If Lord William Wentworth needed proof that he had come to the outermost edge of civilization, he need only look out his window. In the dusty street below, a man who looked as if he’d never bathed rutted with an even filthier whore, pounding into her from behind with the mindfulness of an animal. A dog relieved itself in the dirt a few feet away. Two painted Indians strode by, seemed not to notice the tupping pair. William supposed he ought to find the display below revolting. Instead, he felt mild amusement. He’d been in the colonies for four months now, and thus far the inhabitants had not ceased to provide diversion—nor the vastness and beauty of the land to stir his blood. Behind him, Lieutenant Cooke, the young officer assigned to him, struggled to excuse Braddock’s recent devastating defeat. “The general had no experience fighting in such dense forest against so ruthless a foe, my lord. He expected the French and their allies to fight with honor, not shoot from the shadows like brigands.” “Did he not have Indian scouts and provincials of his own to advise him?” William spoke without turning from the window, his gaze fixed on the coarse activity below. The man had come and was tucking himself back into his breeches. “Aye, my lord.” Lieutenant Cooke fell into an uncomfortable silence. They had come to the unpleasant truth of it.
“Why did Braddock fail?” The whore smoothed her tattered skirts, then turned to the man and held out a grimy hand for her fee. “Please, my lord, the general is but weeks in the grave. It hardly seems polite—” “I did not call you here to eulogize General Braddock but to analyze his defeat. If you wish to advance in rank and one day lead men into battle, you must learn from the strategic errors of others. Is that understood, Lieutenant?” “Aye, my lord.” “Tell me, then. Why did Braddock fail?” “He chose not to heed the advice of his provincials, and he offended his Indian fighters, many of whom abandoned him.” The man in the street, having eased the ache in his groin, apparently didn’t wish to pay. He struck the whore across the face, knocking her to the ground. “In sum, the general failed to recognize his own limitations.
” It was a mistake William was determined not to make. “Braddock was an arrogant fool who paid for his hubris with his life—and the lives of his men.” “Y-yes, my lord.” The whore struggled to her feet, a sagging breast threatening to fall free of her low bodice. She leapt for the man, teeth and claws bared. “What must be done if His Majesty is to prevail in the struggle for this continent, Lieutenant?” The man struck the whore again, and a knife appeared in his hand. “W-we must learn to fight as the heathen fight, my lord.” “Or take into His Majesty’s service those who do.” William was so caught up in the tasteless little drama below that he scarce heard himself speak. The man’s arm cut an arc through the air.
The whore jumped back, stepped on her hems, fell backward with a shriek. William was about to shout through the open window to interrupt imminent bloodshed, when a tall man—a trapper or frontiersman by the look of him—appeared out of nowhere. In the time it took William to blink, the trapper had subdued the man, dropped him to the ground, and ripped the knife from his grasp. William had never seen any man move that quickly. Was the trapper part Indian perhaps? His dark hair hung well past his shoulders. His skin was brown from the sun, and Indian designs decorated his forearms, but he was dressed like a European in leather breeches and a simple shirt of homespun. Well over six feet, he carried a bundle of furs and what appeared to be a broadsword on his back. Around its handle was bound a strip of plaid. An exiled Highlander. In one hand, he held a rifle.
A knife rested in its sheath at his left hip, a pistol at his right. A powder horn hung from his left shoulder, and around his waist was a leather pouch for flints and shot. William watched as the Highlander—who had been joined by two other men so like him in dress and appearance they could only be his brothers—sorted out the dispute and forced the man to pay. Enraged, the man tossed a coin into the dirt. The whore grabbed it, bit it, then fled. Lieutenant Cooke appeared at William’s side. “Is ought amiss, my lord? I’ll have those miscreants driven beyond the palisade, if you wish.” William shook his head, smiled at the look of disgust on Cooke’s youthful face. “Are you familiar with the Ranger Corps, Lieutenant?” “Most certainly, my lord. The ranging companies served His Majesty well during Governor Shirley’s War.
Just the other day, General Johnson spoke of the need to outfit more such companies for this conflict.” In the street below, the Highlander helped the man he’d bested to his feet, handed him back his knife. But outraged, the man lunged as if to plant his blade in the Highlander’s heart. The Highlander neatly sidestepped the blow, a grin on his face, then kicked the man’s legs out from under him, sending him sprawling. “I’m in agreement with Johnson and have been charged with raising a company of Rangers to serve under my command at Fort Edward. If I am to succeed, it is men like those I must persuade to join me.” Lieutenant Cooke frowned. “They look like a troublesome lot, ill-suited to British military discipline, my lord. Good heavens, are those clan colors?” William smiled. “I want to know who they are and what they’re doing here in Albany.
Track their every move, Lieutenant, but take care lest they discover you. Hire someone if you must, but come dawn, I would know all there is to know about those three Scots.” “I am your humble servant, my lord.” The lieutenant bowed his head respectfully. “You are dismissed.” William turned away from the window and back toward his chessboard. The pieces were set. It was time for a new game. Iain MacKinnon fought to rein in his rage and followed the redcoat officer up the stairs, his movements made awkward by the heavy fetters around his ankles and wrists. Their shackles clinking, Morgan and Connor walked behind him, five soldiers with bayonets at their backs.
“We didna do it.” Connor sounded like a lad about to feel the sting of his father’s belt strap. But the charge was murder. ’Twas far more than a beating they’d be in for if they failed to prove their innocence. Iain and his brothers had been on their way out of town when a dozen redcoats had fallen on them and arrested them. Morgan and Connor had drawn their blades, ready to fight their way free, but Iain had stayed their hands. “There’s no sense dyin’ over what is surely a mistake, lads,” he’d told his younger brothers as the redcoats had shackled his wrists. They’d been arrested before a mob of gawking townsfolk and then taken to the fort that stood on the hill. There they’d been made to wait in a dank cell, where they’d had plenty of time to discuss the charge and make certain none of them had killed anyone. After all, they’d each had more than a gill or two of whiskey, and the night’s events were a wee bit foggy.
Connor’d said he’d spent his night between the thighs of bonnie Kally Vandall, consoling her over the loss of her much-older husband. Iain and Morgan had whiled their hours away at Oldiah Cooper’s tavern. Morgan had played at draughts and fondled the alewife’s plump daughter until lust overcame him and he’d taken her upstairs for a good tupping. Iain had sat alone with his ale and thought of Jeannie, with her long, honey-brown hair and big brown eyes. When they got home again, Iain was going to wash, shave, put on his clean shirt, and ride to Jeannie’s father’s farm to ask his permission to wed his daughter. Old Master Grant favored him above her other suitors, Iain knew. The MacKinnon farm was fruitful, the larder well stocked with corn, smoked turkey, and venison, proving Iain’s skill with plow and hunting rifle. Only the formalities stood in the way of his taking Jeannie to wife. With any luck, they’d be sharing a marriage bed by summer’s end. That’s why he and his brothers had come to Albany.
Iain had paid the gunsmith a visit in hopes that the smithy could make his mother’s gold wedding band fit Jeannie’s smaller hand. Iain had measured her finger with a bit of string and brought the string with him. The gunsmith had been happy to oblige and had taken in fee the small bit of gold he’d cut from the ring. It was thoughts of Jeannie that had kept Iain from fighting when the redcoats had taken them. The last thing Grant would want for his daughter was a man in trouble with the accursed English. Iain would settle this misunderstanding. Then he’d get his brothers out of Albany and back to the farm. The redcoat officer reached the top of the stairs and led them down a short hallway to the right. Why they’d been brought here and not to some kind of court Iain knew not, but he didn’t like it. Something didn’t feel right.
The officer stopped and knocked on the only door. A voice from within—imperious and very English—bade them enter. Iain found himself being shoved with his brothers into a large room filled with foppish chairs, silver candelabra, and a great writing table of dark, gleaming wood. Portraits in gilded frames lined the walls. Toward the center of the room sat a young bewigged Englishman, his fingertips pressed together as he contemplated the figures on a marble chessboard with furrowed brow. The bronze gorget at his throat proclaimed him an officer, while the glittering ring on his finger bespoke nobility. Iain bit back the instinctive loathing that swelled inside him, shot a warning glance to his brothers. ’Twas not the time for an airing of their grievances with the Sassenach. The young officer who’d let them into the room gave a respectful bow. “They are here, my lord.
” So he was a lord. And arrogant. He raised a finger for silence and continued to stare at the chessboard. After what seemed an eternity, he picked up a black pawn and moved it forward one space. Then he stood. He was almost as tall as Iain, though of a lesser build. His skin was pale like that of a gentleman who disdained the sun, but his features were manly, even strong. His brows were dark, a sharp contrast to his white wig. Through cold gray eyes he gazed first at Connor, then Morgan. Then at last his gaze met Iain’s, and he seemed to measure Iain as if weighing his soul.
Impatience whipped through Iain’s belly. “I am Iain MacKinnon. These are my—” The butt of a rifle slammed into his gut, drove the air from his lungs. “You’ll speak when spoken to!” The younger officer shouted in Iain’s face. “That’s enough, Lieutenant.” The lordling gave a dismissive flick of his wrist, then turned toward his writing table and poured himself a brandy. “I know much about you, Iain MacKinnon. These two men beside you are your brothers, Morgan and Connor. You arrived in New York as boys and grew up on the frontier, where you spent time amongst the heathen and learnt to speak several Indian tongues. Your father, Lachlan MacKinnon, died three winters past, and your mother, Elasaid Cameron, several years earlier.
Your grandsire was Iain Og MacKinnon, barbarian lord of the MacKinnon Clan and the Catholic traitor who helped the Young Pretender escape justice after my uncle’s victory at Culloden.” My uncle’s victory at Culloden. Those final words struck Iain like a fist, made his gorge rise. MacKinnon blood had stained the moor red that terrible spring day, a mere foretaste of weeks of slaughter that had followed, slaughter ordered by one man: the Butcher of Cumberland, son of the Sassenach king. Iain tried to picture Jeannie’s face, fought to keep the hatred from his voice. “Then you are—” The lordling turned to face him again, brandy in hand, an arrogant smile on his face. “Lord William Wentworth, third son of Robert Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham, who is husband to Her Royal Highness Princess Amelia Sophia. My grandsire—well, no doubt you can deduce who he is.” Iain could. Bloody King George.
A thousand curses passed through his mind—and with them a thousand questions. But only one mattered. “Why have you brought us here?” Wentworth swirled his brandy, took a sip, swallowed. “From what I understand, you’re soon to be convicted of murder and hanged.” Iain glanced over at his brothers, saw the look of disbelief on their faces. “We’ve no’ been convicted, nor has there yet been a trial. The accusation is false. There’s been some kind of mistake.” Connor’s voice dripped with contempt. “What evidence do you have against us?” Wentworth set his drink down, glared at Connor.
“Sometime during the night, the three of you encountered and killed Henry Walsh—the man you grappled with yesterday afternoon outside my window.” “That’s a bloody lie! We didna—” Connor’s words became a grunt as a rifle butt struck his ribs once, twice. Fists clenched, Iain took a step toward Wentworth. “Your men will no’ strike him again, or I’ll show you just how much barbarian blood runs in my veins!” Wentworth nodded to the redcoat, who backed away from Connor. “I’ve already seen you fight. In fact, it’s because of your barbarian blood, as you put it, that I’m prepared to offer you an . arrangement.” Iain felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. “What kind of arrangement?” “I’ll see to it personally that all charges against you and your brothers are suspended. In exchange, you’ll take up the leadership of a Ranger unit under my command and fight for your sovereign against the French and their Indian allies.
” The idea was so absurd it almost made Iain laugh. “You’re daft.” “Am I? His Majesty needs men who know the land and the ways of the Indians if he is to successfully pursue his interests on this continent. And without my help, you and your brothers will surely be hanged.” Iain felt his teeth grind. “What proof do you have against us?” Wentworth gave a shrug. “Why, in addition to the dead body, any I choose to offer, of course.” And then Iain understood. Unless he agreed to fight for the British against the French, fellow Catholics and traditional allies of the Highland clans, the three of them would die for a crime they did not commit. No Englishman’s court would take the word of a traitorous Catholic Highlander over that of their king’s bloody grandson.
Blood rushed to Iain’s head. “’Tis slavery!” Wentworth answered in a voice as cold as winter. “’Tis your duty to serve your king, whether by your free will or not.” The room seemed to press in on Iain. He fought to keep his voice steady. “If I accept, what will become of my brothers?” “Your brothers will be free to go as they please, while you will be given beating orders and funds sufficient to piece together and outfit a company of one hundred fifty men such as you judge fit for ranging service. You will report to me at Fort Edward by August twenty-first and serve me until death releases you or this war is ended. If you fail to appear or abandon your post, you will be shot for desertion and your brothers will be hanged for murder.” “Dinnae do it, Iain! Curse him!” Morgan then did exactly that, letting loose a stream of Gaelic that would have shocked Satan himself. “I’m no’ afraid to die.
” Connor’s voice held quiet resignation. “Let them hang us! We willna be the first Highlanders murdered by English lies, nor the last.” Scarce able to breathe, Iain considered the unbearable choice that had been thrust upon him—kill Frenchmen for the hated English or die with his brothers in shame and agony. But there was more at stake than that. Jeannie. Sweet Jeannie. Grant would not let his daughter wed a soldier. He wanted to settle her with a farmer, a man whose mind was bent on tilling the soil and raising a family, not fighting a war. If Iain took up his rifle and sword, she would surely be lost to him. There was also the farm.
It had been his father’s dream to see it thrive and become the foundation for a revived MacKinnon Clan in the Americas. ’Twas unending, backbreaking labor, demanding both sweat and soul. If he fought for the English, his brothers would have to plant and harvest and fend off the forest without his help. And then there was the matter of honor. If he served the British king, slayer of his kin, he would have none. What was a man without honor? “What say you?” Wentworth watched him with that measuring gaze. “Bugger him, Iain!” “Dinnae do it! Let them hang us!” Iain looked over at Morgan and Connor, felt the weight of his brothers’ lives in his hands. Then he closed his eyes, and sent a silent prayer skyward. God forgi’e me.