The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 78

   

“What is it?” Roger asked, keeping his voice low, too.

“Someone—two someones—are pointing guns at us, through the window.”

“Ah.” Roger noted Jamie’s good sense in not riding into Brownsville after dark the night before. Evidently, he knew something about the suspicious nature of remote places.

Moving very slowly, he raised both his hands into the air, and jerked his chin at Fergus, who reluctantly did the same, his hook gleaming in the afternoon sun. Still keeping his hands up, Roger turned very slowly. Even knowing what to expect, he felt his stomach contract at sight of the two long, gleaming barrels protruding from behind the oiled deerskin that covered the window.

“Hallo the house!” he shouted, with as much authority as could be managed with his hands over his head. “I am Captain Roger MacKenzie, in command of a militia company under Colonel James Fraser, of Fraser’s Ridge!”

The only effect of this intelligence was to cause one gun barrel to swivel, centering on Roger, so that he could look straight down the small, dark circle of its muzzle. The unwelcome prospect did, though, cause him to realize that the other gun had not been trained on him to start with. It had been, and remained, pointing steadily over his right shoulder, toward the cluster of men who still sat their horses behind him, shifting in their saddles and murmuring uneasily.

Great. Now what? The men were waiting for him to do something. Moving slowly, he lowered his hands. He was drawing breath to shout again, but before he could speak, a hoarse voice rang out from behind the deerskin.

“I see you, Morton, you bastard!”

This imprecation was accompanied by a significant jerk of the first gun barrel, which turned abruptly from Roger to focus on the same target as the second—presumably Isaiah Morton, one of the militiamen from Granite Falls.

There was a scuffling noise among the mounted men, startled shouts, and then all hell broke loose as both guns went off. Horses reared and bolted, men bellowed and swore, and drifts of acrid white smoke fumed from the window.

Roger had thrown himself flat at the first explosion. As the echoes died away, though, he scrambled up as though by reflex, flung mud out of his eyes, and charged the door, headfirst. To his detached surprise, his mind was working very clearly. Brianna took twenty seconds to load and prime a gun, and he doubted that these buggers were much faster. He thought he had just about ten seconds’ grace left, and he meant to use them.

He hit the door with his shoulder, and it flew inward, smashing against the wall inside and causing Roger to rush staggering into the room and crash into the wall on the opposite side. He struck his shoulder a numbing blow on the chimney piece, bounced off, and managed somehow to keep his feet, stumbling like a drunkard.

Several people in the room had turned to gape at him. His vision cleared enough to see that only two of them were in fact holding guns. He took a deep breath, lunged for the nearest of these, a scrawny man with a straggling beard, and seized him by the shirtfront, in imitation of a particularly fearsome third-form master at Roger’s grammar school.

“What do you think you are doing, you wee man, you!?” he roared, jerking the man up onto his toes. Mr. Sanderson would have been pleased, he supposed, at the thought that his example had been so memorable. Effective, too; while the scrawny man in Roger’s grip did not either wet himself or snivel, as the first-form students occasionally had under such treatment, he did make small gobbling sounds, pawing ineffectually at Roger’s hand clutching his shirt.

“You, sir! Leave hold of my brother!” Roger’s victim had dropped both his gun and powder horn when seized, spilling black powder all over the floor. The other gunman had succeeded in reloading his weapon, though, and was now endeavoring to bring it to bear on Roger. He was somewhat impeded in this attempt by the three women in the room, two of whom were blethering and pulling at his gun, getting in his way. The third had flung her apron over her head and was uttering loud, rhythmic shrieks of hysteria.

At this point, Fergus strolled into the house, an enormous horse pistol in his hand. He pointed this negligently at the man with the gun.

“Be so kind as to put that down, if you will,” he said, raising his voice to be heard above the racket. “And perhaps, madame, you could pour some water upon this young woman? Or slap her briskly?” He gestured toward the screaming woman with his hook, wincing slightly at the noise.

Moving as though hypnotized, one of the women went slowly toward the screeching girl, shook her roughly by the shoulder, and began to murmur in the girl’s ear, not taking her eyes off Fergus. The shrieking stopped, replaced by irregular gulps and sobs.

Roger felt an immense relief. Sheer rage, simple panic, and the absolute necessity of doing something had got him this far, but he would freely admit that he had not the slightest idea what to do next. He took a deep breath, feeling his legs begin to tremble, and slowly lowered his victim, releasing his grip with an awkward nod. The man took several fast steps backward, then stood brushing at the creases in his shirt, narrowed eyes fixed on Roger in resentment.

“And who in blazes are you?” The second man, who had indeed put his weapon down, looked at Fergus in confusion.

The Frenchman waved his hook—which, Roger noticed, seemed to fascinate the women—in a gesture of dismissal.

“That is of no importance,” he said grandly, lifting his aristocratically prominent nose another inch. “I require—that is, we require”—he amended, with a polite nod toward Roger—“to know who you are.”

The inhabitants of the cabin all exchanged confused looks, as though wondering who they might in fact be. After a moment’s hesitation, though, the larger of the two men thrust out his chin pugnaciously.

“My name is Brown, sir. Richard Brown. This is my brother, Lionel, my wife, Meg, my brother’s daughter, Alicia”—that appeared to be the girl in the apron, who had now removed the garment from her head and stood tearstained and gulping—“and my sister, Thomasina.”

“Your servant, madame, mesdemoiselles.” Fergus made the ladies an extremely elegant bow, though taking good care to keep his pistol aimed at Richard Brown’s forehead. “My apologies for the disturbance.”

Mrs. Brown nodded back, looking a little glazed. Miss Thomasina Brown, a tall, severe-looking person, looked from Roger to Fergus and back with the expression of one comparing a cockroach and a centipede, deciding which to step on first.

Fergus, having managed to transform the atmosphere from an armed confrontation to that of a Parisian salon, looked pleased. He glanced at Roger and inclined his head, clearly handing management of the situation over to him.

“Right.” Roger was wearing a loose woolen hunting shirt, but he felt as though it were a straitjacket. He took another deep breath, trying to force air into his chest. “Well. As I said, I am . . . ah . . . Captain MacKenzie. We are charged by Governor Tryon with raising a militia company, and have come to notify you of your obligation to provide men and supplies.”

Richard Brown looked surprised at this; his brother glowered. Before they could offer objections, though, Fergus moved closer to Roger, murmuring, “Perhaps we should discover whether they have killed Mr. Morton, mon capitaine, before we accept them into our company?”

“Oh, mphm.” Roger fixed the Browns with as stern an expression as possible. “Mr. Fraser. Will you see about Mr. Morton? I will remain here.” Keeping the Browns in his gaze, he held out a hand for Fergus’s pistol.

“Oh, yon Morton’s still canty, Captain. He isny wae us, forbye, ’cause he’s ta’en to the broosh like a bit’ moggie wae a scorchit tail, but he wiz movin’ a’ his limbs when I saw um last.” A nasal Glaswegian voice spoke from the doorway, and Roger glanced over to see a cluster of interested heads peering into the cabin, Henry Gallegher’s bristly nob among them. A number of drawn guns were also in evidence, and Roger’s breath came a little easier.

The Browns had lost interest in Roger, and were staring at Gallegher in sheer bewilderment.

“What did he say?” Mrs. Brown whispered to her sister-in-law. The older lady shook her head, lips drawn in like a pursestring.

“Mr. Morton is alive and well,” Roger translated for them. He coughed. “Fortunately for you,” he said to the male Browns, with as much menace as he could contrive to put into his voice. He turned to Gallegher, who had now come into the room and was leaning against the doorjamb, musket in hand and looking distinctly entertained.

“Is everyone else all right, then, Henry?”

Gallegher shrugged.

“They crap-bags hivny holed anyone, but they gie’d your saddlebag rare laldy wae a load o’ bird shot. Sir,” he added as an afterthought, teeth showing in a brief flash through his beard.

“The bag with the whisky?” Roger demanded.

“Get awa!” Gallegher bugged his eyes in horror, then grinned in reassurance. “Nah, t’other.”

“Och, well.” Roger waved a hand dismissively. “That’s only my spare breeks, isn’t it?”

This philosophical response drew laughter and hoots of support from the men crammed in the doorway, which heartened Roger enough to round on the smaller Brown.

“And what d’ye have against Isaiah Morton?” he demanded.

“He’s dishonored my daughter,” Mr. Brown replied promptly, having recovered his composure. He glared at Roger, beard twitching with anger. “I told him I’d see him dead at her feet, if ever he dared show his wretched countenance within ten miles of Brownsville—and damn my eyes if the grass-livered spittle-snake hasn’t the face to ride right up to my door!”

Mr. Richard Brown turned to Gallegher.

“You mean to tell me we both missed the bastard?”

Gallegher shrugged apologetically.

“Aye. Sorry.”

The younger Miss Brown had been following this exchange, mouth hanging slightly open.

“They missed?” she asked, hope lighting her reddened eyes. “Isaiah’s still alive?”

“Not for long,” her uncle assured her grimly. He reached down to pick up his fowling piece, and all the female Browns burst out in a chorus of renewed screeches, as the guns of the militia at the door all raised simultaneously, trained on Brown. He very slowly put the gun back down.

Roger glanced at Fergus, who lifted one brow and gave the slightest of shrugs. Up to him.

The Browns had drawn together, the two brothers glaring at him, the women huddled behind them, sniffling and murmuring. Militiamen poked their heads curiously through the windows, all staring at Roger, waiting for direction.

And just what was he to tell them? Morton was a member of the militia, and therefore—he assumed—entitled to its protection. Roger couldn’t very well turn him over to the Browns, no matter what he’d done—always assuming he could be caught. On the other hand, Roger was charged with enlisting the Browns and the rest of the able-bodied men in Brownsville, and extracting at least a week’s supplies from them as well; they didn’t look as though such a suggestion would be well received at this point.

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