The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 53

   

It took a dozen tries before he could hit the white square of the kerchief, but the sense of exultation he felt when a dark spot appeared suddenly near the edge of it had him reaching for a fresh cartridge before the smoke of the shot had dissipated. The sense of excited accomplishment took him through another dozen cartridges, scarcely noticing anything beyond the jerk and boom of the gun, the flash of powder, and the breathless instant of realization when he saw an occasional shot go home.

The kerchief hung in tatters by this time, and small clouds of whitish smoke floated over the meadow. The hawk had decamped at the sound of the first shot, along with all the other birds of the neighborhood, though the ringing in his ears sounded like a whole chorus of distant titmice.

He lowered the gun and looked at Brianna, grinning, whereupon she burst into laughter.

“You look like the end man in a minstrel show,” she said, the end of her nose going pink with amusement. “Here, clean up a little, and we’ll try shooting from farther away.”

She took the gun and handed him a clean handkerchief in exchange. He wiped black soot from his face, watching as she swiftly swabbed the barrel and reloaded. She straightened, then heard something; her head rose suddenly, eyes fixing on an oak across the meadow.

Ears still ringing from the roar of the gun, Roger had heard nothing. Swinging round, though, he caught a flicker of movement; a dark gray squirrel, poised on a pine branch at least thirty feet above the ground.

Without the slightest hesitation, Brianna raised the gun to her shoulder and seemed to fire in the same motion. The branch directly under the squirrel exploded in a shower of wood chips, and the squirrel, blown off its feet, plunged to the ground, bouncing off the springy evergreen branches as it went.

Roger ran across to the foot of the tree, but there was no need to hurry; the squirrel lay dead, limp as a furry rag.

“Good shot,” he said in congratulation, holding up the corpse as Brianna came to see. “But there’s not a mark on him—you must have scared him to death.”

Brianna gave him a level look from beneath her brows.

“If I’d meant to hit him, Roger, I’d have hit him,” she said, with a slight edge of reproof. “And if I had hit him, you’d be holding a handful of squirrel mush. You don’t aim right at something that size; you aim to hit just under them and knock them down. It’s called barking,” she explained, like a kindly kindergarten teacher correcting a slow pupil.

“Oh, aye?” He repressed a small sense of irritation. “Your father teach you that?”

She gave him a slightly odd look before replying.

“No, Ian did.”

He made a noncommittal noise in response to that. Ian was a point of awkwardness in the family. Brianna’s cousin had been well-loved, and he knew the whole family missed him. Still, they hesitated to speak of Young Ian before Roger, out of delicacy.

It hadn’t exactly been Roger’s fault that Ian Murray had remained with the Mohawk—but there was no denying that he had had a part in the matter. If he hadn’t killed that Indian . . .

Not for the first time, he pushed aside the confused memories of that night in Snaketown, but felt nonetheless the physical echoes; the quicksilver rush of terror through his belly and the judder of impact through the muscles of his forearms, as he drove the broken end of a wooden pole with all his strength into a shadow that had sprung up before him out of the shrieking dark. A very solid shadow.

Brianna had crossed the meadow, and set up another target; three irregular chunks of wood set on a stump the size of a dinner table. Without comment, he wiped his sweating hands on his breeks, and concentrated on the new challenge, but Ian Murray refused to leave his mind. He’d barely seen the man, but remembered him clearly; hardly more than a youth, tall and gangly, with a homely but appealing face.

He couldn’t think of Murray’s face without seeing it as he last had, scabbed with a line of freshly tattooed dots that looped across the cheeks and over the bridge of his nose. His face was brown from the sun, but the skin of his freshly plucked scalp had been a fresh and startling pink, nak*d as a baby’s bum and blotched red from the irritation of the plucking.

“What’s the matter?”

Brianna’s voice startled him, and the barrel jerked up as he fired, the shot going wild. Or wilder, rather. He hadn’t managed to hit any of the wooden blocks in a dozen shots.

He lowered the gun and turned to her. She was frowning, but didn’t look angry, only puzzled and concerned.

“What’s wrong?” she asked again.

He took a deep breath and rubbed his sleeve across his face, careless of the smears of black soot.

“Your cousin,” he said abruptly. “I’m sorry about him, Bree.”

Her face softened, and the worried frown eased a little.

“Oh,” she said. She laid a hand on his arm and drew near, so he felt the warmth of her closeness. She sighed deeply and laid her forehead against his shoulder.

“Well,” she said at last, “I’m sorry, too—but it isn’t any more your fault than mine or Da’s—or Ian’s, for that matter.” She gave a small snort that might have been intended for a laugh. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s Lizzie’s—and nobody blames her.”

He smiled at that, a little wryly.

“Aye, I see,” he answered, and cupped a hand over the cool smoothness of her plait. “You’re right. And yet—I killed a man, Bree.”

She didn’t startle or jerk away, but somehow went completely still. So did he; it was the last thing he’d meant to say.

“You never told me that before,” she said at last, raising her head to look at him. She sounded tentative, unsure whether to pursue the matter. The breeze lifted a strand of hair across her face, but she didn’t move to brush it away.

“I—well, to tell ye the truth, I’ve scarcely thought of it.” He dropped his hand, and the stasis was broken. She shook herself a little and stood back.

“That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But—” He struggled for words. He’d not meant to say anything, but now he’d started, it seemed urgently necessary to explain, to put it into proper words.

“It was at night, during a fight in the village. I escaped—I’d a bit of broken pole in my hand, and when someone loomed up out of the darkness, I . . .”

His shoulders slumped suddenly, as he realized that there was no possible way to explain, not really. He looked down at the gun he still held.

“I didn’t know I’d killed him,” he said quietly, eyes on the flint. “I didn’t even see his face. I still don’t know who it was—though it had to be someone I knew; Snaketown was a small village, I knew all ne rononkwe.” Why, he wondered suddenly, had he never once thought of asking who the dead man was? Plain enough; he hadn’t asked because he didn’t want to know.

“Ne rononkwe?” She repeated the words uncertainly.

“The men . . . the warriors . . . braves. It’s what they call themselves, the Kahnyen’kehaka.” The Mohawk words felt strange on his tongue; alien and familiar at once. He could see wariness on her face, and knew his speaking of it had sounded odd to her; not the way one uses a foreign term, handling it gingerly, but the way her father sometimes casually mingled Gaelic and Scots, mind seizing on the most available word in either language.

He stared down at the gun in his hand, as though he’d never seen one before. He wasn’t looking at her, but felt her draw near again, still tentative, but not repulsed.

“Are you . . . sorry about it?”

“No,” he said at once, and looked up at her. “I mean . . . aye, I’m sorry it happened. But sorry I did it—no.” He had spoken without pausing to weigh his words, and was surprised—and relieved—to find them true. He felt regret, as he’d told her, but what guilt there was had nothing to do with the shadow’s death, whoever it had been. He had been a slave in Snaketown, and had no great love for any of the Mohawk, though some were decent enough. He’d not intended killing, but had defended himself. He’d do it again, in the same circumstance.

Yet there was a small canker of guilt—the realization of just how easily he had dismissed that death. The Kahnyen’kehaka sang and told stories of their dead, and kept their memory alive around the fires of the longhouses, naming them for generations and recounting their deeds. Just as the Highlanders did. He thought suddenly of Jamie Fraser, face ablaze at the great fire of the Gathering, calling his people by name and by lineage. Stand by my hand, Roger the singer, son of Jeremiah MacKenzie. Perhaps Ian Murray found the Mohawk not so strange, after all.

Still, he felt obscurely as though he had deprived the unknown dead man of name, as well as life, seeking to blot him out by forgetting, to behave as though that death had never happened, only to save himself from the knowledge of it. And that, he thought, was wrong.

Her face was still, but not frozen; her eyes rested on his with something like compassion. Still, he looked away, back at the gun whose barrel he gripped. His fingers, soot-stained, had left greasy black ovals on the metal; she reached out and took it from him, rubbing the marks away with the hem of her shirt.

He let her take it, and watched, rubbing his dirty fingers against the side of his breeches.

“It’s just . . . does it not seem that if ye must kill a man, it should be on purpose? Meaning it?”

She didn’t answer, but her lips pursed slightly, then relaxed.

“If you shoot someone with this, Roger, it will be on purpose,” she said quietly. She looked up at him, then, blue eyes intent, and he saw that what he had taken for compassion was in fact a fierce stillness, like the small blue flames in a burned-out log.

“And if you have to shoot someone, Roger, I want you to mean it.”

TWO DOZEN ROUNDS later, he could hit the wooden blocks at least once in six tries. He would have kept it up, doggedly, but she could see the muscles in his forearms beginning to tremble as he lifted the gun, stilled by effort of will. He would begin to miss more often now, out of fatigue, and that would do him no good.

Or her. Her br**sts were beginning to ache, engorged with milk. She’d have to do something about it soon.

“Let’s go and eat,” she said, smiling as she took the musket from him after the last shot. “I’m starving.”

The exertion of shooting, reloading, putting up targets, had kept them both warm, but it was nearly winter, and the air was cold; much too cold, she thought regretfully, to lie nak*d in the dry ferns. But the sun was warm, and with forethought, she had packed two ratty quilts in her rucksack, along with the lunch.

He was quiet, but it was a comfortable quiet. She watched him cut slivers from the chunk of hard cheese, dark lashes lowered, and admired the long-limbed, competent look of him, fingers neat and quick, gentle mouth compressed slightly as he concentrated on his work, a drop of sweat rolling down the high brown curve of his cheekbone, in front of his ear.

She wasn’t sure what to make of what he had told her. Still, she knew enough to realize that it was a good thing that he had told her, even though she didn’t like to hear or think of his time with the Mohawk. It had been a bad time for her—alone, pregnant, doubting whether he or her parents would ever return—as well as for him. She reached to accept a bit of cheese, brushed his fingers with her own, and leaned forward, to make him kiss her.

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