ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 40

     After a few minutes, Jost began to move toward the shore, holding the propped-up skiff like a shield, and firing another shot in the direction of his attackers.

     Juno wondered at his strategy, and then realized that several dark figures were moving along the seawall—around toward the pier over her head, which was behind Jost. They sought to surround him, she realized, and so he needed to make a dash for the shore; to lead them away from her. Think, Juno; think—there was so little time.

     Behind her, on the opposite side of her pier, a small fishing boat was tied, with a platform protruding from the stern for the purpose of hauling in the nets. Juno shed her cloak, and waded under the pier toward the boat as quickly as she was able in her wet skirts, making her way to the platform. As she clambered up, her arms trembling with exertion, she could hear shouted instructions and more gunfire from the opposite side of the pier.  Hurry, Juno; as soon as Jost ran out of ammunition, they would be upon him.

     Once aboard the fishing boat, she scrambled to the far side, keeping her head low, and removed a shoe, leaving it on the boat’s walk-around. Racing back to the platform at the stern, she grabbed hold of a short wooden spar, and then sank down once again into the cold water, grateful that Jost’s stand on the shore served as a distraction.  Fighting her sodden skirts again, she half-swam under the pier toward the shore, watching through the pilings to see that Jost was indeed out of ammunition, and that the others were circling around him.

     “Don’t kill ʼim yet,” one of them instructed. “They’ll want ʼim to talk.”

     Juno fell forward, to crawl through the shallow water with her hands in the mud and the spar under her arm, watching in horror as four men advanced upon Jost.  With his back to the seawall, he held them off with his slashing sword, until a man dropped from the seawall onto his back, knocking him out with the butt of a pistol.

     Juno watched no more, but instead rose far enough out of the water to throw her other shoe so that it hit the fishing boat with a bang, and then let out a sharp shriek, that echoed along the pier’s wooden trusses. Quickly sinking back down into the water so that only her eyes and forehead were exposed, she watched the men’s reaction.

     They paused in surprise, looking over toward the fishing boat. “Wot’s that? It sounded like the girl.”

“Go, go—she’s over there. I’ll stay wi’ ’is lordship.” The man emphasized his words by forcefully kicking Jost in the ribs.  The others scrambled up onto the pier, and Juno could hear the boots tramping above her head, as they searched for her.  She crept forward on her hands in the shallow water toward the remaining man, who stood guard over Jost, and--placing her cold fingers in her mouth--she issued a soft whistle.

     The man on shore turned in surprise, and peered into the dark water under the pier.  “Whoosat? Is summat there?”

     Again, she whistled softly, so cold that she was afraid her lips would not obey. Warily, the man walked toward her into the shallow water, his pistol held before him, whilst Juno’s hands closed around the wooden spar. Taking a breath, she lunged upward and smacked it into his chin with all the force she could muster; the man’s head snapped backward, and he dropped like a stone.

     Frantic, she scrambled out of the water and headed toward Jost, hearing the excited exclamations behind her, as the searchers found her shoe.

     Dropping to her knees beside him, she shook him, hard. “J-Jost,” she whispered, her teeth chattering. “Quickly.”

     He lay, unmoving, and Juno could hear the others making excited exclamations from the fishing boat to the effect that she must had escaped by swimming away.

     Desperate, Juno grasped Jost’s legs, and dragged him toward the water; the slick seaweed aiding her efforts, and ensuring that no tracks were left behind. As she dragged him down the shore, she backed into the Juno, lying propped up where it had been discarded, and decided it was as good a hiding place as any.  Dragging Jost beneath it, she pulled the skiff upside down over both of them, just as she heard the tramping boots on the pier signal a return of the searchers.

     “’ere! Where’s Jem?”

     “Gawd—where’s t’pirate?”

     Juno lay under the skiff on top of Jost, terrified, and shaking uncontrollably. With a gasp, she realized that a portion of her petticoat was exposed outside the boat, and carefully pulled it in as she listened to the alarmed men draw their guns, and survey the area. One spotted the hapless Jem, and she could hear them pull him out of the water, with curses and exclamations that conveyed their certainty that Jost must have been feigning, and had managed to cosh Jem so as to escape.

     “Should we look fer ʼim?” one asked tentatively, his tone wary.

     There was a small silence. “Better iffen we look fer t’ girl,” another suggested. The others fell upon this suggestion with alacrity, and Juno could hear them vacate the area with all speed.

     Nearly lightheaded with relief, Juno rested her head on Jost’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. “Don’t you dare die,” she hissed at him furiously. “Do you hear me?” He was warm, and his heart was beating—thanks be to God.  Now what? Horry was presumably going for reinforcements, and would look for her here. However, the enemy may return—perhaps exhorted to do so by Jairus, or whoever was giving them orders; especially when the search for her came up empty. Best to escape to a safer place.

     Gathering her strength, she rose to her hands and knees, straddling Jost, and inched the skiff against her back into the water, sliding him along beneath her as best she could. Once in the water, she clasped her inert husband under his arms and, with the skiff bottom-side-up over their heads, floated him against her as she crept along in the water, occasionally knocking into a piling, since she couldn’t see where she was going. Her plan, such as it was, was to navigate thus to a safe distance and then look for help—she was so cold that she feared her limbs would soon cease to function, and Jost needed a doctor.

     In this clumsy fashion, she inched her way along the shallows for a considerable distance, unable to see, but careful not to wade any deeper, and hoping no one would take any notice of an overturned skiff floating along in the water at this time of night.  Just when she thought she’d reached the limit of her abilities, she felt a knocking on the skiff’s bottom over her head, as though someone was knocking on a door.   Pausing, she assessed the situation, and decided there was nothing for it, so she lifted the edge of the skiff and peered out.

     Her eyes met those of a young boy--perhaps ten--who bent down to stare at her with some suspicion, up to his knees in the shallow water. 

     “Hallo,” said Juno.

     The boy nodded, clearly of two minds about embarking on a conversation with a woman skulking in the shallows, and carrying a skiff over her head.

     “Are you alone?” she asked.

     Again, he nodded.

     “Can you help me lift the skiff? My husband needs help.”

     The boy, after hesitating for a moment, helped her to lift the overturned skiff, revealing the unconscious Jost.

     “Cor!” exclaimed the boy in wonderment.

     “He is hurt,” Juno explained unnecessarily. “And I am freezing; is there some place we can go?”

     The boy looked at her, then at Jost, then balanced on one foot in a posture that Juno recognized as preparing for an escape. Desperate, she added, “I will pay you handsomely.”

     Ah, this caught his attention, and she could see him reassess the situation, his little features sharpening.

     “He is a pirate,” she added in a dramatic whisper, aimed at enticing a ten-year-old’s sensibilities. “Do you see?”

     Eyes wide, the boy stared at Jost, and nodded.  “Cor!” he said again.

     “He has a great deal of treasure hidden away—how much would you charge to help?”

     Her companion considered it, silently. “A bob; nuffin’ less.”

     Juno had no idea of which he spoke, so she trumped him. “Well, I shall pay you fifty pounds.” Immediately, she realized her error, as the boy’s expression became closed and wary; apparently this sum was beyond the realm of comprehension, and he now doubted her sincerity. To rectify the situation, she added, “And I will give you this skiff.”  Prudently, she didn’t mention that there were musket holes that would need repair. 

     The boy stared at her in disbelief, and so she held out her hand, shaking from reaction, and the cold. “My promise on it.”

     He solemnly shook her hand, then said with some excitement, “Me da’ll be that ginned.”

     “That is excellent,” Juno replied. “The skiff was my Papa’s, so it is only fitting.”

     “Oi’m in t’ watch shed. Ov’r ʼere.”  He pointed to indicate a small guard shed, located at the entrance to a nearby pier

     “Is your father there? Perhaps he will help us.”  Juno wasn’t certain they could carry Jost’s heavy figure, between them.

     “Me da’s at t’ Blue Gull,” the boy explained. “Gittin’ ʼis tipple.”

     “Ah,” said Juno, and withheld her opinion of a man who would desert his job to leave his small son with his responsibilities. “Then I suppose we shall have to manage it ourselves.”

     “’ere; we’ll each take an arm,” suggested the boy, “an’ drag ʼim.”

     “You must be careful,” Juno cautioned. “He’s been shot.”

     Cor,” exclaimed the boy again, suitably impressed. “ʼE’s been done over by oth’rpirates?”

     “Absolutely,” affirmed Juno. “Let’s hide him, shall we?”

     Between them, they managed to roll the heavy man onto a cargo pallet, and then drag it to the shed, the progress necessarily very slow. Juno had contemplated seeking help, as there were surely people about the docks even at this time of night, but she realized it may be best to keep their presence as secret as possible; if a description of Jost began to circulate, their enemies would be upon them in short order. Panting with exertion, she dragged Jost the final few feet to the shed, and asked the boy, “What is your name?”

     “Li’l Bob,” he gasped, out of breath himself.  “Me da is Big Bob.”

     “I am Juno, and I am pleased to meet you, Li’l Bob.  You must tell no one we are here, do you understand?”

     “A’ course,” he replied with some scorn. “Oi’ll not grass—filthy beggars.”

     “Exactly,” Juno agreed. “It was not a fair fight, I assure you.”

     The interior of the shed was cramped and crude, but Juno nearly wept with relief to see a brazier, emitting a glow of heat. A small lantern rested upon a ramshackle table, and a cot in the corner revealed a blanket, which Juno snatched up to tuck around the prone figure of Jost.  His wound should be washed, but Juno had her doubts about the purity of any available water, and decided that the best procedure would be to seek a rescue, as soon as possible. Besides, the bleeding had slowed to a sluggish ooze, undoubtedly due to the immersion in cold water.

     Wringing out her skirts, she asked the boy in a solemn tone, “Are you ready for your assignment?” 

     He nodded, tearing his gaze away from Jost’s exotic figure; the long, wet braid having left a soak mark on the wooden floor.

     “You must go to The Nob’s Fancy, on the big pier,” instructed Juno, thankful that she had been paying attention. “Speak to the tavern keeper—no one else. Tell him Juno sent you.” 

     Filled with importance, the boy matched her serious tone. “T’Nob’s Fancy. Oi’m t’ speak t’ the keeper, an’ say Juno sent me.”

     “Very good; now, hurry.”

     The boy darted to the door, then paused, remembering his responsibilities. “Keep yer eye out on t’ dock.”

     "I will," lied Juno, and watched him slip out.