one, only last week!”

She had quit shrieking, but was still white-faced and wide-eyed, tender mouth quivering.

“You’re sure?” she said. “It—it wasna a Cirein Croin?”

“No,” Roger said gently, and gave her a dipper of water to drink, by herself. “Only a shark.” The biggest shark he had ever seen, with an air of blind ferocity that raised the hair on his forearms to see—but only a shark. They hung about the ship whenever her speed slowed, eager for the garbage and slops tossed overboard.

“Isobeàil!” An indignant cry summoned his erstwhile companion to come and lend a hand with the family chores. With dragging step and out-thrust lip, Isobeàil slouched off to help her mother with the water buckets, leaving Roger to finish his job without further distraction.

No further distraction than his thoughts, at least. For the most part, he succeeded in forgetting that the Gloriana had nothing below her save leagues of empty water; that the ship was not, in fact, the small and solid island that it seemed, but instead no more than a fragile shell, at the mercy of forces that could crush her in moments—and everyone aboard.

Had the Phillip Alonzo reached port in safety? he wondered. Ships did sink, and fairly often; he’d read enough accounts of it. Having lived through the last three days, he could only be amazed that more of them didn’t sink. Well, and there was precisely nothing he could do about that prospect, except pray.

For those in peril on the deep, Lord, have mercy.

With sudden vividness, he understood exactly what the maker of that line had meant.

Finished, he dropped the dipper into the barrel and reached for a board to cover the open top; rats tended to fall in and drown otherwise. One of the women clutched him by the arm as he turned away. She gestured at the little boy she held, fussing against his mother’s neck.

“Mr. MacKenzie, might the Captain gie us a wee rub wi’ his ring? Our Gibbie has a touch o’ sore eyes from bein’ in the dark sae long.”

Roger hesitated, but then ridiculed himself. He, like the rest of the crew, tended to steer clear of Bonnet, but there was no reason to refuse the woman’s request; the Captain had obliged before with a rub of his gold ring, this being a popular remedy for sore eyes and inflammations.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, forgetting himself for a moment. “Come on.” The woman blinked in surprise, but followed him obediently. The Captain was on his quarterdeck, engaged in close conversation with the mate; Roger motioned to the woman to wait for a bit, and she nodded, shrinking modestly behind him.

The Captain looked as tired as any of them, the lines of dissipation carved deeper in his face. Lucifer after a week of running Hell, and finding it no picnic, Roger thought, sourly amused.

“…damage to the tea chests?” Bonnet was saying to the mate.

“Only two, and not soaked through,” Dixon replied. “We can salvage a bit; maybe get rid of it upriver in Cross Creek.”

“Aye, they’re more particular in Edenton and New Bern. We’ll get the best prices there, though; we’ll get rid of what we can before we go to Wilmington.”

Bonnet turned slightly and caught sight of Roger. His expression hardened, but relaxed again when he heard the request. Without comment, he reached down and rubbed the gold ring he wore on his little finger gently over little Gilbert’s closed eyes. A plain wide band, Roger saw; it almost looked like a wedding ring, though smaller—a woman’s ring, maybe. The formidable Bonnet with a love token? Could be, Roger supposed; some women might find the Captain’s air of subdued violence attractive.

“The wean’s ailing,” Dixon remarked. He pointed, there was a prickle of red bumps behind the boy’s ears, and his pale cheeks bloomed with fever.

“No but milk fever,” the woman said, pulling her child defensively against her bosom. “He’s a new tooth coming, likely.”

The Captain nodded indifferently and turned away. Roger escorted the woman to the galley to beg a bit of hard biscuit for the child to gnaw on, then sent her back to the forward hold with the others.

He had little thought for Gilbert’s gums, though; as he climbed the ladderway to the deck, his mind was occupied by the conversation he had overheard.

Stops in New Bern and Edenton, before Wilmington. And plainly Bonnet was in no rush; he’d be looking for good prices for his cargo, and taking the time to broker the indentures of his passengers—Christ, it could be weeks before they made Wilmington!

It wouldn’t do, Roger thought. God knew where Brianna could get to—or what sort of thing happen to her. The Gloriana had made swift passage, in spite of the squall—God willing, they’d make North Carolina in only eight weeks, if the winds held. He didn’t want to sacrifice the valuable time so gained to lallygagging in the northern Carolina ports, mooching their way south.

He’d be off the Gloriana in the first port they touched, he resolved, and make his way south as best he could. True, he’d given his word to stay with the ship until the cargo was disposed of, but then, he wouldn’t be taking his wages, either, so the exchange seemed fair enough.

The fresh cold air above decks did a little bit to rouse him. His head still felt stuffed with damp cotton wool, though, and the back of his throat was raspy with salt. Three hours more to go on his watch; he made his way forward for another dipper of water, hoping it would help him stay on his feet.

Dixon had left the Captain, and was strolling through the clusters of passengers, nodding to the men, stopping to say something to a woman with children. Odd, Roger thought. The mate wasn’t a sociable man with the crew, let alone with the passengers, whom he regarded as nothing more than an unusually inconvenient form of cargo.

Something stirred in his mind at the mention of cargo, something uncomfortable, but he couldn’t bring it to the forefront of recognition. It hung in the shadows of exhaustion, just out of sight, nearly close enough to smell. Yes, that was it, it had to do with a smell. But what—

“MacKenzie!” One of the seamen was calling from the afterdeck, waving for him to come and help with the mending of sails torn by the storm; huge stacks of folded canvas lay like dirty snowdrifts on the boards, their upper layers billowing in the wind.

Roger groaned, and stretched his aching muscles. No matter what happened in North Carolina, he would be very glad to get off this ship.

Two nights later, Roger was deep in dreams when the shouting roused him. His feet hit the deck and he was running for the companionway, heart pumping at full bore, before his mind had grasped the fact that he was awake. He sprang for the ladder, only to be knocked sprawling by a blow to his chest.

“Stay where ye are, fool!” Dixon’s voice growled from the rungs above. He could see the mate’s head, outlined against the starry square of the hatchway overhead.

“What is it? What’s happening?” He shook off the confusion of his dreams, to find no less confusion in the waking.

There were others in the dark near him, he could feel bodies stumble over him as he struggled to his feet. All the noise was up above, though; a thunder of feet on the deck and a shouting and shrieking like nothing he had ever heard.

“Murderers!” A woman’s voice cut through the racket, shrill as a fife. “Wicked mur—” The voice cut off abruptly, with a heavy thump on the deck above.

“What is it?” On his feet again, Roger shoved his way through the men by the ladder, shouting up to Dixon, “What? Are we boarded?” His words were drowned by the shouting above; the steam-whistle shrieks of women and children, cutting through men’s bellowing and curses.

Red light flickered somewhere above. Was the ship afire? He shoved through the press of men and grabbed the ladder, reached up and seized Dixon’s foot.

“Gerrof!” The foot jerked free, aimed a kick at his head. “Stay down there! Christ, man, ye want to catch pox?”

“Pox? What the hell is going on up there?” Eyes accustomed to the dark by now, Roger grabbed the stabbing foot and gave it a vicious twist, jerked downward. Unprepared for assault, Dixon lost his grip on the ladder and fell heavily, sliding over Roger’s head and into the men below.

Roger ignored the cries of rage and surprise behind him and clambered out onto the deck. There was a group of men clustered thick about the forward hatchway. Lanterns hung above in the rigging, shooting beams of red and white and yellow light that caught the gleam of blades.

He looked quickly for another ship, but the ocean was black and empty on all sides. No boarders, no pirates; all the struggle was taking place near the hatchway, where half the crew was gathered in a knot, armed with knives and clubs.

Mutiny? he thought, and dismissed it, even as he pushed forward; Bonnet’s head showed above the crowd, hatless, fair hair gleaming in the flash of lantern light. Roger shoved his way into the mob, ruthlessly shouldering smaller seamen aside.

Shrieks and shouts echoed from the hold, and a flicker of light showed below. A bundle of rags was handed up, passed rapidly from hand to hand, disappeared behind the shifting mass of limbs and clubs. There was a heavy splash to port, and then another.

“What is it, what’s happening?” He bellowed in the ear of the bosun, who stood near the hatchway, holding a lantern. The man jerked round and glared at him.

“You’ve not had pox, have you? Get below!” Hutchinson’s attention had already gone back to the open hatchway.

“Yes, I have! What’s that got to—”

The bosun swung back, surprised.

“You’ve had pox? You’re not marked. Ach, let it go—get you down, then, we need all hands!”

“For what?” Roger leaned forward, to make himself heard above the noise from below.

“Smallpox!” the bosun bellowed back. He gestured at the open hatchway, as one of the seamen appeared at the top of the ladder, a child under one arm, feebly kicking. Hands clawed and beat at the man’s hunched back, and a woman’s voice rose high above the other noises, shrill with terror.

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