The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 169


At last I opened my eyes, to find his eyes two inches from my own and still wide open, the question in them cold and stark as glacier ice.

“I don’t know,” I said at last, my own voice no more than a whisper. My fingers still rested on his throat; I could feel the thrum of blood through the carotid under my palm, his life flowing just below the skin. But the angular hardness of his larynx lay still under my fingers, queerly misshapen; I felt no pulsing there, no vibration of air across the vocal cords.

“I don’t know,” I said again, and drew my fingers slowly away. “Do you—want to try now?”

He had shaken his head then, and risen from the bed, going to the window, facing away from me. His arms were braced against the frame as he looked down into the street, and a faint, uneasy memory stirred in my mind.

It had been a moonlit night, then, not broad day—in Paris. I had waked from sleep to see Jamie standing nak*d in the window frame, the scars on his back pale silver, arms braced and body gleaming with cold sweat. Roger was sweating, too, from the heat; the linen of his shirt stuck to his body—and the lines of his body were just the same; the look of a man braced to meet fear; one who chose to face his demons alone.

I could hear voices in the street below; Jamie, coming back from the camp, with Jemmy held before him on his saddle. He had formed the habit of taking Jem with him on his daily errands, so that Bree could work without distraction. In consequence, Jemmy had learned four new words—only two of them obscene—and Jamie’s good coat sported jam stains and smelled like a soiled diaper, but both of them seemed generally pleased with the arrangement.

Bree’s voice floated up from below, laughing as she went out to retrieve her son. Roger stood as though he’d been carved out of wood. He couldn’t call to them, but he might have knocked on the window frame, or made some other noise, waved to them. But he didn’t move.

After a moment, I rose quietly and left the room, feeling a lump in my throat, hard and unswallowable.

When Bree had carried Jemmy off for his bath, Jamie told me that Tryon had released most of the men captured during the battle. “Hugh Fowles among them.” He put aside his coat and loosened the collar of his shirt, raising his face to the slight breeze from the window. “I spoke for him—and Tryon listened.”

“As well he might,” I said, with an edge to my voice. He glanced at me, and made a noise deep in his throat. It reminded me of Roger, whose larynx was no longer capable of that peculiarly Scottish form of expression.

I must have looked distressed at the thought, for Jamie raised his brows and touched my arm. It was too hot to embrace, but I pressed my cheek against his shoulder briefly, taking comfort from the solidness of his body under the thin, damp linen.

“I sewed up Roger’s throat,” I said. “He can breathe—but I don’t know whether he’ll ever be able to talk again.” Let alone sing. The unvoiced thought floated in the muggy air.

Jamie made another noise, this one deep and angry.

“I spoke to Tryon regarding his promise to Roger Mac, as well. He’s given me the document of the land grant—five thousand acres, adjoining my own. His last official act as Governor—almost.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I said he’s released most of the prisoners?” He moved away, restless. “All but twelve. He has a dozen men still gaoled, outlawed ringleaders of the Regulation. Or so he says.” The irony in his voice was as thick as the dusty air. “He’ll hold them for trial in a month, on charges of rebellion.”

“And if they’re found guilty—”

“At least they’ll be able to speak before they hang.”

He had stopped in front of the portrait, frowning, though I wasn’t sure whether he was actually seeing it or not.

“I willna stay to see it. I told Tryon that we must go, to tend our crops and farms. He has released the militia company from service, on those grounds.”

I felt a lightening of the weight on my heart. It would be cool in the mountains, the air green and fresh. It was a good place to heal.

“When will we go?”

“Tomorrow.” He had noticed the portrait; he nodded at the gape-jawed head on the platter in grim approval. “There’s only the one thing to stay for, and I think there’s little point to it, now.”

“What’s that?”

“Dougal’s son,” he said, turning away from the portrait. “I have been seeking William Buccleigh MacKenzie from one end of the county to the other for the past ten days. I found some who kent him, but none who has seen him since Alamance. Some said perhaps he had left the Colony altogether. A good many of the Regulators have fled; Husband’s gone—taken his family to Maryland, they say. But as for William MacKenzie, the man’s disappeared like a snake down a rat-hole; him, and his family with him.”

Last night I dreamed that we were lying under a big rowan tree, Roger and I. It was a beautiful summer day, and we were having one of those conversations we used to have all the time, about things we missed. Only the things we were talking about were there on the grass between us.

I said I’d sell my soul for a Hershey bar with almonds, and there it was. I slipped the outer wrapper off, and I could smell the chocolate. I unfolded the white paper wrapper inside and started eating the chocolate, but it was the paper we were talking about, then—the wrapper.

Roger picked it up and said what he missed most was loo-paper; this was too slick to wipe your arse with. I laughed and said there wasn’t anything complicated about toilet paper—people could make it now, if they wanted to. There was a roll of toilet paper on the ground; I pointed at it, and a big bumblebee flew down and grabbed the end of it and flew off, unfurling the toilet paper in its wake. It flew in and out, weaving it through the branches overhead.

Then Roger said it was blasphemy to think about wiping yourself with paper—it is, here. Mama writes in tiny letters when she does her case-notes, and when Da writes to Scotland he writes on both sides of the page, and then he turns it sideways and writes across the lines, so it looks like lattice-work.

Then I could see Da, sitting on the ground, writing a letter to Aunt Jenny on the toilet paper, and it was getting longer and longer and the bee was carrying it up into the air, flying off toward Scotland with it.

I use more paper than anyone. Aunt Jocasta gave me some of her old sketchbooks to use, and a whole quire of watercolor paper—but I feel guilty when I use them, because I know how expensive it is. I have to draw, though. A nice thing about doing this portrait for Mrs. Sherston—since I’m earning money, I feel like I can use a little paper.

Then the dream changed and I was drawing pictures of Jemmy, with a #2B yellow pencil. It said “Ticonderoga” on it in black letters, like the ones we used to use in school. I was drawing on toilet paper, though, and the pencil kept ripping through it, and I was so frustrated that I wadded up a bunch in my hand.

Then it went into one of those boring, uncomfortable dreams where you’re wandering around looking for a place to go to the bathroom and can’t find one—and finally you wake up enough to realize that you do have to go to the bathroom.

I can’t decide whether I’d rather have the Hershey bar, the toilet paper, or the pencil. I think the pencil. I could smell the freshly-sharpened wood on the point, and feel it between my fingers, and my teeth. I used to chew my pencils, when I was little. I still remember what it felt like to bite down hard and feel the paint and wood give, just a little, and munch my way up and down the length of the pencil, until it looked like a beaver had been gnawing on it.

I was thinking about that, this afternoon. It made me feel sad that Jem won’t have a new yellow pencil, or a lunchbox with Batman on it, when he goes to school—if he ever does go to school.

Roger’s hands are still too bad to hold a pen.

And now I know that I don’t want pencils or chocolate, or even toilet paper. I want Roger to talk to me again.



OUR JOURNEY BACK TO Fraser’s Ridge was much quicker than the one to Alamance, for all that the return was uphill. It was late May, and the cornstalks stood already high and green in the fields around Hillsborough, shedding golden pollen on the wind. The grain would just be up, in the mountains, and the newborn stock appearing, calves and foals and lambs needing protection from wolf and fox and bear. The militia company had disbanded at once upon receiving the Governor’s dismissal, its members scattering in haste to return to their homesteads and fields.

We were in consequence a much smaller party going back; only two wagons. A few of the men who lived near the Ridge had chosen to travel with us, as had the two Findlay boys, since we would pass by their mother’s homestead on our way.

I cast a covert glance at the Findlays, who were helping to unload the wagon and set up our nightly camp. Nice boys, though quiet. They were respectful of—and rather awed by—Jamie, but had developed a peculiar sense of allegiance to Roger over the course of the short-lived campaign, and this odd fidelity had continued, even after the militia’s disbanding.

They had come, the two of them, to see him in Hillsborough, wriggling their bare toes in embarrassment on Phoebe Sherston’s Turkish carpets. Scarlet-faced and nearly speechless themselves, they had presented Roger with three early apples, lopsided green nubbins obviously stolen from someone’s orchard on the way.

He had smiled broadly at them in thanks, picked up one of the apples, and taken a heroic bite from it before I could stop him. He hadn’t swallowed anything but soup for a week, and nearly choked to death. Still, he got it down, strangling and gasping, and all three of them had sat there grinning wordlessly at each other, tears standing in their eyes.

The Findlays were usually to be found somewhere near Roger as we traveled, always watchful, leaping to help with anything he couldn’t quite manage with his injured hands. Jamie had told me about their uncle, Iain Mhor; plainly they had a good deal of experience in anticipating unspoken needs.

Young and strong, Roger had healed quickly, and the fractures weren’t bad ones—but two weeks was not a long time for broken bones to knit. I would have preferred to keep him bandaged for another week, but he was all too plainly chafing at the restraint. I had reluctantly taken the splints off his fingers the day before, warning him to take things easy.

“Don’t you dare,” I said now, seizing his arm as he reached into the wagon for one of the heavy rucksacks of supplies. He looked down at me, one eyebrow raised, then shrugged good-naturedly and stood back, letting Hugh Findlay pull out the sack and carry it away. Roger pointed at the ring of fire-stones Iain Findlay was assembling, then at the woods nearby. Could he gather firewood?

“Certainly not,” I said firmly. He pantomimed drinking, and raised his brows. Fetch water?

“No,” I said. “All it needs is for a bucket to slip, and . . .”

I looked around, trying to think of something he could safely do, but all camp-making chores involved rough work. At the same time, I knew how galling he found it to stand by, feeling useless. He was bloody tired of being treated like an invalid, and I could see the gleam of incipient rebellion in his eye. One more “no” and he would probably try to pick up the wagon, just to spite me.