A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 29

   

“Aye?”

“If he did run—where do you suppose he’d go?”

He closed his own eyes and drew a deep breath.

“To Brownsville,” he said, in resignation. “And if he did, Richard Brown kens already what’s become of Hodgepile and his men—and likely thinks his brother is dead, as well.”

“Oh.” I swallowed, and changed the subject slightly.

“Why did you tell Ian I wasn’t to be allowed to see Mr. Brown?”

“I didna say that. But I think it best if ye dinna see him, that much is true.”

“Because?”

“Because ye’ve an oath upon you,” he said, sounding mildly surprised that I didn’t understand immediately. “Can ye see a man injured, and leave him to suffer?”

The ointment was ready. I unwrapped his finger, which had stopped bleeding, and tamped as much of the salve under the damaged nail as I could manage.

“Probably not,” I said, eyes on my work. “But why—”

“If ye mend him, care for him—and then I decide he must die?” His eyes rested on me, questioning. “How would that be for ye?”

“Well, that would be a bit awkward,” I said, taking a deep breath to steady myself. I wrapped a thin strip of linen around the nail and tied it neatly. “Still, though . . .”

“Ye wish to care for him? Why?” He sounded curious, but not angry. “Is your oath so strong, then?”

“No.” I put both hands on the table to brace myself; my knees seemed suddenly weak.

“Because I’m glad they’re dead,” I whispered, looking down. My hands were raw, and I fumbled while I worked because my fingers were still swollen; there were deep purple marks still sunk in the skin of my wrists. “And I am very much—” What? Afraid; afraid of the men, afraid of myself. Thrilled, in a horrible sort of way. “Ashamed,” I said. “Terribly ashamed.” I glanced up at him. “I hate it.”

He held out his hand to me, waiting. He knew better than to touch me; I couldn’t have borne being touched just then. I didn’t take it, not at once, though I longed to. I looked away, speaking rapidly to Adso, who had materialized on the countertop and was regarding me with a bottomless green gaze.

“If I—I keep thinking . . . if I were to see him, help him—Christ, I don’t want to, I don’t at all! But if I could—perhaps that would . . . help somehow.” I looked up then, feeling haunted. “Make . . . amends.”

“For being glad they are dead—and for wanting him dead, too?” Jamie suggested gently.

I nodded, feeling as though a small, heavy weight had lifted with the speaking of the words. I didn’t remember taking his hand, but it was tight on mine. Blood from his finger was seeping through the fresh bandage, but he paid no attention.

“Do you want to kill him?” I asked.

He looked at me for a long moment before replying.

“Oh, aye,” he said very softly. “But for now, his life is surety for yours. For all of us, perhaps. And so he lives. For now. But I will ask questions—and I shall have answers.”

I SAT IN MY SURGERY for some time after he left. Emerging slowly from shock, I had felt safe, surrounded by home and friends, by Jamie. Now I must come to grips with the fact that nothing was safe—not I, not home nor friends—and certainly not Jamie.

“But then, you never are, are you, you bloody Scot?” I said aloud, and laughed, weakly.

Feeble as it was, it made me feel better. I rose with sudden decision and began to tidy my cupboards, lining up bottles in order of size, sweeping out bits of scattered herbs, throwing away solutions gone stale or suspect.

I had meant to go and visit Marsali, but Fergus had told me during breakfast that Jamie had sent her with the children and Lizzie to stay with the McGillivrays, where she would be cared for, and safe. If there was safety in numbers, the McGillivrays’ house was certainly the place for it.

Located near Woolam’s Creek, the McGillivrays’ home place adjoined Ronnie Sinclair’s cooper’s shop, and enclosed a seething mass of cordial humanity, including not only Robin and Ute McGillivray, their son, Manfred, and their daughter Senga, but also Ronnie, who boarded with them. The usual mob scene was augmented intermittently by Senga McGillivray’s fiancé, Heinrich Strasse, and his German relatives from Salem, and by Inga and Hilda, their husbands and children, and their husbands’ relatives.

Add in the men who congregated daily in Ronnie’s shop, a convenient stopping place on the road to and from Woolam’s Mill, and likely no one would even notice Marsali and her family, in the midst of that mob. Surely no one would seek to harm her there. But for me to go and see her . . .

Highland tact and delicacy were one thing. Highland hospitality and curiosity were another. If I stayed peacefully at home, I would likely be left in peace—at least for a while. If I were to set foot near the McGillivrays’ . . . I blenched at the thought, and hastily decided that perhaps I would visit Marsali tomorrow. Or the next day. Jamie had assured me she was all right, only shocked and bruised.

The house stood around me in peace. No modern background of furnace, fans, plumbing, refrigerators. No whoosh of pilot lights or hum of compressors. Just the occasional creak of beam or floorboard, and the odd muffled scrape of a wood wasp building its nest up under the eaves.

I looked round the ordered world of my surgery—ranks of shining jars and bottles, linen screens laden with drying arrowroot and masses of lavender, bunches of nettle and yarrow and rosemary hanging overhead. The bottle of ether, sunlight glowing on it. Adso curled on the countertop, tail neatly tucked around his feet, eyes half-closed in purring contemplation.

Home. A small shiver ran down my spine. I wanted nothing more than to be alone, safe and alone, in my own home.

Safe. I had a day, perhaps two, in which home would still be safe. And then . . .

I realized that I had been standing still for some moments, staring blankly into a box of yellow nightshade berries, round and shiny as marbles. Very poisonous, and a slow and painful death. My eyes rose to the ether—quick and merciful. If Jamie did decide to kill Lionel Brown . . . But no. In the open, he’d said, standing on his feet before witnesses. Slowly, I closed the box and put it back on the shelf.

What then?

THERE WERE ALWAYS chores that could be done—but nothing pressing, with no one clamoring to be fed, clothed, or cared for. Feeling quite odd, I wandered round the house for a bit, and finally went into Jamie’s study, where I poked among the books on the shelf there, settling at last on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.

I couldn’t think how long it had been since I had read a novel. And in the daytime! Feeling pleasantly wicked, I sat by the open window in my surgery and resolutely entered a world far from my own.

I lost track of time, moving only to brush away roving insects that came through the window, or to absently scratch Adso’s head when he nudged against me. Occasional thoughts of Jamie and Lionel Brown drifted through the back of my mind, but I shooed them away like the leafhoppers and midges who landed on my page, drifting in through the window. Whatever was happening in the Bugs’ cabin had happened, or would happen—I simply couldn’t think about it. As I read, the soap bubble formed around me once more, filled with perfect stillness.

The sun was halfway down the sky before faint pangs of hunger began to stir. It was as I looked up, rubbing my forehead and wondering vaguely whether there was any ham left, that I saw a man standing in the doorway to the surgery.

I shrieked, and leaped to my feet, sending Henry Fielding flying.

“Your pardon, mistress!” Thomas Christie blurted, looking nearly as startled as I felt. “I didna realize that you’d not heard me.”

“No. I—I—was reading.” I gestured foolishly toward the book on the floor. My heart was pounding, and blood surged to and fro in my body, seemingly at random, so that my face flushed, my ears throbbed, and my hands tingled, all out of control.

He stooped and picked the book up, smoothing its cover with the careful attitude of one who values books, though the volume itself was battered, its cover scarred with rings where wet glasses or bottles had been set down upon it. Jamie had got it from the owner of an ordinary in Cross Creek, in partial trade for a load of firewood; some customer had left it, months before.

“Is there no one here to care for you?” he asked, frowning as he looked around. “Shall I go and fetch my daughter to you?”

“No. I mean—I don’t need anyone. I’m quite all right. What about you?” I asked quickly, forestalling any further expressions of concern on his part. He glanced at my face, then hastily away. Eyes fixed carefully in the vicinity of my collarbone, he laid the book on the table and held out his right hand, wrapped in a cloth.

“I beg your pardon, mistress. I wouldna intrude, save . . .”

I was already unwrapping the hand. He’d ripped the incision in his right hand—probably, I realized with a small tightening of the belly, in the course of the fight with the bandits. The wound was no great matter, but there were bits of dirt and debris in the wound, and the edges were red and gaping, raw surfaces clouded with a film of pus.

“You should have come at once,” I said, though with no tone of rebuke. I knew perfectly well why he hadn’t—and in fact, I should have been in no state to deal with him, if he had.

He shrugged slightly, but didn’t bother replying. I sat him down and went to fetch things. Luckily, there was some of the antiseptic salve left that I’d made for Jamie’s splinter. That, a quick alcohol wash, clean bandage . . .

He was turning the pages of Tom Jones slowly, lips pursed in concentration. Evidently Henry Fielding would do as anesthetic for the job at hand; I shouldn’t need to fetch a Bible.

“Do you read novels?” I asked, meaning no rudeness, but merely surprised that he might countenance anything so frivolous.

He hesitated. “Yes. I—yes.” He took a very deep breath as I submerged his hand in the bowl, but it contained only water, soaproot, and a very small amount of alcohol, and he let the breath go with a sigh.

“Have you read Tom Jones before?” I asked, making conversation to relax him.

“Not precisely, though I know the story. My wife—”

He stopped abruptly. He’d never mentioned his wife before; I supposed that it was sheer relief at not experiencing agony yet that had made him talkative. He seemed to realize that he must complete the sentence, though, and went on, reluctantly. “My wife . . . read novels.”

“Did she?” I murmured, setting about the job of debridement. “Did she like them?”

“I suppose that she must have.”

There was something odd in his voice that made me glance up from the job at hand. He caught the glance and looked away, flushing.

“I—did not approve of reading novels. Then.”

He was quiet for a moment, holding his hand steady. Then he blurted, “I burnt her books.”

That sounded rather more like the response I would have expected of him.

“She couldn’t have been pleased about that,” I said mildly, and he shot me a startled glance, as though the question of his wife’s reaction was so irrelevant as to be unworthy of remark.

“Ah . . . what caused you to alter your opinion?” I asked, concentrating on the bits of debris I was picking out of the wound with my forceps. Splinters and shreds of bark. What had he been doing? Wielding a club of some kind, I thought—a tree branch? I breathed deeply, concentrating on the job to avoid thinking of the bodies in the clearing.

He moved his legs restively; I was hurting him a bit now.

“I—it—in Ardsmuir.”

“What? You read it in prison?”

“No. We had no books there.” He took a long breath, glanced at me, then away, and fixed his eyes on the corner of the room, where an enterprising spider had taken advantage of Mrs. Bug’s temporary absence to set up web-keeping.

“In fact, I have never actually read it. Mr. Fraser, though, was accustomed to recount the story to the other prisoners. He has a fine memory,” he added, rather grudgingly.

“Yes, he does,” I murmured. “I’m not going to stitch it; it will be better if the wound’s left to heal by itself. I’m afraid the scar won’t be as neat,” I added regretfully, “but I think it will heal up all right.”

I spread salve thickly over the injury, and pulled the edges of the wound together as tightly as I could, without cutting off the circulation. Bree had been experimenting with adhesive bandages, and had produced something quite useful in the way of small butterfly shapes, made of starched linen and pine tar.

“So you liked Tom Jones, did you?” I said, returning to the subject. “I shouldn’t have thought you’d find him an admirable character. Not much of a moral example, I mean.”

“I don’t,” he said bluntly. “But I saw that fiction”—he pronounced the word gingerly, as though it were something dangerous—“is perhaps not, as I had thought, merely an inducement to idleness and wicked fancy.”

“Oh, isn’t it?” I said, amused, but trying not to smile because of my lip. “What are its redeeming characteristics, do you think?”

“Aye, well.” His brows drew together in thought “I found it most remarkable. That what is essentially nothing save a confection of lies should somewise still contrive to exert a beneficial effect. For it did,” he concluded, sounding still rather surprised.

“Really? How was that?”

He tilted his head, considering.

“It was distraction, to be sure. In such conditions, distraction is not evil,” he assured me. “While it is of course more desirable to escape into prayer . . .”

“Oh, of course,” I murmured.

“But beyond that consideration . . . it drew the men together. You would not think that such men—Highlanders, crofters—that they would find themselves in particular sympathy with . . . such situations, such persons.” He waved his free hand at the book, indicating such persons as Squire Allworthy and Lady Bellaston, I supposed.

“But they would talk it over for hours—whilst we labored the next day, they would wonder why Ensign Northerton had done as he had with regard to Miss Western, and argue whether they themselves would or would not have behaved so.” His face lightened a little, recalling something. “And invariably, a man would shake his head and say, ‘At least I’ve never been treated in that manner!’ He might be starved, cold, covered in sores, permanently separated from his family and customary circumstances—and yet he could take comfort in never having suffered such vicissitudes as had befallen these imaginary beings!”

He actually smiled, shaking his head at the thought, and I thought the smile much improved him.

I’d finished the job, and laid his hand on the table.

“Thank you,” I said quietly.

He looked startled.

“What? Why?”

“I’m assuming that that injury was perhaps the result of b-battle done on my behalf,” I said. I touched his hand lightly. “I, er . . . well.” I took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“Oh.” He looked thoroughly taken aback at this, and quite embarrassed.

“I . . . erm . . . hmm!” He pushed back the stool and rose, looking flustered.

I rose, as well.

“You’ll need to have fresh salve put on every day,” I said, resuming a businesslike tone. “I’ll make up some more; you can come, or send Malva to fetch it.”

He nodded, but said nothing, having evidently exhausted his supply of sociability for the day. I saw his eye linger on the cover of the book, though, and on impulse offered it to him.

“Would you like to borrow it? You should really read it for yourself; I’m sure Jamie can’t have recalled all the details.”

“Oh!” He looked startled, and pursed his lips, frowning, as though suspecting it was a trap of some sort. When I insisted, though, he took the book, picking it up with an expression of guarded avidity that made me wonder how long it had been since he had had any book other than the Bible to read.

He nodded thanks to me, and donned his hat, turning to go. Upon a moment’s impulse, I asked, “Did you ever have the chance to apologize to your wife?”

That was a mistake. His face tightened into coldness and his eyes went flat as a snake’s.

“No,” he said shortly. I thought for a moment that he would put the book down and refuse to take it. But instead, he tightened his lips, tucked the volume more securely under his arm, and left, without further farewell.

31

AND SO TO BED

NO ONE ELSE CAME. By the time night fell, I was beginning to feel rather edgy, starting at noises, searching the deepening shadows under the chestnut trees for lurking men—or worse. I thought I should cook something; surely Jamie and Ian intended coming home for supper? Or perhaps I should go down to the cabin, join Roger and Bree.

But I flinched from the notion of being exposed to any kind of solicitude, no matter how well meant, and while I hadn’t yet got up the nerve to look in a mirror, was reasonably sure that the sight of me would frighten Jemmy—or at least lead to a lot of questions. I didn’t want to have to try to explain to him what had happened to me. I was fairly sure that Jamie had told Brianna to stay away for a bit, and that was good. I really was in no shape to pretend to be all right. Not quite yet.

Dithering round the kitchen, I picked things up and put them down pointlessly. I opened the drawers of the sideboard and closed them—then opened the second one again, the one where Jamie kept his pistols.

Most of the pistols were gone. Only the gilt-trimmed one that didn’t shoot straight was left, with a few loads and a tiny powder horn, the sort made for fancy dueling pistols.

Hands shaking only a little, I loaded it, and poured a bit of powder into the firing pan.

When the back door opened, quite some time later, I was sitting at the table, a copy of Don Quixote lying in front of me, pointing the pistol with both hands at the door.

Ian froze momentarily.

“Ye’d never hit anyone wi’ that gun at this distance, Auntie,” he said mildly, coming in.

“They wouldn’t know that, would they?” I set the pistol down, gingerly. My palms were damp, and my fingers ached.

He nodded, taking the point, and sat down.

“Where’s Jamie?” I asked.

“Washing. Are ye well, Auntie?” His soft hazel eyes took a casual but careful estimation of my state.

“No, but I’ll do.” I hesitated. “And . . . Mr. Brown? Did he—tell you anything?”

Ian made a derogatory noise.

“Pissed himself when Uncle Jamie took the dirk from his belt to clean his fingernails. We didna touch him, Auntie, dinna fash yourself.”

Jamie came in then, clean-shaven, his skin cold and fresh from the well water, hair damp at his temples. Despite that, he looked tired to death, the lines of his face cut deep and his eyes shadowed. The shadows lifted a bit, though, when he saw me and the pistol.

“It’s all right, a nighean,” he said softly, touching my shoulder as he sat down beside me. “I’ve men set to watch the house—just in case. Though I dinna expect any trouble for some days yet.”

My breath went out in a long sigh.

“You could have told me that.”

He glanced at me, surprised.

“I thought ye’d know. Surely ye wouldna think I’d leave ye unprotected, Sassenach?”

I shook my head, momentarily unable to speak. Had I been in any condition to think logically, of course I wouldn’t. As it was, I had spent most of the afternoon in a state of quiet—and unnecessary—terror, imagining, remembering. . . .

“I’m sorry, lass,” he said softly, and put a large, cold hand on mine. “I shouldna have left ye alone. I thought—”

I shook my head, but put my other hand over his, pressing tight.

“No, you were right. I couldn’t have borne any company, beyond Sancho Panza.”

He glanced at Don Quixote, then at me, brows raised. The book was in Spanish, which I didn’t happen to speak.

“Well, some of it was close to French, and I did know the story,” I said. I took a deep breath, taking what comfort I could in the warmth of the fire, the flicker of the candle, and the proximity of the two of them, large, solid, pragmatic, and—outwardly, at least—imperturbable.

“Is there any food, Auntie?” Ian inquired, getting up to look. Lacking any appetite myself, and too jittery to focus on anything, I hadn’t eaten dinner nor made anything for supper—but there was always food in that house, and without any particular fuss, Jamie and Ian had equipped themselves in short order with the remains of a cold partridge pie, several hard-cooked eggs, a dish of piccalilli, and half a loaf of bread, which they sliced up and toasted over the fire on a fork, buttering the slices and cramming them into me in a manner brooking no argument.

Hot, buttered toast is immensely comforting, even nibbled tentatively with a sore jaw. With food in my stomach, I began to feel much calmer, and capable of inquiring what they had learned from Lionel Brown.

“He put it all on Hodgepile,” Jamie told me, loading piccalilli onto a slice of pie. “He would, of course.”

“You didn’t meet Arvin Hodgepile,” I said, with a small shiver. “Er . . . to talk to, I mean.”

He shot me a sharp look, but didn’t address that matter any further, instead leaving it to Ian to explain Lionel Brown’s version of events.

It had started with him and his brother, Richard, establishing their Committee of Safety. This, he had insisted, was intended as public service, pure and simple. Jamie snorted at that, but didn’t interrupt.

Most of the male inhabitants of Brownsville had joined the committee—most of the homesteaders and small farmers nearby had not. Still, so far, so good. The committee had dealt with a number of small matters, meting out justice in cases of assault, theft, and the like, and if they had appropriated the odd hog or deer carcass by way of payment for their trouble, there hadn’t been too much complaint.

“There’s a great deal of feeling still, about the Regulation,” Ian explained, frowning as he sliced another piece of bread. “The Browns didna join the Regulation; they’d no need to, as their cousin was sheriff, and half the courthouse ring are Browns, or marrit to Browns.” Corruption, in other words, had been on their side.

Regulator sentiment still ran high in the backcountry, even though the main leaders of the movement, such as Hermon Husband and James Hunter, had left the colony. In the aftermath of Alamance, most Regulators had grown more cautious of expressing themselves—but several Regulator families who lived near Brownsville had become vocal in their criticism of the Browns’ influence on local politics and business.

“Tige O’Brian was one of those?” I asked, feeling the buttered toast coalesce into a small, hard lump in my stomach. Jamie had told me what had happened to the O’Brians—and I’d seen Roger’s face when he’d come back.

Jamie nodded, not looking up from his pie.

“Enter Arvin Hodgepile,” he said, and took a ferocious bite. Hodgepile, having neatly escaped the constraints of the British army by pretending to die in the warehouse fire at Cross Creek, had set about making a living in various unsavory ways. And, water having a strong tendency to seek its own level, had ended up with a small gang of like-minded thugs.

This gang had begun simply enough, by robbing anyone they came across, holding up taverns, and the like. This sort of behavior tends to attract attention, though, and with various constables, sheriffs, Committees of Safety, and the like on their trail, the gang had retired from the piedmont where they began, and moved up into the mountains, where they could find isolated settlements and homesteads. They had also begun killing their victims, to avoid the nuisance of identification and pursuit.

“Or most of them,” Ian murmured. He regarded the half-eaten egg in his hand for a moment, then put it down.

In his career with the army in Cross Creek, Hodgepile had made various contacts with a number of river traders and coastal smugglers. Some dealt in furs, others in anything that would bring a profit.

“And it occurred to them,” Jamie said, drawing a deep breath, “that girls and women and young boys are more profitable than almost anything—save whisky, maybe.” The corner of his mouth twitched, but it wasn’t a smile.

“Our Mr. Brown insists he’d nothing to do wi’ this,” Ian added, a cynical note in his voice. “Nor had his brother or their committee.”

“But how did the Browns get involved with Hodgepile’s gang?” I asked. “And what did they do with the people they kidnapped?”

The answer to the first question was that it had been the happy outcome of a botched robbery.

“Ye recall Aaron Beardsley’s auld place, aye?”

“I do,” I said, wrinkling my nose in reflex at the memory of that wretched sty, then emitting a small cry and clapping both hands over my abused appendage.

Jamie glanced at me, and put another bit of bread on his toasting fork.

“Well, so,” he went on, ignoring my protest that I was full, “the Browns took it over, of course, when they adopted the wee lass. They cleaned it out, stocked it fresh, and went on using it as a trading post.”

The Cherokee and Catawba had been accustomed to come to the place—horrid as it was—when Aaron Beardsley had operated as an Indian trader, and had continued to do business with the new management—a very beneficial and profitable arrangement all round.

“Which is what Hodgepile saw,” Ian put in. The Hodgepile gang, with their usual straightforward methods of doing business, had walked in, shot the couple in charge, and begun systematically looting the place. The couple’s eleven-year-old daughter, who had fortunately been in the barn when the gang arrived, had slipped out, mounted a mule, and ridden hell-for-leather for Brownsville and help. By good fortune, she had encountered the Committee of Safety, returning from some errand, and brought them back in time to confront the robbers.

There then ensued what in later years would be called a Mexican standoff. The Browns had the house surrounded. Hodgepile, however, had Alicia Beardsley Brown—the two-year-old girl who legally owned the trading post, and who had been adopted by the Browns upon the death of her putative father.

Hodgepile had enough food and ammunition inside the trading post to withstand a siege of weeks; the Browns were disinclined to set fire to their valuable property in order to drive him out, or to risk the girl’s life by storming the place. After a day or two during which desultory shots were exchanged, and the members of the committee became increasingly edgy at having to camp in the woods surrounding the trading post, a flag of truce had been waved from the upper window, and Richard Brown had gone inside to parley with Hodgepile.

The result being a wary sort of merger. Hodgepile’s gang would continue their operations, steering clear of any settlement under the Browns’ protection, but would bring the proceeds of their robberies to the trading post, where they could be disposed of inconspicuously at a good profit, with Hodgepile’s gang taking a generous cut.

“The proceeds,” I said, accepting a fresh slice of buttered toast from Jamie. “That—you do mean captives?”

“Sometimes.” His lips pressed tight as he poured a mug of cider and handed it to me. “And depending upon where they were. When they took captives in the mountains, some of them were sold to the Indians, through the trading post. Those they took from the piedmont, they sold to river pirates, or took to the coast to sell on to the Indies—that would be the best price, aye? A fourteen-year-old lad would bring a hundred pound, at least.”

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