The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 232

   

He had hoped they would simply accept his story and depart—and they might still do that, once they satisfied themselves that there really was no whisky hidden anywhere near the landing. Another possibility had occurred to him, though; one that was making him increasingly uneasy.

It was clear enough from the behavior of the men that they had intended to take the whisky by force—if there had been any. And the way Lillywhite had held back, concealing himself . . . it wouldn’t do, obviously, for a county magistrate to be revealed as having connections with smugglers and pirates.

As it was, since there was no whisky, Roger could report no actual wrong-doing on Lillywhite’s part—it was illegal to deal in contraband, of course, but such arrangements were so common on the coast that the mere rumor of it wasn’t likely to damage Lillywhite’s reputation in his own inland county. On the other hand, Roger was alone—or Lillywhite thought he was.

There was clearly some connection between Lillywhite and Stephen Bonnet—and if Roger and Jamie Fraser began to ask questions, chances were good that it would come to light. Was whatever Lillywhite was engaged in sufficiently dangerous that he might think it worth killing Roger to prevent his talking? He had the uneasy feeling that Lillywhite and Anstruther might well come to that conclusion.

They could simply take him into the marsh, kill him and sink his body, then return to their companions, announcing that he had gone back to Edenton. Even if someone eventually traced the members of Lillywhite’s gang, and if they could be persuaded to talk—both matters of low probability—nothing could be proved.

There was a lot of thumping and banging outside, gradually succeeded by more distant calling, as the sheds were re-searched, and the search then spread to the nearby marsh.

It occurred to Roger that Lillywhite and Anstruther might well have intended to kill him and Jamie after taking the whisky. In which case, there was still less to prevent them doing it now; they would be already prepared for it. As for the Russians—would they harm them? He hoped not, but there was no telling.

A light pattering rang on the tin roof of the shed; it was beginning to rain. Fine, if their powder got wet, they wouldn’t shoot him; they’d have to cut his throat. He went from hoping that Jamie wouldn’t show up too soon, to hoping fervently that he wouldn’t show up too late. As to what he might do if and when he did show up . . .

The swords. Were the swords still where they had left them, in the corner of the shed? The rain had grown too loud for him to hear anything outside, anyway; he abandoned his listening post and went to look.

The Russians all looked up at him with mingled expressions of wariness and concern. He smiled and nodded, making little shooing gestures to get them out of the way. Yes, the swords were still there—that was something, and he felt a small surge of hope.

Chemodurow was conscious; he said something in a slurred voice, and Karina got up at once and came to stand by Roger. She patted him gently on the arm, then took one of the swords from him. She drew it from its scabbard with a ringing whoosh that made them all jump, then laugh nervously. She wrapped her hands round the hilt and held it over her shoulder, like a baseball bat. She marched over to the door and took up her station beside it, scowling fiercely.

“Great,” Roger said, and gave her a broad smile of approval. “Anyone pokes his head in, take it off, aye?” He mimed a chopping motion with the side of his hand, and the Russians all made loud growling sounds of enthusiastic support. One of the younger girls reached for the other sword, but he smiled and indicated that he would keep it, thanks anyway.

To his surprise, she shook her head, saying something in Russian. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head helplessly. She tugged on his arm, and made him come with her, back toward the corner.

They had been busy during the brief period of their captivity. They had moved aside the rubbish, made a comfortable pallet for the injured man—and uncovered the large trapdoor installed in the floor, meant to be used by boats coming under the wharf at low tide, so that cargo could be handed directly up into the shed, rather than unloaded onto the dock.

The tide was going out now; it was a drop of more than six feet to the water’s dark surface. He stripped to his breeks and hung by his hands from the edge of the trapdoor before dropping in feetfirst, not wanting to risk a dive into what might be dangerous shallows.

The water was higher than his head, though; he sank in a shower of silver bubbles, then his feet touched the sandy bottom and he launched himself upward, breaking the surface with a whoosh of air. He waved reassuringly at the circle of Russian faces peering down at him through the trapdoor, then struck out for the far end of the wharf.

FROM HIS PERCH ON the roof of the shed, Jamie assessed the magistrate’s way of moving, and the manner in which he fondled the weapon. Lillywhite turned away, his hand nervously caressing the hilt of his sword. A long reach, and a good bearing; quick, too, if a little jerky. To wear a sword under these circumstances suggested both a habit of familiarity with the weapon and a fondness for it.

He couldn’t see Anstruther, who had pressed himself back against the wall of the shed, under the overhang of the roof, but he was less concerned with the Sheriff. A brawler, that one, and short in the arm.

“I say we kill them all. Only way to be safe.”

There was a grunt of dubious assent from Lillywhite.

“That may be—but the men? We do not wish to put our fate in the hands of witnesses who may talk. We could have dealt with Fraser and MacKenzie safely out of sight—but so many . . . perhaps we may leave these Russians; they are foreigners and seem not to speak any English. . . .”

“Aye, and how did they come here, I’d like to know? I’ll warrant they wasn’t caught up in a waterspout and set down here by accident. Someone knows about ’em, someone will come looking for ’em—and whoever that someone is, he’s got some means to talk to ’em, I’ll be bound. They’ve seen too much already—and if you mean to go on using this place . . .”

The rain was still light, but coming down steadily. Jamie turned his head to wipe the moisture out of his eyes against his shoulder. He was lying flat, arms and legs outspread like a frog’s to keep from sliding down the pitch of the tin roof. He didn’t dare to move, just yet. The rain was whispering out on the Sound, though, puckering the water like drawn silk, and making a faint ringing noise on the metal around him. Let it rain just that wee bit harder, and it would cover any noise he made.

He shifted his weight a little, feeling the press of the dirk, hard under his hipbone. The pistols lay beside him on the roof, likely useless in the rain. The dirk was his only real weapon at the moment, and one much better suited to surprise than to a frontal attack.

“. . . send the men back with the boat. We can go by the road, after . . .”

They were still talking, low-voiced, but he could tell that the decision had been made; Lillywhite only needed to convince himself that it was a matter of necessity, and that wouldn’t take long. They’d send the men away first, though; the magistrate was right to be afraid of witnesses.

He blinked water out of his eyes and glanced toward the larger shed, where Roger Mac and the Russians were. The sheds were close together; the gaps between the staggered tin roofs no more than three or four feet. There was one shed between him and the larger one. Well, then.

He would take advantage of the men leaving to move across the roofs, and trust to luck and the rain to prevent Lillywhite or Anstruther from looking up. Crouch above the door to the shed, and when they came to do the deed, wait just until they’d got the door open, then drop on the magistrate from above and hope to break his neck or at least disable him at once. Roger Mac could be depended on to rush out and help deal with the Sheriff, then.

It was the best plan he could contrive under the circumstances, and not a bad one, he thought. If he didn’t slip and break his own neck, of course. Or a leg. He flexed his left leg, feeling the slight stiffness of the muscles in his calf. It was healed, but there was no denying the slight weakness remaining. He could manage well enough, walking, but jumping across rooftops . . .

“Aye, well, needs must when the Devil drives,” he muttered. If it came to smash and he ruined the leg again, he’d better hope the Sheriff killed him, because Claire surely would.

The thought made him smile, but he couldn’t think about her now. Later, when it was finished. His shirt was soaked through, stuck to his shoulders, and the rain was chiming off the tin roofs like a chorus of fairy-bells. Squirming cautiously backward, he got his knees under him and rose to a crouch, ready to drop flat again if anyone was looking up.

No one was on the dock. There were four men besides Lillywhite and the Sheriff; all of them were out in the soft ground to the south of the landing, poking through the waist-high grass in a desultory fashion. He took a deep breath and got his feet slowly under him. As he swiveled round, though, he caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye, and froze.

Holy Christ, there were men coming out of the wood. For an instant, he thought it was more of Lillywhite’s doing, and then he realized that the men were black. All but one.

Les Cochons, the Russian had said. Pour le Monsieur Wylie. And here was Monsieur Wylie, coming with his slaves to collect his pigs!

He lay down on his belly again and squirmed over the wet metal, eeling toward the back of the shed roof. It was open to question, he thought, whether Wylie would be better disposed to help him or to run him through himself—but he did suppose the man had some stake in preserving his Russians.

THE WATER WAS COLD, but not numbing, and the pull of the tidal current wasn’t great yet. Still, the injury to his throat and the searing of the canebrake fire had left him much shorter of breath than he used to be, and Roger found himself obliged to bob to the surface and gasp for air with every three or four strokes.

Ruby lips, above the water, he sang ironically to himself, blowing bubb-les soft and fine . . . He drew in a gulp of air, and trod water, listening. He had headed toward the south side of the landing first, but had heard voices above, and so reversed direction. He was just under the north edge of the wharf now, hidden in the deep shadow by the Russians’ boat.

The smell of pigs was overwhelming, and he could hear muffled thumps and grunts from the hold, coming through the wood beside him. Christ, had they sailed that tiny craft all the way from Russia? It looked it; the wood was battered and dented.

No sound of voices nearby. It was raining hard, shushing into the Sound; that would help cover any racket he made. Ready, steady, go, then. He took a great lungful of air and launched himself into the rainy light beyond the landing.

He swam desperately, trying not to splash, expecting a musket ball between the shoulder blades every moment. He blundered into the weeds, felt the grasp and slash of sawgrass on arm and leg, rolled half-over, gasping, salt burning in the cuts, and then was on his hands and knees, crawling through the growth of marsh plants, black needlerushes waving over his head, rain pounding on his back, the water lapping just below his chin.

He stopped at last, chest heaving with the need for air, and wondered what in hell to do next. It was good to be out of the shed, but he hadn’t a plan for what happened now. Find Jamie, he supposed—if he could, without being caught again.

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