The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 157

   

Black-beard grabbed him by the shirt-front, jerking him close.

“This is your fault! Bastard!”

With his hands and feet still tied, he had no means of fighting back, but jerked back, trying to free himself.

“Let go, fool!”

Only then did the man realize that he was tied, and in his astonishment, did let go. Off-balance, Roger fell to the side, scraping his face painfully on the rough bark of the log. Black-beard’s eyes bulged with amazement, then narrowed in glee.

“By Dad, you been captured! If that ain’t luck! Who’s got you, fool?”

“He’s mine.” A low Scottish voice behind him announced the return of William Buccleigh MacKenzie. “What d’ye mean it’s his fault? What is?”

“This!” Black-beard flung out an arm, indicating the field around them, and the dying battle. The artillery had ceased, and there were no more than scattered rifle-shots in the distance.

“This damn smooth-talker come unto the camp this morning, asking for Hermon Husband, and took him away for a private word. I don’t know what in desolation’s name he said, but when he finished it, Husband come out, got straight onto his horse, told us all to go home, and rode off!”

Black-beard glared at Roger, and drawing back his hand, slapped him hard across the face. “What did you say to him, arse-bite?”

Without waiting for an answer, he turned back to Buccleigh, who was glancing back and forth between his captive and his visitor, a look of deep interest furrowing the thick, fair brows. “If Hermon had stuck with us, we might ha’ stood,” Black-beard raged. “But with him goin’ off like that, it cut the ground right from under us—wasn’t no one knew quite what to do, and the next thing you know, here’s Tryon a-bawling surrender at us—and a course we wasn’t goin’ to do that, but we wasn’t what you’d call prepared to fight neither . . .” He trailed off at this, catching Roger’s eye on him, and uncomfortably aware that Roger had seen him fleeing in panic.

There was nothing but silence on the far side of the log; all firing had stopped. It was dawning on Roger that the battle was not only over, but well and truly lost. Which meant in turn that the militia were likely to be swarming over this place in short order. His eyes were still watering from the slap, but he blinked them clear, glaring at Black-beard.

“I said to Husband what I say to you,” he said, with as much authority as he could muster, lying trussed on the ground like a Christmas goose. “The Governor is serious. He means to put down this rebellion, and by the looks of things, he’s done just that. If you have a care for your skin—and I’d say you do—”

With an inarticulate growl of rage, Black-beard seized Roger by the shoulders and tried to smash his head into the log.

Roger twisted like an eel. He reared back, breaking the man’s grip, then threw himself forward, and butted the man squarely, smashing Black-beard’s nose with his forehead. He felt the satisfying crunch of bone and cartilage, and the spurt of blood hot and wet against his face, and fell back onto one elbow, panting.

He’d not given anyone a Glasgow kiss before, but it seemed to come natural. The jar of it hurt his wrist badly, but he was beyond caring. Just let Buccleigh come close enough to get the same, that’s all he wanted.

Buccleigh eyed him with a mixture of amusement and wary respect.

“Oh, a man of talent, aye? A traitor, a wife-stealer, and a bonnie brawler, all in the same wee bundle, is it?”

Black-beard threw up, choking on the blood from his crushed nose, but Roger paid no attention. His vision clear now, he kept his eyes square on Buccleigh. He knew which man of the two was the greater threat.

“A man who’s sure of his wife needn’t worry that someone else might steal her,” he said, anger only slightly tempered with wariness. “I’m sure of my own wife, and have no need of yours, amadain.”

Buccleigh was sunburned and deeply flushed from fighting, but at this, a darker red crept into his cheeks. Still, he kept his composure, smiling lightly.

“Marrit, are ye? Your wife must be ill-favored, surely, for ye to be sniffing after mine. Or is it only that she’s put ye out of her bed, because ye couldna serve her decently?”

The rasp of the rope on his wrists reminded Roger that he was in no position to bandy words. With an effort, he bit back the retort that sat at the tip of his tongue, and swallowed it. It tasted foul, going down.

“Unless ye mean your wife to be a widow, I think it’s time ye were going, aye?” he said. He jerked his head toward the far side of the log, where the brief silence had been succeeded by the distant sound of voices.

“The battle’s over, your cause is lost. I don’t know if they mean to take prisoners—”

“They’ve taken several.” Buccleigh frowned at him, clearly undecided. There weren’t that many options, Roger thought; Buccleigh must let him go, leave him tied, or kill him. Either of the first two was acceptable. As for the third, surely if Buccleigh meant to kill him, he’d be already dead.

“You’d best go while ye can,” Roger suggested. “Your wife will be worried.”

It was a mistake to have mentioned Morag again. Buccleigh’s face grew darker, but before he could say anything, he was interrupted by the appearance of the woman herself, in company with the man who had helped Buccleigh tie him earlier.

“Will! Oh, Willie! Thank Christ you’re safe! Are ye hurt at all?” She was pale and anxious, and had a small child in her arms, clinging monkeylike to her neck. Despite the burden, she reached out a hand to touch her husband, to assure herself that he was indeed unharmed.

“Dinna fash yourself, Morag,” Buccleigh said gruffly. “I’ve taken no harm.” Still, he patted her hand, and kissed her self-consciously on the forehead.

Ignoring this tender reunion, Buccleigh’s companion prodded Roger interestedly in the side with the toe of his boot.

“What shall we do with this, then, Buck?”

Buccleigh hesitated, his attention drawn momentarily from his wife. Morag, spotting Roger on the ground, uttered a muffled scream and clapped her hand across her mouth.

“What have ye done, Willie?” she cried. “Let him go, for Bride’s sake!”

“I shan’t. He’s a damned traitor.” Buccleigh’s mouth set in a grim line, obviously displeased at his wife’s taking notice of Roger.

“He’s not, he can’t be!” Clutching her son tightly to her, Morag stooped to peer at Roger, an anxious crease between her brows. Seeing the state of his hands, she gasped and turned indignantly to her husband.

“Will! How can ye treat this man so, and after he’s done such service to your own wife and bairn!”

For God’s sake, Morag, back off! Roger thought, seeing Buccleigh’s fist clench suddenly. Buccleigh was plainly a jealous bastard to start with, and being on the losing side of the battle just past was doing his temper no good at all.

“Bugger off, Morag,” said Buccleigh, echoing Roger’s sentiment in less-gallant language. “This is no place for you or the bairn; take him and go.”

Black-beard had recovered slightly by this time, and loomed up alongside Buccleigh. He glared down at Roger, hands pressed tenderly to his swollen nose.

“Slit his throat, I say, and good riddance.” He emphasized this opinion with a kick in the ribs that curled Roger up like a shrimp.

Morag uttered a fierce cry and kicked Black-beard in the shin.

“Let him alone!”

Black-beard, taken off-guard, let out a yelp and hopped backward. Buccleigh’s other companion appeared to find this more than funny, but stifled his hilarity when Buccleigh turned an awful glare on him.

Morag was on her knees, her small belt-knife in her hand, trying one-handed to cut the bonds about Roger’s wrists. Much as he appreciated her intent, Roger wished she wouldn’t try to help him. It was all too apparent that the original green-eyed monster had firm possession of the soul of William Buccleigh MacKenzie, and was glaring out of his eye-sockets in an emerald fury.

Buccleigh seized his wife by the arm and jerked her to her feet. The baby, startled, began to shriek.

“Leave, Morag!” Buccleigh snarled. “Go, and go now!”

“Yes, go!” Black-beard put in, glowering. “We’ve no need of your help, you interfering little bizzom!”

“Don’t you speak to my wife that way!” Turning on his heel, Buccleigh punched Black-beard swiftly in the stomach. The man sat down hard, his mouth opening and closing in comical astonishment. Roger could almost feel a certain sympathy for Black-beard, who appeared to be faring no better between the two MacKenzies than he was himself.

Buccleigh’s other friend, who had been observing the exchange with the fascination of someone watching a close tennis match, seized the opportunity to join the conversation, butting in as Morag tried to soothe her baby’s crying.

“Whatever ye mean to do, Buck, best we do it and be gone.” He nodded toward the creek, uneasy. There were a number of men coming in their direction, judging from the rumble of voices. Not fleeing Regulators; it was a purposeful sound. Militia, coming in search of prisoners? Roger sincerely hoped so.

“Aye.” Buccleigh glanced in the direction of the noises, then turned to his wife. He took her by the shoulders, but gently.

“Go, Morag. I’d have ye safe.”

She heard the note of pleading in his voice, and her face softened. Still, she looked from her husband to Roger, who was now trying mental telepathy, beaming thoughts at her in increasing desperation.

Leave, for God’s sake, woman, before you get me killed!

Morag turned back to her husband, small jaw set in determination.

“I’ll go. But you swear to me, William Buccleigh, that ye willna harm one hair of this man’s head!”

Buccleigh’s eyes bulged slightly, and his hands curled into fists, but Morag stood her ground, small and fierce.

“Swear it!” she said. “For by the name of Bride, I’ll not share the bed of a murderer!”

Clearly torn, Buccleigh glanced from the sullen Black-beard to his other friend, who was shuffling from one foot to the other like a man in urgent need of a privy. The party of militia was getting closer. Then he looked down into his wife’s face.

“All right, Morag,” he said gruffly. He gave her a small push. “Go, now!”

“No.” She reached out and took her husband’s hand, pulling it toward her breast. Little Jemmy had got over his alarm, and was curled into his mother’s shoulder, noisily sucking his thumb. Morag placed his father’s hand on the little boy’s head.

“Swear on your son’s head, Will, that ye’ll not hurt this man nor see him killed.”

Roger mentally applauded the gesture, but was afraid she’d gone too far; Buccleigh stiffened for a moment, and the blood rose in his face again. After a tense moment, though, he nodded, once.

“I swear,” he said quietly, and let his hand fall. Morag’s face eased, and without a word, she turned then and hurried away, the baby held close to her bosom.

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