Dawn on a Distant Shore Page 45

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Captain Mudge had worked himself into high voice about the final portage and the capsizing of one of the cargo barges, when he was interrupted by a shouting and waving of arms from the other end of the dock.

"That's Mr. Little," said Elizabeth. She had not seen the captain's first mate since they had left the bateaux on the Richelieu. Now he stood between a tower of boxes and two taller men; Elizabeth could hear his voice crackling with indignation.

"A-yuh. And excisemen," agreed the captain, yanking on his chin whiskers with a scowl.

Stoker grunted. "That's Wiggins and Montague, the greedy bastards. They'll be after havin' your man Little for breakfast."

As if to prove Stoker right, Mr. Little let out a yelp of distress, and they lost all sight of him.

"Perhaps you had better see what he needs," said Elizabeth. "Mr. Stoker and I can carry on."

"Ain't got much choice." Captain Mudge started off with a thump, and then seemed to remember what he was about.

"Stoker," he said, one eye narrowed down to a slit. "Take unfair advantage of this lady and I'll see to it you never run goods down Albany way again."

Mac Stoker nodded, touching his forehead with one blunt and grimy finger. When Captain Mudge was gone, he winked at her, the chipped tooth flashing. "You're lookin' for passage to Montréal."

"I am," said Elizabeth. "If the cost is right, and the accommodations will serve."

He barked out a surprised laugh. "English, all right. Yous're all the same."

The thought of the gallows at the Montréal garrison made it possible for her to keep her composure and her temper. "I don't see that my country of birth is relevant to our negotiations, Mr. Stoker."

With one thumbnail he raked the bristle on his cheek. "All business, eh? I'm told you tried your luck with the Nell first. Don't take it to heart that Smythe turned you down. He's the sort what prefers pretty boys."

Elizabeth met the blue gaze with a single raised brow. "We were discussing the price of passage to Montréal."

He found her amusing. "You're not easily shocked, I'll say that for you. The frontier takes that out of a woman. You've been far, so I hear told."

One of the crew swung by with a barrel on his shoulder: stale tobacco, sweaty clothes, fish oil, rum. The stuff of sailors everywhere. Elizabeth reminded herself that Mr. Stoker was just a man with a ship, and nothing more. Whatever rumors he had heard of her did not matter in the least.

"The fare, Mr. Stoker?"

The chipped tooth again in a grin calculated to irritate her. "You're in a damn hurry to get where you're goin', and I'd wager that Jackdaw will suit just fine, rough as she is. Sure, and I'm willing to bet you've got the fare, too. Shall we step on board to discuss it?" The grin, daring her. He scratched the pelt of dark hair on his chest lazily.

"I believe we can conclude our discussions right here," said Elizabeth.

His gaze wandered down the front of her cloak and up again. "I'm goin' on board," he said. "Stay here or come along. Suit yourself."

Not at any cost, Bears had said, and this is what he meant.

"I will pay you fifty dollars, silver," Elizabeth said to his retreating back, taking note of the scars: a long cut along the left ribs, a bullet wound at the shoulder, and the evidence that he had lived through more than one flogging.

When it was clear he was listening, she said it again. "Fifty dollars silver for three adults and three children. And we must have the use of your cabin for the trip."

He glanced at her over his shoulder. "Fifty guineas," said Stoker. "Gold."

She managed a smile, even while her heart tripped into a quicker beat. "Gold guineas? But you've been listening to pirate tales, Mr. Stoker. I am willing to give you sixty dollars in silver if you're enough of a sailor to get us to Montreal safely by morning."

The expression in his eyes was all blue steel and bile.

"I'm enough of a sailor to take youse and the brats to China and beyond, darlin'. But Granny Stoker raised no fools, and I won't take on the Royal Navy for a pretty smile alone."

"Of course not," agreed Elizabeth evenly. "I've offered you sixty dollars in silver for your trouble."

He peered down at her, a muscle fluttering in his cheek. "So you're telling me that you've got no gold. Next you'll be claimin' that you're not the Englishwoman who gave Jack Lingo what he's been askin' for all these years."

Elizabeth was aware of an ox bellowing nearby, gulls overhead, incessant hammering, men singing. She raised her chin and met his eye.

"Seventy-five dollars in silver, Mr. Stoker," she said calmly. "Take it or leave it."

"Jack owed me money," he continued thoughtfully. "It seems only fair that you should take on his obligations, havin' sent the whoreson to the hell he so richly deserved."

Anger crept up her neck. She put a hand there, as if to stop it. "This is not the only ship in Sorel, Mr. Stoker."

"Sure, and that's true," he said. He glanced over his shoulder at the Jackdaw with her much-mended sails. "But she's damn fast, and maybe she's the only one that'll get you to Montréal in time to see some American spies swing for their troubles."

Elizabeth took a single step backward. Perhaps Stoker saw that he had pushed her too far, because his own expression slipped suddenly from a knowing grin to a scowl.

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