The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 72

   

“Oh, aye, it was. I’ve not done anything like that in years.” Jamie’s eyes creased into blue triangles with his grin. “It reminded me o’ raiding into the Grants’ lands with Dougal and his men, when I was a lad. Creepin’ through the dark, stealing into the barn without a sound—Christ, I had to stop myself in time before I took the cow. Or I would have, if they’d had one.”

I sniffed, and laughed indulgently.

“You are the most complete bandit, Jamie,” I said.

“Bandit?” he said, mildly affronted. “I’m a verra honest man, Sassenach. Or at least I am when I can afford to be,” he amended, with a quick glance behind, to be sure we were not overheard.

“Oh, you’re entirely honest,” I assured him. “Too honest for your own good, in fact. You’re just not very law-abiding.”

This observation appeared to disconcert him slightly, for he frowned and made a gruff sound in his throat that might have been either a Scottish noise of disagreement or merely an attempt to dislodge phlegm. He coughed, then reined in, and standing up in his stirrups, waved his hat to Roger, who was some distance up the slope. Roger waved back, and turned his horse’s nose in our direction.

I pulled my horse in beside Jamie, and dropped the reins on its neck.

“I’ll have wee Roger take the men on to Brownsville,” Jamie explained, sitting back in his saddle, “while I go and call upon the Beardsleys alone. Will ye come with me, Sassenach, or go on wi’ Roger?”

“Oh, I’ll come with you,” I said, without hesitation. “I want to see what these Beardsleys are like.”

He smiled and brushed back his hair with one hand before replacing his hat. He wore his hair loose to cover his neck and ears against the cold, and it shone like molten copper in the morning sun.

“I thought ye might. Mind your face, though,” he said, in half-mocking warning. “Dinna go gape-jawed or gooseberry, and they mention their missing servant lad.”

“Mind your own face,” I said, rather crossly. “Gooseberry, indeed. Did Josiah say that he and his brother were badly treated?” I wondered whether there had been more to Josiah’s leaving than the cheese incident.

Jamie shook his head.

“I didna ask, and he didna say—but ask yourself, Sassenach: would ye leave a decent home to go and live in the woods alone, to make your bed in cold leaves and eat grubs and crickets ’til ye learned to hunt meat?”

He nudged his horse into motion, and rode up the slope to meet Roger, leaving me pondering that conjecture. He returned a few moments later, and I turned my mount in beside him, another question in my mind.

“But if things were bad enough here as to force him to leave—why didn’t his brother go with him?”

Jamie glanced at me, surprised, but then smiled, a little grimly.

“Keziah’s deaf, Sassenach.”

Not born deaf, from what Josiah had told him; his twin had lost his hearing as the result of an injury, occurring at the age of five or so. Keziah could therefore speak, but not hear any but the loudest of noises; and unable to perceive the sound of rustling leaves or shuffling feet, could neither hunt nor avoid pursuit.

“He says Keziah understands him, and doubtless he does. When we crept into the barn, I kept watch below while the lad went up the ladder to the loft. I didna hear a sound, but within a minute, both lads were down on the floor beside me, Keziah rubbing the sleep from his eyes. I hadna realized they were twins; gave me a turn to see the two of them, so like.”

“I wonder why Keziah didn’t bring away his breeches,” I said, touching on one thing that had been puzzling me.

Jamie laughed.

“I asked. Seems he’d taken them off the night before, left them in the hay, and one o’ the barn cats had kittens on them. He didna want to disturb her.”

I laughed too, though with an uneasy memory of pale bare feet, blue-tinged skin showing purple in the firelight.

“Kind lad. And his shoes?”

“He hadn’t any.”

By now we had reached the bottom of the slope. The horses milled for a moment, turning in a slow gyre round Jamie as directions were decided, rendezvous appointed, farewells taken. Then Roger—with only slight evidence of self-consciousness—whistled through his teeth and waved his hat in the air in summons. I watched him ride away, and noticed him half-turn in the saddle, then turn back, looking straight ahead.

“He’s no sure they’ll really follow him,” Jamie said, watching. He shook his head critically, then shrugged, dismissing it. “Aye, well. He’ll manage, or not.”

“He’ll manage,” I said, thinking of the night before.

“I’m glad ye think so, Sassenach. Come on, then.” He clicked his tongue and reined his horse’s head around.

“If you’re not sure Roger can manage, why are you sending him on his own?” I inquired of his back, swaying in the saddle as we turned into the thin copse that lay between us and the now-invisible farm. “Why not keep the men together, and take them into Brownsville yourself?”

“For one thing, he’ll no learn, and I dinna give him the chance. For another . . .” He paused, turning to look back at me. “For another, I didna want the whole boiling coming along to the Beardsleys’ and maybe hearing of their missing servant. The whole camp saw Josiah last night, aye? If you’ve a lad missing, and hear of a lad popping up and causing a stir in the forest nearby, conclusions might be drawn, d’ye not think?”

He turned back, and I followed him through a narrow defile between the pine trees. Dew gleamed like diamonds on bark and needle, and small icy drops fell from the boughs above, startling my skin where they fell.

“Unless this Beardsley is old or infirm, though, won’t he be joining you?” I objected. “Someone’s bound to mention Josiah in his hearing sooner or later.”

He shook his head, not turning round.

“And tell him what, if they do? They saw the lad when we dragged him in, and they saw him run away again. For all they ken, he got clear away.”

“Kenny Lindsay saw them both when you brought them back.”

He shrugged.

“Aye, I had a word wi’ Kenny, while we were saddling the horses. He’ll say nothing.” He was right, I knew. Kenny was one of his Ardsmuir men; he would follow Jamie’s orders without question.

“No,” Jamie went on, skillfully reining round a large boulder, “Beardsley’s not infirm; Josiah told me he’s an Indian trader—taking goods across the Treaty Line to the Cherokee villages. What I don’t know is if he’s to home just now. If he is, though—” He drew breath and paused to cough as the cold air tickled his lungs.

“That’s the other reason for sending the men ahead,” he continued, wheezing slightly. “We’ll not join them again until tomorrow, I think. By that time, they’ll have had a night to drink and be sociable in Brownsville; they’ll scarce recall the lad, and be the less likely to speak of him in Beardsley’s hearing. With luck, we’ll be well away before anything’s said—no chance of Beardsley leaving us to pursue the lad then.”

So he was counting on the Beardsleys being sufficiently hospitable as to put us up for the night. A reasonable expectation, in this neck of the woods. Listening to him cough again, I resolved to sit on his chest this evening, if necessary, and oblige him to be well-greased with camphor, whether he liked it or not.

We emerged from the trees, and I glanced dubiously at the farmhouse ahead. It was smaller than I had thought, and rather shabby, with a cracked step, a sagging porch, and a wide patch of shingles missing from the weathered roof. Well, I had slept in worse places, and likely would again.

The door to a stunted barn gaped open, but there was no sign of life. The whole place seemed deserted, save for the plume of smoke from the chimney.

I had meant what I said to Jamie, though I hadn’t been entirely accurate. He was honest, and also law-abiding—provided that the laws were those he chose to respect. The mere fact that a law had been established by the Crown was not, I knew, sufficient to make it law in his eyes. Other laws, unwritten, he would likely die for.

Still, while the law of property meant somewhat less to an erstwhile Highland raider than it might to others, it hadn’t escaped my attention—and therefore certainly hadn’t escaped his—that he was about to claim both hospitality and duty from a man whose property he had just helped to abscond. Jamie had no deep-seated objection to indenture as such, I knew; ordinarily, he would respect such a claim. That he hadn’t meant that he perceived some higher law in operation—though whether that was friendship, pity, the claim of his earbsachd, or something else, I didn’t know. He had paused, waiting for me.

“Why did you decide to help Josiah?” I asked bluntly, as we made our way across the ragged cornfield that lay before the house. Dry stalks snapped beneath the horses’ feet, and ice crystals glittered on the litter of dead leaves.

Jamie took off his hat, and set it on the saddle before him, as he tied back his hair in preparation for meeting company.

“Well, I said to him that if he was set on this course, so be it. But if he chose to come to the Ridge—alone or with his brother—then we must rid him of the mark on his thumb, for it would cause talk, and word might get back to yon Beardsley, wi’ the devil to pay and a’ that.”

He took a deep breath and let it out, the smoke of it wisping white around his head, then turned to look at me, his face serious.

“The lad didna hesitate for a moment, though he’d been branded; he knew. And I’ll tell ye, Sassenach—while a man may do a desperate thing once from love or courage . . . it takes something more than that, if ye’ve done it once already, and ye know damn well what it’s going to feel like to have to do it again.”

He turned away without waiting for my response, and rode into the dooryard, scattering a flock of foraging doves. He sat his horse upright, his shoulders broad and square. There was no hint of the deep-webbed scars that lined his back beneath the homespun cloak, but I knew them well.

So that was it, I thought. As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man. And the law of courage was the one he had lived by for the longest.

SEVERAL CHICKENS HUDDLED on the porch, fluffed into balls of yellow-eyed resentment. They muttered balefully among themselves as we dismounted, but were too cold to do more than shuffle away from us, reluctant to abandon their patch of sunshine. Several boards of the porch itself were broken, and the yard nearby was littered with scraps of half-hewn lumber and scattered nails, as though someone had meant to mend it, but had not yet found a moment to attend to the job. The procrastination had lasted for some time, I thought; the nails were rusty, and the newly cut boards had warped and split with damp.

“Ho! The house!” Jamie shouted, stopping in the center of the dooryard. This was accepted etiquette for approaching a strange house; while most people in the mountains were hospitable, there were not a few who viewed strangers warily—and were inclined to make introductions at gunpoint, until the callers’ bona fides should be established.

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