The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 163

   

“I’m terribly sorry about your paper,” I said, looking up at Forbes. Holding his gaze with my own, I carefully rubbed the palm of my hand over the sheet of paper, irrevocably smearing every word on it into a mess of blood and ink. “I’m afraid it’s quite ruined.”

He took a deep breath, and clapped his hat back on his head.

“That is quite all right, Mrs. Fraser. Perfectly all right. I’ll—go and fetch some men.”

EVENING BROUGHT RELIEF from the flies, as well as the heat. Drawn by sweat, blood, and manure, they swarmed over the encampment, biting, stinging, crawling, and buzzing in maddening fashion. Even after they had gone, I kept slapping absentmindedly at arms and neck, imagining I felt the tickle of feet.

But they were gone, at last. I glanced round my small kingdom, saw that everyone was breathing—if with an astounding variety of sound effects—and ducked out of the tent for a breath of cool air, myself.

A highly undervalued activity, breathing. I stood for a moment, eyes closed, appreciating the easy rise and fall of my bosom, the soft inrush, the cleansing flux. Having spent the last several hours in keeping air out of Isaiah Morton’s chest, and getting it into Roger’s, I was inclined to cherish the privilege. Neither of them would draw a single breath without pain for some time—but they were both breathing.

They were my only remaining patients; the other seriously wounded had all been claimed by the surgeons of their own companies, or taken to the Governor’s tent to be tended by his personal physician. Those with minor injuries had gone back to their fellows, to boast of their scars or nurse their pains with beer.

I heard a ruffle of drums in the distance, and stood still, listening. A solemn cadence played, and stopped abruptly. There was a moment’s silence, in which all motion seemed suspended, and then the boom of a cannon.

The Lindsay brothers were nearby, sprawled on the ground by their fire. They too had looked up at the sound of drums.

“What is it?” I called to them. “What’s happening?”

“They’re bringin’ up the dead, Mrs. Fraser,” Evan called back. “Ye’ll no be worrit, aye?”

I waved to them in reassurance, and began to walk toward the creek. The frogs were singing, a descant to the distant drums. Full military honors for the battle dead. I wondered whether the two hanged ringleaders would be buried in the same place, or whether some separate and less honorable grave would be set aside for them, if their families didn’t claim them. Tryon wasn’t the sort to leave even an enemy to the flies.

He would know by now, surely. Would he come, to apologize for his mistake? What apology was possible, after all? It was only by the fluke of fortune and a new rope that Roger was alive.

And he might still die.

When I set my hand on Isaiah Morton, I could feel the burning of the bullet lodged in his lung—but I could feel the stronger burning of his ferocious will to live in spite of it, too. When I set my hand on Roger, I felt that same burning . . . but it was a feeble spark. I listened to the whistle of his breath and in my mind I saw charred wood, with a tiny patch of white-hot ember still alight, but trembling on the verge of abrupt extinction.

Tinder, I thought, absurdly. That’s what you did with a fire that threatened to go out. You blew on the spark—but then there must be char; something for the spark to catch, to feed on and grow.

A creaking of wagon wheels made me look up from my contemplation of a patch of reeds. It was a small wagon, with a single horse, and a single driver.

“Mrs. Fraser? Is that you?”

It took a moment for me to recognize the voice.

“Mr. MacLennan?” I asked, astonished.

He pulled up alongside me, and touched a hand to his hat. By starlight, his face was dim and grave in its shadow.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, drawing close and lowering my voice, though there was no one anywhere near to hear me.

“I came to find Joe,” he replied, with a slight motion of his head toward the wagonbed. It should have been no great shock; I had been seeing death and destruction all day, and I was no more than slightly acquainted with Joe Hobson. I hadn’t known he was dead, though, and the hairs rippled on my forearms.

Without speaking further, I went round to the back of the wagon. I felt the small jerk and vibration through the wood as Abel put on the wagon-brake, and got down to join me.

The body wasn’t shrouded, though someone had laid a large half-clean kerchief over the face. Three huge black flies rested on it, still and bloated. It made no difference, but I dashed them away with the back of my hand. They drifted up buzzing, and settled again, out of my reach.

“Were you in the fighting?” I asked, not looking at Abel MacLennan. He must have been with the Regulators, but there was no smell of gunpowder on him.

“No,” he said softly behind my shoulder. “I’d no wish to fight. I came wi’ Joe Hobson, Mr. Hamilton, and the others—but when it looked as though there would be fighting, I came awa’. I walked away, as far as the mill on the other side of the town. And then, when the sun went down, and no sign of Joe . . . I came back,” he finished simply.

“What now?” I asked. We both spoke softly, as though we might disturb the dead man’s slumber. “Shall we give you help to bury him? My husband—”

“Och, no,” he interrupted, still softly. “I’ll be takin’ him home, Mrs. Fraser. Though I thank ye for the kindness. If ye might spare a bit o’ water, though, or food for the way . . .”

“Of course. Wait here—I’ll get it.”

I hurried back toward our tent, thinking as I went of the distance to Drunkard’s Spring from Alamance. Four days, five, six? And the sun so hot, and the flies . . . but I knew the sound of a Scot whose mind was made up, and went without argument.

I took a moment to check the two men; both breathing. Noisily, painfully—but breathing. I had replaced the wet paper on Morton’s wound with a bit of oiled linen, stuck down round the edges with honey, which made an excellent seal. No leakage; very good.

Brianna still sat by Roger. She had found a wooden comb, and was combing out his tumbled hair, gently removing burs and twigs, working at the tangles, slowly and patiently. She was singing something under her breath—“Frère Jacques.” The bodice of her dress showed wet circles. She had gone out once or twice during the day to relieve the growing pressure of milk, but obviously it was time again. The sight made my own br**sts ache with remembered strain.

She looked up and I caught her eye. I touched my breast briefly and nodded toward the tent-flap, eyebrow raised. She gave me a nod and a tiny smile, meant to be bravely reassuring, but I could see the bleakness in her eyes. I supposed it had occurred to her that while Roger might live, he would likely never sing—or perhaps even talk—again.

I couldn’t speak past the lump in my own throat; only nodded to her and hurried out again, the parcel under my arm.

A figure stepped out of the darkness in front of me, and I nearly ran bang into it. I stopped short with an exclamation, clutching the parcel to my chest.

“My apologies, Mrs. Fraser. I did not realize that you didn’t see me.” It was the Governor. He took another step, into the glow of light from the tent.

He was alone, and looked very tired, the flesh of his face furrowed and loose. He smelt of drink; his Council and the militia officers would have been toasting his victory, I supposed. His eyes were clear, though, and his step firm.

“Your son-in-law,” he said, and glanced toward the tent behind me. “Is he—”

“He is alive,” said a soft, deep voice behind the Governor. He whirled round with a smothered exclamation, and my head jerked up.

I saw a shadow move and take shape, and Jamie rose up slowly out of the night; he had been sitting at the base of a hickory tree, invisible in the dark. How long had he been there? I wondered.

“Mr. Fraser.” The Governor had been startled, but he firmed his jaw, hands folded into fists at his sides. He was obliged to tilt his head back to look up at Jamie, and I could see that he didn’t like it. Jamie could see it, too, and plainly didn’t care. He stood close to Tryon, looming over him, with an expression on his face that would have rattled most people.

It appeared to rattle Tryon, too, but he lifted his chin, determined to say whatever he had come to say.

“I have come to make my apologies for the injury done to your son-in-law,” he said. “It was a most regrettable error.”

“Most regrettable,” Jamie repeated, with an ironic intonation. “And would ye care to say, sir, how this . . . error . . . came about?” He took a step forward, and Tryon automatically took a step back. I could see the heat rise in the Governor’s face, and his jaw clench.

“It was a mistake,” he said, through his teeth. “He was wrongly identified as one of the outlawed ringleaders of the Regulation.”

“By whom?” Jamie’s voice was polite.

Small hectic spots burned in the Governor’s cheeks.

“I do not know. By several people. I had no reason to doubt the identification.”

“Indeed. And did Roger MacKenzie say nothing in his own defense? Did he not say who he was?”

Tryon’s lower teeth fastened briefly in the flesh of his upper lip, then let go.

“He . . . did not.”

“Because he was bloody bound and gagged!” I said. I had pulled the gag from his mouth myself, when Jamie had cut him down from the hanging tree. “You didn’t let him speak, did you, you—you—”

The lamplight from the tent-flap gleamed off Tryon’s gorget, a crescent of silver that hung round his throat. Jamie’s hand rose slowly—so slowly that Tryon plainly perceived no threat—and very gently fitted itself around the Governor’s throat, just above the gorget.

“Leave us, Claire,” he said. There was no particular threat in his voice; he sounded merely matter-of-fact. A flash of panic lit Tryon’s eyes, and he jerked backward, gorget flashing in the light.

“You dare to lay hands on me, sir!” The panic subsided at once, replaced by fury.

“Oh, I do, aye. As ye laid hands on my son.”

I didn’t think Jamie actually intended to harm the Governor. On the other hand, this was by no means merely an act of intimidation; I could feel the core of cold rage inside him, and see it like an ice-burn in his eyes. So could Tryon.

“It was a mistake! And one I have come to rectify, so far as I may!” Tryon was standing his ground, jaw tight as he glared upward.

Jamie made a sound of contempt, low in his throat.

“A mistake. And is the loss of an innocent man’s life no more than that to ye? You will kill and maim, for the sake of your glory, and pay no heed to the destruction ye leave—save only that the record of your exploits may be enlarged. How will it look in the dispatches ye send to England—sir? That ye brought cannon to bear on your own citizens, armed with no more than knives and clubs? Or will it say that ye put down rebellion and preserved order? Will it say that in your haste to vengeance, ye hanged an innocent man? Will it say there that ye made ‘a mistake’? Or will it say that ye punished wickedness, and did justice in the King’s name?”

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