A Trail of Fire (Page 32)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(32)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Feet, sah,’ he said. ‘Bare feet. But they don’t walk, step-step, like a person. They only shuffle, sh-sh, sh-sh.’ He made small pushing motions with his hands in illustration, and Grey felt a slight lifting of the hairs on the back of his neck.

‘Could you tell how many . . . men . . . there were?’

Rodrigo shook his head.

‘More than two, from the sound.’

Tom pushed a little forward, round face intent.

‘Was there anybody else with ’em, d’you think? Somebody with a regular step, I mean?’

Rodrigo looked startled, and then horrified.

‘You mean a houngan? I don’t know.’ He shrugged. ‘Maybe. I didn’t hear shoes. But . . .’

‘Oh. Because—’ Tom stopped abruptly, glanced at Grey, and coughed. ‘Oh.’

Despite more questions, this was all that Rodrigo could contribute, and so the carpet was picked up again – this time, with the servant helping – and bestowed in its temporary resting place. Fettes and Cherry chipped away a bit more at Dawes, but the secretary was unable to offer any further information regarding the governor’s activities, let alone speculate as to what malign force had brought about his demise.

‘Have you heard of zombies before, Mr Dawes?’ Grey inquired, mopping his face with the remains of his handkerchief.

‘Er . . . yes,’ the secretary replied cautiously. ‘But surely you don’t believe what the servant . . . oh, surely not!’ He cast an appalled glance at the shed.

‘Are zombies in fact reputed to devour human flesh?’

Dawes resumed his sickly pallor.

‘Well, yes. But . . . oh, dear!’

‘Sums it up nicely,’ muttered Cherry, under his breath. ‘I take it you don’t mean to make a public announcement of the governor’s demise, then, sir?’

‘You are correct, captain. I don’t want public panic over a plague of zombies at large in Spanish Town, whether that is actually the case, or not. Mr Dawes, I believe we need trouble you no more for the moment; you are excused.’ He watched the secretary stumble off, before beckoning his officers closer. Tom moved a little away, discreet as always, and took Rodrigo with him.

‘Have you discovered anything else that might have bearing on the present circumstance?’

They glanced at each other, and Fettes nodded to Cherry, wheezing gently. Cherry strongly resembled that eponymous fruit, but being younger and more slender than Fettes, had more breath.

‘Yes, sir. I went looking for Ludgate, the old superintendent. Didn’t find him – he’s buggered off to Canada, they said – but I got a right earful concerning the present superintendent.’

Grey groped for a moment for the name.

‘Cresswell?’

‘That’s him.’

‘Corruption and peculations’ appeared to sum up the subject of Captain Cresswell’s tenure as superintendent very well, according to Cherry’s informants in Spanish Town and King’s Town. Amongst other abuses, he had arranged trade between the maroons on the uplands and the merchants below, in the form of birdskins, snakeskins and other exotica, timber from the upland forests, and so on – but had, by report, accepted payment on behalf of the maroons but failed to deliver it.

‘Had he any part in the arrest of the two young maroons accused of theft?’

Cherry’s teeth flashed in a grin.

‘Odd you should ask, sir. Yes, they said – well, some of them did – that the two young men had come down to complain about Cresswell’s behaviour, but the governor wouldn’t see them. They were heard to declare they would take back their goods by force – so when a substantial chunk of the contents of one warehouse went missing, it was assumed that was what they’d done.

‘They – the maroons – insisted they hadn’t touched the stuff, but Cresswell seized the opportunity and had them arrested for theft.’

Grey closed his eyes, enjoying the momentary coolness of a breeze from the sea.

‘The governor wouldn’t see the young men, you said. Is there any suggestion of an improper connection between the governor and Captain Cresswell?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Fettes, rolling his eyes. ‘No proof yet – but we haven’t been looking long, either.’

‘I see. And we still do not know the whereabouts of Captain Cresswell?’

Cherry and Fettes shook their heads in unison.

‘The general conclusion is that Accompong scragged him,’ Cherry said.

‘Who?’

‘Oh. Sorry, sir,’ Cherry apologised. ‘That’s the name of the maroon’s headman, so they say. Captain Accompong, he calls himself, if you please.’ Cherry’s lips twisted a little.

Grey sighed.

‘All right. No reports of any further depredations by the maroons, by whatever name?’

‘Not unless you count murdering the governor,’ said Fettes.

‘Actually,’ Grey said slowly, ‘I don’t think that the maroons are responsible for this particular death.’ He was somewhat surprised to hear himself say so, in truth – and yet he found that he did think it.

Fettes blinked, this being as close to an expression of astonishment as he ever got, and Cherry looked openly sceptical. Grey did not choose to go into the matter of Mrs Abernathy, nor yet to explain his conclusions about the maroons’ disinclination for violence. Strange, he thought. He had heard Captain Accompong’s name only moments before, but with that name, his thoughts began to coalesce around a shadowy figure. Suddenly, there was a mind out there, someone with whom he might engage.

In battle, the personality and temperament of the commanding officer was nearly as important as the number of troops he commanded. So. He needed to know more about Captain Accompong, but that could wait for the moment.

He nodded to Tom, who approached respectfully, Rodrigo behind him.

‘Tell them what you discovered, Tom.’

Tom cleared his throat and folded his hands at his waist.

‘Well, we . . . er . . . disrobed the governor—’ Fettes flinched, and Tom cleared his throat again before going on, ‘—and had a close look. And the long and the short of it, sir, and sir,’ he added, with a nod to Cherry, ‘is that Governor Warren was stabbed in the back.’

Both officers looked blank.

‘But— the place is covered with blood and filth and nastiness,’ Cherry protested. ‘It smells like that place where they put the bloaters they drag out of the Thames!’

‘Footprints,’ Fettes said, giving Tom a faintly accusing look. ‘There were footprints. Big, bloody, bare footprints.’

‘I do not deny that something objectionable was present in that room,’ Grey said dryly. ‘But whoever – or whatever – gnawed the governor probably did not kill him. He was almost certainly dead when the . . . er . . . subsequent damage occurred.’

Rodrigo’s eyes were huge. Fettes was heard to observe under his breath that he would be damned, but both Fettes and Cherry were good men, and did not argue with Grey’s conclusions, any more than they had taken issue with his order to hide Warren’s body – they could plainly perceive the desirability of suppressing rumour of a plague of zombies.

‘The point, gentlemen, is that after several months of incident, there has been nothing for the last month. Perhaps Mr Warren’s death is meant to be incitement – but if it was not the work of the maroons, then the question is – what are the maroons waiting for?’

Tom lifted his head, eyes wide.

‘Why, me lord, I’d say – they’re waiting for you. What else?’

What else, indeed. Why had he not seen that at once? Of course Tom was right. The maroons’ protest had gone unanswered, their complaint unremedied. So they had set out to attract attention in the most noticeable – if not the best – way open to them. Time had passed, nothing was done in response, and then they had heard that soldiers were coming. Lieutenant-Colonel Grey had now appeared. Naturally, they were waiting to see what he would do.

What had he done so far? Sent troops to guard the plantations that were the most likely targets of a fresh attack. That was not likely to encourage the maroons to abandon their present plan of action, though it might cause them to direct their efforts elsewhere.

He walked to and fro in the wilderness of the King’s House garden, thinking, but there were few alternatives.

He summoned Fettes, and informed him that he, Fettes, was, until further notice, acting governor of the island of Jamaica.

Fettes looked more like a block of wood than usual.

‘Yes, sir,’ he said. ‘If I might ask, sir . . . where are you going?’

‘I’m going to talk to Captain Accompong.’

‘Alone, sir?’ Fettes was appalled. ‘Surely you cannot mean to go up there alone!’

‘I won’t be,’ Grey assured him. ‘I’m taking my valet, and the servant boy. I’ll need someone who can translate for me, if necessary.’

Seeing the mulish cast settling upon Fettes’s brow, he sighed.

‘To go there in force, major, is to invite battle, and that is not what I want.’

‘No, sir,’ Fettes said dubiously, ‘but surely a proper escort . . . !’

‘No, major.’ Grey was courteous, but firm. ‘I wish to make it clear that I am coming to speak with Captain Accompong, and nothing more. I go alone.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Fettes was beginning to look like a block of wood that someone had set about with a hammer and chisel.

‘As you wish, sir.’

Grey nodded, and turned to go into the house, but then paused and turned back.

‘Oh, there is one thing that you might do for me, major.’

Fettes brightened slightly.

‘Yes, sir?’

‘Find me a particularly excellent hat, would you? With gold lace, if possible.’

They rode for nearly two days before they heard the first of the horns. A high, melancholy sound in the twilight, it seemed far away, and only a sort of metallic note made Grey sure that it was not in fact the cry of some large, exotic bird.

‘Maroons,’ Rodrigo said under his breath, and crouched a little, as though trying to avoid notice, even in the saddle. ‘That’s how they talk to each other. Every group has a horn; they all sound different.’

Another long, mournful falling note. Was it the same horn? Grey wondered. Or a second, answering the first?

‘Talk to each other, you say. Can you tell what they’re saying?’

Rodrigo had straightened up a little in his saddle, putting a hand automatically behind him to steady the leather box that held the most ostentatious hat available in Spanish Town.

‘Yes, sah. They’re telling each other we’re here.’

Tom muttered something under his own breath, that sounded like, ‘Could have told you that meself for free,’ but declined to repeat or expand upon his sentiment when invited to do so.

They camped for the night under the shelter of a tree, so tired that they merely sat in silence as they ate, watching the nightly rainstorm come in over the sea, then crawled into the canvas tent Grey had brought. The young men fell asleep instantly to the pattering of rain above them.