The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 230

   

“Mmphm. What if he doesna come alone?”

Jamie shrugged, eyes fixed on the flint of the pistol in his hand. He wiggled it to be sure it was firmly seated, then set the gun down.

“Then he does not. If there are men with him, we must separate him from them. I shall take him into one of the small sheds, on pretext of private conversation, and dispatch him there. You keep anyone from following; I shallna require more than a minute.”

“Oh, aye? And then ye come strolling out and inform his men ye’ve just done for their captain, and then what?” Roger demanded.

Jamie rubbed a hand down the bridge of his nose, and shrugged again.

“He’ll be dead. D’ye think he’s the man to inspire such loyalty as would make his men seek vengeance for him?”

“Well . . . no,” Roger said slowly. “Perhaps not.” Bonnet was the type to inspire hard work from his men, but it was labor based on fear and the hope of profit, not love.

“I have discovered a good deal regarding Mr. Bonnet,” Jamie observed, laying down the pistol. “He has regular associates, aye, but he doesna have particular friends. He doesna sail always with the same mate, the same crew—which sea captains often do when they find a few men who suit them well. Bonnet picks his crews as chance provides, and he chooses them for strength or skill—not for liking. That being so, I wouldna expect to find any great liking for him among them.”

Roger nodded, acknowledging the truth of this observation. Bonnet had run a tight ship on the Gloriana, but there had been no sense of camaraderie, even with his mate and bosun. And it was true, what Jamie said; everything they had learned suggested that Bonnet picked up assistants as he required them; if he brought men with him to this rendezvous, they were unlikely to be a devoted lieutenant and crew—more likely sailors picked at random off the docks.

“All right. But if—when—we kill him, any men with him—”

“Will be in need of new employment,” Jamie interrupted. “Nay, so long as we take care not to fire upon them, or give them reason to think we threaten them, I dinna think they’ll trouble owermuch about Bonnet’s fate. Still—” He picked up his sword, frowning slightly, and slid it in and out of the scabbard, to be sure it moved easily.

“I think if that should be the situation, then I will take Bonnet aside, as I said. Give me a minute to deal with him, then make some excuse and come as though to fetch me. Dinna stop, though; go straight through the sheds, and head for the trees. I’ll come and meet ye there.”

Roger eyed Jamie skeptically. Christ, the man made it sound like a Sunday outing—a turn by the river, and we’ll meet in the park, I’ll bring ham sandwiches and you fetch the tea.

He cleared his throat, cleared it again, and picked up one of his own pistols. The feel of it was cool and solid in his hand, a reassuring weight.

“Aye, then. Just the one thing. I’ll take Bonnet.”

Fraser glanced sharply at him. He kept his own eyes steady, listening to the pulse that had begun to hammer hard inside his ears.

He saw Fraser start to speak, then stop. The man stared thoughtfully at him, and he could hear the arguments, hammering on his inner ear with his pulse, as plainly as if they’d been spoken aloud.

You have never killed a man, nor even fought in battle. You are no marksman, and only half-decent with a sword. Worse, you are afraid of the man. And if you try and fail . . .

“I know,” he said aloud, to Fraser’s deep blue stare. “He’s mine. I’ll take him. Brianna’s your daughter, aye—but she’s my wife.”

Fraser blinked and looked away. He drummed his fingers on his knee for a moment, then stopped, drawing breath in a deep sigh. He drew himself slowly upright and turned toward Roger once again, eyes straight.

“It is your right,” he said, formally. “So, then. Dinna hesitate; dinna challenge him. Kill him the instant ye have the chance.” He paused for a moment, then spoke again, eyes steady on Roger’s. “If ye fall, though—know I will avenge you.”

The nail-studded mass in his belly seemed to have moved upward, sticking in his throat. He coughed to shift it, and swallowed.

“Great,” he said. “And if you fall, I’ll avenge you. A bargain, is it?”

Fraser didn’t laugh, and in that moment, Roger understood why men would follow him anywhere, to do anything. He only looked at Roger for a long moment, and then nodded.

“A rare bargain,” he said softly. “Thank you.” Taking the dirk from his belt, he began to polish it.

THEY HAD NO timepiece, but they didn’t need one. Even with the sky shrouded in low-lying clouds and the sun invisible, it was possible to feel the creep of minutes, the gradual shift of the earth as the rhythms of the day changed. Birds that had sung at dawn ceased singing, and the ones who hunted in morning began. The sound of water lapping against the pilings changed in tone, as the rising tide echoed in the space beneath the wharf.

The time of high tide came and passed; the echo beneath the wharf began to grow hollow, as the water started to drop. The pulse in Roger’s ears began to slacken, along with the knots in his gut.

Then something struck the dock, and the vibration juddered through the floor of the shed.

Jamie was up in an instant, two pistols through his belt, another in his hand. He cocked his head at Roger, then disappeared through the door.

Roger jammed his own pistols securely in his belt, touched the hilt of his dirk for reassurance, and followed. He caught a quick glimpse of the boat, the dark wood of its rail just showing above the edge of the wharf, and then was inside the smaller shed to the right. Jamie was nowhere in sight; he’d got to his own post, then, to the left.

He pressed himself against the wall, peering out through the slit afforded between hinge and door. The boat was drifting slowly along the edge of the dock, not yet secured. He could see just a bit of the stern; the rest was out of sight. No matter; he couldn’t fire until Bonnet appeared on the wharf.

He wiped his palm on his breeks and drew the better of his two pistols, checking for the thousandth time that priming and flint were in order. The metal of the gun smelled sharp and oily, in his hand.

The air was damp; his clothes stuck to him. Would the powder fire? He touched the dirk, for the ten-thousandth time, running through Fraser’s instructions on killing with a knife. Hand on his shoulder, drive it up beneath the breastbone, hard. From behind, the kidney, up from under. God, could he do it face to face? Yes. He hoped it would be face to face. He wanted to see—

A coil of rope hit the dock; he heard the heavy thump, and then the scramble and thud of someone springing over the rail to tie up. A rustle and a grunt of effort, a pause . . . He closed his eyes, trying to hear through the thunder of his heart. Steps. Slow, but not furtive. Coming toward him.

The door stood half-ajar. He stepped silently to the edge of it, listening. Waiting. A shadow, dim in the cloudy light, fell through the door. The man stepped in.

He lunged out from behind the door and flung himself bodily at the man, knocking him back into the wall with a hollow thud. The man whooped in surprise at the impact, and the sound of the cry stopped him just as he got his hands round a distinctly unmasculine throat.

“Shit!” he said. “I mean, I—I—I beg your pardon, ma’am.”

She was pressed against the wall, all his weight on her, and he was well aware that the rest of her was unmasculine, too. Blood, hot in his cheeks, he released her and stepped back, breathing heavily.

She shook herself like a dog, straightening her garments, and tenderly touching the back of her head where it had struck the wall.

“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling both shocked and a complete prat. “I didn’t mean— Are you hurt?”

The girl was as tall as Brianna, but more solidly built, with dark brown hair and a handsome face, broad-boned and deep-eyed. She grinned at Roger and said something incomprehensible, strongly scented with onions. She looked him up and down in a bold sort of way, then, evidently approving, put her hands under her br**sts in a gesture of unmistakable invitation, jerking her head toward a corner of the shed, where mounds of damp straw gave off a fecund scent of not-unpleasant decay.

“Ahhh . . .” Roger said. “No. I’m afraid you’re mistaken—no, don’t touch that. No. Non! Nein!” He fumbled with her hands, which seemed determined to unfasten his belt. She said something else in the unfamiliar tongue. He didn’t understand a word, but he got the sense of it well enough.

“No, I’m a married man. Would ye stop!”

She laughed, gave him a flashing glance from under long black lashes, and renewed her assault on his person.

He would have been convinced he was hallucinating, were it not for the smell. Engaged at close quarters, he realized that onions were the least of it. She wasn’t filthy to look at, but had the deep-seated reek of someone just off a long sea voyage; he recognized that smell at once. Beyond that, though, the unmistakable scent of pigs wafted from her skirts.

“Excusez-moi, mademoiselle.” Jamie’s voice came from somewhere behind him, sounding rather startled. The girl was startled, too, though not frightened. She let go of his balls, though, allowing him to step back.

Jamie had a pistol drawn, though he held it by his side. He raised one eyebrow at Roger.

“Who’s this, then?”

“How in hell should I know?” Struggling for composure, Roger shook himself back into some kind of order. “I thought she was Bonnet or one of his men, but evidently not.”

“Evidently.” Fraser seemed disposed to find something humorous in the situation; a muscle near his mouth was twitching fiercely. “Qui êtes-vous, mademoiselle?” he asked the girl.

She frowned at him, clearly not understanding, and said something in the odd language again. Both Jamie’s brows rose at that.

“What’s she speaking?” Roger asked.

“I’ve no idea.” His look of amusement tinged with wariness, Jamie turned toward the door, raising his pistol. “Watch her, aye? She’ll no be alone.”

This was clear; there were voices on the wharf. A man’s voice, and another woman. Roger exchanged baffled glances with Jamie. No, the voice was neither Bonnet’s nor Lyon’s—and what in God’s name were all these women doing here?

The voices were coming closer, though, and the girl suddenly called out something in her own language. It didn’t sound like a warning, but Jamie quickly flattened himself beside the door, pistol at the ready and his other hand on his dirk.

The narrow door darkened almost completely, and a dark, shaggy head thrust into the shed. Jamie stepped forward and shoved his pistol up under the chin of a very large, very surprised-looking man. Seizing the man by the collar, Jamie stepped backward, drawing him into the shed.

The man was followed almost at once by a woman whose tall, solid build and handsome face identified her at once as the girl’s mother. The woman was blond, though, while the man—the girl’s father?—was as dark as the bear he strongly resembled. He was nearly as tall as Jamie, but almost twice as broad, massive through the chest and shoulders, and heavily bearded.

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