Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 144

   

“Murphy!” I said, and kissed him, caught up in the joy of the moment.

“Hoy!” he said, shocked. He wriggled madly, trying to get out from under me.

“Milady!” Fergus appeared at my side, crumpled and vivid, his beautiful smile dazzling in a sun-dark face. “Milady!” He helped me off the grunting Murphy, then grabbed me to him in a rib-cracking hug. Marsali appeared behind him, a broad smile on her face.

“Merci aux les saints!” he said in my ear. “I was afraid we would never see you again!” He kissed me heartily himself, on both cheeks and the mouth, then released me at last.

I glanced at the Artemis, lying on her side on the beach like a stranded beetle. “What on earth happened?”

Fergus and Marsali exchanged a glance. It was the sort of look in which questions are asked and answered, and it rather startled me to see the depths of intimacy between them. Fergus drew a deep breath and turned to me.

“Captain Raines is dead,” he said.

The storm that had come upon me during my night in the mangrove swamp had also struck the Artemis. Carried far off her path by the howling wind, she had been forced over a reef, tearing a sizable hole in her bottom.

Still, she had remained afloat. The aft hold filling rapidly, she had limped toward the small inlet that opened so near, offering shelter.

“We were no more than three hundred yards from the shore when the accident happened,” Fergus said, his face drawn by the memory. The ship had heeled suddenly over, as the contents of the aft hold had shifted, beginning to float. And just then, an enormous wave, coming from the sea, had struck the leaning ship, washing across the tilting quarterdeck, and carrying away Captain Raines, and four seamen with him.

“The shore was so near!” Marsali said, her face twisted with distress. “We were aground ten minutes later! If only—”

Fergus stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“We cannot guess God’s ways,” he said. “It would have been the same, if we had been a thousand miles at sea, save that we would not have been able to give them decent burial.” He nodded toward the far edge of the beach, near the jungle, where five small mounds, topped with crude wooden crosses, marked the final resting places of the drowned men.

“I had some holy water that Da brought me from Notre Dame in Paris,” Marsali said. Her lips were cracked, and she licked them. “In a little bottle. I said a prayer, and sprinkled it on the graves. D’ye—d’ye think they would have l-liked that?”

I caught the quaver in her voice, and realized that for all her self-possession, the last two days had been a terrifying ordeal for the girl. Her face was grimy, her hair coming down, and the sharpness was gone from her eyes, softened by tears.

“I’m sure they would,” I said gently, patting her arm. I glanced at the faces crowding around, searching for Jamie’s great height and fiery head, even as the realization dawned that he was not there.

“Where is Jamie?” I said. My face was flushed from the run down the hill. I felt the blood begin to drain from my cheeks, as a trickle of fear rose in my veins.

Fergus was staring at me, lean face mirroring mine.

“He is not with you?” he said.

“No. How could he be?” The sun was blinding, but my skin felt cold. I could feel the heat shimmer over me, but to no effect. My lips were so chilled, I could scarcely form the question.

“Where is he?”

Fergus shook his head slowly back and forth, like an ox stunned by the slaughterer’s blow.

“I don’t know.”

51

IN WHICH JAMIE SMELLS A RAT

Jamie Fraser lay in the shadows under the Porpoise’s jolly boat, chest heaving with effort. Getting aboard the man-of-war without being seen had been no small task; his right side was bruised from being slammed against the side of the ship as he hung from the boarding nets, struggling to pull himself up to the rail. His arms felt as though they had been jerked from their sockets and there was a large splinter in one hand. But he was here, and so far unseen.

He chewed delicately at his palm, groping for the end of the splinter with his teeth, as he got his bearings. Russo and Stone, Artemis hands who had served aboard men-of-war, had spent hours describing to him the structure of a large ship, the compartments and decks, and the probable location of the surgeon’s quarters. Hearing something described and being able to find your way about in it were two different things, though. At least the miserable thing rocked less than the Artemis, though he could still feel the subtle, nauseating heave of the deck beneath him.

The end of the splinter worked free; nipping it between his teeth, he drew it slowly out and spat it on the deck. He sucked the tiny wound, tasting blood, and slid cautiously out from under the jolly boat, ears pricked to catch the sound of an approaching footstep.

The deck below this one, down the forward companionway. The officers’ quarters would be there, and with luck, the surgeon’s cabin as well. Not that she was likely to be in her quarters; not her. She’d cared enough to come tend the sick—she would be with them.

He had waited until dark to have Robbie MacRae row him out. Raines had told him that the Porpoise would likely weigh anchor with the evening tide, two hours from now. If he could find Claire and escape over the side before that—he could swim ashore with her, easily—the Artemis would be waiting for them, concealed in a small cove on the other side of Caicos Island. If he couldn’t—well, he would deal with that when he came to it.

Fresh from the cramped small world of the Artemis, the belowdecks of the Porpoise seemed huge and sprawling; a shadowed warren. He stood still, nostrils flaring as he deliberately drew the fetid air deep into his lungs. There were all the nasty stenches associated with a ship at sea for a long time, overlaid with the faint floating stink of feces and vomit.

He turned to the left and began to walk softly, long nose twitching. Where the smell of sickness was the strongest; that was where he would find her.

Four hours later, in mounting desperation, he made his way aft for the third time. He had covered the entire ship—keeping out of sight with some difficulty—and Claire was nowhere to be found.

“Bloody woman!” he said under his breath. “Where have ye gone, ye fashious wee hidee?”

A small worm of fear gnawed at the base of his heart. She had said her vaccine would protect her from the sickness, but what if she had been wrong? He could see for himself that the man-of-war’s crew had been badly diminished by the deadly sickness—knee-deep in it, the germs might have attacked her too, vaccine or not.

He thought of germs as small blind things, about the size of maggots, but equipped with vicious razor teeth, like tiny sharks. He could all too easily imagine a swarm of the things fastening onto her, killing her, draining her flesh of life. It was just such a vision that had made him pursue the Porpoise—that, and a murderous rage toward the English buggerer who had had the filth-eating insolence to steal away his wife beneath his very nose, with a vague promise to return her, once they’d made use of her.

Leave her to the Sassenachs, unprotected?

“Not bloody likely,” he muttered under his breath, dropping down into a dark cargo space. She wouldn’t be in such a place, of course, but he must think a moment, what to do. Was this the cable tier, the aft cargo hatch, the forward stinking God knew what? Christ, he hated boats!

He drew in a deep breath and stopped, surprised. There were animals here; goats. He could smell them plainly. There was also a light, dimly visible around the edge of a bulkhead, and the murmur of voices. Was one of them a woman’s voice?

He edged forward, listening. There were feet on the deck above, a patter and thump that he recognized; bodies dropping from the rigging. Had someone above seen him? Well, and if they had? It was no crime, so far as he knew, for a man to come seeking his wife.

The Porpoise was asail; he had felt the thrum of the sails, passing through the wood all the way to the keel as she took the wind. They had long since missed the rendezvous with the Artemis.

That being so, there was likely nothing to lose by appearing boldly before the captain and demanding to see Claire. But perhaps she was here—it was a woman’s voice.

It was a woman’s figure, too, silhouetted against the lantern’s light, but the woman wasn’t Claire. His heart leapt convulsively at the gleam of the light on her hair, but then fell at once as he saw the thick, square shape of the woman by the goat pen. There was a man with her; as Jamie watched, the man bent and picked up a basket. He turned and came toward Jamie.

He stepped into the narrow aisle between the bulkheads, blocking the seaman’s way.

“Here, what do you mean—” the man began, and then, raising his eyes to Jamie’s face, stopped, gasping. One eye was fixed on him in horrified recognition; the other showed only as a bluish-white crescent beneath the withered lid.

“God preserve us!” the seaman said. “What are you doing here?” The seaman’s face gleamed pale and jaundiced in the dim light.

“Ye ken me, do ye?” Jamie’s heart was hammering against his ribs, but he kept his voice level and low. “I have not the honor to know your own name, I think?”

“I should prefer to leave that particular circumstance unchanged, your honor, if you’ve no objection.” The one-eyed seaman began to edge backward, but was forestalled as Jamie gripped his arm, hard enough to elicit a small yelp.

“Not quite so fast, if ye please. Where is Mrs. Malcolm, the surgeon?”

It would have been difficult for the seaman to look more alarmed, but at this question, he managed it.

“I don’t know!” he said.

“You do,” Jamie said sharply. “And ye’ll tell me this minute, or I shall break your neck.”

“Well, now, I can’t be tellin’ you anything if you break my neck, can I?” the seaman pointed out, beginning to recover his nerve. He lifted his chin pugnaciously over his basket of manure. “Now, you leave go of me, or I’ll call—” The rest was lost in a squawk as a large hand fastened about his neck and began inexorably to squeeze. The basket fell to the deck, and balls of goat manure exploded out of it like shrapnel.

“Ak!” Harry Tompkins’s legs thrashed wildly, scattering goat dung in every direction. His face turned the color of a beetroot as he clawed ineffectually at Jamie’s arm. Judging the results clinically, Jamie let go as the man’s eye began to bulge. He wiped his hand on his breeches, disliking the greasy feel of the man’s sweat on his palm.

Tompkins lay on the deck in a sprawl of limbs, wheezing faintly.

“Ye’re quite right,” Jamie said. “On the other hand, if I break your arm, I expect you’ll still be able to speak to me, aye?” He bent, grasped the man by one skinny arm and jerked him to his feet, twisting the arm roughly behind his back.

“I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you!” The seaman wriggled madly, panicked. “Damn you, you’re as wicked cruel as she was!”

“Was? What do you mean, ‘was’?” Jamie’s heart squeezed tight in his chest, and he jerked the arm, more roughly than he had meant to do. Tompkins let out a screech of pain, and Jamie slackened the pressure slightly.

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