Summer 1747 — Spring 1748
Let every man seek his own safety the best way he can.
—Prince Charles Edward Stuart to his defeated Jacobite army
CAPE FEAR RIVER, COLONY OF NORTH CAROLINA
Alex MacKinnon roused to the press of wood beneath his cheek and an ominous churning in his gut. He tried to rise, but his hands were bound behind him. Without their aid he made it to his knees and, as the world spun in a blur of sunlit green, lost the contents of his stomach into mud-black water rushing past below. A powerful grip dragged him back onto rough planks. He felt solidness behind his back—curving barrel staves, hotly fragrant in the sweltering heat.
"Catch yo' breath," said a voice deep enough to have issued from a well's nethermost reaches. "Don't do no stupid."
Alex drew up his knees and dropped his head, then jerked as a lance of pain split his skull. Moving must be the stupid the well-bottom voice warned against.
"Still yo'self," it cautioned now.
Alex complied. The pain in his head receded to a pounding. Sweat stung what must be a gash at his temple. Dried blood stiffened his face. Arms, legs, torso all ached with the bruises left by blows. He'd been attacked.
"Ah, Demas," said another voice. "He's awake? Excellent. I was about to be concerned."
The speaker hadn't sounded concerned. He'd sounded downright blithe. And English.
The surface beneath Alex dipped. Nausea surged with the motion. This time he forced it back, eyes shut against the sun-glare.
"And here at last we've the tide to speed us along," the English voice added.
The scrape of wood on wood. Water splashing. Feet thumping boards. Men's voices rising and relaxing as at the end of prolonged exertion. All familiar. All wrong.
Alex opened his eyes. Though not yet high in the sky, the Carolina sun burned fierce. Bearing its assault, he took in what he made for the aft deck of a flatboat. Within his view a man, shirtless back a glistening blue-black, had hauled in a dripping pole and was stowing it along the deck rail, over which Alex had been sick. The vessel surged, picking up speed though none poled it now that he could see.
Alarmed, he looked out over silty water, expecting to see the merchant ship, Charlotte-Ann, riding at anchor beyond the smaller craft lining Wilmington's quay. He didn't see the quay. A tree-lined bank slid past, edged in mudflats dotted with quarreling seabirds.
They were on the river.
A throat's clearing curtailed his observations. Squinting, Alex made out the Englishman seated on a crate shaded by a cabin in the craft's center. He wore no coat or hat, but his breeches and waistcoat were cut of good cloth and fit his trim person well. With dark hair smoothly tailed, he bore no trace of sweat on his brow, as if the neckcloth knotted below his chin didn't smother him. He looked not yet thirty.
The man bared good teeth in a smile, an expression that took his unremarkable features—longish nose, thin lips, hazel eyes overshadowed by strong brows—and rearranged them into a mask of disarming appeal.
He'd seen the man before. Alex closed his eyes, searching his memory for that face, and found it.
His eyes flew open. "Ye've made a mistake! I'd an agreement with the ship's master. Captain Bingham will tell ye . . ." But Bingham wouldn't. The Charlotte-Ann's captain was complicit in this. Minding that now, too, Alex strained against his bindings. Could he pitch himself overboard, hope to reach the bank?
"I wouldn't try it," the Englishman advised. "Alligators infest these waters. You missed the last sighting. Quite the sizeable specimen."
Alligators. Alex had yet to see one of the fearsome beasts since they'd begun their piloted journey into Wilmington's sandbar-riddled harbor, but the Charlotte-Ann's crew had encountered them on voyages past. His sweating scalp crawled at the thought of jagged teeth closing over him, powerful jaws dragging him under the river's dark surface. Still, he'd rather face that battle than what awaited him at this riverine journey's end.