A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 13


“He asked for her particularly.”

“Then I’m sure he’ll find her. Will ye have a bit o’ meat, Sassenach?” He held up a large rib bone, brow cocked inquiringly.

“I’ve had some,” I assured him, and he at once tore into it, addressing himself to the vinegar-spiced barbecue as though he hadn’t eaten for a week.

“Has Major MacDonald spoken to you?”

“No,” he said, mouth full, and swallowed. “He’ll keep. There’s Lizzie—wi’ the McGillivrays.”

I felt reassured by that. The McGillivrays—particularly Frau Ute—would certainly discourage any inappropriate attentions to their new intended daughter-in-law. Lizzie was chatting and laughing with Robin McGillivray, who was smiling at her in fatherly fashion, while his son Manfred ate and drank with single-minded appetite. Frau Ute, I saw, was keeping a sharp and interested eye on Lizzie’s father, who was sitting on the porch nearby, cozily side by side with a tall, rather plain-faced German lady.

“Who’s that with Joseph Wemyss?” I asked, nudging Jamie with my knee to direct his attention.

He narrowed his eyes against the sun’s glare, looking, then shrugged.

“I dinna ken. She’s German; she must ha’ come with Ute McGillivray. Matchmaking, aye?” He tilted up his mug and drank, sighing with bliss.

“Do you think so?” I looked at the strange woman with interest. She certainly seemed to be getting on well with Joseph—and he with her. His thin face was alight as he gestured, explaining something to her, and her neatly capped head was bent toward him, a smile on her lips.

I didn’t always approve of Ute McGillivray’s methods, which tended toward the juggernaut, but I had to admire the painstaking intricacy of her plans. Lizzie and Manfred would marry next spring, and I had wondered how Joseph would fare then; Lizzie was his whole life.

He might, of course, go with her when she married. She and Manfred would simply live in the McGillivrays’ large house, and I imagined that they would find room for Joseph, too. Still, he would be torn, not wanting to leave us—and while any able-bodied man could always be of use on a homestead, he was by no means a natural farmer, let alone a gunsmith, like Manfred and his father. If he himself were to wed, though . . .

I gave Ute McGillivray a glance, and saw her watching Mr. Wemyss and his inamorata with the contented expression of a puppet master whose puppets are dancing precisely to her tune.

Someone had left a pitcher of cider beside us. I refilled Jamie’s mug, then my own. It was wonderful, a dark, cloudy amber, sweet and pungent and with the bite of a particularly subtle serpent to it. I let the cool liquid trickle down my throat and bloom inside my head like a silent flower.

There was much talk and laughter, and I noticed that while the new tenants still kept to their own family groups, there was now a little more blending, as the men who had been working side-by-side for the last two weeks maintained their cordial relations, these social courtesies fueled by cider. The new tenants mostly regarded wine as a mocker, strong drink—whisky, rum, or brandy—as raging, but everyone drank beer and cider. Cider was wholesome, one of the women had told me, handing a mug to her small son. I gave it half an hour, I thought, sipping slowly, before they started dropping like flies.

Jamie made a small amused sound, and I looked down at him. He nodded at the far side of the dooryard, and I looked to see that Bobby Higgins had disentangled himself from his admirers, and by some alchemical legerdemain had managed to abstract Lizzie from the midst of the McGillivrays. They were standing in the shadow of the chestnut trees, talking.

I looked back at the McGillivrays. Manfred was leaning against the foundation of the house, head nodding over his plate. His father had curled up beside him on the ground and was snoring peacefully. The girls chatted around them, passing food to and fro over the drooping heads of their husbands, all in various stages of impending somnolence. Ute had moved to the porch, and was talking to Joseph and his companion.

I glanced back. Lizzie and Bobby were only talking, and there was a respectful distance between them. But there was something about the way he bent toward her, and the way she half-turned away from him, then back, swinging a fold of her skirt one-handed . . .

“Oh, dear,” I said. I shifted a little, getting my feet under me, but unsure whether I ought really to go and interrupt them. After all, they were in plain sight, and—

“Three things astonish me, nay four, sayeth the prophet.” Jamie’s hand squeezed my thigh, and I looked down to see that he was also watching the couple under the chestnut trees, his eyes half-closed. “The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent on the rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea—and the way of a man with a maid.”

“Oh, so I’m not imagining it,” I said dryly. “Do you think I’d best do something?”

“Mmphm.” He took a deep breath and straightened up, shaking his head vigorously to wake himself. “Ah. No, Sassenach. If wee Manfred willna take the trouble to guard his woman, it’s no your place to do it for him.”

“Yes, I quite agree. I’m only thinking, if Ute should see them . . . or Joseph?” I wasn’t sure what Mr. Wemyss would do; I thought Ute would probably make a major scene.

“Oh.” He blinked, swaying a little. “Aye, I suppose ye’re right.” He turned his head, searching, then spotting Ian, lifted his chin in summons.

Ian had been sprawled dreamily on the grass a few feet away, next to a pile of greasy rib bones, but now rolled over and crawled obligingly to us.

“Mm?” he said. His thick brown hair had fallen half out of its binding, and several cowlicks were sticking straight up, the rest fallen disreputably over one eye.

Jamie nodded in the direction of the chestnut trees.

“Go and ask wee Lizzie to mend your hand, Ian.”

Ian glanced blearily down at his hand; there was a fresh scratch across the back of it, though it was long since clotted. Then he looked in the direction Jamie indicated.

“Oh,” he said. He remained on hands and knees, eyes narrowed thoughtfully, then slowly rose to his feet, and pulled the binding off his hair. Casually shoving it back with one hand, he strolled in the direction of the chestnut trees.

They were much too far away to hear anything, but we could see. Bobby and Lizzie parted like the waves of the Red Sea as Ian’s tall, gangly form stepped purposefully between them. The three seemed to chat amiably for a moment, then Lizzie and Ian departed for the house, Lizzie giving Bobby a casual wave of the hand—and a brief, backward glance. Bobby stood for a moment looking after her, rocking thoughtfully on his heels, then shook his head and made for the cider.

The cider was taking its toll. I’d expected every man in the place to be laid out cold by nightfall; during haying, men commonly fell asleep in their plates from sheer exhaustion. As it was, there was still plenty of talk and laughter, but the soft twilight glow beginning to suffuse the dooryard showed an increasing number of bodies strewn in the grass.

Rollo was gnawing contentedly on Ian’s discarded bones. Brianna sat a little way away; Roger lay with his head in her lap, sound asleep. The collar of his shirt was open, the ragged rope scar still vivid across his neck. Bree smiled at me, her hand gently stroking his glossy black hair, picking bits of hay out of it. Jemmy was nowhere to be seen—neither was Germain, as I ascertained with a quick look around. Luckily the phosphorus was under lock and key, in the top of my highest cupboard.

Jamie laid his own head against my thigh, warm and heavy, and I put my hand on his hair, smiling back at Bree. I heard him snort faintly, and looked in the direction of his gaze.

“For such a wee small lass, yon Lizzie does cause a good deal of trouble,” he said.

Bobby Higgins was standing beside one of the tables, drinking cider, and quite evidently unaware that he was being stalked by the Beardsley twins. The two of them were slinking like foxes through the wood, not quite out of sight, converging on him from opposite directions.

One—Jo, probably—stepped out suddenly beside Bobby, startling him into spilling his drink. He frowned, wiping at the wet splotch on his shirt, while Jo leaned close, obviously muttering menaces and warnings. Looking offended, Bobby turned away from him, only to be confronted by Kezzie on the other side.

“I’m not sure it’s Lizzie who’s causing the trouble,” I said defensively. “She only talked to him, after all.” Bobby’s face was growing noticeably flushed. He set down the mug he’d been drinking from and drew himself up a little, one hand folding into a fist.

The Beardsleys crowded closer, with the evident intention of forcing him into the wood. Glancing warily from one twin to the other, he took a step back, putting a solid tree trunk at his back.

I glanced down; Jamie was watching through half-closed lids, with an expression of dreamy detachment. He sighed deeply, his eyes closed altogether, and he went suddenly and completely limp, the weight of him heavy against me.

The reason for this sudden absquatulation loomed up a second later: MacDonald, ruddy with food and cider, his red coat glowing like a cinder in the sunset light. He looked down at Jamie, peacefully slumbering against my leg, and shook his head. He turned slowly round, surveying the scene.

“‘Strewth,” he said mildly. “I’ll tell ye, mum, I’ve seen battlefields with much less carnage.”

“Oh, have you?” His appearance had distracted me, but at the mention of “carnage,” I glanced back. Bobby and the Beardsley twins had disappeared, vanished like wisps of mist in the gloaming. Well, if they were beating each other to pulp in the wood, I was sure I’d hear about it before too long.

With a small shrug, MacDonald bent, took Jamie by the shoulders, and eased him off me, laying him down in the grass with surprising gentleness.

“May I?” he asked politely, and upon my nod of assent, sat down beside me on the other side, arms companionably hooked round his knees.

He was neatly dressed, as always, wig and all, but the collar of his shirt was grimy and the skirts of his coat frayed at the hem and spattered with mud.

“A great deal of travel these days, Major?” I asked, making conversation. “You look rather tired, if you’ll pardon my mentioning it.”

I had surprised him in the middle of a yawn; he swallowed it, blinking, then laughed.

“Aye, mum. I’ve been in the saddle for the last month, and seen a bed perhaps one night in three.”

He did look tired, even in the soft sunset light; the lines of his face were cut deep with fatigue, the flesh beneath his eyes sagging and smudged. He was not a handsome man, but normally had a brash self-assurance that lent him an attractive air. Now he looked what he was: a half-pay soldier pushing fifty, lacking a regiment or regular duty, struggling for any small connections that might hold some hope of advancement.

I wouldn’t normally have spoken to him of his business, but sympathy moved me to ask, “Are you working a lot on behalf of Governor Martin these days?”

He nodded, and took another gulp of cider, breathing deeply after it.

“Aye, mum. The Governor has been kind enough to charge me with bringing him news of conditions in the backcountry—and has done me the signal favor of accepting my advice, now and then.” He glanced at Jamie, who had curled himself up like a hedgehog and commenced to snore, and smiled.

“With regard to my husband’s appointment as Indian Agent, you mean? We do thank you, Major.”

He waved a casual hand in dismissal of my thanks.

“Ah, no, mum; that had nothing to do wi’ the Governor, save indirectly. Such appointments are the province of the Superintendent of the Southern Department. Though it is of course a matter of interest to the Governor,” he added, taking another sip, “to hear news of the Indians.”

“I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it in the morning,” I assured him, with a nod at Jamie.

“Indeed, mum.” He hesitated for a moment. “Would ye ken . . . did Mr. Fraser perhaps mention, in his conversations in the villages—was there any mention of . . . burnings?”

I sat up straight, the cider buzz disappearing from my head.

“What’s happened? Have there been more?”

He nodded, and rubbed a hand tiredly down his face, scrubbing at the sprout of whiskers.

“Aye, two—but the one was a barn-burning, down below Salem. One o’ the Moravian brethren’s. And from all I can learn of the matter, ’twas likely some of the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who’ve settled in Surry County. There’s a wee arsebite of a preacher who’s got them riled about the Moravians—Godless heathen that they are—” He grinned suddenly at that, but then sobered again.

“There’s been trouble brewing in Surry County for months. To the point that the brethren have been petitioning the Governor to redraw the boundary lines, so as to put them all in Rowan County. The line between Surry and Rowan goes right through their land, ken? And the sheriff in Surry is . . .” He twiddled a hand.

“Perhaps not so keen in the performance of his duty as he might be?” I suggested. “At least where the Moravians are concerned?”

“He’s the arsebite’s cousin,” MacDonald said, and drained his cup. “Ye’ve had no trouble wi’ your new tenants, by the way?” he added, lowering it. He smiled crookedly, looking round the dooryard at the small groups of women, chattering contentedly as their men slept by their feet. “It would appear ye’ve made them welcome.”

“Well, they are Presbyterians, and fairly vehement about it—but they haven’t tried to burn the house down yet, at least.”

I took a quick glance at the porch, where Mr. Wemyss and his companion still sat, heads close in conversation. I thought Mr. Wemyss was probably the only man still conscious, bar the Major himself. The lady was plainly a German, but not, I thought, a Moravian; they very seldom married outside their community, nor did the women often travel far.

“Unless you think the Presbyterians have formed a gang for the purpose of purging the countryside of Papists and Lutherans—and you don’t think that, do you?”

He smiled briefly at that, though without much humor.

“No. But then, I was raised Presbyterian myself, mum.”

“Oh,” I said. “Er . . . a drop more cider, Major?”

He held out his cup without demur.

“The other burning—that seems much like the others,” he said, graciously choosing to overlook my remark. “An isolated homestead. A man living alone. But this one was just over the Treaty Line.”

This last was said with a significant glance, and I looked involuntarily at Jamie. He’d told me that the Cherokee were upset about settlers intruding into their territory.

“I shall ask your husband in the morning, of course, mum,” MacDonald said, correctly interpreting my glance. “But perhaps ye’d ken whether he’s heard any references . . . ?”

“Veiled threats from a Snowbird chief,” I confessed. “He wrote to John Stuart about them. But nothing specific. When did this latest burning happen?”

He shrugged.

“No telling. I heard of it three weeks ago, but the man who told me had heard of it a month before that—and he’d not seen it, only heard from someone else.”

He scratched thoughtfully at his jaw.

“Someone should go and inspect the place, perhaps.”

“Mm,” I said, not bothering to hide the skepticism in my voice. “And you think it’s Jamie’s job, do you?”

“I shouldna be so presumptuous as to instruct Mr. Fraser in his duties, mum,” he said, with the hint of a smile. “But I will suggest to him that the situation may be of interest, aye?”

“Yes, you do that,” I muttered. Jamie had planned another quick trip to the Snowbird villages, squeezed in between harvesting and the onset of the cold weather. The notion of marching into the village and quizzing Bird-who-sings-in-the-morning about a burned homestead seemed more than slightly risky, viewed from my perspective.

A slight chill made me shiver, and I gulped the rest of my own cider, wishing suddenly that it was hot. The sun was fully set now, and the air had grown cool, but that wasn’t what was cooling my blood.

What if MacDonald’s suspicions were right? If the Cherokee had been burning homesteads? And if Jamie were to show up, asking inconvenient questions . . . .

I looked at the house, standing solid and serene, its windows glowing with candlelight, a pale bulwark against the darkening woods beyond.

It is with grief that the news is received of the deaths by fire of James MacKenzie Fraser and his wife, Claire Fraser, in a conflagration that destroyed their house. . . .

The fireflies were coming out, drifting like cool green sparks in the shadows, and I looked upward involuntarily, to see a spray of red and yellow ones from the chimney. Whenever I thought of that gruesome clipping—and I tried not to, nor to count the days between now and January 21 of 1776—I had thought of the fire as occurring by accident. Such accidents were more than common, ranging from hearth fires run amok and candlesticks tipped over, to blazes caused by the summer lightning storms. It hadn’t consciously occurred to me before that it might be a deliberate act—an act of murder.

I moved my foot enough to nudge Jamie. He stirred in his sleep, reached out one hand, and clasped it warmly round my ankle, then subsided with a contented groan.

“Stand between me and all things grisly,” I said, half-under my breath.

“Slàinte,” said the Major, and drained his cup again.



PROPELLED BY MAJOR MACDONALD’S news, Jamie and Ian departed two days later for a quick visit to Bird-who-sings-in-the-morning, and the Major went off on his further mysterious errands, leaving me with Bobby Higgins for assistance.

I was dying to dig into the crates Bobby had brought, but what with one thing and another—the white pig’s demented attempt to eat Adso, a goat with infected teats, a strange green mold that had got into the last batch of cheese, the completion of a much-needed summer kitchen, and a stern conversation with the Beardsleys regarding the treatment of guests, among other things—it was more than a week before I found leisure to unpack Lord John’s present and read his letter.

September 4, 1773

From Lord John Grey, Mount Josiah Plantation

To Mrs. James Fraser

My dear Madam—

I trust that the Articles you requested will have arrived intact. Mr. Higgins is somewhat nervous of carrying the Oil of Vitriol, as I understand he has had some evil Experience connected with it, but we have packed the Bottle with some Care, leaving it sealed as it came from England.

After examining the exquisite Drawings you sent—do I detect your daughter’s elegant Hand in them?—I rode to Williamsburg, in order to consult with a famous Glassmaker who abides there under the nomen (doubtless fabulous) of Blogweather. Mr. Blogweather allowed that the Pelican Retort would be simplicity itself, scarcely a fair Test of his Skill, but was enchanted by the Requirements of the distilling Apparatus, particularly the detachable Coil. He apprehended immediately the Desirability of such a Device in case of Breakage, and has made three of them.

Pray consider these my Gift—a most insignificant Demonstration of my abiding Gratitude for your many Kindnesses, both toward myself and Mr. Higgins.

Your most humble and obedient servant,

John Grey

Postscriptum: I have thus far restrained my sense of vulgar Curiosity, but I do venture to hope that on some future Occasion, you may possibly gratify me by explaining the Purpose to which you intend these Articles be put.

THEY HAD PACKED WITH some care. Pried open, the crates proved to be filled with an immense quantity of straw, the bits of glassware and sealed bottles gleaming within, cradled like roc’s eggs.

“You will be careful with that, won’t ’ee, mum?” Bobby inquired anxiously, as I lifted out a squat, heavy, brown-glass bottle, the cork heavily sealed with red wax. “It’s turrible noxious, that stuff.”

“Yes, I know.” Standing on tiptoe, I boosted the bottle up onto a high shelf, safe from marauding children or cats. “Have you seen it used, then, Bobby?”

His lips drew in tight, and he shook his head.

“Not to say used, mum. But I’ve seen what it does. Was a . . . a lass, in London, what I come to know a bit, whilst we was a-waitin’ the ship to carry us to America. Half her face pretty and smooth as a buttercup but t’other side was so scarred you could scarce look at it. Like as it was melted in a fire, but she said ’twas vitriol.” He glanced up at the bottle, and swallowed visibly. “Another whore’d thrown it on her, she said, ’cause of jealousy.”

He shook his head again, sighing, and reached for the broom to sweep up the scattered straw.

“Well, you needn’t worry,” I assured him. “I don’t propose to throw it at anyone.”

“Oh, no, mum!” He was quite shocked. “I s’ould never think that!”

I disregarded this reassurance, involved in delving for more treasure.

“Oh, look,” I said, enchanted. I held in my hands the fruit of Mr. Blogweather’s artistry: a globe of glass, the size of my head, blown to perfect symmetry and lacking even the hint of a bubble. There was a faint blue tinge to the glass, and I could see my own distorted reflection, wide-nosed and bug-eyed, like a mermaid peering out.

“Aye, mum,” said Bobby, dutifully peering at the retort. “It’s, er . . . big, in’t it?”

“It’s perfect. Just perfect!” Rather than being cut off cleanly from the blower’s pipe, the neck of the globe had been drawn out into a thick-walled tube about two inches long and an inch in diameter. The edges and interior surface of this had been . . . sanded? Ground? I’d no idea what Mr. Blogweather had done, but the result was a silky, opaque surface that would form a lovely seal when a similarly finished piece was inserted into it.

My hands were damp with excitement and nervousness, lest I drop the precious thing. I clutched a fold of my apron round it, and turned to and fro, debating where best to put it. I hadn’t expected one so large; I should need Bree or one of the men to make me a suitable support.

“It has to go over a small fire,” I explained, frowning at the little brazier I used for brewing. “But the temperature is important; a charcoal bed may be too hard to keep at a steady heat.” I placed the big ball in my cupboard, safely behind a row of bottles. “I think it will have to be an alcohol lamp—but it’s bigger than I thought, I’ll have to have a good-size lamp to heat it. . . .”

I became aware that Bobby was not listening to my babbling, his attention having been distracted by something outside. He was frowning at something, and I came up behind him, peering through the open window to see what it was.

I should have guessed; Lizzie Wemyss was out on the grass, churning butter under the chestnut trees, and Manfred McGillivray was with her.

I glanced at the pair, engaged in cheerful conversation, then at Bobby’s somber countenance. I cleared my throat.

“Perhaps you’d open the other crate for me, Bobby?”

“Eh?” His attention was still fixed on the pair outside.

“Crate,” I repeated patiently. “That one.” I nudged it with my toe.

“Crate . . . oh! Oh, aye, mum, to be sure.” Pulling his gaze from the window, he set about the task, looking glum.

I took the rest of the glassware from the open crate, shaking off the straw and putting globes, retorts, flasks, and coils carefully into a high cupboard—but I kept an eye on Bobby as I did so, pondering this newly revealed situation. I hadn’t thought his feelings for Lizzie were more than a passing attraction.

And perhaps it was no more than that, I reminded myself. But if it was . . . Despite myself, I glanced through the window, only to discover that the pair had become a trio.

“Ian!” I exclaimed. Bobby glanced up, startled, but I was already heading for the door, hastily brushing straw from my clothes.

If Ian was back, Jamie was—

He came through the front door just as I barreled into the hallway, and grabbed me round the waist, kissing me with sun-dusty enthusiasm and sandpaper whiskers.

“You’re back,” I said, rather inanely.

“I am, and there are Indians just behind me,” he said, clutching my bottom with both hands and rasping his whiskers fervently against my cheek. “God, what I’d give for a quarter of an hour alone wi’ ye, Sassenach! My balls are burst—ah. Mr. Higgins. I, um, didna see ye there.”

He let go and straightened abruptly, sweeping off his hat and smacking it against his thigh in an exaggerated pantomime of casualness.

“No, zur,” Bobby said morosely. “Mr. Ian’s back, as well, is he?” He didn’t sound as though this was particularly good news; if Ian’s arrival had distracted Lizzie from Manfred—and it had—it did nothing to redirect her attention to Bobby.

Lizzie had abandoned her churn to poor Manfred, who was turning the crank with an air of obvious resentment, as she went laughing off in the direction of the stable with Ian, presumably to show him the new calf that had arrived during his absence.

“Indians,” I said, belatedly catching what Jamie had said. “What Indians?”

“A half-dozen of the Cherokee,” he replied. “What’s this?” He nodded at the trail of loose straw leading out of my surgery.

“Oh, that. That,” I said happily, “is ether. Or going to be. We’re feeding the Indians, I suppose?”

“Aye. I’ll tell Mrs. Bug. But there’s a young woman with them that they’ve fetched along for ye to tend.”

“Oh?” He was already striding down the hall toward the kitchen, and I hurried to keep up. “What’s the matter with her?”

“Toothache,” he said briefly, and pushed open the kitchen door. “Mrs. Bug! Cá bhfuil tú? Ether, Sassenach? Ye dinna mean phlogiston, do you?”

“I don’t think that I do,” I said, trying to recall what on earth phlogiston was. “I’ve told you about anesthesia, though, I know—that’s what ether is, a sort of anesthetic; puts people to sleep so you can do surgery without hurting them.”

“Verra useful in case of the toothache,” Jamie observed. “Where’s the woman gone to? Mrs. Bug!”

“So it would be, but it will take some time to make. We’ll have to make do with whisky for the moment. Mrs. Bug is in the summer kitchen, I expect; it’s bread day. And speaking of alcohol—” He was already out the back door, and I scampered across the stoop after him. “I’ll need quite a bit of high-quality alcohol, for the ether. Can you bring me a barrel of the new stuff tomorrow?”

“A barrel? Christ, Sassenach, what d’ye mean to do, bathe in it?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Or rather not me—the oil of vitriol. You pour it gently into a bath of hot alcohol, and it—”

“Oh, Mr. Fraser! I did think as how I heard someone a-callin’.” Mrs. Bug appeared suddenly with a basket of eggs over one arm, beaming. “It’s pleased I am to see ye home again safe!”

“And glad to be so, Mrs. Bug,” he assured her. “Can we be feeding a half-dozen guests for supper?”

Her eyes went wide for a moment, then narrowed in calculation.

“Sausage,” she declared. “And neeps. Here, wee Bobby, come and make yourself useful.” Handing me the eggs, she seized Bobby, who had come out of the house after us, by the sleeve and towed him off toward the turnip patch.