In those days, the Thames Embankment hadn't been built, and only rich and poor people had riverfront property. Rich people had a nice view of the river from their lawns. Poor people had to look at stinking mudflats at low tide, and water lapping at the back door at high tide.
It was to one of those riverbank shacks that we drove early in October, the cart piled high with a coracle balanced over two small wooden kegs, and Paddy's horse blanket covering it all. In a bit more than two months, my attitude toward the odd assortment of stuff people wanted carted somewhere had progressed from interest, through amusement, to boredom. I would have preferred hauling baggage from one of the train stations, if only because there was usually a tip at the end of it.
On the other hand, we had done that last night, and the stout, white-haired lady who'd hired us had pinched my cheek and called me a helpful little lad. Jamie's opinion, once we had left her waving from her front garden, had been, "A man can't always expect to do things the way he wants to do them, but a woman can. Make your peace with that early, and spare yourself considerable bewilderment." I had been too busy rubbing lavender-scented hand cream off my face to appreciate the advice. Extra sixpence or not, driving a boat to the water had to be better than that sort of thing.
"Right there'll do." Jamie pointed to the muddy ground in front of the little house. I was driving Paddy; he stopped at one twitch on the reins. Jamie jumped down, pulled the horse blanket off the coracle, and tossed it over Paddy's back. He shouldered the little round boat and leaned it against the shack's splintery wall, while I rolled the kegs to the cart's gate.
Jamie heaved one onto each of his shoulders. "I might be some time. Catch up on your sleep, why don't you?"
Not a bad idea. Between school in the daytime and work at night, I stumbled heavy-lidded through mornings, and napped at lunchtime.
I whistled for Finn. Jamie had been right about him; civility and table scraps had made him my dog, too. And a good thing; the night air close to the river was damp and chill, but Finn was warm.
The dog leaped into the cart, circled, and curled up, long tail looped over his nose.
As I lay down on the boards beside him, using my crooked arm as a pillow, I said, "You sleep like a cat, you know."
His tail thumped on the boards, raising the acrid odor of matches. I raised my head and sniffed. Jamie had taken his matches with him, and I didn't have any, so where was that smell coming from? I ran my hand over the board. A fine powder came away on my palm and fingers. By moonlight it was hard to be sure, but it didn't look the color of dirt. Maybe whatever it was had leaked from one of those kegs.
I was torn between going after Jamie to tell him about the stuff, or going to sleep as he had suggested. As it happened, there was no time to do either; Malachi O'Neill sauntered out of the house, lighting a cigar.
I had taken a dislike to him at first sight. Maybe it was the rakish tilt of his bowler, or the wavy chestnut hair as pretty as a girl's. The watch chain you could have used to winch a ship into dry dock may have had something to do with it, or the gold front tooth that even now glittered in the moonlight.
Finn didn't care for him, either; he raised his massive head and growled when Malachi leaned an arm on the cart.
Malachi pulled his arm back. "That cur ain't the only dangerous company you keep, laddie."
"Not rightly your business, is it?"
He shrugged. "I'm just saying, take care. It's easier to get into trouble than out of it."
"Speaking of which-" I looked him straight in the eye and kept my tone cool. "Did my mother tell you she's going to have a baby?"
She hadn't, if the way his smirk disappeared was anything to go by, but he shot right back with, "She know who your new friends are?"
"I'll make an agreement with you. You don't tell her about me, and I won't tell her husband about you."
He gave me a knife-edged look. "You're too clever by half, laddie. Best hope that's enough to keep you alive."
At school the next morning, I remembered the spilled powder, and asked Miss Jackson, "What makes matches smell funny?"
She was used to my questions by now; she didn't bat an eye. "Sulfur or phosphorus, most likely. Look them up in the encyclopedia."
I still like reviews, and I'm not ignoring them. I'm just trying to put most of my computer time into getting the rest of this written before the summer semester starts!