JAMIE HAD GONE before I woke; his blanket lay neatly folded beside me, and Gideon was gone from the pin-oak to which Jamie had tethered him the night before.
“Colonel’s gone to meet with the Governor’s Council of War,” Kenny Lindsay told me, yawning widely. He blinked, shaking himself like a wet dog. “Tea, ma’am, or coffee?”
“Tea, please.” I supposed it was the tenor of current events that was causing me to think of the Boston Tea Party. I couldn’t recall for sure when that brouhaha and its subsequent events were due to occur, but had an obscure feeling that I ought to seize every opportunity of drinking tea while it was still obtainable, in hopes of saturating my tissues—like a bear tucking into the grubs and berries in anticipation of winter.
The day had dawned still and clear, and while it was cool for the moment, there was already a hint of mugginess in the air from the rain the day before. I sipped my tea, feeling small tendrils of hair escape from bondage to curl round my face, sticking to my cheeks in the steam from my cup.
Tissues restored for the moment, I fetched a couple of buckets and set off for the stream. I hoped it wouldn’t be needed, but it would be as well to have a quantity of boiled sterile water on hand, just in case. And if it wasn’t needed for medical purposes, I could rinse my stockings, which were much in need of attention.
Despite its name the Great Alamance was not a particularly impressive river, being no more than fifteen or twenty feet across for most of its length. It was also shallow, mud-bottomed, and kinked like a wool-raveling, with multiple small arms and tributaries that wandered all over the landscape. I supposed it was a decent military demarcation, though; while a body of men could certainly ford the stream without much trouble, there was no chance of them doing so by stealth.
Dragonflies darted over the water, and over the heads of a couple of militia-men, chatting companionably as they relieved themselves into the murky waters of the stream. I paused tactfully behind a bush until they had left, reflecting as I made my way down the sloping bank with my buckets how fortunate it was that most of the troops would consider drinking water only if actually dying of dehydration.
When I came back into camp, I found it wide awake, every man alert, if red-eyed. The atmosphere was one of watchfulness, though, rather than immediate battle-readiness, and there was no more than a general stir of interest when Jamie returned, Gideon threading his way past the campfires with surprising delicacy.
“How is it, Mac Dubh?” Kenny asked, standing to greet him as Jamie reined up. “Anything ado?”
Jamie shook his head. He was dressed with a neatness approaching severity, hair clubbed back, dirk and pistols fixed on his belt, sword at his side. A yellow cockade fixed to his coat was the only touch of decoration. Battle-ready, and a small frisson crept up my spine at the thought.
“The Governor’s sent across his wee letter to the Regulators. Four sheriffs each took a copy; they’re to read it out to every group they come across. We must just wait, and see what happens.”
I followed his glance toward the third campfire. Roger had likely left as soon as it was light, before the camp woke.
I had emptied the buckets into the kettle for boiling. I picked them up for another trip to the stream, when Gideon’s ears pricked and he lifted his head suddenly, with a sharp whicker of greeting. Jamie instantly nudged the horse in front of me, and his hand dropped to his sword. My view was blocked by Gideon’s enormous chest and withers; I couldn’t see who was coming, but I did see Jamie’s hand relax its grip on the sword-hilt as whoever it was came in sight. A friend, then.
Or if not precisely a friend, at least someone he didn’t mean to run through or hack out of the saddle. I heard a familiar voice, raised in greeting, and peered out from under Gideon’s chin to see Governor Tryon riding across the small meadow, accompanied by two aides.
Tryon sat his horse decently, if without great style, and was dressed as usual for campaigning, in a serviceable blue uniform coat and doeskin breeches, a yellow officer’s cockade in his hat, and with one of the cavalry cutlasses called a hanger at his side—not for show; the hilt showed nicks and the scabbard was worn.
Tryon pulled up his horse and nodded, touching his hat to Jamie, who did likewise. Seeing me lurking in Gideon’s shadow, the Governor politely removed his cocked hat altogether, bowing from the saddle.
“Mrs. Fraser, your servant.” He glanced at the pails I held, then turned in his saddle, beckoning to one of the aides. “Mr. Vickers. Kindly help Mrs. Fraser, if you will.”
I surrendered the pails gratefully to Mr. Vickers, a pink-cheeked young man of eighteen or so, but instead of going with him, I simply directed him where to take them. Tryon raised one eyebrow at me, but I returned his expression of mild displeasure with a bland smile, and stood my ground. I wasn’t going anywhere.
He was wise enough to recognize that, and make no issue of my presence. Dismissing me instead from his cognizance, he nodded again to Jamie.
“Your troops are in order, Colonel Fraser?” He glanced pointedly around. The only troops visible at the moment were Kenny, who had his nose buried in his cup, and Murdo Lindsay and Geordie Chisholm, who were engaged in a vicious game of mumblety-peg in the shadows of the copse.
The Governor raised both brows in patent skepticism.
“Call them, sir. I will inspect their readiness.”
Jamie paused for a moment, gathering up his reins. He squinted against the rising sun, evaluating the Governor’s mount. “A nice gelding ye have there, sir. Is he steady?”
“Of course.” The Governor frowned. “Why?”
Jamie threw back his head and gave a ululating Highland cry, of the sort meant to be heard over several acres of mountainside. The Governor’s horse jerked at the reins, eyes rolling back. Militiamen poured out of the thicket, shrieking like banshees, and a black cloud of crows exploded from the trees above them like a puff of cannon smoke, raucous in flight. The horse reared, decanting Tryon in an undignified heap on the grass, and bolted for the trees on the far side of the meadow.
I took several steps backward, out of the way.
The Governor sat up, purple-faced and gasping for breath, to find himself in the center of a ring of grinning militiamen, all pointing their weapons at him. The Governor glared into the barrel of the rifle poking into his face and batted it away with one hand, making small choking noises, like an angry squirrel. Jamie cleared his throat in a meaningful manner, and the men faded quietly back into the copse.
I thought that on the whole, it would be a mistake either to offer the Governor a hand to arise, or to let him get a look at my face. I tactfully turned my back and wandered a few steps away, affecting to have discovered an absorbing new plant springing from the ground near my feet.
Mr. Vickers reappeared from the wood, looking startled, a pail of water in each hand.
“What has happened?” He started toward the Governor, but I put a hand on his sleeve to detain him. Best if Mr. Tryon had a moment to recover both his breath and his dignity.
“Nothing important,” I said, recovering my pails before he could spill them. “Er . . . how many militia troops are assembled here, do you know?”
“One thousand and sixty-eight, mum,” he said, looking thoroughly bewildered. “That is not accounting for General Waddell’s troops, of course. But what—”
“And you have cannon?”
“Oh, yes, several, mum. We have two detachments with artillery. Two six-pounders, ten swivel-guns, and two eight-pound mortars.” Vickers stood a little straighter, important with the thought of so much potential destruction.
“There are two thousand men across the creek, sir—but the most of them barely armed. Many carry no more than a knife.” Jamie’s voice came from behind me, drawing Vickers’s attention away. I turned round, to find that Jamie had dismounted, and was standing face to face with the Governor, holding the latter’s hat. He slapped it casually against his thigh and offered it back to its owner, who accepted it with as much grace as might be managed under the circumstances.
“I have been told as much, Mr. Fraser,” he said dryly, “though I am pleased to hear that your intelligence corroborates my own. Mr. Vickers, will you be so kind as to go and fetch my horse?” The purple hue had faded from Tryon’s face, and while his manner still held a certain constraint, he seemed not to be holding a grudge. Tryon had both a sense of fairness, and—more importantly at present—a sense of humor, both of which seemed to have survived the recent demonstration of military readiness.
“I suppose that your agents have also told you that the Regulators have no leader, as such?”
“On the contrary, Mr. Fraser. I am under the impression that Hermon Husband is and has been for some considerable time one of the chief agitators of this movement. James Hunter, too, is a name that I have often seen appended to letters of complaint and the endless petitions that reach me in New Bern. And there are others—Hamilton, Gillespie . . .”
Jamie made an impatient gesture, brushing a hovering cloud of gnats from his face.
“In some circumstances, sir, I should be willing to dispute with ye whether the pen is mightier than the sword—but not on the edge of a battlefield, and that is where we stand. A boldness in writing pamphlets does not fit a man to lead troops—and Husband is a Quaker gentleman.”
“I have heard as much,” Tryon agreed. He gestured toward the distant creek, one brow raised in challenge. “And yet he is here.”
“He is here,” Jamie agreed. He paused for a moment, gauging the governor’s mood before proceeding. The Governor was tightly wound; there was no missing the tautness in his figure, or the brightness of his eyes. Still, battle was not yet imminent and the tension was well-leashed. He could still listen.
“I have fed the man at my own hearth, sir,” Jamie said carefully. “I have eaten at his. He makes no secret either of his views or his character. If he has come here today, I am certain that he has done so in torment of mind.” Jamie drew a deep breath. He was on dicey ground here.
“I have sent a man across the creek, sir, to find Husband, and beg him to meet with me. It may be that I can persuade him to use his considerable influence to cause these men—these citizens”—he gestured briefly toward the creek and the invisible myrmidons beyond—“to abandon this disastrous course of action, which cannot but end in tragedy.” He met Tryon’s eyes straight on.
“May I ask you, sir—may I beg of you—if Husband will come, will you not speak with him yourself?”
Tryon stood silent, oblivious of the dusty tricorne he turned around and around in his hands. The echoes of the recent commotion had faded; a vireo sang from the branches of the elm above us.
“They are citizens of this colony,” he said at last, with a nod in the direction of the creek. “I should regret that harm should come to them. Their grievances are not without merit; I have acknowledged as much—publicly!—and taken steps toward redress.” He glanced toward Jamie, as though to see whether this statement was accepted. Jamie stood silent, waiting.