The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 160




JAMIE AND BREE were nearly ready to leave. Smoke-stained and weary as they were, a number of the men had offered to join the search-party, an offer that made Bree bite her lip and nod thanks. She was grateful for the offer of help, I knew—but it takes time to move a larger group, and I could see the impatience flare up in red blotches under her skin as weapons were cleaned, canteens refilled, cast-off shoes located.

“Wee Josh” had been mildly apprehensive regarding his new position as surgeon’s assistant, but he was a groom, after all, and thus accustomed to tending the ills of horseflesh. The only difference, as I told him—making him grin—was that human patients could tell you where it hurt.

I had paused to wash my hands before stitching a lacerated scalp, when I became aware of some disturbance taking place at the edge of the meadow behind me. Jamie, hearing it too, turned his head—and then came swiftly back across the clearing, eyebrows raised.

“What is it?” I turned to look, and saw a young woman, evidently in a dreadful state, heading toward us at a lopsided trot. She was slight of build and limping badly—she had lost a shoe somewhere—but still half-running, supported on one side by Murdo Lindsay, who seemed to be expostulating with her even as he helped her along.

“Fraser,” I heard her gasp. “Fraser!” She let go of Murdo and pushed her way through the waiting men, her eyes raking the faces as she passed, searching. Her brown hair was tangled and full of leaves, her face scratched and bloody.

“James . . . Fraser . . . I must . . . are you . . . ?” She was panting for breath, her chest heaving and her face so red it looked as though she might have an apoplexy on the spot.

Jamie stepped forward and took her by the arm.

“I’m Jamie Fraser, lass,” he said. “Is it me ye want?”

She nodded, gasping, but had no breath for words. I hastily poured a cup of water and offered it to her, but she shook her head violently, instead waving her arms in agitation, gesturing wildly toward the creek.

“Rog . . . er,” she got out, gulping air like a landed fish. “Roger. MacKen . . . zie.” Before the final syllable left her mouth, Brianna was at the young woman’s side.

“Where is he? Is he hurt?” She seized the young woman’s arm, as much to compel answers as to provide support.

The girl’s head bobbed up and down, shook back and forth, and she gasped out, “Hang . . . they . . . they are . . . hanging him! Gov—ner!”

Brianna let go of her and ran for the horses. Jamie was already there, untying reins with the same swift intensity he had shown when the fighting began. Without a word, he stooped, hands cupped; Brianna stepped up and swung into the saddle, kicking the horse into motion before Jamie had reached his own. Gideon caught the mare up within moments, though, and both horses disappeared into the willows, as though swallowed up.

I said something under my breath, with no consciousness of whether I’d uttered a curse or a prayer. I thrust needle and suture into Josh’s startled hands, caught up the sack with my emergency kit, and ran for my own horse, leaving the brown-haired woman collapsed on the grass, vomiting from her effort.

I CAUGHT THEM UP within a few moments. We didn’t know precisely where Tryon was holding his drumhead court, and valuable time was lost as Jamie was compelled to stop, time and again, and lean from his horse to ask directions—these often muddled and contradictory. Bree was gathered into herself, quivering like a nocked arrow, ready for flight, but lacking direction.

I tried to ready myself for anything, including the worst. I had no idea what preliminaries Tryon might have engaged in, or how much time might elapse between condemnation and execution. Not bloody long, I thought. I’d known Tryon long enough to see that he acted with thought, but also with dispatch—and he would know that if such things were done, ’twas best they were done quickly.

As to the why of it . . . imagination failed completely. I could only hope that the woman was wrong; that she had mistaken someone else for Roger. And yet I didn’t think so; neither did Brianna, urging her horse through a boggy patch ahead with an intensity that suggested she would be better pleased to leap off the horse and drag it bodily through the mud.

The afternoon was fading, and clouds of small gnats surrounded us, but Jamie made no move to brush them away. His shoulders were set like stone, braced to bear the burden of knowledge. It was that as much as my own fears that told me Roger was likely dead.

The thought beat against me like a small, sharp hammer, the sort meant for breaking rocks. So far, I felt only brief, recurrent shocks of imagined loss, each time I glanced at Brianna’s white face, thought of tiny Jemmy orphaned, heard the echo of Roger’s soft, deep voice, laughing in the distance, singing through my heart. I did not try to push the hammering thoughts aside; it would do no good. And I would not truly break, I knew, until I saw his body.

Even then, the break would be internal. Brianna would need me. Jamie would stand like a rock for her, would do what must be done—but he, too, would need me, later. No one could absolve him of the guilt I knew he felt, but I could at least be confessor for him, and his intercessor with Brianna. My own mourning could wait—a long time, I hoped.

The ground opened, flattening into the edge of a wide meadow, and Jamie kicked Gideon into a gallop, the other horses streaming after him. Our shadows flew like bats across the grass, the sound of our hoofbeats lost in the sounds of a crowd of men who filled the field.

On a rise at the far end of the meadow stood a huge white oak, its spring leaves bright in the slanting sun. My horse moved suddenly, dodging past a group of men, and I saw them, three stick-figures, dangling broken in the tree’s deep shadow. The hammer struck one final blow, and my heart shattered like ice.

Too late.

IT WAS A BAD HANGING. Without benefit of official troops, Tryon had had no one to hand with a hangsman’s gruesome—and necessary—skills. The three condemned men had been sat on horses, the ropes round their necks thrown over tree branches above, and at the signal, the horses had been led out from under them, leaving them dangling.

Only one had been fortunate enough to die of a snapped neck. I could see the sharp angle of his head, the limpness of his limbs in their bonds. It wasn’t Roger.

The others had strangled, slowly. The bodies were twisted, held by their bonds in the final postures of their struggle. One man—one body—was cut down as I rode up, and carried past me in the arms of his brother. There was not much to choose between their faces, each contorted, each darkened in its separate agony. They had used what rope was to hand; it was new, unstretched. Roger’s toes trailed in the dust; he had been taller than the rest. His hands had come free; he had managed to hook the fingers of one hand beneath the rope. The fingers were nearly black, all circulation cut off. I couldn’t look at his face at once. I looked at Brianna’s, instead; white and utterly still, each bone and tendon set like death.

Jamie’s face was the same, but where Brianna’s eyes were blank with shock, Jamie’s burned, holes charred black in the bone of his skull. He stood for a moment before Roger, then crossed himself, and said something very quietly in Gaelic. He drew the dirk from his side.

“I’ll hold him. Cut him down, lass.” Jamie handed the knife to Brianna, not looking at her, and stepping forward, took hold of the body round the middle, lifting slightly to take the strain off the rope.

Roger moaned. Jamie froze, arms wrapped tight, and his eyes flicked to me, huge with shock. It was the faintest of sounds; it was only Jamie’s response that convinced me I had indeed heard it—but I had, and so had Brianna. She leapt at the rope, and sawed at it in silent frenzy, and I—stunned into temporary immobility—began to think, as fast as possible.

Maybe not; maybe it was only the sound of the body’s residual air escaping with the movement—but it wasn’t; I could see Jamie’s face, holding him, and I knew it wasn’t.

I darted forward, reaching upward as Roger’s body fell, to catch and cradle the head in my hands, to steady him as Jamie lowered him to the ground. He was cold, but firm. Of course, if he were alive, he must be, but I had prepared myself for the flaccid-meat touch of dead flesh, and the shock of feeling life under my hands was considerable.

“A board,” I said, breathless as though someone had just punched me in the stomach. “A plank, a door, something to put him on. We mustn’t move his head; his neck may be broken.”

Jamie swallowed once, hard, then jerked his head in an awkward nod, and set off, walking stiffly at first, then faster and faster, past the knots of sorrowing kin and eager gawkers, whose curious gaze was turning now in our direction.

Brianna had the dirk still in her hand. As people began to come toward us, she moved past me, and I caught a glimpse of her face. It was still white, still set—but the eyes burned now with a black light that would sear any soul so reckless as to come too near.

I had no attention to spare for interference—or anything else. He wasn’t breathing visibly; no obvious movement of the chest, no twitch of lips or nostrils. I felt vainly for a pulse in his free wrist—pointless to poke at the mass of swollen tissue in his neck—finally found an abdominal pulse, beating faintly just below the breastbone.

The noose was sunk deep in his flesh; I groped frantically in my pocket for my penknife. It was a new rope, raw hemp. The fibers were hairy, stained brown with dried blood. I registered the fact faintly, in the remote part of my mind that had time for such things while my hands were busy. New ropes stretch. A real hangsman has his own ropes, already stretched and oiled, well-tested for ease of use. The raw hemp jabbed my fingers, stabbed painfully under my nails as I clawed and pried and ripped at it.

The last strand popped and I yanked it free, heedless of laceration—that hardly mattered. I daren’t risk tilting his head back; if the cervical vertebrae were fractured, I could cripple or kill him. And if he couldn’t breathe, that wouldn’t matter, either.

I gripped his jaw, tried to sweep my fingers through his mouth, to clear mucus and obstructions. No good, his tongue was swollen, not sticking out, but in the way. Air takes less room than fingers do, though. I pinched his nose tight, breathed two or three times, as deeply as I could, then sealed my mouth on his and blew.

Had I seen his face as he hung, I would have realized at once that he wasn’t dead; his features had gone slack with loss of consciousness and his lips and eyelids were blue—but his face wasn’t black with congested blood, and his eyes were closed, not bulging. He’d lost his bowels, but his spinal cord wasn’t snapped, and he hadn’t strangled—yet.

He was, however, in the process of doing so before my eyes. His chest wasn’t moving. I took another breath, and blew, free hand on his breast. Nothing. Blow. No movement. Blow. Something. Not enough. Blow. Air leaking all around the edges of my mouth. Blow. Like blowing up a rock, not a balloon. Blow again.

Confused voices over my head, Brianna shouting, then Jamie at my elbow.

“Here’s the board,” he said calmly. “What must we do?”