The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 148

   

Tryon took a deep breath, and slapped the hat against his leg.

“Yet I am Governor of this colony. I cannot see the peace disturbed, the law flouted, riot and bloodshed run rampant and unpunished!” He glanced bleakly at me. “I will not.”

He turned his attention back to Jamie.

“I think he will not come, sir. Their course is set”—he nodded once more toward the trees that edged Alamance Creek—“and so is mine. Still . . .” He hesitated for a moment, then made up his mind, and shook his head.

“No. If he does come, then by all means reason with him, and if he will agree to send his men home peaceably—at that point, bring him to me and we shall arrange terms. But I cannot wait upon the possibility.”

Mr. Vickers had retrieved the Governor’s mount. The boy stood a little way apart, holding both horses by their reins, and I saw him nod slightly at this, as though affirming the Governor’s words. His own hat shaded him from the sun, yet his face was flushed, and his eyes bright; he was eager for the fight.

Tryon was not; yet he was ready. Neither was Jamie—but he was ready, too. He held the Governor’s gaze for a moment, and then nodded, accepting inevitability.

“How long?” he asked quietly.

Tryon glanced upward at the sun, which stood a little short of mid-morning. Roger had been gone for nearly two hours; how long might it take him to find Hermon Husband and return?

“The companies are in battle order,” Tryon said. He glanced at the copse, and the corner of his mouth twitched. Then he returned a dark gaze to Jamie’s face. “Not long. Stand ready, Mr. Fraser.”

He turned away, and clapping his hat on his head, seized the reins of his horse and swung into the saddle. He rode away without looking back, followed by his aides.

Jamie watched him go, expressionless.

I moved beside him, touching his hand. I didn’t need to say that I hoped Roger would hurry.

62

“STRAGLERS AND SUSPECTED PERSONS”

Item #12 - No Officer or Soldier to go beyond the Limits of the Camp which is within the distance of the Grand Guard.

Item #63 - Commanding Officers of Corps are to examine all Straglers and suspected Persons, and those who cannot give a good account of themselves to be confined and Report thereof made to Head Quarters.

“Camp Duties and Regulations”: Orders Given Out by His Excellency Governor Tryon to the Provincials of North Carolina.

ROGER TOUCHED THE POCKET of his breeches, where he had tucked away his pewter militia badge. An inch-and-a-half-wide button of metal, pierced round the edges, stamped with a crude “FC” for “Fraser’s Company” and meant to be sewn onto coat or hat, such badges—and the cloth cockades—were the sole items of uniform for most of the Governor’s foot-troops, and the only means of distinguishing a member of the militia from one of the Regulators.

“And exactly how d’ye know whom to shoot?” he had inquired ironically, when Jamie had handed him the badge at supper, two days before. “If you get close enough to see the badge before ye fire, won’t the other bugger get you first?”

Jamie had given him a glance of equal irony, but courteously forbore any observations on Roger’s marksmanship and the likelihood—or otherwise—of his doing any damage with his musket.

“I wouldna wait to see, myself,” he said. “If anyone runs toward ye with a gun, fire, and hope for the best.”

A few men seated around the fire nearby sniggered at this, but Jamie ignored them. He reached for a stick and pulled three roasting yams out of the coals, so they lay side by side, black and steaming in the cool evening air. He kicked one gently, sending it rolling back into the ashes.

“That’s us,” he explained. He kicked the next yam. “That’s Colonel Leech’s company, and that”—he booted the third, which rolled erratically after its fellows—“is Colonel Ashe’s. D’ye see?” He cocked an eyebrow at Roger.

“Each company will go forward in its own path, so ye’re no likely to see any other militia, at least to begin with. Anyone coming toward us is most probably the enemy.” Then his long mouth curled up a bit, as he gestured toward the men all round them, busy with their suppers.

“Ye ken every man here well enough? Well, dinna shoot any of them, and ye’ll be fine, aye?”

Roger smiled ruefully to himself as he made his way carefully down a slope covered with tiny yellow-flowered plants. It was sound advice; he was much less concerned with the possibility of being shot than with the fear of accidentally harming someone himself—including the not-inconsiderable worry of blowing off a few of his own fingers.

Privately, he was resolved not to fire at anyone, regardless either of circumstance or of the possibility of his hitting them. He’d heard enough of the Regulators’ stories—Abel MacLennan, Hermon Husband. Even allowing for the natural hyperbole of Husband’s style, his pamphlets burned with a sense of injustice that was inescapable. How could Roger look to kill a man or maim him, only for protesting against abuses and corruption so blatant that they must offend any just-minded person?

A trained historian, he’d seen enough of present circumstances to understand just how widespread the problems were, how they’d come about—and he understood well enough the difficulties of correcting them. He sympathized with Tryon’s position—to a point—but his sympathy stopped a good way short of rendering him a willing soldier in the cause of upholding the Crown’s authority—still less, the cause of preserving William Tryon’s reputation and personal fortune.

He stopped for a moment, hearing voices, and stepped softly behind the trunk of a large poplar.

Three men came in sight a moment later, talking casually amongst themselves. All three had guns and bullet-boxes, but the impression they gave was of three friends on their way to hunt rabbits, rather than grim troopers on the eve of battle.

In fact, this appeared to be exactly what they were—foragers. One had a cluster of furry bodies slung from his belt, and another carried a muslin bag stained with something that might have been fresh blood. As Roger watched from the shelter of the poplar, one man stopped, hand out to check his comrades, who both stiffened like hounds, noses pointing toward a clump of trees some sixty yards distant.

Even knowing something was there, it took a moment before Roger spotted the small deer, standing still against a grove of saplings, a veil of dappled light through the spring leaves overhead masking it almost perfectly from view.

The first man swung his gun stealthily down from his shoulder, reaching for rod and cartridge, but one of the others stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“Hold there, Abram,” said the second man, speaking softly but clearly. “You don’t want to be firing so close to the crick. You heard what the Colonel said—Regulators are drawn right up to the bank near that point.” He nodded toward the heavy growth of alder and willow that marked the edge of the invisible creek, no more than a hundred yards distant. “You don’t want to be provokin’ them, not just now.”

Abram nodded reluctantly, and put up his gun again.

“Aye, I suppose. Will it be today, do you think?”

Roger glanced back at the sapling grove, but the deer had vanished, silent as smoke.

“Can’t see how it won’t be.” The third man pulled a yellow kerchief from his sleeve and wiped his face; the weather was warm and the air muggy. “Tryon’s had his guns in place since dawn; he’s not the man to let anybody get a jump on him. He might wait for Waddell’s men—but he may think he’s no need of them.”

Abram snorted with mild contempt.

“To crush those rabble? Seen them, have you? A poorer set of soldiers you’d not see in a month of Sundays.”

The man with the kerchief smiled cynically.

“Well, that’s as may be, Abie. Seen some of the backcountry militia, have you? Speakin’ of rabble. And speakin’ of the Regulators, there’s a lot of ’em, rabble or not. Two to one, Cap’n Neale says.”

Abram grunted, casting a last reluctant glance toward the wood and the creek beyond.

“Rabble,” he repeated, more confidently, and turned away. “Come along, then, let’s have a look upslope.”

The foragers were on the same side as himself; they wore no cockades, but he saw the militia badges on breast and hat, glinting silver in the morning sun. Still, Roger remained in the shadows until the men had vanished, talking casually amongst themselves. He was reasonably sure that Jamie had sent him on this mission with no authority beyond his own; best if he were not asked to explain himself.

The attitude amongst most of the militia toward the Regulation was at best scornful. At worst—at the upper levels of command—it was coldly vindictive.

“Crush them once and for all,” Caswell had said, over a cup of coffee by the fire the night before. A plantation owner from the eastern part of the colony, Richard Caswell had no sympathy with the Regulators’ grievances.

Roger patted his pocket again, considering. No, best leave it. He could produce the badge if he were challenged, and he didn’t think anyone would shoot him in the back without at least a shout of warning. Still, he felt oddly exposed as he walked through the lush grass of the river-meadow, and sighed with involuntary relief, as the languishing branches of the creek-side willows enfolded him in cool shadow.

He had, with Jamie’s approval, left his musket behind, and come unarmed, save for the knife at his belt that was a normal accoutrement for any man. His only other item of equipment was a large white kerchief, presently folded up inside his coat.

“If ye should be threatened—anywhere—wave it and cry ‘Truce,’” Jamie had instructed him. “Then tell them to fetch me, and dinna say more until I come. If no one prevents you, bring me Husband under its protection.”

The vision of himself leading Hermon Husband back across the creek, holding the flapping kerchief on a stick above his head like a guide leading tourists through an airport, made him want to hoot with laughter. Jamie hadn’t laughed, though, or even smiled, and so he had accepted the cloth solemnly, tucking it away with care. He peered through the screen of drooping leaves, but the creek ran past sparkling in the new day’s sun, silent save for the rush of water past stones and clay. No one was in sight, and the noise of the water drowned any sound that might have come from beyond the trees on the other side. While the militia might not shoot him in the back, he wasn’t so sanguine about the possibilities of Regulators shooting him from the front, if they saw him crossing from the Government side.

Still, he couldn’t skulk in the trees all day. He emerged onto the bank, and made his way downstream toward the point the foragers had indicated, watching the trees carefully for any signs of life. The crossing near the point was better, shallow water and a rocky bottom. Still, if the Regulators were “drawn up” anywhere nearby, they were being damned quiet about it.

A more peaceful scene could scarcely be imagined, and yet his heart was hammering suddenly in his ears. He had again the odd feeling of someone standing near him. He glanced around in all directions, but nothing moved save the rushing water and the trailing willow fronds.

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