The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 64

   

Flushed with historical enthusiasm, he didn’t notice at once that Brianna seemed slightly less eager.

“Maybe so,” she said uneasily. “I don’t know . . . it sort of gives me the creeps.”

“Eh?” Roger glanced at her in surprise. “Why?”

She shrugged, pulling the crumpled shift off over her head.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that I have seen burning crosses—on the evening news on TV. You know, the KKK—or do you know? Maybe they don’t—didn’t—report things like that on television in Britain?”

“The Ku Klux Klan?” Roger was less interested in fanatical bigots than in the sight of Brianna’s bare br**sts, but made an effort to focus on the conversation. “Oh, aye, heard of them. Where d’you think they got the notion?”

“What? You mean—”

“Sure,” he said cheerfully. “They got it from the Highland immigrants—from whom they were descended, by the bye. That’s why they called it ‘Klan,’ aye? Come to think,” he added, interested, “it could be this—tonight—that’s the link. The occasion that brings the custom from the Old World to the New, I mean. Wouldn’t that be something?”

“Something,” Brianna echoed faintly. She’d pulled on a fresh shift, and now shook out a clean dress of blue linen, looking uneasy.

“Everything starts somewhere, Bree,” he said, more gently. “Most often, we don’t know where or how; does it matter if this time we do? And the Ku Klux Klan won’t get started for a hundred years from now, at least.” He hoisted Jemmy slightly, bouncing him on one hip. “It won’t be us who sees it, or even wee Jeremiah here—maybe not even his son.”

“Great,” she said dryly, pulling on her stays and reaching for the laces. “So our great-grandson can end up being the Grand Dragon.”

Roger laughed.

“Aye, maybe so. But for tonight, it’s your father.”

24

PLAYING WITH FIRE

HE WASN’T SURE what he had expected. Something like the spectacle of the great fire at the Gathering, perhaps. The preparation was the same, involving large quantities of food and drink. A huge keg of beer and a smaller one of whisky stood on planks at the edge of the dooryard, and a huge roast pig on a spit of green hickory turned slowly over a bed of coals, sending whiffs of smoke and mouthwatering aromas through the cold evening air.

He grinned at the fire-washed faces in front of him, slicked with grease and flushed with booze, and struck his bodhran. His stomach rumbled loudly, but the noise was drowned beneath the raucous chorus of “Killiecrankie.”

“O, I met the De-ev-il and Dundeeee . . .

On the brae-aes o’ Killiecrankie-O!”

He would have earned his own supper by the time he got it. He had been playing and singing for more than an hour, and the moon was rising over Black Mountain now. He paused under cover of the refrain, just long enough to grab the cup of ale set under his stool and wet his throat, then hit the new verse fresh and solid.

“I fought on land, I fought on sea,

At hame I fought my auntie, Oh!

I met the Devil and Dundee . . .

On the braes o’ Killiecrankie-O!”

He smiled professionally as he sang, meeting an eye here, focusing on a face there, and calculated progress in the back of his mind. He’d got them going now—with a bit of help from the drink on offer, admittedly—and well stuck into what Bree had called “the warmongering stuff.”

He could feel the cross standing at his back, almost hidden by the darkness. Everyone had had a chance to see it, though; he’d heard the murmurs of interest and speculation.

Jamie Fraser was away to one side, out of the ring of firelight. Roger could just make out his tall form, dark in the shadow of the big red spruce that stood near the house. Fraser had been working his way methodically through the group all evening, stopping here and there to exchange cordialities, tell a joke, pause to listen to a problem or a story. Now he stood alone, waiting. Nearly time, then—for whatever he meant to do.

Roger gave them a moment for applause and his own refreshment, then launched into “Johnnie Cope,” fast, fierce, and funny.

He’d done that one at the Gathering, several times, and knew pretty much how they’d take it. A moment’s pause, uncertainty, then the voices beginning to join in—by the end of the second verse, they’d be whooping and shouting ribald remarks in the background.

Some of the men here had fought at Prestonpans; if they’d been defeated at Culloden, they’d still routed Johnnie Cope’s troops first, and loved the chance to relive that famous victory. And those Highlanders who hadn’t fought had heard about it. The Muellers, who had likely never heard of Charles Stuart and probably understood one word in a dozen, seemed to be improvising their own sort of yodeling chorus round the back, waving their cups in sloshing salute to each verse. Aye, well, so long as they were having a good time.

The crowd was half-shouting the final chorus, nearly drowning him out.

“Hey, Johnnie Cope, are ye walking yet?

And are your drums a-beatin’ yet?

If ye were walkin’, I wad wait,

Tae gang tae the coals in the mornin’!”

He hit a final thump, and bowed to huge applause. That was the warm-up done; time for the main act to come onstage. Bowing and smiling, he rose from his stool and faded off, fetching up in the shadows near the hacked remains of the huge pork carcass.

Bree was there waiting for him, Jemmy wide-awake and owl-eyed in her arms. She leaned across and kissed him, handing him the kid as she did so, and taking his bodhran in exchange.

“You were great!” she said. “Hold him; I’ll get you some food and beer.”

Jem usually wanted to stay with his mother, but was too stupefied by the noise and the leaping flames to protest the handover. He snuggled against Roger’s chest, gravely sucking his thumb.

Roger was sweating from the exertion, his heart beating fast from the adrenaline of performance, and the air away from the fire and the crowd was cold on his flushed face. The baby’s swaddled weight felt good against him, warm and solid in the crook of his arm. He’d done well, and knew it. Let’s hope it was what Fraser wanted.

By the time Bree reappeared with a drink and a pewter plate heaped with sliced pork, apple fritters, and roast potatoes, Jamie had come into the circle of firelight, taking Roger’s place before the standing cross.

He stood tall and broad-shouldered in his best gray gentleman’s coat, kilted below in soft blue tartan, his hair loose and blazing on his shoulders, with a small warrior’s plait down one side, adorned with a single feather. Firelight glinted from the knurled gold hilt of his dirk and the brooch that held his looped plaid. He looked pleasant enough, but his manner overall was serious, intent. He made a good show—and knew it.

The crowd quieted within seconds, men elbowing their more garrulous neighbors to silence.

“Ye ken well enough what we’re about here, aye?” he asked without preamble. He raised his hand, in which he held the Governor’s crumpled summons, the red smear of its official seal visible in the leaping firelight. There was a rumble of agreement; the crowd was still cheerful, blood and whisky coursing freely through their veins.

“We are called in duty, and we come in honor to serve the cause of law—and the Governor.”

Roger saw old Gerhard Mueller, leaning to one side to hear the translation that one of his sons-in-law was murmuring in his ear. He nodded his approval, and shouted, “Ja! Lang lebe Governor!” There was a ripple of laughter, and echoing shouts in English and Gaelic.

Jamie smiled, waiting for the noise to die down. As it did, he turned slowly, nodding as he looked from one face to the next, acknowledging each man. Then he turned to the side and lifted a hand to the cross that stood stark and black behind him.

“In the Highlands of Scotland, when a chieftain would set himself for war,” he said, his tone casually conversational, but pitched to be heard throughout the dooryard, “he would burn the fiery cross, and send it for a sign through the lands of his clan. It was a signal to the men of his name, to gather their weapons and come to the gathering place, prepared for battle.”

There was a stir in the midst of the crowd, a brief nudging and more cries of approval, though these were more subdued. A few men had seen this, or at least knew what he was talking about. The rest raised their chins and craned their necks, mouths half-open in interest.

“But this is a new land, and while we are friends”—he smiled at Gerhard Mueller—“Ja, Freunde, neighbors, and countrymen”—a look at the Lindsay brothers—“and we will be companions in arms, we are not clan. While I am given command, I am not your chief.”

The hell you aren’t, Roger thought. Or well on your way to it, anyroad. He took a last deep swallow of cold beer and put down cup and plate. The food could wait a bit longer. Bree had taken back the baby and had his bodhran tucked under her arm; he reached for it, and she gave him a glancing smile, but most of her attention was fixed on her father.

Jamie bent and pulled a torch from the fire, stood with it in his hand, lighting the broad planes and sharp angles of his face.

“Let God witness here our willingness, and may God strengthen our arms—” He paused, to let the Germans catch up. “But let this fiery cross stand as testament to our honor, to invoke God’s protection for our families—until we come safe home again.”

He turned and touched the torch to the upright of the cross, holding it until the dry bark caught and a small flame grew and glimmered from the dark wood.

Everyone stood silent, watching. There was no sound but the shift and sigh of the crowd, echoing the sough of the wind in the wilderness around them. It was no more than a tiny tongue of fire, flickering in the breeze, on the verge of going out altogether. No petrol-soaked roar, no devouring conflagration. Roger felt Brianna sigh beside him, some of the tension leaving her.

The flame steadied and caught. The edges of the jigsaw-pieces of pine bark glowed crimson, then white, and vanished into ash as the flame began to spread upward. It was big and solid, and would burn slowly, this cross, halfway through the night, lighting the dooryard as the men gathered beneath it, talking, eating, drinking, beginning the process of becoming what Jamie Fraser meant them to be: friends, neighbors, companions in arms. Under his command.

Fraser stood for a moment, watching, to be sure the flame had caught. Then he turned back to the crowd of men and dropped his torch back into the fire.

“We cannot say what may befall us. God grant us courage,” he said, very simply. “God grant us wisdom. If it be His will, may He grant us peace. We ride in the morning.”

He turned then and left the fire, glancing to find Roger as he did so. Roger nodded back, swallowed to clear his throat, and began to sing softly from the darkness, the opening to the song Jamie had wanted to finish the proceedings—“The Flower of Scotland.”

“Oh, flower of Scotland,

When will we see your like again?

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