The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 149

   

“That you, Dad?” he said softly, under his breath, and at once felt foolish. Still, the feeling of someone near remained strong, though benign.

With a mental shrug, he bent and took off his shoes and stockings. It must be the circumstances, he thought. Not that one could quite compare wading a shallow creek in search of a Quaker rabble-rouser to flying a Spitfire across the night-time Channel on a bombing run to Germany. A mission was a mission, though, he supposed.

He looked round once again, but saw only tadpoles wriggling in the shallows. With a slightly crooked smile, he stepped into the water, sending the tadpoles into frenzied flight.

“Over the top, then,” he said to a wood-duck. The bird ignored him, going on with its foraging among the dark-green rafts of floating cress.

No challenge came from the trees on either side; no sounds at all, bar the cheerful racket of nesting birds. It was as he sat on a sunwarmed rock, drying his feet before putting his shoes and stockings back on, that he finally heard some indication that the far side of the creek was populated by humans.

“So what do you want then, sweeting?”

The voice came from the shrubbery behind him, and he froze, blood thundering in his ears. It was a woman’s voice. Before he could move or think to answer, though, he heard a laugh, deeper in pitch, and with a particular tone to it that made him relax.

Instinct informed him before his reason did that voices with that particular intonation were not a threat.

“Dunno, hinney, what will it cost me?”

“Ooh, hark at him! Not the time to count your pennies, is it?”

“Don’t you worry, ladies, we’ll take up a collection amongst us if we have to.”

“Oh, is that the way of it? Well and good, sir, but be you aware, in this congregation, the collection comes before the singing!”

Listening to this amiable wrangling, Roger deduced that the voices in question belonged to three men and two women, all of whom seemed confident that whatever the financial arrangements, three would go into two quite evenly, with no awkward remainders.

Picking up his shoes, he stole quietly away, leaving the unseen sentries—if that’s what they were—to their sums. Evidently, the army of the Regulation wasn’t quite so organized as the government troops.

Less organized was putting it mildly, he thought, a little later. He had kept to the creek bank for some distance, unsure where the main body of the army might be. He had walked nearly a quarter-mile, with neither sight nor sound of a soul other than the two whores and their customers. Feeling increasingly surreal, he wandered through small pine groves, and across the edges of grassy meadows, with no company save courting birds and small gossamer butterflies in shades of orange and yellow.

“What the hell sort of way is this to run a war?” he muttered, shoving his way through a blackberry bramble. It was like one of those science fiction stories, in which everyone but the hero had suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. He was beginning to be anxious; what if he didn’t manage to find the bloody Quaker—or even the army—before the shooting started?

Then he rounded a bend in the creek, and caught his first glimpse of the Regulators proper; a group of women, washing clothes in the rushing waters by a cluster of boulders.

He ducked back into the brush before they should see him, and turned away from the creek, heartened. If the women were here, the men weren’t far away.

They weren’t. Within a few more yards, he heard the sounds of camp—casual voices, laughter, the clank of spoons and tea-kettles and the clunk of splitting wood. Rounding a clump of hawthorn, he was nearly knocked over by a gang of young men who ran past, hooting and yelling, as they chased one of their number who brandished a fresh-cut racoon’s tail overhead, floating in the breeze as he ran.

They charged past Roger without a second glance, and he went on, a bit less warily. He wasn’t challenged; there were no sentries. In fact, a strange face appeared to be neither a novelty nor a threat. A few men glanced casually at him, but then turned back to their talk, seeing nothing odd in his appearance.

“I’m looking for Hermon Husband,” he said bluntly to a man roasting a squirrel over the pale flames of a fire. The man looked blank for a moment.

“The Quaker?” Roger amplified.

“Oh, aye, him,” the man said, features clearing. “He’s a ways beyond—that way, I think.” He gestured helpfully with his stick, the charred squirrel pointing the way with the stubs of its blackened forelegs.

“A ways beyond” was some way. Roger passed through three more scattered camps before reaching what looked to be the main body of the army—if one could dignify it by such a term. True, there did seem to be an increasing air of seriousness; there was less of the carefree frolicking he had seen near the creek. Still, it wasn’t Strategic Command headquarters, by a long shot.

He began to feel mildly hopeful that violence could still be avoided, even with the armies drawn up face to face and the gun-crews standing by. There had been an air of excited readiness among the militia as he passed through their lines, but no atmosphere of hatred or blood-thirstiness.

Here, the situation was far different than it was among the orderly militia lines, but even less disposed to immediate hostilities. As he pressed on further, though, asking his way at each campfire he passed, he began to feel something different in the air—a sense of increasing urgency, almost of desperation. The horseplay he’d seen in the outer camps had vanished; men clustered talking in close groups, their heads together, or sat by themselves, grimly loading guns and sharpening knives.

As he got closer, the name of Hermon Husband was recognized by everyone, the pointing fingers surer of direction. The name seemed almost a magnet, pulling him farther and farther into the center of a thickening mass of men and boys, all excited—all armed. The noise grew greater all the time, voices beating on his ears like hammers on a forge.

He found Husband at last, standing on a rock like a large gray wolf at bay, surrounded by a knot of some thirty or forty men, all clamoring in angry agitation. Elbows jabbed and feet trampled, without regard to impact on their fellows. Clearly they were demanding an answer, but unable to pause long enough to hear one were it given.

Husband, stripped to his shirtsleeves and red in the face, was shouting at one or two of those closest to him, but Roger could hear nothing of what was said, above the general hub-bub. He pushed through the outer ring of spectators, but was stopped nearer the center by the press of men. At least here, he could pick up a few words.

“We must! You know it, Hermon, there’s no choice!” shouted a lanky man in a battered hat.

“There’s always a choice!” Husband bellowed back. “Now is the time to choose, and God send we do it wisely!”

“Aye, with cannon pointed at us?”

“No, no, forward, we must go forward, or all is lost!”

“Lost? We have lost everything so far! We must—”

“The Governor’s taken choice from us, we must—”

“We must—”

“We must—!”

All single words were lost in a general roar of anger and frustration. Seeing that there was nothing to be gained by waiting for an audience, Roger shoved his way ruthlessly between two farmers and seized Husband by the sleeve of his shirt.

“Mr. Husband—I must speak with you!” he shouted in the Quaker’s ear.

Husband gave him a glazed sort of look, and made to shake him off, but then stopped, blinking as he recognized him. The square face was flushed with color above the sprouting beard, and Husband’s coarse gray hair, unbound, bristled out from his head like the quills of a porcupine. He shook his head and shut his eyes, then opened them again, staring at Roger like a man seeking to dispel some impossible vision, and failing.

He grabbed Roger’s arm, and with a fierce gesture at the crowd, leaped down from his rock and made off toward the shelter of a ramshackle cabin that leaned drunkenly in the shade of a maple grove. Roger followed, glaring round at those nearest to discourage pursuit.

A few followed, nonetheless, waving arms and expostulating hotly, but Roger slammed the door in their faces, and dropped the bolt, placing his back against the door for good measure. It was cooler inside, though the air was stale and smelt of wood-ash and burnt food.

Husband stood panting in the middle of the floor, then picked up a dipper and drank deeply from a bucket that stood upon the hearth—the only object left in the cabin, Roger saw. Husband’s coat and hat hung neatly on a hook by the door, but bits of rubbish were scattered across the packed-earth floor. Whoever owned the cabin had evidently decamped in haste, carrying their portable belongings.

Calmed by the moment’s respite, Husband straightened his rumpled shirt and made shift to tidy his hair.

“What does thee here, friend MacKenzie?” he asked, with characteristic mildness. “Thee does not come to join the cause of Regulation, surely?”

“Indeed I do not,” Roger assured him. He cast a wary eye at the window, lest the crowd try to gain access that way, but while the rumble of voices outside continued their argument, there was no immediate sound of assault upon the building. “I have come to ask if you will go across the creek with me—under a flag of truce, your safety is assured—to speak with Jamie Fraser.”

Husband glanced at the window, too.

“I fear the time for speaking has long passed,” he said, with a wry twist of the lips. Roger was inclined to think so, too, but pressed on, determined to fulfill his commission.

“Not so far as the Governor is concerned. He has no wish to slaughter his own citizenry; if the mob could be convinced to disperse peaceably—”

“Does it seem to thee a likely prospect?” Husband waved at the window, giving him a cynical glance.

“No,” Roger was forced to admit. “Still, if you would come—if they could see that there was still some possibility of—”

“If there were possibility of reconciliation and redress, it should have been offered long since,” Husband said sharply. “Is this a token of the Governor’s sincerity, to come with troops and cannon, to send a letter that—”

“Not redress,” Roger said bluntly. “I meant the possibility of saving all your lives.”

Husband stood quite still. The ruddy color faded from his cheeks, though he looked still composed.

“Has it come to that?” he asked quietly, his eyes on Roger’s face. Roger took a deep breath and nodded.

“There is not much time. Mr. Fraser bid me tell you—if you could not come to speak with him yourself—there are two companies of artillery arrayed against you, and eight of militia, all well-armed. All lies in readiness—and the Governor will not wait past dawn of tomorrow, at the latest.”

He was aware that it was treason to give such information to the enemy—but it was what Jamie Fraser would have said, could he have come himself.

“There are near two thousand men of the Regulation here,” Husband said, as though to himself. “Two thousand! Would thee not think the sight of it would sway him? That so many would leave home and hearth and come in protest—”

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