The viscount was barely conscious by the time Edmund tugged him between the thick logs and the tree. Leaving him, Edmund worked to erase every sign of their passage from the beach to the tree.
He cupped his hands by the stream and brought Ashland some water. More of it spilled on the viscount’s face than into his mouth, but it roused Ashland enough so that he opened his eyes.
“Meriweather!” He coughed and wiped blood from his forehead. “How did you find me?”
“God must have guided me here. I was on my way back to Meriweather Hall to report that I had not found any sign of the vicar, and I saw a group of men—”
Ashland grasped the front of Edmund’s coat weakly. “The vicar is missing?”
“Yes. Nobody’s seen him since this morning.”
“That may be whom they were talking about.”
“The smugglers who attacked you?”
Ashland’s scowl was a pale version of his usual one. “How did you know they were smugglers?”
“First, because people normally don’t go around beating up other people in Sanctuary Bay. Second, because I overheard enough of what they said to know.” He did not repeat the exact words because he wanted to be absolutely sure Ashland was not his qualityship. Infighting among criminals was not unheard of. “They spoke of the vicar?”
“Not by name.” He released Edmund’s coat and sagged back against the tree. “They were talking about spiriting away someone, so they could force you and your friends to look the other way when a big delivery comes at week’s end. You have them scared because the three of you have the skills to defeat them.” He tried to chuckle, but it came out as another groan. “I could have used your help this afternoon.”
He began to check Ashland’s wounds. In addition to the one at his hairline, he might have a broken arm and probably at least one broken bone in his leg. No ribs were broken, but he guessed they were tender by the way the viscount flinched. “What happened?”
“I was ambushed.” He winced, then coughed and winced again. “I got careless. Even though I had two pistols with me, I never got a single shot off.”
“So, you have the pistols still?”
“Yes.” His voice was growing feeble again.
Edmund got more water from the stream. This time, Ashland was able to swallow most of it. Tearing fabric off the hems of his shirt and Ashland’s, Edmund wrapped the linen around the viscount’s head. It instantly stained red, but he was more concerned about the injuries he could not see.
“They might be worried about Northbridge, Bradby and me,” he said, picking up a couple of sticks and binding them around Ashland’s leg, “but they gave you quite the basting.”
He pulled two more sticks toward him and handed them to Edmund. “I think they discovered who I am.”
Edmund frowned. “You aren’t Lord Ashland?”
“I am.” He winced as he moved his right arm to let Edmund put a primitive splint on it. “But they must have discovered that I have been working on behalf of the government to put a halt to the smuggling in Sanctuary Bay.” He muttered something under his breath as Edmund tied off the material.
“Why didn’t you tell us that?”
“Because I was unsure which side you were on. There was talk in Whitehall of how the previous Lord Meriweather had asked a lot of questions about the smugglers’ leader, but, when you assumed his place, there were no more questions. It was thought that you might have seen a way to increase your wealth by bringing the smugglers to heel under your boot.”
Edmund sat back on his haunches. “Because I wasn’t nobly born?”
“No.” He shuddered but waved aside Edmund’s hands when he reached to redo the bandage around his head. “Leave it. Meriweather, your station at birth had nothing to do with the suspicions. Your leadership qualities during the war drew attention to you.” His voice grew more strained, but he pushed on. “A man who can make quick, good decisions in the midst of battle is a man who can also make good decisions about sneaking goods ashore, stashing them and then selling them for profit.”
The irony that he was suspected because he once had been skilled at making decisions almost made him laugh, but it was not the time. Ashland was hurt, and Edmund needed to get him somewhere where a physician could tend to his injuries.
“I’m confused,” he said. “Why do the smugglers fear my friends and me but kidnapped the vicar? That would make us more determined to halt them.”
“They are desperate, and their leader is even more so.”