“Maman has seen much worse than you,” the little girl assured him. “Come on!”
He smiled and thanked her, and allowed them to lead him down the hill, staggering slightly, as his land legs had not yet returned. He found it odd but somehow comforting that the children should not be frightened of him, horrible as he no doubt looked.
Was this what the goat-woman had meant? That Claire had swum ashore on this island? He felt a welling of hope that was as refreshing to his heart as the water had been to his parched throat. Claire was stubborn, reckless, and had a great deal more courage than was safe for a woman, but she was by no means such a fool as to fall off a man-of-war by accident.
And the Bruja—and Ian—were nearby! He would find them both, then. The fact that he was barefoot, penniless, and a fugitive from the Royal Navy seemed of no consequence. He had his wits and his hands, and with dry land once more beneath his feet, all things seemed possible.
A WEDDING TAKES PLACE
There was nothing to be done, but to repair the Artemis as quickly as possible, and make sail for Jamaica. I did my best to put aside my fear for Jamie, but I scarcely ate for the next two days, my appetite impeded by the large ball of ice that had taken up residence in my stomach.
For distraction, I took Marsali up to the house on the hill, where she succeeded in charming Father Fogden by recalling—and mixing for him—a Scottish receipt for a sheep-dip guaranteed to destroy ticks.
Stern helpfully pitched in with the labor of repair, delegating to me the guardianship of his specimen bag, and charging me with the task of searching the nearby jungle for any curious specimens of Arachnida that might come to hand as I looked for medicinal plants. While thinking privately that I would prefer to meet any of the larger specimens of Arachnida with a good stout boot, rather than my bare hands, I accepted the charge, peering into the internal water-filled cups of bromeliads in search of the bright-colored frogs and spiders who inhabited these tiny worlds.
I returned from one of these expeditions on the afternoon of the third day, with several large lily-roots, some shelf fungus of a vivid orange, and an unusual moss, together with a live tarantula—carefully trapped in one of the sailor’s stocking caps and held at arm’s length—large and hairy enough to send Lawrence into paroxysms of delight.
When I emerged from the jungle’s edge, I saw that we had reached a new stage of progress; the Artemis was no longer canted on her side, but was slowly regaining an upright position on the sand, assisted by ropes, wedges, and a great deal of shouting.
“It’s nearly finished, then?” I asked Fergus, who was standing near the stern, doing a good bit of the shouting as he instructed his crew in the placement of wedges. He turned to me, grinning and wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“Yes, milady! The caulking is complete. Mr. Warren gives it as his opinion that we may launch the ship near evening, when the day is grown cool, so the tar is hardened.”
“That’s marvelous!” I craned my neck back, looking up at the naked mast that towered high above. “Have we got sails?”
“Oh, yes,” he assured me. “In fact, we have everything except—”
A shout of alarm from MacLeod interrupted whatever he had been about to say. I whirled to look toward the distant road out of the palmettos, where the sun winked off the glint of metal.
“Soldiers!” Fergus reacted faster than anyone, leaping from the scaffolding to land in a thudding spray of sand beside me. “Quick, milady! To the wood! Marsali!” he shouted, looking wildly about for the girl.
He licked sweat from his upper lip, eyes darting from the jungle to the approaching soldiers. “Marsali!” he shouted, once more.
Marsali appeared round the edge of the hull, pale and startled. Fergus grasped her by the arm and shoved her toward me. “Go with milady! Run!”
I snatched Marsali’s hand and ran for the forest, sand spurting beneath our feet. There were shouts from the road behind us, and a shot cracked overhead, followed by another.
Ten steps, five, and then we were in the shadow of the trees. I collapsed behind the shelter of a thorny bush, gasping for breath against the stabbing pain of a stitch in my side. Marsali knelt on the earth beside me, her cheeks streaked with tears.
“What?” she gasped, struggling for breath. “Who are they? What—will they—do? To Fergus. What?”
“I don’t know.” Still breathing heavily, I grasped a cedar sapling and pulled myself to my knees. Peering through the underbrush on all fours, I could see that the soldiers had reached the ship.
It was cool and damp under the trees, but the lining of my mouth was dry as cotton. I bit the inside of my cheek, trying to encourage a little saliva to flow.
“I think it will be all right.” I patted Marsali’s shoulder, trying to be reassuring. “Look, there are only ten of them,” I whispered, counting as the last soldier trotted out of the palmetto grove. “They’re French; the Artemis has French papers. It may be all right.”
And then again, it might not. I was well aware that a ship aground and abandoned was legal salvage. It was a deserted beach. And all that stood between these soldiers and a rich prize were the lives of the Artemis’s crew.
A few of the seamen had pistols to hand; most had knives. But the soldiers were armed to the teeth, each man with musket, sword, and pistols. If it came to a fight, it would be a bloody one, but the odds were heavily on the mounted soldiers.
The men near the ship were silent, grouped close together behind Fergus, who stood out, straight-backed and grim, as the spokesman. I saw him push back his shock of hair with his hook, and plant his feet solidly in the sand, ready for whatever might come. The creak and jingle of harness seemed muted in the damp, hot air, and the horses moved slowly, hooves muffled in the sand.
The soldiers came to a halt ten feet away from the little knot of seamen. A big man who seemed to be in command raised one hand in an order to stay, and swung down from his horse.
I was watching Fergus, rather than the soldiers. I saw his face change, then freeze, white under his tan. I glanced quickly at the soldier coming toward him across the sand, and my own blood froze.
“Silence, mes amis,” said the big man, in a voice of pleasant command. “Silence, et restez, s’il vous plaît.” Silence, my friends, and do not move, if you please.
I would have fallen, were I not already on my knees. I closed my eyes in a wordless prayer of thanksgiving.
Next to me, Marsali gasped. I opened my eyes and clapped a hand over her open mouth.
The commander took off his hat, and shook out a thick mass of sweat-soaked auburn hair. He grinned at Fergus, teeth white and wolfish in a short, curly red beard.
“You are in charge here?” Jamie said in French. “You, come with me. The rest”—he nodded at the crew, several of whom were goggling at him in open amazement—“you stay where you are. Don’t talk,” he added, off-handedly.
Marsali jerked at my arm, and I realized how tightly I had been holding her.
“Sorry,” I whispered, letting go, but not taking my eyes from the beach.
“What is he doing?” Marsali hissed in my ear. Her face was pale with excitement, and the little freckles left by the sun stood out on her nose in contrast. “How did he get here?”
“I don’t know! Be quiet, for God’s sake!”
The crew of the Artemis exchanged glances, waggled their eyebrows, and nudged each other in the ribs, but fortunately also obeyed orders and didn’t speak. I hoped to heaven that their obvious excitement would be construed merely as consternation over their impending fate.
Jamie and Fergus had walked over toward the shore, conferring in low voices. Now they separated, Fergus coming back toward the hull with an expression of grim determination, Jamie calling the soldiers to dismount and gather round him.
I couldn’t tell what Jamie was saying to the soldiers, but Fergus was close enough for us to hear.
“These are soldiers from the garrison at Cap-Haïtien,” he announced to the crew members. “Their commander—Captain Alessandro—” he said, lifting his eyebrows and grimacing hideously to emphasize the name, “says that they will assist us in launching the Artemis.” This announcement was greeted with faint cheers from some of the men, and looks of bewilderment from others.
“But how did Mr. Fraser—” began Royce, a rather slow-witted seaman, his heavy brows drawn together in a puzzled frown. Fergus allowed no time for questions, but plunged into the midst of the crew, putting an arm about Royce’s shoulders and dragging him toward the scaffolding, talking loudly to drown out any untoward remarks.
“Yes, is it not a most fortunate accident?” he said loudly. I could see that he was twisting Royce’s ear with his sound hand. “Most fortunate indeed! Captain Alessandro says that a habitant on his way from his plantation saw the ship aground, and reported it to the garrison. With so much help, we will have the Artemis aswim in no time at all.” He let go of Royce and clapped his hand sharply against his thigh.
“Come, come, let us set to work at once! Manzetti—up you go! MacLeod, MacGregor, seize your hammers! Maitland—” He spotted Maitland, standing on the sand gawking at Jamie. Fergus whirled and clapped the cabin boy on the back hard enough to make him stagger.
“Maitland, mon enfant! Give us a song to speed our efforts!” Looking rather dazed, Maitland began a tentative rendition of “The Nut-Brown Maid.” A few of the seamen began to climb back onto the scaffolding, glancing suspiciously over their shoulders.
“Sing!” Fergus bellowed, glaring up at them. Murphy, who appeared to be finding something extremely funny, mopped his sweating red face and obligingly joined in the song, his wheezing bass reinforcing Maitland’s pure tenor.
Fergus stalked up and down beside the hull, exhorting, directing, urging—and making such a spectacle of himself that few telltale glances went in Jamie’s direction. The uncertain tap of hammers started up again.
Meanwhile, Jamie was giving careful directions to his soldiers. I saw more than one Frenchman glance at the Artemis as he talked, with a look of dimly concealed greed that suggested that a selfless desire to help their fellow beings was perhaps not the motive uppermost in the soldiers’ minds, no matter what Fergus had announced.
Still, the soldiers went to work willingly enough, stripping off their leather jerkins and laying aside most of their arms. Three of the soldiers, I noticed, did not join the work party, but remained on guard, fully armed, eyes sharp on the sailors’ every move. Jamie alone remained aloof, watching everything.
“Should we come out?” Marsali murmured in my ear. “It seems safe, now.”
“No,” I said. My eyes were fixed on Jamie. He stood in the shade of a tall palmetto, at ease, but erect. Behind the unfamiliar beard, his expression was unreadable, but I caught the faint movement at his side, as the two stiff fingers flickered once against his thigh.
“No,” I said again. “It isn’t over yet.”
The work went on through the afternoon. The stack of wooden rollers mounted, cut ends scenting the air with the tang of fresh sap. Fergus’s voice was hoarse, and his shirt clung wetly to his lean torso. The horses, hobbled, wandered slowly under the edge of the forest, browsing. The sailors had given up singing now, and had settled to work, with no more than an occasional glance toward the palmetto where Captain Alessandro stood in the shade, arms folded.