Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 31

   

“A foolish woman,” Bonnet said dispassionately, “but I suppose you don’t mind that.” He nodded, a faint smile showing. “I am obliged for the opportunity to repay my debt to ye, sir. A life for a life, as the Good Book says.”

“Repay us?” Ian said angrily. “After what we’ve done for ye, ye’ll rob and spoil us, lay violent hands upon my aunt and my dog, and then ye’ll ha’ the gall to speak of repayment?”

Bonnet’s pale eyes fixed on Ian’s face; they were green, the color of peeled grapes. He had a deep dimple in one cheek, as though God had pressed a thumb there in his making, but the eyes were cold as river water at dawn.

“Why, were ye never after learning your Scripture, lad?” Bonnet shook his head reprovingly, with a click of the tongue. “A virtuous woman is prized above rubies; her price is greater than pearls.”

He opened his hand, still smiling, and the lantern light glittered off three gems: emerald, sapphire, and the dark fire of a black diamond.

“I’m sure Mr. Fraser would agree, would ye not, sir?” He slipped the hand into his coat, then brought it out empty.

“And after all,” he said, cold eyes swiveling once more toward Ian, “there are repayments of different kinds.” He smiled, not very pleasantly. “Though I should not suppose you can be old enough to know that yet. Be glad I’ve no mind to give ye a lesson.”

He turned away, beckoning to his comrades.

“We have what we came for,” he said abruptly. “Come.” He stepped up onto the rail and jumped, landing with a grunt on the muddy riverbank. His henchmen followed, Roberts casting an evil look at me before splashing awkwardly into the shallows and ashore.

The four men disappeared at once into the brush, and I heard the high-pitched greeting whinny of a horse, somewhere in the darkness. Aboard, all was silence.

The sky was the color of charcoal, and thunder grumbled faintly in the distance, sheet lightning flickering just above the far horizon.

“Bastards.”

Captain Freeman spat in valediction over the side, and turned to his mate.

“Fetch the poles, you, Troklus,” he said, and shambled toward the tiller, hitching his breeks upward as he went.

Slowly, the others stirred and came to life. Fergus, with a glance at Jamie, lit the lantern and then disappeared into the cabin, where I heard him beginning to set things to rights. Ian sat huddled on the deck, his dark head bent over Rollo as he dabbed at the dog’s neck with his wadded shirt.

I didn’t want to look at Jamie. I rolled onto my hands and knees and crawled slowly over to Young Ian. Rollo watched me, yellow eyes wary, but made no objection to my presence.

“How is he?” I said, rather hoarsely. I could feel the ring in my throat, an uncomfortable obstruction, and swallowed heavily several times.

Young Ian looked up at once; his face was white and set, but his eyes were alert.

“He’s all right, I think,” he said softly. “Auntie—are ye all right? Ye’re no hurt, are ye?”

“No,” I said, and tried to smile reassuringly. “I’m fine.” There was a sore spot on the back of my skull and my ears still rang slightly; the yellow halo of light around the lantern seemed to oscillate, to swell and shrink in rhythm with the beating of my heart. One cheek was scraped, I had a bruised elbow and a large splinter in one hand, but I seemed to be fundamentally sound, physically. Otherwise, I had my doubts.

I didn’t look around at Jamie, some six feet behind me, but I could feel his presence, ominous as a thundercloud. Ian, who plainly could see him over my shoulder, looked faintly apprehensive.

There was a slight creaking of the deck, and Ian’s expression eased. I heard Jamie’s voice inside the cabin, outwardly casual as he asked Fergus a question, then it faded, lost in the sounds of bumping and shuffling as the men righted furniture and repiled the scattered goods. I let my breath out slowly.

“Dinna fash, Auntie,” Ian said, in an attempt at comfort. “Uncle Jamie’s no the sort to lay hands on ye, I dinna think.”

I wasn’t at all sure of that, given the vibrations coming from Jamie’s direction, but I hoped he was right.

“Is he terribly angry, do you think?” I asked in a low voice.

Ian shrugged uneasily.

“Well, last time I saw him look at me that way, he took me back o’ the house and knocked me flat. He wouldna serve you that way, though, I’m sure,” he added hastily.

“I don’t suppose so,” I said, a little bleakly. I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t prefer it if he did.

“It’s no verra nice to get the rough side o’ Uncle Jamie’s tongue, either,” Ian said, shaking his head sympathetically. “I’d rather a thrashing, myself.”

I gave Ian a quelling look and leaned over the dog.

“Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof. Has the bleeding stopped?”

It had; disregarding the blood-matted fur, there was surprisingly little damage; no more than a deep nick in the skin and muscle near the shoulder. Rollo flattened his ears and showed his teeth as I examined him, but made no audible protest.

“Good dog,” I murmured. Had I any way to numb the skin, I would have stitched the wound, but we would have to do without such niceties. “He should have a little ointment there, to keep the flies out.”

“I’ll get it, Auntie; I ken where your wee box is.” Ian gently edged Rollo’s nose off his knee and got to his feet. “It’ll be the green stuff ye put on Fergus’s toe?” At my nod, he disappeared into the cabin, leaving me to deal with my quivering stomach, sore head, and congested throat. I swallowed several times, but with no great result. I touched my throat gingerly, wondering which ring I still had.

Eutroclus came round the corner of the cabin, carrying a long thick pole of white wood, deeply stained at one end, the marks testifying to the frequent necessity of its use. Stabbing the pole firmly down off the side, he leaned his weight against it, heaving with a long, sustained effort.

I jumped, as Jamie came out of the shadows, a similar pole in his hand. I hadn’t heard him, above the miscellaneous thumpings and shouts. He didn’t look at me, but shed his shirt, and at the deckhand’s indication, stabbed down his pole.

On the fourth try, I felt the vibration of the hull, a small judder as something shifted. Encouraged, Jamie and the hand shoved harder, and all of sudden, the hull slid free, with a muted bwong! of resonant wood that made Rollo lift his head with a startled Wuff!

Eutroclus nodded to Jamie, face beaming under a shiny layer of sweat, and took the pole from him. Jamie nodded back, smiling, and picking up his shirt from the deck, turned toward me.

I stiffened, and Rollo twitched his ears to full alert, but Jamie showed no immediate disposition either to berate me or to toss me overboard. Instead, he leaned down, frowning as he peered at me in the wavering lantern light.

“How d’ye feel, Sassenach? I canna tell if you’re really green, or is it only the light.”

“I’m all right. A bit shaky, perhaps.” More than a bit; my hands were still clammy, and I knew my trembling knees wouldn’t hold me if I tried to stand. I swallowed hard, coughed, and thumped myself on the chest.

“It’s probably my imagination, but it feels like the ring is caught in my throat.”

He squinted thoughtfully at me, then turned to Fergus, who had appeared from the cabin and was hovering nearby.

“Ask the captain might I see his pipe for a moment, Fergus.” He turned away, pulling his shirt over his head, and disappeared aft himself, returning moments later with a cup of water.

I reached gratefully for it, but he held it out of my reach.

“Not just yet, Sassenach,” he said. “Got it? Aye, thanks, Fergus. Fetch an empty bucket, now, will ye?” Taking the filthy pipe from a puzzled Fergus, he inserted his thumb into the stained bowl and began to scrape at the burnt, gummy residue that lined it.

Turning the pipe upside down, he tapped it over the cup of water, causing a small shower of brown crusts and moist crumbs of half-burnt tobacco, which he stirred into the water with his blackened thumb. Finished with these preparations, he looked up at me over the rim of the cup in a distinctly sinister fashion.

“No,” I said. “Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Come along, Sassenach; it’ll cure what ails ye.”

“I’ll just…wait,” I said. I folded my arms across my chest. “Thanks anyway.”

Fergus had by this time reappeared with the bucket, eyebrows raised high. Jamie took it from him and plunked it on the deck next to me.

“I’ve done it that way, Sassenach,” he informed me, “and it’s a good deal messier than ye might think. It’s also not a pleasant thing to do on a boat, in close company, aye?” He put a hand on the back of my head and pressed the cup against my lower lip. “This will be quick. Come on, now; a wee sip is all.”

I pressed my lips tightly together; the smell from the cup was enough to make my stomach turn over, combining as it did the stale reek of tobacco, the sight of the noisome brown surface of the liquid, crusts swimming below the surface, and the memory of Captain Freeman’s blobs of brown-tinged spittle sliding down the deck.

Jamie didn’t bother with argument or persuasion. He simply let go of my head, pinched my nose shut, and when I opened my mouth to breathe, tipped in the foul-smelling contents of the cup.

“Mmmfff!”

“Swallow,” he said, clapping a hand tightly across my mouth and ignoring both my frenzied squirming and the muffled sounds of protest I was making. He was a lot stronger than I was, and he didn’t mean to let go. It was swallow or strangle.

I swallowed.

“Good as new.” Jamie finished polishing the silver ring on his shirttail and held it up, admiring it in the glow of the lantern.

“That is somewhat better than can be said of me,” I replied coldly. I lay in a crumpled heap on the deck, which in spite of the placid current, seemed still to be heaving very slightly under me. “You are a grade-A, double-dyed, sadistic f**king bastard, Jamie Fraser!”

He bent over me and smoothed the damp hair off my face.

“I expect so. If ye feel well enough to call me names, Sassenach, you’ll do. Rest a bit, aye?” He kissed me gently on the forehead and sat back.

Excitement over and order restored to the ravaged decks, the other men had gone back to the cabin to restore themselves with the aid of a bottle of applejack that Captain Freeman had contrived to save from the pirates by dropping it into the water barrel. A small cup of this beverage rested on the deck near my head; I was still too queasy to countenance swallowing anything, but the warm, fruity smell was mildly comforting.

We were under sail; everyone was eager to get away, as though some danger still lingered over the place of the attack. We were moving faster, now; the usual small cloud of insects that hovered near the lanterns had dispersed, reduced to no more than a few lacewings resting on the beam above, their delicate green bodies casting tiny streaks of shadow. Inside the cabin, there was a small burst of laughter, and an answering growl from Rollo on the side deck—things were returning to normal.

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