A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 38

   

“Yes,” I said faintly, then “yes” a little stronger. “Everything is all right now.”

PART SIX

On the Mountain

40

BIRD-SPRING

March 1774

IT WAS SPRING, and the long months of desolation melted into running water, with streamlets pouring from every hill and miniature waterfalls leaping from stone to stone to stone.

The air was filled with the racket of birds, a cacophony of melody that replaced the lonely calling of geese passing by far overhead.

Birds go one by one in the winter, a single raven hunched brooding in a barren tree, an owl fluffed against the cold in the high, dark shadows of a barn. Or they go in flocks, a massed thunder of wings to bear them up and away, wheeling through the sky like handsful of pepper grains thrown aloft, calling their way in Vs of mournful courage toward the promise of a distant and problematic survival.

In winter, the raptors draw apart unto themselves; the songbirds flee away, all the color of the feathered world reduced to the brutal simplification of predator and prey, gray shadows passing overhead, with no more than a small bright drop of blood fallen back to earth here and there to mark the passing of life, leaving a drift of scattered feathers, borne on the wind.

But as spring blooms, the birds grow drunk with love and the bushes riot with their songs. Far, far into the night, darkness mutes but does not silence them, and small melodious conversations break out at all hours, invisible and strangely intimate in the dead of night, as though one overheard the lovemaking of strangers in the room next door.

I moved closer to Jamie, hearing the clear, sweet song of a thrush in the great red spruce that stood behind the house. It was still cold at night, but not with the bitter chill of winter; rather with the sweet fresh cold of thawing earth and springing leaves, a cold that sent the blood tingling and made warm bodies seek one another, nesting.

A rumbling snore echoed across the landing—another harbinger of spring. Major MacDonald, who had arrived mud-caked and wind-bitten the night before, bringing unwelcome news of the outside world.

Jamie stirred briefly at the sound, groaned, farted briefly, and lay still. He’d stayed up late, entertaining the Major—if entertainment was the word for it.

I could hear Lizzie and Mrs. Bug in the kitchen below, talking as they banged pots and slammed doors in hopes of rousing us. Breakfast smells began to rise up the stairs, enticing, the bitter smell of roasting chicory spicing the thick warmth of buttered porridge.

The sound of Jamie’s breathing had changed, and I knew he was awake, though he still lay with his eyes closed. I didn’t know whether this denoted an urge to continue the physical pleasure of sleep—or a marked disinclination to get up and deal with Major MacDonald.

He resolved this doubt at once by rolling over, enveloping me in his arms, and moving his lower body against mine in a manner that made it obvious that, while physical pleasure was what was on his mind, he was quite through sleeping.

He hadn’t reached the point of coherent speech yet, though, and nuzzled my ear, making small interrogatory hums in his throat. Well, the Major was still asleep, and the coffee—such as it was—wouldn’t be ready for a bit. I hummed back, reached to the bedside table for a bit of almond cream, and commenced a slow and pleasurable rummage through the layers of bedclothes and nightshirt to apply it.

Some small while later, snorts and thumps across the hall denoted the resurrection of Major MacDonald, and the delectable scents of frying ham and potatoes with onions had joined the throng of olfactory stimuli. The sweet smell of almond cream was stronger, though.

“Greased lightning,” Jamie said with a drowsy air of satisfaction. He was still in bed, lying on his side to watch me dress.

“What?” I turned from my looking glass to eye him. “Who?”

“Me, I suppose. Or were ye not thunderstruck, there at the end?” He laughed, almost silently, rustling the bedclothes.

“Oh, you’ve been talking to Bree again,” I said tolerantly. I turned back to the glass. “That particular figure of speech is a metaphor for extreme speed, not lubricated brilliance.”

I smiled at him in the glass as I brushed knots out of my hair. He had unplaited it while I was anointing him, and subsequent exertions had caused it to explode. Come to think, it did faintly resemble the effects of electrocution.

“Well, I can be fast, too,” he said judiciously, sitting up and rubbing a hand through his own hair. “But not first thing in the morning. There are worse ways to wake up, aye?”

“Yes, much worse.” Sounds of hawking and spitting came from across the landing, followed by the distinctive sound of someone with very vigorous bladder function employing a chamber pot. “Is he staying long, did he say?”

Jamie shook his head. Rising slowly, he stretched himself like a cat and then came across in his shirt to put his arms around me. I hadn’t yet poked up the fire, and the room was chilly; his body was pleasantly warm.

He rested his chin on top of my head, regarding our stacked reflections in the mirror.

“I’ll have to go,” he said softly. “Tomorrow, perhaps.”

I stiffened a little, brush in hand.

“Where? To the Indians?”

He nodded, eyes on mine.

“MacDonald brought newspapers, wi’ the text of letters from Governor Martin to various people—Tryon in New York, General Gage—asking help. He’s losing his grip upon the colony—insofar as he ever had one—and is seriously thinking of arming the Indians. Though that bit of information hasna made it into the newspapers, and a good thing, too.”

He released me, and reached for the drawer where his clean shirts and stockings stayed.

“That is a good thing,” I said, bundling back my hair and hunting for a ribbon to tie it with. We’d seen few newspapers through the winter, but even so, the level of disagreement between the Governor and the Assembly was clear; he’d resorted to a practice of continuous proroguing, repeatedly dismissing the Assembly in order to prevent them passing legislation at odds with his desires.

I could well imagine what the public response would be to the revelation that he contemplated arming the Cherokee, Catawba, and Creek, and inciting them against his own people.

“I’m guessing that he isn’t actually going to do that,” I said, finding the blue ribbon I was looking for, “because if he had—does, I mean—the Revolution would have got going in North Carolina right now, rather than in Massachusetts or Philadelphia two years from now. But why on earth is he publishing these letters in the newspaper?”

Jamie laughed. He shook his head, pushing back the disheveled hair from his face.

“He’s not. Evidently, the Governor’s mail is being intercepted. He’s no verra pleased about it, MacDonald says.”

“I daresay not.” Mail was notoriously insecure, and always had been. In fact, we had originally acquired Fergus when Jamie hired him as a pickpocket, in order to steal letters in Paris. “How is Fergus doing?” I asked.

Jamie made a small grimace, pulling on his stockings.

“Better, I think. Marsali says he’s staying more to home, which is good. And he’s earning a wee bit, teaching French to Hiram Crombie. But—”

“Hiram? French?”

“Oh, aye.” He grinned at me. “Hiram’s set upon the idea that he must go and preach to the Indians, and he thinks he’ll be best equipped to manage if he’s got some French as well as English. Ian’s teaching him a bit of the Tsalagi, too, but there are so many Indian tongues, he’d never learn them all.”

“Will wonders never cease,” I murmured. “Do you think—”

I was interrupted at this point by Mrs. Bug bellowing up the stairs, “If Certain Persons are wantin’ to let a good breakfast be spoilt, I’m sure they’re welcome!”

Like clockwork, Major MacDonald’s door popped open, and his feet clattered eagerly down the stairs.

“Ready?” I said to Jamie. He seized my hairbrush and tidied himself with a few licks, then came to open the door and bowed, ushering me ceremoniously out.

“What ye said, Sassenach,” he said as he followed me down the stair. “About it starting in two years. It’s already well begun. Ye know that, aye?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, rather grimly. “But I don’t want to think about it on an empty stomach.”

ROGER STOOD UP straight, measuring. The edge of the kiln pit he stood in came just under his chin. Six feet would be just about at eye level; only a few more inches, then. That was heartening. Setting the shovel against the dirt wall, he stooped, grabbed a wooden bucket full of earth, and heaved it up over the rim.

“Dirt!” he yelled. There was no response to his shout. He rose on his toes, peering balefully round for his so-called assistants. Jemmy and Germain were meant to be taking it in turn to empty the buckets and pass them back down to him, but had a tendency to vanish abruptly.

“Dirt!” he shouted as loudly as he could. The wee buggers couldn’t have gone far; it took him less than two minutes to fill a bucket.

This call was answered, but not by the boys. A cold shadow fell over him, and he squinted up to see the silhouette of his father-in-law, stooping to grab the handle of the bucket. Jamie strode two paces and flung the dirt onto the slowly mounting heap, then came back, hopping down into the pit to return it.

“A tidy wee hole ye have here,” he said, turning round to survey it. “Ye could barbecue an ox in it.”

“I’ll need one. I’m starving.” Roger wiped a sleeve across his forehead; the spring day was cool and crisp, but he was drenched with sweat.

Jamie had picked up his shovel and was examining the blade with interest.

“I’ve never seen the like. Is it the lass’s work?”

“With a bit of help from Dai Jones, aye.” It had taken roughly thirty seconds’ work with an eighteenth-century shovel to convince Brianna that improvements could be made. It had taken three months to acquire a chunk of iron that could be shaped to her directions by the blacksmith and to persuade Dai Jones—who was Welsh and thus by definition stubborn—into doing it. The normal spade was made of wood, and looked like nothing so much as a roof shingle attached to a pole.

“May I try?” Enchanted, Jamie drove the pointed end of the new spade into the dirt at his feet.

“Be my guest.”

Roger scrambled up out of the deep part of the pit into the shallower end of the kiln. Jamie stood in the part where the fire would go, according to Brianna, with a chimney to be raised over it. Items to be fired would sit in the longer, relatively shallow part of the pit and be covered over. After a week of shoveling, Roger was less inclined to think the distant possibility of plumbing was worth all the labor involved, but Bree wanted it—and like her father, Bree was difficult to resist, though their methods varied.

Jamie shoveled briskly, tossing spadesful of dirt into the bucket, with small exclamations of delight and admiration at the ease and speed with which dirt could be dug. Despite his dim view of the occupation, Roger felt a sense of pride in his wife’s implement.

“First the wee matchsticks,” Jamie said, making a joke of it, “now shovels. What will she think of next?”

“I’m afraid to ask,” Roger said, with a tinge of rue that made Jamie laugh.

The bucket filled, Roger picked it up and took it to empty, while Jamie filled the second. And without spoken agreement, they continued the job, Jamie digging, Roger carrying, finishing in what seemed no time at all.

Jamie climbed out of the pit and joined Roger on the edge, looking down at their handiwork in satisfaction.

“And if it doesna work well as a kiln,” Jamie observed, “she can make a root cellar of it.”

“Waste not, want not,” Roger agreed. They stood looking down into the hole, the breeze chilly through their damp shirts now that they’d stopped moving.

“D’ye think ye might go back, you and the lass?” Jamie said. He spoke so casually that Roger missed his meaning at first, not catching on until he saw his father-in-law’s face, set in the imperturbable calm that—he’d learned to his cost—generally covered some strong emotion.

“Back,” he repeated uncertainly. Surely he didn’t mean—but of course he did. “Through the stones, do you mean?”

Jamie nodded, seeming to find some fascination in the walls of the pit, where drying grass rootlets hung in tangles, and the jagged edges of stones protruded from the patchy damp dirt.

“I’ve thought of it,” Roger said, after a pause. “We’ve thought. But . . .” He let his voice trail off, finding no good way to explain.

Jamie nodded again, though, as if he had. He supposed Jamie and Claire must have discussed it, even as he and Bree had, playing over the pros and cons. The dangers of the passage—and he did not underestimate those dangers, the more so in light of what Claire had told him about Donner and his comrades; what if he made it through—and Bree and Jem didn’t? It didn’t bear thinking.

Beyond that, if they all survived the passage, was the pain of separation—and he would admit that it would be painful for him, as well. Whatever its limitations or inconveniences, the Ridge was home.

Against those considerations, though, stood the dangers of the present time, for the four horsemen of the apocalypse rode widely here; it was no trick to catch a glimpse of pestilence or famine from the corner of your eye. And the pale horse and its rider were inclined to show up unexpectedly—and often.

But that’s what Jamie meant, of course, he realized belatedly.

“Because of the war, ye mean.”

“The O’Brians,” Jamie said quietly. “That will happen again, ken? Many times.”

It was spring now, not autumn, but the cold wind that touched his bones was the same as the one that had blown brown and golden leaves across the face of the little girl. Roger had a sudden vision of the two of them, Jamie and himself, standing now at the edge of this cavernous hole, like bedraggled mourners at a graveside. He turned his back on the pit, looking instead into the budding green of the chestnut trees.

“Ye know,” he said, after a moment’s silence, “when I first learned what—what Claire is, what we are, all about it—I thought, ‘How fascinating!’ To actually see history in the making, I mean. In all honesty, I maybe came as much for that as for Bree. Then, I mean.”

Jamie laughed shortly, turning round as well.

“Oh, aye, and is it? Fascinating?”

“More than I ever thought,” Roger assured him, with extreme dryness. “But why are ye asking now? I told ye a year ago that we’d stay.”

Jamie nodded, pursing his lips.

“Ye did. The thing is—I am thinking I must sell one or more of the gemstones.”

That brought Roger up a bit. He’d not consciously thought it, of course—but the knowledge that the gems were there, in case of need . . . He hadn’t realized what a sense of security that knowledge had held, until this moment.

“They’re yours to sell,” he replied, cautious. “Why now, though? Are things difficult?”

Jamie gave him an exceedingly wry look.

“Difficult,” he repeated. “Aye, ye could say that.” And proceeded to lay out the situation succinctly.

The marauders had destroyed not only a season’s whisky in the making, but also the malting shed, only now rebuilding. That meant no surplus of the lovely drink this year to sell or trade for necessities. There were twenty-two more tenant families on the Ridge to be mindful of, most of them struggling with a place and a profession that they could never have imagined, trying merely to keep alive long enough to learn how to stay that way.

“And then,” Jamie added grimly, “there’s MacDonald—speak o’ the devil.”

The Major himself had come out onto the stoop, his red coat bright in the morning sun. He was dressed for travel, Roger saw, booted and spurred, and wearing his wig, laced hat in hand.

“A flying visit, I see.”

Jamie made a small, uncouth noise.

“Long enough to tell me I must try to arrange the purchase of thirty muskets, with shot and powder—at my own expense, mind—to be repaid by the Crown, eventually,” he added, in a cynic tone that made it obvious how remote he considered this eventuality to be.

“Thirty muskets.” Roger contemplated that, pursing his own lips in a soundless whistle. Jamie had not been able even to afford to replace the rifle he had given Bird for his help in the matter of Brownsville.

Jamie shrugged.

“And then there are wee matters like the dowry I’ve promised Lizzie Wemyss—she’ll be wed this summer. And Marsali’s mother, Laoghaire—” He glanced warily at Roger, unsure how much he might know regarding Laoghaire. More than Jamie would be comfortable knowing, Roger thought, and tactfully kept his face blank.

“I owe a bit to her, for maintenance. We can live, aye, with what we’ve got—but for the rest . . . I must sell land, or the stones. And I willna give up the land.” His fingers drummed restlessly against his thigh, then stopped, as he raised his hand to wave to the Major, who had just spotted them across the clearing.

“I see. Well, then . . .” Plainly, it had to be done; it was foolish to sit on a fortune in gems, merely because they might one day be needed for a far-fetched and risky purpose. Still, the notion made Roger feel slightly hollow, like rappelling down a cliff and having someone cut your safety line.

Jamie blew out his breath.

“Well, so. I’ll send one wi’ Bobby Higgins to his Lordship in Virginia. He’ll get me a good price, at least.”

“Aye, that’s a—” Roger halted, his attention deflected by the scenario unfolding before him.

The Major, obviously well-breakfasted and cheerful, had come down the steps and was strolling toward them—oblivious of the white sow, who had emerged from her den beneath the foundation and was ambling along the side of the house, bent on her own breakfast. It would be a matter of seconds before she spotted the Major.

“Hoy!” Roger bellowed, and felt something tear in his throat. The pain was so sharp that it stopped him cold, and he clutched at his throat, struck suddenly mute.

“’Ware the pig!” Jamie was shouting, waving and pointing. The Major thrust his head forward, hand behind his ear—then caught the repeated bellows of “Pig!” and looked wildly round, just in time to see the white sow break into a ponderous trot, scything her tusks from side to side.

He would have been best served by wheeling and sprinting back to the safety of the stoop, but instead panic struck him and he ran—away from the pig, coming straight for Jamie and Roger, who promptly ran in different directions.

Glancing back, Roger saw the Major gaining on the pig with long-legged leaps, his goal evidently the cabin. Between the Major and the cabin, though, lay the open hole of the groundhog kiln, masked by the heavy growth of long spring grass through which the Major bounded.

“Pit!” Roger shouted, only the word came out in a strangled croak. Nonetheless, MacDonald seemed to hear him, for a bright red face turned in his direction, eyes bulging. It must have sounded like “Pig!” for the Major glanced back over his shoulder then to see the sow trot faster, small pink eyes fixed on him with murderous intent.

The distraction proved nearly fatal, for the Major’s spurs caught and tangled, and he sprawled headlong in the grass, losing his grip on the laced hat—which he had held throughout the chase—and sending it pinwheeling through the air.

Roger hesitated for an instant, but then ran back to help, with a smothered oath. He saw Jamie running back, too, spade held at the ready—though even a metal shovel seemed pitifully inadequate to deal with a five-hundred-pound hog.

MacDonald was already scrambling to his feet, though; before either of them could reach him, he took off running as though the devil himself were breathing on his coattails. Arms pumping and face set in puce determination, he ran for his life, bounding like a jackrabbit through the grass—and disappeared. One instant he was there, and the next he had vanished, as though by magic.

Jamie looked wide-eyed at Roger, then at the pig, who had stopped short on the far side of the kiln pit. Then, moving gingerly, one eye always on the pig, he sidled toward the pit, glancing sideways, as though afraid to see what lay at the bottom.

Roger moved to stand at Jamie’s shoulder, looking down. Major MacDonald had fallen into the deeper hole at the end, where he lay curled up like a hedgehog, arms clasped protectively over his wig—which had remained in place by some miracle, though now much bespattered with dirt and bits of grass.

“MacDonald?” Jamie called down. “Are ye damaged, man?”

“Is she there?” quavered the Major, not emerging from his ball.

Roger glanced across the pit at the pig, now some distance away, snout down in the long grass.

“Er . . . aye, she is.” To his surprise, his voice came easy, if a little hoarse. He cleared his throat and spoke a little louder. “Ye needna worry, though. She’s busy eating your hat.”

41

THE GUN-SMITH

JAMIE ACCOMPANIED MacDonald as far as Coopersville, where he set the Major on the road back to Salisbury, equipped with food, a disreputable slouched hat against the weather, and a small bottle of whisky to fortify his bruised spirits. Then, with an internal sigh, he turned into the McGillivrays’ place.

Robin was at work in his forge, surrounded by the smells of hot metal, wood shavings, and gun oil. A lanky young man with a hatchet face was working the leather bellows, though his dreamy expression showed a certain lack of attention to the job.

Robin caught the shadow of Jamie’s entrance and glanced up, gave a quick nod, and returned to his work.

He was hammering bar iron into flat bands; the iron cylinder he meant to wrap them round to form a gun barrel was waiting, propped between two blocks. Jamie moved carefully out of range of flying sparks and sat down on a bucket to wait.

That was Senga’s betrothed at the bellows . . . Heinrich. Heinrich Strasse. He picked the name unerringly out of the hundreds he carried in his mind, and along with it came automatically all he knew of young Heinrich’s history, family, and connections, these appearing in his imagination round the boy’s long, dreamy face in a constellation of social affinities, orderly and complex as the pattern of a snowflake.

He always saw people in this way, but seldom thought of it consciously. There was something about the shape of Strasse’s face, though, that reinforced the mental imagery—the long axis of forehead, nose, and chin, emphasized by a horsey upper lip, deeply grooved, the horizontal axis shorter, but no less sharply defined by long, narrow eyes and flat dark brows above them.

He could see the boy’s origins—the middle of nine children, but the eldest boy, son of an overbearing father and a mother who dealt with this by means of subterfuge and quiet malice—sprouting in a delicate array from the rather pointed top of his head, his religion—Lutheran, but slack about it—a lacy spray under an equally pointed chin, his relation with Robin—cordial, but wary, as befitted a new son-in-law who was also an apprentice—extending like a fanned spike from his right ear, that with Ute—a mix of terror and helpless abashment—from the left.

This notion entertained him very much, and he was obliged to look away, affecting interest in Robin’s workbench, in order to keep from staring and rendering the lad uncomfortable.

The gunsmith was not tidy; scraps of wood and metal lay among a jumble of spikes, scribes, hammers, blocks of wood, bits of filthy garnet cloth and sticks of charcoal on the bench. A few papers were weighted down with a spoiled gunstock that had split in the making, their dirty edges fluttering in the hot breath of the forge. He would have taken no notice, save that he recognized the style of the drawing, would have known that boldness and delicacy of line anywhere.

Frowning, he rose and pulled the papers from under the gunstock. Drawings of a gun, executed from different angles—a rifle, there was the cutaway interior of the barrel, the grooves and landings clear—but most peculiar. One drawing showed it whole, reasonably familiar, bar the odd hornlike growths on the barrel. But the next . . . the gun seemed as though someone had broken it over his knee; it was snapped through, stock and barrel pointing downward in opposite directions, joined only by . . . what sort of hinge was that? He closed one eye, considering.

The cessation of clamor from the forge and the loud hiss of hot metal in the sump broke his fascination with the drawings and made him look up.

“Did your lass show ye those?” Robin asked, with a nod at the papers. He pulled the tail of his shirt up from behind his leather apron, and mopped steam from his sweating face, looking amused.

“No. What is she about? Is she wanting ye to make her a gun?” He relinquished the sheets to the gunsmith, who shuffled through them, sniffing with interest.

“Oh, she’s no way of paying for that, Mac Dubh, unless Roger Mac’s discovered a pot o’ fairy gold since last week. No, she’s only been telling me her notions of improvement in the art of riflery, asking what it might cost to make such a thing.” The cynic smile that had been lurking in the corner of Robin’s mouth broadened into a grin, and he shoved the papers back at Jamie. “I can tell she’s yours, Mac Dubh. What other lass would spend her time thinking of guns, rather than gowns and bairns?”

There was more than a little implied criticism in this remark—Brianna had undoubtedly been a good deal more forthright in manner than was becoming—but he let it pass for the moment. He needed Robin’s goodwill.

“Well, any woman has her fancies,” he observed mildly. “Even wee Lizzie, I suppose—but Manfred will see to that, I’m sure. He’ll be in Salisbury just now? Or Hillsboro?”

Robin McGillivray was by no means a stupid man. The abrupt transition of subject made him arch one brow, but he passed no remark. Instead, he sent Heinrich off to the house to fetch them some beer, waiting for the lad to disappear before turning back to Jamie, expectant.

“I need thirty muskets, Robin,” he said without preamble. “And I’ll need them quickly—within three months.”

The gunsmith’s face went comically blank with astonishment, but only for a moment. He blinked then, and closed his mouth with a snap, resuming his usual expression of sardonic good humor.

“Starting your own army, are ye, Mac Dubh?”

Jamie merely smiled at that without answering. If word got around that he meant to arm his tenantry and muster his own Committee of Safety in answer to Richard Brown’s banditry, that would do nay harm and might do good. Letting word get out that the Governor was working secretly to arm the savages, in case he required to suppress an armed rising in the backcountry, and that he, Jamie Fraser, was the agent of such action—that was an excellent way to get himself killed and his house burnt to the ground, to say nothing of what other trouble might ensue.

“How many can ye find for me, Robin? And how fast?”

The gunsmith squinted, thinking, then darted a sideways glance at him.

“Cash?”

He nodded, seeing Robin’s lips purse in a soundless whistle of astonishment. Robin kent as well as anyone that he had no money to speak of—let alone the small fortune required to assemble that many guns.

He could see the speculation in Robin’s eyes, as to where he might be planning to acquire that sort of money—but the gunsmith said nothing aloud. McGillivray’s upper teeth sank into his lower lip in concentration, then relaxed.

“I can find six, maybe seven, betwixt Salisbury and Salem. Brugge”—naming the Moravian gunsmith—“would do one or two, if he kent it was for you. . . .” Seeing the infinitesimal shake of Jamie’s head he nodded in resignation. “Aye, well, maybe seven, then. And Manfred and I can manage maybe three more—it’s only muskets you’re wanting, nothing fancy?” He tilted his head toward Brianna’s drawing with a small flash of his earlier humor.

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