Speaks the Nightbird Chapter Two

MOST INCONVENIENT," Isaac Woodward said, just after Matthew had looked under the straw-mattressed pallet of a bed and found there to be no chamberpot. "an oversight, I'm sure."

Matthew shook his head with dismay. "I thought we were getting a decent room. We'd have been better served in the barn."

"We won't perish from one night here." Woodward motioned with a lift of his chin toward the single shuttered window, which was being pelted by another heavy downpour. "I dare say we would perish, if we had to continue out in that weather. So just be thankful, Matthew." He turned his attention back to what he was doing: getting dressed for dinner. He'd opened his trunk and taken from it a clean white linen shirt, fresh stockings, and a pair of pale gray breeches, which he'd laid carefully across the bed so as not to snag the material. Matthew's trunk was open as well, a clean outfit at the ready. It was one of Woodward's requirements that, wherever they were and whatever the circumstances, they dress like civilized men for the dinner hour. Matthew often saw no point in this - dressing like cardinals, sometimes for a pauper's meal - but he understood that Woodward found it vitally important for his sense of well-being.

Woodward had removed a wigstand from his trunk, and had placed it upon a small table which, along with the bed and a pinewood chair, comprised the room's furnishings. On the wig-stand Woodward had set one of his three hairpieces, this one dyed a passable shade of brown with curling ringlets that fell about the shoulders. By the smoky candlelight from the hammered-metal lantern that hung on a wallhook above the table, Woodward examined his bald pate in a silver-edged hand mirror that had made the journey with him from England. His white scalp was blotched by a dozen or more ruddy age spots, which to his taste was a thoroughly disagreeable sight. around his ears was a fragile fringe of gray hair. He studied the age spots as he stood in his white undergarments, his fleshy belly overhanging the cinched waistband, his legs pale and thin as an egret's. He gave a quiet sigh. "The years," he said, "are unkind. Every time I look in this mirror, I see something new to lament. Guard your youth, Matthew. It's a precious commodity."

"Yes, sir." It had been said without much expression. This topic of conversation was not unfamiliar to Matthew, as Woodward often waxed poetic on the tribulations of aging. Matthew busied himself by shrugging into a fresh white shirt.

"I was handsome," Woodward wandered on. "Really I was." He angled the mirror, looking at the age spots. "Handsome and vain. Now just vain, I suppose." His eyes narrowed slightly. There were more blotches this time than the last time he'd counted them. Yes, he was sure of it. More reminders of his mortality, of his time leaking away as water through a punctured bucket. He abruptly turned the mirror aside.

"I do go on, don't Ii" he asked, and he gave Matthew a hint of a smile. "No need to answer. There'll be no self-incrimination here tonight. ah! My pride!" He reached into his trunk and brought out - very carefully and with great admiration - a waistcoat. But by no means an ordinary one. This waistcoat was the dark brown color of rich French chocolate, with the finest of black silk linings. Decorating the waistcoat, and glinting now in the candlelight as Woodward held it between his hands, were thin stripes woven with golden threads. Two small and discreet pockets were likewise outlined with woven gold, and the waistcoat's five buttons were formed of pure ivory - a rather dirty yellow now, after all the years of use, but ivory just the same. It was a magnificent garment, a relic from Woodward's past. He had come to breadcrumbs and briars on several occasions, facing a bare larder and an even barer pocketbook, but though this garment would procure a pretty sum in the Charles Town marketplace he had never entertained a notion of selling it. It was, after all, a link to his life as a gentleman of means, and many times he'd fallen asleep with it draped over his chest, as if it might impart dreams of happier years in London.

Thunder boomed overhead. Matthew saw that a leak had begun, over in the corner; water was trickling down the raw logs into a puddle on the floor. He had noted as well the number of rat droppings around the room and surmised that the rodents here might be even larger than their urban cousins. He decided he would ask Shawcombe for an extra candle, and if he slept at all it would be sitting up with the lantern close at hand.

as Matthew dressed in a pair of dark blue trousers and a black coat over his shirt, Woodward pulled on his stockings, the gray breeches - a tight squeeze around the midsection - and then his white blouse. He thrust his legs into his boots, which had been scraped of mud as much as possible, and then put on and buttoned up his prized waistcoat. The wig went on, was straightened and steadied with the aid of the hand mirror. Woodward checked his face for stubble, as he had shaved with the benefit of a bowl of rainwater Shawcombe had brought in for their washing. The last piece of apparel to go on was a beige jacket - much wrinkled but a sturdy traveller. Matthew ran a brush through the cropped and unruly spikes of his black hair, and then they were ready to be received by their host.

"Come in and set y'selves!" Shawcombe brayed as Woodward and Matthew came into the main room. If anything, the smoke from the hearth seemed thicker and more sourly pungent. a few candles were set about, and Maude and the girl were at work over a pot that bubbled and steamed on a hook above the red coals. Shawcombe was on his feet with a wooden tankard of rum in one hand, motioning them to a table; his balance, or lack of same, indicated the liquor was finding its target. He blinked and let out a low whistle that rose in volume. "Lord fuck the King, is that gold you're wearin'i" Before Woodward could draw back, Shawcombe's dirty hand had snaked out and fondled the glittering waistcoat. "ah, that's a fine piece of cloth there! Maude, look at this! He's wearin' gold, have you ever seen the likei"

The old woman, revealed by the firelight to have a face like a mask of cracked clay under her long white hair, peered back over her shoulder and made a noise that could have been either mangled English or a wheeze. Then she focused again on her cooking, stirring the pot and snapping what sounded like orders or criticism at the girl.

"You two look the birds!" Shawcombe said, grinning widely. His mouth appeared to Matthew like a wet-edged cutlass wound. "The gold bird and the black bird! ain't you the sights!" He scraped back a chair from the nearest table. "Come on, sit down and rest your feathers some!"

Woodward, whose dignity had been affronted by this performance, pulled out his own chair and lowered himself into it with as much grace as he could muster. Matthew remained standing and, looking Shawcombe directly in the face, said, "a chamberpot."

"Huhi" The grin stayed, crooked, on Shawcombe's mouth.

"a chamberpot," the younger man repeated firmly. "Our room lacks one."

"Chamberpot." Shawcombe took a swig from the tankard, a rivulet of rum dribbling down his chin. His grin had vanished. The pupils of his eyes had become dark pinpoints. "Chamber fuckin' pot, huhi Well, what do you think the woods are fori You want to shit and piss, you go out there. Wipe your arse with some leaves. Now sit down, your supper's 'bout ready."

Matthew remained standing. His heart had begun beating harder. He could feel the raw tension in the air between them, as nasty as the pinewood smoke. The veins in Shawcombe's thick neck were bulging, gorged with blood. There was a defiant, churlish expression on his face that invited Matthew to strike him, and once that strike was delivered the response would be triplefold in its violence. The moment stretched, Shawcombe waiting to see what Matthew's next move would be.

"Come, come," Woodward said quietly. He grasped Matthew's sleeve. "Sit down."

"I think we deserve a chamberpot," Matthew insisted, still locking his gaze with the tavern-keeper's. "at the very least a bucket."

"Young master"- - and now Shawcombe's voice drooled false sentiment - "you should understand where you are. This ain't no royal palace, and you ain't in no civilized country out here. Maybe you squat over a fancy chamberpot in Charles Town, but here we squat out behind the barn and that's how things is. anyway, you wouldn't want the girl to have to clean up behind you, would youi" His eyebrows lifted. "Wouldn't be the gentlemanly thing."

Matthew didn't answer. Woodward tugged at his sleeve, knowing this particular skirmish wasn't worth fighting. "We'll make do, Mr. Shawcombe," Woodward said, as Matthew reluctantly surrendered and sat down. "What may we look forward to supping on this eveningi"

Bang! went a noise as loud as a pistol shot, and both men jumped in their chairs. They looked toward the hearth, at the source of the sound, and saw the old woman holding a hefty mallet in one hand. "Eyegots at 'am bigun!" she rasped, and proudly raised her other hand, two fingers of which pinched the long tail of a large, crushed black rat that twitched in its death throes.

"Well, toss the bastard!" Shawcombe told her. Both Woodward and Matthew expected her to throw the rat into the cookpot, but she shambled over to a window, unlatched the shutter, and out went the dying rodent into the stormy dark.

The door opened. a wet rat of another breed came in trailing a blue flag of curses. Uncle abner was soaked, his clothes and white beard dripping, his boots clotted with mud. "End 'a the damn world, what it is!" he pronounced, as he slammed the door and bolted it. "Gonna wash us away, d'rectly!"

"You feed and water them horsesi" Shawcombe had previously commanded abner to take the travellers' horses and wagon to shelter in the barn, as well as tend to the three other sway-backed steeds.

"I reckon I did."

"You bed 'em down all righti If you left them nags standin' in the rain again, I'll whip your arse!"

"They're in the damn barn, and you can kiss my pickle if you're doubtin' me!"

"Watch that smart mouth, 'fore I sew it up! Go on and get these gents some rum!"

"I ain't doin' nothin'!" the old man squalled. "I'm so wet I'm near swimmin' in my skin!"

"I believe I'd prefer ale," Woodward said, remembering how his earlier taste of Shawcombe's rum had almost burned his tongue to a cinder. "Or tea, if you have it."

"Myself the same," Matthew spoke up.

"You heard the gentlemen!" Shawcombe hollered at his hapless uncle. "Go on and fetch 'em some ale! Best in the house! Move, I said!" He took a threatening two steps toward the old man, lifting his tankard as if he were about to crown abner's skull with it, in the process sloshing the foul-smelling liquor onto his guests. Matthew shot a dark glance at Woodward, but the older man just shook his head at the base comedy of the situation. abner's soaked spirit collapsed before his nephew's ire and he scurried off to the storage pantry, but not without leaving a vile, half-sobbed oath lingering in his wake.

"Some people don't know who's the master of this house!" Shawcombe pulled a chair over and sat without invitation at their table. "You should pity me, gents! Everywhere I look, I have to rest my eyes on a halfwit!"

and a halfwit behind his eyes too, Matthew thought.

Woodward shifted in his chair. "I'm sure running a tavern is a troublesome business."

"That's God's own truth! Get a few travellers through here, but not many. Do some tradin' with the trappers and the redskins. 'Course, I only been here three, four months."

"You built this place yourselfi" Matthew asked. He had noted a half-dozen sparkles of water dripping from the shoddy roof.

"Yep. Every log and board, done it all."

"Your bad back allowed you to cut and haul the logsi"

"My bad backi" Shawcombe frowned. "What're you goin' on abouti"

"Your bad back that you injured lifting the heavy bales. Didn't you say you worked on the river Thamesi I thought your injury prevented you from carrying anything like ... oh ... a trunk or two."

Shawcombe's face had become a chunk of stone. a few seconds passed and then his tongue flicked out and licked his lower lip. He smiled, but there was a hardness in it. "Oh," he said slowly, "my back. Well ... I did have a partner. He was the one did the cuttin' and haulin'. We hired a few redskins too, paid 'em in glass beads. What I meant to say is . . . my back's in pain more when it's wet out. Some days I'm fit as a fiddle."

"What happened to your partneri" Woodward inquired.

"Took sick," came the quick response. His stare was still fixed on Matthew. "Fever. Poor soul had to give it up, go back to Charles Town."

"He didn't go to Fount Royali" Matthew plowed on. His bloodhound's instinct had been alerted, and in the air hung the definite smell of deceit. "There's a doctor in Fount Royal, isn't therei"

"I wouldn't know. You asked, I'm answerin'. He went back to Charles Town."

"Here! Drink 'til your guts bust!" Two wooden tankards brimming with liquid were slammed down in the center of the table, and then abner withdrew - still muttering and cursing -  to dry himself before the hearth.

"It's a hard country," Woodward said, to break the tension between the other two men. He lifted his tankard and saw, distressingly, that an oily film had risen to the liquid's surface.

"It's a hard world," Shawcombe corrected, and only then did he pull his stare away from Matthew. "Drink up, gents," he said, uptilting the rum to his mouth.

Both Woodward and Matthew were prudent enough to try sipping the stuff first, and they were glad at their failure of courage. The ale, brewed of what tasted like fermented sour apples, was strong enough to make the mouth pucker and the throat clench. Matthew's eyes watered and Woodward was sure he felt prickles of sweat under his wig. Even so, they both got a swallow down.

"I get that ale from the Indians." Shawcombe wiped his lips with the back of his hand. "They call it a word means 'snakebite.'"

"I feel soundly bitten," Woodward said.

"Second swaller's not so bad. Once you get halfway done, you'll be a lion or a lamb." Shawcombe took another drink and sloshed the liquor around in his mouth. He propped his feet up on the table beside them and leaned back in his chair. "You don't mind me askin', what business do you have in Fount Royali"

"It's a legal matter," Woodward answered. "I'm a magistrate."

"ahhhhhh." Shawcombe nodded as if he understood perfectly. "Both of you wear the robesi"

"No, Matthew is my clerk."

"It's to do with the trouble there, am I righti"

"It is a matter of some concern, yes," Woodward said, not knowing how much this man knew about the events in Fount Royal, and unwilling to give him any more rope with which to bundle a tale for other travellers.

"Oh, I know the particulars," Shawcombe said. "ain't no secret. Message riders been back and forth through here for the last couple a' months, they gimme the story. Tell me this, then: you gonna hang her, burn her, or cut her head offi"

"Firstly, the accusations against her must be proven. Secondly, execution is not one of my duties."

"But you'll be passin' the sentence, won't youi C'mon! What'll it bei"

Woodward decided the only way to get him off this route was to run the distance. "If she's found guilty, the penalty is hanging."

"Pah!" Shawcombe waved a disapproving hand. "If it was up to my quirt, I'd cut her head off and burn her to boot! Then I'd take them ashes and throw 'em in the ocean! They can't stand salt water, y'know." He tilted his head toward the hearth and hollered, "Hey, there! We're waitin' for our suppers!"

Maude snapped something at him that sprayed an arc of spittle from her mouth, and he yelled, "Get on with it, then!" another swig of rum went down his hatch. "Well," he said to his guests' silence, "this here's how I see it: they ought to shut Fount Royal down, set fire to everything there, and call it quits. Once the Devil gets in a place, ain't no remedy but the flames. You can hang her or whatever you please, but the Devil's took root in Fount Royal now, and there ain't no savin' it."

"I think that's an extreme position," Woodward said. "Other towns have had similar problems, and they survived - and have flourished - once the situation was corrected."

"Well,Iwouldn't want to live in Fount Royal, or any other place where the Devil's been walkin' 'round town like he's made hisself at home! Life's damn hard enough as it is. I don't want conjures bein' put on me while I'm sleepin'!" He grunted to emphasize his point. "Yessir, you talk pretty, but I'll wager you wouldn't care to turn down an alley and see ol' Scratch waitin' in the dark! So my advice to you, sir - lowly tavern-keeper that I am - is to cut the head off that Devil's whore and order the whole town burnt to the ground."

"I will not pretend that I know any answers to mysteries - holy or unholy," the magistrate said evenly, "but I do know the situation in Fount Royal is precarious."

"and damn dangerous too." Shawcombe started to say something else, but his open mouth expelled no words; it was obvious to Woodward and Matthew that his attention, made imprecise by strong drink, had been diverted from the matter of Fount Royal. He was admiring the gold-threaded waistcoat once more. "I swear, that's a fine piece a' work," he said, and dared to run his grimy fingers over the material again. "Where'd you get thati New Yorki"

"It . . . was a present from my wife. In London."

"I was married once'st. and once'st was enough." He gave a gruff, humorless laugh. His fingers continued to caress the fabric, much to Woodward's discomfort. "Your wife is in Charles Towni"

"No." Woodward's voice had thickened. "My wife ... remains in London."

"Mine's at the bottom of the bloody atlantic. She died on the passage, shit herself to death. They rolled her up and rolled her over. Y'know, a waistc't like this . . . how much is somethin' like this worthi"

"More than any man should have to pay," Woodward said, and then he pointedly moved his chair a few inches away from Shawcombe and left the tavern-keeper's fingers groping the air.

"Clear room! Watchyer elbows, there!" Maude slapped two wooden bowls, both filled with a murky brown stew, onto the table in front of Shawcombe and the magistrate. Matthew's bowl was brought by the girl, who set it down and quickly turned away to retreat to the hearth again. as she did, her clothes brushed his arm and the wind of her passage brought a strong scent to Matthew's nostrils: the scent of an unwashed body, yes, but another odor that overpowered the first. It was musky and sweetly sour, a compelling pungency, and it hit him like a fist to the chest that it was the aroma of her private region.

Shawcombe inhaled deeply, with a raucous noise. He looked at Matthew, whose eyes had widened slightly and were still tracking the girl. "Hey, there!" Shawcombe barked. "What're you gawkin' ati"

"Nothing." Matthew averted his gaze to the stew bowl.

"Uh huh."

The girl returned, bringing with her their wooden spoons. Once more her skirt brushed his arm, and he moved it with a twitch as if his elbow had been hornet-stung. That smell wafted to his nostrils. His heart was beating very hard. He picked up his spoon and realized his palm was damp. Then he realized Shawcombe was staring intensely at him, reading him like a broadsheet.

Shawcombe's eyes glittered in the candlelight. He wet his lips before he spoke. "She's a fair piece, do y'thinki"


Shawcombe smiled slightly, a mean and mocking smile. "a fair piece," he repeated. "You fancy a look at her oyster basketi"

"Mr. Shawcombe!" Woodward grasped the situation, and it was not acceptable to him. "If you don't mind - "

"Oh, you both can have a go at her, if you please. Won't cost you but a guinea for the two of you."

"Certainly not!" Woodward's cheeks had flamed. "I told you, I'm a married man!"

"Yeah, but she's in London, ain't shei Don't mean to tell me you got her name tattooed on your cock now, do youi"

If the storm had not been raging outside, if the horses had not been in the barn, if there were anywhere else in the world to spend this night, Woodward might've gotten to his feet with all the dignity he could summon and bade farewell to this coarse-minded lout. What he really wanted to do, deep in his soul, was to strike an open-handed blow across Shawcombe's leering face. But he was a gentleman, and gentlemen did no such things. Instead, he forced down his anger and disgust like a bucketful of bile and said tersely, "Sir, I am faithful to my wife. I would appreciate your understanding of that fact."

Shawcombe replied by spitting on the floor. He riveted his attention on the younger man again. "Well, how 'bout you theni You care for a tossi Say ten shillin'si"

"I ... I mean to say - " Matthew looked to Woodward for help, because in truth he didn't know what he meant to say.

"Sir," Woodward said, "you force us into a difficult position. The young man . . . has lived in an almshouse for much of his life. That is . . ." He frowned, deciding how to phrase the next thing. "What you must realize is . . . his experience is very limited. He hasn't yet partaken of- - "

"Great sufferin' mother!" Shawcombe broke in. "You mean he ain't never been fuckedi"

"Well... as I say, his experience hasn't yet led him to - "

"Oh, quit that foamin' at the mouth! He's a fuckin' virgin, is that what you're tellin' mei"

"I believe your way of expressing that is a contradiction of terms, sir, but . . . yes, that's what I'm telling you."

Shawcombe whistled with amazement, and the way he regarded Matthew made the younger man blush blood-red. "I ain't never met one of your breed before, sonny! Damn my ears if I ever heard such a thing! How old are youi"

"I'm . . . twenty years old," Matthew was able to answer. His face was absolutely on fire.

"Twenty years and no pussyi How're you able to draw a breath without bustin' your bagi"

"I might ask how old that girl is," Woodward said. "She's not seen fifteen yet, has shei"

"What year is thisi" Shawcombe asked.

"Sixteen ninety-nine."

Shawcombe began counting on his fingers. Maude brought to their table a wooden platter laden with chunks of brown cornbread, then scurried away once more. The tavern-keeper was having obvious difficulty with his digital mathematics, and finally he dropped his hand and grinned at Woodward. "Never you mind, she's ripe as a fig puddin'."

Matthew reached for the snakebite and near guzzled it.

"Be that as it may," Woodward countered, "we shall both pass on your invitation." He picked up his spoon and plunged it into the watery stew.

"Wasn't no invite. Was a business offer." Shawcombe drank some more rum and then started in on his stew as well.

"Damnedest thing I ever heard!" he said, his mouth full and leaking at the corners. "I was rogerin' the girls when I was twelve years old, m'self!"

"Jack One Eye," Matthew said. It had been something he'd wanted to ask about, and now seemed as good a time as any to get Shawcombe's mind off the current subject.


"Earlier you mentioned Jack One Eye." Matthew dipped a chunk of cornbread into his stew and ate it. The bread tasted more of scorched stones than corn, but the stew wasn't at all objectionable. "What were you talking abouti"

"The beast of beasts." Shawcombe picked up his bowl with both hands and slurped from it. "Stands seven, eight feet tall. Black as the hair on the Devil's ass. Had his eye shot out by a redskin's arrow, but just one arrow didn't stop him. No sir! Just made him meaner, is what they say. Hungrier, too. Swipe your face off with a claw and eat your brains for breakfast, he would."

"Jack One Eye's a fuckin' bear!" spoke up abner, from where he stood steaming by the hearth. "Big one, too! Bigger'n a horse! Bigger'n God's fist, what he is!"

"Hain't no burr."

Shawcombe looked toward the speaker of this last declaration, stew glistening on his grizzled chin. "Huhi What're you sayin'i"

"Sayin' he hain't no burr." Maude came forward, silhouetted by the firelight. Her voice was still a mangled wheeze, but she was speaking as slowly and clearly as she could. This subject, both Woodward and Matthew surmised, must be of importance to her.

'"Course he's a bear!" Shawcombe said. "What is he, if he ain't no beari"

"Hain't jus' a burr," she corrected. "I seen 'im. You hain't. I know 'hut he is."

"She's as addle-brained as the rest of 'em," Shawcombe told Woodward with a shrug.

"I seen 'im," the old woman repeated, a measure of force in her voice. She had reached their table and stood next to Matthew. Candlelight touched upon her wizened face, but her deep sunken eyes held the shadows. "I 'as at the door. Right they, at the door. Me Joseph was comin' home. Our boy too. I watch 'em, comin' out of the woods, over the field. Had a deer hangin' 'tween 'em. I lift up me laneturn, and I start ta holler 'em in . . . and all suddens that thang behind 'em! Jus' rose up, out of nowhar'." Her right hand had raised, her skinny fingers curled around the handle of a spectral lantern. "I try ta scream me husband's name . . . but hain't get nothin' out," she said. Her mouth tightened. "I try," she croaked. "I try . . . but God done stole me voice."

"Most like it was rotgut liquor stole it!" Shawcombe said, with a rough laugh.

The old woman didn't respond. She was silent, as rain battered the roof and a pine knot popped in the hearth. Finally she drew a long ragged breath that held terrible sadness and resignation. "Kilt our boy 'fore Joseph could tarn 'round," she said, to no one in particular. Matthew thought she might be looking at him, but he wasn't certain of it. "Like take his head off, one swang o' them claws. Then it fell on me husband . . . and weren't nothin' to be dun. I took a'running, threw me laneturn at 'im, but he 'as big. So awful big. He jus' shake them big black shoulders, and then he drag that deer off and leave me with what 'as left. Joseph 'as a-split open from 'is windpipe to 'is gullet, his innards a-hangin' out. Took 'im three days ta die." She shook her head and Matthew could see a wet glint in her eye sockets.

"My Lord!" Woodward said. "Wasn't there a neighbor to come to your aidi"

"Naybarri" she said, incredulously. "Hain't no naybarrs out 'chere. Me Joseph 'as a trapper, dun some Injun tradin'. Tha's how we live. What I'm tellin' you is, Jack One Eye hain't jus' a burr. Ever'thin' dark 'bout this land . . . ever'thin' cruel and wicked. When you think your husband 'n son are comin' home and you liftin' a light and 'bout to holler 'em in. Then that thang rises up, and all sudden you hain't got nothin' no more. Tha's what Jack One Eye is."

Neither Woodward nor Matthew knew how to respond to this wretched tale, but Shawcombe, who had continued slurping stew and pushing cornbread into his mouth, had his own response. "aw, shit!" he cried out and grasped his jaw. His face was pinched with pain. "What's in this bloody bread, womani" He reached into his mouth, probed around, and his fingers came out gripping a small dark brown object. '"Bout broke my tooth on this damn thing! Hell's bells!" Realization had struck him. "It is a fuckin' tooth!"

"I 'spect it's mine," Maude said. "Had some loose 'uns this mornin'." She grabbed it from his hand, and before he could say anything more she turned her back on them and went to her duties at the hearth.

"Damn ol' bitch is fallin' to pieces!" Shawcombe scowled. He swigged some rum, swished it around his mouth, and started in on his supper once more.

Woodward looked down at a chunk of cornbread that he'd placed in his stewbowl. He very politely cleared his throat. "I believe my appetite has been curtailed."

"Whati You ain't hungry no morei Here, pass it over then!" Shawcombe grabbed the magistrate's bowl and dumped it all into his own. He had decided to disdain the use of his eating utensils in favor of his hands, stew dripping from his mouth and spattering his shirt. "Hey, clerk!" he grunted, as Matthew sat there deciding whether to risk chewing on a rotten tooth or not. "You want a go with the girl, I'll pay you ten pence to watch. ain't like I'll see a virgin ridin' the wool every day."

"Siri" Woodward's voice had sharpened. "I've already told you, the answer is no."

"You presumin' to speak for him, theni What are you, his damn fatheri"

"Not his father. But I am his guardian."

"What the hell does a twenty-year-old man need with a fuckin' guardiani"

"There are wolves everywhere in this world, Mr. Shawcombe," Woodward said, with a lift of his eyebrows. "a young man must be very careful not to fall into their company."

"Better the company of wolves than the cryin' of saints," Shawcombe said. "You might get et up, but you won't die of boredom."

The image of wolves feasting on human flesh brought another question to Matthew's mind. He pushed his stewbowl toward the tavern-keeper. "There was a magistrate travelling to Fount Royal from Charles Town two weeks ago. His name was Thymon Kingsbury. Did he happen to stop herei"

"No, ain't seen him," Shawcombe answered without pause in his gluttony.

"He never arrived at Fount Royal," Matthew went on. "It seems he might have stopped here, if he - "

"Prob'ly didn't get this far," Shawcombe interrupted. "Got hisself crowned in the head by a highwayman a league out of Charles Town, most like. Or maybe Jack One Eye got him. Man travellin' alone out here's a handshake away from Hell."

Matthew pondered this statement as he sat listening to the downpour on the roof. Water was streaming in, forming puddles on the boards. "I didn't say he was alone," Matthew said at last.

Shawcombe's chewing might have faltered a fraction. "You just spoke the one name, didn't youi"

"Yes. But I might not have mentioned his clerk."

"Well, shit!" Shawcombe slammed the bowl down. The fury had sparked in his eyes again. "Was he alone or noti and what does it matteri"

"He was alone," Matthew said evenly. "His clerk had taken ill the night before." He watched the candle's flame, a black thread of smoke rising from its orange blade. "But then, I don't suppose it really matters."

"No, it don't." Shawcombe darted a dark glance at Woodward. "He's got an itch to ask them questions, don't hei"

"He's an inquisitive young man," Woodward said. "and very bright, as well."

"Uh huh." Shawcombe's gaze turned on Matthew again, and Matthew had the distinct and highly unsettling sensation of facing the ugly barrel of a primed and cocked blunderbuss. "Best take care somebody don't put out your lamp." Shawcombe held the penetrating stare for a few seconds, and then he started in on the food Matthew had pushed aside.

The two travellers excused themselves from the table when Shawcombe announced that abner was going to play the fiddle for their "entertainment." Woodward had tried mightily to restrain his bodily functions, but now nature was shouting at him and he was obliged to put on his coat, take a lantern, and venture out into the weather.

alone in the room, rain pattering from the roof and a single candle guttering, Matthew heard abner's fiddle begin to skreech. It appeared they would be serenaded whether they liked it or not. To make matters worse, Shawcombe began to clap and holler in dubious counterpoint. a rat scuttled in a corner of the room, obviously as disturbed as was Matthew.

He sat down on the straw mattress and wondered how he would ever find sleep tonight, though he was exhausted from the trip. With rats in the room and two more caterwauling out by the hearth, it was likely to be a hard go. He decided he would create and solve some mathematics problems, in Latin of course. That usually helped him relax in difficult situations.

I don't suppose it really matters, he'd told Shawcombe in regard to Magistrate Kingsbury's travelling alone. But it seemed to Matthew that it did matter. To travel alone was exceptional and - as Shawcombe had correctly stated - foolhardy. Magistrate Kingsbury had been drunk every time Matthew had seen the man, and perhaps the liquor had enfeebled his brain. But Shawcombe had assumed that Kingsbury was alone. He had not asked Was he alone or Who was travelling with him. No, he'd made the statement: Man travellin' alone . . .

The fiddling's volume was reaching dreadful heights. Matthew sighed and shook his head at the indignity of the situation. at least, however, they had a roof over them for the night. Whether the roof held up all night was another question.

He could still smell the girl's scent.

It came upon him like an ambush. The scent of her was still there, whether in his nostrils or in his mind he wasn't sure. Care for a tossi

Yes, Matthew thought. Math problems. She's ripe as a fig puddin'. and definitely in Latin.

The fiddle moaned and shrieked and Shawcombe began to stomp the floor. Matthew stared at the door, the girl's scent summoning him.

His mouth was dry. His stomach seemed to be tied up in an impossible knot. Yes, he thought, sleep tonight was going to be a hard go.

a very, very hard go.
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