“Mr. Gillis said we’ll make New Orleans on the morrow,” Ian said as he stared
out the porthole from the ship’s galley.
“Instead of worrying about what the first mate thinks, you’d best be concentrating on not spilling a drop o’ the captain’s dinner, boy.” Cook handed him the tray laden with fish stew, fresh fruit and two full tankards of rum they’d taken on board in the islands days before. “That is if you’ve a mind to keep your head attached to your shoulders. The captain’s been in a foul mood since we left Kingston.”
Ian swallowed his own frustration at the mention of the English seaport in Jamaica. He’d hoped to sneak off the ship there, but like all the other Royal ports they’d visited, Captain Bond had ordered him put back in the shackles he’d woken up in his first morning on board. Captain muttered he’d “been paid good money to keep the little Lord from touching British soil again.”
That was when Ian knew. If he was ever to escape this nightmare he’d found himself in the past six months, he’d have to jump ship in the former colonies—in New Orleans.
Determined to keep his plans a secret he balanced the tray in both hands as he exited the galley. Months of practice as the ship’s cabin boy had trained his leg muscles so he could maneuver the decks with the pitch and roll on the ocean waves. The numerous punishments he’d received for dropping a tray or tankard that first few weeks at sea had taught him quickly the importance of arriving at Captain Bond’s quarters without spilling a drop of rum.
Tomorrow night he’d make sure every drop of rum made it to the cabin. In fact, he planned to see that a few extra tankards arrived then maybe the bastard would forget the shackles when they made port.
“Enter!” Captain Bond bellowed when he kicked on the door.
Ian opened the door with one hand while carefully balancing the tray with the other.
“Bout time you got here, boy. Set it there.” The bloated, white-whiskered man pointed to the side of his desk as he studied papers with Mr. Gillis at the other end of the cabin. “We’ll want to get the best price for the rum and other cargo when we reach port. No use going with the first merchant.”
Ian concentrated on setting the meal on the desk, surreptitiously studying the map of New Orleans laid out on the center of the desk. He risked a quick peek at the captain and first make.
Neither noticed him.
Without any sudden movement he inched closer. He could make out the port and it looked like a river cut the city in two. He didn’t know much about America’s geography, his governess had concentrated all his studies on England and the Continent. How shortsighted on her part.
As he left the cabin a plan formed in his head.
His first priority was to escape the ship and his guards. Luckily, Bernard the stable lad back on his estate had shown him more than once how to find a hiding place from Uncle Gerald, so once off the ship he’d find some place small and scheduled to hide. Later, once the captain and crew no longer searched for him, he’d find his way east and back to England.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
The ship banged into the wooden pier where it had docked that morning. Ian had done his best to stay out of Captain Bond’s sights except at mealtime. The captain had been happy with the extra rum he’d delivered to the cabin and forgotten to order him chained in the hold while the ship was in port.
Now night had fallen and clouds helped block the moonlight in sporadic waves. Half the crew had gone ashore. Only two guards remained above deck. Ian knew he might never get another chance like this.
Crouched behind two water barrels near the gangplank, he watched for an opening. Life on the ship—dodging masts, sailors and trouble alike—had made him fast and nimble.
All he needed was a few feet and a distraction.
As minutes turned into hours he remained crouched behind the barrels. His legs ached and sweat rolled down his face and neck. The oppressive heat was making him sleepy.
He yawned, covering his mouth not to make any sound.
Maybe he should try tomorrow night?
No, that was no good. He couldn’t risk another night aboard the ship. He pulled the dark skullcap down tighter over his blond hair, trying to conceal the paleness from what little moonlight there was. If a break didn’t come soon he’d have to try and run past the guards.
When another cloud moved over the moon, he inched around the barrels and scooted up behind a crate.
“Hey, there!” One-eyed Pete called from the bow.
Ian didn’t hesitate, he scurried around the crate and darted out onto the gangplank.
“Stop him! The little Lord’s escapin’,” Pete yelled.
Ian ran as fast and hard in a zig-zag pattern—the sound of feet pounding down the gangplank, urging him to move faster. Hands reached out from nowhere, but he eluded them, darting down first one street then into an alley behind some taverns.
He ran and ran, unable to differentiate the pounding of his pulse in his ears from the men’s footsteps. His lungs burning from the exertion and his side aching, he darted behind some crates beneath a set of stairs. Drawing himself into a tight ball, he prayed like he’d never prayed before that the night would swallow him up.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
Hunger gnawed at his gut again.
For five days and nights he’d hidden beneath the warehouse stairs, drinking only rainwater that dripped from above, before venturing out the first time. He’d waited until just before dawn then sneaked down to the pier to find The Evening Star still docked where it had been the day he’d escaped.
Hidden behind crates on the wharf, he’d watched the men unloading crates and loading supplies onto the ship. No one seemed to still be searching for him, but he wasn’t taking any chances and quickly retreated down several back alleys inland away from the wharf. Finally, he’d come to a street with clothing shops where he’d sold the gold buttons from his vest for a few coins. It had been enough for a hot meal every day for the past week and some apples and cheese he’d eaten between meals.
Now it was all gone. He needed to find something to eat and didn’t have any more gold buttons to sell.
Trying not to look suspicious he lingered around the edges of the market street watching the merchants as they sold their wares. Bernard once told him about “light fingers”—young street boys who made a living lifting purses from wealthy gents or stealing food from merchants when their backs were turned.
How hard could it be?
Up until he’d been shanghaied onto the Evening Star, he’d had the best tutors available to the future Lord Brookstone. Surely if an uneducated street rat could lift a purse or some bread, he could manage it, too.
The question was who should be his first victim?
He watched the crowd milling about in front and past him. Some of the people looked well to do. They’d probably have fat purses, but if they were like the gentry back in England, they’d have the law on him like hounds after a fox.
No, not someone too rich.
He studied the merchants and the people in the crowd who didn’t look much better off then him.
No, he couldn’t steal from the poor. His father had impressed upon him it was his duty as a future Duke to look out for those less fortunate than him. A group of sailors sauntered by.
He turned away and held his breath until he realized they were Americans and not the men from his ship. They dodged and darted past carts and through the crowds as if still rolling with the deck of their vessel.
No, they were too nimble. They’d chase him down and beat him to get their money back.
Several women, accompanied by dark-skinned maids, wandered in and out of the shops. They certainly had money and with their hooped skirts they’d never be able to chase him down. However, they were women. When he was younger his mother told him he should never abuse a woman or girl because they were smaller.
He’d loved his mother and as she lay dying from the carriage accident that had already claimed his father’s life, he’d sworn to honor her always by remembering this rule.
So no women.
What he needed was a slow, middle class man. Maybe older, but not too old. Maybe a big man who couldn’t move too fast.
As he watched the crowd ebb and flow, a trio of men in long coats with wide-brimmed hats and boots that sounded heavily on the walkways strode slowly by. Maybe one of them?
His target chosen, he fell in step a few yards behind them. As they meandered through the market, making a few purchases he noticed they were nearing a docked steamboat.
Good! If he timed it right, he could lift a purse as they boarded and escape with no chance of getting caught.
He inched forward.
They stopped to look at a stall full of leather works.
He ducked behind a crate, listening to them over the wild beating of his heart. “Your boys should would like these belts, Cap,” one of the men drawled in a slow lazy sounding accent.
Since he’d been in New Orleans, Ian marveled at how different English could sound in so many different accents. He peeked through the slats of the crates at the men.
“They a-h-r growing so fast their britches can’t stay up. Maybe some good leather belts would help,” the biggest and older of the three said in an odd mixture of the slow drawl and extended pull on the r sound. He laughed, a hearty from the gut laugh, and pulled a long piece of leather from his coat pocket. After talking with the merchant, the giant man pulled out several bills of money, exchanged them for three leather belts then slipped the pouch back in his pocket.
Now he knew where he kept his money. Problem was, he’d have to get up close to the trio. He could probably out run one, but three? They might be able to corner him.
“Silas, you and Walker go check that the horses are ready for loading,” the giant said to the other two men.
“You not comin’, Cap?” the tall wiry man asked.
“No. I have something to take care of before we get on the boat.”
The other two men gave him a curious look and then nodded, sauntering further down the tracks to where three horses stood waiting to be loaded onto a train car.
Ian took a deep breath then slowly exhaled.
His odds had just gotten better. It was now or never.
The man moved to another merchant’s window and stood staring in at some women’s hats.
Ian moved closer, keeping an eye on the man’s coat.
A group of shoppers approached the man, noisily chatting and jostling each other. Ian hurried forward to walk behind them, getting as close as he could and hoping they’d mask his attentions from his target.
The man reached for the wide-rimmed hat on his head, leaving the pocket free of obstruction just as the group passed him.
Ian paused and reached inside. His fingers grasped the edge of the flat leather pouch.
A huge hand clamped down on his wrist.
“I don’t think you want to do that, son.”
Ian stared up into a stern tanned face, with wrinkles crinkling the skin around piercing blue eyes. “Let me go!” he said, trying to pull loose of the man’s grip.
“Settle down.” The man held him steady with one hand while opening the long coat with the other. Two things caught Ian’s eye. The banged up star pinned to the man’s shirt and the six-gun strapped to his hip. “You and I a-h-r going to have a little chat, then we’ll decide what to do with you.”
Ian had learned years ago it was best not to talk when an adult was making decisions. The sting of Uncle Gerald’s hand had taught him that lesson well, so he held his tongue. Fortunately at that point, Ian’s stomach clenched then growled like an angry lion he’d once seen at the London zoo.
“Sounds to me you could use a good meal. If I let go, you willing to talk over some eggs and biscuits?”
“Good. Trouble is, I need to be on that steamboat heading up river, so I can get back to my ranch. You’ll have to come along for the ride. You have any folks you should tell you’re coming with me?”
He probably shouldn’t divulge too much information, but something about the man’s confidence and the way he spoke made Ian trust him. “No, sir. No one.”
“My name’s Anson McCarthy, but my boys and friends call me Cap. If we’re going to get some breakfast, we’d best be getting you a ticket and get on board.”
The giant of a lawman turned and stalked toward the boat.
Was the man a fool? He could run. Just dart back into the crowd. The man would never find him.
His stomach growled again and pain followed it. The man was offering him a hot meal and a chance to escape before any of the crew from the Evening Star could find him.
He’d be safe traveling with the lawman. He said he had a ranch. He’d always been pretty good with horses. Maybe he could find a way to earn his money and keep from starving to death.
“Make up your mind, son. Time’s a wasting,” the man said over his shoulder.
Ian took a breath, then ran after Cap McCarthy. Maybe his fate had taken a turn for the better with one attempt as a pickpocket.