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- Highland Ballad - 30/38 -


and your father..... Well. Let's just say I may have spoken too soon, when I said that no one has greater reason to hate you." Nothing.

"I'm not even sure how she feels about me," he continued. "But when she learns that Mary is in trouble, and that we are trying to help her, I think she will see things as they are." Still no reply. "You don't seem overly concerned, Purceville. She's a hard old woman, and as determined an enemy as you're ever likely to face. I'm not one to fear her for a witch, but there are other weapons she might employ."

"She won't resist us," said the other strangely. ".....she's not as hard as you think."

"What makes you so sure?"

Again no answer. He had been too weary to press the point; he only thought it curious. And when they reached the dark shelter and found the woman gone, the night's small rest assured, he had been far too relieved to wonder at it. For in the clinging darkness he had not seen the charred tree above, or the withered bones that shrank away from it.

Walking stiffly now in the early morning cold, he approached the Englishman. Stephen heard him, but did not turn. One last ashen limb projected above the rising level of earth in the hole. He began to hurry himself to cover it, then stopped.

"Stephen? What are you doing?"

Purceville straightened. He said, without turning. "I am burying the mother of my sister, and the woman who cared for me as a child."

At that moment a flock of ravens spoke behind, an evil sound that seemed to mesh the rising web of horror about him. Turning toward the summons Michael saw the tree, as a gust of wind shook its blackened limbs in a dull rattle of death. Then whirling back in shock, he saw the bones.

"What happened here?" he cried. "What have you bastards done! "

In a flash it came to him: the party of horsemen riding hard from the west, the soot-marks of their boots upon the threshold. Anger and hatred overwhelmed him, as before he knew what had happened the pistol was in his hand, and pointed at the back of his enemy.

But then Stephen turned to face him, and he lowered it again. Because there were standing tears, and real shame in the Englishman's eyes.

"It's not what you think," he said weakly, head down. "What we did, was bad enough. But she was dead when we arrived." He put one sleeve to his eyes. "She left a note, which I gave to Mary, asking her to forgive..... My father. . .burned her body as a warning, and to frighten his own men into action. I hate what we've become. I hate it."

... "I believe you," said Michael slowly. "And I'm sorry."

"Please don't say any more."

The Highlander started to walk away. "No, wait," said Stephen. "I want you..... I want someone to hear this."

"I'm listening."

Purceville shifted uncomfortably, resisting to the end. Then spoke what he truly felt: the only eulogy the woman would ever have.

"She was my governess, and treated me kindly. But I never told her. . .that I loved her, too." He started to lower his head in despair, then raised it again in sudden resolution. "We've got to get Mary out, and away from all of this. She deserves so much more, than this."

"We will, Stephen. Tonight." A pause. "Would you like me to help you?"

"No. It is my responsibility. Mine....." The realization stunned him. He fought back a sob. "Dear God, I am weary of graves."

"Then let us vow to do the work before us well," said Michael, "that there may be no more."

"You don't understand," said Stephen. "If we rescue my sister and her guardian, and you take them away from here, your fight is ended. But mine is just begun."

Michael wrestled with his own emotions, then came up and put a hand on the troubled man's shoulder.

"You've made a good beginning, my friend. You've looked the Devil in the eye."

Purceville met his penetrating gaze, puzzled that these simple words should mean so much. And in that moment this stranger was so like Mary---the way he spoke, the way he knew him so well.....

"Stephen. Every man chooses his own time to stop running. And it's only when you turn, that you find out what you have inside you. I cannot lie, and say it will be easy, or that you will triumph simply because your cause is just. The truth is that it's much harder to be a good man than a bad one, to do what's right, than to be selfish and afraid. I've fought the Devil, in my way, for thirty years, and come to no reward. On the contrary, my life has been a constant struggle.

"And tonight," he went on, "I face the battle of my life. Nothing else matters, in all the world. And so help me, Stephen, I'm terrified. I speak of faith, and yet I do not feel it. Getting Mary safely away is everything. Everything . If I fail, or injure her in the attempt, my own life is less than meaningless. My life must end....."

Then it was he who stiffened in defiance. "But God or no God, I will have her out. With all my soul I swear it. She will be freed."

Stephen studied him, both stirred and bewildered. "Who are you?"

Michael, too, hesitated at the truth. It could forge a bond between them, or destroy everything.

... "I am Michael Scott. Another man lies in my grave."

Stunned silence.

"Then it's true! You are in love with her."

"Yes, and I have been for most of my life. But it's not something sordid, Stephen, whatever you've been told, or your fears may imagine. I've watched her grow from a child. I've dried her fatherless tears. I've loved her in silence, as a brother and a friend. And never, until a few days ago, did I tell her all that was in my heart.

"She loves me too, Stephen. If ever two people were meant to be together, it is she and I..... I have asked her to marry me, and she's consented."

Stephen walked away to control himself, as bitter jealousy burned through him. The thought of her with anyone was more than he could bear. He whirled, his face flushed and distorted.

But anger was soon drowned in despair. Because the truth had finally come to him: he was in love with his sister, whom he could never have. He clenched his fists to his eyes as if to banish all sight, all memory. Then slowly he mastered himself, became perfectly still.

"Well," he said darkly. "There it is."

"What do you mean, Stephen?" The Englishman looked full into his face, then turned away.

"My trial. My test. In order to free the one person I truly love, I must lose her forever. To do what is right for others, I must do injury to myself. It is a bitter choice."

"Yes," said Michael. "But it is not the choice you think. What you do tonight, or do not do, will be for yourself, not for Mary or for me. Because if you don't help, and something happens to her, you will carry it for the rest of your life." He released a weary breath, and shook his head. "I cannot help you choose."

"No," said the other, looking down. "It seems I must help myself."

There was nothing more to say. Michael started back toward the hut, wondering if he hadn't made a terrible mistake---if he hadn't tried the character of this man too hard already. He slowed, stopped outright, then said without turning.

"I would like to have you with me, Stephen. You know the place, and the situation, far better than I. But if you feel you cannot. . .you are free to do as you like after I have gone, with no further obligation to me."

Purceville was silent. Michael first saw to the horse, thought for a moment to keep it with him at all times..... No. If this man was going to risk life and limb to help them, he must be shown this much trust, at least. He reentered the hut, and began to work on the long length of rope he had brought with him from the cottage.

Purceville watched him go, then slowly refilled the hole that he had dug, thinking his own dark thoughts.

Thirty-Two

Earl Arthur stood in the cold cellar-chamber with a cloth held to his mouth, examining two corpses. While both were branded, and both wore native clothing, that was where the similarity ended.

The authenticity of number 383, James Talbert, could not be questioned. His curling, brown-blondish hair and classic Scot features, his square but emaciated form, all fit the known facts: the prisoner who would not be disciplined, who had escaped mentally ill, and on the verge of death. Even now he wore a look of defiance.

But the other, number 406, was all wrong. While no physical descriptions were listed on the tally sheet he held, this surely could not be a man who had fled across half the country, hunted and desperate, remaining with and protecting his doubly afflicted


Highland Ballad - 30/38

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