stormy persuasion Page 29

“I wonder what town that is,” Jack said. “I’m going to read the charts and dig out my uncle Thomas’s map to find out. Have you seen the one he gave my father? It’s a map of the entire east coast of America and well enough drawn that my father didn’t immediately toss it out simply because an Anderson drew it.” Jack laughed. “Cartography might only be a hobby for Thomas, but he’s quite meticulous at it.”

Judith took a closer look at the town that had sparked Jacqueline’s curiosity. She could see single-story houses, a church steeple, a few short docks with only fishing boats tied to them. The Maiden George was close enough to shore that she could make out some people waving at them, or more likely waving at the children swimming in the water.

Her eyes flared wide. A strong man could easily swim to shore from this distance. She didn’t have to marry Nathan to save him from prison. She just had to let him out of his cell.

She hurried after Jack to have a look at that map herself. James had said they’d reach Bridgeport sometime between midnight and dawn. They would still get a good night’s sleep since he didn’t plan to dock the ship until daylight. So she could do it anytime after they were anchored in the harbor or even before that, if she could figure out where they were along the coast.

At least that sick feeling of dread had gone away, now that she had a positive plan. She did have a few second thoughts, though. The jewelry still hadn’t been found. Her family would be furious at her for helping Nathan to escape. Jack was the only one who would understand why she had to do it. But when she snuck down to the brig late that night, she found it empty. Nathan was already gone.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Late at night the weather was more than brisk in Connecticut—if they were even in that state. Clothes soaking wet, tired from the long swim to shore, Nathan and Corky were shivering as they walked up the beach toward the lights of the one place in town that appeared to still be open that late, a tavern.

Nathan still couldn’t believe they were free. The set of circumstances was astounding. A noise had woken him in the middle of the night by mere chance. Even so, he almost went back to sleep before he noticed the door to the brig was open. Then, forgetting how narrow his makeshift bed was, he nearly fell to the floor getting up so fast to make sure he wasn’t dreaming it. The door was open, but no one was in the hallway, so he didn’t know whom he ought to thank for it. Most likely one of the crew who knew he was getting a raw deal from the Malorys. Or the actual thief, who regretted framing him?

In either case, he and Corky had bid The Maiden George farewell in quick order. They didn’t even consider gathering their belongings first. They dove straight over the side and swam toward the lights onshore.

“Tell me you had coins in your pocket when we were tossed in the brig,” Corky said hopefully. “A strong drink would be more’n welcome right now.”

“My pockets are as empty as yours.”

Corky groaned. “Wet, cold, no money, no belongings that we could trade, and a powerful local family will soon be trying to recapture us. This ain’t looking too good, Cap’n.”

No, it wasn’t—yet. But if he could just get to The Pearl as soon as possible, their immediate problem would be solved because he knew something about the ship that no one else was aware of, not even Corky. At least, he hoped no one else knew it yet. But if they weren’t even in the right state . . .

Nathan dredged up an encouraging tone for his friend. “We’ll be fine as soon as we get to New London.”

“Aye, the Yank’s friend will help us.”

Nathan shook his head. “We lost that opportunity when we got thrown in Malory’s brig. We can’t take the chance now that John Hubbard will simply believe us if we arrive without decent clothes and no letter of introduction from Boyd Anderson, which Anderson didn’t bother to write since he planned to come with us. Hubbard would likely send a message to the Andersons to confirm our story first.”

“As I said, this ain’t looking good,” Corky mumbled.

“Stop worrying. I have an alternative plan, but we need directions first, and I’m not waiting till morning to get them. Come on.”

They entered the tavern. Aside from the skinny barkeep and one barmaid well past her prime, there were maybe a dozen customers, half of them lined up at the bar. While the sudden warmth in the room was welcome, Nathan wasn’t there to waste time.

“Evening, mates,” he said loud enough to draw every eye in the room to him and Corky.

All conversation and rowdiness stopped abruptly until one muscular young fellow at the bar demanded, “Who the hell are you?”

“Come to wash the floor, did you?” someone else snickered.

That started the laughter. Well, Nathan had to concede they did look ridiculous with their hair and clothes so soaking wet that puddles were forming at their feet, and not even a jacket to ward off the cold night air.

“If you can point us in the direction of New London, we’ll be on our way,” Nathan said.

But that caused even more laughter and a couple replies. “You’re in the middle of it.”

This was New London? But that couldn’t just be a lucky coincidence. Someone on the Malory ship must have intentionally opened the brig door as the ship approached the town he intended to visit.

But before Nathan had a chance to ask about the shady shipyard and its owner, whose name Commander Burdis had given him, the big fellow came over to him and shoved Nathan’s shoulder, hard enough that a slighter man would have fallen. Nathan stood his ground, but the man’s aggressive stance didn’t alter.

Nathan was shoved again as the man said, “We don’t welcome strangers in our town, least of all suspicious Brits who show up all wet in the middle of the night.”

Someone else with a grudge against England or just a local troublemaker? Nathan wished he’d thought to tone down his accent, if he even could. But tonight was a perfect opportunity to reach his first goal, so he wasn’t about to leave without directions to the shipyard.

He quickly decided to try to nip this man’s aggression in the bud and hoped the crowd wouldn’t rally to help their friend. “We’re not here to cause trouble,” Nathan said as he planted a fist in the man’s belly, following up with a blow to his chin that knocked him to the floor. “Really we aren’t.”

Unfortunately, the fellow quickly jumped to his feet. He was big, even had a few inches on Nathan, and he exuded confidence, was even grinning now. But Nathan couldn’t afford to lose when this tavern was a prime place to get some help, maybe even the men for the crew he would need for the trip home. That wasn’t going to happen if he lost or backed down from this fight.

Nathan hoped for a charge he could easily avoid or take advantage of, but his antagonist wasn’t unskilled and tried a few punches just to test Nathan’s reflexes. Nathan did the same. For a few minutes neither of them was getting anywhere.

Already tired from the long swim, Nathan knew he wouldn’t have the stamina to outlast the man if they continued to cautiously test each other’s mettle. So the moment the man broke through his guard with a solid punch to Nathan’s chest, Nathan came up with a backhanded left fist to the side of the man’s head and leapt up to slam a quick right-handed blow to the man’s jaw. With Nathan putting his full weight behind it, the fellow dropped to the floor again.

“Really we aren’t here to cause trouble,” Nathan repeated, and, willing to roll the dice, offered the man he’d decked a hand up this time.

The man stared at Nathan’s hand and a moment later laughed and took it. Nathan introduced himself. His former antagonist told him his name was Charlie and ordered Nathan a whiskey, which Nathan passed on to Corky. He then asked the group at large if anyone there was familiar with Henry Bostwick and his shipyard. He got more responses than he expected.

“I worked for him a few years back, but the work wasn’t constant and he shorted my wages to boot, so I didn’t hire on again,” Charlie said.

Someone else said, “Shorted my wages, too, and no excuse for it neither, when he auctions off ships three to four times a year. Course, buying them old and just bringing them here and prettying ’em up, he’s only making half what he could.”

“Don’t make excuses for him, Paulie. My brother swears Bostwick is up to no good. There’s been other ships he sells privately, and who knows the difference when that yard is all closed up like it is.”

“Is this how Bostwick explains not actually building ships from scratch?” Nathan asked.

“He builds new ones, too, he just pulls the crew off ’em to work on the old ones when they show up, so it can take years for a new one to get finished. But that’s how he’s always done it, far as I know,” Paulie said with a shrug.

“Always wondered how he manages to find so many ships,” Charlie said. “The few I’ve seen come in over the years weren’t actually old, so he would have had to pay a high price for them. How’s he make a profit that way?”

“He makes a profit because he’s not buying them, he’s stealing them out of English ports,” Nathan replied.

Someone laughed. “Is he now?”

Nathan stiffened, wondering if that was going to be everyone’s sentiment, and asked the man, “You know something about that?”

“I know some of the ships brought in were indeed British. Had a peek at the logbooks before they were burned. But who cares?”

“I understand why you might not find his business practices objectionable, but I do, since I have reason to believe the ship he currently has in his yard belongs to me.”

The man just shrugged and turned back to his drink. Charlie asked Nathan, “Is that why you’re here?”

“Yes. To retrieve my ship and get the local authorities to put Henry Bostwick and his ring of thieves out of business.”

“Good luck with that,” someone snickered. “The word of a Brit against a local man of business?”

“There are a few things I know about my ship that Bostwick wouldn’t know and hopefully hasn’t discovered, but I need to find out if she’s here first. Can someone take me there—now?”

“Why would we do that?” Paulie asked. “There’s guard dogs let loose at night inside the outer fence, and any ship on the property is closed up in the big shed where they’re worked on. There’s no way you’re getting in there to see anything.”

There was a round of agreement with that assessment. But with the likelihood that The Pearl was still in New London, Nathan wasn’t going to wait until morning to find out. His ship had to still be here. She was over twenty years seasoned. It would take a while to sand her down to give her the look and smell of a new vessel. That had been his only hope, actually. The time it would take to polish her.

“I’ll pay handsomely to see my ship tonight,” Nathan offered.

“Let’s see some coins, Brit.”

Nathan ignored that. “And I’m going to need a crew for the return trip to England. I’ll wager some of you who aren’t in your beds at this hour could use the work.”

Some laughed over that remark, confirming it. But the same doubting Thomas called out, “Show us a ship before you go hiring a crew.”

Corky warned in an urgent whisper at Nathan’s side, “You’re promising what we don’t have!”

“Trust me” was all Nathan whispered back.

It was actually Charlie who downed the rest of his drink and volunteered, “I’ll take you.”

Nathan smiled and, grabbing Corky, followed the big man out of the tavern.

A while later, they approached Bostwick’s shipyard on the shore. The fenced-in yard to the side of the big shed had plenty of space to build ships in, but it was empty except for a few piles of lumber and the roaming dogs. Was the shed there so that work wouldn’t have to stop during the harsh winter months—or to hide whatever was going on inside it? But it wasn’t tall enough to accommodate masted ships unless the ground in the work area had been dug out.

“Corky, stay on this side of the fence to distract the dogs if I can’t get the front door opened quickly enough,” Nathan said.

“No reason for the door to be locked if there are guards inside, and I know there’s at least one,” Charlie said. “I live near here. I’ve seen him come out to patrol the place at night.”

Nathan nodded and amended for Corky, “Follow if the door’s open, distract if it’s not. Charlie—”

“Let’s do this,” the big man said, and hopped the fence before Nathan could finish.

Nathan grinned and followed. Unfortunately, the door was locked. But it was old. He could break it down easily, but that would immediately alert the guards, and the dogs. And they didn’t know how many armed guards they would have to contend with.

“Kick it in?” Charlie asked.

“No, let’s try pushing first, quietly,” Nathan whispered. “It won’t take much for the hinges to give way, but the dogs are going to get our scent soon, so we need to do this fast.”

They both put their shoulders to the door and shoved, but it didn’t give way quickly enough. A dog started growling—too close. Nathan didn’t have to think about it; he raised his foot to kick the door in, but it suddenly opened before he could.

The guard that stood there looked so surprised to find them in front of him that he was slow in raising his rifle. Nathan grabbed it from him and smashed the butt of the rifle against the man’s head. Fortunately, he didn’t have to do it twice because Charlie was already shoving Nathan out of the way so he could close the door on the dog. It barked now on the other side of the door, but only for a moment. Corky must have figured out some way to distract it.