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Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn (4 page)

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Interrupted from wiping his nose on his sleeve, the miller leaned over and cuffed the man with an enormous hand, as a laughing Dick Craft jerked back out of the way, almost upsetting himself. Once righted, Dick managed to fling a challenging glance over his shoulder into a corner, where a younger man sat near the red-cloaked stranger, glowering at what was being said.

Although he might have been taken by his dress for a local farmer, several details about this guest who sat in shadow marked him as something more unusual. For one thing, long black hair fell in waves down the sides of his
face, without the constraint of a ribbon. For another, his smooth skin had a deep olive glow. And his dark eyes were startling in their intensity. Set almost flush with high cheekbones, they shone out in the limited light, like a cat’s. Taken all together, one might have guessed that this was a Frenchman, with perhaps some Iroquois blood flowing in his veins. Though several men had glanced his way as the miller kept on, the young man’s full lips remained together, and he held himself remarkably still.

Phineas Wise scratched his beard and frowned at the miller and his friends. Lynch had a few years and inches, and a good many pounds, over the youth he seemed to be tormenting. Although Peter had admittedly gone to fat lately … probably the result of a growing appetite for all sorts of things. As he gathered up some empty vessels, the taverner spoke cautiously.

“Wartime’s one thing, boys. But now, thank the Lord, that’s all over. And there’s no law against being brought up to speak French, even around here! Besides, Peter, the Frenchmen you mean aren’t exactly strangers. The Neutrals have lived next to us for nearly eight years now, and they’ve given no trouble to speak of, have they? I know the ones in Worcester as well as you. And from everything else I hear, they’re decent, honest folk.”

“Whether they live here or anywhere else, I say they’re still Frenchmen! You can tell by their
smell.”
Peter Lynch caught the eyes of several of the others; one by one, his leer either convinced, or sickened, those who took it in with their drink.

“I don’t know, though,” said a man over by the now dark west windows, “if the French can be called worse than any others in the war. If you’ll read your city papers, you’ll see it’s the Europeans all together who forced war on the rest of us—not only France, but England, too, as well as Prussia, Russia, Austria, and Sweden, and even—”

“Oh, give it a rest, Eli,” called someone from across the room.

“That may be,” said another by the cider kegs. “And you might even say, now, that there’s honor in fighting for your own country, whatever it may be—and whatever the reason. I suspect it’s some of our own men who ought to be ashamed, for doing business with the enemy just to get hold of their blessed sugar, and fa-la’s to sell to city folk, even while the fighting was going on! Your own brother, Dick, for one. So I wouldn’t be so quick to call the kettle—”

“Oh, if we’re naming names, then, what about your three Falmouth cousins, Henry?” cried out a disgruntled neighbor. “Don’t we all know they were sending their grain and cattle up to Cannadee, across the blockade?”

“Supplying the very ones who planned to come and lift my scalp in the night,” chimed in a farmer finishing a plate of heavy stew, “just waiting to run down and burn our houses soon as we marched off to fight! Though they never did manage to get here—”

“At any road, we did our part,” boasted another. “And with precious little help from the bloody-backed lobsters, and their prissy lords sent to teach us how to fight!”

“That’s
for certain!” came a quick reply. “They must’ve sent over some of their worst dunderheads, judging by what I saw with my own two eyes. Yet we
still
managed to snatch their bacon from the fire, didn’t we, lads?”

Between vigorous assent and rolling laughter, several heads and chests rose and swelled.

“And took many a fort for them, too! Beausejour, Frontenac, and Duquesne, Niagara, Fort Ti, and Crown Point, then Quebec—”

“Oh, well, you’ll have to admit that Wolfe was an awfully good tactician—”

“Now
that
was enough for young Montcalm—”

“And finally, Montreal!”

“Well I remember when we took Louisbourg, in ’45,” broke in one of the old birds roasting by the fire, who puffed with animation. “With old Pepperrell, bless him. Sailed up to Cape Breton, took it single-handed!”

“The British Navy may deserve some small thanks,” observed a younger man rather dryly, causing the other quail to come alive with a sputter.

“You can thank the British all you want for giving it
back
to the froggies, too, soon as peace was signed. If you’ll remember, that’s why the lobsters had to go up and do it all over again, and blow it to bits this time. And now, I wonder, just how long our latest peace will last?”

It was a sobering question. The war just concluded had often seemed won. Yet hostilities had flared up again and again, like flames from a burning seam of coal. But tonight, many seated in the Blue Boar only laughed at this lesson. And all the while, the young Frenchman continued to sit, listening silently in his dark corner, waiting for a further goad. The miller soon supplied it.

“What about your own pet frog, Phineas? When did he hop in this time? And why is it that you let him stay, when his kind is bound to give offense to all your decent customers?”

Those seated by Peter Lynch eyed the Frenchman in the shadows expectantly, while the speech drew groans from some at the back tables.

“You know, you’re the very first to complain, Peter, since Mr. Fortier joined us yesterday evening.”

“Maybe you can explain what brought him to Bracebridge, where he’s got no proper business that I know of. And then he can tell us if he imagines he’s going to spend another quiet night in a bed upstairs.”

“He’s very likely staying here,” the landlord responded patiently, “because it’s cheap, as you all know … unlike
Mr. Pratt’s fine lodgings up the hill. Show me he’s a bit of trouble to anyone, and I’ll have him out. Meanwhile, my guests may come and go as they please. It’s still a free country. As to his business—” Phineas Wise regarded the miller with a gleam in his eye.

“—as to his business, well, I think many of us know what that might be, don’t we, gentlemen? And I say good luck to him, as I would to any man trying to coax a young lady—or any other kind of female, for that matter.”

“Especially a young colt like Mary!” someone called, and several of the men joined in with loud good humor.

“You know what else the ladies say about Frenchmen, don’t you, Peter?” called an older man, before hooting with laughter.

For a moment, it looked as though the red-faced miller might leap over his seat. But instead, a determined look crept across Peter Lynch’s broad features, while his great voice softened to a syrupy growl.

“Oh, he’s not afraid to walk in here, bold as brass, and sniff around—as long as I’m off trying to get custom for my mill. I suppose he saw me riding into Worcester on Monday, and came running here to try his luck. But I’m back now; and I’m only saying God’s truth when I tell him he’d be better off keeping to his own kind. I’ll just add what we all feel—that any of his kind that hope to get half-breeds by our women will soon be escorted
straight to
hell!”

At this, the silent young man jumped lithely to his feet, throwing out a curse and nearly overturning the table in front of the red-cloaked stranger. The miller, too, rose up and spit on his hands in preparation, followed by a wobbling Dick Craft. While others braced themselves, the two old men silhouetted against the leaping firelight spun their chairs around eagerly, hoping for a new tale to add to their threadbare stock. And Phineas Wise hurried
to the back of the bar to pick up a stout ash stick he’d often found handy in a brawl.

It was in this final moment of relative calm, when calculations of positions and odds were swiftly being made, that a sound—not a very loud sound, but one that is frequently found to be commanding—gained the attention of each and every one of the Blue Boar’s inhabitants, calling an immediate truce.

Its cause was simple. The old stranger, who had been in the process of rising when the excitement began, had taken a purse from an inner pocket of the scarlet cloak he wore. In the confusion, he’d tipped the open bag until its contents fell in a glittering stream onto the table before him. There, more than two dozen pieces of gold sang out loudly as they danced and reeled against each other, and finally settled down before an audience that was as fascinated as a swaying cobra hearing a snake charmer’s horn.

The stranger bent his head quickly. He picked up the coins from the table, then dropped them back into the leather pouch, one by one. Around him, eyes narrowed in speculation.

Phineas Wise quietly set his club against the wall. He bent to retrieve a few more pieces that had skipped to the floor. While he held them, he was surprised to see that they were Dutch gold—guldens, from God knew where. He stood and gave them up a little wistfully. Then he retreated a few paces, to be well away from the circle of staring faces.

Slowly, the men sat down to their tables again. But they continued to watch the stranger as he produced a dull coin from another pocket, and put it by his empty tankard. After that he gave a nod to the landlord, snugged the brown bundle up under his arm again, and made his way carefully toward the open door.

Gabriel Fortier was in the doorway ahead of him.
The young Frenchman stopped to look back with a frown, then drew his foot over the frame and disappeared into the evening.

The old stranger seemed to hesitate, but soon followed, and the tavern let out its breath.

Candles again flickered quietly, and conversation, when it resumed, was subdued. Several times, one man or another looked deeply into the dark recess that now held only a table and two empty chairs.

Who was the old man in the scarlet cloak, they asked themselves and each other, and how had he come by all of that money? Everybody knew that gold and silver coins were scarce throughout the colonies. Spanish silver dollars—“pieces of eight”—were sometimes seen, as well as British sterling. But most silver received was sent straight back to England, to help pay for the flood of goods the colonies required—or else it was melted for plate, or other items. So it was with gold. And the odds of seeing Dutch coins? They were very, very slim.

Where had the stranger come by it? And more to the point, where was the frail old man going with his gold, out on the dark road at night, and all alone?

The two quails by the fire (whose names were Tyndall and Flint) relit their pipes, and issued the first of several dire predictions involving footpads, demons, and wolves. Meanwhile, Phineas Wise shook his head as he went to stand on the doorstep and jingle pockets full of copper. He peered out and saw that the chilly night was less complete than it had appeared from inside the lighted tavern. A bit of bloodred twilight still clung to the western horizon, while the sky overhead was a deep blue dotted with small, pale clouds, and several points of twinkling stars.

A breath of cold flowed down the hillside that the stranger had just begun to climb. Eventually, the road the old man followed disappeared near the crest in dense
forest, with a wide stretch of old burned-over meadow coming before. As he continued to watch, the landlord heard the lonely voice of a whippoorwill calling out from nearby woods. It cried, it was said, for lost souls who wandered in the night. The practical man listened, and half believed. Someone would die soon. The cry of a nearby owl joined that of the other bird, echoing Phineas Wise’s own unasked question in an eerie staccato.

Whoo-who-whooo?

Where was the old man going, Wise wondered, watching him climb slowly past dark fingers of a bending hemlock that overhung the road. There was no other tavern to stop in for a good five miles. Ahead, there were only a few isolated farms nestled in a hilly stretch of forest, and unprosperous ones at that. Was there something wrong with him? Didn’t he know how to tell direction? Beyond that, did the old man feel no fear? It was a puzzle, but in the end Wise turned back to his own hearth and business, and shut the tavern door firmly behind him.

Inside, it was as if his customers could still hear the happy ring of the falling gold coins, while they called for more of the same. Now the miller, too, seemed concerned for the old man’s safety.

“I only say,” maintained Peter Lynch, “that he’d be far better off investing it, than carrying it around.”

“Investing it with you?” Dick Craft asked with a wink. The miller did not return his amusement.

“Better than to lose it somewhere in the night,” Lynch intoned ominously.

“Myself,” Dick continued, “I’ve lost more money in broad daylight than in the dark. But that’s rarely called stealing, is it? Not when there’s signed notes, and all, to make it right—”

The miller’s glowering face soon made Dick bite his
tongue, and remember that he spoke to a man quite used to doing business.

The third of their party, Jack Pennywort, had less to say on the matter. His own concern was that he should be getting home, and that his wife would scold him properly if he came in late—or do even worse. This led to the usual comments from his heartier friends who feigned surprise that Jack should care. Undoubtedly, they joked, he had become accustomed to his punishment. What of it, if he should be locked outside his own door to sleep where he might? There could be unexpected pleasures in such a system, if a man knew where to look, and what to do about it. So then, why not stay a little longer?

But Jack got up, found a copper or two for the landlord, and made his way somewhat unsteadily to the door. It should be added that this clumsiness was not entirely the result of drink. Jack had been dragging a clubfoot behind him all of his life. It was generally considered by his friends and neighbors to be quite a humorous appendage.

Eventually, followed by loud laughter, the shuffling little man gained the door. His departure allowed the tavern to concentrate on an entering party of thirsty new arrivals, who jostled Jack rudely as they passed him on the sill.

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