The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 187

   

The woman shot Roger a sudden, hard look, quite at odds with her earlier hesitation. She approached him, slowly, but without apparent fear.

“You are not Jameth Frather,” she said, and he jerked, startled at the sound of her voice, clear but lisping. He blinked and squinted, then rose slowly to his feet, shading his eyes to see her against the glare of light from the door.

She might have been any age between twenty and sixty, though the light brown hair that showed at her temples was unmarked with gray. Her face was lined, but with struggle and hunger, he thought, not age. He smiled at her, deliberately, and her mouth drew back in reflex, a hesitant grimace, but nonetheless enough for him to catch a glimpse of her front teeth, broken off at an angle. Squinting, he made out the thin slash of a scar through one eyebrow. She was much thinner than Claire’s description of her, but that was hardly surprising.

“I am not . . . James Fraser,” he agreed hoarsely, and had to stop to cough. He cleared his throat, hawking up more soot and slime. He spat, turning politely aside, then turned back to her. “But you are . . . Fanny Beardsley . . . aren’t you?”

He hadn’t been sure, in spite of the teeth, but the look of shock that crossed her face at his words was solid confirmation. The men knew that name, too. The one-eyed man took a quick step forward and seized the woman by the shoulder; the others moved menacingly closer.

“James Fraser is . . . my wife’s father,” he said, as quickly as he could, before they could lay hands on him. “Do you want to know—about the child?”

The look of suspicion faded from her face. She didn’t move, but a look of such hunger rose in her eyes that he had to steel himself not to step back from it.

“Fahnee?” The tall man still had a hand on her shoulder. He drew closer to her, his one eye flicking back and forth in suspicion, from the woman to Roger.

She said something, almost under her breath, and put up her hand, to cover the man’s where it rested on her shoulder. His face went suddenly blank, as though wiped with a slate eraser. She turned to him, looking up into his face, talking in a low tone, quick and urgent.

The atmosphere in the hut had changed. It was still charged, but an air of confusion now mingled with the general mood of menace. There was thunder overhead, much louder than the sound of the rain, but no one took note of it. The men near the door looked at each other, then, frowning, at the couple arguing in whispers. Lightning flashed, silent, framing the people in the door with darkness. There were murmuring voices outside, sounds of puzzlement. Another boom of thunder.

Roger stood motionless, gathering his strength. His legs felt like rubber, and while breathing was still a joy, each breath burned and tickled in his lungs. He wouldn’t go fast or far, if he had to run.

The argument stopped abruptly. The tall man turned and made a sharp gesture toward the door, saying something that made the other men grunt with surprise and disapproval. Still, they went, slowly, and with much muttered grumbling. One short fellow with his hair in knots glared back at Roger, bared his teeth, and drew the edge of a hand across his throat with a hiss. With a small shock, Roger saw that the man’s teeth were jagged, filed to points.

The ramshackle door had barely closed behind them when the woman clutched his sleeve.

“Tell me,” she said.

“Not so . . . fast.” He coughed again, wiping spittle from his mouth with the back of his hand. His throat was seared; the words felt like cinders, forced burning from his chest. “You get . . . me . . . out of here. Then . . . I’ll tell you. All I know.”

“Tell me!”

Her fingers dug hard into his arm. Her eyes were bloodshot from the smoke, and the brown irises glowed like coals. He shook his head, coughing.

The tall man brushed the woman aside, grabbing Roger by a handful of shirt. Something gleamed dully, too close to Roger’s eye to see clearly, and amid the stench of burning, he caught the reek of rotting teeth.

“You tell her, man, or I rip you guts!”

Roger brought a forearm up between them, and with an effort, shoved the man back, stumbling.

“No,” he said doggedly. “You get . . . me out. Then I tell.”

The man hesitated, crouched, the knife blade wavering in a small arc of uncertainty. His one eye flicked to the woman.

“You sure he know?”

The woman had not taken her eyes off Roger’s face. She nodded slowly, not looking away.

“He knows.”

“It was . . . a girl.” Roger looked at her steadily, fighting the urge to blink. “You’ll know . . . that much . . . yourself.”

“Does she live?”

“Get me . . . out.”

She was not a tall woman, nor a large one, but her urgency seemed to fill the hut. She fairly quivered with it, hands clenched into fists at her sides. She glared at Roger for a long minute more, than whirled on her heel, saying something violent to the man in the odd African tongue.

He tried to argue, but it was fruitless; the stream of her words struck him like water from a fire hose. He flung up his hands in frustrated surrender, then reached out and snatched the rag from the woman’s head. He undid the knots with quick, long fingers, and whipped it into the shape of a blindfold, muttering under his breath.

The last thing Roger saw before the man fastened the cloth round his eyes was Fanny Beardsley, hair in a number of small greasy plaits round her shoulders, her eyes still on him, burning like embers. Her broken teeth were bared, and he thought she would bite him, if she could.

THEY DIDN’T GET OUT without some argument; a chorus of angry voices surrounded them for some way, and hands plucked at his clothes and limbs. But the one-eyed man still had the knife. Roger heard a shout, a scuffling of feet and bodies close by, and a sharp cry. The voices dropped, and the hands no longer snatched at him.

They walked on, his hand on Fanny Beardsley’s shoulder for guidance. He thought it was a small settlement; at least, it took very little time before he felt the trees close around him. Leaves brushed his face, and the resin smell of sap was heightened by the hot, smoky air. It was still raining fairly hard, but the smell of smoke was everywhere. The ground was lumpy, layers of leaf-mold punctuated by upthrusting rocks, studded with stumps and fallen branches.

The man and woman exchanged occasional remarks, but soon fell silent. His clothes grew wet and clung to him, the seams of his breeches chafing as he walked. The blindfold was too tight to allow him to see anything, but light leaked under the edge, and from that, he could judge the changing time of day. He thought it was just past mid-afternoon when they left the hut; when they stopped at last, the light had faded almost completely.

He blinked when the blindfold was taken off, the sudden flood of light compensating for its dimness. It was late twilight. They stood in a hollow, already halfway filled with darkness. Looking up, he saw the sky above the mountains blazing with orange and crimson, the smoky haze lit up as though the world itself were still burning. Overhead, the clouds had broken; a slice of pure blue sky shone through, soft, and bright with twilight stars.

Fanny Beardsley faced him, looking smaller beneath the canopy of a towering chestnut tree, but every bit as intent as she had in the hut.

He had had plenty of time to think about it. Ought he to tell her where the child was, or should he claim not to know? If she knew, would she make an attempt to reclaim the little girl? And if so, what might be the fallout—for the child, the escaped slaves—or even for Jamie and Claire Fraser?

Neither of them had said anything about the events that had transpired at the Beardsley farmhouse, beyond the simple fact that Beardsley had died of an apoplexy. Roger was sufficiently familiar with them both, though, to draw silent deductions from Claire’s troubled face and Jamie’s impassive one. He didn’t know what had happened, but Fanny Beardsley did—and it might well be something the Frasers would prefer remain undiscovered. If Mrs. Beardsley reappeared in Brownsville, seeking to reclaim her daughter, questions would certainly be asked—and perhaps it was to no one’s benefit that they be answered.

The blazing sky washed her face with fire, though, and faced with the hunger in those burning eyes, he could speak nothing but the truth.

“Your daughter . . . is well,” he began firmly, and she made a small strangled noise, deep in her throat. By the time he had finished telling what he knew, the tears were running down her face, making tracks in the soot and dust that covered her, but her eyes stayed wide, fixed on him as though to blink would be to miss some vital word.

The man hung back a little, wary, keeping watch. His attention was mostly on the woman, but he stole occasional glances at Roger as he spoke, and at the end, stood beside the woman, his one eye bright as hers.

“She have de money?” he asked. He had the lilt of the Indies in his speech, and a skin like dark honey. He would have been handsome, save for whatever accident had deprived him of his eye, leaving a pocket of livid flesh beneath a twisted, drooping lid.

“Yes, she’s . . . inherited . . . all of Aaron . . . Beardsley’s property,” Roger assured him, breath rasping in his throat from so much talking. “Mr. Fraser saw . . . to it.” He and Jamie had both gone to the hearing of the Orphan’s Court, for Jamie to bear witness to the girl’s identity. Richard Brown and his wife had been given the guardianship of the child—and her property. They had named the little girl—from what depths of sentiment or outrage, he had no idea—“Alicia.”

“No matta she black?” He saw the slave’s one eye flick sideways toward Fanny Beardsley, then slide away. Mrs. Beardsley heard the note of uncertainty in the man’s voice, and turned on him like a viper striking.

“She is yourss!” she said. “She could not be histh, could not!”

“Yah, you say so,” he replied, his face cast down in sullenness. “Dey give money to black girl?”

She stamped her foot, noiseless on the ground, and slapped at him. He straightened up and turned his face aside, but made no other attempt to escape her fury.

“Do you think I would have left her, ever left her, if she had been white, if she could posthibly have been white?” she shouted. She punched at him, pummelling his arms and chest with blows. “It wath your fault I had to leave her, yourss! You and that damned black hide, God damn you—”

It was Roger who seized her flailing wrists and held them tight against her straining, letting her shriek herself to hoarseness before she collapsed at last in tears.

The slave, who had watched all this with an expression between shame and anger, lifted his hands a little toward her. It was the slightest of movements, but enough; she turned at once from Roger and flung herself into her lover’s arms, sobbing against his chest. He wrapped his arms awkwardly around her and held her close, rocking back and forth on his bare heels. He looked sheepish, but no longer angry.

Roger cleared his throat, grimacing at the soreness. The slave looked up at him, and nodded.

“You go, man,” he said softly. Then, before Roger could turn to go, he said, “Wait . . . true, man, de child fix good?”

Roger nodded, feeling unutterably tired. Whatever adrenaline or sense of self-preservation had been keeping him going was all used up. The blazing sky had gone to ashes, and everything in the hollow was fading, blurring into dark.

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