Read A Wicked Way to Burn Online

Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn (3 page)

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But the family farm continued to thrive under her hand, allowing Jeremy to go on with his studies across
the Atlantic, in Edinburgh. They had agreed that the land, while left to him, was hers to care for, as long as she chose to live there. And he meant to visit as often as he could. These two thoughts gave her frequent pleasure, as well as a life-sustaining sense of purpose.

Fingering a twig of cherry leaves, Charlotte walked on toward the front lawn and its broad view, admiring the flaming golds and reds of the maples that ran down the road from Boston, and into Bracebridge. The town itself was spread out below.

Just down the hill was the property of her closest neighbor, gentleman farmer and scientist Richard Longfellow. Although some considered him peculiar, she thoroughly enjoyed Longfellow’s company. In the fields yesterday, he’d worn a broad-brimmed straw hat he’d recently brought back from Italy, and wielded an iron sickle with the strength of one possessed, next to his hired men. She knew he sometimes toiled extravagantly for hours, until his strength, or his mood, played out. Then, he would go inside to brood or to plan, and eventually set his hand to something new. This afternoon, however, the cleared field was empty, and Richard was nowhere to be seen.

Almost across the road from Longfellow’s front lawn stood the Bracebridge Inn, with stables and a yard behind. Farther on, placed among bright trees and hedges and lanes, Charlotte looked over a few dozen houses, some she knew with shops in their lower rooms, one with a schoolroom run by old Dame Williams. The Common with its rectangle of tall elms lay just before the wide-arched stone bridge that spanned the Musketaquid River. On its grassy southern edge stood the white meeting house, next to Reverend Rowe’s somber house of hewn granite.

Through more distant trees, she could just see the top of the gristmill on the opposite side of the river’s
span. There was the crossroads, and the old Blue Boar, a country tavern for the rough-and-tumble. It got much of its trade from local farmers, and those traveling the north-south road that went with the river current to the town of Concord. The same road’s southern aspect was quickly lost to the eye as it climbed past the mill and up into abrupt hills, on its way to Framingham. On the north, though, one could study several miles of a plain filled with plowed fields that were set apart by stone walls, as well as squares of fruit orchards bordering thicker wood lots. Bisecting all of this was a green strip of flowing river marshland, where wild ducks and geese fed and chattered among the reeds.

Charlotte continued to watch through the afternoon haze for occasional signs of distant movement. The playful air had finally taken the smell of cooked fruit from her substantial nose; in its place, it left more subtle scents from the drying fields and water meadows, and the woods across the road where birds called.

The weight of her memories began to lift. Happy to be free, she tilted her head back to admire the greens and golds, crimsons and oranges of the rustling leaves above her, and the deep blue of the sky beyond. And then, at a hint of a whimper from Orpheus, she looked to see a scarlet movement nearer to the earth.

A lone figure came walking down from the road’s crest, leading a tired old horse. Both were odd enough to make her stare. The old man was especially startling. Crabbed and shrunken, he was draped with a long, full cloak of brilliant red. His head was covered with a heavy wig and a spreading, tricornered hat. Had he been younger, she thought, the full town costume on his buckled frame would have been unbearably hot for the sunny afternoon. But he appeared not to mind as he and his horse stepped cautiously, leading their shadows westward, down the dusty road.

The odd gentleman at first appeared to turn away when she took notice of him, but then he stopped and faced her squarely, with a curiosity that seemed to match her own. Without thinking, she reached down to smooth her skirts, and it was only then that Charlotte realized she still held an apple in her hand. When the old man bobbed his head in silent greeting, she instinctively held the apple out to him, coloring as his eyes met hers: met, and held them, and widened. Perhaps he was surprised at her forwardness. Or it could have been that he simply admired her face and figure. This was something that happened frequently enough. As a young widow, she knew she was sometimes referred to as “fair game.”

“An apple, sir?” she asked, determined not to mind whatever the cause of his piercing stare.

“Many thanks!”

His voice was high-pitched and thin. But she was to have only the two words to judge by when considering it later.

A gloved hand reached out and accepted her gift without further comment. Then, he gave a stiff, old-fashioned bow that made Charlotte smile in return.

The stranger’s jaws parted. He took a large bite, and she heard the crisp apple crunch. His smile grew and the white wig nodded gently. As he chewed, her quick eyes took in more about his person.

He might have been near sixty, or even older, she thought. And what she saw of his shaded face looked oddly white. Probably the pallor of a recent invalid, she imagined, or one who generally kept to his letters and ledgers—a man of business? His was certainly not the face of someone used to walking in the sun, as he was doing now, unless he always protected his features well whenever he went into the open air.

As for his clothing, she noticed a pea green velvet
coat beneath the bright cloak; below this were striking rich green velvet breeches, and white silk hose. His cloak, too, was lined with the best quality silk—once again, in scarlet. She also observed a frilled shirt of cambric, and soft leather shoes with bright silver clasps, hardly made for riding. Overall, she concluded, he was certainly a colorful old gentleman, but one out of his element in the country.

In another moment, she might have asked herself (or even him, since she wasn’t particularly shy) where he had come from, and why he went on foot. But before she had the chance, the old man tossed the apple core into the roadside cornflowers and turned to pull himself with great effort onto his horse, while Charlotte held her breath for him. Finally in his seat, he touched his hat and started off toward the town.

At that instant, Charlotte felt the gentle touch of her conscience as she remembered Hannah toiling all alone, surrounded by apples. And so, taking one last look at the odd, retreating figure, young Mrs. Willett walked with renewed purpose back toward her kitchen door, leaving all other thoughts behind her.

Chapter 3

Blue Boar!” called the tavern’s proprietor, standing in the doorway beneath a bristling azure monster with yellow eyes and a sharp red tongue. He gestured broadly to the open door that awaited all comers, including the stranger in a scarlet cloak who approached on foot at sunset.

Inside the tavern’s smoky main room, a dusty twilight had already fallen. A few tallow ends glowed on rough tables flanked with benches, where country men sat talking over cider and ale. Nearby, a blazing fireplace had drawn a brace of elderly patrons who hunched like two fat quail, smoking long clay pipes and toasting themselves. To their backs, winding stairs led up to three dark sleeping rooms that offered accommodation to those who made no demands in the way of luxury, and had few expectations of comfort. To see to customers’ stomachs, a
small scullery below produced a more or less regular serving of game stews, pickled pork, and bought bread.

The whole of this adequate establishment was presided over by a former Salem man called Phineas Wise. The landlord now walked to a mounted barrel and drew off a pitcher with a practiced eye, magically extending its head of froth. Wise was a thrifty individual of lean face and thin nose, with a keen, calculating expression and a stubble of beard; in brief, he was a man who would be recognized as a Yankee up and down the coast.

When the cloaked stranger appeared, everyone stopped what they were doing to examine him carefully, and to speculate briefly about the brown cloth bundle he carried under one arm. He had evidently interrupted a vigorous discussion; he had heard several words of it as he approached the door. Soon, it began again. The stranger sat down and listened.

“Well, some of these bastards think they have as much right as anyone else to be here, but I say to that, think again!” This sentiment came from a giant of a man with curling red hair and a freckled skin.

“That’s right—they better think twice about it,” echoed a man with bloodshot eyes who sat next to the first speaker.

“Let them go back to France, and take their heathen friends with ‘em!” came from near the west windows.

“But I say,” said the first voice, “they’ll take no
from us here!”

General enthusiasm rose from around the room.

It was with some uneasiness that the landlord finally drew himself away from the loud talk to ask the stranger’s pleasure, which was a small tankard of local ale. Clearly, the heated discussion was being led by the massive man dressed in a loose homespun shirt and stained buckskin breeches. During a lull, this confident speaker picked his teeth with a bench splinter, while he leaned
on his elbows over a pewter plate that held the remains of a greasy dinner. Two lesser companions sat beside and in front of him. The one who had recently spoken up displayed the rubbery features and rolling eyes of a man well into his cups, while the other seemed to wear a more permanent look of befuddlement on his upturned face.

“Maybe we thought we knew the enemy before, when we mustered at Worcester six years back,” the bullying voice boomed out again, “fighting men, from all over Middlesex County … men who’d heard what the savages, and the Frenchmen who paid them, had been up to along the Hudson. But by God, we knew far more after the bloody massacre at Fort William Henry! A dirty coward’s trick that was, killing soldiers under a white flag!”

A loud chorus again agreed with the smooth speaker; most of them knew Peter Lynch, the local miller, well. He continued when the flood of voices ebbed away.

“They were damned fools ever to trust Montcalm. They might have guessed he’d let his redskins get at our soldiers, with or without a truce, and rob them of everything they had—right down to the shirts on their backs! We all know those who survived saw a good many scalps taken that day, too. Saw women stripped, and worse—watched infants’ heads break open against the stockade walls! Saw more killed as they lay in their beds, burning with fever. And after that, the ones left were marched two hundred miles, all the way up to Montreal, to be sold for slaves! Well, we learned from that, all right. The whole world has learned of it by now, to their eternal disgust, so I don’t want to hear any more damned lies about how a Frenchman can
be trusted!”

“Cowards, every one of ‘em!” cried the drunken man beside the miller, who went by the name of Dick Craft.

“Well, Peter, some of the things you’re saying,” began another, “weren’t exactly as you say….”

Peter Lynch lowered his voice and looked around with a meaningful squint. “But there’s worse than those who fight in plain sight, as I just described. Spies, I’m thinking of now. Some of them are still in these parts, looking for mischief, and mayhem! Aye, they’re waiting … watching for ways to get back at decent folk who let ’em be, more’s the pity. Ready to go after ’em, even though hostilities be over.”

“It’s a terrible truth,” Dick Craft shouted, shaking his wooden tankard in the air. “And I hope to God none of us forgets it in

Several listeners fervently agreed, while a few others belched. Thus encouraged, the drunkard continued.

“If they plan to hang around, stealing what’s ours, then maybe we’ll help ’em up into the treetops with a rope or two! Or—or maybe we’ll be having ourselves a feather party—what do you say to that, Jack Pennywort? We’ll bring along our own f-feathers, and some nice, warm tar, we will! What do you say to that, now?”

The daft-looking man sitting next to him took a sharp nudge in the ribs, and nodded with a simple smile. “Might there be,” he ventured, “some ale, Peter, for after?”

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