The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 229

   

Jamie turned back toward the sea, shading his eyes with his hand as he looked toward the sinking sun.

“A monster,” he said softly. “Something less than a man—or more.”

Roger opened his mouth to reply, but found he could not. For it was a monster that shadowed his own heart with fear.

“How did the sailors see him?” Claire’s voice came from Jamie’s other side; she leaned over the rail to look around him, and the wind seized her hair and shook it out in a flying cloud, stormy as the distant sky.

“On the Gloriana?” Roger took a deep breath, a whiff of dead whale mingling with the fecund scent of the salt marsh behind. “They . . . respected him. Some of them were afraid of him.” Like me. “He had the reputation of a hard captain, but a good one. Competent. Men were willing to ship with him, because he always came safe into port, his voyages were always profitable.”

“Was he cruel?” Claire asked. A faint line showed between her brows.

“All captains are cruel sometimes, Sassenach,” Jamie said, with a slight tinge of impatience. “They need to be.”

She glanced up at him, and Roger saw her expression change, memory softening her eyes, a wry thought tightening the corner of her mouth. She laid a hand on Jamie’s arm, and he saw her knuckles whiten as she squeezed.

“You’ve never done other than you had to,” she said, so quietly that Roger could scarcely hear her. No matter; the words were plainly not meant for him. She raised her voice then, slightly. “There’s a difference between cruelty and necessity.”

“Aye,” Jamie said, half under his breath. “And a thin line, maybe, between a monster and a hero.”

102

THE BATTLE OF WYLIE’S LANDING

THE SOUND WAS CALM and flat, the surface barely ruffled by tiny wind-driven waves. And a bloody good thing, too, Roger thought, looking at his father-in-law. Jamie had his eyes open, at least, fixed on the shore with a sort of desperate intensity, as though the sight of solid land, however unreachable, might yet impart some comfort. Droplets of sweat gleamed on his upper lip, and his face was the same nacreous color as the dawn sky, but he hadn’t vomited yet.

Roger wasn’t seasick, but he felt nearly as ill as Jamie looked. Neither of them had eaten any breakfast, but he felt as though he’d swallowed a large mass of parritch, liberally garnished with carpet-tacks.

“That’s it.” Duff sat back on his oars, nodding toward the wharf ahead. It was cool on the water—almost cold at this hour—but the air was thick with moisture, and sweat ran down his face from his efforts. Peter sat silent on his own oars, dark face set in an expression indicating that he wanted nothing to do with this enterprise, and the sooner their unwelcome cargo disembarked, the better.

Wylie’s Landing seemed like a mirage, floating in a layer of mist above the water amid a thick growth of needlerush and cord grass. Marshland, clumps of stunted coastal forest, and broad stretches of open water surrounded it, under an overwhelming arch of pale gray sky. By comparison to the green enclosures of the mountains, it seemed uncomfortably exposed. At the same time, it was completely isolated, evidently miles from any other sign of human habitation.

That was in part illusion; Roger knew that the plantation house was no more than a mile from the landing, but it was hidden by a dense growth of scraggy-looking forest that sprang from the marshy ground like some misshapen, dwarfish Sherwood, thick with vines and brush.

The landing itself consisted of a short wooden dock on pilings, and a collection of ramshackle sheds adjoining it, weathered to a silver-gray that seemed about to disappear into the lowering sky. A small open boat was drawn up on the shore, hull upturned. A zigzag split-rail fence enclosed a small pen beyond the sheds; Wylie must ship livestock by water now and then.

Jamie touched the cartridge box that hung at his belt, either for reassurance, or perhaps only to insure that it was still dry. His eyes went to the sky, assessing, and Roger realized with a sudden qualm that if it rained, the guns might not be dependable. Black powder clumped in the damp; more than a trace of moisture and it wouldn’t fire at all. And the last thing he wanted was to find himself facing Stephen Bonnet with a useless gun.

He is a man, no more, he repeated silently to himself. Let Bonnet swell to supernatural proportions in his mind, and he was doomed. He groped for some reassuring image, and fastened on a memory of Stephen Bonnet, seated in the head of the Gloriana, breeches puddled round his bare feet, blond-stubbled jaw slack in the morning light, his eyes half-closed in the pleasure of taking a peaceful crap.

Shit, he thought. Think of Bonnet as a monster, and it became impossible; think of him as a man, and it was worse. And yet, it had to be done.

His palms were sweating; he rubbed them on his breeks, not even bothering to try to hide it. There was a dirk on his belt, along with the pair of pistols; the sword lay in the bottom of the boat, solid in its scabbard. He thought of John Grey’s letter, and Captain Marsden’s eyes, and tasted something bitter and metallic at the back of his throat.

At Jamie’s direction, the piretta drew slowly nearer the landing, everyone on board alert for any sign of life.

“No one lives here?” Jamie asked, low-voiced, leaning over Duff’s shoulder to scan the buildings. “No slaves?”

“No,” Duff said, grunting as he pulled. “Wylie doesna use the landing sae often these days, for he’s built a new road from his house—goes inland and joins wi’ the main road toward Edenton.”

Jamie gave Duff a cynical glance.

“And if Wylie doesna use it, there are others who do, aye?”

Roger could see that the landing was well situated for casual smuggling; out of sight from the landward side, but easily accessible from the Sound. What he had at first taken for an island to their right was in fact a maze of sandbars, separating the channel that led to Wylie’s Landing from the main sound. He could see at least four smaller channels leading into the sandbanks, two of them wide enough to accommodate a good-sized ketch.

Duff chuckled under his breath.

“There’s a wee shell-road as leads to the house, man,” he said. “If anyone should come that way, ye’ll have fair warnin’.”

Peter stirred restively, jerking his head toward the sandbars.

“Tide,” he muttered.

“Oh, aye. Ye’ll no have long to wait—or ye will, depending.” Duff grinned, evidently thinking this funny.

“Why?” Jamie said gruffly, not sharing the amusement. He was looking somewhat better, now that escape was at hand, but was obviously in no mood yet for jocularity.

“The tide’s comin’ in.” Duff stopped rowing and leaned on his oars long enough to remove his disreputable cap and wipe his balding brow. He waved the cap at the sandbars, where a crowd of small shorebirds were running up and down in evident dementia.

“When the tide’s out, the channel’s too shallow to float a ketch. In two hours”—he squinted at the glow in the east that marked the sun’s rising, and nodded to himself—“or a bit more, they can come in. If they’re waitin’ out there now, they’ll come in at once, so as to finish the job and get off again before the tide turns. But if they’ve not come yet, they’ll maybe need to wait for the evening surge. It’s a chancy job, to risk the channels by night—but Bonnet’s no the lad to be put off by a bit o’ darkness. Still, if he’s in nay rush, he might well delay ’til next morning. Aye, ye might have a bit of a wait.”

Roger realized he had been holding his breath. He let it out and drew a deep, slow breath, smelling of salt and pines, with a faint stink of dead shellfish. So it would be soon—or perhaps not until after nightfall, or not until the next day’s dawn. He hoped it would be soon—and hoped at the same time that it wouldn’t.

The piretta slid in close to the wharf, and Duff thrust out an oar against one of the barnacle-crusted pilings, swinging the tiny boat deftly alongside. Jamie hoisted himself up onto the dock with alacrity, eager to reach dry land. Roger handed up the swords and the small bundle that contained their canteens and spare powder, then followed. He knelt on the dock, all his senses alert for the slightest sound of human movement, but heard nothing but the liquid singing of blackbirds in the marsh and the cry of gulls on the Sound.

Jamie rummaged in his pouch and pulled out a small purse, which he tossed down to Duff, with a nod. No more need be said; this was a token payment. The rest would be paid when Duff returned for them, in two days.

Jamie had waited to the last possible moment to make the arrangements, ensuring that Bonnet at least would be unreachable until after the meeting—the ambush—had taken place. If it was successful, Jamie would pay the rest of the money agreed; if it was not—Claire would pay.

He had a vision of Claire’s face, pale and drawn, nodding in stiff-lipped agreement as Jamie explained the arrangements to Duff. Her eyes had flicked to Duff, then, with the fierce yellow ruthlessness of a hawk about to eviscerate a rat, and he had seen Duff flinch at the implicit threat. He hid a smile at the memory. If friendship and money were insufficient to keep Duff’s mouth shut, perhaps fear of the White Lady would suffice.

They stood silently together on the dock, watching the piretta pull slowly away. The knot in Roger’s stomach tightened. He would have prayed, but could not. He couldn’t ask help for such a thing as he meant now to do—not from God or Michael the archangel; not from the Reverend or his parents. Only from Jamie Fraser.

He wondered now and then how many men Fraser had killed—if he counted. If he knew. It was a different thing, of course, to kill a man in battle or in self-defense, than to lie in ambush for him, planning murder in cold blood. Still, surely it would be easier for Fraser, what they meant to do.

He glanced at Fraser, and saw him watching the boat pull away. He stood still as stone, and Roger saw that his eyes were fixed somewhere far beyond the boat, beyond the sky and water—looking on some evil thing, not blinking. Fraser took a deep breath and swallowed hard. No, it wouldn’t be easier for him.

Somehow, that seemed a comfort.

THEY EXPLORED ALL the sheds briefly, finding nothing but scattered rubbish: broken packing crates, heaps of moldy straw, a few gnawed bones left by dogs or slaves. One or two of the sheds had evidently once been used as living quarters, but not recently. Some animal had built a large, untidy nest against the wall of one shed; when Jamie prodded it with a stick, a plump gray rodent-like thing shot out, ran between Roger’s feet, and sailed off the dock into the water with an unnerving splash.

They took up quarters in the largest shed, which was built on the wharf itself, and settled down to wait. More or less.

The plan was simplicity itself; shoot Bonnet the instant he appeared. Unless it rained, in which case it would be necessary to employ swords or knives. Stated like that, the procedure sounded altogether straightforward. Roger’s imagination, though, was unable to leave it at that.

“Walk about if ye like,” Jamie said, after a quarter-hour of watching Roger fidget. “We’ll hear him come.” He himself sat tranquil as a frog on a lily pad, methodically checking the assortment of weapons laid out before him.

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