The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 150

   

“It is the Governor’s opinion that they come in rebellion, therefore in a state of war,” Roger interrupted. He glanced at the window, where the oiled parchment covering hung in tatters. “And having seen them, I must say that I think he has reasonable grounds for that opinion.”

“It is no rebellion,” Husband said stubbornly. He drew himself up, and pulled a worn black silk ribbon from his pocket, with which to tie back his hair. “But our legitimate complaints have been ignored, disregarded! We have no choice but to come as a physical body, to lay our grievances before Mr. Tryon and thus impress him with the rightness of our objection.”

“I thought I heard you speak of choice a few moments past,” Roger said dryly. “And if now is the time to choose, as you say, it would seem to me that most of the Regulators have chosen violence—judging from such remarks as I heard on my way here.”

“Perhaps,” Husband said reluctantly. “Yet we—they—are not an avenging army, not a mob . . .” And yet his unwilling glance toward the window suggested his awareness that a mob was indeed what was forming on the banks of the Alamance.

“Do they have a chosen leader, anyone who can speak officially for them?” Roger interrupted again, impatient to deliver his message and be gone. “Yourself, or perhaps Mr. Hunter?”

Husband paused for a long moment, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth as though to expunge some lingering rancid taste. He shook his head.

“They have no real leader,” he said softly. “Jim Hunter is bold enough, but he has no gift of commanding men. I asked him—he said that each man must act for himself.”

“You have the gift. You can lead them.”

Husband looked scandalized, as though Roger had accused him of a talent for card-sharping.

“Not I.”

“You have led them here—”

“They have come here! I asked none to—”

“You are here. They followed you.”

Husband flinched slightly at this, his lips compressed. Seeing that his words had some effect, Roger pressed his case.

“You spoke for them before, and they listened. They came with you, after you. They’ll still listen, surely!”

He could hear the noise outside the cabin growing; the crowd was impatient. If it wasn’t yet a mob, it was damn close. And what would they do if they knew who he was, and what he had come to do? His palms were sweating; he pressed them down across the fabric of his coat, feeling the small lump of his militia badge in the pocket, and wished he had paused to bury it somewhere when he crossed the creek.

Husband looked at him a moment, then reached out and seized him by both hands.

“Pray with me, friend,” he said quietly.

“I—”

“Thee need say nothing,” Husband said. “I know thee is Papist, but it is not our way to pray aloud. If thee would but remain still with me, and ask in your heart that wisdom be granted—not only to me, but to all here . . .”

Roger bit his tongue to keep from correcting Husband; his own religious affiliation was scarcely important at the moment, though evidently Husband’s was. Instead he nodded, suppressing his impatience, and squeezed the older man’s hands, offering what support he might.

Husband stood quite still, his head slightly lowered. A fist hammered on the flimsy door of the cabin, voices calling out.

“Hermon! You all right in there?”

“Come on, Hermon! There’s no time for this! Caldwell’s come back from the Governor—”

“An hour, Hermon! He’s given us an hour, no more!”

A trickle of sweat ran down Roger’s back between his shoulder blades, but he ignored the tickle, unable to reach it.

He glanced from Husband’s weathered fingers to his face, and found the other man’s eyes seemingly fixed on his own—and yet distant, as though he listened to some far-off voice, disregarding the urgent shouts that came through the walls. Even Husband’s eyes were Quaker gray, Roger thought—like pools of rainwater, shivering into stillness after a storm.

Surely they would break down the door. But no; the blows diminished to an impatient knocking, and then to random thumps. He could feel the beating of his own heart, slowing gradually to a quiet, even throb in his chest, anxiety fading in his blood.

He closed his own eyes, trying to fix his thoughts, to do as Husband asked. He groped in his mind for some suitable prayer, but nothing save confused fragments of the Book of Common Worship came to hand.

Help us, O Lord . . .

Hear us . . .

Help us, O Lord, his father’s voice whispered. His other father, the Reverend, speaking somewhere in the back of his mind. Help us, O Lord, to remember how often men do wrong through want of thought, rather than from lack of love; and how cunning are the snares that trip our feet.

Each word flickered briefly in his mind like a burning leaf, rising from a bonfire’s wind, and then disappeared away into ash before he could grasp it. He gave it up then and simply stood, clasping Husband’s hands in his own, listening to the man’s breathing, a low rasping note.

Please, he thought silently, though with no idea what he was asking for. That word too evaporated, leaving nothing in its place.

Nothing happened. The voices still called outside, but they seemed of no more importance now than the calling of birds. The air in the room was still, but cool and lively, as though a draft played somewhere in the corners, not touching them where they stood in the center of the floor. Roger felt his own breath ease, his heart slow its beat still more.

He didn’t remember opening his eyes, and yet they were open. Husband’s soft gray eyes had flecks of blue in them, and tiny splinters of black. His lashes were thick, and there was a small swelling at the base of one, a healing sty. The tiny dome was smooth and red, fading from a ruby dot at the center through such successions of crimson, pink, and rose red as might have graced the dawn sky on the day of Creation.

The face before him was sculpted with lines that drew rough arcs from nose to mouth, that curved above the heavy, grizzled brows whose every hair was long and arched with the grace of a bird’s wing. The lips were broad and smooth, a dusky rose; the white edge of a tooth glistened, strangely hard by contrast with the pliable flesh that sheltered it.

Roger stood without moving, wondering at the beauty of what he saw. The notion of Husband as a stocky man of middle age and indeterminate feature had no meaning; what he saw now was a heartbreaking singularity, a thing unique and wonderful; irreplaceable.

It struck him that this was same feeling with which he had studied his infant son, marveling at the perfection of each small toe, the curve of cheek and ear that squeezed his heart, the radiance of the newborn skin that let the innocence within shine through. And here was the same creation, no longer new, perhaps less innocent, but no less marvelous.

He looked down and saw his own hands then, still gripping Husband’s smaller ones. A sense of awe came on him, with the realization of the beauty of his own fingers, the curving bones of wrist and knuckle, the ravishing loveliness of a thin red scar that ran across the joint of his thumb.

Husband’s breath left him in a deep sigh, and he pulled his hands away. Roger felt momentarily bereft, but then felt the peace of the room settle upon him once more, the astonishment of beauty succeeded by a sense of deep calm.

“I thank thee, Friend Roger,” Husband said softly. “I had not hoped to receive such grace—but it is welcome.”

Roger nodded, wordless. He watched as Husband took down his coat and put it on, his face settled now in lines of calm determination. Without hesitation, the Quaker lifted the bolt from the door and pushed it open.

The crowd of men outside fell back, the surprise on their faces giving way at once to eagerness and irritation. Husband ignored the storm of questions and exhortations, and walked directly to a horse that stood tethered to a sapling behind the cabin. He untied it and swung up into the saddle, and only then looked down into the faces of his fellow Regulators.

“Go home!” he said, in a loud voice. “We must leave this place; each man must return to his own home!”

This announcement was met with a moment of stunned silence, and then by cries of puzzlement and outrage.

“What home?” called a young man with a scraggly ginger beard. “Maybe you got a home to go to—I ain’t!”

Husband sat solid in his saddle, unmoved by the outcry.

“Go home!” he shouted again. “I exhort you—nothing but violence remains to be done here!”

“Aye, and we’ll bloody do it!” bellowed one thickset man, thrusting his musket overhead, to a ragged chorus of cheers.

Roger had followed Husband, and was largely ignored by the Regulators. He stood at a little distance, watching as the Quaker began slowly to ride away, bending down from his saddle as he did so, to shout and gesture to the men who ran and shoved beside him. One man grabbed Husband by the sleeve, and the Quaker drew up his rein, leaning down to listen to what was obviously an impassioned speech.

At the end of it, though, he straightened up, shaking his head, and clapped his hat on.

“I cannot stay and let blood be shed by my staying. If thee remain here, friends, there will be murder done. Leave! Thee can still go—I pray thee do so!”

He was no longer shouting, but the noise around him had ceased long enough for his words to carry. He raised a face creased with worry, and saw Roger standing in the shadow of a dogwood. The stillness of peace had left him, but Roger saw that the look of determination was still there in his eyes.

“I am going!” he called. “I beg thee all—go home!” He reined his horse round with sudden decision, and kicked it into a trot. A few men ran after him, but soon stopped. They turned back, looking puzzled and resentful, muttering in small groups and shaking their heads in confusion.

The noise was rising again, as everyone talked at once, arguing, insisting, denying. Roger turned away, walking quietly toward the cover of the maple grove. It seemed wiser to be gone as soon as possible, now that Husband had departed.

A hand seized him by the shoulder, and spun him round.

“Who the hell are you? What did you say to Hermon to make him go?” A grimy fellow in a ragged leather vest confronted him, fists clenched. The man looked angry, ready to take out his frustration on the nearest available object.

“I told him that the Governor doesn’t want anyone to be harmed, if it can be avoided,” Roger said, in what he hoped was a calming tone.

“Do you come from the Governor?” a black-bearded man asked skeptically, eyeing Roger’s grubby homespun. “D’ye come to offer different terms than Caldwell has?”

“No.” Roger had been still under the effects of the meeting with Husband, feeling sheltered from the currents of anger and incipient hysteria that swirled about the cabin, but the peace of it was fading fast. Others were coming to join his interrogators, attracted by the sound of confrontation.

“No,” he said again, louder. “I came to warn Husband—to warn all of you. The Governor wants—”

He was interrupted by a chorus of rude shouts, indicating that what Tryon wanted was a matter of no concern to those present. He glanced around the circle of faces, but saw none that offered any expression of forbearance, let alone friendliness. He shrugged then, and stepped back.

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