“This man is a deserter,” he screeched. “He left his comrades to die. Men like you. He left you to die. Tell me, what should his punishment be?”
Without much enthusiasm, the men called back, “Hang him.”
“If you say so,” smirked the executioner, and he stepped back, planted his foot in the small of the condemned man’s back and pushed, savouring the revolted reaction of the watching men.
I shook the pain of the assistant’s blow from my head and continued to struggle just as the executioner reached the next man, asking the crowd the same question, receiving the same muted, dutiful reply then pushing the poor wretch to his death. The platform quaked and shook as the three men jerked on the end of the ropes. Above my head the scaffold creaked and groaned, and glancing up I saw joints briefly part before coming back together.
Next the executioner reached Pointy-Ears.
“This man—this man enjoyed a small sojourn in the Black Forest and thought he could sneak back undetected, but he is wrong. Tell me, how should he be punished?”
“Hang him,” mumbled the crowd unenthusiastically.
“Do you think he should die?” cried the executioner.
“Yes,” replied the crowd. But I saw some of them surreptitiously shaking their heads no, and there were others, drinking from leather flasks, who looked happier about the whole affair, the way you might if you were being bribed with ale. Indeed, did that account for Pointy-Ears’ apparent stupor? He was still smiling, even when the executioner moved behind him and planted his foot in the small of his back.
“It’s time to hang a deserter!” he shouted, and shoved at the same time as I cried, “No!” and thrashed at my bonds, desperately trying to break free. “No, he must be kept alive! Where is Braddock? Where is Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Braddock?”
The executioner’s assistant appeared before my eyes, grinning through a scratchy beard, with hardly a tooth in his mouth. “Didn’t you hear the man? He said, ‘Shut your mouth.’” And he pulled back his fist to punch me.
He didn’t get the chance. My legs shot out, knocked the stool away and in the next instant were locked around the assistant’s neck, crossed at the ankle—and tightening.
He yelled. I squeezed harder. His yell became a strangulated choke and his face began to flush as his hands went to my calves, trying to prise them apart. I wrenched from side to side, shaking him like a dog with prey in its jaws, almost taking him off his feet, straining my thigh muscles at the same time as I tried to keep the weight off the noose at my neck. Still, at my side, Pointy-Ears thrashed on the end of his rope. His tongue poked from between his lips and his milky eyes bulged, as if about to burst from his skull.
The executioner had moved to the other end of the platform, where he was pulling on the legs of the hanged men to make sure they were dead, but the commotion at this end caught his attention and he looked up to see his assistant trapped in the vise grip of my legs and came dashing up the platform towards us, cursing at the same time as he reached to draw his sword.
With a shout of effort, I twisted my body and wrenched my legs, pulling the assistant with me and by some miracle timing it just right so that his body slammed into the executioner as he arrived. With a shout the executioner tumbled messily from the platform. In front of us the men were standing, open-mouthed with shock, none moving to get involved.
I squeezed my legs even more tightly together and was rewarded with a cracking, crunching sound that came from the assistant’s neck. Blood began pouring from his nose. His grip on my arms began to slacken. Again I twisted. Again I shouted as my muscles protested and I wrenched him, this time to the other side, where I slammed him into the scaffold.
The shaking, creaking, coming-apart scaffold.
It creaked and complained some more. With a final effort—I had no more strength left, and if this didn’t work then here was where I died—I rammed the man into the scaffold again and, this time, at last, it gave. At the same time, as I began to feel myself black out, as though a dark veil were being brought across my mind, I felt the pressure at my neck suddenly relax as the support crashed to the ground in front of the platform, the crossbar toppled, then the platform itself gave way with the sudden weight of men and wood, falling in on itself with a splintering and crashing of disintegrating wood.
My last thought before I lost consciousness was, Please let him be alive, and my first words on regaining consciousness inside the tent where I now lie were, “Is he alive?”
“Is who alive?” asked the doctor, who had a distinguished-looking moustache and an accent that suggested he was higher born than most.
“The pointy-eared man,” I said, and tried to raise myself upright, only to find his hand on my chest guiding me back down to a lying position.
“I’m afraid I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about,” he said, not unkindly. “I hear that you are acquainted with the lieutenant-colonel. Perhaps he will be able to explain everything to you when he arrives in the morning.”
Thus, I now sit here, writing up the events of the day and awaiting my audience with Braddock . . .
17 JULY 1747
He looked like a larger, smarter version of his men, with all of the bearing that his rank implied. His shining black boots were up to the knee. He wore a frock coat with white trim over a dark, buttoned-up tunic, a white scarf at his neck, and on a thick brown leather belt at his waist hung his sword.
His hair was pulled back and tied with a black ribbon. He tossed his hat to a small table at the side of the bed where I lay, put his hands to his hips and regarded me with that deep, colourless gaze I knew well.
“Kenway,” he said simply, “Reginald did not send word that you were due to be joining me here.”
“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, Edward,” I said, suddenly feeling young in his presence, intimidated almost.
“I see,” he said. “You thought you’d just drop in, did you?”
“How long have I been here?” I asked. “How many days have passed?”
“Three,” replied Braddock. “Dr. Tennant was concerned you might develop a fever. According to him, a feebler man might not have been able to fight it off. You’re lucky to be alive, Kenway. Not every man gets to escape both the gallows and a fever. Fortunate for you, too, that I was informed about one of the men to be hanged calling for me personally; otherwise, my men might well have finished the job. You see how we punish wrongdoers.”