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Authors: Yankee Privateer (v1.0)

Norton, Andre - Novel 08 (2 page)

BOOK: Norton, Andre - Novel 08
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And he noted with some pleasure, it had all
its old power. The lieutenant didn't redden, or sputter, or exhibit any of the
schoolboy responses the stare had once aroused, but there was
a certain
grimness about his mouth.

 
          
 
Fitz allowed himself a rather mirthless
counterfeit of a laugh. "You are very sure of signing one of us."

 
          
 
Warmth and color had gone out of the voice
which returned: "The Cap'n needs
marines,
I aim
to get them for him."

 
          
 
"Thank you—I am now duly warned!"
Fitz was instantly annoyed at himself for having been stung into that retort.

 
          
 
If only the fellow didn't look so infernally
like Ralph, standing there so solid and sure of himself and of the world.
Solid—that was it—solid and secure.
Solid family, solid name.
Probably this bold hero even had a Fairleigh tucked away someplace to return
to. Solid! ...

 
          
 
Well, he, Fitzhugh Lyon, who as good as had an
Ensign's commission in a proper line regiment clipped into his pocket, had no
intention of sailing on any privateer—no matter how much its captain might need
men.

 
          
 
He was going to be Ensign, Lieutenant,
Captain
 
indeed
, if
half the tales he had heard were true, there was plenty of room at the top for
an ambitious man. He might not be a Danby of Fairleigh Manor, but he'd show
them that a
Lyon
was as good, even if he had no family or
manor behind him!

 
          
 
Then he firmly shut such thoughts out of his
mind and got down to the business of the match. He was giving that
single-hearted concentration to a distasteful task, a response which he had
learned so long ago that now it came automatically. When one is the poor
relation in a large household, it behooves one to learn early how to manage
one's own affairs, quietly and efficiently, and by oneself.

 
          
 
He loaded with a methodical ease which was not
lost on the frontiersman. When the recruiting officer gave the order to fire,
Fitz stepped to the line that one of the town boys had marked off with a stick.
He fired, and down the field the freshly trimmed peg whipped. The first of the
runners to reach it shouted triumphantly. But the frontiersman could equal that
without showing much skill, and he speedily did.

 
          
 
Fitz blew on chilled fingers and spoke to the
lieutenant.

 
          
 
"I've had a long day in the saddle, sir,
and am minded to rest. Let's make a quick end to this."

 
          
 
"Any boy wot's britched kin hit
that," the westerner slouched up. "Set we'ns a real man's mark,
sailor boy!"

 
          
 
"All right.
What
about that squirrel? Can you knock it off?"

 
          
 
Along the rail fence at the far end of the
field a squirrel was darting, stopping now and again in frozen immobility. Both
contestants reloaded without answer. Fitz allowed his opponent first shot. The
squirrel leaped as the crack of the rifle broke the silence. But it leaped free
and unharmed.

 
          
 
The frontiersman mouthed an oath as Fitz's
rifle came up and he fired. Again the squirrel leaped, but this time because it
had been jerked into the air by the impact of the ball, and fell into the mud,
a limp handful of fur.

 
          
 
"Be yo' one o' Morgan's boys?" his
rival rounded on Fitz. "That thar was
th
'
prettiest shot I've seed in a month o' Sundays! Come on t' Th' Wild Goose an'
Pete Stanley'll set yo' up t' th' biggest jack o' rum yo've ever laid lip
over!"

 
          
 
Fitz shook his head. "I've been riding
all day, Mr. Stanley, and I must see to my mare, she's been hard pressed. Then,
too, you now have unfinished business with this officer
"
He
took malicious pleasure in that, glancing from the bear-bodied
Stanley
to the lieutenant.

 
          
 
"Aye, certainly," the latter
answered absently.

 
          
 
"Look you, sir," he added to Fitz,
"if it is a good inn you are seeking, why not try the Eagle? It is a
proper place—Captain Crofts himself lies there at present."

 
          
 
"Th' Eagle,"
Stanley
bit off a generous mouthful of black trade
tobacco. "
Place fer up-nosed gentry sparks.
Best
come wi' Pete iffen yo' want t' drink yo'r fill without none o' 'em smellin't
down at yo'."

 
          
 
Fitz shivered under the iron claws of the bay
wind. His back and shoulders were all one ache and a warm inn room, with even a
half-decent excuse for a bed and a couple of hot dishes on the
table,
was a beautiful dream. He had intended to claim
shelter from the Lux family or from some other of the town folk who were on
visiting terms with Fairleigh. But the circumstances of his departure from the
Manor made him somewhat reluctant to do that. And now, when Lady whinnied
piteously, he gave in, following the directions the officer gave.

 
          
 
From the appearance of the stable yard, the
Eagle was all the lieutenant had claimed it to be. The Negro groom who took
charge of his mount satisfied even Fitz's fastidious requirements for the
mare's comfort. And he started into the common room, to be met within the door
by the host himself.

 
          
 
"A room, sir?
Lord save us, the Eagle is full to its chinking. But if you are minded to share
quarters for the night now—there's the Frigate, a goodly sized room, and only
Captain Crofts within it. He's a gentleman, sir, and like as not he'll welcome
company, being a sociable sort of man."

 
          
 
For a moment Fitz hesitated. He seemed
destined today to be haunted by Captain Crofts. But the tantalizing fragrance
of roasting meat put an end to his wavering.

 
          
 
"Well, then, if the Captain has no
objection, let us to the Frigate. And, landlord, I am in need of a full meal,
too."

 
          
 
"To be sure, sir, to be
sure.
The Eagle will supply that, quickly enough. Up the stairs now,
sir, and please to step this way."

 
          
 
Fitz was ushered into a room of medium size
where a bed occupied one full corner and a table was pulled up before the fire.
The man who sat in the light of the flames looked up with alert interest as
Fitz entered.

 
          
 
"Fitzhugh Lyon, at your
service, sir."
Fitz made his manners with only such grace as his
hours in the saddle had left him.

 
          
 
The other got to his feet and returned the
salute.

 
          
 
"Captain Daniel Crofts
of the Retaliation, at yours, sir.”

 
          
 
Each stared frankly at the other. Fitz, in
spite of his prejudices, liked what he saw. To his mind, Daniel Crofts seemed
surprisingly young to be the commander of a fighting ship, for the Captain
surely could not have had the advantage of him by more than three or four
years. But, he reminded himself that boys scarcely into their teens rode
up-country manors as overseers and bailiffs, and that therefore it should not
have been surprising to find young men full captains at sea. In wartime one did
one's duty. His mouth twisted upon that thought as if he had tasted something
sour.

           
 
But Crofts, though only a little over middle
height and almost too smooth and handsome of face, had a certain air of
competence and authority about him which Fitz recognized and paid tribute to.
His blue coat, turned back with red, fitted him snugly, showing off to
advantage good shoulders and a narrow waist. His own unpowdered hair was
clubbed neatly and its natural fair waves were tight about his head.

 
          
 
Fitz, who was the same height as the Captain,
moved with the loose-jointed walk of a horseman. But he did not slouch, in
spite of the fatigue which had put dark smudges beneath his gray eyes—eyes
which for several years now had always been a little tired and set. He had no
pretense to good looks. His thin face with its sternly disciplined mouth was
self-contained, almost too expressionless, and his hair was as thick and black
as an Indian's.

 
          
 
"You've ridden far." That was a
statement rather than a question as Fitz came to hold cold-stiffened hands to
the heat of the hearth blaze.

 
          
 
"Some distance, sir. I have been on the
road two days." Fitz loosened the throat thongs of his hunting smock. He
wore no
stock,
and the linen shirt underneath clung to
his damp skin.

 
          
 
Crofts shivered in sympathy.
"And in beastly weather.
The back roads must be mud
sinks!"

 
          
 
"Where they are not bottomless
wallows," agreed Fitz heartily.

 
          
 
Slightly toasted, he discovered that he now
had energy enough to wash in the basin of tepid water a maid had brought in. As
he wiped his hands on the towel he found Crofts at his elbow with a steaming
tankard.

 
          
 
"With this under your belt, you'll even
be willing to face that mud again, sir."

 
          
 
Fitz sniffed at the fumes. "Oh, and with
a song on my lips into the bargain, no doubt?"

 
          
 
He swallowed and gasped. "What did mine
host dump into that now—the full contents of his pepper box?"

 
          
 
The Captain nodded solemnly.
" 'Tis
an old family recipe—or so he informed me. I
think the base must be gunpowder."

 
          
 
"Then, should I go off like a
nine-pounder, think nothing of it! But, can that be ham I see?" Fitz
watched hungrily as Crofts, taking the hint, set to work with a carving knife.

 
          
 
The Captain had sense enough not to make light
conversation and so delay the serious business of eating. It was not until Fitz
reached the stage of dallying with biscuits and cheese that his table mate
pushed back his chair and spoke.

 
          
 
"You are in
Baltimore
on business, Mr. Lyon?"

 
          
 
"On the business of getting
transportation north, Captain." Fitz was so content that he readily
answered this question which he might have resented an hour earlier. "It
is my intention to take ship to the Head of the Elk and then go overland to
join the army.”

           
 
"Oh, then you are returning from
leave?"

 
          
 
"No," Fitz was curt.
"Heretofore I have been otherwise engaged."

 
          
 
"Not by your own choice, I take it?"

 
          
 
Fitz watched the yellow flames flicker against
the sooty brick of the fireplace. He was tired, so very tired. All the
bitterness which had burned in him for years, all the tension of the past two
days, tore at his habitual reticence. He was a fencer who could no longer hold
his foil at guard. He did not try to reason what there was about Daniel Crofts
that could drag words out of him—but they simply spilled over, boiled out,
tearing his old caution to rags.

BOOK: Norton, Andre - Novel 08
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