A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 19

   

Still, I tempered my vocal response, in the interests of my patient’s rest.

“Where did that Bible come from?” I asked, though the answer was obvious. Jenny must have sent it from Lallybroch; her last parcel had arrived a few days before, while I was visiting Salem.

Jamie answered the question I’d really asked, sighing so his breath stirred my hair.

“It gave me a queer turn to see it, when I came to it among the books my sister sent. I couldna quite decide what to do with it, aye?”

Little wonder if it had given him a turn.

“Why did she send it, did she say?” My shoulders were beginning to relax, the ache between them dulling. I felt him shrug behind me.

“She sent it with some other books; said she was turning out the attic and found a box of them, so decided to send them to me. But she did mention hearing that the village of Kildennie had decided to emigrate to North Carolina; they’re all MacGregors up near there, ken?”

“Oh, I see.” Jamie had once told me that his intention was one day to find the mother of Alex MacGregor, and give her his Bible, with the information that her son had been avenged. He had made inquiries after Culloden, but discovered that both of the MacGregor parents were dead. Only a sister remained alive, and she had married and left her home; no one knew quite where she was, or even whether she was still in Scotland.

“Do you think Jenny—or Ian, rather—found the sister at last? And she lived in that village?”

He shrugged again, and with a final squeeze of my shoulders, left off.

“It may be. Ye ken Jenny; she’d leave it to me whether to search for the woman.”

“And will you?” I rolled over to face him. Alex MacGregor had hanged himself, rather than live as prey to Black Jack Randall. Jack Randall was dead, had died at Culloden. But Jamie’s memories of Culloden were no more than fragments, driven from him by the trauma of the battle and the fever he had suffered afterward. He had waked, wounded, with Jack Randall’s body lying on top of him—but had no recollection of what had happened.

And yet, I supposed, Alex MacGregor had been avenged—whether or not by Jamie’s hand.

He thought about that for a moment, and I felt the small stirring as he tapped the two stiff fingers of his right hand against his thigh.

“I’ll ask,” he said finally. “Her name was Mairi.”

“I see,” I said. “Well, there can’t be more than, oh . . . three or four hundred women named Mairi in North Carolina.”

That made him laugh, and we drifted off to sleep, to the accompaniment of Tom Christie’s stertorous snores across the hall.

IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN minutes or hours later that I woke suddenly, listening. The room was dark, the fire cold on the hearth, and the shutters rattling faintly. I tensed a little, trying to wake enough to rise and go to my patient—but then heard him, a long wheezing inspiration, followed by a rumbling snore.

It wasn’t that that had wakened me, I realized. It was the sudden silence beside me. Jamie was lying stiff beside me, scarcely breathing.

I put out a hand slowly, so he would not be shocked at the touch, and rested it on his leg. He hadn’t had nightmares for some months, but I recognized the signs.

“What is it?” I whispered.

He drew breath a little deeper than usual, and his body seemed momentarily to draw in upon itself. I didn’t move, but left my hand on his leg, feeling the muscle flex microscopically beneath my fingers, a tiny intimation of flight.

He didn’t flee, though. He moved his shoulders in a brief, violent twitch, then let out his breath and settled into the mattress. He didn’t speak for a bit, but his weight drew me closer, like a moon pulled near to its planet. I lay quiet, my hand on him, my hip against his—flesh of his flesh.

He stared upward, into the shadows between the beams. I could see the line of his profile, and the shine of his eyes as he blinked now and then.

“In the dark . . .” he whispered at last, “there at Ardsmuir, we lay in the dark. Sometimes there was a moon, or starlight, but even then, ye couldna see anything on the floor where we lay. It was naught but black—but ye could hear.”

Hear the breathing of the forty men in the cell, and the shuffles and shifts of their movement. Snores, coughing, the sounds of restless sleep—and the small furtive sounds from those who lay awake.

“It would be weeks, and we wouldna think of it.” His voice was coming easier now. “We were always starved, cold. Worn to the bone. Ye dinna think much, then; only of how to put one foot in front of another, lift another stone. . . . Ye dinna really want to think, ken? And it’s easy enough not to. For a time.”

But every now and then, something would change. The fog of exhaustion would lift, suddenly, without warning.

“Sometimes ye kent what it was—a story someone told, maybe, or a letter that came from someone’s wife or sister. Sometimes it came out of nowhere; no one said a thing, but ye’d wake to it, in the night, like the smell of a woman lying next to ye.”

Memory, longing . . . need. They became men touched by fire—roused from dull acceptance by the sudden searing recollection of loss.

“Everyone would go a bit mad, for a time. There would be fights, all the time. And at night, in the dark . . .”

At night, you would hear the sounds of desperation, stifled sobs or stealthy rustlings. Some men would, in the end, reach out to another—sometimes to be rebuffed with shouts and blows. Sometimes not.

I wasn’t sure what he was trying to tell me, nor what it had to do with Thomas Christie. Or, perhaps, Lord John Grey.

“Did any of them ever . . . touch you?” I asked tentatively.

“No. None of them would ever think to touch me,” he said very softly. “I was their chief. They loved me—but they wouldna think, ever, to touch me.”

He took a deep, ragged breath.

“And did you want them to?” I whispered. I could feel my own pulse begin to throb in my fingertips, against his skin.

“I hungered for it,” he said so softly I could barely hear him, close as I was. “More than food. More than sleep—though I wished most desperately for sleep, and not only for the sake of tiredness. For when I slept, sometimes I saw ye.

“But it wasna the longing for a woman—though Christ knows, that was bad enough. It was only—I wanted the touch of a hand. Only that.”

His skin had ached with need, ’til he felt it must grow transparent, and the raw soreness of his heart be seen in his chest.

He made a small rueful sound, not quite a laugh.

“Ye ken those pictures of the Sacred Heart—the same as we saw in Paris?”

I knew them—Renaissance paintings, and the vividness of stained glass glowing in the aisles of Notre Dame. The Man of Sorrows, his heart exposed and pierced, radiant with love.

“I remembered that. And I thought to myself that whoever saw that vision of Our Lord was likely a verra lonely man himself, to have understood so well.”

I lifted my hand and laid it on the small hollow in the center of his chest, very lightly. The sheet was thrown back, and his skin was cool.

He closed his eyes, sighing, and clasped my hand, hard.

“The thought of that would come to me sometimes, and I would think I kent what Jesus must feel like there—so wanting, and no one to touch Him.”

25

ASHES TO ASHES

JAMIE CHECKED HIS SADDLEBAGS once more, though he had done it so often of late that the exercise was little more than custom. Each time he opened the left-hand one, he still smiled, though. Brianna had remade it for him, stitching in loops of leather that presented his pistols, hilt up, ready to be seized in an emergency, and a clever arrangement of compartments that held handy his shot pouch, powder horn, a spare knife, a coil of fishing line, a roll of twine for a snare, a hussif with pins, needles, and thread, a packet of food, a bottle of beer, and a neatly rolled clean shirt.

On the outside of the bag was a small pouch that held what Bree was pleased to call a “first-aid kit,” though he was unsure what it was meant to be in aid of. It contained several gauze packets of a bitter-smelling tea, a tin of salve, and several strips of her adhesive plaster, none of which seemed likely to be of use in any imaginable misadventure, but did no harm.

He removed a cake of soap she had added, along with a few more unnecessary fripperies, and carefully hid them under a bucket, lest she be offended.

Just in time, too; he heard her voice, exhorting wee Roger about the inclusion of sufficient clean stockings in his bags. By the time they came round the corner of the hay barn, he had everything securely buckled up.

“Ready, then, a charaid?”

“Oh, aye.” Roger nodded, and slung the saddlebags he was carrying on his shoulder off onto the ground. He turned to Bree, who was carrying Jemmy, and kissed her briefly.

“I go with you, Daddy!” Jem exclaimed hopefully.

“Not this time, sport.”

“Wanna see Indians!”

“Later, perhaps, when ye’re bigger.”

“I can talk Indian! Uncle Ian tellt me! Wanna go!”

“Not this time,” Bree told him firmly, but he wasn’t inclined to listen, and began struggling to get down. Jamie made a small rumble in his throat, and fixed him with a quelling eye.

“Ye’ve heard your parents,” he said. Jem glowered, and stuck out his lower lip like a shelf, but ceased his fuss.

“Someday ye must tell me how ye do that,” Roger said, eyeing his offspring.

Jamie laughed, and leaned down to Jemmy. “Kiss Grandda goodbye, eh?”

Disappointment generously abandoned, Jemmy reached up and seized him round the neck. He picked the little boy up out of Brianna’s arms, hugged him, and kissed him. Jem smelled of parritch, toast, and honey, a homely warm and heavy weight in his arms.

“Be good and mind your mother, aye? And when ye’re a wee bit bigger, ye’ll come, too. Come and say farewell to Clarence; ye can tell him the words Uncle Ian taught ye.” And God willing, they’d be words suitable for a three-year-old child. Ian had a most irresponsible sense of humor.

Or perhaps, he thought, grinning to himself, I’m only recalling some o’ the things I taught Jenny’s bairns—including Ian—to say in French.

He’d already saddled and bridled Roger’s horse, and Clarence the pack mule was fully loaded. Brianna was checking the girth and stirrup leathers while Roger slung his saddlebags—more to keep herself busy than because of any need. Her lower lip was caught in her teeth; she was being careful not to seem worried, but was fooling no one.

Jamie took Jem up to pat the mule’s nose, in order to give the lass and her man a moment’s privacy. Clarence was a good sort, and suffered Jem’s enthusiastic patting and mispronounced Cherokee phrases with long-suffering tolerance, but when Jem turned in his arms toward Gideon, Jamie leaned back sharply.

“Nay, lad, ye dinna want to touch yon wicked bugger. He’ll take your hand right off.”

Gideon twitched his ears and stamped once, impatient. The big stallion was dying to get under way and have another chance at killing him.

“Why do you keep that vicious thing?” Brianna asked, seeing Gideon’s long lip wrinkle back to show his yellow teeth in anticipation. She took Jemmy from him, stepping well away from Gideon.

“What, wee Gideon? Oh, we get on. Besides, he’s half my trade goods, lass.”

“Really?” She gave the big chestnut a suspicious glance. “Are you sure you won’t start a war, giving the Indians something like him?”

“Oh, I dinna mean to give him to them,” he assured her. “Not directly, at least.”

Gideon was a bad-tempered, thrawn-headed reester of a horse, with a mouth like iron and a will to match. However, these unsociable qualities seemed most appealing to the Indians, as did the stallion’s massive chest, long wind, and stoutly muscled frame. When Quiet Air, the sachem in one of the villages, had offered him three deerskins for the chance to breed his spotted mare to Gideon, Jamie had realized suddenly that he had something here.

“’Twas the greatest good fortune that I never found the time to castrate him,” he said, slapping Gideon familiarly on the withers and dodging by reflex as the stallion whipped his head round to snap. “He earns his keep, and more, standing at stud to the Indian ponies. It’s the only thing I’ve ever asked him to do that he’s not balked at.”

The lass was pink as a Christmas rose from the morning cold; she laughed at that, though, going an even deeper color.

“What’s castrate?” Jemmy inquired.

“Your mother will tell ye.” He grinned at her, ruffled Jemmy’s hair, and turned to Roger. “Ready, lad?”

Roger Mac nodded and stepped up into his stirrup, swinging aboard. He had a steady old bay gelding named Agrippa, who tended to grunt and wheeze, but was sound enough for all that, and good for a rider like Roger—competent enough, but with an abiding sense of inner reservation about horses.

Roger leaned down from the saddle for a last kiss from Brianna, and they were under way. Jamie’d taken a private—and thorough—leave of Claire earlier.

She was in the window of their bedroom, watching out to wave to them as they rode past, her hairbrush in her hand. Her hair was standing out in a great curly swash round her head, and the early-morning sun caught in it like flames in a thornbush. It gave him a sudden queer feeling to see her thus so disordered, half-naked in her shift. A sense of strong desire, despite what he’d done to her not an hour past. And something almost fear, as though he might never see her again.

Quite without thought, he glanced at his left hand, and saw the ghost of the scar at the base of his thumb, the “C” so faded that it was scarcely visible. He had not noticed it or thought of it in years, and felt suddenly as though there was not air enough to breathe.

He waved, though, and she threw him a mocking kiss, laughing. Christ, he’d marked her; he could see the dark patch of the love bite he’d left on her neck, and a hot flush of embarrassment rose in his face. He dug his heels into Gideon’s side, causing the stallion to give a squeal of displeasure and turn round to try to bite him in the leg.

With this distraction, they were safe away. He looked back only once, at the trailhead, to see her still there, framed by light. She lifted one hand, as though in benediction, and then the trees hid her from sight.

THE WEATHER WAS FAIR, though cold for as early in the autumn as it was; the horses’ breath steamed as they made their way down from the Ridge through the tiny settlement folk now called Cooperville, and along the Great Buffalo Trail to the north. He kept an eye on the sky; it was much too early for snow, but heavy rains were not uncommon. What clouds there were were mare’s tails, though; no cause for worry.

They didn’t speak much, each man alone with his thoughts. Roger Mac was easy company, for the most part. Jamie did miss Ian, though; he would have liked to talk over the situation as it stood now with Tsisqua. Ian understood the minds of Indians better than most white men, and while Jamie understood Bird’s gesture of sending the hermit’s bones well enough—it was meant as a proof of his continuing goodwill toward settlers, if the King should send them guns—he would have valued Ian’s opinion.

And while it was necessary that he introduce Roger Mac in the villages, for the sake of future relations . . . Well, he blushed at the thought of having to explain to the man about . . .

Damn Ian. The lad had simply gone in the night, a few days past, him and his dog. He’d done it before, and would doubtless be back as suddenly as he’d gone. Whatever darkness he’d brought back from the north would now and then become too much for him, and he would vanish into the wood, coming back silent and withdrawn, but somewhat more at peace with himself.

Jamie understood it well enough; solitude was in its own way a balm for loneliness. And whatever memory the lad was fleeing—or seeking—in the wood . . .

“Has he ever spoken to you about them?” Claire had asked him, troubled. “His wife? His child?”

He had not. Ian did not speak of anything about his time among the Mohawk, and the only token he had brought back from the north was an armlet, made of blue-and-white wampum shells. Jamie had caught a glimpse of it in Ian’s sporran once, but not enough to tell the pattern of it.

Blessed Michael defend you, lad, he thought silently toward Ian. And may the angels mend you.

With one thing and another, he had no real conversation with Roger Mac until they’d stopped for their noon meal. They ate the fresh stuff the women had sent, enjoying it. Enough for supper left; next day, it would be corn dodgers and anything that came across their path that could be easily caught and cooked. And one day more, and the Snowbird women would have them royally fed, as representatives of the King of England.

“Last time, it was ducks, stuffed wi’ yams and corn,” he told Roger. “It’s manners to eat as much as ye can, mind, no matter what’s served, and ye’re the guest.”

“Got it.” Roger smiled faintly, then looked down at the half-eaten sausage roll in his hand. “About that. Guests, I mean. There’s a wee problem, I think—with Hiram Crombie.”

“Hiram?” Jamie was surprised. “What’s to do wi’ Hiram?”

Roger’s mouth twitched, unsure whether to laugh or not.

“Well, it’s only—ye ken everybody’s calling the bones we buried Ephraim, aye? It’s all Bree’s fault, but there it is.”

Jamie nodded, curious.

“Well, so. Yesterday Hiram came along to me, and said he’d been studying upon the matter—praying and the like—and had come to the conclusion that if it were true that some of the Indians were his wife’s kin, then it stood to reason that some of them must be saved, as well.”

“Oh, aye?” Amusement began to kindle in his own breast.

“Yes. And so, he says, he feels called upon to bring these hapless savages the word of Christ. For how else are they to hear it?”

Jamie rubbed a knuckle over his upper lip, torn now between amusement and dismay at the thought of Hiram Crombie invading the Cherokee villages, psalmbook in hand.

“Mmphm. Well, but . . . do ye not believe—Presbyterians, I mean—that it’s all predestined? That some are saved, I mean, and some damned, and not a thing to be done about it? Which is why the Papists are all bound for hell in a handbasket?”

“Ah . . . well . . .” Roger hesitated, clearly not quite willing to put the matter so baldly himself. “Mmphm. There may be some difference of opinion among Presbyterians, I imagine. But yes, that’s more or less what Hiram and his cohorts think.”

“Aye. Well, then, if he thinks some o’ the Indians must be saved already, why must they be preached to?”

Roger rubbed a finger between his brows.

“Well, d’ye see, it’s the same reason Presbyterians pray and go to kirk and all. Even if they’re saved, they feel they want to praise God for it, and—and learn to do better, so as to live as God wishes them to. In gratitude for their salvation, see?”

“I rather think Hiram Crombie’s God might take a dim view of the Indian way of living,” Jamie said, with vivid memories of nak*d bodies in the dimness of ember glow, and the smell of furs.

“Quite,” Roger said, catching Claire’s dry tone so exactly that Jamie laughed.

“Aye, I see the difficulty,” he said, and he did, though he still found it funny. “So Hiram means to go to the Cherokee villages and preach? Is that it?”

Roger nodded, swallowing a bit of sausage.

“To be more exact, he wants you to take him there. And make introduction for him. He wouldna expect ye to interpret the preaching, he says.”

“Holy God.” He took a moment to contemplate this prospect, then shook his head decidedly. “No.”

“Of course not.” Roger pulled the cork from a bottle of beer, and offered it to him. “I just thought I should tell ye, so ye can decide best what to say to him when he asks.”

“Verra thoughtful of ye,” Jamie said, and taking the bottle, drank deeply.

He lowered it, took breath—and froze. He saw Roger Mac’s head turn sharply and knew he had caught it, too, borne on the chilly breeze.

Roger Mac turned back to him, black brows furrowed.

“Do ye smell something burning?” he said.

ROGER HEARD THEM first: a raucous caucus of cries and cackles, shrill as witches. Then a clappering of wings as they came in sight, and the birds flew up, mostly crows, but here and there a huge black raven.

“Oh, God,” he said softly.

Two bodies hung from a tree beside the house. What was left of them. He could tell that it was a man and a woman, but only by their clothes. A piece of paper was pinned to the man’s leg, so crumpled and stained that he saw it only because one edge lifted in the breeze.

Jamie ripped it off, unfolded it enough to read, and threw it on the ground. Death to Regulators, it read; he saw the scrawl for an instant, before the wind blew it away.

“Where are the bairns?” Jamie asked, turning sharply to him. “These folk have children. Where are they?”

The ashes were cold, already scattering in the wind, but the smell of burning filled him, clogged his breathing, seared his throat so that words rasped like gravel, meaningless as the scrape of pebbles underfoot. Roger tried to speak, cleared his throat, and spat.

“Hiding, maybe,” he rasped, and flung out an arm toward the wood.

“Aye, maybe.” Jamie stood abruptly, called into the wood, and, not waiting for an answer, set off into the trees, calling again.

Roger followed, sheering off as they reached the forest’s edge, going upslope behind the house, both of them shouting words of reassurance that were swallowed up at once by the forest’s silence.

Roger stumbled through the trees, sweating, panting, heedless of the pain in his throat as he shouted, barely stopping long enough to hear if anyone answered. Several times he saw movement from the corner of his eye and swung toward it, only to see nothing but the ripple of wind through a patch of drying sedges, or a dangling creeper, swaying as though someone had passed that way.

He half-imagined he was seeing Jem, playing at hide-and-seek, and the vision of a darting foot, sun gleaming off a small head, lent him strength to shout again, and yet again. At last, though, he was forced to admit that children would not have run so far, and he circled back toward the cabin, still calling intermittently, in hoarse, strangled croaks.

He came back into the dooryard to find Jamie stooping for a rock, which he threw with great force at a pair of ravens that had settled in the hanging tree, edging bright-eyed back toward its burden. The ravens squawked and flapped away—but only so far as the next tree, where they sat watching.

The day was cold, but both of them were soaked with sweat, hair straggling wet on their necks. Jamie wiped his face with his sleeve, still breathing hard.

“H-how many . . . children?” Roger’s own breath was short, his throat so raw that the words were barely a whisper.

“Three, at least.” Jamie coughed, hawked, and spat. “The eldest is twelve, maybe.” He stood for a moment, looking at the bodies. Then he crossed himself and drew his dirk to cut them down.

They had nothing to dig with; the best that could be managed was a wide scrape in the leaf mold of the forest, and a thin cairn of rocks, as much to spite the ravens as for the sake of decency.

“Were they Regulators?” Roger asked, pausing in the midst of it to wipe his face on his sleeve.

“Aye, but . . .” Jamie’s voice trailed away. “It’s naught to do wi’ that business.” He shook his head and turned away to gather more rocks.

Roger thought it was a rock at first, half-hidden in the leaves that had drifted against the scorched cabin wall. He touched it, and it moved, bringing him to his feet with a cry that would have done credit to any of the corbies.

Jamie reached him in seconds, in time to help dig the little girl out of the leaves and cinders.

“Hush, a muirninn, hush,” Jamie said urgently, though in fact the child was not crying. She was maybe eight, her clothes and hair burned away and her skin so blackened and cracked that she might have been made of stone indeed, save for her eyes.

“Oh, God, oh, God.” Roger kept saying it, under his breath, long after it became clear that if it was a prayer, it was long past answering.

He was cradling her against his chest, and her eyes opened halfway, regarding him with nothing like relief or curiosity—only a calm fatality.

Jamie had poured water from his canteen onto a handkerchief; he fed the tip of it between her lips to wet them, and Roger saw her throat move in reflex as she sucked.

“Ye’ll be all right,” Roger whispered to her. “It’s all right, a leannan.”

“Who has done this, a nighean?” Jamie asked, just as gently. Roger saw that she understood; the question stirred the surface of her eyes like wind on a pond—but then passed over, leaving them calm again. She did not speak, no matter what questions they asked, only looked at them with incurious eyes, and went on sucking dreamily at the wet cloth.

“Are ye baptized, a leannan?” Jamie asked her at last, and Roger felt a deep jolt at the question. In the shock of finding her, he had not truly taken in her condition.

“Elle ne peut pas vivre,” Jamie said softly, his eyes meeting Roger’s. She cannot live.

His first instinct was a visceral denial. Of course she could live, she must. But huge patches of her skin were gone, the raw flesh crusted but still oozing. He could see the white edge of a knee bone, and literally see her heart beating, a reddish, translucent bulge that pulsed at the notch of her rib cage. She was light as a corn-dolly, and he became painfully aware that she seemed to float in his arms, like a slick of oil on water.

“Does it hurt, sweetheart?” he asked her.

“Mama?” she whispered. Then she closed her eyes and would say no more, only muttering “Mama?” now and then.

He had thought at first they would take her back to the Ridge, to Claire. But it was more than a day’s ride; she wouldn’t make it. Not possibly.

He swallowed, realization closing on his throat like a noose. He looked at Jamie, seeing the same sick acknowledgment in his eyes. Jamie swallowed, too.

“Do ye . . . know her name?” Roger could scarcely breathe, and forced the words. Jamie shook his head, then gathered himself, hunching his shoulders.

She had stopped sucking, but still murmured “Mama?” now and then. Jamie took the handkerchief from her lips and squeezed a few drops from it onto her blackened forehead, whispering the words of baptism.

Then they looked at each other, acknowledging necessity. Jamie was pale, sweat beading on his upper lip among the bristles of red beard. He took a deep breath, steeling himself, and lifted his hands, offering.

“No,” Roger said softly. “I’ll do it.” She was his; he could no more surrender her to another than he could have torn off an arm. He reached for the handkerchief, and Jamie put it into his hand, soot-stained, still damp.

He’d never thought of such a thing, and couldn’t think now. He didn’t need to; without hesitation, he cradled her close and put the handkerchief over her nose and mouth, then clamped his hand tight over the cloth, feeling the small bump of her nose caught snug between his thumb and index finger.

Wind stirred in the leaves above, and a rain of gold fell on them, whispering on his skin, brushing cool past his face. She would be cold, he thought, and wished to cover her, but had no hand to spare.

His other arm was round her, hand resting on her chest; he could feel the tiny heart beneath his fingers. It jumped, beat rapidly, skipped, beat twice more . . . and stopped. It quivered for a moment; he could feel it trying to find enough strength to beat one last time, and suffered the momentary illusion that it would not only do so, but would force its way through the fragile wall of her chest and into his hand in its urge to live.

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