The Bastard Boy

Extract

After I know not how long (it might have been five seconds or five hours) Tanner nodded abruptly, and hurried away to join the rest — who immediately left off their plundering, and began to gather sticks and tinder, as if they meant to make a fire. Jack waited a moment, and then sidled towards us — shaking his head, and smiling, as a man does at the anticks of an idiot. He was evidently trying (incredible tho' it may seem) to tempt us into enquiring what had diverted him — as if, instead of his victims, we were no more than two idle acquaintances in an ale-house. When we failed to indulge him, he could contain himself no longer, and — with a glance towards the terrier-man — said:
He is for tarring and feathering you — as his fellows did him.
And began to laugh.
Tarring and feathering! I cried — my voice swelling with the sudden hope, that this was the worst we might expect.
Afore we hang you, he replied. I said to him, how long d'you suppose we'd need to tarry here, to git down trees enough for the pitch, and birds for the feathers? I was too amazed and horrified to reply; indeed, it was all I could do to keep from fainting clean away.
What need the fire, if we are to hang? said Mrs. Craig. I turned; and a little wedge of admiration forced its way into my fearful heart for —tho she was trembling, her face and voice were still defiant.
To put a brand upon you.
A brand! I repeated — scarce able to grasp the meaning of the word.
Ay. A letter. I knows the shape of 'im, but not 'is name — here inscribing a large 'R' in the air with his finger. For 'rebel', see? I said 'twould be soon enough to do it after, but Tanner's got a snick o' learnin', an' he says a dead man's skin don't take it so good as a livin'. Nor a dead woman's, neither.
Which suddenly seemed to clear the confusion from my head; and I plainly saw what I must say:
You may take Colonel Washington's letter as proof that I am guilty of some offence — tho' I strongly deny it; but this woman, I swear, is entirely innocent of any connection with either me or him. We are not travelling together — we do not know each other — we only met here, not an hour since.
Why, then, you must skip pretty quick, he said, with a gummy leer — as pink and wet as a fresh wound.
What do you mean?
Gus there
(jerking his thumb at the spotty boy, who was feeding the fire, and puffing it into a blaze)says you was toyin' and pettin' when he see you.
We — we — I stammered; but could think of nothing more to say, that would not merely expose us to further ridicule.
If you're so sensible of her feelin's, we'll mark you first, and leave her till after, said Jack.
For G — d's sake, why should we be branded at all? asked Mrs. Craig spiritedly.
He lifted his eyebrows in surprise, as if he had supposed it too obvious to require explanation.
Why, he said, to let 'em know you wasn't murdered, but killed accordin' to the law. Ajax there — nodding towards the negro carpenter, who was now in earnest conversation with Tanner — is a handy enough fellow; and he'll bend a fork or a spoon so neat it'll singe you clean as a lawyer's seal. At which (as if he had been only waiting for this introduction before beginning) Ajax picked up his hammer; took a sliver of metal from his tool-bag; and — using a slab of rock as a makeshift anvil — began to beat it into shape. I cannot say exactly why, but it was the sight of his thick forearm rising and falling, and the clanging death-march metre of his blows, that finally bore in upon me the reality of what was about to happen to us. And all at once I knew that I was not going to submit to being scorched like a bull-calf and then led to the gallows like a common pickpocket: I should (if I could) exact some price for my death, that would oblige them to shoot rather than hang me — and in doing so try to create enough confusion to give Mrs. Craig a chance of escape. But there was no time to reflect upon it further; if I failed to act now, the opportunity would be gone.
Perhaps yr honours, in a like case, might have been able to devise another plan; but I could think of nothing better than to attempt to disarm him, and then — if possible — keep him hostage for long enough to deter his friends from following Mrs. Craig. So I stiffened abruptly — drew in my breath — and stared past his shoulder (muttering Good G — d! as I did so), in hope he should suppose I had observed something astonishing there, and would be unable to keep himself from looking to see what it was. And so it proved; whereupon I launched myself across the five yards separating us.
I reached him just as he was turning back — chopped one of the pistols from his hand — and contrived to knock him to the ground, and leap on top of him — crying, to Mrs. Craig: Run! Run! But I had no leisure to see if she heeded me; for Jack was thrashing and jerking beneath me like an unbroken horse, and it was all I could do to keep my seat, and stop him grasping me by the throat, and squeezing the life from me. We struggled so for some seconds, grinding and bouncing in the gritty dirt — first one of us, and then the other, having the advantage; but always making so confused a target that his friends could not have shot me without the near-certainty that they would hit him, too. But then suddenly he began to scratch at my face, forcing me to screw up my eyes in defence; and in the same instant drew up his legs so violently that I was thrown a foot or more into the air. I was not quite toppled, even then; but as I came down again, my knee struck a sharp stone, which robbed me of breath, and paralyzed me. Tho'the effect was only momentary, it was enough to allow him to scuttle from under me like a rat from beneath a log-pile, and scramble slithering to his feet.
I flung myself after him, but he skipped back, and I fell on a slab of raw rock, jarring my wrist and grating my cheek.
I tried to rise, but he delivered such a kick to my shoulder, as drove all the force from my muscles and spun me on to my back.
I was powerless to move.
I saw him retrieve the fallen pistol, and poke it through his belt.
I saw him cock the other, and raise it towards me.
I saw his fellows press about him, with the hushed curious faces of a crowd at a public execution.
I shut my eyes."

Cover of The Bastard Boy

Faber and Faber (20 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 0571202764

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