The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 159

   

“Fun,” muttered another of the men, and crossed himself.

“Shame if he hangs the Quaker,” another opined, face shadowed. “Old Husband’s a right terror in print, but he ain’t a ruffian. Nor are James Hunter or Ninian Hamilton.”

“Perhaps he’ll hang Cousin Millard,” another suggested, nudging his neighbor with a grin. “Then you’ll be rid of him and your wife can blame the Governor!”

There was a chorus of laughter at this, but the tone was subdued. I turned back to my work, concentrating fiercely to blot out the picture of what was now happening on the field of war.

War was bad enough, even when it was necessary. Cold-blooded revenge by the victor was one degree beyond. And yet from Tryon’s point of view, that might be necessary, too. As battles went, this one had been both quick, and relatively minor in terms of casualty. I had only twenty or so wounded in my keeping, and had seen only one fatality. There would be more elsewhere, of course, yet from the comments of those nearby, it had been a rout, but not a slaughter, the militiamen being largely unenthusiastic about butchering their fellow citizens, cousins or not.

That meant that most of the men of the Regulation survived unharmed. I supposed that the Governor might feel that a drastic gesture was required, to seal his victory, intimidate the survivors, and stamp once and for all on the long-smoldering wick of that dangerous movement.

There was a stir, and the sound of a horse’s hooves. I looked up—next to me, Bree’s head jerked up, her body tense—to see Jamie returning, riding double with Murdo Lindsay. Both men slid off, and he sent Murdo away with a word to care for Gideon, then came at once to me.

I could see from the anxious look of his face that he had no word of Roger; he glanced at my face and saw the answer to his own question there. His shoulders dropped slightly in discouragement, then straightened, stiffening.

“I will go to search the field,” he said to me, low-voiced. “I have sent word already, through the companies. If he is brought in anywhere, someone will bring us word.”

“I’m going with you.” Brianna was already taking off her grubby apron, wadding it into a ball.

Jamie glanced at her, then nodded.

“Aye, lass, of course. Just a moment, then—I’ll fetch wee Josh to help your mother.”

“I’ll get—get the horses ready.” Her movements were quick and jerky, without her usual athletic grace, and she dropped the water bottle she was holding, fumbling several times before she succeeded in retrieving it. I took it from her before she could drop it again, and squeezed her hand, hard.

The corner of her mouth trembled as she looked at me; I thought she meant it for a smile.

“He’ll be all right,” she said. “We’ll find him.”

“Yes,” I said, and let go her hand. “I know you will.”

I watched her hurry across the clearing, hands clenched in her raised skirts, and felt the counterweight of fear come loose, plunging like a stone into my belly.

68

EXECUTION OF ORDERS

ROGER WOKE SLOWLY, to throbbing pain and a sense of dreadful urgency. He had no idea where he was, or how he came to be there, but there were voices, lots of voices, some talking just beyond the range of comprehension, some singing like harpies, in shrill discord. For a moment, he felt the voices were inside his head. He could see them, little brown things with leather wings and sharp teeth, banging into each other in paroxysms of interruption that set off small bombs of light behind his eyes.

He could feel the seam along which his head must surely split under the pressure, a burning streak across the top of his skull. He wanted someone to come and unzip it, to let out all the flying voices and their racket, to leave his skull an empty bowl of shining bone.

He had no real sense of opening his eyes, and stared numbly for some minutes, thinking that the scene on which he looked was still part of the confusion inside his skull. Men swarmed before him in a sea of colors, swirling blues and reds and yellows, mixed with blobs of green and brown.

A defect in his vision deprived him of perspective and caused him to see them in fragments—a distant cluster of heads floating like a bobble of hairy balloons, a waving arm that held a crimson banner, seemingly severed from its body. Several pairs of legs that must be close by . . . was he sitting on the ground? He was. A fly droned past his ear and landed, buzzing, on his upper lip, and he moved by reflex to swat it, only then realizing that he was indeed awake—and still bound.

His hands had gone numb beyond any sense of pain, but the ache now throbbed through the straining muscles of his arms and shoulders. He shook his head to clear it, a terrible mistake. Blinding pain shot through his head, bringing water to his eyes.

He blinked hard and breathed deep, willing himself to grasp some shred of reality, to come to himself. Focus, he thought. Hold on. The singing voices had faded away, leaving only a faint ringing in his ears. The others were still talking, though, and now he knew that the sound was real, he was able to seize on a word here and there, and pin it down, flapping, to examine for meaning.

“Example.”

“Governor.”

“Rope.”

“Piss.”

“Regulators.”

“Stew.”

“Foot.”

“Hang.”

“Hillsborough.”

“Water.”

“Water.” That one made sense. He knew water. He wanted water; wanted it badly. His throat was dry, his mouth felt as though it was stuffed with . . . it was stuffed with something; he gagged as his tongue moved in an unconscious attempt at swallowing.

“Governor.” The repeated word, spoken just above him, made him look up. He fixed his floating vision on a face. Lean, dark, frowning with a fierce intent.

“You are sure?” the face said, and he wondered dimly, Sure of what? He was sure of nothing, save that he was in a bad way.

“Yessir,” said another voice, and he saw another face swim into view alongside the first. This one seemed familiar, fringed with thick black beard. “I saw him in Hermon Husband’s camp, palavering with Husband. You ask amongst the prisoners, sir—they’ll say so.”

The first head nodded. It turned to the side, and up, addressing someone taller. Roger’s eyes drifted up, seeking, and he jerked upright with a muffled exclamation, as he saw the green eyes looking down on him, dispassionate.

“He’s James MacQuiston,” said the green-eyed man, nodding confirmation. “From Hudgin’s Ferry.”

“You saw him in the battle?” The first man was coming into complete focus, a soldierly-looking fellow in his late thirties, dressed in uniform. Something else was coming into focus—James MacQuiston. He’d heard of MacQuiston . . . what . . . ?

“He killed a man in my company,” Green-eyes said, his voice rough with anger. “Shot him in cold blood as he lay wounded on the ground.”

The Governor—that was who it must be, Governor . . . Tryon! That was the name! The Governor was nodding, the frown etched deep on his face.

“Take him, too, then,” he said, and turned away. “Three are enough for now.”

Hands gripped Roger’s arms and jerked him upright, supporting him for a moment, then pulling him so that he stumbled, off-balance, and found himself half-walking, his weight supported by two men dressed in uniform. He pulled against them, wanting to turn and find Green-eyes—damn, what was the man’s name?—but they yanked him round, compelling him to stumble toward a small rise, topped with a huge white oak.

The rise was surrounded by a sea of men, but they fell back, making way for Roger and his escorts. The sense of urgency was back, a feeling like ants beneath the surface of his brain.

MacQuiston, he thought, the name suddenly clear in his memory. James MacQuiston. MacQuiston was a minor leader of the Regulation, a rabble-rouser from Hudgin’s Ferry whose fiery speech of threat and denunciation had been published in the Gazette; Roger had seen it.

Why in hell had Green-eyes—Buccleigh! It was Buccleigh. His sense of relief at remembering the name was succeeded instantly by shock as he realized that Buccleigh had told them he was MacQuiston. Why—

He had not even time to form the question when the last ranks broke before him, and he saw the horses beneath the tree, the looped nooses hanging above the empty saddles from its branches.

THEY HELD THE HORSES by the heads, while the men were put upon them. Leaves brushed his cheek; twigs caught in his hair, and he ducked, turning his head by instinct to save his eyes being put out.

Some way across the clearing, he saw a woman’s figure, half-hidden in the crowd; indistinct but with the unmistakable curve of a child in her arm, a small brown Madonna. The sight brought him upright with a jolt through chest and belly, the memory of Bree with Jemmy in her arms searing through his mind.

He threw himself to the side, back arched, felt himself slide and had no hands to save himself. Other hands caught him, pushed him back, one struck him hard across the face. He shook his head, eyes watering, and through the blur of tears saw the brown Madonna thrust her burden into someone’s hands, pick up her skirts, and run as though the devil chased her.

Something dropped upon his breast with the heavy slither of a serpent. Prickly hemp touched his neck, drew tight about his throat, and he screamed behind the gag.

He struggled without thought for consequence or possibility, impelled by the desperation of the instinct to survive. Heedless of bleeding wrists and wrenching muscle, thighs clenched so hard about the horse’s body that it jerked under him in protest, he strained at his bonds with a strength beyond what he had ever imagined he possessed.

Across the clearing, the child had begun to shriek for his mother. The crowd had fallen silent and the baby’s cries rang loud. The dark soldier sat on his horse, arm lifted, sword upraised. He seemed to speak, but Roger heard nothing for the roar of blood in his ears.

The bones of his hands popped and a line of liquid heat ran down one arm as a muscle tore. The sword fell, a flash of sunlight from its blade. His buttocks slid back over the horse’s rump, legs trailing helpless, and his weight fell free in an empty-bellied plunge.

A wrenching jerk . . .

And he was spinning, choking, fighting for air, and his fingers scrabbled, nails tearing at the rope sunk deep in his flesh. His hands had come loose, but it was too late, he couldn’t feel them, couldn’t manage. His fingers slipped and slid on the twisted strands, futile, numb, and unresponsive as wood.

He dangled, kicking, and heard a far-off rumble from the crowd. He kicked and bucked, feet pawing empty air, hands clawing at his throat. Chest strained, back arched, and his sight had gone black, small lightnings flickering in the corners of his eyes. He reached for God and heard no plea for mercy deep within himself but only a shriek of no! that echoed in his bones.

And then the stubborn impulse left him and he felt his body stretch and loosen, reaching, reaching for the earth. A cool wind embraced him and he felt the soothing warmth of his body’s voidings. A brilliant light blazed up behind his eyes, and he heard nothing more but the bursting of his heart and the distant cries of an orphaned child.

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