The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 156

   

“Ye already are, fool. Dinna fash yourself, nay harm will come to you or the lad. You’re a deal safer in gaol than out here, man!”

A whistling crash punctuated his statement, as something flew through the trees a few feet overhead, shearing branches as it went. Chain shot, Jamie thought automatically, even as he ducked in reflex, bowels clenched.

Hobson jerked in terror, swinging the barrel of his musket toward Jamie. He jerked again, and his eyes went wide with surprise, as a red stain flowered slowly on his breast. He looked down at it in puzzlement, the muzzle of his gun drooping like a wilted stem. Then he dropped the gun, sat down quite suddenly, leaned back against a fallen tree, and died.

Jamie whirled on his heel, still squatting, and saw Geordie Chisholm behind him, face half-black with the smoke of his shot, looking at Hobson’s body as though wondering just how that had happened.

The boom of artillery came again, and another missile crashed through the branches and landed nearby with a thud Jamie felt through the soles of his boots. He flung himself flat on his belly and writhed toward Hugh Fowles, who had got himself up on hands and knees now, retching.

He grabbed Fowles’s arm, disregarding the pool of vomit, and jerked, hard.

“Come on!” He scrambled up, seizing Fowles by waist and shoulder, and dragged him toward the shelter of the copse behind them. “Geordie! Geordie, help me!”

Chisholm was there. Between them, they got Fowles onto his feet and half-dragged, half-carried him, running and stumbling as they went.

The air was filled with the pungent scent of tree-sap, oozing from the severed branches, and he thought fleetingly of Claire’s garden, turned earth, churned earth beneath his boots, the fresh-turned earth of furrows and graves, and Hobson sitting in the sun by the log, the look of surprise not yet gone from his eyes.

Fowles stank of vomit and shit. He hoped it was Fowles.

He thought he would vomit himself from sheer nerves, but bit his tongue, tasting blood again, and clenched the muscles of his belly, willing his wame to go back down.

Someone rose from the shrubbery to his left. He held the gun in his left hand, raised it by reflex, fired one-handed. He stumbled through his own smoke, seeing whoever he had fired at turn and run, smashing heedless through the trees.

Fowles had his feet back under him now, and Jamie let go his arm, leaving Geordie to it. He fell to one knee, groping for powder and shot, ripped the cartridge with his teeth and tasted gunpowder tinged with blood, poured and rammed home, filled his priming pan, checked his flint—all the while noticing with a sense of bemusement that his hands were not shaking in the least, but went about their business with a deft calm, as though they knew just what to do.

He raised the barrel and bared his teeth, only half-conscious of doing it. There were men coming, three, and he raised the gun to bear on the first. With a last shred of conscious thought, he jerked it higher and fired above their heads, the musket jolting in his hands. They stopped, and he dropped the gun, ripped the dirk from his belt, and charged them, screaming.

The words seared his throat, raw from the smoke.

“Run!”

As though from a distance, he watched himself, thinking that it was just so that Hugh Fowles had done, and he had thought it foolish then.

“Run!”

The men scattered like fleeing quail. As a wolf might do, he turned at once after the slowest, bounding over the broken ground, a ferocious joy flooding his legs, blooming in his belly. He could run forever, the wind cold on his skin and shrill in his ears, the spring of the earth beneath him lifting his feet so he flew over grass and rock.

The man he pursued heard him coming, glanced back over his shoulder, and with a shriek of terror, ran full-tilt into a tree. He threw himself upon his prey, landing on the man’s back and feeling the springy crack of ribs beneath his knee. He gripped a handful of hair, slick and hot with greasy sweat, and jerked back the man’s head. He barely stopped himself cutting the nak*d throat that lay before him, stretched and defenseless. He could feel the shock of the blade on flesh, the hotness of the spurting blood, and wanted it.

He gulped air, panting.

Very slowly, he drew the knife away from the leaping pulse. The movement left him trembling with need, as though he had been dragged from his woman’s body on the verge of spilling seed.

“You are my prisoner,” he said.

The man stared up at him, uncomprehending. The man was weeping, tears making tracks through the dirt on his face, and trying to speak, sobbing, but unable to draw enough air to make words with his head wrenched back. Vaguely, it occurred to Jamie that he had spoken in Gaelic; the man did not understand.

Slowly, he loosened his grip, made himself release the man’s head. He groped for the English words, buried somewhere under the bloodlust that pulsed through his brain.

“You are . . . my . . . prisoner,” he managed at last, panting for air between words.

“Yes! Yes! Anything, don’t kill me, please don’t kill me!” The man huddled under him, sobbing, hands clasped to the back of his neck and shoulders hunched around his ears, as though he feared Jamie would seize his neck in his teeth and snap his spine.

At the thought, he felt a dim desire to do so, but the thrum of his blood was even now dying down. He could hear again, as his heartbeat faded in his ears. The wind no longer sang to him, but made its own way, heedless and alone, through the leaves above. There was a popping of distant gunshots, but the boom of the artillery had ceased.

Sweat dripped from chin and eyebrows, and his shirt was sodden with it, reeking.

He slid slowly off his prisoner, and knelt beside the prone body. The muscles of his thighs trembled and burned from the effort of the chase. He felt a sudden inexpressible tenderness for the man, and reached to touch him, but the feeling was succeeded by a sense of horror, quite as sudden, and as suddenly gone. He closed his eyes and swallowed, feeling sick, the place where he had bitten his tongue throbbing.

The energy the earth had lent him was draining from his body now, flowing out of his legs, going back to the earth. He reached out and patted the prisoner’s shoulder, awkwardly, then struggled to his feet against the dead weight of his own exhaustion.

“Get up,” he said. His hands were shaking; it took three tries to sheathe his dirk.

“Ciamar a tha thu, Mac Dubh?” Ronnie Sinclair was at his side, asking if he was all right. He nodded, and stood back as Sinclair pulled the man to his feet and made him turn his coat. The others were coming, in ones and twos: Geordie, the Lindsays, Gallegher, catching up and clustering round him like iron filings drawn to a bit of magnet steel.

The others had bagged prisoners, too; six in all, looking sullen, frightened, or simply exhausted, their coats turned lining-out to show their status. Fowles was among them, white and wretched.

His mind had cleared now, though his body felt limp and heavy. Henry Gallegher had a bloody graze across his forehead; one of the men from Brownsville—Lionel, was it?—carried one arm at an awkward angle, obviously broken. Bar that, no one seemed to be injured; that was good.

“Ask if they have seen MacKenzie,” he said to Kenny Lindsay in Gaelic, with a small gesture toward the prisoners.

The gunshots had mostly ceased. There was only a random firing now, and a flock of doves passed overhead in a racket of wings, belatedly alarmed.

None had seen Roger MacKenzie, to know him. Jamie nodded, hearing, and wiped the last of the sweat from his face with his sleeve.

“Either he has come back safe, or he has not. But whatever’s done is done now. Ye’ve done brawly, lads—let’s go.”

66

A NECESSARY SACRIFICE

This Evening the Dead were interred with military Honors; and three Outlaws taken in the Battle were hanged at the Head of the Army. This gave great Satisfaction to the Men & at this Time it was a necessary Sacrifice to appease the Murmurings of the Troops, who were importunate that public Justice should be immediately executed against some of the Outlaws that were taken in the Action and in opposing of whom they had braved so many Dangers, & suffered such Loss of lives and Blood.

—“A Journal of the Expedition against the Insurgents,”

Wm. Tryon

ROGER JERKED HARD at the rope round his wrists, but succeeded only in digging the rough hemp farther into his flesh. He could feel the burn of abraded skin and a damp feel that he thought was oozing blood, but his hands had gone so numb that he wasn’t sure. His fingers felt the size of sausages, the skin stretched tight.

He was lying where Buccleigh and his friends had thrown him, after tying his wrists and ankles, in the shade of a fallen log. Soaked through from the river, he would have been shivering with cold, had he not been struggling so desperately to get loose. Instead, sweat ran down his neck, his cheeks burned, and he felt as though his head would burst from the influx of furious blood.

They’d gagged him with the flag of truce, stuffing the kerchief so deep into his throat that he was close to choking, and knotting his own stock round his mouth. Ancestor or no, he was going to mangle William Buccleigh MacKenzie, if it was the last thing he ever did.

Shots were still being fired nearby; not in volleys, but a ragged popcorn rattle. The air reeked with black powder smoke, and every so often, something came whistling through the trees like a jabberwock, with a tremendous ripping and snapping of branches and leaves. Chain-shot? Cannonballs?

A cannonball had thudded into the riverbank, earlier, burying itself in a small explosion of mud and momentarily interrupting the fight. One of Buccleigh’s friends had uttered a cry and run, splashing, for the shelter of the trees, but the other had stayed, grappling and punching, heedless of the shooting and yelling, until he and Buccleigh had managed to press Roger’s head beneath the water and overpower him. He could still feel the burn of the river-water in his sinuses.

He’d managed to get to his knees now, hunched like an inch-worm, but didn’t dare to raise his head above the log, for fear of having it shot off. Fury was running so strong through his veins that he hadn’t really been frightened, even at the realization that the battle was going on round him, but he hadn’t lost his mind entirely.

He rubbed his face hard against the crumbling bark of the log, trying to snag the strip of linen tied round his head. It worked; the stub of a twig caught, and he jerked his head up, pulling the stock down below his chin. Grunting with the effort, he shoved the wadded kerchief out a little way, caught it on the same twig, and drew back, the soggy rag pulling out of his throat like a snake-swallower in reverse.

He gagged with reaction, feeling bile rise up the back of his throat. He gulped air, greedy for oxygen, and his stomach settled a bit.

Great, he could breathe, now what? The firing was still going on, and he could hear crashing off to his left, as several men plowed through the bushes, heedless of obstruction.

Running feet were coming toward him; he ducked behind the shelter of the log, just in time to avoid being flattened as a body catapulted over it. His new companion scrambled up onto hands and knees, pressing tight against the log, only then becoming aware of his presence.

“You!” It was Black-beard, from Husband’s encampment. He stared at Roger, face suffusing slowly with blood. He could smell the man, a rank, penetrating reek of fear and anger.

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