The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 228

   

“What . . . fellow?” The wind was cool, but I could see sweat trickling down the back of Jamie’s neck, dampening his collar and plastering the linen between his shoulders.

Duff didn’t answer immediately. A look of speculation flickered in his small, deep-set eyes.

“Don’t think about it, Duff,” Roger said, softly, but with great assurance. “I can reach ye from here with an oar, ken?”

“Aye?” Duff glanced thoughtfully from Jamie, to Roger, and then to me. “Aye, reckon ye might. But allowin’ for the sake for argyment as how you can swim, MacKenzie—and even that Mr. Fraser might keep afloat—I dinna think that’s true of the lady, is it? Skirts and petticoats . . .” He shook his head, pursing thin lips in speculation as he looked at me. “Go to the bottom like a stone, she would.”

Peter shifted ever so slightly, bringing his feet under him.

“Claire?” Jamie said. I saw his fingers curl tight round the oars, and heard the note of strain in his voice. I sighed and drew the pistol out from under the coat across my lap.

“Right,” I said. “Which one shall I shoot?”

Peter’s eyes snapped open, wide enough that I saw a rim of white show all round his black pupils. He looked at the pistol, then at Duff, then directly at Jamie.

“Give tea to a man name Butlah,” he said. “Work for Mist’ Lyon.” He pointed at me, then at Duff. “Shoot him,” he suggested.

The ice thus broken, it took very little time for our two passengers to confide the rest of what they knew, pausing only momentarily for Jamie to be sick over the side between questions.

Smuggling was, as Duff had suggested, so common in the area as to constitute general business practice; most of the merchants—and all of the small boatmen—in Wilmington engaged in it, as did most others on the Carolina coast, in order to avoid the crippling duties on officially imported goods. Stephen Bonnet, however, was not only one of the more successful smugglers, but also rather a specialist.

“Brings in goods to order, like,” Duff said, twisting his neck in order to scratch more effectively between his shoulder blades. “And in what ye might call quantity.”

“How much quantity?” Jamie’s elbows rested on his knees, his head sunk onto his hands. It seemed to be helping; his voice was steady.

Duff pursed his lips and squinted, calculating.

“There was six of us at the tavern on Roanoke. Six wi’ small boats, I mean, as could run the inlets. If we were each to be fetchin’ along as much as we could manage . . . say, fifty chests of tea all told, then.”

“And he brings in such a load how often—every two months?” Roger had relaxed a little, leaning on his oars. I hadn’t, and gave Duff a hard eye over the pistol to indicate as much.

“Oh, more often than that,” Duff answered, eyeing me warily. “Couldn’t say exactly, but you hear talk, aye? From what the other boats say, I reckon he’s got a load comin’ every two weeks in the season, somewhere on the coast betwixt Virginia and Charleston.” Roger gave a brief grunt of surprise at that, and Jamie looked up briefly from his cupped hands.

“What about the Navy?” he asked. “Who’s he paying?” That was a good question. While small boats might escape the Navy’s eye, Bonnet’s operation evidently involved large quantities of contraband, coming in on large ships. It would be hard to hide something on that scale—and the obvious answer was that he wasn’t bothering to hide it.

Duff shook his head and shrugged.

“Can’t say, man.”

“But you haven’t worked for Bonnet since February?” I asked. “Why not?”

Duff and Peter exchanged a glance.

“You eat scorpion-fish, you hungry,” Peter said to me. “You don’ eat dem, iffen you got sumpin’ bettah.”

“What?”

“The man’s dangerous, Sassenach,” Jamie translated dryly. “They dinna like to deal with him, save for need.”

“Well, see him, Bonnet,” Duff said, warming to the topic. “He’s no bad at all to deal with—sae long as your interest runs wi’ his. Only, if it might be as all of a sudden it doesna quite run with his . . .”

Peter solemnly drew a finger across his stringy neck, nodding in affirmation.

“And it’s no as if there’s warnin’ about it, either,” Duff added, nodding too. “One minute, it’s whisky and segars, the next, ye’re on your back in the sawdust, breathin’ blood, and happy still to be breathin’ at that.”

“A temper, has he?” Jamie drew a hand down over his face, then wiped his sweaty palm on his shirt. The linen clung damply to his shoulders, but I knew he wouldn’t take it off.

Duff, Peter, and Roger all shook their heads simultaneously at the question.

“Cold as ice,” Roger said, and I heard the small note of strain in his voice.

“Kill ye without the turn of an arse-hair,” Duff assured Jamie.

“Rip you like dem whale,” Peter put in helpfully, with a wave toward the island. The current had carried us a good deal closer to the land, and I could see the whale as well as smell it. Seabirds whirled and screamed in a great cloud over the carcass, swooping down to tear away gobbets of flesh, and a small crowd of people clustered nearby, hands to their noses, clearly clutching handkerchiefs and sachets.

Just then, the wind changed, and a fetid gust of decay washed over us like a breaking wave. I clapped Roger’s shirt to my own face, and even Peter appeared to pale.

“Mother of God, have mercy on me,” Jamie said, under his breath. “I—oh, Christ!” He leaned to the side and threw up, repeatedly.

I nudged Roger in the buttock with my toe.

“Row,” I suggested.

Roger obeyed with alacrity, putting his back into it, and within a few minutes, the keel of the piretta touched sand. Duff and Peter leaped out to run the hull up onto the beach, then gallantly assisted me out of the boat, evidently not holding the pistol against me.

Jamie paid them, then staggered a short distance up the beach and sat down, quite suddenly, in the sand beneath a loblolly pine. He was roughly the same shade as the dead whale, a dirty gray with white blotches.

“Will we wait for ye, sir, and row ye back?” Duff, his purse now bulging healthily, hovered helpfully over Jamie.

“No,” Jamie said. “Take them.” He waved feebly at me and Roger, then closed his eyes and swallowed heavily. “As for me, I believe . . . I shall just . . . swim back.”

101

MONSTERS AND HEROES

THE LITTLE BOYS WERE mad to see the whale, and tugged their reluctant mothers along like kites. I came along, keeping a somewhat more discreet distance from the towering carcass, leaving Jamie on the beach to recover. Roger took Duff aside for a bit of private conversation, while Peter subsided into somnolence in the bottom of the boat.

The carcass was newly washed up on the beach, though it must have been dead for some time before its landing; such an impressive state of decomposition must have taken days to develop. The stench notwithstanding, a number of the more intrepid visitors were standing on the carcass, waving cheerily to their companions on the beach below, and a gentleman armed with a hatchet was employed in hacking chunks of flesh from the side of the animal, dropping these into a pair of large buckets. I recognized him as the proprietor of an ordinary on Hawthorn Street, and made a mental note to strike that establishment from our list of potential eating-places.

Numbers of small crustaceans, not nearly so fastidious in their habits, swarmed merrily over the carcass, and I saw several people, also armed with buckets, picking the larger crabs and crayfish off like ripe fruit. Ten million sand fleas had joined the circus, too, and I retreated to a safe distance, rubbing my ankles.

I glanced back down the beach, seeing that Jamie had risen now and joined the conversation—Duff was looking increasingly restive, glancing back and forth from the whale to his boat. Clearly, he was anxious to return to business, before the attraction should disappear altogether.

At last he succeeded in escaping, and scampered away toward his piretta, looking hunted. Jamie and Roger came toward me, but the little boys were clearly not ready yet to leave the whale. Brianna nobly volunteered to watch them both, so that Marsali could climb the nearby lighthouse tower, to see whether there might be any sign of the Octopus.

“What have you been saying to poor Mr. Duff?” I asked Jamie. “He looked rather worried.”

“Aye? No need of worry,” he said, glancing toward the water, where Duff’s piretta was rapidly pulling back to the quay. “I’ve only put a wee bit of business in his way.”

“He knows where Lyon is,” Roger put in. He looked disturbed, but excited.

“And Mr. Lyon knows where Bonnet is—or if not where, precisely, at least how to get word to him. Let us go a bit higher, aye?” Jamie was still pale; he gestured toward the stair of the tower with his chin, wiping sweat from the side of his neck.

The air was fresher at the top of the tower, but I had little attention to spare for the view out over the ocean.

“And so . . . ?” I said, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.

“So I have commissioned Duff to carry a message to Mr. Lyon. All being agreeable, we will meet with Mr. Bonnet at Wylie’s Landing, in a week’s time.”

I swallowed, feeling a wave of dizziness that had nothing to do with the height. I closed my eyes, clutching the wooden rail that surrounded the tiny platform we stood on. The wind was blowing hard, and the boards of the tower creaked and groaned, feeling frighteningly insubstantial.

I heard Jamie shift his weight, moving toward Roger.

“He is a man, ken?” he said quietly. “Not a monster.”

Was he? It was a monster, I thought, who haunted Brianna—and perhaps her father. Would killing him reduce him, make him no more than a man again?

“I know.” Roger’s voice was steady, but lacked conviction.

I opened my eyes, to see the ocean falling away before me into a bank of floating mist. It was vast and beautiful—and empty. One might well fall off the end of the world, I thought.

“YE SAILED WI’ our Stephen, aye? For what, two months, three?”

“Near on three,” Roger answered.

Our Stephen, was it? And what did Jamie mean by that homely usage, then?

Jamie nodded, not turning his head. He looked out over the rolling wash of the sea, the breeze whipping strands of hair loose from their binding to dance like flames, pale in daylight.

“Ye’ll have kent the man well enough, then.”

Roger leaned his weight against the rail. It was solid, but wet and sticky with half-dried spray, where spume from the rocks below had reached it.

“Well enough,” he echoed. “Aye. Well enough for what?”

Jamie turned then, to look him in the face. His eyes were narrowed against the wind, but straight and bright as razors.

“Well enough to ken he is a man—and no more.”

“What else would he be?” Roger felt the edge in his own voice.

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