The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 233


As though the thought had drawn attention to him, he heard the slosh and swish of someone walking slowly through the marsh nearby. Searching. He froze, hoping the rain would cover the sound of his breath, loud and rasping in his ears.

Closer. Damn, they were coming closer. He fumbled at his belt, but he had lost the dirk, somewhere in his swimming. He got one knee up under his chin, braced himself to spring and run.

The grass above him swept suddenly away, and he leaped to his feet, just in time to avoid the spear that sliced into the water where he’d lain.

The spear quivered in front of him, six inches from his face. On the other side of it, a black man gaped at him, eyes saucered in amazement. The Negro closed his mouth, blinked at him, and spoke in tones of deepest accusation.

“You ain’t no possum!”

“No,” said Roger, mildly. “I’m not.” He brushed a trembling hand down his chest, assuring himself that his heart was still inside it. “Sorry.”

PHILLIP WYLIE LOOKED a great deal different at home, Roger thought, than he did in society. Attired for pig-catching in loose breeks and a farmer’s smock, damp with rain, and minus any trace of wig, paint, powder, or patches, he was still elegantly slender, but looked quite normal, and reasonably competent. He also looked somewhat more intelligent, though his mouth did tend to keep dropping open, and he did insist on breaking into Jamie’s account with questions and expostulations.

“Lillywhite? Randall Lillywhite? But what can he—”

“Concentrate, man,” Jamie said impatiently. “I’m telling ye now, and I’ll tell ye more later, but he and yon sheriff are like to be carving up your Russians like a set of Christmas hams, and we dinna go and tend to the matter this minute.”

Wylie glared at Jamie, then looked suspiciously at Roger, who was standing under the cover of the forest, half-naked, soaking wet, and covered with blood-streaked mud.

“He’s right,” Roger croaked, then coughed, cleared his throat, and repeated it, more firmly. “He’s right; there’s not much time.”

Wylie’s lips compressed into a thin line, and he exhaled strongly through his nose. He looked round at his slaves, as though counting them; a half-dozen men, all carrying stout sticks. One or two had cane-knives at their belts. Wylie nodded, making up his mind.

“Come on, then.”

Avoiding the telltale crunching of the shell-road, they made slow but steady progress through the marsh.

“Why pigs?” He heard Jamie ask curiously, as he and Wylie forged ahead of the group.

“Not pigs,” Wylie replied. “Russian boars. For sport.” He spoke rather proudly, swishing his own stick through the thick grass. “Everyone says that of all game, the Russian boar is the fiercest and most wily opponent. I propose to release them in the woods on my property and allow them to breed.”

“Ye mean to hunt them?” Jamie sounded mildly incredulous. “Have ye ever hunted a boar?”

Roger saw Wylie’s shoulders stiffen under his damp smock at the question. The rain had slackened, but was still coming down.

“No,” he said. “Not yet. Have you?”

“Yes,” Jamie said, but wisely didn’t amplify the answer.

As they drew near the landing, Roger caught a glimpse of movement beyond. The smaller boat was pulling away.

“They’ve given up looking for me or the whisky, and sent their men away.” Jamie wiped a hand down his face, slicking the rain off. “What say ye, Wylie? There’s no time to lose. The Russians are in the main shed, on the wharf.”

Once decided, Wylie was no ditherer.

“Storm the place,” he said shortly.

He waved a hand, beckoning his slaves to follow, and headed for the landing at a trot. The whole party swerved onto the shell-road, thundering toward the wharf with a noise like an avalanche. That ought to give Lillywhite and Anstruther pause in their murdering, Roger thought. They sounded like an approaching army.

Barefoot, Roger kept to the marshy ground, and was in consequence slower than the rest. He saw a startled face peer out between the sheds, and quickly withdraw.

Jamie saw it too, and gave one of his wild Highland cries. Wylie jerked, startled, but then joined in, bellowing “Get out of it, you bastards!” Thus encouraged, the Negroes all began shouting and bellowing, waving their sticks with enthusiasm as they charged the landing.

It was something of an anticli**x to arrive on the wharf and find no one there save the captive Russians, who narrowly missed beheading Phillip Wylie when he imprudently shoved open the door to their prison without announcing himself.

A brief search of the Russian boat and the surrounding marsh turned up no trace of Lillywhite and Anstruther.

“Most like they swim for it,” one of the Negroes said, returning from the search. He nodded across the channel, toward the tangle of the sandbars, and fingered his spear. “We go hunt them?” It was the man who had discovered Roger, evidently still eager to try his luck.

“They didn’t swim,” Wylie said shortly. He gestured at the tiny beach near the landing, an empty stretch of oyster shells. “They’ve taken my boat, blast them.”

He turned away, disgusted, and began to give orders for unloading and penning the Russian boars. Chemodurow and his family had already been taken off to the plantation house, with the girls alternating between amazement at the black slaves and coy looks at Roger, who had retrieved his shirt and shoes, but whose breeches were still plastered to his body.

One of the slaves appeared from the shed with an armful of discarded weaponry, recalling Wylie temporarily to the duties of a host.

“I am obliged to you for your help in preserving my property, sir,” he said to Jamie. He bowed, rather stiffly. “Will you not allow me to offer you and Mr. MacKenzie my hospitality?” He didn’t sound thrilled about it, Roger noted, but still, he’d offered.

“I am obliged to you, sir, for your help in preserving our lives,” Jamie said with equal stiffness, returning the bow. “And I thank ye, but—”

“We’d be delighted,” Roger interrupted. “Thanks.” He gave Wylie a firm handshake, surprising him very much, and grabbed Jamie by the arm, steering him toward the shell-road before he could protest. There were times and places to be on your high horse, he supposed, but this wasn’t one of them.

“Look, ye havena got to kiss the man’s bum,” he said, in response to Jamie’s mutterings, as they slogged toward the forest. “Let his butler give us a dry towel and a bit of lunch, and we’ll be off while he’s still busy with his boars. I’ve had no breakfast, and neither have you. And if we’ve got to walk to Edenton, I’m no doing it on an empty belly.”

The mention of food seemed to go some way toward restoring Jamie’s equanimity, and as they reached the semi-shelter of the wood, a mood of almost giddy cheerfulness had sprung up between them. Roger wondered if this was the sort of way you felt after a battle; the sheer relief of finding yourself alive and unwounded made you want to laugh and arse about, just to prove you still could.

By unspoken consent, they left discussion of recent events—and speculation as to the present whereabouts of Stephen Bonnet—for later.

“Russian boars, for Christ’s sake,” Jamie said, shaking himself like a dog as they paused under the shelter of the wood. “And I doubt the man’s ever seen a boar in his life! Ye’d think he could manage to kill himself without going to such expense about it.”

“Aye, what d’ye think it must have cost? More money than we’ll see in ten years, likely, just to haul a lot of pigs . . . what, six thousand miles?” He shook his head, staggered at the thought.

“Well, to be fair about it, they’re more than only pigs,” Jamie said tolerantly. “Did ye not see them?”

Roger had, though only briefly. The slaves had been herding one of the animals across the dock as he’d emerged from the shed with his clothes. It was tall and hairy, with long yellow tushes that looked nasty enough.

It was emaciated from the long sea-voyage, though, its ribs showing and half its bristly pelt rubbed bald. It had obviously not got its landlegs yet, staggering and careening drunkenly on its ridiculous small hooves, eyes rolling, grunting in panic as the slaves shouted and poked at it with their poles. Roger had felt quite sorry for it.

“Oh, they’re big enough, aye,” he said. “And I suppose once they’re filled out a bit, they’d be something to see. I wonder how they’ll like this, though, after Russia?” He waved a hand at the damp, scrubby wood around them. The air was moist with rain, but the trees blocked most of the downfall, leaving it dark and resin-smelling under the low canopy of scrub oak and scraggy pines. Twigs and acorn caps crunched pleasantly under their boots on the sandy earth.

“Well, there are acorns and roots aplenty,” Jamie observed, “and the odd Negro now and then, for a treat. I expect they’ll do well enough.”

Roger laughed, and Jamie grunted in amusement.

“Ye think I’m jesting, aye? Ye’ll not have hunted boar, either, I suppose.”

“Mmphm. Well, perhaps Mr. Wylie will invite us to come and—”

The back of his head exploded, and everything disappeared.

AT SOME POINT he became aware again. Aware mostly of a pain so great that unconsciousness seemed immensely preferable. But aware too of pebbles and leaves pressing into his face, and of noises nearby. The clash and thud and grunt of men fighting in earnest.

He forced himself toward consciousness, and raised his head, though the effort made colored fireworks go off inside his eyes and made him want very badly to throw up. He braced himself on his folded arms, teeth gritted, and after a moment, his vision cleared, though things were still blurred.

It took a moment to make out what was happening; they were ten feet or so beyond the spot where he lay, with bits of tree and brush obscuring the fight. He caught a muttered “A Dhia!” though, among the panting and grunting, and felt a sharp pang of relief. Jamie was alive, then.

He got to his knees, swaying, and stayed there for a moment, his vision winking in and out of blackness. When it steadied, his head had fallen forward and he was staring at the ground. His sword lay a few feet away, half-covered with scuffed sand and leaves. One of his pistols was with it, but he didn’t bother with that; he couldn’t hold it steady, even if the powder were still dry enough to fire.

He scrabbled and fumbled, but once he’d got his hand wedged into the basket of the sword’s hilt, he felt a little better; he wouldn’t drop it, now. Something wet was running down his neck—blood, rain? It didn’t matter. He staggered, clutched a tree with his free hand, blinked away the blackness, took another step.

He felt like the boar, unfamiliar ground shifting and treacherous under his feet. He trod on something that rolled and gave way, and he fell, landing hard on one elbow.

He turned awkwardly over, hampered by the sword, and found that he had stepped on Anstruther’s leg. The Sheriff was lying on his back, mouth open, looking surprised. There was a large rip in his neck, and a lot of blood had soaked into the sand around him, rusty and stinking.