A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 3

   

“What?” Roger slid his eyes sideways, trying to see what she was looking at.

“Found your snake. I expect he’s looking for an apple, too.” She coaxed the tiny worm onto her finger, stepped outside, and squatted to let it crawl onto a grass blade that matched its vivid green. But the grass was in shadow. In only an instant, the sun had gone down, the forest no longer the color of life.

A thread of smoke reached her nose; chimney smoke from the Big House, but her throat closed at the smell of burning. Suddenly her uneasiness was stronger. The light was fading, night coming on. The mockingbird had fallen silent, and the forest seemed full of mystery and threat.

She rose to her feet, shoving a hand through her hair.

“Let’s go, then.”

“Do ye not want supper, first?” Roger looked quizzically at her, breeches in hand.

She shook her head, chill beginning to creep up her legs.

“No. Let’s just go.” Nothing seemed to matter, save to get Jem, and be together again, a family.

“All right,” Roger said mildly, eyeing her. “I do think ye’d best put on your fig leaf first, though. Just in case we meet an angel with a flaming sword.”

5

THE SHADOWS WHICH

FIRE THROWS

I ABANDONED IAN AND ROLLO to the juggernaut of Mrs. Bug’s benevolence—let Ian try telling her he didn’t want bread and milk—and sat down to my own belated supper: a hot, fresh omelette, featuring not only cheese, but bits of salty bacon, asparagus, and wild mushroom, flavored with spring onions.

Jamie and the Major had finished their own meals already, and sat by the fire beneath a companionable fug of tobacco smoke from the Major’s clay pipe. Evidently, Jamie had just finished telling Major MacDonald about the gruesome tragedy, for MacDonald was frowning and shaking his head in sympathy.

“Puir gomerels!” he said. “Ye’ll be thinking that it was the same banditti, perhaps, who set upon your nephew?”

“I am,” Jamie replied. “I shouldna like to think there were two such bands prowling the mountains.” He glanced toward the window, cozily shuttered for the night, and I noticed suddenly that he had taken down his fowling piece from over the hearth and was absently wiping the spotless barrel with an oily rag. “Do I gather, a charaid, that ye’ve heard some report of similar doings?”

“Three others. At least.” The Major’s pipe threatened to go out, and he drew on it mightily, making the tobacco in the bowl glow and crackle sudden red.

A small qualm made me pause, a bite of mushroom warm in my mouth. The possibility that a mysterious gang of armed men might be roaming at large, attacking homesteads at random, had not occurred to me ’til this moment.

Obviously, it had occurred to Jamie; he rose, put the fowling piece back on its hooks, touched the rifle that hung above it for reassurance, then went to the sideboard, where his dags and the case with its elegant pair of dueling pistols were kept.

MacDonald watched with approval, puffing clouds of soft blue smoke, as Jamie methodically laid out guns, shot pouches, bullet molds, patches, rods, and all the other impedimenta of his personal armory.

“Mmphm,” MacDonald said. “A verra nice piece, that, Colonel.” He nodded at one of the dags, a long-barreled, elegant thing with a scroll butt and silver-gilt fittings.

Jamie gave MacDonald a narrow glance, hearing the “Colonel,” but answered calmly enough.

“Aye, it’s a bonny thing. It doesna aim true at anything over two paces, though. Won it in a horse race,” he added, with a small apologetic gesture at the gun, lest MacDonald think him fool enough to have paid good money for it.

He checked the flint nonetheless, replaced it, and set the gun aside.

“Where?” Jamie said casually, reaching for the bullet mold.

I had resumed chewing, but looked inquiringly at the Major myself.

“Mind, it’s only what I’ve heard,” MacDonald warned, taking the pipe from his mouth for a moment, then hastily putting it back for another puff. “A homestead some distance from Salem, burned to the ground. Folk called Zinzer—Germans.” He sucked hard, cheeks hollowing.

“That was in February, late in the month. Then three weeks later, a ferry, on the Yadkin north of Woram’s Landing—the house robbed, and the ferryman killed. The third—” Here he broke off, puffing furiously, and cut his eyes at me, then back at Jamie.

“Speak, o, friend,” Jamie said in Gaelic, looking resigned. “She will have been seeing more dreadful things than you have, by far.”

I nodded at this, forking up another bite of egg, and the Major coughed.

“Aye. Well, saving your presence, mum—I happened to find myself in a, er, establishment in Edenton. . . .”

“A brothel?” I put in. “Yes, quite. Do go on, Major.”

He did, rather hurriedly, his face flushing dark beneath his wig.

“Ah . . . to be sure. Well, d’ye see, ’twas one of the, er, lasses in the place, told me as she’d been stolen from her home by outlaws who set upon the place one day without warning. She’d no but an auld grannie she lived with, and said they’d kilt the auld woman, and burned the house above her head.”

“And who did she say had done it?” Jamie had turned his stool to face the hearth, and was melting lead scrap in a ladle for the bullet mold.

“Ah, mmphm.” MacDonald’s flush deepened, and the smoke fumed from his pipe with such ferocity that I could barely make out his features through the curling wreaths.

It transpired, with much coughing and circumlocution, that the Major had not really believed the girl at the time—or had been too interested in availing himself of her charms to pay much attention. Putting the story down simply as one of the tales whores often told to elicit sympathy and the odd extra glass of geneva, he had not bothered to ask for further detail.

“But when I heard by chance later of the other burnings . . . well, d’ye see, I’ve had the luck to be charged by the Governor with keeping an ear to the ground, as it were, in the backcountry, for signs of unrest. And I began to think that this particular instance of unrest was maybe not just sae much of a coincidence as might at first appear.”

Jamie and I exchanged glances at that, Jamie’s tinged with amusement, mine with resignation. He’d bet me that MacDonald—a half-pay cavalry officer who survived by freelancing—would not only survive Governor Tryon’s resignation, but would succeed in worming his way promptly into some position with the new regime, now that Tryon had left to take up a superior position as governor of New York. “He’s a gentleman o’ fortune, our Donald,” he’d said.

The militant smell of hot lead began to permeate the room, competing with the Major’s pipe smoke, and quite overpowering the pleasantly domestic atmosphere of rising bread, cooking, dried herbs, scouring rushes, and lye soap that normally filled the kitchen.

Lead melts suddenly; one instant, a deformed bullet or a bent button sits in the ladle, whole and distinct; the next, it’s gone, a tiny puddle of metal shimmering dully in its place. Jamie poured the molten lead carefully into the mold, averting his face from the fumes.

“Why Indians?”

“Ah. Well, ’twas what the whore in Edenton said. She said some of those who burned her house and stole her away were Indians. But as I say, at the time I paid her story little mind.”

Jamie made a Scottish noise indicating that he took the point, but with skepticism.

“And when did ye meet this lassie, Donald, and hear her story?”

“Near Christmas.” The Major poked at the bowl of his pipe with a stained forefinger, not looking up. “Ye mean when was her house attacked? She didna say, but I think . . . perhaps not too long before. She was still . . . fairly, er, fresh.” He coughed, caught my eye, caught his breath, and coughed again, hard, going red in the face.

Jamie’s mouth pressed tight, and he looked down, flipping open the mold to drop a new-made ball onto the hearth.

I put down my fork, the remnants of appetite vanished.

“How?” I demanded. “How did this young woman come to be in the brothel?”

“Why, they sold her, mum.” The flush still stained MacDonald’s cheeks, but he had recovered his countenance enough to look at me. “The brigands. They sold her to a river trader, she said, a few days after they’d stolen her. He kept her for a bit, on his boat, but then a man came one night to do business, took a fancy to her, and bought her. He brought her as far as the coast, but I suppose he’d tired of her by then. . . .” His words trailed off, and he stuck the pipe back into his mouth, drawing hard.

“I see.” I did, and the half of the omelette I’d eaten lay in a small hard ball in the bottom of my stomach.

“Still fairly fresh.” How long did it take, I wondered? How long would a woman last, passed from hand to casual hand, from the splintered planks of a riverboat’s deck to the tattered mattress of a hired room, given only what would keep her alive? It was more than possible that the brothel in Edenton had seemed a haven of sorts by the time she reached it. The thought didn’t make me feel any more kindly toward MacDonald, though.

“Do you remember her name at least, Major?” I asked, with icy courtesy.

I thought I saw the edge of Jamie’s mouth twitch, from the corner of my eye, but kept my stare focused on MacDonald.

He took the pipe from his mouth, exhaled a long stream of smoke, then looked up into my face, his eyes pale blue and very direct.

“In truth, mum,” he said, “I just call them all Polly. Saves trouble, ken?”

I was saved from reply—or from something worse—by the return of Mrs. Bug, bearing an empty bowl.

“The laddie’s eaten, and now he’ll sleep,” she announced. Her sharp eyes flicked from my face to my half-empty plate. She opened her mouth, frowning, but then glanced at Jamie, and seeming to pick up some unspoken command from him, shut her mouth again, and picked up the plate with a brief “hmp!”

“Mrs. Bug,” said Jamie quietly. “Will ye awa’ just now, and ask Arch to come down to me? And, if it’s no troubling ye too much, the same word to Roger Mac?”

Her small black eyes went round, then narrowed as she glanced at MacDonald, obviously suspecting that if there were mischief afoot, he was behind it.

“I will,” she said, and shaking her head with admonishment at me for my lack of appetite, she put down the dishes and went out, leaving the door on the latch.

“Woram’s Landing,” Jamie said to MacDonald, resuming their conversation as though it had not been interrupted. “And Salem. And if it is the same men, Young Ian met them in the forest, a day’s travel west of here. Near enough.”

“Near enough to be the same? Aye, it is.”

“It’s early in the spring.” Jamie glanced at the window as he spoke; it was dark now, and the shutters closed, but a cool breeze crept through and stirred the threads where I had strung mushrooms to dry, dark wizened shapes that swayed like tiny dancers, frozen against the pale wood.

I knew what he meant by that. The ground in the mountains was impassable during the winter; the high passes still held snow, and the lower slopes had only begun to green and blossom in the last few weeks. If there was an organized gang of marauders, they might only now be moving into the backcountry, after a winter spent lying low in the piedmont.

“It is,” MacDonald agreed. “Early enough, perhaps, to have folk on their guard. But before your men come, sir—perhaps we should speak of what brought me?”

“Aye?” Jamie said, squinting carefully as he poured a glittering stream of lead. “Of course, Donald. I should have kent no small matter would bring ye so far. What is it?”

MacDonald smiled like a shark; now we’d come to it.

“Ye’ve done well wi’ your place here, Colonel. How many families it is ye have on your land the noo?”

“Thirty-four,” Jamie said. He didn’t look up, but turned out another bullet into the ashes.

“Room for a few more, perhaps?” MacDonald was still smiling. We were surrounded by thousands of miles of wilderness; the handful of homesteads on Fraser’s Ridge made scarcely a dent in it—and could vanish like smoke. I thought momentarily of the Dutch cabin, and shivered, despite the fire. I could still taste the bitter, cloying smell of burned flesh, thick in the back of my throat, lurking beneath the lighter flavors of the omelette.

“Perhaps,” Jamie replied equably. “The new Scottish emigrants, is it? From up past Thurso?”

Major MacDonald and I both stared at him.

“How the devil d’ye ken that?” MacDonald demanded. “I heard it myself only ten days since!”

“Met a man at the mill yesterday,” Jamie replied, picking up the ladle again. “A gentleman from Philadelphia, come into the mountains to collect plants. He’d come up from Cross Creek and seen them.” A muscle near his mouth twitched. “Apparently, they made a bit of a stir at Brunswick, and didna feel themselves quite welcome, so they came up the river on flatboats.”

“A bit of a stir? What did they do?” I asked.

“Well, d’ye see, mum,” the Major explained, “there are a great many folk come flooding off ships these days, straight from the Highlands. Whole villages, packed into the bowels of a ship—and looking as though they’ve been shat out when they disembark, too. There’s nothing for them on the coast, though, and the townsfolk are inclined to point and snigger, seein’ them in their outlandish rig—so for the most part, they get straight onto a barge or a flatboat and head up the Cape Fear. Campbelton and Cross Creek at least have folk who can talk to them.”

He grinned at me, brushing a smudge of dirt from the skirts of his uniform coat.

“The folk in Brunswick willna be quite accustomed to such rawboned Highlanders, they having seen only such civilized Scotch persons as your husband and his aunt.”

He nodded toward Jamie, who gave him a small, ironic bow in return.

“Well, relatively civilized,” I murmured. I was not ready to forgive MacDonald for the whore in Edenton. “But—”

“They’ve barely a word of English among them, from what I hear,” MacDonald hurried on. “Farquard Campbell came down to speak wi’ them, and brought them north to Campbelton, or I doubt not but they’d be milling about onshore yet, wi’ no notion at all where to go or what to do next.”

“What’s Campbell done wi’ them?” Jamie inquired.

“Ah, they’re parceled out amongst his acquaintance in Campbelton, but ’twon’t suit in the long run, ye can see that, of course.” MacDonald shrugged. Campbelton was a small settlement near Cross Creek, centered around Farquard Campbell’s successful trading store, and the land around it was entirely settled—mostly by Campbells. Farquard had eight children, many of whom were also married—and as fertile as their father.

“Of course,” Jamie said, looking wary. “But they’re from the northern coast. They’ll be fishermen, Donald, not crofters.”

“Aye, but they’re willing to make a change, no?” MacDonald gestured toward the door, and the forest beyond. “There’s nothing for them left in Scotland. They’ve come here, and now they must make the best of it. A man can learn to farm, surely?”

Jamie looked rather dubious, but MacDonald was in the full flush of his enthusiasm.

“I’ve seen many a fisher-lad and plowboy become a soldier, man, and so have you, I’ll wager. Farming’s no more difficult than soldiering, surely?”

Jamie smiled a little at that; he had left farming at nineteen and fought as a mercenary in France for several years before returning to Scotland.

“Aye, well, that’s maybe true, Donald. But the thing about being a soldier is that someone’s tellin’ ye what to do, from the moment ye rise until ye fall down at night. Who’s to tell these poor wee gomerels which end o’ the cow to milk?”

“That would be you, I expect,” I said to him. I stretched myself, easing my back, stiff from riding, and glanced across at MacDonald. “Or at least I suppose that’s what you’re getting at, Major?”

“Your charm is exceeded only by your quickness of wit, mum,” said MacDonald, bowing gracefully in my direction. “Aye, that’s the meat of it. All your folk are Highlanders, sir, and crofters; they can speak to these newcomers in their own tongue, show them what they’ll need to know—help them to make their way.”

“There are a good many other folk in the colony who have the Gaidhlig,” Jamie objected. “And most of them a great deal more convenient to Campbelton.”

“Aye, but you’ve vacant land that needs clearing, and they haven’t.” Obviously feeling that he had won the argument, MacDonald sat back and took up his neglected mug of beer.

Jamie looked at me, one eyebrow raised. It was perfectly true that we had vacant land: ten thousand acres, but barely twenty of them under cultivation. It was also true that lack of labor was acute in the entire colony, but even more so in the mountains, where the land didn’t lend itself to tobacco or rice—the sorts of crops suited to slave labor.

At the same time, though—

“The difficulty is, Donald, how to settle them.” Jamie bent to turn out another ball on the hearth, and straightened, brushing back a loose strand of auburn hair behind his ear. “I’ve land, aye, but little else. Ye canna be loosing folk straight from Scotland into the wilderness, and expect them to claw a living out of it. I couldna even give them the shoon and suit of clothes a bondsman would have, let alone tools. And to feed them and all their wives and weans through the winter? To offer them protection?” He lifted his ladle in illustration, then shook his head and dropped in another lump of lead.

“Ah, protection. Well, since ye’ve mentioned that, let me proceed to another wee matter of interest.” MacDonald leaned forward, lowering his voice confidentially, though there was no one to hear.

“I’ve said I’m the Governor’s man, aye? He’s charged me to travel about, over the western part of the colony, and keep an ear to the ground. There are Regulators still unpardoned, and”—he glanced warily to and fro, as though expecting one of these persons to bound out of the fireplace—“ye’ll have heard of the Committees of Safety?”

“A bit.”

“Ye’ll not have one established yet, here in the backcountry?”

“Not that I’ve heard of, no.” Jamie had run out of lead to melt, and now stooped to scoop the new-made balls from the ashes at his feet, the warm light of the fire glowing red on the crown of his head. I sat down beside him on the settle, picking up the shot pouch from the table and holding it open for him.

“Ah,” said MacDonald, looking pleased. “I see I’ve come in good time, then.”

In the wake of the civil unrest that surrounded the War of the Regulation a year before, a number of such informal citizens’ groups had sprung up, inspired by similar groups in the other colonies. If the Crown was no longer able to assure the safety of the colonists, they argued, then they must take the matter into their own hands.

The sheriffs could no longer be trusted to keep order; the scandals that had inspired the Regulator movement had assured that. The difficulty, of course, was that since the committees were self-appointed, there was no more reason to trust them than the sheriffs.

There were other committees, too. The Committees of Correspondence, loose associations of men who wrote letters to and fro, spreading news and rumor between the colonies. And it was out of these various committees that the seeds of rebellion would spring—were germinating even now, somewhere out in the cold spring night.

As I did now and then—and much more often, now—I reckoned up the time remaining. It was nearly April of 1773 And on the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five . . . as Longfellow so quaintly put it . . .

Two years. But war has a long fuse, and a slow match. This one had been lit at Alamance, and the bright, hot lines of the creeping fire in North Carolina were already visible—for those who knew to look.

The lead balls in the shot pouch I held rolled and clicked together; my fingers had tightened on the leather. Jamie saw it and touched my knee, quick and light, in reassurance, then took the pouch and rolled it up, tucking it into the cartridge box.

“Good time,” he repeated, looking at MacDonald. “What d’ye mean by that, Donald?”

“Why, who should lead such a committee other than yourself, Colonel? I had suggested as much to the Governor.” MacDonald tried to look modest, and failed.

“Verra obliging of ye, Major,” Jamie said dryly. He raised an eyebrow at me. The state of the colony’s government must be worse even than he had supposed, for Governor Martin to be not only tolerating the existence of the committees—but clandestinely sanctioning them.

The long-drawn whine of a dog’s yawn reached me faintly from the hall, and I excused myself, to go and check on Ian.

I wondered whether Governor Martin had the slightest idea what he was loosing. I rather thought he did, and was making the best of a bad job, by trying to ensure that some, at least, of the Committees of Safety were run by men who had backed the Crown during the War of the Regulation. The fact remained that he could not control—or even know about—many such committees. But the colony was beginning to seethe and bump like a teakettle on the boil, and Martin had no official troops at his command, only such irregulars as MacDonald—and the militia.

Which was why MacDonald was calling Jamie “Colonel,” of course. The previous governor, William Tryon, had appointed Jamie—quite against his will—colonel of militia for the backcountry above the Yadkin.

“Hmph,” I said to myself. Neither MacDonald nor Martin was a fool. Inviting Jamie to set up a Committee of Safety meant that he would call upon those men who had served under him in the militia—but would commit the government to nothing, in terms of paying or equipping them—and the Governor would be clear of any responsibility for their actions, since a Committee of Safety was not an official body.

The danger to Jamie—and all of us—in accepting such a proposal, though—that was considerable.

It was dark in the hall, with no light but the spill from the kitchen behind me, and the faint glow of the single candle in the surgery. Ian was asleep, but restless, a faint frown of discomfort wrinkling the soft skin between his brows. Rollo raised his head, thick tail swishing to and fro across the floor in greeting.

Ian didn’t respond when I spoke his name, or when I set a hand on his shoulder. I shook him gently, then harder. I could see him struggling, somewhere under the layers of unconsciousness, like a man drifting in the underwater currents, yielding to the beckoning depths, then snagged by an unexpected fishhook, a stab of pain in cold-numbed flesh.

His eyes opened suddenly, dark and lost, and he stared at me in incomprehension.

“Hallo there,” I said softly, relieved to see him wake. “What’s your name?”

I could see that the question made no sense to him at once, and repeated it, patiently. Awareness stirred somewhere in the depths of his dilated pupils.

“Who am I?” he said in Gaelic. He said something else, slurred, in Mohawk, and his eyelids fluttered, closing.

“Wake up, Ian,” I said firmly, resuming the shaking. “Tell me who you are.”

His eyes opened again, and he squinted at me in confusion.

“Try something easier,” I suggested, holding up two fingers. “How many fingers do you see?”

A flicker of awareness sprang up in his eyes.

“Dinna let Arch Bug see ye do that, Auntie,” he said drowsily, the hint of a smile touching his face. “That’s verra rude, ken.”

Well, at least he had recognized me, as well as the “V” sign; that was something. And he must know who he was, if he was calling me Auntie.

“What’s your full name?” I asked again.

“Ian James FitzGibbons Fraser Murray,” he said, rather crossly. “Why d’ye keep asking me my name?”

“FitzGibbons?” I said. “Where on earth did you get that one?”

He groaned and put two fingers against his eyelids, wincing as he pressed gently.

“Uncle Jamie gave it me—blame him,” he said. “It’s for his auld godfather, he said. Murtagh FitzGibbons Fraser, he was called, but my mother didna want me named Murtagh. I think I’m going to puke again,” he added, taking his hand away.

In the event, he heaved and retched a bit over the basin, but didn’t actually vomit, which was a good sign. I eased him back onto his side, white and clammy with sweat, and Rollo stood on his hind legs, front paws braced on the table, to lick his face, which made him giggle between groans and try feebly to push the dog away.

“Theirig dhachaigh, Okwaho,” he said. “Theirig dhachaigh” meant “go home,” in Gaelic, and Okwaho was evidently Rollo’s Mohawk name. Ian seemed to be having some difficulty choosing among the three languages in which he was fluent, but was obviously lucid, in spite of that. After I had made him answer a few more annoyingly pointless questions, I wiped his face with a damp cloth, let him rinse his mouth with well-watered wine, and tucked him in again.

“Auntie?” he said drowsily, as I was turning for the door. “D’ye think I’ll ever see my Mam again?”

I stopped, having no idea how to answer that. In fact, there was no need; he had dropped back into sleep with the suddenness that concussion patients often showed, and was breathing deeply before I could find any words.

6

AMBUSH

IAN WOKE ABRUPTLY, hand closing round his tomahawk. Or what should have been his tomahawk, but was instead a handful of breeches. For an instant, he had no notion at all where he was, and sat up straight, trying to make out shapes in the dark.

Pain shot through his head like heat lightning, making him gasp soundlessly and clutch it. Somewhere in the dark below him, Rollo gave a small, startled wuff?

Christ. The piercing smells of his aunt’s surgery stabbed the back of his nose, alcohol and burned wick and dried medicine leaves and the foul brews she called penny-syllin. He closed his eyes, put his forehead on his drawn-up knees, and breathed slowly through his mouth.

What had he been dreaming? Some dream of danger, something violent—but no clear image came to him, only the feel of being stalked, something following him through the wood.

He had to piss, badly. Fumbling for the edge of the table he lay on, he eased himself slowly upright, squinting against the flashes of pain in his head.

Mrs. Bug had left him a pot, he remembered her saying so, but the candle had gone out and he’d no mind to crawl round the floor looking for it. Faint light showed him where the door was; she had left it ajar, and a glow spread down the hall from the kitchen hearth. With that as bearing, he made his way to the window, got it open, fumbled free the shutter fastening, and stood in the flood of air from the cool spring night, eyes closed in relief as his bladder eased.

That was better, though with the relief came new awareness of the queasiness of his stomach and the throbbing in his head. He sat down, putting his arms on his knees and his head on his arms, waiting for everything to ease.

There were voices in the kitchen; he could hear them clearly, now that he paid attention.

It was Uncle Jamie and yon MacDonald, and old Arch Bug, as well, with Auntie Claire now and again putting in a word, her English voice sharp by contrast with the gruff mutter of Scots and Gaelic.

“Would ye care, perhaps, to be an Indian agent?” MacDonald was saying.

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