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Authors: David Michael

Gunwitch (6 page)

BOOK: Gunwitch
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“That is true even if we stick to the Misi-ziibi,” Ducoed said.

“And rowing against the current is not always so difficult,” Chal said, the only words she had said since being introduced.

Ducoed watched Rose look at Chal, but he could not read what passed between them. Not for the first time that morning, watching the two women, he wondered if they were more than companions. All word he had received of Rose since he had come to the New World had included talk of the native girl that accompanied her. For five years or more the two of them had been inseparable. He put the question aside. His curiosity would be sated soon enough. He did not know Chal, but he did know Rose.

As if he pulled a string controlling her, Rose turned back to the map and said–Ducoed could almost mouth the words as she said them–”Fine. We will follow your path. But I am with you as a guide only,” she added, looking Ducoed in the eyes. “I’m not under your command. And Chal is coming with me.”

Finally, Ducoed allowed himself to smile. “Of course. Bring whoever you think is necessary.”

* * *

Ducoed kept the preparations to a minimum, both to reduce unwanted attention and because there was little preparation needed. He restricted the girls to one trunk each since he did not want more than six infantry regulars with them. The regulars would carry most of their provisions, including shot and powder, in addition to lugging the girls’ trunks. They might even be useful if the party ran into something unexpected in the swamp, but all Ducoed cared about was that they could march and carry as only English infantry regulars could, and that they could row a canoe.

Ducoed tried to exclude Major Haley from the trip, declaring that between him and Rose and the regulars, the girls would be quite safe. Both the general and the major, though, insisted that Major Haley would be going along.

“I have escorted the girls from the docks of Bristol and across the Atlantic Ocean,” the major said. “I will not abandon them now.”

“And we would not think of leaving behind our noble champion,” Janett said.

Major Haley gave Janett an appreciative bow, then glanced sideways at Rose. Ducoed almost laughed at the look of disappointment on the major’s face. Rose was still staring at the surveyors map and had not noticed the exchange.

Ducoed shrugged and acquiesced. “You can help row,” he told the major.

He also agreed with the general about using one of the Army’s gunboats to transport them across the Lake Patrizio. The gunboat was hardly inconspicuous with its tall smokestack, large outboard paddles and the heavy guns mounted on its deck, but it would get them on their way faster than the fishing vessel Ducoed had planned to use. He would have their canoes sent across the lake tonight.

Rose and Chal left not long after the girls had been sent off to pack by the general, leaving Ducoed, General Tendring and Major Haley alone in the briefing room.

Ducoed took a seat and smiled at the major who still stood by the table, looking at the door where Rose had just exited. “She not what you expected, Major?” Ducoed asked.

“Only insofar as my expectations were inadequate,” the major said without turning. “It is not often one meets the subject of the stories you hear as a child. My first thought when I saw her was how small she looked. How could such a tiny woman be the famous gunwitch, Rose Bainbridge?”

“Have no doubt,” Ducoed said. “That is Rose Bainbridge.”

“And do not doubt the stories told of her,” added the general. The general followed Ducoed’s lead and returned to his chair. He looked at Ducoed. “Do not doubt any of the stories you’ve heard of the 101st Pistoleers.”

Ducoed detected something in General Tendring’s voice, and he wondered what the general might have heard about him. And what the general might have passed on to the major.

“She is younger than I expected,” Major Haley continued, as if neither of the other men had said anything. “And still as pretty as a–” He stopped, and noticed that he stood alone at the table now, with its maps and lists. He walked to the chair next to the general and sat.

“She is older than me,” Ducoed said. “By as much as a year, if I recall correctly. And I would say I’m old enough to be your uncle, though not your father.”

The major looked across the general at Ducoed. “You have known her a long time?”

“Two decades and a bit.” Then he added, “Off and on.”

“If you do not mind my asking, sir, there is a question that has been pressing on my mind.” When Ducoed gestured for him to go ahead, the major asked, “Why did Sergeant–I mean
Miss
–Bainbridge pull her pistol on you?”

Ducoed forced himself not to smile at the memory, pushing his lips into a thin line that he hoped the young man would construe as regretful. “We had a disagreement,” he said. “A long time ago. About the nature of things.”

“Surely there was more than just a disagreement?”

Ducoed shook his head. “No. That was about the gist of it.” He let himself smile now, relishing the taste of the memory. He leaned forward in his chair, propping himself with his hands on his knees. “Women have long memories,” he said, “of the wrongs done to them by men. While young men quickly forget being held them on the point of a rifle, if the hand on the rifle belongs to a pretty young woman.”

Major Haley looked uncomfortable for an instant, then recovered his composure. “I recall that none of us seemed ready for the onslaught of Rose Bainbridge.”

The smile left Ducoed’s face and his long hatred of officers and men of privilege surged in of his gut and fought against his self-control. He could kill both the major and the general right now. His pistols, on the rack by the door, could come to him with just a thought, then he could bring about the very loud, very messy ends of officers Tendring and Haley. He visualized their bodies torn apart and left bleeding in this room while he walked out of the fort. The shots would bring sentries, of course, but he could deal with those too, even without reloading. He would be back in the swamp, impossible to find, in less than an hour.

But his self-control worked in service of larger goals than petty, self-indulgent killings, and he reasserted his will over his impulses. His goals required the temporary cooperation of the general and the major. Ultimately, the men were expendable–and he would enjoy the expending. Especially the expending of Major Haley. For now, though, he had to have them. He forced himself to smile again. “Too true, Major. Too true. Fortunately, we will have Rose–I mean, Miss Bainbridge–with us on our journey, where her onslaughts will be in our service. Instead of in our faces.”

Ducoed stood, watching the major decipher his comment. “Now, though, I must go see to our provisions and the loading of the gunboat. I will also send word to have our canoes ready for us on the far side. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I will see you both in the morning.”

* * *

The gray coolness of the predawn morning covered the docks when Ducoed reached the pier where
Puncher
waited. The gunboat General Tendring had put at his disposal was ready to go, having been loaded with their provisions and the girls’ trunks the night before. The trunks and rucksacks were visible, strapped in place on the flat deck. The
Puncher’s
crew stood around the provisions, talking and breathing clouds of tobacco smoke to rival the dark smoke leaking from the boat’s smokestack.

Despite the early hour the docks were already busy. Men shouted as steamgrunzers hissed and stomped, moving bales of cargo. Boilers flamed and smoked while sails slapped in the light wind and ships and boats cast away. A cacophony of noises that only the son of a longshoreman could enjoy. That longshoreman, a big man with big hands that he had used more than once to express his displeasure in his bosses, his friends, his wife, and his son, had met his end–a gruesome end, and never solved–a long time ago. But his estranged son, spit on and beaten and sent inland half dead, still could not help feeling almost at home here. Almost. Ducoed spit at the memory of home and the memory of his father.

As Ducoed reached
Puncher’s
gangplank, Rose came out of the shadows with Chal behind her. Both carried packs and had outfitted themselves for the trip with rifles on their backs, powder horns and bags of shot hung on long leather straps, and sheathed hunting knives on their belts. They had both braided their hair in two plaits, one on each side, native-style. By their clothes and the rifles on their backs, they were scouts. Only their small statures and slight frames announced them as women. And only the lighter shade of Rose’s skin and hair showed her European heritage.

Ducoed smiled at Rose, enjoying this image of her, so visibly unlike the girl he had first met. Rose looked back at him without expression.

“No ambush?” he asked.

“I thought about it,” Rose said.

He continued smiling to keep the surprise from his face. Surprise, not that she had not ambushed him, but that she might have considered it. That was unlike Rose Bainbridge. Just as she had surprised him yesterday, pulling her pistol on him as soon as she recognized him. Perhaps her years as a scout, fighting against and among the Amerigon natives had rubbed off on her. Perhaps she had changed more than her outward appearance. Probing, he asked, “And?”

“Maybe later,” Rose said, her voice flat, “when the general isn’t around to be disappointed at my lack of trust in the King’s officers. And my lack of decorum in shooting a comrade in the back.”

Ducoed laughed. Because Rose had not changed after all. More willing to imagine what she could do now, but still hesitating to seize the opportunity when it arrived. Too reliant on the approval of authority. And too civilized, even in this wild land. She was still the Rose he had known. And, therefore, he knew she would be most annoyed by his laughter, as if they had shared a joke or experienced a renewed bit of intimacy.

Rose looked away, her face still impassive. But Ducoed could see the tight muscles of her jaw and how her fingers clenched.

The general had suggested Rose for their expedition, but Ducoed had planned all along for her to come. General Tendring was certain to have heard some of the rumors about him, even if the older man had the good taste not to mention them and to treat Ducoed as if his official military service record were the true one. Rose, though, the general trusted in spite of her official record. Having her on the expedition would offset the general’s concerns, reassure him about the safety of Janett and Margaret. For Ducoed, having her along was a risk, but also too enticing a situation not to take advantage of. Because unlike Rose, Ducoed never hesitated to seize an opportunity.

The sound of boots marching in step along the wood of the docks announced the arrival of the general, Major Haley, the Misses Janett and Margaret Laxton, and the infantry regulars. The girls walked with the officers, Janett on the arm of General Tendring and Margaret escorted by the major. Both girls attracted attention, but especially Janett. The cut of her dress was simple, and the colors muted, as Ducoed had suggested, but she wore the dress with all the elegance of a lady of the court. She had fixed her hair as if attending a ball, and she carried a fan. As she walked along the pier, the sun broke over the eastern horizon, illuminating her. All work paused as she went by, and the men stared.

How the unhandsome countenance of Leftenant–now Colonel–Laxton had sired such beauties, Ducoed could not imagine. As he watched Janett approach, his fingers twitched, and he fought to maintain his self-control in the face of such delicious temptation. He smiled and bowed as Janett caught his eye, imagining what they could do together. What he could do to her. Or to her awkward little sister while Janett watched, bound and unable to turn away. Would she scream? Plead? Cry? Or would she enjoy it all, moaning with pleasure? He would not do any of those things, of course. This expedition, and especially these girls, were meant to feed a different lust.

Janett smiled back at him, innocent, unaware of the thoughts behind his eyes.

Behind him, he heard Rose whispering to Chal, “Perhaps she expects an audience with the Alligator King?” Chal’s laughter was like a bubbling brook.

The infantrymen filed past Ducoed, up the gangplank to the deck of
Puncher
. The officers and the girls stopped in front of him.

Janett went up on tiptoes to kiss the cheek of the General. “Good-bye, Uncle,” she said. “Do not enjoy the silence of our absence too keenly, for it will not last. We will see you again on our return.”

“Off with you,” the general said. “And perhaps for that short time you are gone I will have some success keeping my men focused on their tasks.”

Ducoed extended his left hand and Janett took it. Her fingers felt so tiny in his hand. So fragile. He extended his right hand to Margaret. “Come along, Margaret,” he said. “Our adventure begins.”

Margaret let go of Major Haley’s arm, but she skipped past Ducoed’s hand and went to Rose. “Miss Rose,” she said, “look!” She bent over at the waist, grabbed the hem of her dress and raised her skirt. “Trousers! One of the boys in the fort gave them to me.” A pair of small men’s trousers, bunched at the top from being cinched with a belt, covered Margaret’s legs. The cuffs had been rolled to make them short enough but they still covered her black shoes.

“Margaret!” Janett shouted, raising her free hand to cover her mouth with her fan. “How could you?”
Ducoed laughed. At Margaret’s standing there looking like an exhibiting show girl, and at the surprise on Rose’s face.
“I would’ve worn just trousers,” Margaret said, “but Janett wouldn’t let me.”

“At least one of you has some sense,” Rose said, her impassive look returning. Then she turned her back on the girl. Without another word, she and Chal boarded the gunboat.

Margaret looked pleased, then confused as Rose turned away, as if she could not figure out which of the sisters Rose had meant, then hurt at the rebuff. The girl let her skirt drop back into place. The hem hung unevenly, caught on the bulky cuffs.

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