A Sea of Troubles

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Authors: David Donachie
direction; the sudden burst of movement was obvious as ropes squealed and canvas flapped.
    ‘Sure you been at the keyhole, have you not?’ growled Michael.
    Pearce leant backwards and glanced at the open gun port, a clear indication that he too had guessed what had occurred. ‘I’m not much given to flogging, but sometimes—’
    If he had hoped to cow Dorling he failed; the voice was firm and quick to interrupt, which was ill disciplined in the extreme and very out of character. ‘I speak out of respect for you, sir.’
    It was O’Hagan who replied, underlining what everyone had believed: whoever the giant Irishman was, and they knew as little of him as their temporary captain, he was no servant. ‘And what is it you have to say?’
    ‘Only this, your honour, that if you has a problem then the men aboard would not feel it beyond their duty to help out. From what we know, numbers seem to be the problem an’, well, we has that to more’n match, I reckon.’
    Pearce had dropped his head before Dorling finished, deeply touched by the sentiment, even if there was still a residue of irritation at the eavesdropping, and the response, when he spoke, went mostly into his chest. ‘I’m not sure that would do, Mr Dorling, using men of the King’s Navy to settle a private dispute.’
    Dorling finally smiled, which wholly improved the look of his features and hinted at the good companion he might be. ‘Don’t see how you can stop us, sir. All you has to do is allow enough of us ashore, which, I would remind you, can only be done on your say so.’
    ‘And how many do you speak for?’
    ‘To a man, your honour, to a man,’ Dorling replied, with real force. He was gilding it, for there were some who maintained it was none of their concern that an officer was in trouble; they could be ignored, there were more than enough willing. ‘Christ, even the ship’s boys are up for it.’
    ‘Even when they have no idea what they face?’
    ‘Can’t be worse than a fleet of Frenchies.’
    ‘It is,’ Pearce replied, with much in the way of passion, ‘or at least close enough to give pause.’
    In the ensuing silence Michael O’Hagan knew that his friend was thinking the thing through, for it was not as simple as either the master or the crew supposed. This was no shore-going barney like you had in a port-side alehouse or gin den, where the worst you would face was a well-aimed fist and maybe being crowned by a chair leg. The Tollands were proper hard bargains and smugglers who carried the weapons they needed to protect themselves and their smuggled goods. They would be armed with swords, at least, and very likely pistols as well and such men were inured to the need to kill when called upon to do so; they could not have survived in their game without it.
    ‘Would you let us talk of this, Mr Dorling?’ Michael asked.
    ‘As you wish, Paddy.’
    That got a frown. ‘I thought it was known that being called Paddy I did not much take to.’
    ‘Sorry.’
    Michael grinned. ‘Sure, it is the first time you have erred, Mr Dorling. It’s the second time that ends in a fuss.’
    That had the master looking at O’Hagan’s ham-like fists; he knew what a fuss meant. As he made to leave Pearce added, ‘I would like this conversation to be completely private.’
    ‘I will make sure it is, sir.’
    As he turned and walked away there was a cry from the bulkhead near the wheel, in French, which told them that Puisaye had caught something. His makeshift rod was bent and a couple of hands had, unbidden, gone to help him, given they saw him as an old crock of a fellow, near to being infirm. One grabbed the line and whipped it up and over the side, to show on the end a wriggling trout.
    It was a mordant Pearce who said, ‘I think I know just how that poor creature feels.’
    ‘We have a good offer, John-boy.’
    ‘Do we, Michael? How can I accept when I have no idea what kind of danger these lads might be exposed to? The Tollands will be

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