“Well, now,” Bonnet said slowly. I could see his eyes trace the distance between him and Marsali—fifteen feet or more, too much to reach her with a dive. He put one foot on the ground, beginning to rise. He could reach her in three strides.
“Don’t let him stand up!” I scrabbled up onto my own feet, shoving at his shoulder. He fell to the side, catching himself on one hand, then heaved back, faster than I could have imagined, seizing me round the waist and pulling me back down, this time on top of him.
There were screams from behind me, but I had no attention to spare. I stabbed my fingers at his eye, narrowly missing as he jerked me sideways; my nails slid off his cheekbone, raking furrows in his skin. We rolled in a flurry of petticoats and Irish oaths, me grabbing for his privates, him trying at once to throttle me and protect himself.
Then he squirmed and flipped over like a fish, and we ended with his arm locked tight around my neck, holding me against his chest. There was a whisper of metal on leather, and something cold against my neck. I stopped struggling, and took a deep breath.
Marsali’s eyes were the size of saucers, her mouth clamped tight. Her gaze, thank heaven, was still trained on Bonnet, and so was the gun.
“Marsali,” I said, very calmly, “shoot him. Right now.”
“Be putting the gun down, colleen,” Bonnet said, with equal calmness, “or I’ll cut her throat on the count of three. One—”
“Shoot him!” I said, with all my force, and took my last deep gulp of air.
The pressure of the blade across my throat lessened, and I felt the sting of blood as I took a breath I had not expected to be given. I hadn’t time to enjoy the sensation, though; Brianna stood amid the myrtles, Jemmy clinging to her skirts.
“Let her go,” she said.
Marsali had been holding her breath; she let it out with a gasp and sucked air deep.
“He isn’t about to let me go, and it doesn’t matter,” I said fiercely to them both. “Marsali, shoot him. Now!”
Her hand tightened on the gun, but she couldn’t quite do it. She glanced at Brianna, white-faced, then back, her hand trembling.
“Shoot him, Maman,” Germain whispered, but the eagerness had gone from his face. He was pale, too, and stood close to his mother.
“You’ll come along with me, darlin’, you and the lad.” I could feel the vibration through Bonnet’s chest as he spoke, and sensed the half-smile on his face, though I couldn’t see it. “The others can go.”
“Don’t,” I said, trying to make Bree look at me. “He won’t let us go, you know he won’t. He’ll kill me and Marsali, no matter what he says. The only thing to do is shoot him. If Marsali can’t do it, Bree, you’ll have to.”
That got her attention. Her eyes jerked to me, shocked, and Bonnet grunted, half in annoyance, half in amusement.
“Condemn her mother? She’s not the girl to be doing such a thing, Mrs. Fraser.”
“Marsali—he’ll kill you, and the babe with you,” I said, straining every muscle to make her understand, to force her to fire. “Germain and Joan will die out here, alone. What happens to me doesn’t matter, believe me—for God’s sake, shoot him now!”
There was a spark and puff of white smoke, and Bonnet jerked. Then her hand sagged, the muzzle of the gun tilted down—and the wad and ball fell out on the sand with a tiny plop. Misfire.
Marsali moaned in horror, and Brianna moved like lightning, seizing the fallen bucket and hurling it at Bonnet’s head. He yelped and threw himself aside, letting go his grip on me. The bucket struck me in the chest and I caught it, stupidly staring down into it. It was damp inside, with a scattering of the blue-white waxy berries stuck to the wood.
Then Germain and Jemmy were both crying, Joan was shrieking her head off in the wood, and I dropped the bucket and crawled madly for shelter behind a yaupon bush.
Bonnet was back on his feet, face flushed, the knife in his hand. He was clearly furious, but made an effort to smile at Brianna.
“Ah, now, darlin’,” he said, having to raise his voice to be heard above the racket. “It’s only yourself and my son I’m wanting. I’ll not be harming either of you.”
“He’s not your son,” Brianna said, low-voiced and vicious. “He’ll never be yours.”
He grunted contemptuously.
“Oh, aye? That’s not how I heard it, in that dungeon in Cross Creek, sweetheart. And now I see him . . .” He looked at Jemmy again, nodding slowly. “He’s mine, darlin’ girl. He’s the look of me—haven’t ye, boyo?”
Jemmy buried his face in Brianna’s skirts, howling.
Bonnet sighed, shrugged, and gave up any pretense of cajolement.
“Come on, then,” he said, and started forward, obviously intending to scoop Jemmy up.
Brianna’s hand rose out of her skirts, and aimed the pistol I had yanked out of his belt back at the place it had come from. Bonnet stopped in mid-step, mouth open.
“What about it?” she whispered, and her eyes were fixed, unblinking. “Do you keep your powder dry, Stephen?”
She braced the pistol with both hands, drew aim at his crotch, and fired.
He was fast, I’d give him that. He hadn’t time to turn and run, but was reaching to cover his threatened balls with both hands, even as she pulled the trigger. Blood exploded in a thick spray through his fingers, but I couldn’t tell what she’d hit.
He staggered back, clutching himself. He stared wildly round, as though unable to believe it, then sank to one knee. I could hear him breathing, hard and fast.
We all stood paralyzed, watching. One hand scrabbled at the sand, leaving bloody furrows. Then he rose, slowly, doubled over, the other hand pressed into his middle. His face was dead white, green eyes like dull water.
He stumbled round, gasping, and made off like a bug that’s been stepped on, leaking and hitching. There was a crashing noise as he blundered through the bushes, and then he was gone. Beyond a palmetto tree, I could see a line of pelicans flying, ungainly and impossibly graceful against the lowering sky.
I was still crouched on the ground, chilled with shock. I felt something warm slide down my cheek, and realized it was a raindrop.
“Is he right?” Brianna was crouching beside me, helping me sit up. “Do you think he’s right? Are they dead?” She was white to the lips, but not hysterical. She had Jemmy in the crook of her arm, clinging to her neck.
“No,” I said. Everything seemed remote, as though it were happening in slow motion. I stood up slowly, balancing precariously, as though not sure quite how to do it.
“No,” I said again, and felt no fear, no panic at the memory of what Bonnet had said; nothing but a certainty in my chest, like a small, comforting weight. “No, they’re not.” Jamie had told me; this was not the day when he and I would part.
Marsali had vanished into the wood to retrieve Joanie. Germain was bent over the splotches of blood on the sand, studying them with fascination. It occurred to me dimly to wonder what type they were, but then I dismissed the thought from my mind.
“He’ll never be yours,” she had said.
“Let’s go,” I said, patting Jemmy gently. “I think we’ll make do with unscented candles, for now.”
ROGER AND JAMIE appeared at dawn two days later, rousing everyone in the inn by pounding at the door, and causing people in the neighboring houses to throw open their shutters and put their nightcapped heads out in alarm, owing to the resultant whooping and yelling. I was reasonably sure that Roger had a minor concussion, but he refused to be put to bed—though he did allow Bree to hold his head in her lap and make noises of shocked sympathy about the impressive lump on it, while Jamie gave us a terse account of the battle of Wylie’s Landing, and we gave a somewhat confused explanation of our adventures in the myrtle groves.
“So Bonnet’s not dead?” Roger asked, opening one eye.
“Well, we don’t know,” I explained. “He got away, but I don’t know how badly he was hurt. There wasn’t a dreadful lot of blood, but if he was hit in the lower abdomen, that would be a terrible wound, and almost certainly fatal. Peritonitis is a very slow and nasty way to die.”
“Good,” Marsali said, vindictively.
“Good!” Germain echoed, looking proudly up at her. “Maman shot the bad man, Grandpere,” he told Jamie. “So did Auntie. He was full of holes—there was blood everywhere!”
“Holes,” Jemmy said happily. “Holes, holes, lotsa holes!”
“Well, maybe one hole,” Brianna murmured. She didn’t look up from the damp cloth with which she was gently sponging dried blood from Roger’s scalp and hair.
“Oh, aye? Well, if ye only took off a finger or one of his balls, lass, he might survive,” Jamie observed, grinning at her. “Wouldna improve his temper, though, I dinna suppose.”
Fergus arrived on the noon packet boat, triumphantly bearing the registered, stamped, and officially sealed deeds for the two land grants, thus putting the cocked hat on the day’s rejoicing. The celebrations were limited, though, owing to the sobering knowledge that one rather major loose end remained.
After a vigorous discussion, it was decided—meaning that Jamie made up his mind and pigheadedly refused to entertain dissenting views—that he and I would ride west at once to River Run. The young families would remain in Wilmington for a few days, to complete business, and to keep an ear out for any report of a wounded or dying man. They would then proceed back to Fraser’s Ridge, keeping strictly clear of Cross Creek and River Run.
“Lieutenant Wolff canna be using threats to you or the lad to influence my aunt, if ye’re nowhere near him,” Jamie pointed out to Brianna.
“And as for you, mo charadean,” he said to Roger and Fergus, “ye canna be leaving the women and weans to look out for themselves—God kens who they might shoot next!”
It was only as he closed the door on the resulting laughter that he turned to me, ran a fingertip over the scratch on my throat, and then pulled me so hard against himself that I thought my ribs would break. I clung tight to him on the landing, not caring that I couldn’t breathe, nor whether anyone might see; happy only to be touching him—and to have him there to touch.
“Ye did right, Claire,” he muttered at last, mouth against my hair. “But for God’s sake, never do it again!”
So it was that he and I left at dawn next day, alone.
SLY AS FOXES
WE ARRIVED AT RIVER RUN near sundown three days later, horses lathered and filthy, and ourselves in no better case. The place seemed peaceful enough, the last of the spring light glowing on green lawns and spotlighting the white marble statues and the stone of Hector’s mausoleum among its dark yews.
“What do you think?” I asked Jamie. We had reined up at the foot of the lawn, looking the situation over cautiously before approaching the house.
“Well, no one’s burned the place down,” he replied, standing in his stirrups to survey the prospect. “And I dinna see rivers of blood cascading down the front stair. Still . . .” He sat down, reached into his saddlebag, and withdrew a pistol, which he loaded and primed as a precaution. With this tucked into the waistband of his breeks and concealed by the skirts of his coat, we rode slowly up the drive to the front door.