A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 12

   

“Yes, of course.” My drifting attention snagged momentarily and I laughed. “He just stared at me, and then nodded in a dazed sort of way, and said, oh, just as Himself liked, to be sure. I don’t know if he realized even then why I’d burnt his field; perhaps he just thought I’d taken a sudden fancy to set fire to his barley.”

Jamie laughed, too—a most unsettling sensation, as he had his teeth fixed in my earlobe.

“Um,” I said faintly, feeling the tickle of red beard on my neck and the very warm, firm flesh beneath my palm. “The Indians. How did you manage with the Cherokee?”

“Fine.”

He moved suddenly, rolling over on top of me. He was very big, and very warm, and he smelled of desire, strong and sharp. The leafy shadows moved across his face and shoulders, dappled the bed and the white skin of my thighs, opened wide.

“I like ye fine, Sassenach,” he murmured in my ear. “I can see ye there, half-naked in your shift and your hair down, curling over your breest. . . . I love you. I wor—”

“What was that about a rest and supper?”

His hands were worming themselves under me, cupping my buttocks, squeezing, his breath soft and hot on my neck.

“I have to have my—”

“But—”

“Now, Sassenach.” He rose up abruptly, kneeling on the bed before me. There was a faint smile on his face, but his eyes were dark blue and intent. He cupped his heavy balls in one hand, the thumb moving up and down his exigent member in a slow and thoughtful manner.

“On your knees, a nighean,” he said softly. “Now.”

17

THE LIMITS OF POWER

From James Fraser, Esq., Fraser’s Ridge

to Lord John Grey of Mount Josiah Plantation

August 14, 1773

My lord—

I write to inform you of my new Office, viz, that of Indian Agent to the Crown, by Appointment to the Southern Department under John Stuart.

I was originally of two Minds regarding Acceptance of this Appointment, but found my Views made more singular by Reason of a Visit by Mr. Richard Brown, a distant Neighbor, and his Brother. I expect that Mr. Higgins will already have given you an Account of their so-called Committee of Safety, and its immediate Object of arresting him.

Have you encountered such ad hoc Bodies in Virginia? I think perhaps your Situation is not so unsettled as is our own, or that in Boston, where Mr. Higgins also reports their Presence. I hope it is not.

I think a Person of Sense must deplore these committees in Principle. Their stated Purpose is to provide Protection from Vagabonds and Banditti, and to arrest Criminals in those Areas where no Sheriff or Constable is available. With no Law to regulate their Behavior save Self-interest, though, plainly there is Nothing to prevent an irregular Militia from becoming more of a Threat to the Citizenry than the Dangers from which it offers to preserve them.

The Appeal is plain, though, particularly in such Case as we find ourselves here, so remotely situated. The nearest Courthouse is—or was—three days’ Ride, and in the constant Unrest that has followed the Regulation, Matters have decayed even from this unsatisfactory State. The Governor and his Council are in constant Conflict with the Assembly, the Circuit Court has effectually ceased to exist, Judges are no longer appointed, and there is no Sheriff of Surry County at present, the latest Holder of that Office having resigned under Threat of having his House fired.

The Sheriffs of Orange and Rowan Counties still boast Office—but their Corruption is so well known that no one may depend upon them, save those whose Interest is invested in them.

We hear frequent reports these Days of House-burnings, Assaults, and similar Alarums in the Wake of the recent War of Regulation. Governor Tryon officially pardoned some of those involved in the Conflict, but did nothing to prevent local Retribution against them; his Successor is still less able to deal with such Events—which are in any Case occurring in the Backcountry, far from his Palace in New Bern and thus the more easily ignored. (In all Justice, the Man doubtless has Troubles nearer at Hand to deal with.)

Still, while Settlers here are accustomed to defend themselves from the normal Threats of the Wilderness, the Occurrence of such random Attacks as these—and the Possibility of Irruption of the Indians, so close to the Treaty Line—is sufficient to unnerve them, and cause them to greet with Relief the Appearance of any Body willing to undertake the Role of public Protection. Hence the Vigilantes of the Committees are welcomed—at least to begin with.

I give you so much Detail by way of explaining my Thoughts regarding the Appointment. My friend Major MacDonald (late of the 32nd Cavalry) had told me that should I ultimately decline to become an Indian Agent, he would approach Mr. Richard Brown, Brown being in the way of doing substantial Trade with the Cherokee, and thus in a position of Acquaintance and presumed Trust that would predispose his Acceptance by the Indians.

My Acquaintance with Mr. Brown and his Brother inclines me to regard this Prospect with Alarm. With such Rise in Influence as such an Appointment would bring, Brown’s Stature in this unsettled Region might shortly become so great that no man could easily oppose him in any Venture—and that, I think, is dangerous.

My Son-in-law astutely observes that a Man’s sense of Morality tends to decrease as his Power increases, and I suspect that the Brothers Brown possess relatively little of the Former to begin with. It may be mere Hubris on my part, to assume that I have more. I have seen the corrosive Effects of Power upon a Man’s Soul—and I have felt its Burden, as you will understand, having borne it so often yourself. Still, if it is a choice between myself and Richard Brown, I suppose I must resort to the old Scottish Adage that the Devil you ken is better than the Devil you don’t.

I am likewise made uneasy at the Thought of the long Absences from Home which my new Duties must require. And yet I cannot in Conscience allow the People under my Dominion to be subject to the Vagaries and possible Injuries of Brown’s Committee.

I could of course convene my own such Committee—I think you would urge such a Course—but will not. Beyond the Inconvenience and Expense of such a Move, it would be Tantamount to declaring open War with the Browns, and I think that not prudent, not if I must be frequently away from home, leaving my Family unprotected. This new Appointment, though, will extend my own Influence, and—I trust—put some Limit to the Browns’ Ambitions.

So having reached this Decision, I sent Word at once to accept the Appointment, and essayed my first Visit to the Cherokee in the Office of Indian Agent during the last Month. My initial Reception was most Cordial, and I hope my Relations with the Villages will remain so.

I shall visit the Cherokee again in the Autumn. If you should have any Matters of Business that my new Office might assist, send to me regarding them, and rest assured that I shall make every Effort on your Behalf.

To more domestic Matters. Our small Population has nearly doubled, as the Result of an Influx of Settlers newly arrived from Scotland. While most desirable, this Incursion has caused no little Turmoil, the Newcomers being Fisher-folk from the Coast. To these, the Mountain Wilderness is full of Threat and Mystery, such Threats and Mysteries being personified by Pigs and Plowshares.

(With regard to Pigs, I am not sure but that I share their Views. The white Sow has lately taken up Residence beneath the Foundation of my House and there engages in such debauches that our Dinner is disturbed daily by hellish Noises resembling the Sounds of Souls in Torment. These Souls apparently being torn Limb from Limb and devoured by Demons beneath our Feet.)

Since I speak of Matters hellish, I must observe that our Newcomers are also, alas, stern Sons of the Covenant, to whom a Papist such as myself presents himself as one fully furnished with Horns and Tail. You will recall one Thomas Christie, I think, from Ardsmuir? By comparison of these stiff-necked Gentlemen, Mr. Christie appears the Soul of compassionate Generosity.

I had not thought to thank Providence for the Fact that my Son-in-law is Presbyterian by inclination, but I see now how true it is that the Almighty does indeed have Designs beyond the Ken of us poor mortals. While even Roger MacKenzie is a sadly depraved Libertine by their Lights, the new Tenants are at least able to speak to him without the Necessity of small Gestures and Signs intended to repel Evil, which are the constant Accompaniment to their Conversations with myself.

As for their Behavior with Respect to my Wife, you would think her the Witch of Endor, if not the Great Whore of Babylon. This, because they consider the Furnishments of her Surgery to be “Enchantments,” and were appalled at witnessing the Entrance therein of a Number of Cherokee, gaily festooned for visiting, who had come to Trade in such Arcana as Snakes’ Fangs and the Gallbladders of Bears.

My wife begs me express her Pleasure at your kind Compliments regarding Mr. Higgins’s improved Health—and still more, at your Offer to procure medicinal Substances for her from your Friend in Philadelphia. She bids me send you the enclosed List. As I cast an Eye upon this, I suspect that your supplying of her Desires will do nothing to allay the Suspicions of the Fisher-folk, but pray do not desist on that Account, as I think nothing save Time and Custom will decrease their Fears of her.

My Daughter likewise bids me express her Gratitude for your Present of the Phosphorus. I am not certain that I share this Sentiment, given that her Experiments with the Substance prove frighteningly incendiary to date. Fortunately, none of the Newcomers observed these Experiments, or they would be in no Doubt that Satan is indeed a particular Friend to me and mine.

In happier Vein, I congratulate you upon your latest Vintage, which is indeed drinkable. I send in return a Jug of Mrs. Bug’s best Cider, and a Bottle of the barrel-aged Three-year-old, which I flatter myself you will find less corrosive to the Gullet than the last Batch.

Your ob’t. servant,

J. Fraser

Postscriptum: I have had Report of a Gentleman who by Description resembles one Stephen Bonnet, this Man appearing briefly in Cross Creek last Month. If it was indeed the Gentleman, his Business is unknown, and he seems to have vanished without Trace; my Uncle-in-law, Duncan Innes, has made Inquiries in the Area, but writes to tell me that these have proved fruitless. Should you hear of anything in this Regard, I pray you will advise me at once.

18

VROOM!

From the Dreambook

Last night I dreamed of running water. Generally, this means I drank too much before I went to bed, but this was different. The water was coming from the faucet in the sink at home. I was helping Mama do the dishes; she was running hot water from the hose-sprayer over the plates, then handing them to me to dry; I could feel the hot china through the dish towel, and feel the mist of water on my face.

Mama’s hair was curling up like mad because of the humidity, and the pattern on the plates was the lumpy pink roses of the good wedding china. Mama didn’t let me wash that until I was ten or so, for fear I’d drop it, and when I got to wash it at last, I was so proud!

I can still see every last thing in the china cabinet in the living room: Mama’s great-grandfather’s hand-painted cake stand (he was an artist, she said, and won a competition with that cake stand, a hundred years ago), the dozen crystal goblets that Daddy’s mother left him, along with the cut-glass olive dish and the cup and saucer hand-painted with violets and gilt rims.

I was standing in front of it, putting away the china—but we didn’t keep the china in that cabinet; we kept it in the shelf over the oven—and the water was overflowing from the sink in the kitchen, and running out across the floor, puddling round my feet. Then it started to rise, and I was sloshing back and forth to the kitchen, kicking up the water so it sparkled like the cut-glass olive dish. The water got deeper and deeper, but nobody seemed to be worried; I wasn’t.

The water was warm, hot, in fact, I could see steam rising off it.

That’s all there was to the dream—but when I got up this morning, the water in the basin was so cold I had to warm water in a pan on the fire before I washed Jemmy. All the time I was checking the water on the fire, I kept remembering my dream, and all those gallons and gallons of hot, running water.

What I wonder is, these dreams I have about then—they seem so vivid and detailed; more than the dreams I have about now. Why do I see things that don’t exist anywhere except inside my brain?

What I wonder about the dreams is—all the new inventions people think up—how many of those things are made by people like me—like us? How many “inventions” are really memories, of the things we once knew? And—how many of us are there?

“IT ISN’T REALLY that hard to have hot, running water. In theory.”

“No? I suppose not.” Roger only half-heard, concentrated as he was on the object taking shape beneath his knife.

“I mean, it would be a big, horrible job to do. But it’s simple in concept. Dig ditches or build sluices—and around here, it would probably be sluices. . . .”

“It would?” Here was the tricky bit. He held his breath, chiseling delicate, tiny slivers of wood away, one shaving at a time.

“No metal,” Bree said patiently. “If you had metal, you could make surface pipes. But I bet there isn’t enough metal in the whole colony of North Carolina to make the piping you’d need to bring water from the creek to the Big House. Let alone a boiler! And if there was, it would cost a fortune.”

“Mmm.” Feeling that this was perhaps not an adequate response, Roger added hastily, “But there’s some metal available. Jamie’s still, for instance.”

His wife snorted.

“Yeah. I asked him where he got it—he said he won it in a high-stakes game of loo against a ship’s captain in Charleston. Think I could travel four hundred miles to bet my silver bracelet against a few hundred feet of rolled copper?”

One more sliver . . . two . . . the smallest scrape with the tip of the knife . . . ah. The tiny circle came free of the matrix. It turned!

“Er . . . sure,” he said, belatedly realizing that she’d asked him a question. “Why not?”

She burst out laughing.

“You haven’t heard one single word I’ve said, have you?”

“Oh, sure I have,” he protested. “‘Ditch,’ ye said. And ‘water.’ I’m sure I remember that one.”

She snorted again, though mildly.

“Well, you’d have to do it, anyway.”

“Do what?” His thumb sought the little wheel, and set it spinning.

“Gamble. No one’s going to let me into a high-stakes card game.”

“Thank God,” he said, in reflex.

“Bless your little Presbyterian heart,” she said tolerantly, shaking her head. “You’re not any kind of a gambler, Roger, are you?”

“Oh, and you are, I suppose.” He said it jokingly, wondering even as he did so why he should feel vaguely reproached by her remark.

She merely smiled at that, wide mouth curving in a way that suggested untold volumes of wicked enterprise. He felt a slight sense of unease at that. She was a gambler, though so far . . . He glanced involuntarily at the large, charred spot in the middle of the table.

“That was an accident,” she said defensively.

“Oh, aye. At least your eyebrows have grown back.”

“Hmpf. I’m nearly there. One more batch—”

“That’s what ye said last time.” He was aware that he was treading on dangerous ground, but seemed unable to stop.

She took a slow, deep breath, gazing at him through slightly narrowed eyes, like one taking the range before firing off some major piece of artillery. Then she seemed to think better of whatever she had been going to say; her features relaxed and she stretched out her hand toward the object he was holding.

“What’s that you’ve been making?”

“Just a wee bawbee for Jem.” He let her take it, feeling the warmth of modest pride. “The wheels all turn.”

“Mine, Daddy?” Jemmy had been wallowing on the floor with Adso the cat, who was tolerant of small children. Hearing his name, though, he abandoned the cat, who promptly escaped through the window, and popped up to see the new toy.

“Oh, look!” Brianna ran the little car over the palm of her hand and lifted it, letting all four tiny wheels spin free. Jem grabbed eagerly for it, pulling at the wheels.

“Careful, careful! You’ll pull them off! Here, let me show you.” Crouching, Roger took the car and rolled it along the hearthstones. “See? Vroom. Vroom-vroom!”

“Broom!” Jemmy echoed. “Lemme do it, Daddy, let me!”

Roger surrendered the toy to Jemmy, smiling.

“Broom! Broom-broom!” The little boy shoved the car enthusiastically, then, losing his grip on it, watched open-mouthed as it zoomed to the end of the hearthstone by itself, hit the edge, and flipped over. Squealing with delight, he scampered after the new toy.

Still smiling, Roger glanced up, to see Brianna looking after Jem, a rather odd expression on her face. She felt his eyes on her, and looked down at him.

“Vroom?” she said quietly, and he felt a small internal jolt, like a punch in the stomach.

“Whatsit, Daddy, what’s it?” Jemmy had recaptured the toy and ran up to him, clutching it to his chest.

“It’s a . . . a . . .” he began, helpless. It was in fact a crude replica of a Morris Minor, but even the word “car,” let alone “automobile,” had no meaning here. And the internal combustion engine, with its pleasantly evocative noises, was at least a century away.

“I guess it’s a vroom, honey,” said Bree, a distinct tone of sympathy in her voice. He felt the gentle weight of her hand, resting on his head.

“Er . . . yeah, that’s right,” he said, and cleared a thickening in his throat. “It’s a vroom.”

“Broom,” said Jemmy happily, and knelt to roll it down the hearth again. “Broom-broom!”

STEAM. It would have to be steam- or wind-powered; a windmill would work, maybe, to pump water into the system, but if I want hot water, there would be steam anyway—why not use it?

Containment is the problem; wood burns and leaks, clay won’t hold against pressure. I need metal, that’s all there is to it. What would Mrs. Bug do, I wonder, if I took the laundry cauldron? Well, I know what she’d do, and a steam explosion is no comparison; besides, we do need to do the laundry. I’ll have to dream up something else.

19

MAKING HAY

MAJOR MACDONALD returned on the final day of haymaking. I was just maneuvering my way along the side of the house with an immense basket of bread, when I saw him near the trailhead, tying up his horse to a tree. He lifted his hat to me and bowed, then came across the dooryard, looking curiously round at the preparations taking place.

We had set up trestles under the chestnut trees, with boards laid across them for tables, and a constant stream of women scurried to and fro like ants between the house and yard, fetching food. The sun was setting, and the men would be in soon for a celebratory feast; filthy, exhausted, starving—and exhilarated by the end of their labors.

I greeted the Major with a nod, and accepted with relief his offer to carry the bread to the tables for me.

“Haying, is it?” he said, in answer to my explanation. A nostalgic smile spread across his weathered face. “I remember the haymaking, from when I was a lad. But that was in Scotland, aye? We’d seldom such glorious weather as this for it.” He looked up into the blazing deep blue bowl of the August sky above. It really was perfect haying weather, hot and dry.

“It’s wonderful,” I said, sniffing appreciatively. The scent of fresh hay was everywhere—and so was the hay; there were shimmering mounds of it in every shed, everyone carried bits of it on their clothes, and small trails of scattered straw lay everywhere. Now the smell of cut, dry hay was mingled with the delectable scent of the barbecue that had been simmering underground overnight, the fresh bread, and the heady tang of Mrs. Bug’s cider. Marsali and Bree were bringing down jugs of it from the springhouse, where it had been cooling, along with buttermilk and beer.

“I see I’ve chosen my time well,” the Major remarked, viewing all this effort with approval.

“If you came to eat, yes,” I said, rather amused. “If you came to talk to Jamie, I rather think you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

He looked at me, puzzled, but had no opportunity to inquire further; I had caught another glimpse of movement at the trailhead. The Major turned, seeing the direction of my glance, and frowned slightly.

“Why, it’s that fellow with the brand on his face,” he said, wary disapproval in his voice. “I saw him down at Coopersville, but he saw me first, and steered well clear. Will ye have me drive him off, mum?” He set down the bread and was already settling his sword belt on his hip, when I gripped his forearm.

“You’ll do no such thing, Major,” I said sharply. “Mr. Higgins is a friend.”

He gave me a flat look, then dropped his arm.

“As ye like, Mrs. Fraser, of course,” he said coolly, and picking up the bread again, went off toward the tables.

Rolling my eyes in exasperation, I went to greet the newcomer. Plainly Bobby Higgins could have joined the Major on the path to the Ridge; just as plainly, he had chosen not to. He had become a little more familiar with mules, I saw; he was riding one and leading another, laden with a promising array of panniers and boxes.

“His Lordship’s compliments, mum,” he said, saluting me smartly as he slid off. From the corner of my eye, I saw MacDonald watching—and his small start of recognition at the military gesture. So, now he knew Bobby for a soldier, and doubtless would ferret out his background in short order. I repressed a sigh; I couldn’t mend matters; they’d have to settle it between themselves—if there was anything to settle.

“You’re looking well, Bobby,” I said, smiling as I pushed aside my disquiet. “No difficulties with the riding, I hope?”

“Oh, no, mum!” He beamed. “And I’s not fallen out once since I left you last!” “Fallen out” meant “fainted,” and I congratulated him on the state of his health, looking him over as he unloaded the pack mule with deft efficiency. He did seem much better; pink and fresh-skinned as a child, bar the ugly brand on his cheek.

“Yonder lobsterback,” he said, affecting insouciance as he set down a box. “He’s known to ye, is he, mum?”

“That’s Major MacDonald,” I said, carefully not looking in the Major’s direction; I could feel his stare boring into my back. “Yes. He . . . does things for the Governor, I believe. Not regular army, I mean; he’s a half-pay officer.”

That bit of information seemed to ease Bobby’s mind a bit. He took a breath, as though to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, he reached into his shirt and withdrew a sealed letter, which he handed over.

“That’s for you,” he explained. “From his Lordship. Is Miss Lizzie by any chance about?” His eyes were already searching the flock of girls and women readying the tables.

“Yes, she was in the kitchen last I saw,” I replied, a small uneasy feeling skittering down my backbone. “She’ll be out in a minute. But . . . you do know she’s betrothed, don’t you, Bobby? Her fiancé will be coming with the other men for supper.”

He met my eyes and smiled with singular sweetness.

“Oh, aye, mum, I know that well enough. On’y thought as I s’ould thank her for her kindness when I last was here.”

“Oh,” I said, not trusting that smile in the slightest. Bobby was a very handsome lad, blind eye or not—and he had been a soldier. “Well . . . good.”

Before I could say more, I caught the sound of male voices, coming through the trees. It wasn’t precisely singing; sort of a rhythmic chant. I wasn’t sure what it was—there was a lot of Gaelic “Ho-ro!” and the like—but all of them seemed to be bellowing along in a cordial fashion.

Haymaking was a novel concept to the new tenants, who were much more accustomed to rake kelp than scythe grass. Jamie, Arch, and Roger had shepherded them through the process, though, and I had been asked to stitch no more than a handful of minor wounds, so I assumed it had been a success—no hands or feet lopped off, a few shouting matches, but no fistfights, and no more than the usual amount of hay trampled or ruined.

All of them seemed in good spirits as they poured into the dooryard, bedraggled, sweat-soaked, and thirsty as sponges. Jamie was in the thick of them, laughing and staggering as someone pushed him. He caught sight of me, and a huge grin split his sun-browned face. In a stride, he had reached me and swept me into an exuberant embrace, redolent of hay, horses, and sweat.

“Done, by God!” he said, and kissed me soundly. “Christ, I need a drink. And nay, that’s no blasphemy, wee Roger,” he added, with a glance behind him. “It’s heartfelt gratitude and desperate need, aye?”

“Aye. First things first, though, hm?” Roger had appeared behind Jamie, his voice so hoarse that it was barely audible in the general uproar. He swallowed, grimacing.

“Oh, aye.” Jamie shot a quick look at Roger, assessing, then shrugged and strode out into the center of the yard.

“Eìsd ris! Eìsd ris!” bellowed Kenny Lindsay, seeing him. Evan and Murdo joined him, clapping their hands and shouting “Hear him!” loudly enough that the crowd began to subside and pay attention.

“I say the prayer from my mouth,

I say the prayer from my heart,

I say the prayer to Thee Thyself,

O, Healing Hand, O Son of the God of salvation.”

He didn’t raise his voice much above its normal speaking level, but everyone quieted at once, so the words rang clear.

“Thou Lord God of the angels,

Spread over me Thy linen robe;

Shield me from every famine,

Free me from every spectral shape.

Strengthen me in every good,

Encompass me in every strait,

Safeguard me in every ill,

And from every enmity restrain me.”

There was a stirring of faint approval in the crowd; I saw a few of the fisher-folk bow their heads, though their eyes stayed fixed on him.

“Be Thou between me and all things grisly,

Be Thou between me and all things mean,

Be Thou between me and all things gruesome

Coming darkly toward me.

“O God of the weak,

O God of the lowly,

O God of the righteous,

O shield of homesteads:

“Thou art calling upon us

In the voice of glory,

With the mouth of mercy

Of Thy beloved Son.”

I glanced at Roger, who was nodding slightly with approval, as well. Evidently, they’d agreed on it together. Sensible; it would be a prayer familiar in form to the fisher-folk, and nothing specifically Catholic about it.

Jamie spread his arms, quite unconsciously, and the breeze caught the worn damp linen of his shirt as he tilted back his head and raised his face to the sky, open with joy.

“O may I find rest everlasting

In the home of Thy Trinity,

In the Paradise of the godly,

In the Sun-garden of Thy love!”

“Amen!” said Roger, as loudly as he could, and there were gratified murmurs of “amen” round the yard. Then Major MacDonald raised the tankard of cider he was holding, called “Slàinte!” and drained it.

Festivity became general after that. I found myself sitting on a cask, Jamie on the grass at my feet, with a platter of food and a constantly refilled mug of cider.

“Bobby Higgins is here,” I told him, catching sight of Bobby in the midst of a small group of admiring young ladies. “Do you see Lizzie anywhere?”

“No,” he said, stifling a yawn. “Why?”

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