Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 189


“What fuses? Why?” She saw his eyes flick toward the door behind her. Before he could move, she stepped back into the doorway, bringing up the muzzle of the gun. He backed away from her instinctively, hitting the bench with the backs of his legs. He fell back, and struck the chains fastened to the wall; empty manacles chimed against the brick.

Shock was beginning to steal over her, but the memory of the white-hot current still burned through her spine, keeping her upright.

“You do not mean to kill me, surely?” He tried to smile, and failed; couldn’t keep the panic from his eyes. She had said she would rest easier with him dead.

Freedom is hard-won, but is not the fruit of Murder. She had her hard-won freedom now, and would not give it back to him.

“No,” she said, and took a firmer hold on the gun, the butt snugged solid into her shoulder. “But I will by God shoot you through the knees and leave you here, if you don’t tell me right this minute what the hell is going on!”

He shifted his weight, big body hovering, pale eyes on her, judging. She blocked the door entirely, her bulk filling it from side to side. She saw the doubt in his posture, the shift of his shoulders as he thought to rush her, and cocked the gun with a single loud click!

He stood six feet from the muzzle’s end; too far to lunge and grab it from her. One move, one pull of her trigger finger. She couldn’t miss, and he knew it.

His shoulders slumped.

“The warehouse above is laid with gunpowder and fuses,” he said, speaking quick and sharp, anxious to get it done. “I can’t say how long, but it’s goin’ up with an almighty bang. For God’s sake, let me out of here!”

“Why?” Her hands were sweating, but solid on the gun. The baby stirred, a reminder that she had no time to waste, either. She would risk one minute to know, though. She had to know, with John Grey’s body limp on the floor behind her. “You’ve killed a good man here, and I want to know why!”

He made a gesture of frustration.

“The smuggling!” he said. “We were partners, the Sergeant and I. I’d bring him in cheap contraband, he’d stamp it with the Crown’s mark. He’d steal the licensed stuff, I’d sell it for a good price and split with him.”

“Keep talking.”

He was nearly dancing with impatience.

“A soldier—Hodgepile—he was on to it, asking questions. Murchison couldn’t say if he’d told anyone, but it wasn’t wise to wait and see, not once I was taken. The Sergeant moved the last of the liquor from the warehouse, substituted barrels of turpentine, and laid the fuses. It all goes up, no one can say it wasn’t brandy burning—no evidence of theft. That’s it, that’s all. Now let me go!”

“All right.” She lowered the musket a few inches, but didn’t yet uncock it. “What about him?” She nodded toward the fallen Sergeant, who was beginning to snort and mumble.

He stared at her blankly.

“What about him?”

“Aren’t you going to take him with you?”

“No.” He sidled to one side, looking for a way past her. “For Christ’s sweet sake, woman, let me go, and leave yourself! There’s twelve hundred-weight of pitch and turpentine overhead. It’ll go off like a bomb!”

“But he’s still alive! We can’t leave him here!”

Bonnet gave her a look of sheer exasperation, then crossed the room in two strides. He bent, jerked the dagger from the Sergeant’s belt, and drew it hard across the fat throat, just above the leather stock. A thick spray of blood soaked Bonnet’s shirt, and whipped against the wall.

“There,” he said, straightening up. “He’s not alive. Leave him.”

He dropped the dagger, pushed her aside, and lunged out into the corridor. She could hear his footsteps going away, quick and ringing on the brick.

Trembling all over with the shock of action and reaction, she stood still for a second, staring down at John Grey’s body. Grief ripped through her, and her womb clenched hard. There was no pain, but every fiber had contracted; her stomach bulged as though she’d swallowed a basketball. She felt breathless, unable to move.

No, she thought quite clearly, to the child inside. I am not in labor, I absolutely, positively am not. I won’t have it. Stay put. I haven’t got time right now.

She took two steps down the black corridor, then stopped. No, she had to check, at least, make sure. She turned back, and knelt by John Grey’s body. He had looked dead when she first saw him lying there, and still did; he hadn’t moved or even twitched since she had first seen his body.

She leaned forward but couldn’t reach easily over the bulge of her belly. She grasped his arm instead, and pulled at him, trying to turn him over. A small, fine-boned man, he was still heavy. His body tilted up, rolled boneless toward her, head lolling, and her heart sank anew, seeing his half-closed eyes and slack mouth. But she reached beneath the angle of his jaw, feeling frantically for a pulse point.

Where the hell was it? She’d seen her mother do it in emergencies; faster to find than a wrist pulse, she’d said. She couldn’t find one. How long had it been, how long were the fuses set to burn?

She wiped a fold of her cloak across her clammy face, trying to think. She looked back, judging the distance to the stairs. Jesus, could she risk it, even alone? The thought of popping out into the warehouse above, just as everything went off—She cast one look upward, then bent to her work and tried again, pushing his head far back. There! She could see the damn vein under his skin—that’s where the pulse should be, shouldn’t it?

For a moment, she wasn’t sure she felt it; it might be only the hammering of her own heart, beating in her fingertips. But no, it was—a different rhythm, faint and fluttering. He might be close to dead, but not quite.

“Close,” she muttered, “but no cigar.” She felt too frightened to be greatly relieved; now she’d have to get him out, too. She scrambled to her feet, and reached down to get hold of his arms, to drag him. But then she stopped, a memory of what she had seen a moment before penetrating her panic.

She turned and lumbered hastily back into the cell. Averting her eyes from the sodden red mound on the floor, she snatched up the lantern and brought it back to the corridor. She held it high, casting light on the low brick ceiling. Yes, she’d been right!

The bricks curved up from the floor in groynes, making arches all along both sides of the corridors. Storage alcoves and cells. Above the groynes, though, ran sturdy beams made of eight-inch pine. Over that, thick planking—and above the planks, the layer of bricks that formed the floor of the warehouse.

Going up like a bomb, Bonnet had said—but was he right? Turpentine burned, so did pitch; yes, they’d likely explode if they burned under pressure, but not like a bomb, no. Fuses. Fuses, in the plural. Long fuses, plainly, and likely running to small caches of gunpowder; that was the only true explosive Murchison would have; there were no high explosives now.

So the gunpowder would explode in several places, and ignite the barrels nearby. But the barrels would burn slowly; she’d seen Sinclair make barrels like those; the staves were half an inch thick, watertight. She remembered the reek as they walked through the warehouse; yes, Murchison would likely have opened the bungs of a few barrels, let the turpentine flow out, to help the fire along.

So the barrels would burn, but likely they wouldn’t explode—or if they did, not all at once. Her breathing eased a little, making calculations. Not a bomb; a string of firecrackers, maybe.

So. She took a deep breath—as deep a breath as she could manage, with Osbert in the way. She put her hands across her stomach, feeling her racing heart begin to slow.

Even if some of the barrels did explode, the force of the explosion would be out, and up, through the thin plank walls and the roof. Very little force would be deflected down. And what was—she reached up a hand and pushed against a beam, reassuring herself of its strength.

She sat down quite suddenly on the floor, skirts puffed out around her.

“I think it’ll be all right,” she whispered, not sure if she was talking to John, to the baby, or to herself.

She sat huddled for a moment, shaking with relief, then rolled awkwardly onto her knees again, and began with fumbling fingers to administer first aid.

She was still struggling to tear a strip from the hem of her petticoat when she heard the footsteps. Coming fast, almost running. She turned sharply toward the stairs, but no—the footsteps came from the other way, behind her.

She whirled around, to see the form of Stephen Bonnet looming out of the darkness.

“Run!” he shouted at her. “For Christ’s sweet sake, why have ye not gone?”

“Because it’s safe here,” she said. She had laid the musket down on the floor beside Grey’s body; she stooped and picked it up, lifted it to her shoulder. “Go away.”

He stared at her, mouth half open in the gloom.

“Safe? Woman, you’re an eedjit! Did ye not hear—”

“I heard, but you’re wrong. It’s not going to explode. And if it did, it would still be safe down here.”

“The hell it is! Sweet bleeding Jesus! Even if the cellar doesn’t go, what happens when the fire burns through the floor?”

“It can’t, it’s brick.” She jerked her chin upward, not taking her eyes off him.

“Back here it is—up front, by the river, it’s wood, like the wharf. It’ll burn through, then collapse. And what happens back here then, eh? Do ye no good for the ceiling to hold, when the smoke comes rolling back to smother ye!”

She felt a wave of sickness roil up from her depths.

“It’s open? The cellar isn’t sealed? The other end of the corridor’s open?” Knowing even as she spoke that of course it was—he had run that way, heading for the river, not for the stairs.

“Yes! Now come!” He lunged forward, reaching for her arm, but she jerked away, back against the wall, the muzzle of the gun trained on him.

“I’m not going without him.” She licked dry lips, nodding at the floor.

“The man’s dead!”

“He’s not! Pick him up!”

An extraordinary mixture of emotions crossed Bonnet’s face; fury and astonishment preeminent among them.

“Pick him up!” she repeated fiercely. He stood still, staring at her. Then, very slowly, he squatted, and gathering John Grey’s limp form into his arms, got the point of his shoulder into Grey’s abdomen and heaved him up.

“Come on, then,” he said, and without another glance at her started off into the dark. She hesitated for a second, then seized the lantern and followed him.

Within fifty feet, she smelled smoke. The brick corridor wasn’t straight; it branched and turned, encompassing the many partitions of the cellar. But all the time it slanted down, heading toward the riverbank. As they descended through the multiple turnings, the scent of smoke thickened; a layer of acrid haze swirled lazily around them, visible in the lantern light.