The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 227

   

“Och, well, as to that . . .”

Duff looked up at him speculatively, taking in the details of his clothing and appearance, and obviously wondering exactly how much the answer to that question might be worth. His partner below was growing increasingly restive, though, and shouted impatiently.

Marsali was restive, too.

“Where might they go, then? If they’ve gone to another port? Germain, stop! Ye’ll fall in, next thing!” She bent to retrieve her offspring, who had been hanging over the edge of the wharf, peacefully exploring its underside, and hoicked him up onto one hip.

“Bonnet?” Jamie raised his brows, contriving to look simultaneously encouraging and menacing.

“They gone see da whale or don’t they?” yelled the gentleman in the boat, impatient to be off on more profitable ventures.

Duff seemed somewhat at a loss as to whom to reply to first. His small eyes blinked, shifting to and fro between Jamie, Marsali, and his increasingly vociferous partner below. I stepped in to break the impasse.

“What’s all this about a whale?”

Compelled to focus on this straightforward question, Duff looked relieved.

“Why, the dead whale, Missus. A big ’un, gone aground on the Island. I thought sure as ye’d all come down to see.”

I looked out across the water, and for the first time realized that the boat traffic was not entirely random. While a few large canoes and barges were headed toward the mouth of Cape Fear, most of the smaller craft were plying to and fro, disappearing into the distant haze, or returning from it, bearing small groups of passengers. Linen parasols sprouted like pastel mushrooms from the boats, and there was a sprinkling of what were obviously townspeople on the dock, standing as we were, looking expectantly across the harbor.

“Two shillin’s the boatload,” Duff suggested ingratiatingly. “Over and back.”

Roger, Brianna, and Marsali looked interested. Jamie looked uneasy.

“In that?” he asked, with a skeptical glance at the piretta, bobbing gently below. Duff’s partner—a gentleman of indeterminate race and language—seemed inclined to take offense at this implied criticism of his craft, but Duff was reassuring.

“Oh, it’s dead calm today, sir, dead calm. Why, ’twould be like sittin’ on a tavern bench. Congenial, aye? Verra suitable to conversation.” He blinked, innocently affable.

Jamie drew a deep breath in through his nose, and I saw him glance once more at the piretta. Jamie hated boats. On the other hand, he would do far more desperate things than get into a boat in pursuit of Stephen Bonnet. The only question was whether Mr. Duff actually had information to that end, or was only inveigling passengers. Jamie swallowed hard and braced his shoulders, steeling himself to it.

Not waiting, Duff reinforced his position by turning craftily to Marsali.

“There’s a lighthouse on the Island, ma’am. Ye can see a good ways out to sea from the top o’ that. See if any ships should be lyin’ off.”

Marsali’s hand dropped at once to her pocket, fumbling for the strings. I observed Germain solicitously poking a dead mussel over her shoulder toward Jemmy’s eagerly open mouth, like a mother bird feeding her offspring a nice juicy worm, and tactfully intervened, taking Jemmy into my own arms.

“No, sweetheart,” I said, dropping the mussel off the dock. “You don’t want that nasty thing. Wouldn’t you like to go see a nice dead whale, instead?”

Jamie sighed in resignation, and reached for his sporran. “Ye’d best call for another boat, then, so as we’ll not all drown together.”

IT WAS LOVELY out on the water, with the sun covered by a hazy layer of cloud, and a cool breeze that made me take my hat off for the pleasure of feeling the wind in my hair. While not quite flat calm, the rise and fall of the surf was peacefully lulling—to those of us not afflicted by seasickness.

I glanced at Jamie’s back, but his head was bent, shoulders moving in an easy, powerful rhythm as he rowed.

Resigned to the inevitable, he had taken brisk charge of the situation, summoning a second boat and herding Bree, Marsali, and the boys into it. Thereupon Jamie had unfastened his brooch and announced that he and Roger would row the remaining piretta, in order that Duff might put himself at ease and thus improve his chances of recollecting interesting facts regarding Stephen Bonnet.

“Less chance of me puking if I’ve something to do,” he muttered to me, stripping off his coat and plaid.

Roger gave a small snort of amusement, but nodded agreeably and shed his own coat and shirt. With Duff and Peter installed at one end of the craft in a state of high hilarity over the turnabout of being paid to be rowed in their own boat, I was told off to sit in the other end, facing them.

“Just to keep a bit of an eye on things, Sassenach.” Under cover of the wadded clothes, Jamie wrapped my hand around the stock of his pistol, and squeezed gently. He handed me down into the boat, then climbed down gingerly himself, going only slightly pale as the craft swayed and shifted under his weight.

It was a calm day, fortunately. A faint haze hung over the water, obscuring the dim shape of Smith Island in the distance. Kittiwakes and terns wheeled in gyres far above, and a heavy-bodied gull seemed to hang immobile in the air nearby, riding the wind as we sculled slowly out into the harbor mouth.

Seated just before me, Roger rowed easily, broad bare shoulders flexing rhythmically, obviously accustomed to the exercise. Jamie, on the seat in front of Roger, handled the oars with a fair amount of grace, but somewhat less assurance. He was no sailor, and never would be. Still, the distraction of rowing did seem to be keeping his mind off his stomach. For the moment.

“Oh, I could find myself accustomed to this, what d’ye say, Peter?” Duff lifted a long nose into the breeze, half-closing his eyes as he savored the novelty of being rowed.

Peter, who appeared to be some exotic blend of Indian and African, grunted in reply, but lounged on the seat beside Duff, equally pleased. He wore nothing but a pair of stained homespun breeches, tied at the waist with a length of tarred rope, and was burned so dark by the sun that he might have been a Negro, save for the spill of long black hair that fell over one shoulder, decorated with bits of shell and tiny dried starfish tied into it.

“Stephen Bonnet?” Jamie inquired pleasantly, drawing strongly on the oars.

“Oh, him.” Duff looked as though he would have preferred to put off this subject of discussion indefinitely, but a glance at Jamie’s face resigned him to the inevitable.

“What d’ye want to know, then?” The little man hunched his shoulders warily.

“To begin with, where he is,” Jamie said, grunting slightly as he hauled on the oars.

“No idea,” Duff said promptly, looking happier.

“Well, where did ye last see the bugger?” Jamie asked patiently.

Duff and Peter exchanged glances.

“Well, noo,” Duff began cautiously, “d’ye mean by ‘see,’ where it was I last clapped een on the captain?”

“What else would he mean, clotheid?” Roger said, grunting with a backward stroke.

Peter nodded thoughtfully, evidently awarding a point to our side, and elbowed Duff in the ribs.

“He was in a pot-house on Roanoke, eatin’ fish pie,” Duff said, capitulating. “Baked wi’ oysters and breadcrumbs on the top, and a pint of dark ale to wash it down. Molasses pudding, too.”

“Ye’ve a keen sense of observation, Mr. Duff,” Jamie said. “How’s your sense of time, then?”

“Eh? Oh, aye, I tak’ your meanin’, man. When was it . . . twa month past, aboot.”

“And if ye were close enough to see what the man was eating,” Jamie observed mildly, “then I expect ye were at table with him, no? What did he speak of?”

Duff looked mildly embarrassed. He glanced at me, then up at one of the circling gulls.

“Aye, well. The shape of the arse on the barmaid, mostly.”

“I shouldna think that a topic of conversation to occupy the course of a meal, even if the lassie was particularly shapely,” Roger put in.

“Ah, ye’d be surprised how much there is to say about a woman’s bum, lad,” Duff assured him. “This one was round as an apple, and heavy as a steamed puddin’. ’Twas cold as charity in the place, and the thought of havin’ such a plump, hot, wee bridie in your hands—meanin’ no offense to ye, ma’am, I’m sure,” he added hurriedly, tipping his hat in my direction.

“None taken,” I assured him cordially.

“Can you swim, Mr. Duff?” Jamie asked, his tone still one of mild curiosity.

“What?” Duff blinked, taken back. “I . . . ah . . . well . . .”

“No, he can’t,” Roger said cheerfully. “He told me.”

Duff gave him a look of outraged betrayal over Jamie’s head.

“Well, there’s loyalty!” he said, scandalized. “A fine shipmate you are! Givin’ me away so—ye should be ashamed of yersel’, so ye should!”

Jamie raised his oars, dripping, out of the water, and Roger followed suit. We were perhaps a quarter-mile from shore, and the water beneath our hull was a deep, soft green, portending a bottom several fathoms deep. The boat rocked gently, lifting on the bosom of a long, slow swell.

“Bonnet,” Jamie said, still politely, but with a definite edge. Peter folded his arms and closed his eyes, making it clear that the subject had nothing to do with him. Duff sighed and eyed Jamie narrowly.

“Aye, well. It’s true, I’ve no notion where the man is. When I saw him on Roanoke, he was makin’ arrangements to have some . . . goods . . . brought in. For what that might be worth to ye,” he added, rather ungraciously.

“What goods? Brought in where? And going where?” Jamie was leaning on his shipped oars, apparently casual. I could see a certain tension in the line of his body, though, and it occurred to me that while his attention might be fixed on Duff’s face, he was of necessity also watching the horizon behind Duff—which was rising and falling hypnotically as the swell lifted the piretta and let it drop. Over and over and . . .

“Tea-chests was what I took in for him,” Duff answered warily. “Couldna say, for the rest.”

“The rest?”

“Christ, man, every boat on this water brings in the odd bit of jiggery-pokery here and there—surely ye ken that much?”

Peter’s eyes had opened to half-slits; I saw them rest on Jamie’s face with a certain expression of interest. The wind had shifted a few points, and the smell of dead whale was decidedly stronger. Jamie took a slow, deep breath, and let it out again, rather faster.

“Ye brought in tea, then. Where from? A ship?”

“Aye.” Duff was watching Jamie, too, in growing fascination. I shifted uneasily on the narrow seat. I couldn’t tell from the back of his neck, but I thought it more than likely that he was beginning to turn green.

“The Sparrow,” Duff went on, eyes fixed on Jamie. “She anchored off the Banks, and the boats went out to her. We loaded the cargo and came in through Joad’s Inlet. Cam’ ashore at Wylie’s Landing, and handed over to a fellow there.”

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