“Let go! I’ll tell you, but for pity’s sake, let go!” Jamie lessened his grasp, but didn’t let go.
“Tell me where my wife is!” he said, in a tone that had made stronger men than Harry Tompkins fall over their feet to obey.
“She’s lost!” the man blurted. “Gone overboard!”
“What!” He was so stunned that he let go his hold. Overboard. Gone overboard. Lost.
“When?” he demanded. “How? Damn you, tell me what happened!” He advanced on the seaman, fists clenched.
The seaman was backing away, rubbing his arm and panting, a look of furtive satisfaction in his one eye.
“Don’t worry, your honor,” he said, a queer, jeering tone in his voice. “You won’t be lonesome long. You’ll join her in hell in a few days—dancing from the yardarm over Kingston Harbor!”
Too late, Jamie heard the footfall on the boards behind him. He had no time even to turn his head before the blow fell.
He had been struck in the head frequently enough to know that the sensible thing was to lie still until the giddiness and the lights that pulsed behind your eyelids with each heartbeat stopped. Sit up too soon and the pain made you vomit.
The deck was rising and falling, rising and falling under him, in the horrible way of ships. He kept his eyes tight closed, concentrating on the knotted ache at the base of his skull in order not to think of his stomach.
Ship. He should be on a ship. Yes, but the surface under his cheek was wrong—hard wood, not the linen of his berth’s bedding. And the smell, the smell was wrong, it was—
He shot bolt upright, memory shooting through him with a vividness that made the pain in his head pale by comparison. The darkness moved queasily around him, blinking with colored lights, and his stomach heaved. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, trying to gather his scattered wits about the single appalling thought that had lanced through his brain like a spit through mutton.
Claire. Lost. Drowned. Dead.
He leaned to the side and threw up. He retched and coughed, as though his body was trying forcibly to expel the thought. It didn’t work; when he finally stopped, leaning against the bulkhead in exhaustion, it was still with him. It hurt to breathe, and he clenched his fists on his thighs, trembling.
There was the sound of a door opening, and bright light struck him in the eyes with the force of a blow. He winced, closing his eyes against the glare of the lantern.
“Mr. Fraser,” a soft, well-bred voice said. “I am—truly sorry. I wish you to know that, at least.”
Through a cracked eyelid, he saw the drawn, harried face of young Leonard—the man who had taken Claire. The man wore a look of regret. Regret! Regret, for killing her.
Fury pulled him up against the weakness, and sent him lunging across the slanted deck in an instant. There was an outcry as he hit Leonard and bore him backward into the passage, and a good, juicy thunk! as the bugger’s head hit the boards. People were shouting, and shadows leapt crazily all round him as the lanterns swayed, but he paid no attention.
He smashed Leonard’s jaw with one great blow, his nose with the next. The weakness mattered nothing. He would spend all his strength and die here glad, but let him batter and maim now, feel the bones crack and the blood hot and slick on his fists. Blessed Michael, let him avenge her first!
There were hands on him, snatching and jerking, but they didn’t matter. They would kill him now, he thought dimly, and that didn’t matter, either. The body under him jerked and twitched between his legs, and lay still.
When the next blow came, he went willingly into the dark.
The light touch of fingers on his face awakened him. He reached drowsily up to take her hand, and his palm touched…
With an instinctive revulsion, he was on his feet, clawing at his face. The big spider, nearly as frightened as he was, made off toward the shrubbery at high speed, long hairy legs no more than a blur.
There was an outburst of giggling behind him. He turned around, his heart pounding like a drum, and found six children, roosting in the branches of a big green tree, all grinning down at him with tobacco-stained teeth.
He bowed to them, feeling dizzy and rubber-legged, the start of fright that had got him up now dying in his blood.
“Mesdemoiselles, messieurs,” he said, croaking, and in the half-awake recesses of his brain wondered what had made him speak to them in French? Had he half-heard them speaking, as he lay asleep?
French they were, for they answered him in that language, strongly laced with a gutteral sort of creole accent that he had never heard before.
“Vous êtes matelot?” the biggest boy asked, eyeing him with interest.
His knees gave way and he sat down on the ground, suddenly enough to make the children laugh again.
“Non,” he replied, struggling to make his tongue work. “Je suis guerrier.” His mouth was dry and his head ached like a fiend. Faint memories swam about in the parritch that filled his head, too vague to grasp.
“A soldier!” exclaimed one of the smaller children. His eyes were round and dark as sloes. “Where is your sword and pistola, eh?”
“Don’t be silly,” an older girl told him loftily. “How could he swim with a pistola? It would be ruined. Don’t you know any better, guava-head?”
“Don’t call me that!” the smaller boy shouted, face contorting in rage. “Shitface!”
The children were scrabbling through the branches like monkeys, screaming and chasing each other. Jamie rubbed a hand hard over his face, trying to think.
“Mademoiselle!” He caught the eye of the older girl and beckoned to her. She hesitated for a moment, then dropped from her branch like a ripe fruit, landing on the ground before him in a puff of yellow dust. She was barefoot, wearing nothing but a muslin shift and a colored kerchief round her dark, curly hair.
“You seem a woman of some knowledge, Mademoiselle,” he said. “Tell me, please, what is the name of this place?”
“Cap-Haïtien,” she replied promptly. She eyed him with considerable curiosity. “You talk funny,” she said.
“I am thirsty. Is there water nearby?” Cap-Haïtien. So he was on the island of Hispaniola. His mind was slowly beginning to function again; he had a vague memory of terrible effort, of swimming for his life in a frothing cauldron of heaving waves, and rain pelting his face so hard that it made little difference whether his head was above or below the surface. And what else?
“This way, this way!” The other children had dropped out of the tree, and a little girl was tugging his hand, urging him to follow.
He knelt by the little stream, splashing water over his head, gulping delicious cool handfuls, while the children scampered over the rocks, pelting each other with mud.
Now he remembered—the rat-faced seaman, and Leonard’s surprised young face, the deep-red rage and the satisfying feel of flesh crushed against bone under his fist.
And Claire. The memory came back suddenly, with a sense of confused emotion—loss and terror, succeeded by relief. What had happened? He stopped what he was doing, not hearing the questions the children were flinging at him.
“Are you a deserter?” one of the boys asked again. “Have you been in a fight?” The boy’s eyes rested curiously on his hands. His knuckles were cut and swollen, and his hands ached badly; the fourth finger felt as though he had cracked it again.
“Yes,” he said absently, his mind occupied. Everything was coming back; the dark, stuffy confines of the brig where they had left him to wake, and the dreadful waking, to the thought that Claire was dead. He had huddled there on the bare boards, too shaken with grief to notice at first the increasing heave and roll of the ship, or the high-pitched whine of the rigging, loud enough to filter down even to his oubliette.
But after a time, the motion and noise were great enough to penetrate even the cloud of grief. He had heard the sounds of the growing storm, and the shouts and running overhead, and then was much too occupied to think of anything.
There was nothing in the small room with him, nothing to hold to. He had bounced from wall to wall like a dried pea in a wean’s rattle, unable to tell up from down, right from left in the heaving dark, and not much caring, either, as waves of seasickness rolled through his body. He had thought then of nothing but death, and that with a fervor of longing.
He had been nearly unconscious, in fact, when the door to his prison had opened, and a strong smell of goat assailed his nostrils. He had no idea how the woman had got him up the ladder to the afterdeck, or why. He had only a confused memory of her babbling urgently to him in broken English as she pulled him along, half-supporting his weight as he stumbled and slid on the rain-wet decking.
He remembered the last thing she had said, though, as she pushed him toward the tilting taffrail.
“She is not dead,” the woman had said. “She go there”—pointing at the rolling sea—“you go, too. Find her!” and then she had bent, got a hand in his crutch and a sturdy shoulder under his rump, and heaved him neatly over the rail and into the churning water.
“You are not an Englishman,” the boy was saying. “It’s an English ship, though, isn’t it?”
He turned automatically, to look where the boy pointed, and saw the Porpoise, riding at anchor far out in the shallow bay. Other ships were scattered throughout the harbor, all clearly visible from this vantage point on a hill just outside the town.
“Yes,” he said to the boy. “An English ship.”
“One for me!” the boy exclaimed happily. He turned to shout to another lad. “Jacques! I was right! English! That’s four for me, and only two for you this month!”
“Three!” Jacques corrected indignantly. “I get Spanish and Portuguese. Bruja was Portuguese, so I can count that, too!”
Jamie reached out and caught the older boy’s arm.
“Pardon, Monsieur,” he said. “Your friend said Bruja?”
“Yes, she was in last week,” the boy answered. “Is Bruja a Portuguese name, though? We weren’t sure whether to count it Spanish or Portuguese.”
“Some of the sailors were in my maman’s taverna,” one of the little girls chimed in. “They sounded like they were talking Spanish, but it wasn’t like Uncle Geraldo talks.”
“I think I should like to talk to your maman, chèrie,” he said to the little girl. “Do any of you know, perhaps, where this Bruja was going when she left?”
“Bridgetown,” the oldest girl put in promptly, trying to regain his attention. “I heard the clerk at the garrison say so.”
“The barracks are next door to my maman’s taverna,” the smaller girl chimed in, tugging at his sleeve. “The ship captains all go there with their papers, while the sailors get drunk. Come, come! Maman will feed you if I tell her to.”
“I think your maman will throw me out the door,” he told her, rubbing a hand across the heavy stubble on his chin. “I look like a vagabond.” He did. There were stains of blood and vomit on his clothes despite the swim, and he knew by the feel of his face that it was bruised and bloodshot.