The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 50

   

Sure enough; a bay mule was coming out of the trees at the head of the trail, followed by a fat brown mare on a leading rein. The mule’s ears flicked forward and he brayed enthusiastically in reply to Clarence’s greeting. I stuck my fingers in my ears to block the ungodly racket, and squinted against the dazzle of the afternoon sun to make out the mule’s rider.

“Mr. Husband!” Pulling my fingers out of my ears, I hurried forward to greet him.

“Mrs. Fraser—good day to thee!”

Hermon Husband pulled off his black slouch hat and gave me a brief nod of greeting, then slid off the mule with a groan that spoke of a good many hours in the saddle. His lips moved soundlessly in the framework of his beard as he straightened stiffly; he was a Quaker, and didn’t use strong language. Not out loud, at least.

“Is thy husband at home, Mrs. Fraser?”

“I just saw him heading for the stable; I’ll go and find him!” I shouted, above the continued braying of the mules. I took the hat from him, and gestured toward the house. “I’ll see to your animals!”

He nodded thanks and limped slowly round the house, toward the kitchen door. From the back, I could see how painfully he moved; he could barely put weight on his left foot. The hat in my hand was covered with dust and mud stains, and I had smelled the odor of unwashed clothes and body when he stood near me. He’d been a long time riding, and not just today—for a week or more, I thought, and sleeping rough for the most of it.

I unsaddled the mule, removing in the process two worn saddlebags half-filled with printed pamphlets, badly printed and crudely illustrated. I studied the illustration with some interest; it was a woodcut of several indignant and righteous-looking Regulators defying a group of officials, among whom was a squat figure I had no trouble identifying as David Anstruther; the caption didn’t mention him by name, but the artist had captured the Sheriff’s resemblance to a poisonous toad with remarkable facility. Had Husband taken to delivering the bloody things door-to-door? I wondered.

I turned the animals out into the paddock, dumped the hat and saddlebags by the porch, then trekked up the hill to the stable, a shallow cave that Jamie had walled with thick palisades. Brianna referred to it as the maternity ward, since the usual occupants were imminently expectant mares, cows, or sows.

I wondered what brought Hermon Husband here—and whether he was being followed. He owned a farm and a small mill, both at least two days’ ride from the Ridge; not a journey he would undertake simply for the pleasure of our company.

Husband was one of the leaders of the Regulation, and had been jailed more than once for the rabble-rousing pamphlets he printed and distributed. The most recent news I had heard of him was that he had been read out of the local Quaker meeting, the Friends taking a dim view of his activities, which they regarded as incitement to violence. I rather thought they had a point, judging from the pamphlets I’d read.

The door of the stable stood open, allowing the pleasantly fecund scents of straw, warm animals, and manure to drift out, along with a stream of similarly fecund words. Jamie, no Quaker, did believe in strong language, and was using rather a lot of it, albeit in Gaelic, which tends toward the poetic, rather than the vulgar.

I translated the current effusion roughly as, “May your guts twine upon themselves like serpents and your bowels explode through the walls of your belly! May the curse of the crows be upon you, misbegotten spawn of a lineage of dung flies!” Or words to that effect.

“Who are you talking to?” I inquired, putting my head round the stable door. “And what’s the curse of the crows?”

I blinked against the sudden dimness, seeing him only as a tall shadow against the piles of pale hay stacked by the wall. He turned, hearing me, and strode into the light from the door. He’d been running his hands through his hair; several strands were pulled from their binding, standing on end, and there were straws sticking out of it.

“Tha nighean na galladh torrach!” he said, with a ferocious scowl and a brief gesture behind him.

“White daughter of a bi—oh! You mean that blasted sow has done it again?”

The big white sow, while possessed of superior fatness and amazing reproductive capacity, was also a creature of low cunning, and impatient of captivity. She had escaped her brood pen twice before, once by the expedient of charging Lizzie, who had—wisely—screamed and dived out of the way as the pig barged past, and again by assiduously rooting up one side of the pen, lying in wait until the stable door was opened, and knocking me flat as she made for the wide-open spaces.

This time, she hadn’t bothered with strategy, but merely smashed out a board from her pen, then rooted and dug under the palisades, making an escape tunnel worthy of British prisoners-of-war in a Nazi camp.

“Aye, she has,” Jamie said, reverting to English now that his initial fury had subsided somewhat. “As for the curse o’ the crows, it depends. It might mean ye want the corbies to come down on a man’s fields and eat his corn. In this case, I had in mind the birds pecking out the evil creature’s eyes.”

“I suppose that would make her easier to catch,” I said, sighing. “How near is she to farrowing, do you think?”

He shrugged and shoved a hand through his hair.

“A day, two days, three, maybe. Serve the creature right if she farrows in the wood and is eaten by wolves, her and her piglets together.” He kicked moodily at the heap of raw earth left by the sow’s tunneling, sending a cascade of dirt down into the hole. “Who’s come? I heard Clarence yammering.”

“Hermon Husband.”

He turned sharply toward me, instantly forgetting the pig.

“Has he, then?” he said softly, as though to himself. “Why, I wonder?”

“So did I. He’s been riding for some time—distributing pamphlets, evidently.”

I had to scamper after Jamie as I added this; he was already striding down the hill toward the house, tidying his hair as he went. I caught up just in time to brush bits of straw from his shoulders before he reached the yard.

Jamie nodded casually to Mrs. Chisholm and Mrs. MacLeod, who were hoicking steaming bales of wet clothes from the big kettle with paddles and spreading them on bushes to dry. I scuttled along with Jamie, ignoring the women’s accusing stares and trying to look as though I had much more important concerns to deal with than laundry.

Someone had found Husband refreshment; a plate of partially eaten bread and butter and a half-full mug of buttermilk lay on the table. So did Husband, who had put his head on his folded arms and fallen asleep. Adso crouched on the table beside him, fascinated by the bushy gray whiskers that quivered like antennae with the Quaker’s reverberating snores. The kitten was just reaching an experimental paw toward Husband’s open mouth when Jamie nabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dropped him neatly into my hands.

“Mr. Husband?” he said quietly, leaning over the table. “Your servant, sir.”

Husband snorted, blinked, then sat up suddenly, nearly upsetting the buttermilk. He goggled briefly at me and Adso, then seemed to recollect where he was, for he shook himself, and half-rose, nodding to Jamie.

“Friend Fraser,” he said thickly. “I am—I beg pardon—I have been—”

Jamie brushed away his apologies and sat down opposite him, casually picking up a slice of bread and butter from the plate.

“May I be of service to ye, Mr. Husband?”

Husband scrubbed a hand over his face, which did nothing to improve his looks, but did seem to rouse him more fully. Seen clearly in the soft afternoon light of the kitchen, he looked even worse than he had outside, his eyes pouched and bloodshot and his grizzled hair and beard tangled in knots. He was only in his mid-fifties, I knew, but looked at least ten years older. He made an attempt to straighten his coat, and nodded to me, then Jamie.

“I thank thee for the hospitality of thy welcome, Mrs. Fraser. And thee also, Mr. Fraser. I have come indeed to ask a service of thee, if I may.”

“Ye may ask, of course,” Jamie said courteously. He took a bite of bread and butter, raising his eyebrows in question.

“Will thee buy my horse?”

Jamie’s eyebrows stayed raised. He chewed slowly, considering, then swallowed.

“Why?”

Why, indeed. It would have been a great deal easier for Husband to sell a horse in Salem or High Point, if he didn’t want to ride as far as Cross Creek. No one in his right mind would venture to a remote place like the Ridge, simply to sell a horse. I set Adso on the floor and sat down beside Jamie, waiting for the answer.

Husband gave him a look, clear and direct for all its bloodshot quality.

“Thee is appointed a colonel of militia, I’m told.”

“For my sins,” Jamie said, bread poised in the air. “Do ye suppose the Governor has given me money to provide mounts for my regiment?” He took a bite, half-smiling.

The corner of Husband’s mouth lifted briefly in acknowledgment of the joke. A colonel of militia supplied his regiment himself, counting upon eventual reimbursement from the Assembly; one reason why only men of property were so appointed—and a major reason why the appointment was not considered an unalloyed honor.

“If he had, I should be pleased to take some of it.” At Jamie’s gesture of invitation, Husband reached out and selected another slice of bread and butter, which he munched gravely, looking at Jamie under thick salt-and-pepper brows. Finally, he shook his head.

“Nay, friend James. I must sell my stock to pay the fines levied upon me by the Court. If I do not sell what I can, it may be seized. And if I will not, then I have no choice save to quit the colony and remove my family elsewhere—and if I remove, then I must dispose of what I cannot take—for what price I may get.”

A small line formed between Jamie’s brows.

“Aye, I see,” he said slowly. “I would help ye, Hermon, in any way I might. Ye ken that, I hope. But I have scarce two shillings in cash money—not even proclamation money, let alone sterling. If there is anything I have that would be of use to ye, though . . .”

Husband smiled slightly, his harsh features softening.

“Aye, friend James. Thy friendship and thy honor are of great use to me, indeed. For the rest . . .” He sat back from the table, groping in the small shoulder bag he had set down beside him. He came up with a thin letter, bearing a red wax seal. I recognized the seal, and my chest tightened.

“I met the messenger at Pumpkin Town,” Husband said, watching as Jamie took the letter and put his thumb beneath the flap. “I offered to carry the letter to thee, as I was bound here in any case.”

Jamie’s brows lifted, but his attention was focused on the sheet of paper in his hand. I came close, to see over his shoulder.

November 22, 1770

Colonel James Fraser

Whereas I am informed that those who stile themselves Regulators have gathered together in some force near Salisbury, I have sent word to General Waddell to proceed thither at once with the militia troops at his disposal in hopes of dispersing this unlawful assemblage. You are requested and commanded to gather such men as you judge fit to serve in a Regiment of Militia, and proceed with them to Salisbury with as much despatch as may be managed so as to join the General’s troops on or before 15 December, at which point he will march upon Salisbury. So far as possible, bring with you flour and other provision sufficient to supply your men for a space of two weeks.

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