The three boys came up through the gill behind the chapel, so that they were hidden from the big house and the stables. Tom, the eldest, led them as he always did, but the youngest brother was close on his heels, and when Tom paused where the stream made its first turn above the village he renewed his argument. 'Why do I always have to be the cat? Why can I never join in the fun, Tom?'
'Because you are the littlest,' Tom told him, with lordly authority. He was surveying the tiny hamlet below them, which was now visible in the slot of the ravine. Smoke was rising from the forge in the smithy, and washing flapped in the easterly breeze behind the Widow Evans's cottage, but there was no sign of human life. At this time of day most of the men would be out in his father's fields, for the harvest was in full swing, while those women who were not toiling beside them would be at work in the big house.
Tom grinned with satisfaction and anticipation. 'No one's spotted us.' No one to carry reports back to their father.
'It's not fair.' Dorian was not so easily distracted from his argument. His coppery gold curls spilled down on to his forehead, giving him the look of an angry cherub. 'You never let me do anything.'
'Who let you fly his hawk last week? I did.' Tom rounded on him. 'Who let you fire his musket yesterday? I did. Who let you steer the cutter'
'But me no buts.' Tom glowered at him. 'Who's the captain of this crew, anyway?'
'You are, Tom.' Dorian dropped his green eyes under the force of his elder brother's stare. 'But, still-'
'You can go with Tom in my place, if you want.' Guy spoke softly for the first time. 'I'll play the cat.'
Tom turned to his younger twin, while Dorian exclaimed, 'Can I, Guy? Will you really?' It was only when he smiled that his full beauty burst out, like sunlight through parting clouds.
'No, he won't!' Tom cut in. 'Dorry's only a baby. He can't come. He'll stay on the roof to keep the cat.'
'I'm not a baby,' Dorian protested furiously. 'I'm nearly eleven.'
'If you're not a baby, show us your ball hairs,' Tom challenged him. Since he had sprouted his own, these had become Tom's yardstick of seniority.
Dorian ignored him, he had not even a pale ginger fluff to match the impressive growth of his elder brother. He went on to another tack. 'I'll just watch, that's all.'
'Yes, you'll watch from the roof.' Tom killed the argument dead in its tracks. 'Come on! We'll be late.' He struck out up the steep ravine.
The other two trailed after him with varying degrees of reluctance. 'Who could come anyway?' Dorian persisted. 'Everybody's busy. Even we should be helping.'
'Black Billy could come,' Tom replied, without looking back. That name silenced even Dorian. Black Billy was the oldest Courtney son. His mother had been an Ethiopian princess whom Sir Hal Courtney had brought back from Africa when he returned from his first voyage to that mystic continent. A royal bride and a shipload of treasure plundered from the Dutch and the pagan, a vast fortune with which their father had more than doubled the acreage of his ancient estate, and in so doing had elevated the family to among the wealthiest in all Devon, rivaling even the Grenvilles.
William Courtney, Black Billy to his younger half-brothers, was almost twenty-four, seven years older than the twins. He was clever, ruthless, handsome, in a dark wolf-like way, and his younger brothers feared and hated him with good reason. The threat of his name made Dorian shiver, and they climbed the last half-mile in silence. At last they left the stream and approached the rim, pausing under the big oak where the hen harrier had nested last spring.
Tom flopped down against the bole of the tree to catch his breath. 'If this wind holds we can go sailing in the morning,' he announced, as he removed his cap and wiped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve. There was a mallard wing feather in his cap, taken from the first bird ever killed by his own falcon.
Reprinted from Monsoon by Wilbur Smith, a St Martin's Press publication, by permission of St Martin's Press. © 1999 by Wilbur Smith
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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