A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 31

   

He was opening his mouth, no doubt to plead with me further, but I stopped him with a sharp gesture.

“There was a man with you named Donner. What do you know about him?”

Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t that. His mouth hung open a little.

“Donner?” he repeated, looking uncertain.

“Don’t dare to tell me you don’t remember him,” I said, my agitation making me sound fierce.

“Oh, no, ma’am,” he assured me hastily. “I recall him fine—just fine! What”—his tongue touched the raw corner of his mouth—“what d’ye want to know about him?”

The main thing I wanted to know was whether he was dead or not, but Brown almost certainly didn’t know that.

“Let’s start with his full name,” I proposed, sitting down gingerly beside him, “and go from there.”

In the event, Brown knew little more for sure about Donner than his name—which, he said, was Wendigo.

“What?” I said incredulously, but Brown appeared to find nothing odd in it.

“That’s what he said it was,” he said, sounding hurt that I should doubt him. “Indian, in’t it?”

It was. It was, to be precise, the name of a monster from the mythology of some northern tribe—I couldn’t recall which. Brianna’s high-school class had once done a unit of Native American myths, with each child undertaking to explain and illustrate a particular story. Bree had done the Wendigo.

I recalled it only because of the accompanying picture she had drawn, which had stuck with me for some time. Done in a reverse technique, the basic drawing done in white crayon, showing through an overlay of charcoal. Trees, lashing to and fro in a swirl of snow and wind, leaf-stripped and needle-flying, the spaces between them part of the night. The picture had a sense of urgency about it, wildness and movement. It took several moments of looking at it before one glimpsed the face amid the branches. I had actually yelped and dropped the paper when I saw it—much to Bree’s gratification.

“I daresay,” I said, firmly suppressing the memory of the Wendigo’s face. “Where did he come from? Did he live in Brownsville?”

He had stayed in Brownsville, but only for a few weeks. Hodgepile had brought him from somewhere, along with his other men. Brown had taken no notice of him; he caused no trouble.

“He stayed with the widow Baudry,” Brown said, sounding suddenly hopeful. “Might be he told her something of himself. I could find out for you. When I go home.” He gave me a look of what I assumed he meant to be doglike trust, but which looked more like a dying newt.

“Hmm,” I said, giving him a look of extreme skepticism. “We’ll see about that.”

He licked his lips, trying to look pitiful.

“Could I maybe have some water, ma’am?”

I didn’t suppose I could let him die of thirst, but I had had quite enough of ministering to the man personally. I wanted him out of my surgery and out of my sight, as soon as possible. I nodded brusquely and stepped into the hall, calling for Mrs. Bug to bring some water.

The afternoon was warm, and I was feeling unpleasantly prickly after working on Lionel Brown. Without warning, a flush of heat rose suddenly upward through my chest and neck and flowed like hot wax over my face, so that sweat popped out behind my ears. Murmuring an excuse, I left the patient to Mrs. Bug, and hurried out into the welcome air.

There was a well outside; no more than a shallow pit, neatly edged with stones. A big gourd dipper was wedged between two of the stones; I pulled it out and, kneeling, scooped up enough water to drink and to splash over my steaming face.

Hot flushes in themselves were not really unpleasant—rather interesting, in fact, in the same way that pregnancy was; that odd feeling as one’s body did something quite unexpected, and not within one’s conscious control. I wondered briefly whether men felt that way about erections.

At the moment, a hot flush seemed quite welcome. Surely, I told myself, I couldn’t be experiencing hot flushes if I were pregnant. Or could I? I had the uneasy knowledge that the hormonal surges of early pregnancy were quite as capable of causing all kinds of peculiar thermal phenomena as were those of the menopause. I was certainly having the sorts of emotional conniptions that went with being pregnant—or menopausal—or from being raped—

“Don’t be ridiculous, Beauchamp,” I said out loud. “You know quite well you’re not pregnant.”

Hearing it gave me an odd feeling—nine parts relief, one part regret. Well, perhaps nine thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine parts relief, to one of regret—but it was still there.

The flood of sweat that sometimes followed in the wake of a hot flush, though, was something I could do without. The roots of my hair were soaked, and while the cool water on my face was lovely, waves of heat were still blooming over me, spreading like a clinging veil over chest and face and neck and scalp. Seized by impulse, I tipped half a dipperful of water down the inside of my bodice, exhaling in relief as the wetness soaked the cloth, trickling between my br**sts and down over my belly, tickling cool between my legs and dripping to the ground.

I looked a mess, but Mrs. Bug wouldn’t mind—and the devil with what bloody Lionel Brown thought. Dabbing at my temples with the end of my apron, I made my way back to the house.

The door stood ajar, as I’d left it. I pushed it open, and the strong pure light of the afternoon shone past me, illuminating Mrs. Bug in the act of pressing a pillow over Lionel Brown’s face with all her strength.

I stood blinking for a moment, so surprised that I simply couldn’t translate the sight into realization. Then I darted forward with an incoherent cry and grabbed her arm.

She was terribly strong, and so focused on what she was doing that she didn’t budge, veins standing out in her forehead and her face nearly purple with effort. I jerked hard on her arm, failed to dislodge her grip, and in desperation shoved her as hard as I could.

She staggered, off-balance, and I snatched the edge of the pillow, yanking it sideways, off Brown’s face. She lunged back, intent on completing the job, blunt hands shoving down into the mass of the pillow and disappearing to the wrists.

I drew back a step and flung myself at her bodily. We went over with a crash, hitting the table, upsetting the bench, and ending in a tangle on the floor amid a litter of broken earthenware and the scents of mint tea and a spilled chamber pot.

I rolled, gasped for breath, pain from my cracked ribs paralyzing me for a moment. Then I gritted my teeth, pushing her away and trying to extricate myself from a snarl of skirts—and stumbled to my feet.

His hand hung limp, trailing from the table, and I grabbed his jaw, pulling back his head, and pressed my mouth fervently to his. I blew what little breath I had into him, gasped, and blew again, all the time feeling frantically for some trace of a pulse in his neck.

He was warm, the bones of his jaw, his shoulder felt normal—but his flesh had a terrible slackness, the lips under mine flattening obscenely as I pressed and blew, blood from my split lip splattering everywhere, falling somehow away, so that I was forced to suck frantically to keep them sealed, breathing in hard through the corners of my mouth, fighting my ribs for enough air to blow again.

I felt someone behind me—Mrs. Bug—and kicked out at her. She made an effort to seize my shoulder, but I wrenched aside and her fingers slipped off. I turned round fast and hit her, as hard as I could, in the stomach, and she fell down on the floor with a loud whoof! No time to spare for her; I whirled and flung myself once more on Brown.

The chest under my hand rose reassuringly as I blew—but fell abruptly as I stopped. I drew back and pounded hard with both fists, smacking the hard springiness of the sternum with enough force to bruise my own hands further—and Brown’s flesh, had he been capable of bruising any longer.

He wasn’t. I blew and thumped and blew, until bloody sweat ran down my body in streams and my thighs were slick with it and my ears rang and black spots swam before my eyes with hyperventilating. Finally, I stopped. I stood panting in deep, wheezing gasps, wet hair hanging in my face, my hands throbbing in time to my pounding heart.

The bloody man was dead.

I rubbed my hands on my apron, then used it to wipe my face. My mouth was swollen and tasted of blood; I spat on the floor. I felt quite calm; the air had that peculiar sense of stillness that often accompanies a quiet death. A Carolina wren called in the wood nearby, “Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle!”

I heard a small rustling noise and turned round. Mrs. Bug had righted the bench and sat down on it. She sat hunched forward, hands folded together in her lap, a small frown on her wrinkled round face as she stared intently at the body on the table. Brown’s hand hung limp, fingers slightly cupped, holding shadows.

The sheet was stained over his body; that was the source of the chamber pot smell. So, he’d been dead before I began my resuscitation efforts.

Another wave of heat bloomed upward, coating my skin like hot wax. I could smell my own sweat. I closed my eyes briefly, then opened them, and turned back to Mrs. Bug.

“Why on earth,” I asked conversationally, “did you do that?”

“SHE’S DONE WHAT?” Jamie stared at me uncomprehendingly, then at Mrs. Bug, who sat at the kitchen table, head bowed, her hands clasped together in front of her.

Not waiting for me to repeat what I’d said, he strode down the hall to the surgery. I heard his footsteps come to a sudden stop. There was an instant’s silence, and then a heartfelt Gaelic oath. Mrs. Bug’s plump shoulders rose around her ears.

The footsteps came back, more slowly. He came in, and walked to the table where she sat.

“O, woman, how have you dared to lay hands upon a man who was mine?” he asked very softly, in Gaelic.

“Oh, sir,” she whispered. She was afraid to look up; she cowered under her cap, her face almost invisible. “I—I didna mean to. Truly, sir!”

Jamie glanced at me.

“She smothered him,” I repeated. “With a pillow.”

“I think ye do not do such a thing without meaning it,” he said, with an edge in his voice that could have sharpened knives. “What were ye about, a boireannach, to do it?”

The round shoulders began to quiver with fright.

“Oh, sir, oh, sir! I ken ’twas wrong—only . . . only it was the wicked tongue of him. All the time I had care of him, he’d cower and tremble, aye, when you or the young one came to speak to him, even Arch—but me—” She swallowed, the flesh of her face seeming suddenly loose. “I’m no but a woman, he could speak his mind to me, and he did. Threatening, sir, and cursing most awfully. He said—he said as how his brother would come, him and his men, to free him, and would slaughter us all in our blood and burn the houses over our heids.” Her jowls trembled as she spoke, but she found the courage to look up and meet Jamie’s eyes.

“I kent ye’d never let that happen, sir, and did my best to pay him no mind. And when he did get under my skin enough, I told him he’d be deid long before his brother heard where he was. But then the wicked wee cur escaped—and I’m sure I’ve no idea how ’twas done, for I’d have sworn he was in no condition even to rise from the bed, let alone come so far, but he did, and threw himself upon your wife’s mercy, and she took him up—I would have dragged his evil carcass away myself, but she wouldna have it—” Here she darted a briefly resentful glance at me, but returned an imploring gaze to Jamie almost at once.

“And she took him to mend, sweet gracious lady that she is, sir—and I could see it in her face, that having tended him so, it was coming to her that she couldna bear to see him killed. And he saw it, too, the gobshite, and when she went out, he jeered at me, saying now he was safe, he’d fooled her into tending him and she’d never let him be killed, and directly he was free of the place, he’d have a score of men down upon us like vengeance itself, and then . . .” She closed her eyes, swaying briefly, and pressed a hand to her chest.

“I couldn’t help it, sir,” she said very simply. “I really couldn’t.”

Jamie had been attending to her, a look like thunder on his brow. At this point, he glanced sharply at me—and evidently saw corroborative evidence upon my own battered features. His lips pressed tight together.

“Go home,” he said to Mrs. Bug. “Tell your husband what you have done, and send him to me.”

He turned on his heel then, and headed for his study. Not looking at me, Mrs. Bug rose awkwardly to her feet and went out, walking like a blind woman.

“YOU WERE RIGHT. I’m sorry.” I stood stiffly in the door of the study, hand on the jamb.

Jamie was sitting with his elbows on his desk, head resting on his hands, but looked up at this, blinking.

“Did I not forbid ye to be sorry, Sassenach?” he said, and gave me a lopsided smile. Then his eyes traveled over me, and a look of concern came over his face.

“Christ, ye look like ye’re going to fall down, Claire,” he said, getting up hastily. “Come and sit.”

He put me in his chair, and hovered over me.

“I’d call Mrs. Bug to bring ye something,” he said, “but as I’ve sent her away . . . shall I bring ye a cup of tea, Sassenach?”

I’d been feeling like crying, but laughed instead, blinking back tears.

“We haven’t got any. We haven’t had for months. I’m all right. Just rather—rather shocked.”

“Aye, I suppose so. Ye’re bleeding a bit.” He pulled a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and, bending over, dabbed my mouth, his brows drawn together in an anxious frown.

I sat still and let him, fighting a sudden wave of exhaustion. All at once, I wanted nothing save to lie down, go to sleep, and never wake up again. And if I did wake up, I wanted the dead man in my surgery to be gone. I also wanted the house not to be burned over our heads.

But it isn’t time, I thought suddenly, and found that thought—idiotic as it was—obscurely comforting.

“Will it make things harder for you?” I asked, struggling to fight off the weariness and think sensibly. “With Richard Brown?”

“I dinna ken,” he admitted. “I’ve been trying to think. I could wish we were in Scotland,” he said a little ruefully. “I’d ken better what Brown might do, were he a Scotsman.”

“Oh, really? Say you were dealing with your uncle Colum, for instance,” I suggested. “What would he do, do you think?”

“Try to kill me and get his brother back,” he replied promptly. “If he kent I had him. And if your Donner did go back to Brownsville—Richard knows by now.”

He was entirely right, and the knowledge made small fingers of apprehension creep briskly up my back.

The worry evidently showed on my face, for he smiled a little.

“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach,” he said. “The Lindsay brothers left for Brownsville the morning after we came back. Kenny’s keeping an eye on the town, and Evan and Murdo are waiting at points along the road, with fresh horses. If Richard Brown and his bloody Committee of Safety should come this way, we’ll hear of it in good time.”

That was reassuring, and I sat up a little straighter.

“That’s good. But—even if Donner did go back, he wouldn’t know that you had Lionel Brown captive; you might have killed him d-during the fight.”

He flicked a narrow blue glance at me, but merely nodded.

“I could wish I had,” he said with a slight grimace. “It would have saved trouble. But then—I’d not have found out what they were doing, and I did need to know that. If Donner’s gone back, though, he’ll ha’ told Richard Brown what happened, and led them back to claim the bodies. He’ll see his brother’s no among them.”

“Whereupon he’ll draw the logical conclusion and come here looking for him.”

The sound of the back door opening at this point made me jump, heart pounding, but it was succeeded by the soft shuffle of moccasined feet in the hall, announcing Young Ian, who peered inquiringly into the study.

“I’ve just met Mrs. Bug, hurrying off to her house,” he said, frowning. “She wouldna stop and speak to me, and she looked verra queer indeed. What’s amiss?”

“What isn’t?” I said, and laughed, causing him to glance sharply at me.

Jamie sighed.

“Sit,” he said, pushing a stool toward Ian with one foot. “And I’ll tell ye.”

Ian listened with great attention, though his mouth fell open a little when Jamie reached the point about Mrs. Bug putting the pillow over Brown’s face.

“Is he still there?” he asked, at the end of the tale. He hunched a little, looking suspiciously back over his shoulder, as though expecting Brown to come through the surgery door at any moment.

“Well, I hardly think he’s going anywhere under his own steam,” I observed tartly.

Ian nodded, but got up to look anyway. He came back in a moment, looking thoughtful.

“He’s no marks on him,” he said to Jamie, sitting down.

Jamie nodded. “Aye, and he’s freshly bandaged. Your auntie had just tended him.”

They exchanged nods, both obviously thinking the same thing.

“Ye canna tell by looking that he’s been killed, Auntie,” Ian explained, seeing that I was not yet on their wavelength. “He might have died of himself.”

“I suppose you could say that he did. If he hadn’t tried to terrorize Mrs. Bug . . .” I rubbed a hand—gently—over my forehead, where a headache was beginning to throb.

“How do ye feel—” Ian began, in a worried tone, but I had quite suddenly had more than enough of people asking me how I felt.

“I scarcely know,” I said abruptly, dropping my hand. I looked down at my fists, curled in my lap.

“He—he wasn’t a wicked man, I don’t think,” I said. There was a splotch of blood on my apron. I didn’t know whether it was his or mine. “Just . . . terribly weak.”

“Better off dead then,” said Jamie matter-of-factly, and without any particular malice. Ian nodded in agreement.

“Well, so.” Jamie returned to the point of the discussion. “I was just saying to your auntie, if Brown were a Scot, I should better know how to deal with him—but then it struck me, that while he isna Scottish, he is by way of doing business in a Scottish manner. Him and his committee. They’re like a Watch.”

Ian nodded, sketchy brows raised.

“So they are.” He looked interested. “I’ve never seen one, but Mam told me—about the one that arrested you, Uncle Jamie, and how she and Auntie Claire went after them.” He grinned at me, his gaunt face suddenly transforming to show a hint of the boy he’d been.

“Well, I was younger then,” I said. “And braver.”

Jamie made a small noise in his throat that might have been amusement.

“They’re no verra thrifty about it,” he said. “Killing and burning, I mean—”

“As opposed to ongoing extortion.” I was beginning to see where he was going with this. Ian had been born after Culloden; he’d never seen a Watch, one of those organized bands of armed men that rode the country, charging fees from the Highland chiefs to protect tenants, land, and cattle—and if the black rent they charged was not paid, promptly seizing goods and cattle themselves. I had. And in all truth, I’d heard of them burning and killing now and then, too—though generally only to create an example and improve cooperation.

Jamie nodded. “Well, Brown’s no Scot, as I said. But business is business, isn’t it?” A contemplative look had come over his face, and he leaned back a little, hands linked over one knee. “How fast can ye get to Anidonau Nuya, Ian?”

AFTER IAN LEFT, we stayed in the study. The situation in my surgery would have to be dealt with, but I was not quite ready yet to go and face it. Beyond a minor remark to the effect that it was a pity he had not yet had time to build an icehouse, Jamie made no reference to it, either.

“Poor old Mrs. Bug,” I said, beginning to get a grip. “I’d no idea he’d been playing on her that way. He must have thought she was a soft touch.” I laughed weakly. “That was a mistake. She’s terribly strong. I was amazed.”

I shouldn’t have been; I’d seen Mrs. Bug walk for a mile with a full-grown goat across her shoulders—but somehow one never translates the strength required for daily farm life into a capacity for homicidal fury.

“So was I,” Jamie said dryly. “Not that she was strong enough to do it, but that she dared take matters into her own hands. Why did she no tell Arch, if not myself?”

“I suppose it’s what she said—she thought it wasn’t her place to say anything; you’d given her the job of looking after him, and she’d move heaven and earth to do anything you asked. I daresay she thought she was coping well enough, but when he showed up that way, she . . . just snapped. It does happen; I’ve seen it.”

“So have I,” he muttered. A small frown had formed, deepening the crease between his brows, and I wondered what violent incidents he might be recalling. “But I shouldna have thought . . .”

Arch Bug came in so quietly that I didn’t hear him; I only realized that he was there when I saw Jamie look up, stiffening. I whirled about, and saw the ax in Arch’s hand. I opened my mouth to speak, but he strode toward Jamie, taking no notice of his surroundings. Clearly, for him, there was no one in the room save Jamie.

He reached the desk and laid the ax upon it, almost gently.

“My life for hers, O, chieftain,” he said quietly in Gaelic. He stepped back then, and knelt, head bowed. He had braided his soft white hair in a narrow plait and bound it up, so that the back of his neck was left bare. It was walnut-brown and deeply seamed from weather, but still thick and muscular above the white band of his collar.

A tiny noise from the door made me turn from the scene, riveting as it was. Mrs. Bug was there, clinging to the jamb for support, and in obvious need of it. Her cap was askew, and sweaty strands of iron-gray hair stuck to a face the color of cream gone bad.

Her eyes flickered to me when I moved, but then shot back to fix again upon her kneeling husband—and on Jamie, who was now standing, looking from Arch to his wife, then back again. He rubbed a finger slowly up and down the bridge of his nose, eyeing Arch.

“Oh, aye,” he said mildly. “I’m to take your head, am I? Here in my own room and have your wife mop up the blood, or shall I do it in the dooryard, and nail ye up by the hair over my lintel as a warning to Richard Brown? Get up, ye auld fraudster.”

Everything in the room was frozen for an instant—long enough for me to notice the tiny black mole in the exact middle of Arch’s neck—and then the old man rose, very slowly.

“It is your right,” he said, in Gaelic. “I am your tacksman, a ceann-cinnidh, I swear by my iron; it is your right.” He stood very straight, but his eyes were hooded, fixed on the desk where his ax lay, the sharpened edge a silver line against the dull gray metal of the head.

Jamie drew breath to reply, but then stopped, eyeing the old man narrowly. Something changed in him, some awareness taking hold.

“A ceann-cinnidh?” he said, and Arch Bug nodded, silent.

The air of the room had thickened in a heartbeat, and the hairs prickled on the back of my own neck.

“A ceann-cinnidh,” Arch had said. O, chieftain. One word, and we stood in Scotland. It was easy to see the difference in attitude between Jamie’s new tenants and his Ardsmuir men—the difference of a loyalty of agreement and one of acknowledgment. This was different still: an older allegiance, which had ruled the Highlands for a thousand years. The oath of blood and iron.

I saw Jamie weigh the present and the past and realize where Arch Bug stood between them. I saw it in his face, exasperation changing to realization—and saw his shoulders drop a little, in acceptance.

“By your word, then, it is my right,” he said softly, also in Gaelic. He drew himself up, picked up the ax, and held it out, handle first. “And by that right, I give you back your woman’s life—and your own.”

Mrs. Bug let out a small sobbing breath. Arch didn’t look round at her, but reached out and took the ax, with a grave inclination of the head. He turned then, and walked out without a further word—though I saw the fingers of his maimed hand brush his wife’s sleeve, very softly, in passing.

Mrs. Bug straightened herself, hastily tucking up the straggling bits of hair with trembling fingers. Jamie didn’t look at her, but sat down again, and took up his quill and a sheet of paper, though I thought he had no intention of writing anything. Not wanting to embarrass her, I affected great interest in the bookshelf, picking up Jamie’s little cherrywood snake as though to examine it more closely.

Cap on straight now, she came into the room, and bobbed a curtsy in front of him.

“Will I fetch ye a bit to eat, sir? There’s bannocks made fresh.” She spoke with great dignity, head upright. He raised his own head from his paper, and smiled at her.

“I should like that,” he said. “Gun robh math agaibh, a nighean.”

She nodded smartly and turned on her heel. At the door, though, she paused, looking back. Jamie raised his brows.

“I was there, ken,” she said, fixing him with a direct look. “When the Sassenachs killed your grandsire, there on Tower Hill. There was a lot of blood.” She pursed her lips, examining him through narrowed, reddened eyes, then relaxed.

“Ye’re a credit to him,” she said, and was gone in a whisk of petticoats and apron strings.

Jamie looked at me in surprise, and I shrugged.

“It wasn’t necessarily a compliment, you know,” I said, and his shoulders began to shake in silent laughter.

“I know,” he said at last, and swiped a knuckle beneath his nose. “D’ye ken, Sassenach—sometimes I mourn the auld bastard?” He shook his head. “Sometime I must ask Mrs. Bug if it’s true what he said, at the last. What they say he said, I mean.”

“What’s that?”

“He gave the headsman his fee, and told him to do a good job—‘For I shall be very angry indeed if ye don’t.’”

“Well, it certainly sounds like something he would say,” I said, smiling a little. “What do you suppose the Bugs were doing in London?”

He shook his head again, and turned his face to me, lifting his chin so the sun from the window glimmered like water along his jaw and cheekbone.

“God knows. D’ye think she’s right, Sassenach? About me being like him?”

“Not to look at,” I said, smiling a little. The late Simon, Lord Lovat, had been short and squat, though powerfully built despite his age. He had also borne a strong resemblance to a malevolent—but very clever—toad.

“No,” Jamie agreed. “Thank God. But otherwise?” The light of humor was still in his eyes, but he was serious; he truly wanted to know.

I studied him thoughtfully. There was no trace of the Old Fox in his bold, clean-cut features—those had come mostly from his mother’s MacKenzie side—nor yet in the broad-shouldered height of him, but somewhere behind those slanted dark blue eyes, I now and then sensed a faint echo of Lord Lovat’s deep-set gaze, glittering with interest and sardonic humor.

“You have something of him,” I admitted. “More than a little, sometimes. You haven’t the overweening ambition, but . . .” I squinted a bit, considering. “I was going to say that you aren’t as ruthless as him,” I went on slowly, “but you are, really.”

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