Ian has won Angelique - but at what cost?
The night was still, save for the far-off lapping of waves and the occasional cry of gull. Ian stood in Angelique’s doorway. Her father’s raspy wheezing was loud and irregular, and Ian could not tell if the girl still breathed. He fixed his eyes on a shaft of moonlight that managed to squeeze between the shutters to fall across her bosom, then gave a sigh of relief to see her chest slowly rise and gently fall.
As his vision adjusted to the darkened room, Ian made out the curve of her cheek and forehead, pale against the dark sunken circles around her eyes. It was time to reposition her again. Ian’s heart wrenched just a bit. To be so close to such a prize woman, and yet so far away. He grunted with his efforts. For her small size, her limpness made it all the harder, like trying to push a rope into coils.
His duty done, he stepped lightly into the pantry. The cupboards were near bare again, and it was time he fetched some more money. MacGwire was certainly in no shape to help out! He was drunk most every day now, and even when sober could be trusted with neither saw nor carving knife. No, if there was anything to come into the larder of this house, it must again be Ian who would provide.
He grabbed a chunk of bread and a swig of ale. Paying that woman regularly for four days now had depleted his meager resources. It wasn’t like this before! Then, he had had money, and lots of it to swagger about with. Now, he could not come and go as he used to, and his coins left easier than they came. Ian clenched his fists at the thought, until he realized he had just crushed his bread. Angrily, he shoved it in his mouth, bruising his lip and blaming Mary. Not only paying when he deserved her services free — hadn’t he been gracious in not spilling the story of bailing out Duncan? — but then having to listen to her prattling all day! On and on about how good the Lord is to them and how Duncan has changed. As if anything could change a man like that one! Once a thief, always a thief — how well Ian knew that.
Clouds intermittently blocked the half a moon, and Ian waited for one of these patches of greater darkness before slipping silently out of the house. Aye, once a thief, always a thief. And why not, if the other way paid less? A quick trip to liberate a few poached fish from the other thieves, and Ian would again have enough to sell up the coast. It was near fool-proof. As long as he was not caught, he was in no danger. How could a poacher have Ian arrested for stealing?
A loud crack broke the night as Ian’s head bounced off the side of the cottage, a large hairy hand on his throat pinning him to the wall. When Ian’s vision cleared, he was nose to nose with a pock-marked face, fetid breath whistling through broken teeth. The movement of the clouds flashed dim moonlight off the knife blade an inch from his eye.
“Out for a midnight stroll, are we, Ian? Goin’ fishing, maybe?” A breeze from the water mingled the stench of rotting seaweed with the days-old body odor of the burly man. “Don’t mind if we join up wit’ ya, do ye?”
Gasping for breath, Ian stammered, “What ... what do you want, Price?”
“What do we wants?” Price repeated in a hoarse whisper. He gestured widely with the knife. “We wants one o’ them stone castles on the hill, with servants bowing and scraping before me. We wants a pocket full of gold crowns every time I put me pants on.” His fist tightened with a jerk and jammed into Ian’s Adam’s apple. “And I want to know who’s the little devil wot’s been raiding my nets!” The knife played with Ian’s eyelashes. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Mister Innis?”
Ian trembled in the firm grip of the burly brute. Once a thief, always a thief — only now it was time to meet a thief’s end!
A voice came from the shadows behind the poacher. “Hold your knife, Price.”
The large man whirled round, knife ready in one beefy hand, Ian dangling, choking, in the other. “Who’s there?” he demanded.
“Not just ‘who’, Price,” came a second voice, a bit farther way, “but ‘how many’ as well.” The small clatter of one stone skittering across others came from a third direction.
“So you have me!” the poacher growled. “So come and get me! But Innis dies first, and he’ll not be the last!”
“We have no quarrel with you, Price. We did not come because of you. We also want Ian Innis.” The shadow with the second voice separated slightly from the shadows to materialize as Geoff.
Ian began to sweat in the cool night air. He would have preferred a quick knife thrust to a slow hanging. Though if Price did not let him down soon, he was going to strangle anyway at the end of the man’s huge arm!
“Let him go, Price, and be on about your business, whatever that may be,” said the first voice. “We will take care of Innis, and you’ll have no more problems from him.”
With a growl and a shove, Price released Ian, who sank to the ground, gasping for sweet air. The knife blade whispered against its sheath. “All right, then, he’s yours, and you’re welcome to him!” Price turned and spat at Ian’s feet. “Stay away, Innis, or ye’ll be bait for my hooks!” With that, the large man stomped off into the night.
Ian struggled weakly to his feet. The shadowy figure of Geoff confronted him, with the darker outline of the unknown second man standing off. “What do you want with me?” he croaked.
“We want you to stay here where you belong, Innis.” Ian started at the voice: it was Duncan!
“What were you doing out there?” Ian demanded. “Why were you watching me at midnight?”
The moon peeked through the clouds enough to illuminate a smile on Duncan’s face. “Your path out of town leads by my house, Ian.” He came closer. “Mary told me how you were running low on food and money, and I thought you might be trying something soon. So Geoff and I decided to wait and see.”
“So what business is it of yours?”
Jason, the third man, snorted. “I should have known. Not one word of thanks for us for sticking our nose into your business tonight!”
“I can take care of myself!”
“Like you take care of Angelique?”
Ian whirled on Duncan. “She’s alive still, isn’t she? What more do you want?”
“Calm down, Innis,” said Geoff, “or you’ll wake the village.” He moved forward a step. “We want you to stay alive, Innis, to continue your responsibilities. We also don’t want you getting so comfortable in a boat on the water that you keep going up the coast!”
“And you told Mary and I that you would not pay her with dirty money. The village does not need another thief, and I don’t need your bad money!” He paused, then took a deep breath. “As of now, Innis, my Mary no longer works for you.”
“Are you sure that is wise, Duncan?”
“If you refer to Duncan’s mistake, Innis,” said Geoff, “he told me all, and I have forgiven him. For the last three years, he has been a great asset to the village and to me.” He pointed a long finger at Ian’s nose. “You, on the other hand, have never been anything but trouble!”
“No!” Ian shouted in a hoarse whisper. “You can’t leave me like this! I can’t take care of the girl by myself, especially with no money!”
“Be on the beach in the morning, Innis, and you can probably sell your boat.” With that, the three men turned and walked away.
Ian stood there, stunned by Geoff’s statement. Sell his boat! Why, that boat was all he had! It was how he made his money — or had until now! It was the finest boat in the village, built by MacGwire himself. With that boat he could ...
Ian stopped himself short, startled as revelation dawned upon him. He could do nothing with his boat, not now. If he set out, Price or another poacher would assume he was going to their nets, and kill him. If he went the other way up the coast, Geoff would send men after him and bring him back for hanging.
He could start fishing again, like he used to as a boy. Ian snorted in derision at his own thought. His hands were soft and white, and his arms and back unused to the hard labor required. Not to mention that, even if the others let him on the water to challenge them for their catches, he no longer knew the bay or the fish.
With a sigh drawn from the depths of his soul, Ian turned back into the house. He was lost. Come the morning, he would lose even more. His boat, his last status symbol, would be gone, no doubt for but a fraction of its worth. Then he would have to go begging for another nurse for Angelique.
As he pulled the covers over him, Ian heard a lone seagull, a strange mocking cry that sounded like “lo-o-o-st”. Aye, lost he was. Nor could he ask directions, because he did not know where to go from here.