The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 236

   

I took another step backward as I said this, and he took a step toward me at the same time. A flicker of panic must have crossed my face, for he looked amused, and took another step.

“Oh, I doubt that, Mrs. Fraser dear. For see, the man’s dead by now.”

I squeezed Jemmy so hard that he let out a strangled squawk.

“What do you mean?” I demanded hoarsely. The blood was draining from my head, coagulating in an icy ball round my heart.

“Well, d’ye see, it was a bargain,” he said, the look of amusement growing. “A division of duties, ye might say. My friend Lillywhite and the good Sheriff were to attend to Mr. Fraser and Mr. MacKenzie, and Lieutenant Wolff was to manage Mrs. Cameron’s end of the business. That left me with the pleasant task of makin’ myself reacquainted with my son and his mother.” His eyes sharpened, focusing on Jemmy.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I said, through stiff lips, taking a better grip on Jemmy, who was watching Bonnet, owl-eyed.

He gave a short laugh at that.

“Sure, and ye’re no hand at lyin’, ma’am; you’ll forgive the observation. Ye’d never make a card player. Ye know well enough what I mean—ye saw me there, at River Run. Though I confess as how I should be obliged to hear exactly what you and Mr. Fraser was engaged in, a-butchering that Negro woman that Wolff killed. I did hear as how the picture of a murderer shows in the victim’s eyes—but ye didn’t seem to be looking at her eyes, from what I could see. Was it magic of a sort ye were after doing?”

“Wolff—it was him, then?” Just at the moment, I didn’t really care whether Lieutenant Wolff had murdered scores of women, but I was willing to engage in any line of conversation that offered the possibility of distracting him.

“Aye. He’s a bungler, Wolff,” he said, dispassionately. “But ’twas him that found out about the gold to begin with, so he claimed a part in the doings.”

How far away were Marsali and Brianna? Had Germain found them? I could hear nothing over the whine of insects and the distant wash of surf. Surely they must hear us talking, though.

“Gold,” I said, raising my voice a little. “Whatever do you mean, gold? There isn’t any gold at River Run; Jocasta Cameron told you as much.”

He puffed air through his lips in genial disbelief.

“I will say as Mrs. Cameron is a better liar than yourself, dear one, but sure, I didn’t believe her, either. The doctor saw the gold, see.”

“What doctor?” A baby’s high-pitched cry came faintly through the bushes—Joan. I coughed, hoping to drown it out, and repeated, more loudly, “What doctor do you mean?”

“Rawls, I think was his name, or Rawlings.” Bonnet was frowning slightly, head turned toward the sound. “I’d not the pleasure of his acquaintance, though; I might be mistaken.”

“I’m sorry—I still have no idea what you’re talking about.” I was trying simultaneously to hold his gaze and to scan the ground nearby for anything that might be used as a weapon. Bonnet had a pistol in his belt, and a knife, but showed no disposition to draw either one. Why should he? A woman with an armload of two-year-old was not any sort of threat.

One thick blond brow flicked up, but he seemed in no great hurry, whatever he was about.

“No? Well, ’twas Wolff, as I was sayin’. It was a tooth to be drawn or somesuch; he met with this sawbones in Cross Creek. Bought the fellow a drink in reward, and spent the evening inside a wine-skin with him, in the end. Ye’ll know the Lieutenant’s weakness for the drink—the doctor was another sot, I hear, and the two of them thick as thieves before the dawn. Rawlings let out that he’d seen a great quantity of gold at River Run, for he’d just come from there, see?”

Rawlings had either passed out or sobered up enough to say no more, but the revelation had been enough to renew the Lieutenant’s determination to gain the hand—and property—of Jocasta Cameron.

“The lady would be havin’ none of him, though, and then she ups and declares as she’ll be takin’ the one-armed fella instead. ’Twas a cruel blow to the Lieutenant’s pride, alas.” He grinned at that, showing a missing molar on one side.

Lieutenant Wolff, furious and baffled, appealed to his particular friend, Randall Lillywhite, for advice.

“Why, that—so that’s why he arrested the priest at the Gathering? To prevent him marrying Mrs. Cameron to Duncan Innes?”

Bonnet nodded.

“That would be the way of it. A matter of delay, ye might say, so as to be havin’ the opportunity of lookin’ further into the matter.”

Said opportunity had occurred at the wedding. As we had theorized, someone—Lieutenant Wolff—had in fact attempted to drug Duncan Innes with a cup of punch spiked with laudanum. The plan had been to render him insensible and pitch him into the river. During the uproar occasioned by Duncan’s disappearance and presumedly accidental death, Wolff would have the chance to search the premises thoroughly for the gold—and eventually, to renew his addresses to Jocasta.

“But the black bitch drank the stuff herself,” he said dispassionately. “Didn’t die of it, worse luck—but she could have said who gave the cup to her, of course, and so Wolff slipped round and mixed ground glass into the gruel they were after feedin’ her.”

“What I want to know,” I said, “is just how you got involved in this. Why were you there at River Run?”

“And isn’t the Lieutenant the friend of my bosom these many years past, dear one? He came to me for help in disposing of the one-armed lad, so as he could take care to be seen in the midst of the party, enjoyin’ himself in all innocence whilst accident was befallin’ his rival.” He frowned slightly, tapping a finger on the hilt of his pistol.

“I would have done better to bash the Innes fella on the head and toss him in, once I saw the laudanum had gone astray. Couldn’t get at him, though—he spent half the day in the jakes, and someone always in there with him, bad cess to them.”

There was nothing on the ground near me that could possibly be used as a weapon. Twigs, leaves, scattered fragments of shell, a dead rat—well, that had worked for Germain, but I didn’t think Bonnet could be surprised twice in that fashion. Jemmy was losing his fear of the stranger as we talked, and was beginning to squirm to get down.

I edged backward a little; Bonnet saw it, and smiled. He wasn’t bothered. Obviously he didn’t think I could escape, and just as obviously, he was waiting for something. Of course—he had told me, himself. He was waiting for Brianna. I realized belatedly that he had clearly followed us out here from town; he knew that Marsali and Brianna were somewhere nearby—much easier simply to wait until they revealed themselves.

My best hope was that someone else would happen along; the weather was muggy and damp, but not raining yet, and this was a well-known spot for picnicking, according to Mrs. Burns. If someone did come along, how could I take advantage of it? I knew that Bonnet would not have the slightest compunction in simply shooting anyone who got in his way—he was boasting about the rest of his bloodthirsty plans.

“Mrs. Cameron—Mrs. Innes, she’ll be now—seemed willin’ enough to talk, when I suggested that her husband might soon be lackin’ a few of his treasured parts, though as it happens, she was lyin’, then, too, deceitful old trout. But it came to me, ponderin’ the matter afterward, that she might be more obligin’, were it a matter of her heir.” He nodded toward Jemmy, and clicked his tongue at the boy. “So, lad, will we be goin’ to see your great-auntie, then?”

Jemmy looked suspiciously at Bonnet, cuddling back against me.

“Whozat?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s a wise child that knows its father, isn’t it? I’m your Da, lad—was your mother not after telling you so?”

“Daddy?” Jemmy looked at Bonnet, then at me. “At’s not Daddy!”

“No, he isn’t your daddy,” I assured Jemmy, shifting my hold. My arms were beginning to ache under the strain of holding him. “He’s a bad man; we don’t like him.”

Bonnet laughed.

“Is there no shame with you at all, dear one? Of course he’s mine—it’s your daughter has said so, to my face.”

“Nonsense,” I said. I had maneuvered my way into a narrow gap between two of the evergreen wax-myrtle bushes. I’d try to distract him back into conversation, then seize a moment to whirl round, set Jemmy down, and urge him to run. With luck, I could block the gap long enough to prevent Bonnet grabbing him before he could get away—if he would run.

“Lillywhite,” I said, taking hold of the conversation. “What did you mean, Lillywhite and the Sheriff were going to—to attend to my husband and Mr. MacKenzie?” Merely mentioning the possibility made me feel sick; sweat was running down my sides, but my face felt cold and clammy.

“Oh, that? What I said, Mrs. Fraser. Your husband is dead.” He had started looking past me, pale green eyes flicking through the shrubbery. He was clearly expecting Brianna to show up at any moment.

“What happened at the wedding showed us clear enough that it wouldn’t do, to leave Mrs. Cameron with so much protection. No, if we meant to try again, the thing to do was to see that she’s no manfolks to call upon, either for help, or vengeance. So when your husband suggested to Mr. Lyon that he fetch me along to a private meeting, I thought that might be a suitable opportunity to dispose of him and Mr. MacKenzie—two birds with one whisky keg, as ye might be sayin’—but then I thought best if Lillywhite were the lad to handle that end of things, him and his tame sheriff.” He smiled. “I thought best I come to be fetchin’ my son and his mother along, so as not to risk anything goin’ amiss, ye see. We’ll—”

I shifted weight, spun on my heel, and plunked Jemmy on the ground on the far side of the bushes.

“Run!” I said urgently to him. “Run, Jem! Go!” There was a flash of red as he scampered away, whimpering with fear, and then Bonnet crashed into me.

He tried to shove me aside, but I was ready for that, and grabbed for the pistol at his belt. He felt me snatch, and jerked back, but I had my fingers on the butt. I got it free and flung it behind me, as I fell to the ground with him on top of me.

He rolled off me and up on to his knees, where he froze.

“Stay there, or by the Holy Virgin, I’ll blow your head off!”

Gasping from the fall, I sat up slowly, to see Marsali, pale as a sheet, aiming the ancient flintlock at him over the swell of her belly.

“Shoot him, Maman!” Germain was behind her, small face alight with eagerness. “Shoot him like a porcupine!”

Joan was somewhere back in the bushes; she began to wail at the sound of her mother’s voice, but Marsali didn’t take her eyes off Bonnet. Christ, had she loaded and primed the gun? I thought she must have; I could smell a whiff of black powder.

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