The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 71

   

I DON’T KNOW how long I slept; I woke quite suddenly, at the sound of an explosive sneeze nearby. Jamie was sitting a few feet away, holding Josiah Beardsley’s wrist in one hand, his dirk in the other. He paused long enough to sneeze twice more, wiped his nose impatiently on his sleeve, then thrust the dirk into the embers of the fire.

I caught the stink of hot metal, and raised myself abruptly on one elbow. Before I could say or do anything, something twitched and moved against me. I looked down in astonishment, then up, then down again, convinced in my muddled state that I was still dreaming.

A young boy lay under my cloak, curled against my body, sound asleep. I saw black hair and a scrawny frame, a pallid skin smeared with grime and grazed with scratches. Then there was a sudden loud hiss from the fire and I jerked my gaze back to see Jamie press Josiah’s thumb against the searing metal of his blackened dirk.

Jamie glimpsed my convulsive movement from the corner of his eye and scowled in my direction, lips pursed in a silent adjuration to stillness. Josiah’s face was contorted, lips drawn back from his teeth in agony—but he made no noise. On the far side of the fire, Kenny Lindsay sat watching, silent as a rock.

Still convinced that I was dreaming—or hoping that I was—I put a hand on the boy curled against me. He moved again, and the feel of solid flesh under my fingers woke me completely. My hand closed on his shoulder, and his eyes sprang open, wide with alarm.

He jerked away, scrambling awkwardly to get to his feet. Then he saw his brother—for plainly Josiah was his brother—and stopped abruptly, glancing wildly around the clearing, at the scattered men, at Jamie, Roger, and myself.

Ignoring what must have been the frightful pain of a burned hand, Josiah rose from his seat and stepped quick and soft to his brother’s side, taking him by the arm.

I got to my feet, moving slowly so as not to frighten them. They watched me, identical looks of wariness on the thin, white faces. Identical. Yes, just the same pinched faces—though the other boy’s hair was worn long. He was dressed in nothing but a ragged shirt, and he was barefoot. I saw Josiah squeeze his brother’s arm in reassurance, and began to suspect just what it was he had stolen. I summoned a smile for the two of them, then stretched out my hand to Josiah.

“Let me see your hand,” I whispered.

He hesitated a moment, then gave me his right hand. It was a nice, neat job; so neat that it made me slightly faint for a moment. The ball of the thumb had been sliced cleanly off, the open wound cauterized with searing metal. A red-black, crusted oval had replaced the incriminating brand.

There was a soft movement behind me; Roger had fetched my medicine box and set it down by my feet.

There wasn’t a great deal to do for the injury, save apply a little gentian ointment and bandage the thumb with a clean, dry cloth. I was conscious of Jamie as I worked; he had sheathed his dirk and risen quietly, to go and rummage among the packs and saddlebags. By the time I had finished my brief job, he was back, with a small bundle of food wrapped in a kerchief, and a spare blanket tied in a roll. Over his arm were my discarded breeches.

He handed these to the new boy, gave the food and blanket to Josiah, then clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder, and squeezed hard. He touched the other boy gently, turning him toward the wood with a hand on his back. Then he jerked his head toward the trees, and Josiah nodded. He touched his forehead to me, the bandage glinting white on his thumb, and whispered, “Thank’ee, ma’am.”

The two boys disappeared silently into the forest, the twin’s bare feet winking pale below the flapping hem of the breeks as he followed his brother.

Jamie nodded to Kenny, then sat down again by the fire, shoulders slumping in sudden exhaustion. I poured him coffee and he took it, his mouth twitching in an attempted smile of acknowledgment that dissipated in a fit of heavy coughing.

I reached for the cup before it could spill, and caught Roger’s eye over Jamie’s shoulder. He nodded toward the east, and laid a finger across his lips, then shrugged with a grimace of resignation. He wanted as much as I did to know what had just happened—and why. He was right, though; the night was fading. Dawn would be here soon, and the men—all accustomed to wake at first light—would be floating toward the surface of consciousness.

Jamie had stopped coughing, but was making horrible gurgling noises in an attempt to clear his throat—he sounded rather like a pig drowning in mud.

“Here,” I whispered, giving him back the cup. “Drink it, and lie down. You should sleep a little.”

He shook his head and lifted the cup to his lips. He swallowed, grimacing at the bitterness.

“Not worth it,” he croaked. He nodded toward the east, where the tufted pines were now inked black on a graying sky. “And besides, I’ve got to think what the hell to do now.”

27

DEATH COMES CALLING

I COULD SCARCELY CONTAIN my impatience until the men had roused and eaten, broken camp—in an irritatingly leisurely fashion—and mounted. At last, though, I found myself once more on horseback, riding through a morning so crisp and cold, I thought the air might shatter as I breathed it.

“Right,” I said without preamble, as my mount nosed her way up next to Jamie’s. “Talk.”

He glanced back at me and smiled. His face was creased with tiredness, but the brisk air—and a lot of very strong coffee—had revived him. Despite the troubled night, I felt quick and lively myself, blood coursing near the surface of my skin and blooming in my cheeks.

“Ye dinna mean to wait for wee Roger?”

“I’ll tell him later—or you can.” There was no way of riding three abreast; it was only owing to a washout that had left a fan of gravel down the mountainside that we were able to pick our way side by side for the moment, out of hearing of the others. I nudged my mount closer to Jamie’s, my knees wreathed in steam from the horse’s nostrils.

Jamie rubbed a hand over his face, and shook himself, as though to throw off fatigue.

“Aye, well,” he said. “You’ll have seen they were brothers?”

“I did notice that, yes. Where the hell did the other one come from?”

“From there.” He lifted his chin, pointing toward the west. Thanks to the washout, there was an unimpeded view of a small cove in the hollow below—one of those natural breaks in the wilderness, where the trees gave way to meadow and stream. From the trees at the edge of the cove, a thin plume of smoke rose upward, pointing like a finger in the still, cold air.

Squinting, I could make out what looked like a small farmhouse, with a couple of rickety outbuildings. As I watched, a tiny figure emerged from the house and headed toward one of the sheds.

“They’re just about to discover that he’s gone,” Jamie said, a trifle grimly. “Though with luck, they’ll think he’s only gone to the privy, or to milk the goats.”

I didn’t bother asking how he knew they had goats.

“Is that their home? Josiah and his brother?”

“In a manner of speaking, Sassenach. They were bond servants.”

“Were?” I said skeptically. Somehow I doubted that the brothers’ terms of indenture had just happened to expire the night before.

Jamie lifted one shoulder in a shrug, and wiped a dripping nose on his sleeve.

“Unless someone catches them, aye.”

“You caught Josiah,” I pointed out. “What did he tell you?”

“The truth,” he said, with a slight twist of the mouth. “Or at least I think so.”

He had hunted Josiah through the dark, guided by the sound of the boy’s frantic wheezing, and trapped him at last in a rocky hollow, seizing him in the dark. He had wrapped the freezing boy in his plaid, sat him down, and with judicious application of patience and firmness—augmented with sips of whisky from his flask—had succeeded at last in extracting the story.

“The family were immigrants—father, mother, and six bairns. Only the twins survived the passage; the rest perished of illness at sea. There were no relatives here—or none that met the boat, at any rate—and so the ship’s master sold them. The price wouldna cover the cost of the family’s passage, so the lads were indentured for thirty years, their wages to be put toward the debt.”

His voice in the telling was matter-of-fact; these things happened. I knew they did, but was much less inclined to accept them without comment.

“Thirty years! Why, that’s—how old were they at the time?”

“Two or three,” he said.

I was taken aback at that. Overlooking the basic tragedy, that was some mitigation, I supposed; if the boys’ purchaser had been providing for their welfare as children . . . but I remembered Josiah’s scrawny ribs, and the bowing of his legs. They hadn’t been all that well provided for. But then, neither were a good many children who came from loving homes.

“Josiah’s no idea who his parents were, where they came from, nor what their names were,” Jamie explained. He coughed briefly, and cleared his throat.

“He kent his own name, and that of his brother—the brother’s name is Keziah—but nothing else. Beardsley is the name o’ the man who took them, but as for the lads, they dinna ken if they’re Scots, English, Irish—with names like that, they likely aren’t German or Polish, but even that’s not impossible.”

“Hmm.” I puffed a cloud of thoughtful steam, temporarily obscuring the farmhouse below. “So Josiah ran away. I imagine that had something to do with the brand on his thumb?”

Jamie nodded, eyes on the ground as his horse picked its way down the slope. The ground to either side of the gravel was soft, and clumps of black dirt showed like creeping fungus through the scree.

“He stole a cheese—he was honest enough about that.” His mouth widened in momentary amusement. “Took it from a dairy shed in Brownsville, but the dairymaid saw him. In fact, the maid said ’twas the other—the brother—who took it, but . . .” Jamie’s ruddy brows drew together for a moment.

“Perhaps Josiah wasna so honest about it as I thought. At any rate, one of the boys took the cheese; Beardsley caught the two of them with it and summoned the sheriff, and Josiah took the blame—and the punishment.”

The boy had run away from the farm following this incident, which took place two years before. Josiah had—he told Jamie—always intended to return and rescue his brother, so soon as he could contrive a place for them to live. Jamie’s offer had seemed a godsend to him, and he had left the Gathering to make his way back on foot.

“Imagine his surprise to find us perched there on the hillside,” Jamie said, and sneezed. He wiped his nose, eyes watering slightly. “He was lurking close by, trying to make up his mind whether to wait until we’d gone, or find out whether we were headed for the farm—thinking if so, we might make a fine distraction for him to slip in and steal away his brother.”

“So you decided to slip in with him instead, and help with the stealing.” My own nose was dripping from the cold. I groped for my handkerchief with one hand, trusting to the horse, Mrs. Piggy, not to catapult us head over heels down the mountain while I blew my nose. I eyed Jamie over the hanky. He still had the clammy, red-nosed look of illness, but his high cheekbones were flushed with the morning sun and he looked remarkably cheerful for a man who’d been out in a cold wood all night. “Fun, was it?”

Loading...