Vendetta: A Novel of the Frontier
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by Ardath Mayhar
Category: Historical Fiction
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: January 2005
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [255 KB]
Reading time: 176-246 min.
Torches flickered eerily, their light dancing in the heavy foliage of the thick forest surrounding the clearing. Only a handful of spectators sat in the flimsy stands erected for their use by the members of the tiny circus now engaged in its evening performance.
There were, Gian-Carlo calculated from his concealed position behind a wagon, about enough to feed the family for a couple of days. If they could manage to kill a wild pig for Leonello, the mangy lion, it might go further. There would be little coin in the till, but he could hear chickens squawking and a piglet grunting in the fenced area set aside for those who bartered their way into the show.
He shrugged his sequined cape behind his shoulders and straightened the tooled leather wristlets that had belonged to his grandfather, the first Gian-Carlo Gannelli. Grinning at the fretful mutter of the chickens, he waited to perform his part in the Gannelli Family Circus.
No tent hid the black sky. The poles and the rigging for the aerialists' performance formed dark webs picked out with red-orange lines of reflected light. Torches flared around the clearing that he had helped to sawdust in the afternoon. Luckily the local sawmill exchanged its waste sawdust for tickets for the performance.
Now his mother's accordion and his father's violin were doing their joyous best with the March of the Comedians, while Cousin Barnabas flexed his gigantic muscles. A bear of a man, he stood in the ring, lifting the two ponies left to the circus.
These were tiny beasts, each now attached to a crossbar, their little hooves trotting in tempo, though they were suspended in the air. In the old days, before the War, it had been two horses that Cousin Barnabas lifted. But anything large enough to ride or to pull cannon or wagons had been commandeered by either the Rebs or the Yankees, as the circus fled from place to place, trying to avoid the war.
The spavined wagon horse paced wearily around the perimeter of the ring. On his back, Cousin Celie poised daintily on one foot, her still trim body describing a steely arabesque. As she neared her big husband, he lowered the ponies to stand on the sawdust and held out his hand. She stepped lightly onto his palm, letting the horse proceed without her.
Barnabas's arm did not dip, even slightly, beneath her not-inconsiderable weight. He might have been holding a butterfly, so casually did he flip her up into the air. She somersaulted into a split on the ground before him. Then she rose, and they bowed together.
There was an enthusiastic spatter of applause. Mama and Papa Gannelli struck up a fanfare, and Johnny strode into the ring of torchlight, swirling his cape about him.
In the center of the ring he doffed his cape, letting it lie in a purple puddle at his feet, and bowed deeply. He moved to the nearer of the poles and began climbing the spidery rope of the ladder.
Light brightened around him as Cousin Barnabas cocked the reflectors behind the torches, casting their beams higher. Now they caught the high-wire and the pair of trapezes suspended from a complex of wires and poles, which were all but out of sight in the darkness.
Behind him he could hear a louder burst of applause. He knew his Cousin Magda had made her appearance, in her skimpy costume. As he stepped onto the narrow platform, he felt the ladder twitch as she started up after him.
Papa, the first fanfare completed, was giving his spiel, but Johnny didn't listen. He had heard all that foolishness about the crowned heads of Europe and command performances for Napoleon himself.
Once, that had even been true. Before Old Nap had torn Europe apart and sent the Gannelli family fleeing to a safer continent, the circus had been a large one, with skilled performers from outside the family.
Johnny knew now that he would never see Europe, nor would Magda, for all her beauty and courage. He would be quite content if he and his group continued drawing enough audiences to keep themselves eating, in this war-ravaged South to which his grandfather had brought his circus. War seemed to pursue them relentlessly, no matter how they fled it.
The platform dipped gently beneath his feet, and he turned to Magda with a gallant gesture. Taking her hand, he bowed, feeling the thinness of her fingers, the callouses on her palm.
Hours of practice at acrobatics, knife-throwing, bareback riding, lion taming (although poor Leonello had never in his long life had any chance to be wild) marked their hands. As well, they hunted wild pigs, birds, and raccoons. They fished in any promising stream, and they often poached from a farmyard, if it didn't seem even poorer than they.
Papa was ending his introduction. Johnny bowed to his cousin, to the spectators, and set the trapeze swinging. He was preparing to launch himself into space when something interrupted his concentration. An indrawn breath from dozens of lungs stopped him, and he let the correctly timed swing of the trapeze go by.
Peering down through the glare of the lamps, he saw the shapes of horses. Riders.
The crowd murmured, a sound instinct with fear. Papa came forward into the light, his fiddle in his hand, gesturing with Italian abandon.
"You interrupt our performance? I speet on you! The Emperor Napoleon, he interrupt the performance of the Family Gannelli. He send us from his shores to flee his wars. Now you! Why you do thees theeng?"
The captain leading the group did not reply. In the center of the ring, he sat his sorrel, the torches showing the dust on his blue uniform. The audience stared at him and growled almost inaudibly at this conqueror in their midst.
"There he is!" shouted a soldier. Johnny shielded his eyes from the torchlight, finding at last two of the Yankees dragging forward the skinny youth they had taken on as a horse handler because he was starving to death. He had been tending the lamps on the farther side of the ring.
"Guerrilla!" came a voice to his ears. "Hang him! Damn bushwhacker--hang him!" The Captain waved his hand, and the men fell silent.
Turning on his horse to survey the rickety stands and the audience, the Captain said, "If you are wise, you will leave, now. You do not want to be here when I deal with these murderers of Union officers. Go!"
The whip-crack note in his voice sent them quickly and without protest toward their homes. Their night of magic had turned into a nightmare, in the space of a few heartbeats.
Once the last was out of sight, the Captain turned his attention to the Gannellis. Now they huddled together, fat Mama, her accordion clutched to her breast as if it might somehow protect her from this madman, Papa, flourishing his fiddle as if it were some exotic weapon. Cousin Celie and Barnabas clung together, Celie plastered against her giant husband like some vine clinging to a gigantic tree.
The officer's voice was harsh as he said, "Mountebanks! You have harbored a guerrilla, and I suspect that you, too, are guerrillas or spies. You!" he pointed to Papa. "Where did you find this scum? Why is he with you?"
At his motion, the two men pushed poor George forward. The boy was shaking so that he couldn't stand, and his sallow face was waxen with terror.
Papa Gannelli, his dark eyes afire with outrage, drew his portly figure up to its most dignified stature. He handed his violin to Barnabas and stepped forward.
"Thees is young boy, hurt and hungry. We, ourselfs, know well how it feels to be so. We take him with us. He can do work we do not need but that he need." He stared up at the man on the horse.
Johnny felt a surge of pride in his father. Even from so high up, he could see that Papa's face looked crumpled and old, totally unlike the round and rosy countenance he usually turned upon the world. He felt Magda's hand clamp hard onto his own in a spasm of sudden dread.
"Hmmmph!" the captain snorted. "Very thin. Under martial law, you are sentenced to hang, here and now. And as for those popinjays up there--" He jerked his chin toward Johnny and Magda on their platform--"They will be shot from their perch. Sergeant!"
Johnny saw the man kneel and steady his rifle. Even as he took aim, he could not believe that this could actually be happening. In a sane world, a just world, people who only tried to help and to entertain their fellows did not die because some madman on a horse commanded it.
Too late, he realized this was real. He was about to die. He was flinching backward against Magda before the slug plowed into his thigh.
Only Magda's quick reflexes saved him from a thirty-foot fall. She held him in an iron grip, as he sagged over the edges of the platform, and he could see that she was pale as milk as she stared down at the Captain below them.
"You can hang up there and hold him until you rot," the officer shouted to the girl. "There is not much you could do to stop what we're about to do, anyway. Watch the show, bitch!"
She kept staring down, though she never faltered as she clung to Johnny. He knew her arms must be screaming from the strain, but he watched, too, as the family was hustled to a bracing pole.
The sergeant flipped up a rope end. Then, under the direction of the Captain, he hanged Papa and Mama, along with their cousins Celie and Barnabas, who were Magda's parents. Before the ghastly struggles were done, Johnny was able to hold some of his own weight, although Magda hissed, "Stay dead! They'll shoot you again if you do not!"
As Papa, the last of them all, kicked into stillness, the officer turned again to stare upward. He was raising his hand, his gaze fixed upon the pair above him, when someone yelled, "That Reb has run!"
The officer wheeled his mount and began shouting orders. The ten men in his troop mounted quickly, and the entire group dashed off into the thickets around the clearing. Johnny could hear brush crashing and then the clatter of hooves on the rocky road leading toward town.
"Let us ask the Blessed Virgin to protect him," murmured his cousin.
"George is a country boy," Johnny muttered. "They'll never locate him in the woods."
They stayed as they were, muscles protesting the prolonged stress, until the last sound died away in the distance. Then Johnny reached for the edge of the platform, caught the sustaining ropes, and pulled himself upright.
Magda released her grip with difficulty and flexed her cramped hands until they worked again. "They had no time to burn the wagon," she whispered.
She swung around him and let herself down until her feet were securely on the rope ladder. "Can that leg bear your weight? I cannot carry you down, but I will brace from below as we go. Sit back against my shoulders. Hold tightly."
He cramped his fingers onto the rigging. Now the leg was like a lump of lead that had been thrust into a fire, but he managed to put his good foot onto the first crosspiece of the ladder. With great effort, he dragged the wounded leg off the platform. When it fell, limp, against the ropes, he hung on, letting nausea sweep through him.
Magda caught the bad leg and set the foot beside the other. Circling him with her arms, she hung onto the sides of the ladder. "Now, while you have the strength, we must go.
"They will come back, and when they do we must be gone. Before we can go we must tend your wound. I know they did not take the ponies, though they tied them, still harnessed to the beam, back in the trees."
Johnny grunted and held his weight with both hands, as he removed the good foot from the rung. The ladder, which was not meant to hold more than one person at a time, creaked and swayed and snapped, but he had achieved one step downward.
The pain was bearable. He repeated the process, with Magda bracing him from below and behind, keeping the bad leg from swinging.
It was a long way down. He was wringing wet by the time they stood again on the packed sawdust of the ring. With his cousin's help, he hopped toward the wagons, hidden behind a screen of hawthorn and brambles. If the Captain had seen them, he probably would have had them burned, and everything they needed for tending a wound was there. Injury was a constant companion of acrobats.
Yet Johnny found himself longing, more than anything else, for his case of throwing knives. He had never used firearms, but those razor-like blades were extensions of his hands, which now longed to use those deadly weapons against the man who had murdered his family.