The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 24

   

9

GERM OF DISSENT

I PEERED UP THE NOSE of one of Farquard Campbell’s slaves, half my mind on the nasal polyp obstructing the nostril, the other half on Governor Tryon. Of the two, I felt more charitably toward the polyp, and I intended to cauterize that out of existence with a hot iron.

It seemed so bloody unfair, I thought, frowning as I sterilized my scalpel and set the smallest cauterizing iron in a dish of hot coals.

Was this the beginning? Or one of them? It was the end of 1770; in five years more, all of the thirteen Colonies would be at war. But each colony would come to that point by a different process. Having lived in Boston for so long, I knew from Bree’s school lessons what the process had been—or would be—for Massachusetts. Tax, Boston Massacre, Harbor, Hancock, Adams, Tea Party, all that. But North Carolina? How had it happened—how would it happen—here?

It could be happening now. Dissension had been simmering for several years between the planters of the eastern seaboard and the hardscrabble homesteaders of the western backcountry. The Regulators were mostly drawn from the latter class; the former were wholeheartedly in Tryon’s camp—on the side of the Crown, that was to say.

“All right now?” I had given the slave a good slug of medicinal whisky, by way of fortification. I smiled encouragingly, and he nodded, looking uncertain but resigned.

I had never heard of Regulators, but here they were, nonetheless—and I had seen enough by now to know just how much the history books left out. Were the seeds of revolution being sown directly under my own nose?

Murmuring soothingly, I wrapped a linen napkin round my left hand, took firm hold of the slave’s chin with it, poked the scalpel up his nostril and severed the polyp with a deft flick of the blade. It bled profusely, of course, the blood gushing warmly through the cloth round my hand, but evidently was not very painful. The slave looked surprised, but not distressed.

The cautery iron was shaped like a tiny spade, a bit of square, flattened metal on the end of a slender rod with a wooden handle. The flat bit was smoking in the fire, the edges glowing red. I pressed the cloth hard against the man’s nose to blot the blood, took it away, and in the split second before the blood spurted out again, pressed the hot iron up his nose against the septum, hoping against hope that I’d got the proper spot.

The slave made a strangled noise in his throat, but didn’t move, though tears poured down his cheeks, wet and warm on my fingers. The smell of searing blood and flesh was just the same as the scent that rose from the barbecue pits. My stomach growled loudly; the slave’s bulging, bloodshot eye met mine, astonished. My mouth twitched, and he giggled faintly through the tears and snot.

I took the iron away, cloth poised. No fresh blood flowed. I tilted the man’s head far back, squinting to see, and was pleased to find the small, clean mark, high on the mucosa. The burn would be a vivid red, I knew, but without the light of a scope, it looked black, a small scab hidden like a tick in the hairy shadows of the nostril.

The man spoke no English; I smiled at him, but addressed his companion, a young woman who had clutched his hand throughout the ordeal.

“He’ll be quite all right. Tell him, please, not to pick at the scab. If there should be swelling, pus or fever”—I paused, for the next line should be—“go to your doctor at once,” and that was not an option.

“Go to your mistress,” I said, instead, reluctantly. “Or find an herb-woman.” The present Mrs. Campbell was young, and rather muddleheaded, from the little I knew of her. Still, any plantation mistress should have the knowledge and wherewithal to treat a fever. And if it should go past simple infection and into septicemia . . . well, there was not much anyone could do, in that case.

I patted the slave’s shoulder and sent him off, beckoning to the next in line.

Infection. That was what was brewing. Things seemed quiet overall—after all, the Crown was withdrawing all its troops! But dozens, hundreds, thousands of tiny germs of dissent must linger, forming pockets of conflict throughout the Colonies. The Regulation was only one.

A small bucket of distilled alcohol stood by my feet, for disinfecting instruments. I dipped the cautery iron in this, then thrust it back in the fire; the alcohol ignited with a brief, lightless piff!

I had the unpleasant feeling that the note presently burning a hole in Jamie’s sporran was a similar flame, touched to one of a million small fuses. Some might be stamped out, some would fizzle on their own—but enough would burn, and go on burning, searing their destructive way through homes and families. The end of it would be a clean excision, but a great deal of blood would flow before the hot iron of guns should sear the open wound.

Were we never to have a little peace, Jamie and I?

“THERE’S DUNCAN MACLEOD, he’s got three hundred acres near the Yadkin River, but no one on it save himself and his brother.” Jamie rubbed a sleeve over his face, wiping off the sheen of moisture that clung to his bones. He blinked to clear his vision, and shook himself like a dog, spattering drops that had condensed in his hair.

“But,” he went on, gesturing toward the plume of smoke that marked MacLeod’s fire, “he’s kin to auld Rabbie Cochrane. Rabbie’s not come to the Gathering—ill wi’ the dropsy, I hear—but he’s got eleven grown bairns, scattered over the mountains like seed corn. So, take your time wi’ MacLeod, make sure he’s pleased to come, then tell him to send word to Rabbie. We’ll muster at Fraser’s Ridge in a fortnight, tell him.”

He hesitated, one hand on Roger’s arm to prevent an abrupt departure. He squinted into the haze, reckoning up the possibilities. They’d visited three campsites together, and got the pledges of four men. How many more could be found at the Gathering?

“After Duncan, go across to the sheep pens. Angus Og will be there, surely—ye ken Angus Og?”

Roger nodded, hoping he recalled the correct Angus Og. He’d met at least four men of that name in the last week, but one of them had had a dog at heel, and reeked of raw wool.

“Campbell, aye? Bent like a fishhook, and a cast in one eye?”

“Aye, that’s him.” Jamie gave a nod of approbation, relaxing his grip. “He’s too crabbit to fight himself, but he’ll see his nephews come, and spread the word amongst the settlements near High Point. So, Duncan, Angus . . . oh, aye, Joanie Findlay.”

“Joanie?”

Fraser grinned.

“Aye, auld Joan, they call her. Her camp’s near my aunt, her and her brother, Iain Mhor.”

Roger nodded, dubious.

“Aye. It’s her I speak to, though, is it?”

“Ye’ll have to,” Fraser said. “Iain Mhor’s got nay speech. She’s two more brothers who have, though, and two sons old enough to fight. She’ll see they come.”

Jamie cast an eye upward; the day had warmed slightly and it wasn’t raining so much as misting—a mizzle, they’d call it in Scotland. The clouds had thinned enough to show the disk of the sun, a pale blurry wafer still high in the sky, but sinking lower. Another two hours of good light, maybe.

“That’ll do,” he decided, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “Come back to the fire when ye’ve done wi’ auld Joan, and we’ll have a bit of supper before your wedding, aye?” He gave Roger an up-cocked brow and a slight smile, then turned away. Before Roger could move off, he turned back.

“Say straight off as you’re Captain MacKenzie,” he advised. “They’ll mind ye better.” He turned again and strode off in search of the more recalcitrant prospects on his list.

MacLeod’s fire burned like a smudge pot in the mist. Roger turned toward it, repeating the names under his breath like a mantra. “Duncan MacLeod, Rabbie Cochrane, Angus Og Campbell, Joanie Findlay . . . Duncan MacLeod, Rabbie Cochrane . . .” No bother; three times and he’d have it cold, no matter whether it was the words of a new song to be learned, facts in a textbook, or directions to the psychology of potential militia recruits.

He could see the sense of finding as many of the backcountry Scots as possible now, before they scattered away to their farms and cabins. And he was heartened by the fact that the men Fraser had approached so far had accepted the militia summons with no more than a mild glower and throat-clearings of resignation.

Captain MacKenzie. He felt a small sense of embarrassed pride at the title Fraser had casually bestowed on him. “Instant Soldier,” he muttered derisively to himself, straightening the shoulders of his sodden coat. “Just add water.”

At the same time, he’d admit to a faint tingle of excitement. It might amount to no more than playing soldiers, now, indeed—but the thought of marching with a militia regiment, muskets shouldered and the smell of gunpowder on their hands . . .

It was less than four years from now, he thought, and militiamen would stand on the green at Lexington. Men who were no more soldiers to start with than these men he spoke to in the rain—no more than him. Awareness shivered over his skin, settled in his belly with an odd weight of significance.

It was coming. Christ, it was really coming.

MACLEOD WAS NO TROUBLE, but it took longer than he’d thought to find Angus Og Campbell, up to his arse in sheep, and irascible at the distraction. “Captain MacKenzie” had had little effect on the old bastard; the invocation of “Colonel Fraser”—spoken with a degree of menace—had had more. Angus Og had chewed his long upper lip with moody concentration, nodded reluctantly, and gone back to his bargaining with a gruff, “Aye, I’ll send word.”

The mizzle had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break up by the time he climbed back up the slope to Joan Findlay’s camp.

“Auld Joan,” to his surprise, was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, with sharp hazel eyes that regarded him with interest under the folds of her damp arisaid.

“So it’s come to that, has it?” she said, in answer to his brief explanation of his presence. “I did wonder, when I heard what the soldier-laddie had to say this morning.”

She tapped her lip thoughtfully with the handle of her wooden pudding-spoon.

“I’ve an aunt who lives in Hillsborough, ken. She’s a room in the King’s House, straight across the street from Edmund Fanning’s house—or where it used to be.” She gave a short laugh, though it held no real humor.

“She wrote to me. The mob came a-boilin’ down the street, wavin’ pitchforks like a flock o’ demons, she said. They cut Fanning’s house from its sills, and dragged the whole of it down wi’ ropes, right before her eyes. So now we’re meant to send our men to pull Fanning’s chestnuts from the fire, are we?”

Roger was cautious; he’d heard a good deal of talk about Edmund Fanning, who was less than popular.

“I couldna say as to that, Mrs. Findlay,” he said. “But the Governor—”

Joan Findlay snorted expressively.

“Governor,” she said, and spat into the fire. “Pah. The Governor’s friends, more like. But there—poor men mun bleed for the rich man’s gold, and always will, eh?”

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