The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 3

   

Hobson, MacLennan, and Fowles stood together just in front of us, talking quietly among themselves. All three came from a tiny settlement called Drunkard’s Creek, some fifteen miles from our own place on Fraser’s Ridge. Hugh Fowles was Joe Hobson’s son-in-law, and very young, no more than twenty. He was doing his best to keep his composure, but his face had gone white and clammy as the Proclamation was read.

I didn’t know what Tryon intended to do to anyone who could be proved to have had a part in the riot, but I could feel the currents of unrest created by the Governor’s Proclamation passing through the crowd like the eddies of water rushing over rocks in the nearby creek.

Several buildings had been destroyed in Hillsborough, and a number of public officials dragged out and assaulted in the street. Gossip had it that one ironically titled justice of the peace had lost an eye to a vicious blow aimed with a horsewhip. No doubt taking this demonstration of civil disobedience to heart, Chief Justice Henderson had escaped out of a window and fled the town, thus effectively preventing the Court from sitting. It was clear that the Governor was very annoyed about what had happened in Hillsborough.

Joe Hobson glanced back at Jamie, then away. Lieutenant Hayes’s presence at our fire the previous evening had not gone unremarked.

If Jamie saw the glance, he didn’t return it. He lifted one shoulder in a shrug, tilting his head down to speak to me.

“I shouldna think Hayes expects anyone to give themselves up, no. It may be his duty to ask for information; I thank God it isna mine to answer.” He hadn’t spoken loudly, but loudly enough to reach the ears of Joe Hobson.

Hobson turned his head and gave Jamie a small nod of wry acknowledgment. He touched his son-in-law’s arm, and they turned away, scrambling up the slope toward the scattered campsites above, where their womenfolk were tending the fires and the younger children.

This was the last day of the Gathering; tonight there would be marryings and christenings, the formal blessing of love and its riotous fruits, sprung from the loins of the unchurched multitude during the year before. Then the last songs would be sung, the last stories told, and dancing done amid the leaping flames of many fires—rain or no rain. Come morning, the Scots and their households would all disperse back to their homes, scattered from the settled banks of the Cape Fear River to the wild mountains of the west—carrying news of the Governor’s Proclamation and the doings at Hillsborough.

I wiggled my toes inside my damp shoes and wondered uneasily who among the crowd might think it their duty to answer Hayes’s invitation to confession or incrimination. Not Jamie, no. But others might. There had been a good deal of boasting about the riots in Hillsborough during the week of the Gathering, but not all the listeners were disposed to view the rioters as heroes, by any means.

I could feel as well as hear the mutter of conversation breaking out in the wake of the Proclamation; heads turning, families drawing close together, men moving from group to group, as the content of Hayes’s speech was relayed up the hill, repeated to those who stood too far away to have heard it.

“Shall we go? There’s a lot to do yet before the weddings.”

“Aye?” Jamie glanced down at me. “I thought Jocasta’s slaves were managing the food and drink. I gave Ulysses the barrels of whisky—he’ll be soghan.”

“Ulysses? Did he bring his wig?” I smiled at the thought. The soghan was the man who managed the dispensing of drink and refreshment at a Highland wedding; the term actually meant something like “hearty, jovial fellow.” Ulysses was possibly the most dignified person I had ever seen—even without his livery and powdered horsehair wig.

“If he did, it’s like to be stuck to his head by the evening.” Jamie glanced up at the lowering sky and shook his head. “Happy the bride the sun shines on,” he quoted. “Happy the corpse the rain falls on.”

“That’s what I like about Scots,” I said dryly. “An appropriate proverb for all occasions. Don’t you dare say that in front of Bree.”

“What d’ye take me for, Sassenach?” he demanded, with a half-smile down at me. “I’m her father, no?”

“Definitely yes.” I suppressed the sudden thought of Brianna’s other father, and glanced over my shoulder, to be sure she wasn’t in hearing.

There was no sign of her blazing head among those nearby. Certainly her father’s daughter, she stood six feet tall in her stocking feet; nearly as easy as Jamie himself to pick out of a crowd.

“It’s not the wedding feast I need to deal with, anyway,” I said, turning back to Jamie. “I’ve got to manage breakfast, then do the morning clinic with Murray MacLeod.”

“Oh, aye? I thought ye said wee Murray was a charlatan.”

“I said he was ignorant, stubborn, and a menace to the public health,” I corrected. “That’s not the same thing—quite.”

“Quite,” said Jamie, grinning. “Ye mean to educate him, then—or poison him?”

“Whichever seems most effective. If nothing else, I might accidentally step on his fleam and break it; that’s probably the only way I’ll stop him bleeding people. Let’s go, though, I’m freezing!”

“Aye, we’ll away, then,” Jamie agreed, with a glance at the soldiers, still drawn up along the creekbank at parade rest. “No doubt wee Archie means to keep his lads there ’til the crowd’s gone; they’re going a wee bit blue round the edges.”

Though fully armed and uniformed, the row of Highlanders was relaxed; imposing, to be sure, but no longer threatening. Small boys—and not a few wee girls—scampered to and fro among them, impudently flicking the hems of the soldiers’ kilts or dashing in, greatly daring, to touch the gleaming muskets, dangling canteens, and the hilts of dirks and swords.

“Abel, a charaid!” Jamie had paused to greet the last of the men from Drunkard’s Creek. “Will ye ha’ eaten yet the day?”

MacLennan had not brought his wife to the Gathering, and thus ate where luck took him. The crowd was dispersing around us, but he stood stolidly in place, holding the ends of a red flannel handkerchief pulled over his balding head against the spatter of rain. Probably hoping to cadge an invitation to breakfast, I thought cynically.

I eyed his stocky form, mentally estimating his possible consumption of eggs, parritch, and toasted bread against the dwindling supplies in our hampers. Not that simple shortage of food would stop any Highlander from offering hospitality—certainly not Jamie, who was inviting MacLennan to join us, even as I mentally divided eighteen eggs by nine people instead of eight. Not fried, then; made into fritters with grated potatoes, and I’d best borrow more coffee from Jocasta’s campsite on the way up the mountain.

We turned to go, and Jamie’s hand slid suddenly downward over my backside. I made an undignified sound, and Abel MacLennan turned round to gawk at me. I smiled brightly at him, resisting the urge to kick Jamie again, less discreetly.

MacLennan turned away, and scrambled up the slope in front of us with alacrity, coattails bouncing in anticipation over worn breeks. Jamie put a hand under my elbow to help me over the rocks, bending down as he did so to mutter in my ear.

“Why the devil are ye not wearing a petticoat, Sassenach?” he hissed. “Ye’ve nothing at all on under your skirt—you’ll catch your death of cold!”

“You’re not wrong there,” I said, shivering in spite of my cloak. I did in fact have on a linen shift under my gown, but it was a thin, ragged thing, suitable for rough camping-out in summertime, but quite insufficient to stem the wintry blasts that blew through my skirt as though it were cheesecloth.

“Ye had a fine woolen petticoat yesterday. What’s become of it?”

“You don’t want to know,” I assured him.

His eyebrows went up at this, but before he could ask further questions, a scream rang out behind us.

“Germain!”

I turned to see a small blond head, hair flying as the owner streaked down the slope below the rocks. Two-year-old Germain had taken advantage of his mother’s preoccupation with his newborn sister to escape custody and make a dash for the row of soldiers. Eluding capture, he charged headlong down the slope, picking up speed like a rolling stone.

“Fergus!” Marsali screamed. Germain’s father, hearing his name, turned round from his conversation, just in time to see his son trip over a rock and fly headlong. A born acrobat, the little boy made no move to save himself, but collapsed gracefully, rolling into a ball like a hedgehog as he struck the grassy slope on one shoulder. He rolled like a cannonball through the ranks of soldiers, shot off the edge of a rocky shelf, and plopped with a splash into the creek.

There was a general gasp of consternation, and a number of people ran down the hill to help, but one of the soldiers had already hurried to the bank. Kneeling, he thrust the tip of his bayonet through the child’s floating clothes and towed the soggy bundle to the shore.

Fergus charged into the icy shallows, reaching out to clasp his waterlogged son.

“Merci, mon ami, mille merci beaucoup,” he said to the young soldier. “Et toi, toto,” he said, addressing his spluttering offspring with a small shake. “Comment ça va, ye wee chowderheid?”

The soldier looked startled, but I couldn’t tell whether the cause was Fergus’s unique patois, or the sight of the gleaming hook he wore in place of his missing left hand.

“That’s all right then, sir,” he said, with a shy smile. “He’ll no be damaged, I think.”

Brianna appeared suddenly from behind a chinkapin tree, six-month-old Jemmy on one shoulder, and scooped baby Joan neatly out of Marsali’s arms.

“Here, give Joanie to me,” she said. “You go take care of Germain.”

Jamie swung the heavy cloak from his shoulders and laid it in Marsali’s arms in place of the baby.

“Aye, and tell the soldier laddie who saved him to come and share our fire,” he told her. “We can feed another, Sassenach?”

“Of course,” I said, swiftly readjusting my mental calculations. Eighteen eggs, four loaves of stale bread for toast—no, I should keep back one for the trip home tomorrow—three dozen oatcakes if Jamie and Roger hadn’t eaten them already, half a jar of honey . . .

Marsali’s thin face lighted with a rueful smile, shared among the three of us, then she was gone, hastening to the aid of her drenched and shivering menfolk.

Jamie looked after her with a sigh of resignation, as the wind caught the full sleeves of his shirt and belled them out with a muffled whoomp. He crossed his arms across his chest, hunching his shoulders against the wind, and smiled down at me, sidelong.

“Ah, well. I suppose we shall both freeze together, Sassenach. That’s all right, though. I wouldna want to live without ye, anyway.”

“Ha,” I said amiably. “You could live nak*d on an ice floe, Jamie Fraser, and melt it. What have you done with your coat and plaid?” He wore nothing besides his kilt and sark save shoes and stockings, and his high cheekbones were reddened with cold, like the tips of his ears. When I slipped a hand back inside the crook of his arm, though, he was warm as ever.

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