Alex : Chapter Twenty – Seven

The Captain at the Gate

The knot on the rope holding the boat to the dock had swollen in the rain. As Rebecca bailed out the rainwater from the bottom of the boat, Maureen worked at the knot. Under her breath she cursed the stubborn hemp. Peter, ignoring the women, remained at the edge of the dock. He peered into the dark hoping that Alex would come.

A short sharp crack of sound came from Kilmarnock Hill. Maureen prayed that it was thunder, knowing as she clawed at the rope that it was not. At last she felt the knot loosen. As she untied the rope, she looked over at the boy. Maureen knew what she had promised Alex. She had every intention of carrying out his wishes. Try as hard as she could, Maureen could not keep from thinking of what that creature had done. During the hurried run down the path to the dock she kept reminding herself that the boy was not to blame but her heart had told her otherwise.

As she pulled the rope free, she called out to him. “Peter, get in the boat.”

Another explosion broke the stillness and echoed among the hills. The three of them stared toward the hill, two of them believing that a storm might be approaching. Only one of them knew what had happened. Maureen stifled her fear. Once more she called to Peter. When he failed to respond she ran forward and grabbed him by his right arm.

Peter swiveled out of her grasp, kicking her in the right ankle. In her eyes he could see the same contempt from her he had seen in the Leugers, in Radek, and in the servants. She knew him for what he was. “You lying bitch,” he screamed. “I hate you.” He hurled Alex’s bag at her and darted off into the dark, back toward Alex.

Stunned, Maureen could only look on as he disappeared.

“Let him go, Maureen,” said Rebecca. “He can go with Alex.”

She could; Maureen told herself. She could just leave. Once in the boat she and her baby would be safe, but she had promised Alex. If she ran fast enough, she could catch Peter before he reached the house. Still looking at the path up which the boy had disappeared, she called back to Rebecca. “Get to the village. Tell Ian to come as fast as he can ride.”

“But . . .”

“Do it.” Before Rebecca could protest, Maureen was gone.

***

Franz kicked open the closet in Maureen’s room. Damn the old bastard. MacTavish had led them right into a trap, but how had he known that they were coming? Boyd. Another useless bastard. Franz would strangle him with his own hands when he next saw him. He flung a dress down onto the floor. With Ferdie gone what was he supposed to do by himself? This damn house had two floors and two exits. How was he to watch them all? With the butt of his gun he smashed open each bedroom door, overturning beds, breaking into closets and blanket chests, rooting out any possible hiding place. Useless. The pig could have sneaked past without his even knowing it. Radek would be furious if the pig got away. Franz could always lie but what if the pig should reappear as a witness to the old man’s murder? Oh Jesus. It could be anywhere in the main house or hiding in the outbuildings.

As he strode out of the room, his eyes settled on a lamp sitting on a small night table. Franz stopped. He could do one thing. Franz could burn him out. At the very least he would make the doctor’s family pay for what the old man had done to Ferdie. He picked up the unlit lamp and hurled it against the wall.

***

Peter knew only one thing. Alex was in the house. He paid no attention to the calls behind him and ignored the stones over which he had tripped. The slick dampness of the ground beneath him had not kept him from running as fast as he could back to the house. As he ran, he kept thinking that Alex might be ill again. Leaving Alex alone was just like her. He would not have done it. Stupid bitch.

***

Franz would have to bring Ferdie. He could not take the chance of his brother being recognized. He would dump him in a swamp somewhere. Once in the kitchen, he would light the fire. From there, with the help of the lamp oil he had scattered about, it would soon spread through the house. With any luck it would drive the pig out from his hiding place. Franz could then finish him. The fire would attract people but Franz would chance that. It would take them time to arrive. If anyone did see him riding away, they would be too concerned with fighting the flames to stop him.

As he descended the stairs, Ferdie draped over his shoulders; he heard the back door open. Franz breathed a curse. The intruder had cut off his escape route. He would have to retreat and find a hiding place upstairs. Then a single question asked in a familiar voice made everything so much easier.

“Doctor MacTavish?”

***

As Peter felt his way out of the dining room into the main hall, he considered what he had found in the kitchen. He thought it odd, the unlocked door and broken window. Alex must have had an accident. That was why he was unable to come. Peter was glad that he had returned. He wondered what had happened to the bitch. Perhaps she was somewhere behind him. Perhaps she had given up. He hoped so. They did not need her.

From the bottom of the stairs he could see a light in Alex’s room. He heard some noise coming from there, the scrapping of a table, the dragging of something heavy. Peter knew the cause. The doctor was ill. Peter felt his way up the stair. Once on the landing he noticed that the bedroom doors were open. The heavy stench of oil filled the air. If he had looked any closer, he might have noticed the broken locks and splintered wood but he could think only of Alex.

Peter pushed open the door to Alex’s room. Something was wrong. A small rectangular lantern sat on the dresser. He had never seen that lantern before. An overturned table caught his attention. The large chair had also been upset, as had his bed. They kept him from seeing the rear of the room. In the back of his mind a voice similar to Alex’s told him to leave but he could not leave without seeing Alex. Peter could only assume that Alex had fallen. Then he saw him lying in bed under the blankets. He shook him. “Doctor MacTavish. Are you ill, doctor?”

Peter pulled back the blankets to stare into the lifeless eyes of Ferdinand Leuger. As he stepped back, he heard, spoken in German, words he had dreamed of never having to hear again.

“Hello, pig.”

Franz stepped out from behind the door; Ferdie’s shotgun balanced under one arm. “Are you looking for your friend?”

Peter lunged for the door. Franz kicked it shut in front of him. Before Peter could step back, Franz wrapped the fingers of his left hand in the boy’s hair. He threw him on top of Ferdie. When Peter struggled to rise, Franz clouted him across the back of his head, stunning him. “Don’t go anywhere, pig. I’ve just started. Move again and I’ll hit you harder. Understand?”

Peter tried to think. Another slap struck the back of his head.

“Answer me!”

“Yes.”

Franz slapped him again. “Yes what?”

Alex must be hiding. Franz would not want Alex. If he went away, Alex would be safe. “Yes, Your Excellency.”

“What are you pig?”

“Nothing, Your Excellency.”

Franz smiled. “Just like old times, isn’t it, Josef? Pity about poor Ferdie. You’re wondering where your friend is, aren’t you, pig.”

“Don’t hurt him . . . please,” Peter whimpered. “He doesn’t know anything.”

“Who? Your friend?”

“I’ll go with you. I’ll do whatever you want.”

Just like the whore, Franz told himself. He remembered how she had simpered and begged. Why should the pig be any different? “I don’t want you to come with me, pig. Do you remember what I told you about my orders changing? They did. Frederick’s dead. What do I need you for?”

He pressed the muzzles of the shotgun against the back of the boy’s head. He could do it now. Radek would be satisfied but not Franz. He pulled the boy up by his hair. “Let’s find your friend first, shall we, pig?”

He dragged the boy off the bed. A swipe of the gun barrels knocked the table out of the way revealing Alex’s body. He heaved Peter forward, throwing him onto Alex. The weight of the gun barrels pressed against the back of Peter’s skull smothering his attempt to scream forcing his face down into Alex’s bloodied chest.

“Have you ever noticed, pig, people die when you make friends with them. First you killed the old priest. You remember him. You couldn’t keep quiet so we had to string him up. He shit himself like a baby. So we made

you clean it up. But you don’t learn do you pig? Now, him. Tell me, pig, did you ever tell him what you are?”

A boot lashed Peter’s left thigh.

“Answer me, pig.”

“No,” he whispered.

Franz kicked him again, softer this time. “No, what?”

“No . . . Your Excellency.”

Franz yanked the boy’s head up by the hair. “You’re a liar, Josef, a stinking liar. Tell me the truth and I won’t hurt you any more.”

“I’m not . . . I’m not lying. He wouldn’t have wanted me if he had known. You know that.”

Franz released his grip on Josef’s hair, letting him drop his head forward. Again he pressed the gun barrels against the boy’s skull. “You never told him?”

“No.”

Franz thought for a moment. Perhaps the pig was telling the truth. Did it matter? “That still makes you a liar, Josef. You never told him the truth, did you?”

He waited for a reply. When none came, he swung back his right foot. Before Franz could kick him again, Josef whispered. “No.”

Franz would have to end this soon. The pig could help him lug Ferdie down the stairs. He would tie Josef up and throw him onto Ferdie’s horse. Somewhere between here and Farmersville Franz would find a swamp. By morning, Franz, free of both Ferdie and the pig, would be miles away. With any luck people would blame the pig for killing the old man and starting the fire. Before he left, he wanted to hear one last thing from Josef. “Perhaps he did know, Pig. Perhaps he did. That was why he wanted you, wasn’t it?”

“It’s not true,” Josef whispered. He winced as the boot struck him.

“Tell me the truth. What was it like with him? Was it as good as it was with Frederick?”

“He didn’t . . .”

Again the boot lashed out. “Why else would he have wanted you?”

“He wanted . . .”

”What? What did he want?”

Josef looked at the dead man’s face. “He wanted me to be his son.”

Again the boot struck. Franz’s voice shrieked. “Stinking liar! There’s only one reason why anyone would want you. You know that, don’t you pig?”

“He didn’t.”

Franz lowered the gun barrels against the boy’s head. “Tell me the truth, pig.”

“Get away from him.”

Franz turned to see a small woman in a black jacket and mud-splattered brown dress. Between her gloved hands she held an ancient pistol identical to the one the old man had used.

Maureen had assumed that she could overtake Peter before he could reach the house. She failed to account for the slipperiness of the footing, the boy’s speed and her mind telling her that one stumble could kill her baby. Although she tried not to think of it, what might lie ahead also slowed her steps. Peter, having only one thought in his head, that Alex was in the house, had not slowed. Unable to overtake him, Maureen followed behind until she found herself standing outside the back door of the house.

The open kitchen door told her that the boy had entered the house. Who had opened the door for him? Against all logic she told herself that it must have been Alex. She could have been wrong about the noise. She stepped into the darkened, silent kitchen. As she passed the window, she felt something crunching beneath her feet. She knelt and touched something sharp scattered on the floor. Glass. Maureen looked up at the smashed window pane.

Someone had forced their way into the house. Why should she risk herself and her baby for a boy who could not stand the sight of her? Yes, she had promised Alex but he would not have wanted her to risk his grandchild’s life. Alex. He might still be hurt and hiding somewhere. Maureen remembered how she had hurt him before. She could not just walk away without knowing. As she entered the dining room, she heard voices coming from deep within the house.

The voices became clearer as she approached the stairs. She could make out two voices. One was Peter’s. The other belonged to a man. She strained to listen but could not understand the words. Then she heard another sound, of a body being dragged and struck. Maureen ran her tongue over her dry lips. From inside her jacket she pulled out the pistol Alex had given her. She climbed the stairs, her shaking right hand gripping the pistol handle. With every step she wondered why she did not turn and run. The thought of Alex held her to the stairs. The light in the hallway coming from Alex’s bedroom allowed her to see the opened doors of the bedrooms. She looked at the broken lock on the door of her room. She wondered what kind of force could have broken it. She heard the strange man’s voice barking in a foreign language. Catching her breath and raising the pistol, she pushed open the door to Alex’s room.

The man had his back to her. Almost six feet tall and weighing at least one hundred and eighty pounds, he towered over a small body. That small body lay upon another body. Maureen could see enough to know that there was nothing she could do for Alex. From beneath the man’s right arm the butt of a gun protruded. The barrels of the gun had been placed against the back of Peter’s head. As Maureen watched, the man swung a foot back and kicked him. The man shrieked; an ugly taunting that Maureen had heard before, used by older students to bully smaller ones. But this was not a school ground. This taunting foretold murder. Her arms still shaking she raised her pistol and called to the man. She called to the boy. “Come here, Peter.”

Peter remained pressed against Alex.

The man stared at her and at her pistol. He smiled. Instead of backing away he planted a foot on Peter’s back and swiveled towards her pointing his weapon directly at her abdomen. “You’ve never used that before, yes?” He pulled back the hammers of his shotgun.

Maureen looked down at the hammer of her own pistol. It still lay at rest. She had forgotten to pull it back. The act would only take a second, a second that she did not have.

The man stepped towards her. “You are Mrs. McKay, yes? You are with child, yes? I will shoot the child in you first, if you do not put the pistol down, yes?”

The shaking in Maureen’s arms grew worse. All she could think of was that her baby was going to die. She placed the pistol on the floor.

Franz continued to move towards her. “Good. I do not want to hurt a pretty lady like you.” He now stood directly in front of Maureen. Without looking down he gave the pistol a kick. It slid across the floor of the room coming to rest underneath the dresser. Still smiling Franz studied the woman. She was, as Boyd had reported, a bit on the small side. Good. Less resistance. He would keep her alive, for a little while.

As the man pressed forward, Maureen stepped back. She could smell the whiskey on his breath. “Please, just go away,” she murmured. “I won’t tell anyone. Just leave us alone.”

Franz placed a finger against her left cheek. He moved it slowly down the side of her face enjoying the feel of her skin. “First I do my work. Then we talk. We will become friends, yes?”

Maureen brushed the finger away. “Friends with the man who killed my father?”

Franz understood that feeling offended would be natural for her. “He killed my brother. I killed him. Self-defense, yes?”

“The boy? Is that defending yourself?”

Franz looked puzzled. “Boy?”

“Peter. What you’re doing to him.”

Franz smiled. “Ah, the pig.”

“Pig?”

“Our name for him, like a pet, yes?” Once she understood the truth any interest or sympathy she had for the pig would evaporate. “Do you want to know why we call him that?”

“What?”

Franz stepped backwards until he reached Josef. Once more he grabbed Josef by his hair. As Franz smiled at Maureen he barked out another command, this time in English. “Tell the pretty lady why we call you pig.”

Peter closed his eyes. If he pretended hard enough all of this might go away.

Maureen looked on unable to move or speak, her hands pressed over her mouth.

Franz lashed out with his left boot, feeling embarrassed as he did so. He had wanted to make a favorable impression. “Tell her!”

The boy said nothing.

Franz, about to give him another kick, found himself being shoved aside by Maureen.

“Leave him alone.”

Franz placed his right hand around her throat. He had never liked a woman telling him what to do. Franz slapped her just enough to send her sprawling across the floor, the same kind of slap he would have given to Katrina for similar insolence.

Franz reached down and shook Peter loose of Alex. He held him in the air by his coat collar as if he were exhibiting a prize. “Tell the pretty lady what you are. You killed her father. She should know why.”

With every syllable Franz shook him.

Peter kept his eyes squeezed shut. He thought only of the time when Alex and he had been together.

“Tell her, pig!”

Maureen pulled herself back onto her feet. “Stop it, please.”

Franz ignored her. “Do you know why we call him the pig? We found him living with them. We bought him, cleaned him and made him look like a person. Then we gave you a better job, a job that you liked, yes, pig?” Franz released his grip. Peter fell to the floor. He began to crawl back towards Alex. Franz placed a foot upon his back. “Why don’t you tell her about it?”

Peter pressed his face against the floor. Just as well, thought Franz. He would have the pleasure of telling her himself. He removed his foot. “You should be proud, pig. You were very good at it. Go crawl back to your friend.” He watched the boy creeping away. “You have been very bad, haven’t you, pig.”

Smiling he turned back to Maureen. “Why die for something like that?”

Maureen stared down at the floor. A small trickle of blood seeped through a cut in her lip. She wiped it away with the back of her hand, wondering, as she did so what it would be like to die.

“We had another reason why we called him pig.”

Maureen looked up. She knew what was going to come. “Stop it.”

Franz smiled and threw back his head. The swagger of his shoulders reminded Maureen for the briefest of moments of the portrait of James.

“Have you seen two pigs fuck? Only he was not the boar.” Franz looked at Peter. “Isn’t that right, sow?”

Maureen stepped towards him. As she wiped away the blood trickling from her mouth she looked down at the body of her father and at his son moaning beside it. She looked at the man who had destroyed them both gloating as if he had done a great and noble deed. She knew that she and her child would die at the hands of this madman. In all of it she felt strangely calm. “Why did you say that,” she asked as if she were addressing an unruly student.

“Why not?” Franz replied feeling a tiny bit defensive. “It was true.”

“True? You stupid, evil animal. What do you know about truth?” Her words strangled by anger and revulsion, Maureen swung back her right hand to strike him. Franz caught it by the wrist and squeezed. He frowned. Her revulsion should be directed at the pig, not at him. Besides, he had never liked being called stupid. The woman needed another lesson. He prodded Maureen’s stomach with the barrels of his shotgun. Franz twisted her arm pressing it against her back. Clamping the gun against her chest Franz pinned the woman against him. He leaned down. His tongue felt her left cheek.

Radek had told him never to leave an enemy alive at his back. Franz had never been very good at listening, not when it came to his small pleasures. He had forgotten Josef but even if he had remembered him, Franz would not have considered him important. The pig was dead. There remained only the small matter of stopping his breathing.

Josef would have agreed with him. If Franz had decided to kill him there and then, Josef would have done nothing to stop it. If Franz had only left Maureen alone, Josef would have remained beside Alex allowing Franz to do whatever he wished, but not to her. Alex had loved her.

As Franz tasted Maureen’s skin eighty-five pounds of rage struck. The force of the boy’s charge staggered Franz. He wheeled away from Maureen. Josef, clinging to his hair, pummeled him. Franz cursed, pounding Josef’s back with his empty hand. Josef’s charge had no thought, no plan. Franz’s experience in roughhouse fighting and size more than made up for Josef’s one advantage, surprise. Within a few seconds Franz regained his balance. With a swipe of the shotgun he broke the boy’s grasp and sent him hurtling against the overturned table. Franz swung his gun up pointing the barrels directly at Josef’s chest.

As Franz pressed the triggers, Maureen jammed the gun barrels up towards the ceiling. The barrels exploded, the shot smashing into the plaster. Franz found himself holding an empty gun and looking into Maureen’s face. Burning with anger she breathed one word. “Bastard.”

Whatever self-control the man had, dissolved. He slammed the butt of the gun into her chest. As she staggered back, he struck her as hard as he could across the face knocking her to the ground. He grabbed her by the bonnet, dragging her up onto her feet and threw her face first against the dresser. Tossing the gun aside, he pushed her down against the top of the dresser. Using both hands he ripped the jacket off her back.

Josef looked on. He knew what Franz would do. Josef knew he could not stop it. If he attacked Franz, he would just be swept aside again. Then his hands touched something, the hilt of Alex’s sword, lying forgotten where it had fallen, hidden by a table leg.

Josef staggered to his feet. Again he rammed Franz in the back. With both hands holding the sword, he slashed at Franz’s left leg ripping through cloth and flesh. Screaming Franz wheeled, releasing Maureen. He lurched towards Josef, blood streaming down his trousers leg. The wound slowed but did not stop him. Josef knew it would not. He could not stop Franz anymore than he could stop a storm. Neither did he wish to stop him. He might, however, give Maureen a few seconds to escape. He owed Alex that.

As Franz stumbled towards him, Josef stepped back, holding the sword up in his hands. Franz hesitated. Somewhere in his sluggish mind a plan evolved. He swooped down and grabbed the shotgun. Josef swung the blade. It slammed against the barrel of the shotgun jolting him. Franz smiled and moved towards him. Josef knew that if he kept retreating he could pull Franz away from Maureen. He could see the woman crawling towards the door. If he could find a way . . . The barrel of the shotgun smashed against the sword shaking his grip.

***

Maureen felt the man’s hands releasing her. Her knees too weak to support her she slid towards the floor. She caught herself by the edge of the dresser. The one thing her mind could focus on was the open door. Beyond it lay safety. She had staggered halfway towards it when she remembered Peter. Maureen turned her head to see the man’s back. As the man moved, Peter’s head and upper body appeared. He held a sword. Alex’s sword. The boy noticed her looking at him. He mouthed one word. “Go.”

The voice that always told her to be logical and sensible now spoke up. She had to leave. She had her child to save. As she listened to the voice, she looked into Peter’s eyes. In them she saw that for Peter there would be no escape except the one he would find at the hands of that man. She reeled towards the door.

Josef stepped back as Franz approached. He had the blade but Franz could use the barrels of the shotgun to beat it off. Franz also had a longer reach. He would want to close in and use a knife or his hands. Josef estimated that he might hold Franz off for two or three minutes. That would be enough to allow Maureen to get out of the house.

Again Josef stepped back. Behind his feet he felt Alex’s body. He could keep retreating leaving Alex behind. That would be the sensible thing to do. Instead he waited for Franz to approach. As he waited, he felt a peace settling over him. He recalled one of Alex’s favorite poems. The old man had read it to him once on a quiet evening.

And up spoke brave Horatius,

The captain at the gate

To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds.

For the ashes of his fathers

And the temples of his gods.

Ridiculous, Josef told himself. The pig had no gods, no temples, no fathers; just the memory of an old man who had allowed him to be his son. Alex had died because of that mistake. It had all been a lie. Even so, he could not give it up.

Although his arms were tired he held the sword a little higher as Franz approached. Franz swung to the left. Josef swung with him. Franz lunged to the right. Josef followed. Franz’s right boot lashed out hooking the back of the boy’s legs. Josef, yanked off balance, fell backward. Before he could recover Franz clamped a boot on his right wrist squeezing it forcing Josef to release the sword. Ignoring Josef’s kicking legs; Franz bent forward and seized him by the throat. Josef’s resistance had lasted just a little more than two minutes. He was still kicking when Franz hauled him up into the air. Franz held him out at arm’s length. He squeezed the boy’s throat. . Josef ceased his kicking. Unable to do more he closed his eyes. His last thought, as consciousness left him, gave him some comfort. Alex had never known what he was.

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Filed under Alex, Fiction

Alex:Chapter Twenty – Six

A Matter of Pride

George wondered what Paisley was thinking. He saw some sense in not galloping in the dark. A doctor with a broken neck was of no use to anyone. However Paisley’s slowness seemed motivated by more than mere caution. He dawdled, trotting along at a casual pace, replying to queries with a grunt. Four miles out of Kilmarnock, Paisley stopped to light a cigar.

“Are we almost there,” George asked.

“Almost.”

Paisley’s horse resumed its gentle trot. Paisley thought about the past day. At dawn the Leugers and he had set out from the tavern in Farmersville. They had wound their way up through the hills. They rode in silence interrupted every so often by a comment in German from one twin to the other. One comment from Franz led to a loud roar from Ferdie and a slapping of his right thigh. Paisley, prodded by boredom asked Franz the reason for the laughter.

Franz smiled. “I tell him how to play with a pig.” He translated his comment into German for Ferdie’s benefit. Ferdie whooped with laughter.

“Pig?” Paisley asked.

“The boy. A pet name. Yes?”

Paisley’s stomach twisted. Pleading the excuse of having to relieve himself, Paisley dismounted. Once squatted done behind a copse of spruce he took out his cigar case. With the stub of a pencil he scribbled out a message on the brown paper protecting his cigars.

That evening they camped in the ruins of a small cabin, the same cabin in which Alex and Peter had sought shelter. Franz went over their plan. Paisley would lead the doctor away. Just after eleven once they were certain the house was quiet Ferdie and he would break into the house. One thing Franz insisted upon. He would take care of the pig. He then gave Paisley two bullets for his gun.

Paisley contemplated shooting the two of them but the brothers divided the watch meaning that one would be awake at all times. Besides, they were better armed with double-barreled shotguns and long hunting knives. If he missed just one he would be a dead man. There seemed only one way out of this.

Paisley turned up a lumber road leading off into the bush. Puzzled George followed asking him if he were certain that this was the right road. Paisley nodded but said nothing content to chew on the end of his cigar. After traveling another two miles he stopped. “We’ve gone far enough doctor.”

George looked around. He saw no coach, no injured passengers, only themselves. “Mister Paisley, what is going on?”

“I wish to God that I knew.” Paisley pulled the derringer out of his coat pocket.

George drew the obvious conclusion. “I have no money on me if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Paisley smiled, a sad half-smile. “I wish it were that simple doctor. My orders are to kill you.”

George could only whisper “why?”

“To be honest, I don’t know why. Because they pay me I suppose but that’s not enough, is it? A man should know why he has to die.”

“You’ll just shoot me down because those are your instructions?” George thought of attacking Paisley but knew that he would be dead before he could reach him.

“That’s about it. Pity. I like you, doctor. You have a quality about you. You don’t deserve this. The old man don’t deserve this either. None of them do.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The orders are to kill everyone in your house.”

Numbed George no longer saw the gun in Paisley’s hand. He could see only Maureen and their unborn child. “Why would anyone….”

“My part of the job is to see to you. I’m not much of a man doctor but I’ve always taken pride in my work. I don’t take any pride in this. You’ll dismount, if you please.”

“For God’s sake man…”

“I won’t be killing you, doctor, not if I can avoid it but I’ll need your co-operation and your horse.”

“My . . .?”

“You’ll be getting it back. As I said, I’m not a thief. He’ll be waiting for you at the turnoff. I’m just asking for time to get clear. That’s all.”

“That’s all? What about my family?”

“Your family is safe enough. I slipped a message to old MacTavish. If he’s half the man I think he is he’ll have them in the village by now. I can’t do more than that. I wish I could but maybe I can help someone else. A man has to see to his own burden in life, doesn’t he? You have yours. I have mine. Now doctor, the sooner you’re down, the sooner you’ll be home. If you please?”

“For god’s sake …”

“If you please, doctor.” Paisley pointed the pistol at the doctor’s head.

George dismounted. Paisley took the reins of the doctor’s horse.

As Paisley turned, George called out; “Come back with me.”

Paisley paused.. “Back?”

“Help my family.”

“I can’t. I wish I could.”

He galloped away leaving the doctor standing in the mud. having gone a few yards he stopped. He looked back at George and released the reins of the doctor’s horse. Paisley sped off. Upon reaching the main road Paisley reminded himself to start thinking of himself as Boyd again. Paisley had ceased to exist. McKay would race to Kilmarnock. Mister Radek’s friends would find the road south closed to them giving Boyd more time to get away. With the Leuger twins dead or in custody he could cross the border, get the train from Oswego to Syracuse, from there coach to Albany and to New York. Once in New York he could secure Molly and passage to San Francisco. He would have to move fast but it just might work, thanks to the money from Mister Radek. A man of infinite possibilities would do quite well in the far west. Boyd took a deep breath He pressed his knees against his horse’s sides and galloped off into the night.

***

Ferdie nudged his brother. Franz shared his impatience. Shotguns slung on their backs they waited. One light continued to burn in an upper window. The extinguishing of that light would signal that everyone was asleep. They could then begin their approach. Behind them, one by one the lights of the village had snuffed out. Should they wait a little longer? The brothers considered why the light still burned. The person using the lamp might have fallen asleep. It might mean that the old man was dying and that the women were tending to him. Perhaps the doctor’s wife was waiting up for McKay. The light might mean anything.

Franz whispered a curse. They could wait a little longer but why should they? They did not expect serious resistance and would need as much darkness as possible to get away. Besides, Franz had waited a long time for this. “We’ll take the old man and the pig first. The women will keep for a few minutes.” He poked Ferdie’s left arm. “Remember, we make it look like a robbery but we keep nothing.”

Ferdie grunted his assent. They had argued the previous night over how to share out the women. Franz had been his usual self in demanding the younger one offering him the old hag. Ferdie sulked until Franz relented. He agreed that they could take turns. It reminded Ferdie of the time when they had played with a harlot. For over a day and a night they had played with her. Franz noticing that she was still stirring pushed her towards him telling him to use her up. Ferdie had always seen that as a considerate gesture. Good times, those.

The brothers dismounted. Having secured the horses they began their approach to the house. The first thing to do would be to force their way in as if they were housebreakers. Make it look professional Radek had told them. They circled the house searching for the easiest point of entry. They found it in a small window next to the kitchen door. It offered an opening if Franz removed his coat and did a bit of squeezing. Being at the rear of the house the distance should muffle any sound made by the breaking of the glass. Franz wrapped the butt of his gun with his coat and drove it into the windowpane.

***

They should be on the lake by now. With luck the breeze would be behind them. Within an hour Campbell would be on his way here. Alex tried to fix his thoughts on the book he had chosen but his thoughts kept straying, Concentration was important. Yet this was the one thing he could not do. From Canada his mind rambled back to Scotland to memories of his mother. Alex had been about Peter’s age when his mother had died of consumption. Old Doctor MacNeill had told his father, James and he that she might yet recover if she were kept warm and away from the bad effects of the night air. Peter MacTavish had thought that the old man had possessed the wisdom of the ages. They had agreed to every scrap of advice that he had. For want of money Alex was given the responsibility of seeing to her. His father and James had the shop and house to see to.

Alex tried to do everything the doctor had told him. He kept the bedroom window closed and curtained. A fire burned in the fireplace even in the summer. Nothing worked. All that year he had watched his mother grow weaker with every cough that racked her. She begged him for a breath of fresh air. He refused to listen. His father and James had told him that the window must remain shut. Because he loved his mother and wanted her to be strong again Alex kept it shut. Because he loved her, Alex left his mother, who loved the fields and sun, to cough out her life in that darkened sweltering room.

Years later he found out that MacNeill, as did every other physician, had known nothing about consumption. For the last time Alex asked himself the same question he had been asking for other fifty years. What harm would it have done to draw back those curtains and open that window? He had blamed himself and he had blamed MacNeill. That may have been why MacNeill, an old friend of Doctor John Moore the General’s father, had written the general asking if a position could be found for a young, penniless physician.

That had been another mistake. He had never belonged in the army. Everyone had known it then and he knew it now. When James had received the news of his brother’s commission he had laughed. He told Alex and his father that the army had scraped the bottom of the barrel to want to hire the runt. Peter had slapped him, a humiliation for which James never forgave Alex.

James had only spoken the truth. If anyone on Sir John’s staff had known how unmilitary Alex had looked they would never have accepted him. He must have presented a ridiculous sight wearing the scarlet tunic his father had made for him; its gold colored buttons emblazoned with the thistle of Scotland. The scabbard of the great claymore that his grandfather had carried banged against his ankles. At least he had the good sense, once out of his father’s sight to undo the buckle and put the sword away. The tunic he continued to wear. Good cloth should not be wasted.

On the voyage from England to Spain he made one friend from among the officers, another outsider, Colin Campbell, made an officer through a clerical error. The son of a carpenter, the army had given Campbell a commission because someone in the war office had thought that he belonged to the aristocracy. Colin stayed on in the army after the war becoming a general. Colin could make himself look like an officer and a gentleman. Alex, short and ugly, never could. Everyone had known him for what he was.

The decision to stay behind at Astorga with the wounded and ill had been another mistake. Most had died, as they would have if he had not been there. Alex had paid for that mistake with five years of his life. It had gutted his youth. For what? He had failed. Times beyond counting he had failed. He knew his epitaph. Two words. Alex. Failure. Short. Economical. They should save their money for better things.

He thought of Mary. More than thirty years before she had given him a chance to end the loneliness of his life. He had thrown it away in a moment of bitterness, fear and stupidity. Mary had died because of that moment. He had tried to make up for it but had never succeeded. How could he? No matter how many lives he had saved or helped, none of them had been Mary’s. Alex knew now what he should have done. He should have brought Mary to Canada leaving James to rot in that little office in Glasgow. They could have begun again. They could have but Mary had been dead for decades. All the could haves and should haves would not change that.

This was too damn morbid. Alex shook off the thoughts of the old country, allowing his mind to drift from Scotland to Canada. The land had changed so much since his arrival. He remembered the slow retreat of the trees as the people had hacked deeper and deeper into the bush. It was not an easy land to love. It had broken too many lives. Yet it had strength and beauty. More than anywhere else it was here that Alex had come closest to belonging.

Alex thought of his old country, the land that he had not wanted to leave, the smell of which he still carried inside him. During his lifetime he had seen his people driven out of their glens and hills by poverty and by the clearances, spilling out onto the world. For forty years he had condemned the clearances. Now his certainty wavered. All that energy his people had possessed wasted for so many centuries in senseless feuding had turned outwards. Quarrelsome, narrow-minded but endowed with a passion for knowledge and freedom they had helped change the world for the better. Nowhere had they left a deeper imprint than in this new country.

The two countries, Canada and Scotland, seemed to Alex to be almost one. Lands condemned by men who lived in gentler climes, both had created people rich in pride and integrity. The Scots had taken to this land swarming across its mountains and rivers, building farms and factories, serving as legislators and soldiers. From Nova Scotia to the Fraser, north to the Mackenzie they had left a mark that nothing could erase. The clearances were supposed to have marked the death of a nation. Instead they had helped to create another.

He thought of the others, those not of his race who had also come to this land; the Algonquin, the French, the English, the Irish, the Yanks and now this boy of a people whose name Alex did not even know. They too belonged to the land.

Alex looked up at the picture of Sir John Moore. An army on the run for months, starving, exhausted, its back to the sea had turned and won defeating a stronger foe. They owed part of that victory to men who had fought to slow the enemy winning time for others to board the transports. Part of that victory had also been due to a leader who never lost faith in his troops. He had kept their pride alive, a pride that allowed them to triumph over their enemies and themselves.

Alex had not been at Corruna but he had known men who had been. The march and the final battle had shown to those who still remembered what even the very worst of men could do. Alex could never celebrate Waterloo. In that famous day Alex saw only the death of a man that he had respected. Corruna was different.

For more than thirty years, every January sixteenth, alone in his room he had toasted Sir John and the men that he had known. He would have no more Januarys so he decided to celebrate it now. Alex poured out the golden liquid, the water of life and saluted Sir John. As he did he remembered another face from the past, old Doctor MacNeill. The doctor had died while Alex was in Spain. Alex had never gotten the chance to tell him that he no longer hated him for the death of his mother. The old man had just been trying to do his best with what he knew.

“Corruna.”

Alex swallowed a sliver of whiskey and returned to his seat. He picked up his book. From somewhere below came the tinkling of glass being broken.

***

Guided by the light of a small lantern, the Leugers, their guns held ready made their way along the hallway. They crept forward careful to avoid making any noise. At each doorway Ferdie tried the knob. Every door he found to be locked. They could not force the doors without alerting the person or persons in the lighted room. They would have to take that room first, force the door, kill whoever it was and then go for the others. With any luck they would find more than one in the room, perhaps the pig and the old man.

Ferdie tried the knob. It turned without resistance. He pushed the door open just enough to test whether it was chained. Satisfied, he nodded at Franz. He kicked the door open.

In the rear of the room stood a tiny, withered old man wearing the scarlet tunic of a British officer. He stood upright as if on a dueling field of a half-century before, a long barreled pistol in his right hand. The sight caused Ferdie to pause. Alex aimed the pistol and fired. The ball caught Ferdie square in the chest throwing him back. For a brief moment a muted note of surprise bubbled in his throat. Lifeless he slid down to the floor.

Alex looked down at the empty pistol in his hand. The damn thing really is accurate. Pity it held only one ball. As Franz appeared in the doorway Alex hurled the pistol at him. Then reaching down he picked up the sword, its blade freshly honed, the same sword that Fletcher had given him so many years before. The hilt in his hand, he studied the man who had appeared. Alex smiled as if greeting a long-awaited friend. “All right lad, now do me a favor.”

Alex then did what his ancestors had done for a thousand years when outnumbered and knowing that they would lose. He charged. If he had been younger and faster he might have had a chance. He was not. Franz, given enough time to recover, raised his shotgun and fired both barrels into Alex’s chest.

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Donald Trump and The Cherry Tree

There is an old story about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. When asked if he had done it, George replied that “yes I did. I cannot tell a lie.” Almost three centuries later, Donald Trump chopped down a cherry tree. When asked if he had done it, Donald replied, “I cannot tell a lie. It was Hillary Clinton, uh Joe Biden, uh the FBI, uh Jeff Sessions, uh …

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Alex : Chapter Twenty – Five

The Right of a Lord

Not fair, Peter yawned. Alex had told him he would leave in the morning. Now Alex had wakened him just after ten. As he rubbed his eyes he asked why.

“Later” said the old man tossing clothes at him. As Alex’s fingers fumbled with the button of his cloak Peter heard the room door open. She hurried into the room.

Maureen had awakened Rebecca telling her that a message had arrived saying that Anna was ill. It had not been a very good lie she admitted but then she did not have Alex’s experience. Maureen had pulled a black jacket on over a brown dress. On her head she wore a black bonnet to blend with the dark. As Rebecca waited in the hallway Maureen went into Alex’s room. The mantel clock chimed the quarter-hour.

From the corner of her eye Maureen could see that Peter was ready. Try as she might she could not rid her mind of what the boy had been. Easier to look only at Alex. He still wore his robe and slippers, too busy seeing to Peter to see to himself. “Alex. We’re ready.”

“Aye.” Alex handed Peter his cap. “Wait for me downstairs. I have some things to discuss with Mrs. McKay.”

Peter’s eyes flicked towards Maureen. She busied herself with her gloves.

“Go on now,” said Alex.

Remembering that he had promised not to argue Peter took the bag and joined Rebecca in the hallway.

Alex waited until Peter had left. “Close the door, Maureen.”

“I’ll wait outside for you to finish, Alex.”

“Not yet. First, close the door.”

Humour him Maureen thought.. Then they would be on their way. They still had time.

“I have something to give you first.” Alex shuffled over to the dresser. On it sat a large reddish box Maureen had never seen before. She had been so caught up in the reading of her letters she had never found the time to examine the last cloth-wrapped bundle in Alex’s chest.

As he opened the box Alex continued to give instructions in his dry rasping voice. “Go out by the kitchen door. Take the path down to the dock. It’s doubtful that they’ll come by way of the lake. Take George’s boat. Once you’re on the lake you’ll be safe enough.”

He drew out a pistol and held it out to her. Maureen unable to move stared at it. Alex pushed it into her hands. “It’s primed and loaded. All you have to do is set the hammer, aim and pull the trigger. It’s supposed to be accurate. I don’t really know. I’ve never used the damn thing.”

Maureen felt the cold weight in her hands. Why was Alex giving it to her?

“Don’t worry lass. You probably won’t need it.”

He turned away and closed the box. As he did so, she understood why he had given it to her. She knew now why he had not changed his clothes. “You’re not coming, are you?”

Alex turned to face her. “I never said that I was.”

“You can’t stay here, Alex.”

“Maureen, I can barely stand. How am I going to run?”

Maureen’s voice stiffened. “Get your coat on. You will come with us.” She plopped down into Alex’s chair.

“For God’s sake, Maureen. We don’t have time for this.”

“You heard me, Alex.”

“Fine. You sit there like a spoiled little girl. Think, Maureen. Think about your child. Remember what those men did to Peter. What will they do to you? What will that mean to your baby? Are you willing to give up its life for the sake of a dying old man? Maureen, you have to leave.”

“But you don’t have to stay here. You can hide.”

Alex shook his head. “I won’t hide on my land.”

“You’ve been hiding for years. Anyway, it’s not your land anymore, Alex.”

Alex smiled. “It’ll always be my land. I have to be here, Maureen. Someone has to be.”

“Why? If no one is here they’ll just go away. Tomorrow we’ll take Peter to Perth. He’ll be safe.”

“Safe? Do you think that those men will just give up? What about Peter? He’s going to wonder why we’re hurrying away. How will Alistair react when he learns the truth about him? Like you? You can‘t even bring yourself to look at him. Peter will see that soon. Then he’ll know that you’ve learned about his past. If those men come after him do you think he would fight for a life as a freak?”

“But . . .”

“Taking him to Perth will buy him a few days. I want to buy him his life.”

“But why do you have to be here?”

“If I’m here they’ll think he’s here. They’ll tear this house apart looking for him. That’ll take time, time you and he and Rebecca can use to get to the village. Maybe it’ll even give enough time to allow Campbell to get here and arrest them.”

“For what they did to the boy?”

“No. On another charge.”

“What charge?”

“Murder.”

“Murder?”

“Mine.”

Maureen stared at him. “That’s insane,” she whispered.

“Probably but when everything else has gone mad perhaps madness becomes sanity. Besides I might possibly kill or wound one.”

“Fine. You explain that to Peter. I’m not going to.”

“I can’t.”

“So you expect me to?”

“Maureen, if he thinks that I’m not coming he won’t want to get in the boat. You have to make him think that I’ll be joining him in the village.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“How? You lie. Tell him I’ll be riding in on Bess. Anything. Just get him in that boat.”

“And after? What do I tell him then?”

Alex had asked himself the same question. “That I was proud to know him as my son. If he believes that he might have a chance.”

Maureen shook her head. She glanced at the mantel clock. “I am not leaving you. Rebecca can take the boy. We’ll say that you’re ill, that I have to look after you.”

“Then he won’t go. You have to take them. They’re your responsibility now.”

“What about my responsibility to you?”

“You don’t have one. My life is over, Maureen. You know that. Hell, the only one who doesn’t know is Peter and he will soon. Then what? He has nothing to hold him here. He’ll run. With those men after him he won’t have a chance.”

“I can’t leave you to die alone.”

“We all die alone, Maureen. What else have I got left? A few weeks of humiliation and pain? I don’t want that. I never did.” His voice faded. “I had it all planned. I would see the spring in. I love the spring here. Then when the pains became unbearable I would take a few too many pills. Simple. Then Ian brought Peter to me. What could I do? Tell him that he had found hope in the wrong person? Turn him over to someone else? I couldn’t ask anyone else without running the risk of losing him. I had nowhere to send him. Even if I did, he would not go. He had made me his lord.”

“You told me that no lords live in this land.”

“Unless we make our own. That was his right. Mine was to accept or to refuse. How could I have refused? It is the greatest honour that anyone can give to anyone else.”

“He’s just a child, Alex.”

“A hundred thousand men or one child, the honour is the same. Once in a dirty prison cell I became a lord. There I learned what makes a lord. Not money. Not even courage. A lord serves. A lord gives because nothing is more important than his people. Then I became a lord to a little girl orphaned by the cholera. ”

Maureen looked down. “I remember.”

“Then, years later came another little girl. When I could have saved her I stepped aside. I betrayed her.”

“That wasn’t your fault, Alex.”

“Wasn’t it? Now this boy has come seeking sanctuary on my land. He has made me his lord. If I do not defend him with all the strength of my body and mind I will have betrayed him. A lord who betrays his people is nothing. That is what I have been. I will not be that again.”

Maureen bowed her head. “Then I’ll go Alex on one condition.”

“Condition?”

“I know, if you refuse I will have to leave anyway but I will still ask.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “Well?”

“I want you to be my father.”

Alex turned away. “You have a father, Maureen.”

“I have the father you gave me. I don’t want him. I want you, Alex.

“If I am to be your father, who will your mother be?”

“Jean, and the woman who gave me birth.”

Alex looked away. “It’s too late Maureen. No one will believe it.”

“I will. That is what you want, isn’t it Alex?”

The mantel clock chimed.

“Before I give my consent I ask one thing.”

“Anything.”

“Peter becomes your brother. You don’t like him. God knows you have no reason to but he is still your brother. He is not a servant to be pushed away when he becomes inconvenient.”

“Agreed. Will you be my father, Alex?”

Aware of the passing of time and of the past years of longing for something that could never be, Alex nodded. “If you wish it, Maureen, I would be proud to know you as my daughter.”

“Thank you, father.”

Going to him Maureen gave him a daughter’s kiss. For a clumsy inexperienced moment Alex held his daughter. Rebecca called and he released her. “Best be going.”

Rebecca paced the hallway. If Anna was ill why was Maureen taking so long? Peter held his bag and waited. Whatever was to happen would happen. As Maureen and Alex emerged from the room both he and Rebecca noticed that Alex was still wearing his robe.

“I thought you were coming with us, Alex?” asked Rebecca.

“I’ll be along in a few minutes. I have some things to do first. You’re to take the boat.”

“The boat?”

“It’ll be faster going across the lake. I’ll ride in on Bess.”

Rebecca knew that Alex was not up to riding. “Why would you want to . . .?”

Alex touched her right arm. “Please Rebecca. Maureen will explain on the way.”

Peter, even more confused than Rebecca could not refrain from asking, a slight trembling underlining his voice, “aren’t you coming?”

Alex knew that he had to give a plausible explanation for his staying behind. In his mind he had worked out what to say. He tried to speak but with the first syllable he froze.

Maureen guessed what had happened. At long last Alex had no more lies left to tell. Stepping forward she addressed Peter as if he were a class of unruly students. “Doctor MacTavish has to lock up the house. He will see us at Miss Cleary’s.”

Alex squeezed out an “aye”. With that he seemed to recover himself. He straightened Peter’s coat collar. “You are to go with Mrs. McKay and Mrs. Cleary. I don’t want any nonsense from you.”

Peter lowered his eyes at Alex’s frown. “Yes.” Alex then squeezed his shoulder. Peter looked up to see Alex’s frown ebbing into a soft smile. Peter could feel the arm shaking.

“I may be delayed. Tomorrow you are to go to Perth with or without me. Is that understood?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I want . . . I want you to remember your manners. Manners show respect. Respect creates respect. Remember your father. Doctor Alexander Robert MacTavish. Your grandfather, Peter James MacTavish a fine and noble man as was your great grandfather Daniel James MacTavish who served his lord long and well. You bear a proud name. Remember that. You promise me, lad. Remember.”

Understanding only that it was important to Alex, Peter said yes.

“Then be off with you.”

Giving Peter the briefest of embraces Alex pushed him into Rebecca’s arms.

As they hurried into the kitchen Alex whispered to Maureen. “Let me have your keys.” Flustered Maureen handed him the keys. Again he reminded her to stay away from the road. As she stepped out into the cool dampness of the night, Alex whispered to her one last time. “Take care of your brother.”

Before Maureen could reply Alex closed and bolted the door. Maureen hustled Peter and Rebecca off the porch down onto the path leading down to the dock.

The rear door secured Alex went through the house checking every window and the front door. Wheezing from exhaustion he pulled himself up the stairs. He stopped at each bedroom door locking them ensuring that only one door would be unsecured, his own. When Radek’s men came they would wait a few minutes to see if the house were quiet. Alex had extinguished every light except his own. That one burning light would cause them to pause. When they did approach it would draw them in. Waiting would be Alex armed with a pistol and a sword. That meant one definite chance at them.

Alex pulled on his tunic. His right to wear it he had lost thirty-four years ago. Now, perhaps he would be forgiven for his presumption. When his father had first put it on him it had been a fine fit. Now it hung loose, its weight bowing his shoulders. Still, with luck, it would serve its purpose. On the small table beside his chair he had placed his pistol, sword, and a book Vanity Fair. He then poured out a thimbleful of whiskey. One sip, he told himself, no more and no opium. The pain would help keep him alert. If it worsened, so be it. As he sat beside the dying fire he opened his book to the first chapter.

Vanity Fair

A novel without a hero

Alex was glad that he had read this before. Why begin a new book knowing that he could not finish it.

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I’M Alright Jack

In times of crisis great leaders come forward to speak for their nations.

1865 Abraham Lincoln “With Malice towards none.”

1933 F.D.R. “We have nothing to fear except fear itself.”

1940 Winston Churchill. “We shall never surrender.”

2020 Donald Trump “I don’t need to be tested. I feel fine.”

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Alex : Twenty – Four

Faces in the Dark

Alex sat in front of the fireplace of his room playing chess with Peter. As he waited for Peter to move he listened to the rain pelting the window. The storm had rolled in during the afternoon bringing with it volleys of thunder and heavy rain. It now seemed to be easing. By morning it should have cleared allowing the McKays Alex and Peter to travel. Alex would be glad to leave. Even so he could not keep from worrying about his latest mistake.

His plan to pry the McKays and Peter out of Kilmarnock had almost grounded upon George’s refusal to stay away from his practice for more then a couple of days. Alex, of all people, should have expected that. George’s reluctance to go had left Alex with two options, to continue to deceive him or to tell him the truth. Having considered the matter he admitted that the truth would be the more sensible course. Strachan would tell him anyway after Alex’s death. Telling him and Alistair now might make it easier both for Maureen and for Peter.

He should feel grateful about having outplayed Maureen. Groping towards the truth about his past, she had caught James’ scent. Inexperienced, she had run too far with it. It would take her time to backtrack. By then Alex would be freed of his promise to Jean. He should feel pride in that but all he could feel was aching tiredness, disgust with his lies and the gnawing in his stomach.

Peter studied his next move. Alex had pushed two knights towards him. Perhaps he could consider moving out his queen to counter the knights. He looked at Alex. During the past few days Alex had grown weaker again. Peter knew the cause. The opium. Peter knew what the drug meant. The McKays wanted to weaken Alex as Radek had weakened Frederick. Peter had tried to warn Alex but the old man would not listen. He had thought of throwing the pills away but the McKays would have known. Alex and he should go and leave the McKays behind.

Alex had decided against telling Peter the truth about his health. The important thing was to get him behind the safety of Alistair’s walls. Everything else would have to wait upon that. When the time came for him to know the truth Alex would tell him. What Peter would do after that he did not know.

He thought about Paisley. The man could not be back into Kilmarnock before tomorrow. The storm would delay him until then. Paisley would assume that the boy was still in Kilmarnock. By the time that he realised his mistake it would be too late. Radek, no matter how badly he wished to secure Peter, would not risk a direct confrontation with a judge. If the man had any sense at all he would give the boy up as lost.

The rain faded. Alex remained by the fire long after Peter had gone to bed. He had lost any desire to leave his room. Rebecca, George, Maureen and Ian had stopped by from time to time to see him but for the most part he was content to sit by himself, read and remember his past. After supper he had helped Peter pack the few things they would need. For thirty years he had carried his old bag over the trails and rivers of Kilmarnock. The medicines and instruments were gone now. What little that remained he had given to George. Into the bag he crammed Peter’s clothes and his copy of Pickwick Papers. The last item to go in was Alex’s old brass watch.

“That’s yours,” Peter protested.

“I don’t use it much anymore lad. Besides I promised it to you. You can always return it to me if I need it.

Alex stayed beside him until he slept. A tapping at his room door interrupted him. “Come in.”

Maureen opened the door. “How are you feeling Alex?”

Alex could have mentioned the pain. He did not. It would have changed nothing and only upset her. “Well enough. Are you ready for tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

Alex nodded. “Weather should be clear by then.”

“Is Peter ready?”

Alex looked down at the sleeping child. “Aye.” Then he smiled a gentle smile that still shimmered through the memories of Maureen’s childhood. “He doesn’t believe me when I tell him he’s my son. I can read it in his eyes. He can’t accept it anymore then he can accept the fact that I’m dying.”

“He has to know Alex. It would be better if he heard it from you.”

“I know.”

The iron doorknocker sounded from below. Maureen knew what the knocking meant. George would have to go out. “I wish they would leave him alone,” she complained. “He gets so tired sometimes.”

“You’re a physician’s wife” Alex reminded her. “You should be used to it. Let me know what it’s about before you sleep, will you?” Maureen nodded and hurried away to see to the caller. Alex looked down from his window. A horse waited in front of the house. He assumed that the rider was waiting beside the door. Alex tried to identify the horse but the lighting was too poor. George’s being called away could delay their departure. Still, it could not be helped. How often had a similar knocking called him away late at night over the years? Beyond counting he thought.

Alex settled back into his chair. He listened as Maureen climbed the stairs and called to George. He could imagine George stirring and grumbling as he had done so often. He did not wish to interfere. Serving was George’s right, not his. He would wait.

Alex was dozing in his chair when Maureen returned. Not wishing to disturb him she turned to leave but as she turned her footsteps woke him. He asked who the caller had been.

“Mister Paisley, the writer. Do you remember him?”

Alex’s tiredness dropped away. “Aye. What did he want?”

“Apparently a private coach overturned about six miles south on the Farmersville road. Three people were hurt. His two friends stayed behind to help the injured. He went on ahead to fetch George.”

Alex tried to think. Paisley returning tonight to Kilmarnock? If he was coming from Kingston what was he doing on the Farmersville road? Who were the two men with him? He then recalled Radek’s two servants

“Has he gone?”

“Yes. He asked me to thank you for your kindness. He told me to give this to you.”

Maureen held out a small folded piece of paper. Puzzled Alex took it. A strong smell of tobacco clung to the paper. Tiny brown flakes still marked the creases. A piece of cigar wrapping Alex thought. He looked at the message. Its words were pressed together in a hurried scribble.

From one outsider to another, I must lead the doctor away.

Two others are coming. Get your people away before eleven.

Alex folded the paper and thrust it into a pocket of his robe. He then struggled up to his feet.

“Alex?” Maureen reached for his pills.

. He waved them aside. “He said that he had two companions?”

“Yes.”

Alex pictured Radek’s two servents playing cards. Paisley’s message suggested an assault upon the house. Madness. Whatever else Radek might be he could not be that stupid or insane. Or could he? How much did Alex know about the man? Nothing.

Alex stood beside Peter’s bed trying to decide what to do. He thought of handing her the note but if he did she would then ask about Paisley and about what had brought him to Kilmarnock. What was he supposed to tell her? He placed a bony hand on her left shoulder. “Would you do me a favour, Maureen?”

“Of course.”

“Tell Rebecca to get dressed. Do the same. You’re both going into Kilmarnock.”

“Alex, it’s the middle of the night.”

“I know, Maureen. Just do it.”

He shuffled over to the dresser and began pulling out Peter’s clothes. As he picked up a shirt Maureen’s hand on his right arm stopped him.

“What is going on, Alex? What was on that paper?”

“Damn it Maureen,” he snapped. “Just do as you’re told.”

Maureen turned away from Alex her eyes brimming with tears. “I had hoped that just once you could have trusted me.”

“I’ll explain everything when we’re in the village.”

“No you won’t. You’ll just find another reason to delay.”

“Maureen, trust me. You can’t stay here.”

“Goodnight Alex.” she closed the bedroom door and walked away.

Alex crumpled Peter’s shirt and tossed it onto the dresser. As he leaned against the dresser he stared into the mirror. In it he could see the skeletal fragment of himself peering out at him through old spectacles. Behind that old man he could see the closed door and a sleeping child. “Damn.”

Maureen sat on the padded stool in front of her dressing table. As she unpinned her hair she could hear the dragging of Alex’s feet approached her room. Had he thought of another lie? Perhaps he had come up with another test to inflict upon her. Knowing how ill he was she hated herself for those thoughts. She began brushing her hair as Alex tapped at her door. She allowed a minute to pass before answering. “Well?”

Alex hovered beside the door for a moment before entering. He then shuffled towards her. Bending over he kissed her on the top of her head. Beside her he placed the folded message Paisley had given her. Alex then dropped down onto the edge of her bed. Clasping his hands around his walking stick he waited.

Maureen opened the paper. She did not understand the message but the tone implied that something was very wrong. “What does this mean, uncle?”

“It means that you’ve pinned me, lass.”

“Pinned?”

“Aye. You’ve placed me in a position where I have to give you the truth. In return you have to do as the paper says. Leave this house before eleven o’clock.”

Turning back to the mirror Maureen resumed brushing her hair. “If I think that it is important enough, I will; if it’s not another of your lies uncle.”

“Fair enough. What I’m about to say to you, I’ve told no one, not even Peter. I ask you to do the same.”

Maureen paused in her brushing. “That would depend on what it is, wouldn’t it, Uncle?”

“Aye.” Alex stared down at the carpet below his feet. Then he looked up at her. “Paisley works for a man who lives in New York City.”

“I thought that he was a writer?”

“He is but it’s not a travel book that he’s writing. Every day he mails reports concerning me to his employer, a Mister Radek.”

Maureen’s brushing stopped. “Why should he . . .?”

“Peter also worked for this Mister Radek. Radek wants him back.”

“Who is this Mister Radek?”

“From what little I know Radek is Austrian. He works; at least he claims to work, for a Baron Von Kraunitz. It would appear that Peter also worked for the baron.”

Maureen had suspected that Peter had been trained as a servant. His ability to project a silent docility had suggested this. Alex’s story about the boy’s parents having died of ship fever she had always thought a bit thin but Peter as an ungrateful, dishonest servant. Yes. That she could believe. “He ran away from his master?”

“In May the baron passed through Kingston. Peter got away from him. He ran north. Why north? That was the direction the street ran. Peter didn’t care. All that mattered was that it led him away from them.”

“Them? Don’t you mean this baron?”

“Radek came here in June. He came with two other men, also servants of this baron. Those I assume are the two referred to by Paisley.”

“So why didn’t you give him up when Mister Radek came?”

“He wasn’t mine to give, Maureen. Besides, Radek made a mistake.”

“A mistake?” Maureen placed her brush on the table. Against her better judgement she was becoming absorbed in Alex’s story.

“He offered me too much money; five hundred American dollars. That money wasn’t payment for my services. It was a bribe. When he did that, I knew.”

“Knew what, Alex? That he wanted to pay you? I don’t understand you.”

A spasm of pain shook the old man. Clutching his abdomen he waited for it to pass. Maureen poured him a glass of water but he waved it aside. Instead he concentrated upon what to say next. “You were right. I did name Peter after my father. He would not tell me his name. I first saw it on the papers that Radek showed me. Josef. Josef Krivanek. He comes from somewhere in Moravia.”

“Moravia?”

“Part of Austria. Apparently he belonged to the Baron Von Kraunitz, Radek’s employer.” Alex lurched to his feet and began to pace the floor. “Josef decided that he didn’t want to belong to that man anymore. He ran. God knows if he even had the slightest notion of where he was running.”

A thief. A runaway. A liar. Maureen pitied her uncle for the way that thing had used him.

“He had been running for three days when Sam McDermott found him in his barn. It took me a month to understand why Josef had gone into that barn. After Radek came I knew.”

“Alex.” Maureen spoke as if addressing a small student. “It was raining. He went in to get shelter.”

Alex stopped his pacing and faced her. “Maureen, to get to Sam’s barn, you have to go past his house.”

“So?”

“Peter had been running through almost continuous rain for three days. He was lost, half-frozen, starving and ill. He knew, at least his body must have known, that without warmth and food he was going to die. Even so he chose to go past the house and seek shelter in a barn. Why?”

“He was afraid of being caught. Any criminal would feel the same.”

“Any criminal would seek to save his own life. When McDermott came at him with his musket Peter couldn’t even cry out to save himself.”

“He froze from fear. It happens.”

“Aye, fear but what caused the fear? Sam? Sam McDermott is not the nicest man in the world. Even so, if the boy had said something, Sam would not have fired. He would have taken the boy in at least for the night. Peter assumed that Sam would not help him, that Sam was an enemy. Why would he assume that, Maureen?”

Maureen recalled the downcast eyes, and the nervous glances. “Guilt.”

“Guilt from what? Every night I would wonder as I held him and listened to his screams.”

Maureen thought of the cries in the night and the clenched fists pounding her. The memory caused her hostility to falter. “I have heard them as well, Alex. But how does that concern Paisley or this Radek?”

“Radek told me that before running away Josef had stolen twenty dollars from the baron.”

“You see, the boy is a thief.”

“Because Radek said so? Think, Maureen. Would you send someone north, three hundred miles, to bring back a petty thief? Would you post a spy to keep watch for weeks for the sake of twenty dollars? Even if the boy had taken the money it doesn’t explain anything. Something else. Do you know the first thing Peter did when he regained consciousness? Morris had called me away to see to young Stewart. He had cut his foot. Anyway, while I was at the Royal Arms Peter awoke. By the time I came back he had fallen asleep again. I found a carving knife under his pillow.”

Maureen shivered. “That child is evil.”

Alex touched her shoulder “No, Maureen. He just thinks he is. Don’t you see? He never meant to attack me. The knife was to keep me from attacking him.”

Maureen blinked. “You?”

Alex slumped down onto the bed. Tiny rivulets of perspiration coursed his forehead.

Maureen could feel the fever burning within him. “He couldn’t possibly have believed that . . .”

“What else could he have believed?”

“You should have gone to the authorities. You should have told Judge Strachan.”

“I considered it. The boy was too ill to be moved and . . . Besides, he was the last patient I would ever have. He gave me something to think about apart from … Once he was strong enough I expected him to leave. He should have left when I fell ill. Instead he stayed. When I asked him why, he said that I was his lord.”

“His what?”

“His lord. Sounds almost comical, doesn’t it; except that he meant it. In me he saw the hope he had run away to find. I was the one who would free him.”

“Free him from what?”

“From his past. I knew what that past was after Radek came.”

“Peter told you nothing about this man?”

“No. Neither does he know that Radek came. I never told him.”

Maureen rose from the stool. “Just as it was with me; lies and evasions.”

Alex nodded. “Aye, as it was with you, Maureen. I have spent twenty-two years lying to everyone, especially to you. Every lie I have told I have hated. Yet I would spend another twenty-two years lying to protect you and that boy but I don’t have that time. Neither does he. Because of that I will tell you the truth about him and about yourself. I swore to your mother that I would not but the needs of the living should take priority over those of the dead. If Peter is to survive, if only for a few more days . . .”

Maureen stared at him. “Alex, what are you saying?”

“He will need all the help that I can secure for him. If I tell you about yourself it may help you to understand him.” He closed his eyes and waited for another stomach cramp to pass. Then, placing his thin hands in Maureen’s, he began. “Just before you were born the government brought in men to construct the canal. They established work camps up and down the rivers where they were dredging channels and building locks. I was passing through a camp near Jones Falls, a cluster of canvas tents and log cabins when a man called me into a tavern. It wasn’t much of a tavern, just a makeshift affair, a two-roomed cabin. One room was for business, the other living quarters. In that back room the owner, an American named Nathan Grimes, kept a woman.”

“Grimes asked me to have a look at her. She couldn’t have been more then twenty at most. A thin, tiny thing, the same size and colour of hair as Jean, she had just given birth and was bleeding to death. There was nothing I could do for her. She would not fight for her life. Whatever that life had been she did not want it anymore. Not even her baby could bring back her will to live.”

“I stayed with her until it was over, holding her hand. She never said anything. Perhaps it comforted her to know that someone was there. After she died I learned from Grimes that her name had been Maureen. He had bought her at a brothel in Albany when she was seven. Grimes never told me her last name. Perhaps he just didn’t think it was important. She was only a whore.”

“I bought the infant from Grimes for ten shillings. He wanted more but that was all that I had. If the child survived Grimes would have made a prostitute of her. Instead I brought her to Kilmarnock Hill and gave her to a woman who had given up hoping for a child of her own. That child became her daughter.”

“Five of us knew. Jean. James, myself, Rebecca and Padraic. We all agreed that the little girl should become Jean’s

daughter. Why not? Only a few people had settled here. The Cleary children were still very young. People arriving in Kilmarnock had no reason to assume you were not a MacTavish. After the cholera only two of us knew. As Jean lay dying I swore to her that you would always be her daughter. I would do everything I could to keep you from knowing anything else. Now I have to break my word. I hope that she will understand.”

Maureen looked at the stranger in the mirror. “I am not…”

Alex touched her cheek. “You are the daughter of Jean MacTavish. That is your truth. You brought her love and life. You brought it to the both of us. I owed it to her and to you to make the world know that.”

“My other mother?”

“Don’t you think that she would rather have you living this life than the one she knew?”

Maureen bit her lip. “That was the reason for all the lies?”

“Aye.”

Her eyes touched upon the message sent by Paisley. “What does this have to do with Peter?”

“Peter?” Alex looked down at the floor. “Grimes sold you when you were an infant. Peter’s father sold him when he was about ten. You never had to remember what you were born into. Peter didn’t have that luck. Neither did he have anyone to keep him from being used as Grimes would have used you.”

It took a moment for the meaning of Alex’s words to settle into Maureen’s mind. When it did she rose from her stool, her face twisted in revulsion. “Are you saying he is a . . .?”

She could not find a word with which to finish the sentence. One did come close. Sodomite. Such a thing existed. The bible referred to it but the word had no more relevance to her than Philistine or Amalekite.

Feeling himself beginning to sag, Alex also stood. “I am saying that he is a child in need of help.”

“He is not a child,” she screeched. Then she remembered herself. Her voice sank to a whisper. “He is a liar and a . . How do you know that this is true?”

“I’ve been a physician for over forty years. Don’t you think I haven’t seen a case of rape before?”

“Rape? How? That’s impossible.”

Too tired to stand Alex sank back down onto the bed.

“Did he tell you this?” Maureen asked.

“You haven’t heard a word, have you, Maureen?”

“How do you know that he just didn’t make this up?”

“He made up the screams and the scar? Peter has never told me any of this.”

“Then how do you know?”

“Do you have to see a cancer to know its effects? You know a disease by its symptoms. The fear, the suspicion, the self-loathing, the bad dreams; my god, he reeks of it. Then I had the physical evidence to consider. First the scar on his left wrist. After they used him, probably the first time, he tried to finish himself. One other thing pointed at it.” Alex hesitated. He considered the least offensive approach. “You’re a married woman, Maureen. You know about sexual intercourse.”

Maureen pulled away. She strode to the other side of the room. “I’d rather not discuss this anymore.”

“When one is small of stature, it can leave muscles stretched, sore and swollen.”

“So?”

“Sodomy is much the same. The rectal muscles readapt but they never quite return to what they were. After I met Radek I went back to my room. That night I gave Peter some laudanum with his tea. Then when he was in a deep sleep I examined him. In my initial examination I had noticed some reddening around the anus. I had assumed it had stemmed from the flux.”

Maureen felt as if she were going to be ill. “Stop it!”

“Maureen, you have to listen.”

“I will not have such filth spoken in my house.”

“Then where do we speak of it?”

“You could have gone to the authorities. They would have dealt with this.”

“As they dealt with Bridget?”

“Bridget?” Maureen. who had been in school in Kingston when Alex had given the girl up, had preferred to let the little girl’s memory fade into the past. She gazed into the fireplace. “That is not the same.”

Alex lurched towards her. Taking her shoulders between his hands he spun her around. In Alex’s reddened eyes she saw a past that refused to go away. “Why do you think that I was so determined not to give her up?”

Maureen tried to push him away. Holding her he battered her with his words. “You think that Peter is some foreign plague infecting this perfect world of yours. I know at least a dozen families in this township alone that treat their children as Peter has been treated. The only difference between him and them is that I can do nothing for them. This time I had a chance to stop it. Radek asked for silence. In return I would have a child’s life.”

Maureen struggled to remain calm. “What right do you have to endanger your family?”

“Peter is my family, Maureen, just as much as you are. I chose between the certainty of losing a life and the possibility of endangering others.”

Maureen saw George riding off with Paisley. “George’s life, Alex; is that the price for your choice?”

“Maureen, George is safe. If Paisley were going to harm him he wouldn’t have sent us that message. We are the ones in danger.”

Maureen folded her arms. Her voice steadied. “We will leave this house Alex and go into the village. When we are there you will tell Campbell everything that you know about the boy. If you don’t, I will.”

“Maureen . . .”

“I’m not finished! I refuse to ever allow that thing into this house again. You will turn him over to the authorities.”

“Maureen, he is my son.”

“He is not your son!” Maureen screamed. Then she lowered her voice. “This Joseph doesn’t care for you. He has done nothing but lie to you ever since he came.”

Alex placed his hands on his knees as a spasm of pain caught his breath. “That’s not quite true, Maureen. Peter did tell the truth. I just didn’t understand it.”

“But you said he never told you anything?”

“About Radek and about what they did to him, no. He did tell me about himself. I asked him who he was. He said he was nothing. A grammatical error I thought. It wasn’t.”

“You see. He lied.”

“No, Maureen. He told me his truth, what he believes himself to be. That’s why he never asked for help.”

“I don’t understand.”

“How could you? You’ve always been someone. The asking for help requires two basic assumptions. One is that we trust the people we are asking help from. Peter could not make that assumption. We were strangers, he the outsider. As far as he knew we would just send him back.”

“But he trusts you.”

“To a limited extent. But even if he could trust us he would still not ask. The second assumption is that we have a right to seek help. Since Peter is nothing he has a right to nothing. Until he begins to think of himself as a person he will never ask.”

“He’s mad.”

“No. He’s just been well taught. We are what we are taught, Maureen. You were taught to be a lady. I was taught to be ugly. Peter was taught to be nothing. That’s why Radek was willing to leave him with me. When you’re nothing how do you ask for help? To do that he has to believe he has the right to be helped. He has to believe that he is human. That will take more then the few weeks that I’ve secured for him. That will take years.” Alex looked down at his trembling hands. “He’s not going to get that time so he’s going to die.”

Maureen looked down at the wasted, bent body of her uncle. Despite herself she could feel her anger slipping away. She wondered what she would have been like if she had been left with Grimes. “Why couldn’t you have just told us, Alex?”

“Suppose Peter had told you the truth. He would have seen the look on your face. He would see it multiply, reflected in every face here. It would have destroyed him.”

“The courts would have protected him.”

“How will they protect him from us? The only protection Peter has is his silence and those men know it.”

“You can’t save him by lying, Alex.”

Alex looked up at her. “I can’t save him at all.” He smiled; a pallid drained smile. “You see, Maureen. I know truth. I just don’t want it. Neither does Peter. ” Alex pressed his hands together to keep them from shaking. “That scar on his wrist. The first time they used him I think he cut himself. When those men looked down upon that bleeding piece of misery they had created did they feel any degree of compassion, of remorse? They just patched him up and went at him again. That horror is what he fled. That horror kept him running. The only chance he had was to keep running. He must have known that. Instead, what did he do? He stopped to help an old man. Knowing what they would do if they should find him, he stopped. That is why he is my son.”

Maureen closed her eyes. She remembered the morning when Anna had begged her to see Alex. She opened her eyes to see Alex looking up at her. His voice had faded.

“Why did he stop? Because somewhere Peter thought he heard a truth. The truth told him that he could be free, that he could find a place without fear, without pain. So he ran to find it. For forty miles he stumbled through rain, mud and cold. Alone and lost he knew only that it had to be somewhere along that road. So where did the truth lead him? Here. To us.”

“That place he was seeking doesn’t exist. I could have told him that. I could have told him that he had run for nothing. Instead I did what I always do. I lied. He thought he found that place with me so I built it for him, a tiny fragile world no bigger than the walls of my room. That was wrong, wasn’t it Maureen? He needed the truth and I fed him lies. I should have told him that I knew about his past and that soon everyone would know. I should have told him that in a country with room for millions, we have no place for him. Truth is so important to you, isn’t it, Maureen? You’re young. You’re strong. You tell him. Set him free.”

An eruption of pain caused him to buckle pitching him forwards into Maureen’s arms.

“When I was a student in Glasgow the lecturers told us not to think of the dead. Think only of the living. Accept God’s will. I tried. All those years I tried. Now I sit in the dark and I remember them, their names, their faces their dreams and the fact that I could do nothing. The books lie. The medicines don’t work and every physician is as ignorant as I am. After Bridget died I prayed a stupid, selfish prayer. No more. Send me no more. But they wouldn’t stop coming, each one seeing in me what I could no longer see. Hope. Peter sees that hope in me. I couldn’t tell him that he was wrong. I’m sorry.”

Maureen placed a damp cloth upon his forehead. “I know, Alex”, she whispered. “I understand.” She kissed his forehead. “We’ll get him to the village, Alex. They haven’t beaten us yet, have they?”

Through the fog of pain and exhaustion Alex looked into her eyes to see the love that he had seen when she was a child. He pressed her hand and pulled himself back up onto his feet. “No lass. They have not.”

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Filed under Alex, Fiction

Alex : Chapter Twenty – Three

Part Three : The Chieftain

Chapter Twenty- three : Doing Business

The weather continuing warm, George took Alex and Peter out onto the lake in his twelve-foot dinghy, “The Kestrel.” George showed Peter how the small craft could catch the slight breezes that bounced of the shores of the lake. As the craft tacked back and forth, he allowed the boy to pull in and let out the sail. Peter learned how to balance speed against stability and took a hand at the tiller. Alex sat in the bow content to watch the shoreline slip past. Opium had softened the pain in his stomach but a chill had settled over him. Paisley was gone.

Ian had stopped by in the morning and given him the bad news. Paisley had ridden off two nights before. Since he had paid for his room until Sunday Morris thought nothing of it until Sunday morning when Paisley failed to appear for breakfast. Morris checked his room to find his luggage gone. Ian did not hear about it until Monday. Morris told him that he had sold the man a horse. When Alex asked him why he had waited an entire day before asking Morris, Ian explained with a reddening face that his mother would never have forgiven him for entering a tavern on the Sabbath. Alex told Ian to keep an eye out for him, knowing that it was useless. What worried Alex was why Paisley was gone. Had Radek lost interest in the boy? Alex doubted that. More likely, Radek was on his way and planned to meet with Paisley in Kingston.

If Radek were determined to take the boy, his best strategy would be to wait. Once aware of Alex’s death he could move in to reclaim Peter. Alex would have to get Peter out of Kilmarnock. Campbell was willing to take him to Alistair’s but would Peter agree to go? As the boat tacked back and forth across the lake, Alex’s mind did the same, trying to find a solution,

Maureen stood on the dock. Ian had brought her a letter from Judge Strachan. She had waited until Alex was out on the lake before she read it. When she finished she folded it and slipped it inside her dresser drawer placing it among her under things. Tonight she would speak to Alex, but not now. Maureen helped the old man climb up onto the dock as Peter and George tied up the boat. She noticed that Peter had pushed aside his air of stolid suspicion. Instead he clambered about the boat in a state of childish excitement, removing the boom and coming close to tipping George and himself into the water. In spite of herself, Maureen could not keep from smiling.

“You have to remember, Maureen,” said Alex. “He’s still only a child.”

“We’ll leave them to it,” she replied giving Alex his walking stick. She noticed that Alex had paled. Maureen thought of mentioning it but Alex would only sulk. George should never have allowed him out on the boat. Suppose they had tipped over? “I want to speak to you tonight, after Peter is asleep,” she told him. “I have something to discuss.”

From Maureen’s tone Alex guessed that she believed it to be important. What seemed important to Maureen had a habit of being unpleasant for him. Still, if she wanted something from him, he might use that to secure from her a commitment to protect Peter. “Of course.”

The outing left Alex tired and feverish. Maureen confined him to his room for the rest of the day. Alex whiled away the time reading, playing chess with Peter and chatting with Rebecca. When it was time for Peter to sleep, Alex sat beside him reading some more of Mister Pickwick’s adventures. After falling asleep Peter remained restless. The old dreams had returned. Alex, to sooth him, read aloud Burns Tam O’Shanter’s Ride and then croaked out Tom Moore’s The Minstrel Boy. Peter settled into a deep sleep.

“I haven’t heard you sing that for a long time, Alex” Maureen whispered. She stood beside the door remembering when Alex had sung to another child many summers before.

“Sometimes he has terrible dreams. It helps him to sleep knowing that I’m here.”

“What causes them, Alex?”

Alex shrugged. “Hard to tell. Children are afraid of so many things.”

Maureen coughed. “I have something that I want you to see, Alex. Please. It’s in the guestroom. He won’t need you for a few minutes, will he?”

Alex thought of begging off but Maureen would only continue to pester him. Better to get it over so he could sleep.

She led him through the darkened hallway. Unless George should receive an emergency call, Maureen had no reason to think that anyone would disturb them. As she listened to the dragging of Alex’s feet she accused herself of being a selfish brute bullying a dying old man. Could she not wait for another night or two? No. She needed to stop these lies. Delay would only worsen matters. For the benefit of Alex’s soul, and for the sake of the child she carried within her, she would lead Alex towards the truth. She let Alex enter the bedroom first. Saying a silent prayer to herself, she entered, locking the door behind her. At the sound of the bolt being moved Alex looked back.

“Sit uncle.” Maureen pointed at a chair. “We may be here for a few minutes.”

Alex shuffled over to the armchair. As he settled himself, Maureen lit a whale oil lamp. “I thought you wanted me to look at something,” he asked.

“I want you to look at the truth, Alex, as I have had to look at it.” She drew the letter out of the pocket of her robe and handed it to him. “This letter came from Judge Strachan this morning. I wrote to him begging me to tell everything he knew about you. Before it was too late I wanted to know what kind of man my uncle was. That’s what he wrote. Read it.”

Alex refused to accept the letter. “I told him never . . .”

“Maybe he’s as tired of the lies as I am. Read it, please.”

Alex pulled his spectacles further down the bridge of his nose and looked at the paper. Strachan had written about Alex’s service in Spain and about Sainte Etienne. Alex did not finish the letter. Instead he folded it and dropped it onto the table. Instead of looking at his niece he focused on the wall behind her. “So now what Maureen?”

“When I read that I felt so proud of that man who could do something so brave. Then I thought of the man who chose to hide in a little room, keeping away from his family, lying to them. What happened to that brave man, Alex? I have never been as wrong about a person as I was about you but what I don’t understand is why you allowed me to be wrong. What happened to that man, Alex?”

“He never existed. Anyway, it was all . . . a long time ago.”

“I’ve seen the scars on your back, Alex. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten them.”

“No. I haven’t forgotten.”

“That brave man became a man who lied to the people who loved him, who forced others that respected him to become part of the lies. Those lies have poisoned your life, Alex. They are poisoning mine. They will poison my child’s life, won’t they Alex?”

Distract her. Plead the excuse of his illness. “Couldn’t we discuss this tomorrow, Maureen? I would like to rest now.” He grimaced as if attempting to suppress a spasm of pain.

Maureen would not be put off. “Why? To give you time to think of more lies? No. I know you’re ill, Alex. God knows I am ashamed of hurting you. That shame I will carry for the rest of my life but you have hurt me as well, haven’t you? Your lies have eaten into my heart. You have refused to let me know who you are.” She sank to her knees and placed her hands on Alex’s fingers. “I am begging you, Alex. Do not let my child be born into a world based upon lies and deceit. For its sake, Alex, tell me the truth.”

Alex pushed her away and stood. Facing the fireplace he asked, “Why should your child be any different from any other? Don’t beg, Maureen. I don’t like it. Besides, what are you going to do if I don’t tell you, strike me again?”

The remark caused Maureen to turn her head. Her shame gave Alex a momentary advantage. “You don’t want truth, Maureen. You want answers. I don’t have them. Even if I did, I wouldn’t give them away.”

“I have a right . . .”

“You have no right at all,” Alex said. “No one does. Truth is not a medicine that will cure a disease. Truth cures nothing. Neither does it answer questions. Don’t bully me, Maureen. That’s something else that I don’t like about you.”

Maureen had promised herself not to become angry but the goading was becoming too much for her. Standing, she stood between her uncle and the fireplace forcing him to look at her. “Then don’t bully me, Alex. I want to know what happened to you, and who I am.”

The last remark pricked Alex’s indifference. “You know who you are.”

“No, but you do, don’t you, Alex. For the sake of your soul, before it’s too late, tell me.”

“Why?”

Exasperated, Maureen pressed her hand against her forehead. “For God’s sake, Alex . . .”

“No, Maureen, you’re not asking for his sake. You’re asking for your sake.”

“I have a right to learn, don’t I?”

Alex nodded. “Aye, you do, but I can’t do it for you, lass. I can’t carve off a piece of the truth and say, there, that’s it. Truth doesn’t work that way.”

“How does it work, Alex?”

Instead of answering Alex returned to his seat. He hunched up his shoulders and leaned forward, the walking stick between his hands. He smiled. “That’s the first sensible question you’ve asked. Sensible questions deserve sensible answers. Truth gives only what it wants to give. You can’t demand anything from it. What kind of truth are you looking for?”

“I want to know about you and James, and myself.”

“That’s not what I meant. Are you looking for your truth or for someone else’s? If you only ask about your own, you’ll never find it. Suppose you do find it, then what?”

“At least I can understand . . .”

“Would you? Suppose you never find it, Maureen, what then? Do you stop loving your husband? Does your baby stop growing inside you?”

“Alex, I will not accept that ignorance is better than truth. Truth will set you free.”

“Will it? That would depend upon the truth, wouldn’t it? You’re as ignorant and as free as any other fine young lady. As for not possessing truth, truths fill your life. You’re twenty-two. You have your youth and your health. Those are truths. You have a fine home and a decent man who loves you. You are expecting your first child. Aren’t those truths enough for you?”

“No, they’re not. I will not have my life based upon lies.”

“Why not, Maureen? Everyone else does. Do you know the difference between everyone else and me? I chose the lies upon which to base my life. That’s all.”

“You ran away from the truth, you mean.”

“No. I just decided not to accept what you call the truth. What do you think truth is anyway, an award for good conduct? If you answer the right questions, they give you a prize, the truth. Truth stinks. You think it noble? Truth is blood, sweat, excrement and death. For forty years I have waded through it. I am sick of it. You want to know truth? I’ll tell you truth.”

“In Spain on the march north from Salamanca I was in a line of thousands of men, women and children, all of us hungry and cold. We all prayed that we would not slip on the ice. Those coming behind would have trodden us into the ground. They weren’t cruel or inhuman, just too tired to move out of the way.”

“I saw truth in a cell the size of this room crowded with forty men. Year after year we spent trying to survive on thin potato soup, dirty water and mouldy bread, wondering who was going to die next of fever, typhus, dysentery or just despair. Truth is caring for a five-year old girl, mending her body and bringing her spirit back to life. To the court truth is respecting the natural rights of the father. Truth is also going to that little girl’s funeral because that same father had beaten her to death. Is that enough truth for you, lass? Do you want more?”

Maureen turned away from him.

“You can’t turn your back on truth, lass. I know. I am tired and sick to death of truth. For years, I have longed for it to change. It never does. Don’t ask for it, Maureen. You won’t want it. One other thing; truth is expensive. It demands a price. I paid that price, watching my friends die, day after day for five years. What lives are you willing to buy it with, your child’s, your husband’s, your own? When you’ve paid the price, you’ll find it wasn’t worth it.”

“Have you finished?” Maureen remained firm. She would not to allow Alex to keep her from her goal.

“Aye.” Drained, Alex sank back into the chair.

“I’ll start with what I do know, Alex. You owned this land and you have spent thirty-three years convincing everyone that James did. You could only have kept that lie alive if you had help. James, Jean and Judge Strachan were in on it. Strachan agreed against his better judgement because of his respect for you. Why did James agree? Because he respected you? This was a man who sat in your kitchen and called you a failure and a runt.”

“Brothers say hard words to each other sometimes. Natural enough.”

“Isn’t it also natural for a man to be proud of his brother? That’s what I don’t understand about James. Why wouldn’t he tell anyone? If I had been he, I would have told the entire world about my brother’s courage. James never said a word.”

That had been the nub of the puzzle facing Maureen. To solve it she had been forced to dismantle the image of James that she had carried for years. Deep into the night she had sat putting together a new image based upon the bits of evidence that she had gathered, always centering that image upon one question. Why had James said nothing?

“I asked him not to speak of it,” said Alex.

“Perhaps he didn’t want to? How can there be more than one lord of Kilmarnock at a time? As you said, Alex, James wanted to live the life of a lord. I found out something else about James. No one I have spoken to ever came out and said that they liked him. He was a hard-working man, a good provider, but there’s no mention of his kindness, generosity, about his ever caring about anyone, except from you, Alex. Why is that? How did he feel about you, Alex?”

“He was my brother.”

“That’s not answering the question, Alex.”

“He liked me well enough. We got along.”

“Strangers get along Alex. Brothers should be something more. Just how did you get along? You gave him what he wanted. He replied by calling you the runt.”

“Don’t use that word,” Alex whispered.

“What word? Runt? Was that his name for you, his term of affection? Is that what he called you when you were boys together? Runt?”

Alex did not reply.

“Did you enjoy being James’s brother? Was he always your friend and companion?”

“We never played that much together. After all, he was older.”

Maureen nodded. “He had his own friends, his own interests.”

“Aye.”

“You went away to war. You were gone for seven years.”

“Aye.”

“What brought the two of you back together, James’s joy at being reunited with his lost brother?”

“He was happy enough to see me. Lass, I don’t see the point of this.”

“How did the government give you the land?”

“What do you mean how?”

“The procedure. There’s always a procedure to follow, isn’t there? Did someone come up to you and say, here’s eighteen thousand acres, Doctor. Congratulations. What did you have to do to get it?”

“I applied for land in the Canadas through the war office.”

“So you just woke up one morning and said, aha, I think that I’ll go to Canada. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Pretty much. I had been thinking about it. Every officer was entitled to twelve hundred acres.”

“James knew about this?”

“He was the elder.”

“Whose idea was it to apply for the land, yours or James?”

“We agreed on it. It was best for the family.”

“Best for James you mean.”

“How can you say that about a man you barely knew?”

“I know you, Alex. You would give anything to someone you loved, wouldn’t you?”

“Is that something to be ashamed of?”

“No. The shame was in James never loving you.”

Alex’s eyes closed. He made no other movement as he waited for Maureen to continue.

“That was true wasn’t it, Alex? He never loved you. Did he ever love Jean?”

“He was fond enough of her. It wasn’t a question of affection between James and me. It was a question of honour; of family honour. James was the elder. I had to respect that. Anyway, James worked hard to develop this land. He deserved a share.”

“Yes, but that wasn’t enough for him, was it Alex? He wanted to be the Lord of Kilmarnock and you let him. Whose idea was it to apply for the land, yours, or his?”

Alex refused to answer.

“James knew that you were entitled to the land but you didn’t want it. You were a physician. What was James? He wasn’t a wealthy merchant, was he Alex? Why would a wealthy merchant want to settle in the backwoods of Canada? What was he, Alex?”

“He was a clerk in a small shipping firm in Glasgow, Macleod and Sons. They handled cargoes between the Western Isles and Glasgow, wool mostly.”

“Is that what he did during the war?”

“Aye.”

“So while you were rotting in that prison, he was sitting in an office in Glasgow.”

“What if he were? Clerking is an honourable trade. Most men didn’t serve.”

“I know. It just seems odd that all that he could see in what you had done was a chance to make money.”

“It was for the family, lass.”

“What family, Alex? You and James? You were his younger brother, the runt. As the elder he had the right to take from you whatever he wanted, didn’t he Alex?”

“He was your father. Show some respect.”

“The same respect he showed for you? Who thought of applying for the land, you or James?”

Tell her, Alex told himself. Throw her something. Abandon what is indefensible. Concentrate upon protecting what was most important. “James.”

“He used you, didn’t he, Alex?”

“I was useful to him, yes. There’s nothing wrong with being useful. James was right. We had no future in Scotland.”

“He had no future. You gave him that future in your land.”

“If I did, was that a crime?”

“For him to take it and never to tell anyone the truth, yes, that was a crime. Your courage won it, your blood. How many stripes did James have upon his back? That didn’t matter, did it, Alex? What mattered was that he was your older brother and he wanted it so you gave it to him. Why? Did you think that if you gave him enough, he would start loving you? So what did you do? Give him more over the years, your land, your pride, your honour, your . . . child?”

Alex did not move. He remained staring into space.

If Maureen had expected a response she was disappointed. She pushed on. “You’re a physician, Alex. Tell me. Why was I the only child born after twelve years of marriage? What was the scientific explanation for that, or was I a divine blessing?”

“You tell me, Maureen. You seem blessed with infinite wisdom.”

“You know, don’t you, Alex?”

“I know nothing.”

Maureen had thought long and hard over what she should say if she should reach this point. Ladies did not discuss such things, unless with a physician. “Did James have syphilis?”

He could say no, Alex thought. She could not prove it. “Gonorrhea. Yes, he did.”

“What is effect of that, Alex?”

He shrugged. “Depends on the severity of the infection. There may be growing pain in the urinary tract, sometimes madness, sometimes sterility.”

“For both the man and the woman he shares his bed with?”

“Sometimes. Not always.”

“James got it, and infected Jean making them both incapable of having children.”

“Something like that.”

“So tell me,” she asked, staring down at him, “where did I come from?”

He did want to tell her but something more important had to be considered. In Maureen’s curiosity he saw the vehicle by which he could solve another problem. “You want truth, lass? You pay for it. How much are you willing to pay?”

Frustrated, Maureen revolted against being treated as if she were haggling over the price of molasses. “I have a right to know, Alex.”

“You have a right to nothing. All this rubbish you’ve trotted out amounts to a lot of guessing nailed to one or two scraps of facts you have found. Every word you have said could be right or could be wrong. I’m the only one who knows and I don’t give a damn anymore.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe what you like. James has been dead for sixteen years. I may have loved him, but I never built my life around pleasing him. Let’s get back to the point. You want something. Fine. I want something. So we come to terms. It’s called doing business. James would have approved.”

Maureen had hoped that Alex, once faced with the moral certainty of her position, would have no choice but to agree with her. Moral certainties seemed to have little effect upon him. “You would haggle with someone that you love?”

“Especially with someone that I love. Truth is never free. Since you’re so in love with truth, Maureen, why don’t you tell me how long you plan to keep the boy after I’m dead? Two weeks? One?”

Maureen turned away from him. Alex seemed so obsessed with dragging that boy into a purely private matter. Still, if Alex wanted a sign of good faith she could not deny it. “What do you want?”

“Not very much. You and George will take Peter and I to Judge Strachan in Perth. Call it a holiday. That’s all. In return I’ll tell you whatever I know about anything that you want to hear.”

“Why do you want us to . ..”

“Will you go?”

Maureen thought of the boy, submissive, distrustful, silent during the day but at night, shrieking and pounding her with his fists. “I don’t think that Peter would want to come with us.”

“He will if I tell him. He gave his word to obey. Will you go?”

“Why is it so important to you?”

“Yes or no.”

“How do I know that this isn’t just another lie, Alex?”

“You don’t. However to reassure you, I’ve left a letter with Alistair, one that I wrote on your wedding day. If anything happens to me, he has instructions to give it to you. If you can’t trust me, you know that you can trust him.”

Unless, Maureen told herself, this was just another lie to get her to leave Kilmarnock but why was he so determined to get George and her . . . “Is there something about Peter that you haven’t told us, Alex?”

Alex raised a thin eyebrow. “My God, a question that didn’t have anything to do with you. You do show promise, Maureen.”

Maureen could not keep from snapping at him. “Alex!”

Alex snapped back, his anger moderated by exhaustion. “If you had spent less time on James, you might have spent more time wondering why I decided to run off to Perth in the middle of a storm. That would have been a

wee bit more productive. Now will you go, yes or no?”

“If the boy is agreeable, yes.”

“When?”

Maureen thought for a moment. “We have to pack first. George would want to notify people that he will be gone for a few days. Thursday morning would be the earliest practical moment.”

Alex knew that Radek would not move until after his death. A concession on his part would help to soothe Maureen’s hurt feelings. “Thursday? So be it. Unlock the door. I have no more to say. I am too tired anyway.”

. Quelled for the moment Maureen opened the door. As she helped Alex to his feet, he kissed her on her forehead. “A good try, lass. A damned good try.”

She pondered the old man as he shuffled his way back to his bedroom. Every time she seemed to have him pinned he managed to wriggle his way free. He had been doing this for years with everyone. Shaking her head, she went back to her room. George, wakened by her entrance, asked what she had been doing. Talking to Alex, she told him. She explained that Alex wanted them to take Peter to Perth on Thursday.

George grumbled; “Take the coach then . I don’t see why I have to come. I have work to do.”

“I did promise him,” Maureen said.

“Well I could see you safely there. I suppose he wants Peter settled in Strachan’s before…”

“Before?”

“Before the end. It might be easier on the boy that way.”

Maureen had not thought of that. That might explain why Alex was so determined to get them to leave, knowing that he had so little time left.

***

Boyd sank his face into his mug of beer trying not to look at his companions. They sat at the opposite end of the small table playing another of their endless games of hearts. A week before he would not have thought it possible but he found himself missing Kilmarnock. He remembered joining the patrons at Ferguson’s or the Royal Arms and sharing a round of drinks. He would listen to the local gossip and join in the joking about neighbours and friends. Sometimes he would sit and listen as an old man told him his life’s story.

He recalled what MacTavish had called him, an outsider. The doctor had been right. For all his bluster and his women he had never found a place where he was at home. Boyd had come closest with Molly. That was what he had liked most about the girl. A hundred times during the road north he had thought over possible means of slipping away from the Leugers. Each time he had thought of Molly being watched by Radek’s spies.

If he made a break for the border the Leugers would not even have to follow him. All they would have to do was find a telegraph office. No matter how fast the coach or train, he could not outrun that message. If he reported the Leugers to the local authorities they would deny everything. Once released, they would head for the border. On the next day, Radek would know. The girl’s safety and his lay in his continued cooperation: a cooperation that could lead him to the gallows.

Boyd had done his share of bullying in the past but he had never plotted murder. Over the rim of his mug he glanced at his two companions. Tomorrow night they would be outside Kilmarnock. The night after that . . . Knowing that they were about to take part in a mass murder the Leugers thought only of their idiotic card game.

As a police officer Boyd had made one discovery about most criminals. They were dull, worse than the backwoodsmen of Kilmarnock. Slow-witted, uneducated, they lacked a basic curiosity in people outside their tiny worlds, viewing everyone as prey or predator. The Leugers were no exceptions. The tavern in which they sat, the people around them, the newspapers, the notices of public auctions, the conversations, nothing caught their interest.

He would have to stop them from sending a cable. Kill them? With what? An empty derringer? How could he save Molly and himself? With only one day left he would have to think of it soon.

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