The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 231

   

None of them appeared to be at all alarmed. The man looked surprised, the woman affronted. The girl laughed heartily, pointing at Jamie, then at Roger.

“I begin to feel rather foolish,” Jamie said to Roger. Removing the pistol, he stepped back warily. “Wer seid Ihr?” he said.

“I don’t think they’re German,” Roger said. “She”—he jerked a thumb at the girl, who was now eyeing Jamie in an appraising sort of way, as though sizing up his potential for sport in the straw—“didna seem to understand either French or German, though perhaps she was pretending.”

The man had been frowning, glancing from Jamie to Roger in an attempt to make out what they were saying. At the word “French,” though, he seemed to brighten.

“Comment ça va?” he said, in the most execrable accent Roger had ever heard.

“Parlez-vous Francais?” Jamie said, still eyeing the man cautiously.

The giant smiled and put a callused thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

“Un peu.”

A very little peu, as they shortly discovered. The man had roughly a dozen words of French, just about enough to introduce himself as one Mikhail Chemodurow, his wife Iva, and his daughter, Karina.

“Rooshki,” Chemodurow said, slapping a hand across his beefy chest.

“Russians?” Roger stared at them, flabbergasted, though Jamie seemed fascinated.

“I’ve never met a Russian before,” he said. “What in Christ’s name are they doing here, though?”

With some difficulty, this question was conveyed to Mr. Chemodurow, who beamed and flung a massive arm out, pointing toward the wharf.

“Les cochons,” he said. “Pour le Monsieur Wylie.” He looked expectantly at Jamie. “Monsieur Wylie?”

Given the eye-watering aroma rising off all three of the Russians, the mention of pigs came as no great surprise. The connection between Russian swineherds and Phillip Wylie was somewhat less obvious. Before the question could be gone into, though, there was a loud thump outside, and a grinding noise, as though some large wooden object had struck the dock. This was succeeded immediately by a piercing chorus of bellows and squeals—mostly porcine, but some of them human—and female.

Chemodurow moved with amazing speed for his size, though Jamie and Roger were on his heels as he shot through the door of the shed.

Roger had barely time to see that there were two boats now tied up at the wharf; the Russian’s small bark, and a smaller open boat. Several men, bristling with knives and pistols, were swarming out of the smaller boat onto the dock.

Seeing this, Jamie dived to one side, disappearing out of sight round the edge of a smaller shed. Roger grabbed his pistol, but hesitated, not sure whether to fire or run. Hesitated a moment too long. A musket jammed up under his ribs, knocking out his breath, and hands snatched at his belt, taking pistols and dirk.

“Don’t move, mate,” the man holding the musket said. “Twitch, and I’ll blow your liver out through your backbone.”

He spoke with no particular animus, but sufficient sincerity that Roger wasn’t inclined to test it. He stood still, hands half-raised, watching.

Chemodurow had waded into the invaders without hesitation, laying about him with hands like hams. One man was in the water, evidently having been knocked off the wharf, and the Russian had another in his grip, throttling him with brutal efficiency. He ignored all shouts, threats, and blows, his concentration fixed on the man he was killing.

Screams rent the air; Iva and Karina had rushed toward their boat, where two of the invaders had appeared on deck, each clutching a slightly smaller version of Karina. One of the men pointed a pistol at the Russian women. He appeared to pull the trigger; Roger saw a spark, and a small puff of smoke, but the gun failed to fire. The women didn’t hesitate, but charged him, shrieking. Panicking, he dropped the gun and the girl he was holding, and jumped into the water.

A sickening thud wrenched Roger’s attention from this byplay. One of the men, a short, squat figure, had clubbed Chemodurow over the head with the butt of a gun. The Russian blinked, nodded, and his grip on his victim loosened slightly. His assailant grimaced, took a tighter hold on the gun, and smashed him again. The Russian’s eyes rolled up into his head and he dropped to the dock, shaking the boards with the impact.

Roger had been looking from man to man, searching urgently amid the melee for Stephen Bonnet. Look as he might, though, there was no trace of the Gloriana’s erstwhile captain.

What was wrong? Bonnet was no coward, and he was a natural fighter. It wasn’t thinkable that he would send men in, and hang back himself. Roger looked again, counting heads, trying to keep track of men, but the conclusion became stronger, as the chaos quickly died down. Stephen Bonnet wasn’t there.

Roger hadn’t time to decide whether he was disappointed or relieved by this discovery. The man who had clubbed Chemodurow turned toward him at this point, and he recognized David Anstruther, the sheriff of Orange County. Anstruther recognized him, too—he saw the man’s eyes narrow—but didn’t seem surprised to see him.

The fight—such as it was—was wrapping up quickly. The four Russian women had all been rounded up and pushed into the largest shed, amid much screaming and shouting of curses, and the fallen Chemodurow was dragged in as well, leaving a disquieting smear of blood along the boards in his wake.

At this point, a pair of well-kept hands appeared on the edge of the dock, and a tall, elegantly lean man pulled himself up from the boat. Roger had no difficulty in recognizing Mr. Lillywhite, one of the Orange County magistrates, even without his wig and bottle-green coat.

Lillywhite had dressed for the occasion in plain black broadcloth, though his linen was as fine as ever and he had a gentleman’s sword at his side. He made his way across the dock, in no great hurry, observing the disposition of matters as he went. Roger saw his mouth tighten fastidiously at sight of the trail of blood.

Lillywhite gestured to the man holding Roger, and at last, the bruising pressure of the gun-muzzle eased, allowing him to draw a deep breath.

“Mr. MacKenzie, is it not?” Lillywhite asked pleasantly. “And where is Mr. Fraser?”

He’d been expecting that question, and had had time to contemplate the answer.

“In Wilmington,” he said, matching Lillywhite’s pleasant tone. “You’re rather far afield yourself, are ye not, sir?”

Lillywhite’s nostrils pinched momentarily, as though smelling something bad—which he certainly was, though Roger doubted the reek of pigs was causing his disedification.

“Do not trifle with me, sir,” the magistrate said curtly.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Roger assured him, keeping an eye on the fellow with the musket, who seemed disposed to resume jabbing. “Though if we’re asking that sort of question—where’s Stephen Bonnet?”

Lillywhite gave a brief laugh, a sort of wintry amusement coming into his pale gray eyes.

“In Wilmington.”

Anstruther appeared at the magistrate’s elbow, squat and sweaty. He gave Roger a nod and an ugly grin.

“MacKenzie. Nice to see you again. Where’s your father-in-law, and more important—where’s the whisky?”

Lillywhite frowned at the sheriff.

“You haven’t found it? Have you searched the sheds?”

“Aye, we looked. Nothing there but bits of rubbish.” He rocked up onto his toes, menacing. “So, MacKenzie, where’d you hide it?”

“I haven’t hidden anything,” Roger replied equably. “There isn’t any whisky.” He was beginning to relax a little. Wherever Stephen Bonnet was, he wasn’t here. He didn’t expect them to be pleased at discovering that the whisky was a ruse, but—

The Sheriff hit him in the pit of the stomach. He doubled up, his vision went dark, and he struggled vainly to breathe, fighting a flash of panic as he relived his hanging, the black, the lack of air . . .

Bright floating spots appeared at the edges of his vision, and he drew breath, gasping. He was sitting on the dock, legs splayed out before him, the Sheriff clutching a handful of his hair.

“Try again,” Anstruther advised him, shaking him roughly by the hair. The pain was irritating, rather than discomfiting, and he swiped a fist at the Sheriff, catching him a solid blow on the thigh. The man yelped and let go, hopping backward.

“Did you look on the other boat?” Lillywhite demanded, ignoring the Sheriff’s discomfort. Anstruther glowered at Roger, rubbing his thigh, but shook his head in answer.

“Nothing there but pigs and girls. And where in fuck’s name did they come from?” he demanded.

“Russia.” Roger coughed, clenched his teeth against the resulting burst of pain, and got slowly to his feet, holding an arm across his middle to keep his guts from spilling out. The Sheriff doubled a fist in anticipation, but Lillywhite made a quelling gesture toward him. He looked incredulously at Roger.

“Russia? What have they to do with this business?”

“Nothing, so far as I know. They arrived soon after I did.”

The magistrate grunted, looking displeased. He frowned for a moment, thinking, then decided to try another tack.

“Fraser had an arrangement with Milford Lyon. I have now assumed Mr. Lyon’s part of the agreement. It is altogether proper for you to deliver the whisky to me,” he said, attempting to infuse a note of businesslike politeness into his voice.

“Mr. Fraser has made other arrangements,” Roger said, with equal politeness. “He sent me to say as much to Mr. Lyon.”

That seemed to take Lillywhite aback. He pursed his lips, and worked them in and out, staring hard at Roger, as though to estimate his truthfulness. Roger stared blandly back, hoping that Jamie wouldn’t reappear inopportunely and put paid to his story.

“How did you get here?” Lillywhite demanded abruptly. “If you did not travel on that boat?”

“I came overland from Edenton.” Blessing Duff for the information, he waved casually over his shoulder. “There’s a shell road back there.”

The two of them stared at him, but he stared back, undaunted.

“Something smells fishy, and it isn’t the marsh.” Anstruther sniffed loudly in illustration, then coughed and snorted. “Phew! What a stink.”

Lillywhite disregarded this, but went on looking at Roger with a narrowed eye.

“I think perhaps I must inconvenience you for a little longer, Mr. MacKenzie,” he said, and turned to the Sheriff. “Put him in with the Russians—if that’s what they are.”

Anstruther accepted this commission with alacrity, prodding Roger in the buttocks with the muzzle of his musket as he forced him toward the shed where the Russians were imprisoned. Roger gritted his teeth and ignored it, wondering how high the Sheriff might bounce, if picked up and slammed down on the boards of the dock.

The Russians were all clustered in the corner of the shed, the women tending solicitously to their wounded husband and father, but they all looked up at Roger’s entrance, with a babble of incomprehensible greetings and questions. He gave them as much of a smile as he could manage, and waved them back, pressing his ear to the wall of the shed in order to hear what Lillywhite and company were up to now.

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