A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 101

   

I breathed, and felt the tightness in my chest and throat ease. Amanda was not the only one who might benefit from modern surgery, I thought. I couldn’t tell what might be done for Roger’s vocal cords, but maybe . . . and yet, his voice now was good. Full and resonant, if rough. Perhaps he would choose to keep it as it was—he’d fought for it, and earned it.

The tree I leaned against was a pine; the needles swayed softly above me, then settled, as though in agreement. I had to go; it was late in the day and the air was growing colder.

Wiping my eyes, I settled the hood of my cloak and went on. It was a long walk from the Abernathys’—I should really have ridden Clarence, but he’d come up lame the day before, and I’d let him rest. I’d have to hurry, though, if I was to reach home before dark.

I cast a wary eye upward, judging the clouds, which had that soft, uniform gray of coming snow. The air was cold and thick with moisture; when the temperature dropped at nightfall, snow would fall.

The sky was still light, but only just, as I came down past the springhouse and into the backyard. Light enough to tell me that something was wrong, though—the back door stood open.

That set off alarm bells, and I turned to run back into the woods. I turned, and ran smack into a man who had come out of the trees behind me.

“Who the hell are you?” I demanded, stepping hastily back.

“Don’t worry about that, Mrs.,” he said, and grabbing me by the arm, yelled toward the house, “Hey, Donner! I got her!”

WHATEVER WENDIGO DONNER been doing for the last year, it hadn’t been profitable, by the looks of him. Never a natty dresser at the best of times, he was now so ragged that his coat was literally falling apart, and a slice of stringy buttock showed through a rent in his breeches. His mane of hair was greasy and matted, and he stank.

“Where are they?” he demanded hoarsely.

“Where are what?” I swung round to face his companion, who seemed in slightly better condition. “And where are my housemaid and her sons?” We were standing in the kitchen, and the hearth fire was out; Mrs. Bug hadn’t come that morning, and wherever Amy and the boys were, they’d been gone for some time.

“Dunno.” The man shrugged, indifferent. “Wasn’t nobody to home when we came.”

“Where are the jewels?” Donner grabbed at my arm, jerking me round to face him. His eyes were sunk in his head, and his grip was hot; he was burning with fever.

“I haven’t got any,” I said shortly. “You’re ill. You should—”

“You do! I know you do! Everybody knows!”

That gave me momentary pause. Gossip being what it was, everybody likely thought they knew that Jamie had a small cache of jewels. Small wonder if word of this hypothetical treasure had reached Donner—and little likelihood that I could convince him otherwise. I had no choice but to try, though.

“They’re gone,” I said simply.

Something flickered in his eyes at that.

“How?” he said.

I raised an eyebrow in the direction of his accomplice. Did he want the man to know?

“Go find Richie and Jed,” Donner said briefly to the thug, who shrugged and went out. Richie and Jed? How on earth many people had he brought? Past the first shock of seeing him, I now became aware that there were thumping feet upstairs, and the sound of cupboard doors being banged impatiently down the hall.

“My surgery! Get them out of there!” I dove for the door to the hallway, intending to perform this office myself, but Donner grabbed at my cloak to stop me.

I was bloody tired of being manhandled, and I wasn’t afraid of this miserable excuse for a human being.

“Let go!” I snapped, and kicked him briskly in the kneecap to emphasize the point. He yelped, but let go; I could hear him cursing behind me as I rushed through the door and down the hall.

Papers and books had been flung out into the hallway from Jamie’s office, and a puddle of ink had been poured over them. The explanation of the ink was apparent when I saw the thug rifling my surgery—he had a big blot of ink on the front of his shirt, where he had apparently sequestered the stolen pewter inkwell.

“What are you doing, you nitwit?” I said. The thug, a boy of sixteen or so, blinked at me, mouth open. He had one of Mr. Blogweather’s perfect glass globes in his hand; at this, he grinned maliciously and let it drop to the floor, where it shattered into a spray of fragments. One of the flying shards lanced through his cheek, slicing it open; he didn’t feel it, until the blood began to well. Then he put a hand to the wound, frowning in puzzlement, and bellowed in fright at the blood on his hand.

“Crap,” said Donner, behind me. He put his arms around me, and dragged me after him back to the kitchen.

“Look,” he said urgently, releasing me. “All I want is two. You can keep the rest. I gotta have one to pay these guys, and one to—to travel with.”

“But it’s true,” I insisted, knowing that he wouldn’t believe me. “We haven’t got any. My daughter and her family—they’ve gone. Gone back. They used all we had. There aren’t any more.”

He stared at me, disbelief plain in his burning eyes.

“Yes, there are,” he said positively. “There have to be. I gotta get out of here!”

“Why?”

“Never you mind. I gotta go, and quick.” He swallowed, eyes darting around the kitchen, as though the gems might be sitting casually on the sideboard. “Where are they?”

A hideous crash from the surgery, followed by an outbreak of shouted curses, prevented any reply I might have made. I moved by reflex toward the door, but Donner moved in front of me.

I was infuriated at this invasion, and beginning to be alarmed. While I’d never seen any indication of violence from Donner, I wasn’t so sure about the men he’d brought with him. They might eventually give up and leave, when it became apparent that there were in fact no gems on the premises—or they might try to beat the location of said gems out of me.

I pulled my cloak more tightly around myself and sat down on a bench, trying to think calmly.

“Look,” I said to Donner. “You’ve taken the house apart—” A crash from upstairs shook the house, and I jumped. My God, it sounded as though they’d tipped over the wardrobe. “You’ve taken the house apart,” I repeated, through gritted teeth, “and you haven’t found anything. Wouldn’t I give them to you, if I had any, to save you wrecking the place?”

“No, I don’t reckon you would. I wouldn’t, if I was you.” He rubbed a hand across his mouth. “You know what’s going on—the war and all.” He shook his head in confusion. “I didn’t know it would be this way. Swear to God, half the people I meet don’t know which way is up anymore. I thought it’d be like, you know, redcoats and all, and you just keep away from anybody in a uniform, keep away from the battles, and it’d be fine. But I haven’t seen a redcoat anywhere, and people—you know, just plain old people—they’re shooting each other and running around burning up each other’s houses. . . .”

He closed his eyes for a minute. His cheeks went from red one moment to white the next; I could see he was very ill. I could hear him, too; the breath rattled wetly in his chest, and he wheezed faintly. If he fainted, how would I get rid of his companions?

“Anyway,” he said, opening his eyes. “I’m going. Going back. I don’t care what things are like then; it’s a hell of a lot better’n here.”

“What about the Indians?” I inquired, with no more than a touch of sarcasm. “Leaving them to their own devices, are you?”

“Yeah,” he said, missing the sarcasm. “Tell you the truth, I’m not so keen on Indians anymore, either.” He rubbed absently at his upper chest, and I saw a large, puckered scar through a rent in his shirt.

“Man,” he said, longing clear in his voice, “what I wouldn’t give for a cold Bud and a baseball game on TV.” Then his wandering attention snapped back to me. “So,” he said in a halfway reasonable tone, “I need those diamonds. Or whatever. Hand ’em over and we’ll leave.”

I had been turning over various schemes for getting rid of them, to no particular avail, and was getting more uneasy by the moment. We had very little worth stealing, and from the looks of the rifled sideboard, they’d already got what there was—including, I realized, with a fresh stab of alarm, the pistols and powder. Before too much longer, they’d grow impatient.

Someone might come—Amy and the boys were likely at Brianna’s cabin, which they were in process of moving into; they could come back at any moment. Someone could come looking for Jamie or myself—though the chances of that receded by the moment, with the dying light. Even if someone did, though, the effect was likely to be disastrous.

Then I heard voices on the front porch, and the stamping of feet, and leapt to my own feet, my heart in my mouth.

“Would you quit doin’ that?” Donner said irritably. “You’re the jumpiest twat I ever saw.”

I ignored him, having recognized one of the voices. Sure enough, in the next moment, two of the thugs, brandishing pistols, shoved Jamie into the kitchen.

He was wary and disheveled, but his eyes went immediately to me, running up and down my body to assure himself that I was all right.

“I’m fine,” I said briefly. “These idiots think we have gemstones, and they want them.”

“So they said.” He straightened himself, shrugging to settle the coat on his shoulders, and glanced at the cupboards, hanging open, and the despoiled sideboard. Even the pie hutch had been overturned, and the remains of a raisin pie lay squashed on the floor, marked with a large heelprint. “I gather they’ve looked.”

“Look, mate,” said one of the thugs, reasonably, “all we want’s the swag. Just tell us where it is, and we go, no ’arm done, eh?”

Jamie rubbed the bridge of his nose, eyeing the man who’d spoken.

“I imagine my wife has told ye that we have no gems?”

“Well, she would, wouldn’t she?” the thug said tolerantly. “Women, you know.” He seemed to feel that now Jamie had showed up, they could get on with things in a more businesslike fashion, man-to-man.

Jamie sighed and sat down.

“Why d’ye think I’ve got any?” he inquired, rather mildly. “I have had, I admit—but no longer. They’ve been sold.”

“Where’s the money, then?” The second thug was obviously quite willing to settle for that, no matter what Donner thought.

“Spent,” Jamie said briefly. “I’m a colonel of militia—surely ye ken that much? It’s an expensive business, provisioning a militia company. Food, guns, powder, shoes—it adds up, aye? Why, the cost in shoe leather alone—and then, to say nothing of shoon for the horses! Wagons, too; ye wouldna believe the scandalous cost of wagons. . . .”

One of the thugs was frowning, but half-nodding, following this reasonable exegesis. Donner and his other companion were noticeably agitated, though.

“Shut up about the damn wagons,” Donner said rudely, and bending, he snatched up one of Mrs. Bug’s butcher knives from the floor. “Now, look,” he said, scowling and trying to look menacing. “I’ve had it with the stalling around. You tell me where they are, or—or I’ll—I’ll cut her! Yeah, I’ll cut her throat. Swear I will.” With this, he clutched me by the shoulder and put the knife to my throat.

It had become clear to me some little time ago that Jamie was stalling for time, which meant that he expected something to happen. Which in turn meant he was expecting someone to come. That was reassuring, but I did think the apparent nonchalance of his demeanor in the face of my theoretically impending demise was perhaps carrying things a trifle too far.

“Oh,” he said, scratching at the side of his neck. “Well, I wouldna do that, if I were you. She’s the one who kens where the gems are, aye?”

“I what?” I cried indignantly.

“She is?” One of the other thugs brightened at that.

“Oh, aye,” Jamie assured him. “Last time I went out wi’ the militia, she hid them. Wouldna tell me where she’d put them.”

“Wait—I thought you said you sold ’em and spent the money,” Donner said, plainly confused.

“I was lying,” Jamie explained, patient.

“Oh.”

“But if ye’re going to kill my wife, well, then, of course that alters the case.”

“Oh,” said Donner, looking somewhat happier. “Yeah. Exactly!”

“I believe we havena been introduced, sir,” Jamie said politely, extending a hand. “I am James Fraser. And you are . . . ?”

Donner hesitated for a minute, unsure what to do with the knife in his right hand, but then shifted it awkwardly to his left and leaned forward to shake Jamie’s hand briefly.

“Wendigo Donner,” he said. “Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.”

I made a rude noise, but it was drowned by a series of crashes and the sound of breaking glass from the surgery. The lout in there must be clearing the shelves wholesale, flinging bottles and jars on the floor. I grasped Donner’s hand and pulled the knife away from my throat, then sprang to my feet, in much the same state of insane fury in which I had once torched a field full of grasshoppers.

This time, it was Jamie who seized me around the middle as I darted toward the door, swinging me half off my feet.

“Let go! I’ll frigging kill him!” I said, kicking madly.

“Well, wait just a bit about that, Sassenach,” he said, low-voiced, and lugged me back to the table, where he sat down with his arms wrapped around me, holding me firmly pinned on his lap. Further sounds of depredation came down the hall—the splintering of wood and crunch of glass under a bootheel. Evidently, the young lout had given up searching for anything and was simply destroying for the fun of it.

I took a deep breath, preparatory to emitting a scream of frustration, but stopped.

“Jeez,” Donner said, wrinkling his nose. “What’s that smell? Somebody cut one?” He looked accusingly at me, but I paid no attention. It was ether, heavy and sickly sweet.

Jamie stiffened slightly. He knew what it was, too, and essentially what it did.

Then he took a deep breath and carefully moved me off his lap, setting me on the bench beside him. I saw his eyes go to the knife sagging in Donner’s hand, and heard what his keener ears had already picked up. Someone was coming.

He moved a little forward, getting his feet under him to spring, and flicked his eyes toward the cold hearth, where a heavy Dutch oven was sitting in the ashes. I nodded, very briefly, and as the back door opened, made a lunge across the kitchen.

Donner, with unexpected swiftness, stuck out a leg and tripped me. I fell headlong and slid, fetching up against the settle with a head-ringing thump. I groaned and lay still for a few moments, eyes closed, feeling all at once that I was much too old for this sort of carry-on. I opened my eyes reluctantly, and very stiffly got to my feet, to find the kitchen now full of people.

Donner’s original sidekick had returned with two others, presumably Richie and Jed, and with them, the Bugs, Murdina looking alarmed, and Arch, coldly furious.

“A leannan!” Mrs. Bug cried, rushing toward me. “Are ye hurt, then?”

“No, no,” I said, still rather dazed. “Just let me . . . sit down for a moment.” I looked at Donner, but he no longer held his knife. He had been frowning at the floor—evidently he had dropped it when he tripped me—but his head jerked up at sight of the newcomers.

“What? Did you find anything?” he asked eagerly, for both Richie and Jed were beaming with self-importance.

“Sure did,” one of them assured him. “Looka here!” He was holding Mrs. Bug’s workbag, and at this, he upended it and shook the contents out onto the table, where a mass of woolly knitting landed with a massive thunk! Eager hands pawed the wool away, revealing an eight-inch-long ingot of gold, the metal shaved away at one end, and stamped in the center with the royal French fleur-de-lis.

Stunned silence followed the appearance of this apparition. Even Jamie looked completely nonplussed.

Mrs. Bug had been pale when they came in; now she had gone the color of chalk, and her lips had disappeared. Arch’s eyes went straight to Jamie’s, dark and defiant.

The only person unimpressed by sight of the glowing metal was Donner.

“Well, neato-mosquito,” he said. “What about the jewels? Keep your eye on the goal here, people!”

His accomplices, however, had lost interest in theoretical jewels, with solid gold actually in hand, and were simultaneously discussing the possibility of more and squabbling over who should have custody of the present ingot.

My own head was spinning: from the blow, from the sudden appearance of the ingot and its revelations regarding the Bugs—and particularly from the fumes of ether, which were getting notably stronger. No one in the kitchen had noticed, but all sound from the surgery had ceased; the young lout in there had undoubtedly passed out.

The bottle of ether had been nearly full; enough to anesthetize a dozen elephants, I thought dizzily—or a houseful of people. Already, I could see Donner struggling to keep his head upright. A few minutes more, and all the thugs would likely have subsided into a state of innocuous desuetude—but so would we.

Ether is heavier than air; the stuff would sink to the floor, where it would gradually rise in a pool around our knees. I stood up, taking a quick breath from the presumably purer air higher up. I had to get the window open.

Jamie and Arch were speaking Gaelic to each other, much too fast for me to follow, even had my head been in normal working order. Donner was frowning at them, mouth open as though he meant to tell them to stop but couldn’t quite find the words.

I fumbled with the catch of the inside shutters, having to concentrate very hard in order to make my fingers work. Finally, the latch flipped free and I swung the shutter open—revealing the leering face of an unfamiliar Indian in the twilight outside the window.

I shrieked and staggered back. Next thing, the back door sprang open and a squat bearded figure rushed in, bellowing in some incomprehensible tongue, followed by Ian, who was followed by yet another strange Indian, screaming and laying about himself with something—tomahawk? club? I couldn’t get my eyes to focus well enough to tell.

All was pandemonium, seen through glazed eyes. I clutched the windowsill to keep from sinking to the floor, but couldn’t summon the presence of mind to open the damn window. Everyone was struggling and fighting, but the inhabitants of the kitchen were doing it in slow motion, yelling and staggering like drunks. As I watched, my mouth hanging unbecomingly open, Jamie painstakingly drew Donner’s knife out from under his buttocks, brought it up in a slow, graceful arc, and buried it under Donner’s breastbone.

Something flew past my ear and crashed through the window, destroying what was probably the only intact pane of glass left in the house.

I breathed in deep gulps of fresh air, trying to clear my head, and made frantic waving motions with my hands, shouting—or trying to shout—“Get out! Get out!”

Mrs. Bug was trying to do just that, crawling on hands and knees toward the half-open door. Arch hit the wall and slid slowly down beside her, face gone blank. Donner had fallen face forward over the table, his blood dripping nastily onto the floorboards, and another thug was lying in the extinct hearth, his skull crushed. Jamie was still upright, swaying, and the squat bearded figure was standing beside him, shaking his head and looking confused as the fumes began to affect him.

“What’s going on?” I heard him ask.

The kitchen was nearly dark now, the figures swaying like fronds of kelp in some underwater forest.

I closed my eyes for a second. When I opened them again, Ian was saying, “Wait, I’ll light a candle.” He had one of Brianna’s matches in his hand, the tin in the other.

“IAN!” I shrieked, and then he struck the match.

There was a soft whoof! noise, then a louder whoomp! as the ether in the surgery ignited, and suddenly we were standing in a pool of fire. For a fraction of a second, I felt nothing, and then a burst of searing heat. Jamie seized my arm and hurled me toward the door; I staggered out, fell into the blackberry bushes, and rolled through them, thrashing and flailing at my smoking skirts.

Panicked and still uncoordinated from the ether, I struggled with the strings of my apron, finally managing to rip loose the strings and wriggle out of it. My linen petticoats were singed, but not charred. I crouched panting in the dead weeds of the dooryard, unable to do anything for the moment but breathe. The smell of smoke was strong and pungent.

Mrs. Bug was on the back porch on her knees, jerking off her cap, which was on fire.

Men erupted through the back door, beating at their clothes and hair. Rollo was in the yard, barking hysterically, and on the other side of the house, I could hear the screams of frightened horses. Someone had got Arch Bug out—he was stretched at full length in the dead grass, most of his hair and eyebrows gone, but evidently still alive.

My legs were red and blistered, but I wasn’t badly burned—thank God for layers of linen and cotton, which burn slowly, I thought groggily. Had I been wearing something modern like rayon, I should have gone up like a torch.

The thought made me look back toward the house. It was full dark by now, and all the windows on the lower floor were alight. Flame danced in the open door. The place looked like an immense jack-o’-lantern.

“Ye’re Mistress Fraser, I suppose?” The squat, bearded person bent over me, speaking in a soft Scottish burr.

“Yes,” I said, coming gradually to myself. “Who are you, and where’s Jamie?”

“Here, Sassenach.” Jamie stumbled out of the dark and sat down heavily beside me. He waved a hand at the Scotsman. “May I present Mr. Alexander Cameron, known more generally as Scotchee?”

“Your servant, ma’am,” he said politely.

I was feeling gingerly at my hair. Clumps of it had been singed to crispy thread, but at least I still had some.

I felt, rather than saw, Jamie look up at the house. I followed the direction of his glance, and saw a dark figure at the window upstairs, framed in the dim glow from the burning downstairs. He shouted something in the incomprehensible tongue, and began throwing things out of the window.

“Who’s that?” I asked, feeling more than slightly surreal.

“Oh.” Jamie rubbed at his face. “That would be Goose.”

“Of course it would,” I said, nodding. “He’ll be a cooked goose, if he stays in there.” This struck me as wildly hilarious, and I doubled up in laughter.

Evidently, it wasn’t quite as witty as I’d thought; no one else seemed to think it funny. Jamie stood up and shouted something at the dark figure, who waved nonchalantly and turned back into the room.

“There’s a ladder in the barn,” Jamie said calmly to Scotchee, and they moved off into the darkness.

The house burned fairly slowly for a while; there weren’t a lot of easily flammable objects down below, bar the books and papers in Jamie’s study. A tall figure belted out of the back door, shirt pulled up over his nose with one hand, the tail of his shirt held up with the other to form a bag.

Ian came to a stop beside me, dropped to his knees, gasping, and let down his shirttail, releasing a pile of small objects.

“That’s all I could get, I’m afraid, Auntie.” He coughed a few times, waving his hand in front of his face. “D’ye ken what happened?”

“It’s not important,” I said. The heat was becoming more intense, and I struggled to my knees. “Come on; we’ll need to get Arch further away.”

The effects of the ether had mostly worn off, but I was still conscious of a strong sense of unreality. I hadn’t anything but cold well water with which to treat burns, but bathed Arch’s neck and hands, which had been badly blistered. Mrs. Bug’s hair had been singed, but she, like me, had been largely protected by her heavy skirts.

Neither she nor Arch said a word.

Amy McCallum came running up, face pale in the fiery glow; I told her to take the Bugs to Brianna’s cabin—hers now—and for God’s sake, keep the little boys safe away. She nodded and went, she and Mrs. Bug supporting Arch’s tall form between them.

No one made any effort to bring out the bodies of Donner and his companions.

I could see when the fire took hold in the stairwell; there was a sudden strong glow in the upstairs windows, and shortly thereafter, I could see flames in the heart of the house.

Snow began to fall, in thick, heavy, silent flakes. Within half an hour, the ground, trees, and bushes were dusted with white. The flames glowed red and gold, and the white snow reflected a soft reddish glow; the whole clearing seemed filled with the light of the fire.

Somewhere around midnight, the roof fell in, with a crash of glowing timbers and a tremendous shower of sparks that fountained high into the night. The sight was so beautiful that everyone watching went “Oooooh!” in involuntary awe.

Jamie’s arm tightened round me. We could not look away.

“What’s the date today?” I asked suddenly.

He frowned for a moment, thinking, then said, “December twenty-first.”

“And we aren’t dead, either. Bloody newspapers,” I said. “They never get anything right.”

For some reason, he thought that was very funny indeed, and laughed until he had to sit down on the ground.

124

PROPERTY OF THE KING

WE SPENT THE REMAINDER OF the night sleeping—or at least horizontal—on the floor of the cabin, with the Bugs, Goose and his brother, Light—who confused me initially by referring to themselves as Jamie’s “sons”—Scotchee, and Ian. On their way to visit Bird’s village, the Indians—for Alexander Cameron was as much an Indian as the others, I thought—had met Jamie and Ian, hunting, and accepted Jamie’s hospitality.

“Though it was a warmer welcome than we expected, Bear-Killer!” Goose said, laughing.

They did not ask who Donner was, nor make any reference to the men whose bodies burned in the funeral pyre of the house—only asked awed questions about the ether, and shook their heads in amazement, watching the fire.

For Jamie’s part, I noticed that he did not ask why they were going to Bird’s village—and concluded that he did not want to hear that some of the Cherokee had decided to support the King. He listened to the talk, but said little, spending his time fingering through the pile of objects saved from the fire. There was little of value there—a few scorched, loose pages from my casebook, some pewter spoons, a bullet mold. But when he fell asleep at last next to me, I saw that his fist was closed around something, and peering closely in the dark, made out the protruding head of the little cherrywood snake.

I woke just past dawn to find Aidan peering down at me, Adso in his arms.

“I found your wee cheetie in my bed,” Aidan whispered. “D’ye want him?”

I was about to refuse, but then saw the look in Adso’s eye. He was very tolerant of small children normally, but Aidan was holding him round the middle like a bag of laundry, his back legs dangling ludicrously.

“Yes,” I said, my voice hoarse from smoke. “Here—I’ll take him.”

I sat up, but having accepted the cat, saw that most of the household was still asleep, rolled in blankets on the floor. Two notable exceptions: Jamie and Arch Bug were missing. I got up, and borrowing Amy’s cloak from beside the door, went out.

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