Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 84

   

The chief entertainment of the ride north to Arbroath was watching the conflict of wills between Jamie and Young Ian. I knew from long experience that stubbornness was one of the major components of a Fraser’s character. Ian seemed not unduly handicapped in that respect, though only half a Fraser; either the Murrays were no slouches with regard to stubbornness, or the Fraser genes were strong ones.

Having had the opportunity to observe Brianna at close range for many years, I had my own opinion about that, but kept quiet, merely enjoying the spectacle of Jamie having for once met his match. By the time we passed Balfour, he was wearing a distinctly hunted look.

This contest between immovable object and irresistible force continued until early evening of the fourth day, when we reached Arbroath to find that the inn where Jamie had intended to leave Ian and myself no longer existed. No more than a tumbled-down stone wall and one or two charred roof-beams remained to mark the spot; otherwise, the road was deserted for miles in either direction.

Jamie looked at the heap of stones in silence for some time. It was reasonably obvious that he could not just leave us in the middle of a desolate, muddy road. Ian, wise enough not to press the advantage, kept also silent, though his skinny frame fairly vibrated with eagerness.

“All right, then,” Jamie said at last, resigned. “Ye’ll come. But only so far as the cliff’s edge, Ian—d’ye hear? You’ll take care of your auntie.”

“I hear, Uncle Jamie,” Young Ian replied, with deceptive meekness. I caught Jamie’s wry glance, though, and understood that if Ian was to take care of auntie, auntie was also to take care of Ian. I hid a smile, nodding obediently.

The rest of the men were timely, arriving at the rendezvous point on the cliffside just after dark. A couple of the men seemed vaguely familiar, but most were just muffled shapes; it was two days past the dark of the moon, but the tiny sliver rising over the horizon made conditions here little more illuminating than those obtaining in the brothel’s cellars. No introductions were made, the men greeting Jamie with unintelligible mutters and grunts.

There was one unmistakable figure, though. A large mule-drawn wagon appeared, rattling its way down the road, driven by Fergus and a diminutive object that could only be Mr. Willoughby, whom I had not seen since he had shot the mysterious man on the stairs of the brothel.

“He hasn’t a pistol with him tonight, I hope,” I murmured to Jamie.

“Who?” he said, squinting into the gathering gloom. “Oh, the Chinee? No, none of them have.” Before I could ask why not, he had gone forward, to help back the wagon around, ready to make a getaway toward Edinburgh, so soon as the contraband should be loaded. Young Ian pressed his way forward, and I, mindful of my job as custodian, followed him.

Mr. Willoughby stood on tiptoe to reach into the back of the wagon, emerging with an odd-looking lantern, fitted with a pierced metal top and sliding metal sides.

“Is that a dark lantern?” I asked, fascinated.

“Aye, it is,” said Young Ian, importantly. “Ye keep the slides shut until we see the signal out at sea.” He reached for the lantern. “Here, give it me; I’ll take it—I ken the signal.”

Mr. Willoughby merely shook his head, pulling the lantern out of Young Ian’s grasp. “Too tall, too young,” he said. “Tsei-mi say so,” he added, as though that settled the matter once and for all.

“What?” Young Ian was indignant. “What d’ye mean too tall and too young, ye wee—”

“He means,” said a level voice behind us, “that whoever’s holding the lantern is a bonny target, should we have visitors. Mr. Willoughby kindly takes the risk of it, because he’s the smallest man among us. You’re tall enough to see against the sky, wee Ian, and young enough to have nay sense yet. Stay out o’ the way, aye?”

Jamie gave his nephew a light cuff over the ear, and passed by to kneel on the rocks by Mr. Willoughby. He said something low-voiced in Chinese, and there was the ghost of a laugh from the Chinaman. Mr. Willoughby opened the side of the lantern, holding it conveniently to Jamie’s cupped hands. A sharp click, repeated twice, and I caught the flicker of sparks struck from a flint.

It was a wild piece of coast—not surprising, most of Scotland’s coast was wild and rocky—and I wondered how and where the French ship would anchor. There was no natural bay, only a curving of the coastline behind a jutting cliff that sheltered this spot from observation from the road.

Dark as it was, I could see the white lines of the surf purling in across the small half-moon beach. No smooth tourist beach this—small pockets of sand lay ruffled and churned between heaps of seaweed and pebbles and juts of rock. Not an easy footing for men carrying casks, but convenient to the crevices in the surrounding rocks, where the casks could be hidden.

Another black figure loomed up suddenly beside me.

“Everyone’s settled, sir,” it said softly. “Up in the rocks.”

“Good, Joey.” A sudden flare lit Jamie’s profile, intent on the newly caught wick. He held his breath as the flame steadied and grew, taking up oil from the lantern’s reservoir, then let it out with a sigh as he gently closed the metal slide.

“Fine, then,” he said, standing up. He glanced up at the cliff to the south, observing the stars over it, and said, “Nearly nine o’clock. They’ll be in soon. Mind ye, Joey—no one’s to move ’til I call out, aye?”

“Aye, sir.” The casual tone of the answer made it apparent that this was a customary exchange, and Joey was plainly surprised when Jamie gripped his arm.

“Be sure of it,” Jamie said. “Tell them all again—no one moves ’til I give the word.”

“Aye, sir,” Joey said again, but this time with more respect. He faded back into the night, making no sound on the rocks.

“Is something wrong?” I asked, pitching my voice barely loud enough to be heard over the breakers. Though the beach and cliffs were evidently deserted, the dark setting and the secretive conduct of my companions compelled caution.

Jamie shook his head briefly; he’d been right about Young Ian, I thought—his own dark silhouette was clear against the paler black of the sky behind him.

“I dinna ken.” He hesitated for a moment, then said, “Tell me, Sassenach—d’ye smell anything?”

Surprised, I obligingly took a deep sniff, held it for a moment, and let it out. I smelled any number of things, including rotted seaweed, the thick smell of burning oil from the dark lantern, and the pungent body odor of Young Ian, standing close beside me, sweating with a mix of excitement and fear.

“Nothing odd, I don’t think,” I said. “Do you?”

The silhouette’s shoulders rose and dropped in a shrug. “Not now. A moment ago, I could ha’ sworn I smelt gunpowder.”

“I dinna smell anything,” Young Ian said. His voice broke from excitement, and he hastily cleared his throat, embarrassed. “Willie MacLeod and Alec Hays searched the rocks. They didna find any sign of excisemen.”

“Aye, well.” Jamie’s voice sounded uneasy. He turned to Young Ian, grasping him by the shoulder.

“Ian, you’re to take charge of your auntie, now. The two of ye get back of the gorse bushes there. Keep well away from the wagon. If anything should happen—”

The beginnings of Young Ian’s protest were cut off, apparently by a tightening of Jamie’s hand, for the boy jerked back with a small grunt, rubbing his shoulder.

“If anything should happen,” Jamie continued, with emphasis, “you’re to take your auntie and go straight home to Lallybroch. Dinna linger.”

“But—” I said.

“Uncle!” Young Ian said.

“Do it,” said Jamie, in tones of steel, and turned aside, the discussion concluded.

Young Ian was grim on the trip up the cliff trail, but did as he was told, dutifully escorting me some distance past the gorse bushes and finding a small promontory where we might see out some way over the water.

“We can see from here,” he whispered unnecessarily.

We could indeed. The rocks fell away in a shallow bowl beneath us, a broken cup filled with darkness, the light of the water spilling from the broken edge where the sea hissed in. Once I caught a tiny movement, as a metal buckle caught the faint light, but for the most part, the ten men below were completely invisible.

I squinted, trying to pick out the location of Mr. Willoughby with his lantern, but saw no sign of light, and concluded that he must be standing behind the lantern, shielding it from sight from the cliff.

Young Ian stiffened suddenly next to me.

“Someone’s coming!” he whispered. “Quick, get behind me!” Stepping courageously out in front of me, he plunged a hand under his shirt, into the band of his breeches, and withdrew a pistol; dark as it was, I could see the faint gleam of starlight along the barrel.

He braced himself, peering into the dark, slightly hunched over the gun with both hands clamped on the weapon.

“Don’t shoot, for God’s sake!” I hissed in his ear. I didn’t dare grab his arm for fear of setting off the pistol, but was terrified lest he make any noise that might attract attention to the men below.

“I’d be obliged if ye’d heed your auntie, Ian,” came Jamie’s soft, ironic tones from the blackness below the cliff edge. “I’d as soon not have ye blow my head off, aye?”

Ian lowered the pistol, shoulders slumping with what might have been a sigh either of relief or disappointment. The gorse bushes quivered, and then Jamie was before us, brushing gorse prickles from the sleeve of his coat.

“Did no one tell ye not to come armed?” Jamie’s voice was mild, with no more than a note of academic interest. “It’s a hanging offense to draw a weapon against an officer of the King’s Customs,” he explained, turning to me. “None o’ the men are armed, even wi’ so much as a fish knife, in case they’re taken.”

“Aye, well, Fergus said they wouldna hang me, because my beard’s not grown yet,” Ian said awkwardly. “I’d only be transported, he said.”

There was a soft hiss as Jamie drew in his breath through his teeth in exasperation.

“Oh, aye, and I’m sure your mother will be verra pleased to hear ye’ve been shipped off to the Colonies, even if Fergus was right!” He put out his hand. “Give me that, fool.

“Where did ye get it, anyway?” he asked, turning the pistol over in his hand. “Already primed, too. I knew I smelt gunpowder. Lucky ye didna blow your c**k off, carrying it in your breeches.”

Before Young Ian could answer, I interrupted, pointing out to sea.

“Look!”

The French ship was little more than a blot on the face of the sea, but its sails shone pale in the glimmer of starlight. A two-masted ketch, it glided slowly past the cliff and stood off, silent as one of the scattered clouds behind it.

Jamie was not watching the ship, but looking downward, toward a point where the rock face broke in a tumble of boulders, just above the sand. Looking where he was looking, I could just make out a tiny prickle of light. Mr. Willoughby, with the lantern.

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