A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 39


“Nothing fancy,” Jamie said, smiling. “That’s ten, then.” He waited. Robin sighed, settling himself.

“I’ll ask about,” he said. “But it’s no an easy matter. Particularly if ye dinna mean your name to be heard in connection—and I gather ye don’t.”

“Ye’re a man o’ rare wit and discretion, Robin,” Jamie assured him gravely, making him laugh. It was true, for all that; Robin McGillivray had fought beside him at Culloden, lived three years with him in Ardsmuir; Jamie would trust him with his life—and was. He began to wish the pig had eaten MacDonald after all, but put the unworthy thought from his mind and drank the beer Heinrich brought, chatting of inconsequence and trivia until it was polite to take his leave.

He had ridden Gideon, to bear MacDonald company on his horse, but meant to leave him in Dai Jones’s barn. Through a complex bit of bargaining, Gideon would cover John Woolam’s spotted mare—to be brought up when Woolam returned from Bear Creek—and when the harvest was in come autumn, Jamie would collect a hundredweight of barley, with a bottle of whisky to Dai for his assistance.

Exchanging a bit of conversation with Dai—he could never decide whether the blacksmith was truly a man of few words, or was it only that he despaired of making the Scots understand his Welsh singsong—Jamie slapped Gideon encouragingly on the neck and left him to eat grain and fettle his loins against the coming of the spotted mare.

Dai had offered him food, but he declined; he was peckish, but looked forward to the peace of the five-mile walk home. The day was fine and pale blue, with the spring leaves murmuring to themselves overhead, and a bit of solitude would be welcome.

The decision had been made when he asked Robin to find him guns. But the situation bore thought.

There were sixty-four villages of the Cherokee; each with its own headman, its own peace chief and war chief. Only five of those villages were within his power to influence—the three villages of the Snowbird people, and two that belonged to the Overhill Cherokee. Those, he thought, would follow the leaders of the Overhill, regardless of his words.

Roger Mac had known relatively little of the Cherokee, or what their role might be in the looming fight. He had been able to say only that the Cherokee had not acted en masse; some villages chose to fight, some did not—some fought for one side, some for another.

Well, so. It was not likely that anything he said or did would turn the tide of war, and that was a comfort. But he could not escape the knowledge that his own time to jump was coming. So far as anyone knew now, he was a loyal subject to His Majesty, a Tory beavering away in Geordie’s interest, suborning savages and distributing guns with an eye to suppressing the riotous passions of Regulators, Whigs, and would-be republicans.

At some point, this facade must necessarily crumble to reveal him as a dyed-in-the-wool rebel and a traitor. But when? He wondered idly whether he might have a price on his head this time, and how much it would be.

It might be not so difficult, with the Scots. Grudge-bearing and hardheaded as they were, he was one of them, and personal liking might moderate the sense of outrage at his turning rebel, when the time came.

No, it was the Indians he worried over—for he came to them as the agent of the King. How suddenly to explain his change of heart? And further, do it in such a way that they might share it? Surely they would see this as treachery at worst, grossly suspicious behavior at best. He thought they would not kill him, but how in God’s name to induce them to fall in with the cause of rebellion, when they enjoyed a stable and prosperous relation with His Majesty?

Oh, God, and there was John. What could he say to his friend, when the time came? Convince him by logic and rhetoric to change his coat as well? He hissed through his teeth and shook his head in consternation, trying—and failing utterly—to envision John Grey, lifelong soldier, ex-Royal Governor, that very soul of loyalty and honor, suddenly declaring himself for rebellion and republic.

He passed on, fretting in this fashion for some time, but gradually found the walking soothe his mind, and the peace of the day lighten his heart. There would be time before supper to take wee Jem fishing, he thought; the sun was bright, but there was a certain dampness to the air under the trees that was promising for a first hatch of flies on the water. He had a feeling in his bones that the trout would rise near sunset.

In this more pleasant frame of mind, he was glad to meet his daughter, some little way below the Ridge. His heart lifted at sight of her hair, streaming wanton down her back in ruddy glory.

“Ciamar a tha thu, a nighean?” he said, kissing her cheek in greeting.

“Tha mi gu math, mo athair,” she said, and she smiled, but he noted a small frown that troubled the smooth flesh of her forehead like the hatch of mayfly on a trout pond.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, taking his arm. “I wanted to talk to you before you go to the Indians tomorrow.” And there was that in her tone that drove all thought of fish from his mind upon the instant.

“Oh, aye?”

She nodded, but seemed to have some difficulty in finding words—an occurrence that alarmed him still further. But he could not help her, without some notion what it was about, and so kept pace with her, silent but encouraging. A mockingbird was busy nearby, practicing its repertoire of calls. It was the bird who lived in the red spruce behind the house; he knew because it paused now and then in the midst of its chatter and trilling to give a fine imitation of Adso the cat’s midnight yowl.

“When you talked to Roger about the Indians,” Brianna said finally, and turned her head to look at him, “did he mention something called the Trail of Tears?”

“No,” he said, curious. “What is that?”

She grimaced, hunching her shoulders in a way that seemed disconcertingly familiar.

“I thought maybe he hadn’t. He said he’d told you all he knew about the Indians and the Revolution—not that he knows all that much, it wasn’t his specialty—but this happened—will happen later, after the Revolution. So he maybe didn’t think it was important. Maybe it’s not.”

She hesitated, as though wanting him to tell her that it wasn’t. He only waited, though, and she sighed, looking at her feet as she paced along. She was wearing sandals without stockings, and her long, bare toes were grimed with the soft dust of the wagon road. The sight of her feet always filled him with an odd mixture of pride at their elegant shape and a faint sense of shame at their size—but as he was responsible for both, he supposed he had no grounds for complaint.

“About sixty years from now,” she said at last, eyes on the ground, “the American government will take the Cherokee from their land and move them. A long way—to a place called Oklahoma. It’s a thousand miles, at least, and hundreds and hundreds of them will starve and die on the way. That’s why they called it—will call it—the Trail of Tears.”

He was impressed to hear that there should be a government capable of doing such a thing, and said so. She shot him an angry glance.

“They’ll do it by cheating. They’ll talk some of the Cherokee leaders into agreeing by promising them things and not keeping their bargain.”

He shrugged.

“That’s how most governments behave,” he observed mildly. “Why are ye telling me this, lass? I will—thank God—be safely dead before any of it happens.”

He saw a flicker cross her face at mention of his death, and was sorry to have caused her distress by his levity. Before he could apologize, though, she squared her shoulders and went on.

“I’m telling you because I thought you should know,” she said. “Not all of the Cherokee went—some of them went farther up into the mountains and hid; the army didn’t find them.”


She turned her head and gave him a look from those eyes that were his own, touching in their earnestness.

“Don’t you see? Mama told you what would happen—about Culloden. You couldn’t stop it, but you saved Lallybroch. And your men, your tenants. Because you knew.”

“Oh, Christ,” he said, realizing with a shock what she meant. Recollection washed through him in a flood, the terror and desperation and uncertainty of that time—the numb despair that had carried him through that last fatal day. “Ye want me to tell Bird.”

She rubbed a hand over her face, and shook her head.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if you should tell him—or if you do, whether he’ll listen. But Roger and I talked about it, after you asked him about the Indians. And I kept thinking about it . . . and, well, it just didn’t seem right, to know and not do anything. So I thought I’d better tell you.”

“Aye, I see,” he said a little bleakly.

He had noticed before the inclination of persons with tender consciences to ease their discomfort by handing the necessity of taking action on to someone else, but forbore to mention it. She could hardly be telling Bird herself, after all.

As though the situation he faced with the Cherokee were not sufficiently difficult already, he thought wryly—now he must deal with saving unknown future generations of savages? The mockingbird zoomed past his ear, unnervingly close, clucking like a hen, of all things.

It was so incongruous that he laughed. And then realized that there was nothing else to do. Not now.

Brianna was looking at him curiously.

“What are you going to do?”

He stretched himself, slowly, luxuriously, feeling the muscles of his back pull upon his bones, feeling each of them, alive and solid. The sun was coming down the sky, supper was beginning to cook, and for now, for this one last night, he need do nothing. Not yet.

“I’m going fishing,” he said, smiling at his lovely, unlikely, problematical daughter. “Fetch the wee lad, aye? I’ll get the poles.”

James Fraser, Esq. from Fraser’s Ridge

To my Lord John Grey, Mount Josiah Plantation,

this 2nd day of April, Anno Domini 1774

My lord,

I depart in the morning to visit the Cherokee, and so leave this with my wife, to be entrusted to Mr. Higgins when he shall next arrive, to be delivered with its accompanying parcel into your hands.

I presume upon your kindness and your solicitude for my family in asking your favor to help in selling the object I entrust to you. I suspect that your connexions might enable you to obtain a better price than I might do myself—and to do so discreetly.

I shall hope upon my return to confide in you the reasons for my action, as well as certain philosophical reflections which you may find of interest. In the meantime, believe me ever

Your most affectionate friend and humble servant,

J. Fraser



BOBBY HIGGINS looked uneasily at me over his mug of beer.

“Beg pardon, mum,” he said. “But you wouldn’t be a-thinking of practicing some type of physic upon me, would you? The worms are gone, I’m sure of it. And the—the other”—he blushed slightly and squirmed upon the bench—“that’s quite all right, too. I’ve et so many beans, I fart quite regular, and not a touch of the fiery knives about it!”

Jamie had frequently remarked upon the transparency of my features, but this was surprising perspicacity on Bobby’s part.

“I’m thrilled to hear it,” I said, evading his question momentarily. “You look quite in the pink of health, Bobby.”

He did; the hollow, wasted look had left him, and his flesh was firm and solid, his eyes bright. The blind one hadn’t gone milky, nor did it wander perceptibly; he must have some residual ability to detect light and shape, which strengthened my original diagnosis of a partially detached retina.

He nodded warily, and took a sip of beer, still keeping his eyes fixed on me.

“I’m very well indeed, mum,” he said.

“Splendid. You don’t happen to know how much you weigh, do you, Bobby?”

The look of wariness vanished, replaced by modest pride.

“Happen I do, mum. I took some fleeces to the river port for his Lordship last month, and was a mercer there what had a scale for weighing out—tobacco or rice, or blocks of indigo as it might be. Some of us fellows got to wagering for sport what this or that might weigh, and . . . well, ten stone four it is, mum.”

“Very nice,” I said with approval. “Lord John’s cook must be feeding you well.” I thought he couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and ten pounds when I first saw him; a hundred and forty-four was still on the light side for a man of nearly six feet, but it was a major improvement. And a real stroke of luck, that he should have known his weight exactly.

Of course, if I didn’t act fast, he might easily gain a stone or two; Mrs. Bug had set herself to outdo Lord John’s Indian cook (of whom we had heard much), and to this end was shoveling eggs, onions, venison, and a slice of leftover pork pie onto Bobby’s plate, to say nothing of the basket of fragrant muffins already in front of him.

Lizzie, seated beside me, took one of these and spread it with butter. I noted with approval that she, too, was looking healthier, delicately flushed—though I must remember to take a sample to check the malarial parasites in her blood. That would be an excellent thing to do while she was out. No way of getting an exact weight for her, unfortunately—but she couldn’t weigh more than seven stone, small and light-boned as she was.

Now, Bree and Roger at the other end of the scale . . . Roger had to weigh at least a hundred and eighty-five; Bree probably one-fifty. I took a muffin myself, thinking how best to bring up my plan. Roger would do it if I asked, of course, but Bree . . . I’d have to be careful there. She’d had her tonsils out under ether at the age of ten, and hadn’t liked the experience. If she found out what I was up to and began expressing her opinions freely, she might arouse alarm in the rest of my guinea pigs.

Enthused by my success at making ether, I had seriously underestimated the difficulty of inducing anyone to let me use it on them. Mr. Christie might well be an awkward bugger, as Jamie on occasion called him—but he was not alone in his resistance to the notion of being rendered suddenly unconscious.

I would have thought that the appeal of painlessness was universal—but not to people who had never experienced it. They had no context in which to place such a notion, and while they presumably didn’t all think ether was a Papist plot, they did view an offer to remove pain from them as being in some way contrary to the divine vision of the universe.

Bobby and Lizzie, though, were sufficiently under my sway that I was fairly sure I could coax—or bully—them into a brief trial. If they then reported the experience in a positive light . . . but improved public relations was only the half of it.

The real necessity was to try my ether out on a variety of subjects, taking careful note of the results. The scare of Henri-Christian’s birth had shown me how woefully unprepared I was. I needed to have some idea of how much to administer per unit of body weight, how long such-and-such a dose might last, and how deep the resulting stupor might be. The last thing I wanted was to be up to my elbows in someone’s abdomen, only to have them come suddenly round with a shriek.

“You’re doing it again, mum.” Bobby’s brow creased as he chewed slowly, eyes narrowed at me.

“What? What am I doing?” I feigned innocence, helping myself to a bit of the pork pie.

“Watching me. Same as a sparrer hawk watches a mouse, just afore she stoops. I’n’t she?” he appealed to Lizzie.

“Aye, she is,” Lizzie agreed, dimpling at me. “But it’s only her way, ken. Ye’d make a big mouse, Bobby.” Being Scottish, she pronounced it “moose,” which made Bobby laugh and choke over his muffin.

Mrs. Bug paused to pound him helpfully on the back, leaving him purple and gasping.

“Well, wha’s amiss wi’ him, then?” she asked, coming round to squint critically at Bobby’s face. “Ye’ve no got the shits again, have ye, lad?”

“Again?” I said.

“Oh, no, mum,” he croaked. “Perish the thought! ’Twas only eating green apples, the once.” He choked, coughed, and sat up straight, clearing his throat.

“Can we please not talk about me bowels, mum?” he asked plaintively. “Not over breakfast, at least?”

I could feel Lizzie vibrating with amusement next to me, but she kept her eyes demurely on her plate, not to embarrass him further.

“Certainly,” I said, smiling. “I hope you’ll be staying for a few days, Bobby?” He’d come the day before, bearing the usual assortment of letters and newspapers from Lord John—along with a package containing a marvelous present for Jemmy: a musical jack-in-the-box, sent specially from London by the good offices of Lord John’s son, Willie.

“Oh, I s’all, mum, yes,” he assured me, mouth full of muffin. “His Lordship said I was to see if Mr. Fraser had a letter for me to carry back, so I must wait for him, mustn’t I?”

“Of course.” Jamie and Ian had gone to the Cherokee a week before; it was likely to be another week before they returned. Plenty of time to make my experiments.

“Is there anything I might do, mum, in the way of service to you?” Bobby asked. “Seeing as I’m here, I mean, and Mr. Fraser and Mr. Ian not.” There was a small tone of satisfaction in this; he got on all right with Ian, but there was no doubt that he preferred to have Lizzie’s attention to himself.

“Why, yes,” I said, scooping up a bit of porridge. “Now that you mention it, Bobby . . .”

By the time I had finished explaining, Bobby still looked healthy, but a good deal less in bloom.

“Put me asleep,” he repeated uncertainly. He glanced at Lizzie, who looked a little uncertain, too, but who was much too used to being told to do unreasonable things to protest.

“You’ll only be asleep for a moment,” I assured him. “Likely you won’t even notice.”

His face expressed considerable skepticism, and I could see him shifting about for some excuse. I’d foreseen that ploy, though, and now played my trump card.

“It’s not only me needing to judge the dose,” I said. “I can’t operate on someone and give the ether at the same time—or not easily. Malva Christie will be assisting me; she’ll need the practice.”

“Oh,” Bobby said thoughtfully. “Miss Christie.” A sort of soft, dreamy expression spread across his face. “Well. I s’ouldn’t want to put Miss Christie out, of course.”

Lizzie made one of those economical Scottish noises in the back of her throat, managing to convey scorn, derision, and abiding disapproval in the space of two glottal syllables.

Bobby looked up in inquiry, a bit of pie poised on his fork.

“Did you say something?”

“Who, me?” she said. “O’ course not.” She got up abruptly and, carrying her apron before her, neatly shook crumbs into the fire, and turned to me.

“When d’ye mean to do it?” she demanded, adding a belated, “ma’am.”

“Tomorrow morning,” I said. “It needs to be done on an empty stomach, so we’ll do it first thing, before breakfast.”

“Fine!” she said, and stamped out.

Bobby blinked after her, then turned to me, bewildered.

“Did I say something?”

Mrs. Bug’s eye met mine in perfect understanding.

“Not a thing, lad,” she said, depositing a fresh spatulaful of scrambled eggs onto his plate. “Eat up. Ye’ll need your strength.”

BRIANNA, CLEVER WITH her hands, had made the mask to my specifications, woven of oak splits. It was simple enough, a sort of double cage, hinged so that the two halves of it swung apart for the insertion of a thick layer of cotton wool between them, and then back together, the whole thing shaped to fit like a catcher’s mask over the patient’s nose and mouth.

“Put enough ether on to dampen the cotton wool all through,” I instructed Malva. “We’ll want it to take effect quickly.”

“Aye, ma’am. Oh, it does smell queer, doesn’t it?” She sniffed cautiously, face turned half away as she dripped ether onto the mask.

“Yes. Do be careful not to breathe too much of it yourself,” I said. “We don’t want you falling over in the midst of an operation.”

She laughed, but dutifully held the mask further away.

Lizzie had bravely offered to go first—with the clear intent of deflecting Bobby’s attention from Malva to her. This was working; she lay in a languid pose on the table, cap off, and her soft, pale hair displayed to best advantage on the pillow. Bobby sat beside her, earnestly holding her hand.

“All right, then.” I had a tiny minute-glass to hand, the best I could do by way of keeping accurate time. “Put it gently over her face. Lizzie, just breathe deeply, and count with me, one . . . two . . . goodness, that didn’t take long, did it?”

She’d taken one long breath, rib cage rising high—and then gone limp as a dead flounder as the breath went out. I hastily flipped the glass, and came to take her pulse. All well there.

“Wait for a bit; you can feel it, when they start to come round, a sort of vibration in the flesh,” I instructed Malva, keeping one eye on Lizzie and the other on the glass. “Put your hand on her shoulder. . . . There, do you feel it?”

Malva nodded, nearly trembling with excitement.

“Two or three drops then.” She added these, her own breath held, and Lizzie relaxed again with a sigh like an escape of air from a punctured tire.

Bobby’s blue eyes were absolutely round, but he clung fiercely to Lizzie’s other hand.

I timed the period to arousal once or twice more, then let Malva put her under a little more deeply. I picked up the lancet I had ready, and pricked Lizzie’s finger. Bobby gasped as the blood welled up, looking back and forth from the crimson drop to Lizzie’s angelically peaceful face.

“Why, she don’t feel it!” he exclaimed. “Look, she’s never moved a muscle!”

“Exactly,” I said, with a profound feeling of satisfaction. “She won’t feel anything at all, until she comes round.”

“Mrs. Fraser says we could cut someone quite open,” Malva informed Bobby, self-importantly. “Slice into them, and get at what’s ailing—and they’d never feel a thing!”

“Well, not until they woke up,” I said, amused. “They’d feel it then, I’m afraid. But it really is quite a marvelous thing,” I added more softly, looking down at Lizzie’s unconscious face.

I let her stay under whilst I checked the fresh blood sample, then told Malva to take the mask off. Within a minute, Lizzie’s eyelids began to flutter. She looked curiously round, then turned to me.

“When are ye going to start it, ma’am?”

Despite assurances from both Bobby and Malva that she had been to all appearances dead as a doornail for the last quarter hour, she refused to believe it, asserting indignantly that she couldn’t have been—though at a loss to explain the prick on her finger and the slide of freshly smeared blood.

“You remember the mask on your face?” I asked. “And my telling you to take a deep breath?”

She nodded uncertainly.

“Aye, I do, then, and it felt for a moment as though I were choking—but then ye were all just staring down at me, next thing!”

“Well, I suppose the only way to convince her is to show her,” I said, smiling at the three flushed young faces. “Bobby?”

Eager to demonstrate the truth of the matter to Lizzie, he hopped up on the table and laid himself down with a will, though the pulse in his slender throat was hammering as Malva dripped ether on the mask. He drew a deep, convulsive gasp the moment she put it on his face. Frowning a bit, he took another—one more—and went limp.

Lizzie clapped both hands to her mouth, staring.

“Jesus, Joseph, and Mary!” she exclaimed. Malva giggled, thrilled at the effect.

Lizzie looked at me, eyes wide, then back at Bobby. Stooping to his ear, she called his name, to no effect, then picked up his hand and wiggled it gingerly. His arm waggled limply, and she made a soft exclamation and set his hand down again. She looked quite agitated.

“Can he no wake up again?”

“Not until we take away the mask,” Malva told her, rather smug.

“Yes, but you don’t want to keep someone under longer than you need to,” I added. “It’s not good for them to be anesthetized too long.”

Malva obediently brought Bobby back to the edge of consciousness and put him back under several times, while I made note of times and dosages. During the last of these notes, I glanced up, to see her looking down at Bobby with an intent sort of expression, seeming to concentrate on something. Lizzie had withdrawn to a corner of the surgery, plainly made uneasy by seeing Bobby unconscious, and sat on a stool, plaiting her hair and twisting it up under her cap.

I stood up and took the mask from Malva’s hand, setting it aside.

“You did a wonderful job,” I told her, speaking quietly. “Thank you.”

She shook her head, face glowing.

“Oh, ma’am! It was . . . I’ve never seen the like. It’s such a feeling, is it not? Like as we killed him, and brought him alive again.” She spread her hands out, looking at them half-unconsciously, as though wondering how she had done such a marvel, then closed them into small fists, and smiled at me, conspiratorially.

“I think I see why my faither says it’s devil’s work. Were he to see what it’s like”—she glanced at Bobby, who was beginning to stir—“he’d say no one but God has a right to do such things.”

“Really,” I said, rather dryly. From the gleam in her eye, her father’s likely reaction to what we had been doing was one of the chief attractions of the experiment. For an instant, I rather pitied Tom Christie.

“Um . . . perhaps you’d better not tell your father, then,” I suggested. She smiled, showing small, sharp white teeth, and rolled her eyes.

“Don’t you think it, ma’am,” she assured me. “He’d stop me coming, as quick as—”

Bobby opened his eyes, turned his head to one side, and threw up, putting a stop to the discussion. Lizzie gave a cry and hurried to his side, fussing over him, wiping his face and fetching him brandy to drink. Malva, looking slightly superior, stood aside and let her.

“Oh, that’s queer,” Bobby repeated, for perhaps the tenth time, rubbing a hand across his mouth. “I saw the most terrible thing—just for a moment, there—and then I felt sick, and here it was all over.”

“What sort of terrible thing?” Malva asked, interested. He glanced at her, looking wary and uncertain.

“I scarcely know, tell ’ee true, miss. Only as it was . . . dark, like. A form, as you might say; I thought ’twas a woman’s. But . . . terrible,” he finished, helpless.

Well, that was too bad. Hallucination wasn’t an uncommon side effect, but I hadn’t expected it with such a brief dose.

“Well, I imagine it was just a bit of nightmare,” I said soothingly. “You know, it’s a form of sleep, so it’s not surprising that you might get the odd bit of dreaming now and then.”

To my surprise, Lizzie shook her head at this.

“Oh, no, ma’am,” she said. “It’s no sleep at all. When ye sleep, ken, ye give your soul up to the angels’ keeping, so as no ghoulies shall come near. But this . . .” Frowning, she eyed the bottle of ether, now safely corked again, then looked at me.