Read Norton, Andre - Novel 08 Online

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Norton, Andre - Novel 08 (10 page)

BOOK: Norton, Andre - Novel 08
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Biggs grunted and did not raise his eyes from
his battered company record book. "Lengths o' chain, crowbars, anything
you can shoot int' sails t' tear an' foul 'em. The Britishers claim it t' be
unfair as a weapon— we use it when we have a need t' "

 
          
 
"Hmm," Fitz went back to the
delicate business of smoothing his jaw. Shaving on shipboard was no easy task,
but Crofts demanded a high standard of personal neatness and cleanliness from
his officers and men.

 
          
 
"As you saw—it works right enough,"
Biggs put aside his book.
" 'Less
that frigate
carries a sight more spare sail 'n she should, she'll still be tryin' t' make
port under bare poles. But if you use langrage to clear decks it's about
th
' wickedest thing there is. Crofts don't hold with
shootin' below sail level when it's in
th
' guns."
The stout little officer had his own worries and now he voiced them.
"We're three men short. Sims was killed an'
Crowley
died o' wounds. Rodgers with a broken
arm—won't be fit for duty in less'n a month
th
'
sawbones says! That leaves us plague shorthanded!"

 
          
 
"Maybe we can recruit when we hit Saint
Malo," Fitz suggested.

 
          
 
But the marine lieutenant shook his head.
"I don't hold
wi
' shippin' foreigners. An' green
hands'll need lickin' int' shape—not much better 'n none at all 'til they've
been blooded proper." He slammed the company book into his sea chest.

 
          
 
"We might as well get some target
shootin'—mighty ragged showin' we made. But there ain't balls t' waste, so see
as they have a good sight 'fore they go bangin' off."

 
          
 
"Aye, aye, sir."
Fitz towelled his face. "Want a drifting target rigged?"

 
          
 
"Aye.
I've got
t' report t' th' Cap'n. You take over drill 'til I get there."

 
          
 
Fitz hurried through the rest of his toilet and
started out to assemble his sharpshooters. He had to skirt a group of seamen
busied about a pile of lengths of rusty chain. And just as he was slipping by,
the ship gave a sudden toss. Fitz, grabbing to save his balance, clutched at
the nearest shoulder. The owner of that pinched flesh favored him with a scowl.
It was
Ninnes,
his uniform jacket laid aside, his
hands dirty with flakes of rust.

 
          
 
"By this time even a landlubber should've
learned how t' keep his feet without pawin' t' do it!"

 
          
 
Fitz's half-shaped apology was killed. The raw
hostility of the other was like a riding crop
laid
across his face.

 
          
 
"You were addressing me, sir?" he
demanded crisply.

 
          
 
Ninnes did not rise from his knees. When he
answered his slow and careful diction had disappeared— which should have warned
Fitz. It was in the idiom of his boyhood bay fisherman's world that he said:

 
          
 
"Certain sure I wos
speakin' t' ye.
Dance 'round wi' a pig sticker in yer mitt, but ye can't
keep yer feet in a dead
calm "

 
          
 
"Perhaps you want to dance with—with a
pig sticker too?"

 
          
 
The men had fallen back, leaving the officers
to face one another across the pile of chain.

 
          
 
"If you do," Fitz continued, "I
shall designate a friend to call upon any gentleman you choose to act for
you "

 
          
 
Those words had an odd stilted ring, even in
his own
ears. They belonged to the formality of that other
world beyond the wooden walls of the Retaliation. Yet the custom to which he
had been bred demanded that he say them.

 
          
 
Ninnes' lips twisted. "Iffen ye'r a man,"
he retorted, "ye'll do yer fightin' barehanded! We don't hold
wi
' 'em up-river planter's tricks. Come out wi' yer fists up
iff en ye ain't a-f
eared "

 
          
 
"Mr. Lyon!" Biggs' shout cut through
the tense atmosphere. "Mr. Lyon, where are you, sir?"

 
          
 
Fitz turned reluctantly, but not before he had
answered that challenge.

 
          
 
"Let it be fists then, and whenever you
please."

 
          
 
They were in northern seas
now,
there was a bite to the night wind which set Fitz shivering uncomfortably a few
hours later. The deck was icy under his bare feet, and he might as well have
shed his breeches too for all the protection they now afforded him. Yet Ninnes,
facing him there in the half-dark, was as cold.

 
          
 
Fitz pulled his wits together and tried to
remember the scraps of the art of fisticuffs which had been pounded into him by
his cousins under the tutelage of one of his uncles' grooms. Only this was not
going to be a bout fought by rules—he did not trust Ninnes to forbear making it
a matter of dirty dock fighting.

 
          
 
He circled, watching the other warily. But the
lieutenant was not rushing blindly into battle either. At last with a feeling
that he might as well get the worst over, Fitz attacked. His fist went
harmlessly over Ninnes' shoulder and he was not able to duck the blow in the
short ribs which the other returned. This was going to be as bad as he had
feared, Fitz decided resignedly.

 
          
 
Suddenly steel flashed bare in his face and he
rocked back on his heels. A boarding hanger swished through the air as Fitz
gulped and gave ground. In the dim lantern light his eyes focused on Crofts'
face, stone hard, stone white.

 
          
 
"You will both follow me at once!"
The words came separately as if they had been bitten off in frozen anger.

 
          
 
Fitz obeyed. Ninnes was another shadow shuffling
along before him. Then he was blinking in the stronger light of the Captain's
cabin, standing on the defensive before the master of the Retaliation.

 
          
 
"Mr. Lyon!"

 
          
 
"Aye, sir!"
Instinctively his bruised shoulders went back and he stared straight ahead as
if he were alone on trial.

 
          
 
"I have the power, sir, to reduce you at
once to the lower deck or put you in irons for the rest of the voyage. Such
antics as you have indulged in tonight come perilously close to
mutiny "

 
          
 
Fitz blinked again, painfully
aware of the swelling puff below his right eye.
He swallowed without
daring to answer, tasting the sweet flatness of fresh blood.

 
          
 
"How can an officer afford to brawl
before his men —how can he hope to maintain discipline after such an
exhibition—pummeling each other across the deck as if you were ships' boys!
Both of you entirely forgetting your duty! An injured man is of little service
to the Retaliation—I would be justified in setting you ashore to beg your way
home again—both of you! I thought I was commanding a crew of men, not of
schoolboys eager to loosen one another's teeth. You two have been snapping and
snarling at each other's heels since we cleared
Baltimore
. Either you end it now, or I'll take my own
steps to do so. I understand that the challenge was of your offering, Mr.
Lyon?"

 
          
 
"I provoked him to it, sir," Fitz's
fellow prisoner's answer was strained through a cut lip.

 
          
 
"Very well.
You
shall both forfeit one quarter of all prize money lying to your account at the
present moment. And should either of you make another disturbance, my patience
shall be utterly exhausted. Now get to your
quarters "

 
          
 
Crofts' biting tongue brought the red blood up
Fitz's purpling bruised face. For his own part, it would be no hardship to
never set eyes on Ninnes' battered features again. But he noted with some
satisfaction as the other pushed past him, that he had given almost as good as
he had received in that brief encounter—in spite of the lieutenant's advantage
in inches and poundage. How it might have ended had Crofts not come upon them
was a matter he was not going to think about.

 
          
 
"Sand down your hide, did he?"
Watts
was standing outside the marine
officers
quarters. "Let's have a good look at the
damage."

 
          
 
Fitz pulled out of the other's light hold.
"There's none to signify," he growled and swallowed blood again.
"Well, if you won't avail yourself of my skill, you thickheaded young
dunce, you won't. But you and Ninnes had better learn how to live together
without showing your claws more than once a
day,
or
the Captain will do a little scratching of his own. D'you realize that he was
well within his rights to have given you
a ,
taste of
the rope's end for this?"

 
          
 
Stark tales of a man-o-war's
ghastly discipline by lash flicked across Fitz's mind.
There had been
one
man !
flogged
on the
Retaliation a few days back—flogged for 'deliberate negligence of duty. And the
marines had l paraded naval fashion at the scene. The stern efficiency of the
punishment had made it none the less worse to watch. Maybe Crofts had been
lenient.

 
          
 
"You can always comfort yourself with the
thought that you shall soon be free of us,"
Watts
continued. "Don't look so drop-jawed,
my friend, such stupidity does not become you. We should raise Saint Malo soon
and then you may skip nimbly ashore and bid us farewell. That has been your
intention, has it not? Saint Malo is a civilized port."

 
          
 
"A civilized
port?"

 
          
 
"Yes, you signed papers for a voyage
until we reached a civilized port, remember? And Saint Malo, being some
centuries older than the
Baltimore
our fathers hewed out of a wilderness, can certainly be described as
civilized. "

 
          
 
"And let Ninnes think he frightened me
off?"

 
          
 
For the first time the amused quirk was gone
from
Watts
' wandering eyebrow. Without it his face presented
a mask of languid boredom.

 
          
 
"Ah yes, I was almost forgetting Mr.
Ninnes. No, you could not possibly allow him to think that you did not live
just
to
bare fangs with him. A purpose in life, I
know, is always to be desired in the young. You believe that in selecting this
particular one you have achieved your goal? Allow me to felicitate you, sir.
And now may I leave you to those health-recruiting slumbers which may only too
soon be interpreted by the call of duty."

 
          
 
Fitz banged into the cabin and slumped down on
the edge of Biggs' sea chest, holding his aching head in his hands. He was
manifestly a fool if he did not do as
Watts
had
suggested and leave ship the minute the Retaliation dropped anchor. Once in
France
, he could get passage home with little
difficulty. This voyage had been wrong from the start.

BOOK: Norton, Andre - Novel 08
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