The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 155

   

“I—no, I mean—that is—he was kind to us, we shouldna be—”

“I said go back!”

She opened her mouth as though to protest, then flinched as William made a sudden move in her direction, fist clenched. Without an instant of conscious decision, Roger swung from the waist, his own fist hitting MacKenzie’s jaw with a crack that jarred his arm to the elbow.

Caught off-balance, William staggered and fell to one knee, shaking his head like a pole-axed ox. Morag’s gasp was drowned by startled exclamations from the other men. Before he could turn to face them, Roger heard a sound behind him—quiet in itself, but loud enough to chill the blood; the small, cold snick of a hammer drawing back.

There was a brief pst! of igniting powder, and then a phfoom! as the gun went off with a roar and a puff of black smoke. Everyone jerked and stumbled with the noise, and Roger found himself struggling in a confused sort of way with one of the other men, both of them coughing and half-deafened. As he shoved his assailant off, he caught sight of Morag, kneeling in the leaves, dabbing at her husband’s face with a bit of wet laundry. William shoved her roughly away, scrambled to his feet, and headed for Roger, his eyes bulging, face blotched red with fury.

Roger spun on his heel, slipping in the leaves, and shook off the grip of the man with the gun, making for the shelter of the bushes. Then he was into the thicket, twigs and small branches splintering around him, raking face and arms as he thrust his way through. A heavy crashing and the huff of breath came just behind him, and a hand fastened on his shoulder with a grip of iron.

He seized the hand and twisted hard, hearing a crack of joint and bone. The hand’s owner yelled and jerked back, and Roger flung himself headlong toward an opening in the scrub.

He hit the ground on one shoulder, half-curled, rolled, broke through a small bush, and tobogganed down a steep clay bank and into the water, where he landed with a splash.

Scrabbling to find a foothold, he plunged and coughed and flapped upright, shaking hair and water from his eyes, only to see William MacKenzie poised at the top of the bank above him. Seeing his enemy thus at a disadvantage, MacKenzie launched himself with a whoop.

Something like a cannonball crashed into Roger’s chest and he fell back into the water in a mighty splash, hearing the distant shrieks of women. He couldn’t breathe and couldn’t see, but grappled with the twisting mess of clothes and limbs and roiling mud, churning the bottom as he strove vainly for footing, lungs bursting for air.

His head broke the surface. His mouth opened and closed like a fish’s, gulping air, and he heard the wheeze of his breath, and MacKenzie’s, too. MacKenzie broke away, floundering, and stood upright a few feet away, wheezing like an engine as water poured from his clothes. Roger bent, chest heaving, hands braced on his thighs and his arms quivering with effort. With a final gulp of air, he straightened, wiping away the wet hair plastered over his face.

“Look,” he began, panting, “I—”

He got no further, for MacKenzie, still breathing heavily himself, was advancing on him through the waist-deep water. The man’s face had an odd, eager look, and the moss-green eyes were very bright.

Belatedly, Roger thought of something else. The man was the son of Dougal MacKenzie. But the son also of Geillis Duncan, witch.

Somewhere beyond the willows, there was a deep booming noise, and flocks of startled birds rose screeching from the trees. The battle had begun.

65

ALAMANCE

The Governor then sent Captain Malcolm, one of his Aides-de-Camp, and the Sherif of Orange, with his Letter, requiring the Rebels, to lay down their Arms, Surrender up their outlawed Ringleaders &c. About half past ten Capt. Malcolm and the Sherif returned with the Information that the Sherif had read the Letter four several Times, to different Divisions of the Revels, who rejected the Terms offered, with disdain, said they wanted no time to consider of them, & with Rebellious Clamours called out for

Battle.

—“A Journal of the Expedition against the Insurgents,” Wm. Tryon

“YE’LL WATCH FOR MACKENZIE.” Jamie touched Geordie Chisholm’s shoulder, and Geordie turned his head, acknowledging the message with a slight nod.

All of them knew. They were good lads, they’d be careful. They’d find him, surely, coming back toward them.

He told himself so for the dozenth time, but the reassurance rang as hollow this time as it had before. Christ, what had happened to the man?

He moved up into the lead, shoving aside the brush with as much violence as though it were a personal enemy. If they were watching out, they’d see MacKenzie in time, not shoot him by mistake. Or so he told himself, knowing perfectly well that in the midst of enemies and the heat of battle, one fired at whatever moved, and there was seldom time to check the features of a man who came at you out of the smoke.

Not that it would make so much difference who did for MacKenzie, if anyone did. Brianna and Claire would hold him responsible for the man’s life, and rightly so.

Then, to his relief, there was no more time to think. They broke out into open ground and the men spread out and ran, bending low, zigzagging through the grass in threes and fours as he had taught them, one seasoned soldier to each group. Somewhere behind them, the first boom of cannon came like thunder from a sunny sky.

He spotted the first of the Regulators then, a group of men running, as they were, coming from the right across the open ground. They hadn’t seen his men yet.

Before they could, he bellowed “Casteal an DUIN!” and charged them, musket raised overhead in signal to the men behind him. Roars and shrieks split the air, and the Regulators, startled and taken unawares, stumbled to an untidy halt, fumbling their weapons and interfering with each other.

“Thugham! Thugham!” To me, to me! Close enough, it was close enough. He dropped to one knee, crouched over the musket, brought it to bear, and fired just over the heads of the milling men.

Behind him, he heard the grunt of his men falling into firing order, the clink of flint and then the deafening noise of the volley.

One or two of the Regulators crouched, returning fire. The rest broke and ran for cover, toward a small rise of grassy ground.

“A draigha! Left! Nach links! Cut them off!” He heard himself bellowing, but did it without thought, already running himself.

The small group of Regulators split, a few making off toward the creek, the rest bunching like sheep, galloping for the shelter of the rise.

They made it, disappearing around the curve of the hill, and Jamie called his troops back, with a piercing whistle that would carry over the rising thunder of the guns. He could hear firing now, a rattle of muskets, away to their left. He sheared off in that direction, trusting that they would follow.

A mistake; the land here was marshy, full of boggy holes and clinging mud. He shouted and waved again, back toward the higher ground. Fall back there, let the enemy come to them across the bog, if they would.

The high ground was heavy with brush, but dry, at least. He spread his fingers wide and waved, gesturing the men to spread out, take cover.

The blood was pumping through his veins, and his skin prickled and tingled with it. A puff of gray-white smoke drifted through the nearby trees, acrid with the scent of black powder. The boom of artillery was regular now, as the gun-crews fell into their rhythm, thumping like a huge, slow heart in the distance.

He made his way slowly toward the west, keeping an eye out. The brush here was mostly sumac and redbud, with waist-high tangles of bramble and clumps of pine that rose above his head. Visibility was poor, but he would hear anyone coming, long before he saw them—or they saw him.

None of his own men were in sight. He took cover in a stand of dogwood and gave a sharp call, like a bobwhite quail. Similar calls of “bob-WHITE!” came from behind him, none in front. Good, they knew roughly where one another were. Cautiously, he went forward, pressing through the brush. It was cooler here, with the shade of the trees, but the air was thick and sweat ran down his neck and back.

He heard the thump of feet and pressed back into the branches of a pinetree, letting the dark-needled fans swing over him, his musket raised to sight on an opening in the bushes. Whoever it was was coming fast. A crack of snapping twigs underfoot and the sound of labored breath, and a young man shoved through the shrubbery, panting. He had no gun, but a skinning-knife glinted in his hand.

The lad was familiar, the first glance gave him that, and Jamie’s memory put a name to the young man’s face before his finger had relaxed upon the trigger.

“Hugh!” he called, low-voiced but sharp. “Hugh Fowles!”

The young man let out a startled yelp, and swung round staring. He saw Jamie and his gun through the screen of needles, and froze like a rabbit.

Then a surge of panicked determination rose in his face, and he launched himself toward Jamie, screaming. Startled, Jamie barely got his musket up in time to catch the knife-blade on its barrel. He forced the knife up and back; it sheared down the barrel with a screech of metal, glancing off Jamie’s knuckles. Young Hugh whipped back his arm for a stab, and he kicked the boy briskly in the knee, stepping back out of the way as the lad lost his balance and lurched to one side, knife swinging wildly.

Jamie kicked him again, and he fell down, the knife embedding itself in the ground.

“Will ye stop that?” Jamie said, rather crossly. “For Christ’s sake, lad, do ye not know me?”

He couldn’t tell whether Fowles knew him or not—nor even whether the boy had heard him. Face white and eyes staring, Fowles was thrashing in a panic, stumbling and gasping as he tried to get up, trying at the same time to wrench his knife free.

“Will you—” Jamie began, and then jerked back as Fowles abandoned the knife and threw himself forward with a grunt of effort.

The boy’s weight knocked Jamie backward, and hands scrabbled at him, trying for a grip on his throat. He dropped the musket, turned a shoulder into Fowles’s grip, and put a stop to this nonsense with a quick, brutal punch to the lad’s midsection.

Hugh Fowles collapsed and lay curled into a ball on the ground, twitching like a wounded centipede, and making the shocked breathless faces of a man whose breakfast has just been knocked up into his lungs.

Jamie put his right hand to his mouth, sucking blood from his grazed knuckles. The boy’s knife had skinned all four, and the punch hadn’t helped; they burned like fire, and the blood had the taste of hot silver in his mouth.

More feet, coming fast. He had barely time to seize his musket before the bushes burst open once more, this time to reveal Fowles’s father-in-law, Joe Hobson, his own musket held at the ready.

“Stop right there.” Jamie crouched behind his gun, training the muzzle on Hobson’s chest. Hobson halted as though a puppet-master had jerked his strings.

“What have ye done to him?” Hobson’s eyes flicked from Jamie to his son-in-law and back.

“Nothing permanent. Put your gun down, aye?”

Hobson didn’t move. He was grimed with filth and sprouting a beard, but the eyes were live and watchful in his face.

“I mean ye nay harm. Set it down!”

“We’ll not be taken,” Hobson said. His finger rested on the trigger of his gun, but there was a dubious note in his voice.

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