A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 20

   

But the moment passed, as did the illusion, and a great stillness came. Near at hand, a raven called.

THEY HAD ALMOST finished the burying, when the sound of hooves and jingling harness announced visitors—a lot of visitors.

Roger, ready to decamp into the woods, glanced at his father-in-law, but Jamie shook his head, answering his unasked question.

“Nay, they’d no come back. What for?” His bleak gaze took in the smoking ruin of the homestead, the trampled dooryard, and the low mounds of the graves. The little girl still lay nearby, covered with Roger’s cloak. He hadn’t been able to bear putting her into the ground just yet; the knowledge of her alive was still too recent.

Jamie straightened, stretching his back. Roger saw him glance to see that his rifle was to hand, leaning against a tree trunk. Then he settled himself, leaning on the scorched board he had been using as a shovel, waiting.

The first of the riders came out of the woods, his horse snorting and tossing its head at the smell of burning. The rider pulled it skillfully round and urged it closer, leaning forward to see who they were.

“So it’s you, is it, Fraser?” Richard Brown’s lined face looked grimly jovial. He glanced at the charred and steaming timbers, then round at his comrades. “Didn’t think you made your money just by selling whisky.”

The men—Roger counted six of them—shifted in their saddles, snorting with amusement.

“Have a bit o’ respect for the dead, Brown.” Jamie nodded at the graves, and Brown’s face hardened. He glanced sharply at Jamie, then at Roger.

“Just the two of you, is it? What are you doing here?”

“Digging graves,” Roger said. His palms were blistered; he rubbed a hand slowly on the side of his breeches. “What are you doing here?”

Brown straightened abruptly in his saddle, but it was his brother Lionel who answered.

“Coming down from Owenawisgu,” he said, jerking his head at the horses. Looking, Roger saw that there were four packhorses, laden with skins, and that several of the other horses carried bulging saddlebags. “Smelled the fire and come to see.” He glanced down at the graves. “Tige O’Brian, was it?”

Jamie nodded.

“Ye kent them?”

Richard Brown shrugged.

“Aye. It’s on the way to Owenawisgu. I’ve stopped a time or two; taken supper with them.” Belatedly, he removed his hat, plastering down wisps of hair over his balding crown with the flat of his hand. “God rest ’em.”

“Who’s burnt ’em out, if it wasn’t you?” one of the younger men in the party called. The man, a Brown by his narrow shoulders and lantern jaw, grinned inappropriately, evidently thinking this a jest.

The singed bit of paper had flown with the wind; it fluttered against a rock near Roger’s foot. He picked it up and with a step forward, slapped it against Lionel Brown’s saddle.

“Know anything about that, do you?” he asked. “It was pinned to O’Brian’s body.” He sounded angry, knew it, and didn’t care. His throat ached and his voice came out as a strangled rasp.

Lionel Brown glanced at the paper, brows raised, then handed it to his brother.

“No. Write it yourself, did you?”

“What?” He stared up at the man, blinking against the wind.

“Indians,” Lionel Brown said, nodding at the house. “Indians done this.”

“Oh, aye?” Roger could hear the undercurrents in Jamie’s voice—skepticism, wariness, and anger. “Which Indians? The ones from whom ye bought the hides? Told ye about it, did they?”

“Don’t be a fool, Nelly.” Richard Brown kept his voice pitched low, but his brother flinched a little, hearing it. Brown edged his horse nearer. Jamie stood his ground, though Roger saw his hands tighten on the board.

“Got the whole family, did they?” he asked, glancing at the small body under its cloak.

“No,” Jamie said. “We’ve not found the two elder children. Only the wee lassie.”

“Indians,” Lionel Brown repeated stubbornly, from behind his brother. “They took ’em.”

Jamie took a deep breath, and coughed from the smoke.

“Aye,” he said. “I’ll ask in the villages, then.”

“Won’t find ’em,” Richard Brown said. He crumpled the note, tightening his fist suddenly. “If Indians took them, they won’t keep them near. They’ll sell them on, into Kentucky.”

There was a general mutter of agreement among the men, and Roger felt the ember that had simmered in his chest all afternoon burst into fire.

“Indians didn’t write that,” he snapped, jerking a thumb at the note in Brown’s hand. “And if it was revenge against O’Brian for being a Regulator, they wouldn’t have taken the children.”

Brown gave him a long look, eyes narrowed. Roger felt Jamie shift his weight slightly, preparing.

“No,” said Brown softly. “They wouldn’t. That’s why Nelly figured you wrote it yourself. Say the Indians came and stole the little ’uns, but then you come along and decide to take what’s left. So you fired the cabin, hung O’Brian and his wife, pinned that note, and here you are. How say you to that bit of reasoning, Mr. MacKenzie?”

“I’d ask how ye kent they were hanged, Mr. Brown.”

Brown’s face tightened, and Roger felt Jamie’s hand on his arm in warning, realizing only then that his fists were clenched.

“The ropes, a charaid,” Jamie said, his voice very calm. The words penetrated dimly, and he looked. True, the ropes they had cut from the bodies lay by the tree where they had fallen. Jamie was still talking, his voice still calm, but Roger couldn’t hear the words. The wind deafened him, and just below the whine of it he heard the intermittent soft thump of a beating heart. It might have been his own—or hers.

“Get off that horse,” he said, or thought he had. The wind swept into his face, heavy with soot, and the words caught in his throat. The taste of ash was thick and sour in his mouth; he coughed and spat, eyes watering.

Vaguely, he became aware of a pain in his arm, and the world swam back into view. The younger men were staring at him, with expressions ranging from smirks to wariness. Richard Brown and his brother were both sedulously avoiding looking at him, focused instead on Jamie—who was still gripping his arm.

With an effort, he shook off Jamie’s hand, giving his father-in-law the slightest nod by way of reassurance that he wasn’t about to go berserk—though his heart still pounded, and the feel of the noose was so tight about his throat that he couldn’t have spoken, even had he been able to form words.

“We’ll help.” Brown nodded at the little body on the ground, and began to swing one leg over his saddle, but Jamie stopped him with a small gesture.

“Nay, we’ll manage.”

Brown stopped, awkwardly half-on, half-off. His lips thinned and he pulled himself back on, reined around and rode off with no word of farewell. The others followed, looking curiously back as they went.

“It wasna them.” Jamie had taken up his rifle and held it, gazing at the wood where the last of the men had disappeared. “They ken something more about it than they’ll say, though.”

Roger nodded, wordless. He walked deliberately to the hanging tree, kicked aside the ropes, and drove his fist into the trunk, twice, three times. Stood panting, his forehead pressed against the rough bark. The pain of raw knuckles helped, a bit.

A trail of tiny ants was scurrying upward between the plates of bark, bound on some momentous business, all-absorbing. He watched them for a little, until he could swallow again. Then straightened up and went to bury her, rubbing at the bone-deep bruise on his arm.

PART FOUR

Abduction

26

AN EYE TO THE FUTURE

October 9, 1773

ROGER DROPPED HIS saddlebags on the ground beside the pit and peered in.

“Where’s Jem?” he said.

His mud-smeared wife looked up at him and brushed a sweat-matted lock of hair out of her face.

“Hello to you, too,” she said. “Have a good trip?”

“No,” he said. “Where’s Jem?”

Her brows rose at that, and she stabbed her shovel into the bottom of the pit, extending a hand for him to help her scramble out.

“He’s at Marsali’s. He and Germain are playing Vroom with the little cars you made them—or they were when I left him there.”

The knot of anxiety he had carried under his ribs for the last two weeks began slowly to relax. He nodded, a sudden spasm of the throat preventing him from speaking, then reached out and pulled her to him, crushing her against him in spite of her startled yelp and mud-stained clothes.

He held her hard, his own heart hammering loud in his ears, and wouldn’t—couldn’t—let go, until she wriggled out of his embrace. She kept her hands on his shoulders, but cocked her head to one side, one brow raised.

“Yeah, I missed you, too,” she said. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“Terrible things.” The burning, the little girl’s death—these had become dreamlike during their travel, their horror muted to the surreal by the monotonous labor of riding, walking, the constant whine of wind and crunch of boots on gravel, sand, pine needles, mud, the engulfing blur of greens and yellows in which they lost themselves beneath an endless sky.

But now he was home, no longer adrift in the wilderness. And the memory of the girl who had left her heart in his hand was suddenly as real as she had been in the moment she died.

“You come inside.” Brianna was peering closely at him, concerned. “You need something hot, Roger.”

“I’m all right,” he said, but followed her without protest.

He sat at the table while she put the kettle on for tea, and told her everything that had happened, head in his hands, staring down at the battered tabletop, with its homely spills and burn scars.

“I kept thinking there must be something . . . some way. But there wasn’t. Even while I—I put my hand over her face—I was sure it wasna really happening. But at the same time—” He sat up, then, looking into the palms of his hands. At the same time, it had been the most vivid experience of his life. He could not bear to think of it, save in the most fleeting way, but knew he could never forget the slightest thing about it. His throat closed suddenly again.

Brianna looked searchingly into his face, saw his hand touch the ragged rope scar on his throat.

“Can you breathe?” she said anxiously. He shook his head, but it wasn’t true, he was breathing, somehow, though it felt as though his throat had been crushed in some huge hand, larynx and windpipe mangled into a bloody mass.

He flapped a hand to indicate that he would be all right, much as he doubted it himself. She came round behind him, pulled his hand from his throat, and laid her own fingers lightly over the scar.

“It’ll be all right,” she said quietly. “Just breathe. Don’t think. Just breathe.”

Her fingers were cold and her hands smelled of dirt. There was water in his eyes. He blinked, wanting to see the room, the hearth and candle and dishes and loom, to convince himself of where he was. A drop of warm moisture rolled down his cheek.

He tried to tell her that it was all right, he wasn’t crying, but she merely pressed closer, holding him across the chest with one arm, the other hand still cool on the painful lump in his throat. Her br**sts were soft against his back, and he could feel, rather than hear, her humming, the small tuneless noise she made when she was anxious, or concentrating very hard.

Finally, the spasm began to ease, and the feel of choking left him. His chest swelled with the unbelievable relief of a free breath, and she let go.

“What . . . is it . . . that ye’re digging?” he asked, with only a little effort. He looked round at her and smiled, with a lot more. “A bar . . . becue pit for . . . a hippopot . . . amus?”

The ghost of a smile touched her face, though her eyes were still dark with concern.

“No,” she said. “It’s a groundhog kiln.”

He tried for a moment to compose some witty remark about it being a really large hole for killing something as small as a groundhog, but he wasn’t up to it.

“Oh,” he said instead.

He took the hot mug of catnip tea she placed in his hand and held it near his face, letting the fragrant steam warm his nose and mist on the cold skin of his cheeks.

Brianna poured out a mug for herself, as well, and sat down across from him.

“I’m glad you’re home,” she said softly.

“Yeah. Me, too.” He essayed a sip; it was still scalding. “A kiln?” He’d told her about the O’Brians; he had to, but he didn’t want to talk about it. Not now. She seemed to sense this, and didn’t press him.

“Uh-huh. For the water.” He must have looked confused, for her smile grew more genuine. “I told you there was dirt involved, didn’t I? Besides, it was your idea.”

“It was?” At this point, almost nothing would surprise him, but he had no memory of having bright ideas about water.

The problem of bringing water to the houses was one of transport. God knew there was plenty of water; it ran in creeks, fell in waterfalls, dripped from ledges, sprang from springs, seeped in boggy patches under the cliffs . . . but making it go where you wanted required some method of containment.

“Mr. Wemyss told Fraulein Berrisch—that’s his girlfriend; Frau Ute fixed them up—what I was doing, and she told him that the men’s choir over in Salem was working on the same problem, so—”

“The choir?” He tried another cautious sip and found it drinkable. “Why would the choir—”

“That’s just what they call them. There’s the single men’s choir, the single women’s choir, the married choir . . . they don’t just sing together, though, it’s more like a social group, and each choir has particular jobs they do for the community. But anyway”—she flapped a hand—“they’re trying to bring water into the town, and having the same problem—no metal for pipes.

“You remember, though—you reminded me about the pottery they do in Salem. Well, they tried making water pipes out of logs, but that’s really hard and time-consuming, because you have to bore the middle of the log out with an augur, and you still need metal collars to bind the logs together. And they rot, after a while. But then they had the same idea you had—why not make pipes out of fired clay?”

She was becoming animated, talking about it. Her nose was no longer red from cold, but her cheeks were flushed pink and her eyes bright with interest. She waved her hands when she talked—she got that from her mother, he thought to himself, amused.

“. . . so we parked the kids with Mama and Mrs. Bug, and Marsali and I went to Salem—”

“Marsali? But she couldn’t be riding, surely?” Marsali was enormously pregnant, to the point that merely being around her made him slightly nervous, for fear she might go into labor at any moment.

“She isn’t due for a month. Besides, we didn’t ride; we took the wagon, and traded honey and cider and venison for cheese and quilts and—see my new teapot?” Proud, she waved at the pot, a homely squat thing with a red-brown glaze and yellow squiggly shapes painted round the middle. It was one of the uglier objects he’d ever seen, and the sight of it made tears come to his eyes from the sheer joy of being home.

“You don’t like it?” she said, a small frown forming between her brows.

“No, it’s great,” he said hoarsely. He fumbled for a handkerchief and blew his nose to hide his emotion. “Love it. You were saying . . . Marsali?”

“I was saying about the water pipes. But—there’s something about Marsali, too.” The frown deepened. “I’m afraid Fergus isn’t behaving very well.”

“No? What’s he doing? Having a mad affair with Mrs. Crombie?”

This suggestion was greeted with a withering look, but it didn’t last.

“He’s gone a lot, for one thing, leaving poor Marsali to mind the children and do all the work.”

“Totally normal, for the time,” he observed. “Most men do that. Your father does that. I do that; had ye not noticed?”

“I noticed,” she said, giving him a faintly evil look. “But what I mean is, most men do the heavy work, like plowing and planting, and let their wives manage the inside stuff, the cooking and the spinning and the weaving, and the laundry, and the preserving, and—well, anyway, all that stuff. But Marsali’s doing it all, plus the kids and the outdoor work, and working at the malting floor. And when Fergus is home, he’s grumpy and he drinks too much.”

This also sounded like normal behavior for the father of three small, wild children and the husband of a very pregnant wife, Roger thought, but didn’t say so.

“I’d not have thought Fergus a layabout,” he observed mildly. Bree shook her head, still frowning, and poured more tea into his mug.

“No, he’s not lazy, really. It’s hard for him, with only one hand; he really can’t handle some of the heavy chores—but he won’t help with the kids, or cook and clean while Marsali does them. Da and Ian help with the plowing, but . . . And he leaves for days on end—sometimes he’s picking up little jobs here and there, translating for a traveler—but mostly, he’s just gone. And . . .” She hesitated, darting a look at him as though wondering whether to go on.

“And?” he said obligingly. The tea was working; the pain in his throat was almost gone.

She looked down at the table, drawing invisible patterns on the oak with a forefinger.

“She didn’t say so . . . but I think he hits her.”

Roger felt a sudden weight on his heart. His first reaction was to dismiss the notion out of hand—but he had seen too much, living with the Reverend. Too many families, outwardly content and respectable, where the wives poked fun at their own “clumsiness,” brushing away concern at black eyes, broken noses, dislocated wrists. Too many men who dealt with the pressures of providing for a family by resorting to the bottle.

“Damn,” he said, feeling suddenly exhausted. He rubbed at his forehead, where a headache was starting.

“Why do you think so?” he asked bluntly. “Has she got marks?”

Bree nodded unhappily, still not looking up, though her finger had stilled.

“On her arm.” She wrapped a hand around her forearm, in illustration. “Little round bruises, like fingermarks. I saw when she reached up to get a bucket of honeycomb from the wagon and her sleeve fell back.”

He nodded, wishing there was something stronger than tea in his mug.

“Shall I talk to him, then, d’ye think?”

She did look up at him then, her eyes softening, though the look of worry remained.

“You know, most men wouldn’t offer to do that.”

“Well, it’s no my idea of fun,” he admitted. “But ye canna let that sort of thing go on, hoping it will cure itself. Someone has to say something.”

God knew what, though—or how. He was already regretting the offer, trying to think what the hell he could say. “So, Fergus, old man. Hear you’re beating your wife. Be a good fellow and stop that, okay?”

He drained the rest of his mug, and got up to look for the whisky.

“We’re out,” Brianna said, seeing his intent. “Mr. Wemyss had a cold.”

He put down the empty bottle with a sigh. She touched his arm delicately.

“We’re invited up to the Big House for supper. We could go early.” That was a cheering suggestion. Jamie invariably had a bottle of excellent single-malt, secreted somewhere on the premises.

“Aye, all right.” He took her cloak from the peg and swung it round her shoulders. “Hey. D’ye think I should mention the business about Fergus to your Da? Or best handle it myself?” He had a sudden, unworthy hope that Jamie would consider it his business and take care of the matter.

That seemed to be what Brianna was afraid of; she was shaking her head, simultaneously fluffing out her half-dried hair.

“No! I think Da would break his neck. And Fergus won’t be any good to Marsali if he’s dead.”

“Mmphm.” He accepted the inevitable, and opened the door for her. The big white house glowed on the hill above them, tranquil in the afternoon light, the big red spruce behind it a looming but benign presence; not for the first time, he felt that the tree was somehow guarding the house—and in his present fragile mental state, found that notion a comfort.

They made a short detour, so that he could properly admire the new pit and be told all about the internal workings of a groundhog kiln. He failed to follow these in any detail, only grasping the notion that the point was to make the inside very hot, but he found the flow of Brianna’s explanation soothing.

“. . . bricks for the chimney,” she was saying, pointing at the far end of the eight-foot pit, which at present resembled nothing so much as the resting place for an extremely large coffin. She’d made a nice, neat job of it so far, though; the corners were squared as though done with a instrument of some sort, and the walls painstakingly smoothed. He said as much, and she beamed at him, thumbing a lock of red hair behind her ear.

“It needs to be a lot deeper,” she said, “maybe another three feet. But the dirt here is really good for digging; it’s soft, but it doesn’t crumble too much. I hope I can finish the hole before it starts to snow, but I don’t know.” She rubbed a knuckle under her nose, squinting dubiously at the hole. “I really need to card and spin enough more wool to weave the fabric for winter shirts for you and Jem, but I’ll have to pick and preserve for the next week or so, and—”

“I’ll dig it for you.”

She stood on tiptoe and kissed him, just under the ear, and he laughed, suddenly feeling better.

“Not for this winter,” she said, taking him contentedly by the arm, “but eventually—I’m wondering if I can vent some of the heat from the kiln, and run it under the floor of the cabin. You know what a Roman hypocaust is?”

“I do.” He turned to eye the foundation of his domicile, a simple hollow base of fieldstone on which the log walls were built. The notion of central heating in a crude mountain cabin made him want to laugh, but there was really nothing impossible about it, he supposed. “You’d what? Run pipes of warm air through the foundation stones?”

“Yes. Always assuming I can actually make good pipes, which remains to be seen. What do you think?”

He glanced from the proposed project up the hill to the Big House. Even at this distance, a mound of dirt by the foundation was visible, evidence of the white sow’s burrowing capabilities.

“I think ye run a great danger of having that big white buggeress transfer her affections to us, if ye make a cozy warm den under our house.”

“Buggeress?” she said, diverted. “Is that physically possible?”

“It’s a metaphysical description,” he informed her. “And ye saw what she tried to do to Major MacDonald.”

“That pig really doesn’t like Major MacDonald,” Bree said reflectively. “I wonder why not?”

“Ask your mother; she’s none so fond of him, either.”

“Oh, well, that—” She stopped suddenly, lips pursed, and looked thoughtfully at the Big House. A shadow passed the window of the surgery, someone moving inside. “Tell you what. You find Da and have a drink with him, and while you’re doing that, I’ll tell Mama about Marsali and Fergus. She might have a good idea.”

“I don’t know that it’s a medical problem, exactly,” he said. “But anesthetizing Germain would certainly be a start.”

27

THE MALTING-FLOOR

I COULD SMELL THE SWEET, musty scent of damp grain on the wind as I made my way up the trail. It was nothing like the heady pungency of the barm mash, the faintly coffeelike toasted smell of malting, nor yet the reek of distilling—but still spoke as strongly of whisky. It was a very fragrant business, making uisgebaugh, and the reason why the whisky clearing was located nearly a mile from the Big House. As it was, I often caught a wild faint scent of spirit through my open surgery windows when the wind was right and the mash was making.

The whisky-making had its own cycle, and one that everyone on the Ridge was subconsciously attuned to, whether directly involved in it or not. Which was how I knew without asking that the barley in the malting shed had just begun its germination, and therefore, Marsali would be there, turning and spreading the grain evenly before the malting fire was lit.

The grain must be allowed to germinate, to assure a maximal sweetness—but must not sprout, or the mash would have a bitter taste and be ruined. No more than twenty-four hours must pass after germination began, and I had smelled the fecund damp scent of the grain begin to rise as I foraged in the woods the afternoon before. The time was here.

It was by far the best place to have a private conversation with Marsali; the whisky clearing was the only place she was ever without a cacophonous assortment of children. I often thought that she valued the solitude of the work much more than the share of whisky Jamie gave her for minding the grain—valuable though that was.

Brianna told me that Roger had gallantly offered to have a word with Fergus, but I thought that I should talk to Marsali first, just to find out what was really going on.

What ought I to say? I wondered. A straightforward “Is Fergus beating you?” I couldn’t quite believe that, despite—or perhaps because of—an intimate knowledge of emergency rooms filled with the debris of domestic disputes.

It wasn’t that I thought Fergus incapable of violence; he’d seen—and experienced—any amount of it from an early age, and growing up among Highlanders in the middle of the Rising and its aftermath probably did not inculcate a young man with any deep regard for the virtues of peace. On the other hand, Jenny Murray had had a hand in his upbringing.

I tried and failed to imagine any man who had lived with Jamie’s sister for more than a week ever lifting his hand to a woman. Besides, I knew by my own observations that Fergus was a very gentle father, and there was usually an easiness between him and Marsali that seemed—

There was a sudden commotion overhead. Before I could so much as glance up, something huge crashed down through the branches in a shower of dust and dead pine needles. I leapt backward and swung my basket up in instinctive defense—but even as I did so, I realized that I was not in fact being attacked. Germain lay flat on the path in front of me, eyes bulging as he struggled for the breath that had been knocked out of him.

“What on earth—?” I began, rather crossly. Then I saw that he was clutching something to his chest; a late nest, filled with a clutch of four greenish eggs, which he had miraculously contrived not to break in his fall.

“For . . . Maman,” he gasped, grinning up at me.

“Very nice,” I said. I had had enough to do with young males—well, any age, really; they all did it—to realize the complete futility of reproach in such situations, and since he had broken neither the eggs nor his legs, I merely took the nest and held it while he gulped for air and my heart resumed beating at its normal speed.

Recovered, he scrambled to his feet, disregarding the dirt, pitch, and broken pine needles that covered him from head to toe.

“Maman’s in the shed,” he said, reaching for his treasure. “You come too, Grandmère?”

“Yes. Where are your sisters?” I asked suspiciously. “Are you meant to be watching them?”

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