had been, and with him alone, what he was doing now would be idle speculation for he would already be in their hands – all it needed was a pistol in the ribs and a demand he do as he was told.
How, then, did they intend to proceed in taking him for he had no doubt that was their aim? If not in the village it could only be on the road that led to both Lyndhurst and, by a detour, the quickest route to Lymington. But to do that they would need a clear sight of his departure, a point he made to the man sitting with him.
‘And if they have the ship under observation they will know when we depart.’
‘But not how many?’
‘The addition of Puisaye and Amélie will not aid us, Michael, quite the reverse.’
‘I was thinking the presence of others might give them pause.’
‘And what if it does not? Do you recall the words of the older brother when we overheard them talking, that he would have his money or my skin in place of it? That same fate could stretch to anyone who is with me if I’m caught, you included, and I would remind you, we on this ship are the only folk who know of our French pair. Think what it’s like out there – miles of deep forest, mostof which never feels the feet of man, and ask yourself what our combined fate could be?’
Both men fell silent for a moment as that thought struck home: they could just disappear.
‘What about seeking a parley, John-boy and telling them the truth of the matter, that you was robbed as much as were they?’
‘They would scarce believe that, given I still cannot credit what I fell for myself.’
No one likes to be reminded that they have been a fool, as had he, and it was near as uncomfortable now as it had been when he first realised just how easily he had fallen for the deception. A sharp fellow who called himself Arthur Winston – not his real name – had dangled before him what looked like a chance to make a great deal of money from the recovery of a contraband cargo, made up of items becoming more expensive by the day as the war failed to progress: bolts of silk and lace, barrels of brandy, fine French wines, perfumes, all the commodities so beloved by those with money to buy.
How much had his own stupidity contributed to his being drawn in to the scheme, how much had it been the prospect of being able to offer comfort to Emily Barclay without the need of anything from her husband rich with prize money? It mattered not; he had recruited his Pelicans then sailed to the Flanders port of Gravelines, seeking to recover ‘Winston’s’ ship and cargo, one for which he claimed to have already put up the money, to free it from a local who had refused to release it without a second massive payment. And he had succeeded, the only trouble being that it had never been ‘Winston’s’ shipor his cargo; it had been the property of the Tollands, professional smugglers who very likely now sat athwart his route out of Buckler’s Hard, and if he had scant real acquaintance with them it had been enough to show they were murderous. They were also serious and clearly had connections – had they not pursued him first to Dover, then to London and now, amazingly, to here?
Still convinced that he had carried off a legitimate coup regarding the contraband, Pearce had sailed their ship into St Margaret’s Bay just north of Dover and beached it, so that too had been forfeit to the excise. It might be their legal property, but only a fool would reclaim a vessel just taken in the act of smuggling. The cargo? That had disappeared with John Pearce watching and helpless, immobilised by an injured foot, this as the bay filled with men come to make the arrests for which they had been tipped; at least he had been able to get Michael, Rufus and Charlie Taverner away along the tidal shore that led to Deal before they arrived to arrest him.
It was in the nature of things that the two friends reprised the whole affair in detail, being in search of a solution, an exchange that took
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