A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 4

   

What was that? he wondered—then it came to him. Aye, of course; the Crown employed men to go out to the tribes, offer them gifts, tobacco, and knives and the like. Tell them silliness about German Geordie, as though the King was like to come and sit down by the council fires at the next Rabbit Moon and speak like a man.

He smiled grimly to think of it. The notion was plain enough; cozen the Indians to fight for the English, when fighting was needed. But why should they think it needed now? The French had yielded, retreated to their northern foothold in Canada.

Oh. He remembered belatedly what Brianna had told him about the new fighting to come. He’d not known whether to believe her—perhaps she was right, though, in which case . . . he didn’t want to think about it. Or about anything.

Rollo padded over to him, sat and leaned heavily against him. He leaned back, resting his head in the thick fur.

An Indian agent had come once, while he lived in Snaketown. A fat wee fellow, shifty-eyed and with a tremble in his voice. He thought the man—Christ, what was his name? The Mohawk had called him Bad Sweat, and that fit; he stank as though with a mortal illness—he thought the man was not accustomed to the Kahnyen’kehaka; he’d not much of their speech, and plainly expected them to take his scalp at any moment, something they had thought hilarious—and one or two would likely have tried it, for a joke, save that Tewaktenyonh said to treat him with respect. Ian had been pressed to interpret for him, a job he’d done, though without much pleasure in it. He would much sooner think himself Mohawk than acknowledge any kinship with Bad Sweat.

Uncle Jamie, though . . . he’d make a better job of it, by far. Would he do it? Ian listened to the voices with a vague sense of interest, but it was clear that Uncle Jamie would not be pressed for a decision. MacDonald might as soon get a grip on a frog in a spring, he thought, hearing his uncle elude commitment.

He sighed, put his arm around Rollo, and eased more of his weight onto the dog. He felt awful. He would have supposed he was dying, save that Auntie Claire had said he’d feel poorly for several days. He was sure she would have stayed if he were dying, not gone and left him with only Rollo for company.

The shutters were still open, and cold air poured over him, chilly and soft at once, the way spring nights were. He felt Rollo raise his nose, sniffing, and utter a low, eager whine. Possum, maybe, or a raccoon.

“Go on, then,” he said, straightening up and giving the dog a small push. “I’m fine.”

The dog sniffed him suspiciously, and tried to lick the back of his head, where the stitches were, but left off when Ian yelped and covered them with his hands.

“Go, I said!” He cuffed the dog gently, and Rollo snorted, circled once, then sailed over his head and out through the window, hitting the ground outside with a solid thump. A frightful screech rent the air and there was the sound of scrabbling feet and heavy bodies tearing through shrubbery.

Startled voices came from the direction of the kitchen, and he heard Uncle Jamie’s step in the hall, an instant before the surgery door pushed in.

“Ian?” called his uncle softly. “Where are ye, lad? What’s amiss?”

He stood up, but a sheet of blinding white came down inside his eyes and he staggered. Uncle Jamie caught him by the arm, and set him down on a stool.

“What is it, lad?” His vision clearing, he could see his uncle in the light from the door, rifle in one hand, his face looking concerned but humorous as he glanced toward the open window. He sniffed deeply. “Not a skunk, I suppose.”

“Aye, well, I suppose it’s one thing or the other,” Ian said, touching his head gingerly. “Either Rollo’s gone after a painter, or he’s treed Auntie’s cat.”

“Oh, aye. He’d fare better wi’ the painter.” His uncle set the rifle down and went to the window. “Shall I close the shutter, or d’ye need the air, lad? You’re that bit peaked.”

“I feel peaked,” Ian admitted. “Aye, leave it, if ye will, Uncle.”

“Shall ye rest, Ian?”

He hesitated. His stomach still lurched uneasily and he felt very much that he would like to lie down again—but the surgery made him uneasy, with its strong smells and the glints here and there of tiny blades and other mysterious and painful things. Uncle Jamie seemed to guess the trouble, for he bent and got a hand under Ian’s elbow.

“Come along, lad. Ye can sleep upstairs in a proper bed, if ye dinna mind Major MacDonald in the other.”

“I dinna mind,” he said, “but I’ll stay here, I think.” He gestured toward the window, not wanting to nod and bother his head again. “Rollo will likely be back soon.”

Uncle Jamie didn’t argue with him, something he was grateful for. Women fussed. Men just got on with it.

His uncle boosted him unceremoniously back into his bed, covered him up, then began rootling about in the dark, in search of the rifle he had put down. Ian began to feel that perhaps he could do with just a wee bit of fuss, after all.

“Could ye get me a cup o’ water, Uncle Jamie?”

“Eh? Oh, aye.”

Auntie Claire had left a jug of water close to hand. There was the comfortable sound of glugging liquid, and then the rim of a pottery cup held to his mouth, his uncle’s hand at his back to keep him upright. He didn’t need it, but didn’t object; the touch was warm and comforting. He hadn’t realized how chilled he was from the night air, and shivered briefly.

“All right, laddie?” Uncle Jamie murmured, his hand tightening on Ian’s shoulder.

“Aye, fine. Uncle Jamie?”

“Mphm?”

“Did Auntie Claire tell ye about—about a war? One coming, I mean. With England.”

There was a moment’s silence, his uncle’s big form gone still against the light from the door.

“She has,” he said, and took away his hand. “Did she tell you?”

“No, Cousin Brianna did.” He lay down on his side, careful of his tender head. “D’ye believe them?”

There was no hesitation this time.

“Aye, I do.” It was said with his uncle’s usual dry matter-of-factness, but something in it prickled the hairs on the back of Ian’s neck.

“Oh. Well, then.”

The goose-down pillow was soft under his cheek, and smelled of lavender. His uncle’s hand touched his head, smoothed the ruffled hair back from his face.

“Dinna fash yourself about it, Ian,” he said softly. “There’s time, yet.”

He picked up the gun and left. From where he lay, Ian could see across the dooryard and above the trees where they dropped from the edge of the Ridge, past the slope of Black Mountain, and on into the black sky beyond, thick with stars.

He heard the back door open, and Mrs. Bug’s voice, rising high above the others.

“They’re no to hame, sir,” she was saying, breathless. “And the hoose is dark, no fire in the hearth. Wherever might they go, this time o’ night?”

He wondered dimly who was gone, but it didn’t seem to matter much. If it was trouble, Uncle Jamie would deal with it. The thought was comforting; he felt like a small boy, safe in bed, hearing his father’s voice outside, talking to a tenant in the cold dark of a Highland dawn.

Warmth spread slowly over him beneath the quilt, and he slept.

THE MOON WAS beginning to rise when they set out, and a good thing, too, Brianna thought. Even with the big, lopsided gold orb sailing up out of a cradle of stars and shedding its borrowed radiance over the sky, the trail beneath their feet was invisible. So were their feet, drowned in the absolute black of the forest at night.

Black, but not quiet. The giant trees rustled overhead, small things squealed and snuffled in the dark, and now and then the silent flutter of a bat passed close enough to startle her, as though part of the night had suddenly come loose and taken wing under her nose.

“The Minister’s Cat is an apprehensive cat?” Roger suggested, as she gasped and clutched at him in the wake of one such leather-winged visitation.

“The Minister’s Cat is an . . . appreciative cat,” she replied, squeezing his hand. “Thank you.” They’d likely end up sleeping on their cloaks in front of the McGillivrays’ fire, instead of cozily tucked up in their own bed—but at least they’d have Jemmy.

He squeezed back, his hand bigger and stronger than hers, very reassuring in the dark.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I want him, too. It’s a night to have your family all together, safe in one place.”

She made a small sound in her throat, acknowledgment and appreciation, but wanted to keep up the conversation, as much to keep the sense of connection with him as because it would keep the dark at bay.

“The Minister’s Cat was a very eloquent cat,” she said delicately. “At the—the funeral, I mean. For those poor people.”

Roger snorted; she saw the brief curl of his breath, white on the air.

“The Minister’s Cat was a highly embarrassed cat,” he said. “Your father!”

She smiled, since he couldn’t see her.

“You did really well,” she said mildly.

“Mmphm,” he said, with another brief snort. “As for eloquence . . . if there was any, it was none of mine. All I did was quote bits of some psalm—I couldna even tell ye which it was.”

“It didn’t matter. Why did you pick—what you said, though?” she asked, curious. “I sort of thought you’d say the Lord’s Prayer, or maybe the Twenty-Third Psalm—everybody knows that one.”

“I thought I would, too,” he admitted. “I meant to. But when I came to it . . .” He hesitated, and she saw in memory those raw, cold mounds, and shivered, smelling soot. He tightened his grasp on her hand, and drew her closer, tucking the hand into the crook of his elbow.

“I don’t know,” he said gruffly. “It just seemed—more suitable, somehow.”

“It was,” she said quietly, but didn’t pursue the subject, choosing instead to steer the conversation into a discussion of her latest engineering project, a hand pump to raise water from the well.

“If I had something to use for pipe, I could get water into the house, easy as anything! I’ve already got most of the wood I need for a nice cistern, if I can get Ronnie to cooper it for me—so we can shower with rainwater, at least. But hollowing out tree limbs”—the method employed for the small amount of piping used for the pump—“it would take me months to manage enough just to get from the well to the house, let alone the stream. And there’s not a chance of getting any rolled copper. Even if we could afford any, which we can’t, bringing it up from Wilmington would be—” She threw her free hand up in frustration at the monumental nature of the undertaking.

He considered that for a bit, the chuff of their shoes on the rocky trail a comforting rhythm.

“Well, the ancient Romans did it with concrete; the recipe’s in Pliny.”

“I know. But it takes a particular kind of sand, which we don’t happen to have. Likewise, quicklime, which we likewise don’t have. And—”

“Aye, but what about clay?” he interrupted. “Did ye see that plate at Hilda’s wedding? The big brown and red one, with the beautiful patterns?”

“Yes,” she said. “Why?”

“Ute McGillivray said someone from Salem brought it. I dinna recall the name, but she said he was quite the big noise in potting—or whatever ye call making dishes.”

“I’ll bet you any amount of money she didn’t say that!”

“Well, words to that effect.” He went on, undeterred. “The point being that he made it here; it wasn’t something he’d brought from Germany. So there’s clay about that’s suitable for firing, eh?”

“Oh, I see. Hmm. Well, now, that’s an idea, isn’t it?”

It was, and an attractive one whose discussion occupied them for most of the rest of the journey.

They had come down off the Ridge and were within a quarter-mile of the McGillivrays’ place when she began to have an uneasy feeling down the back of her neck. It could be only imagination; after the sights they had seen in that deserted hollow, the dark air of the wood seemed thick with threat, and she had been imagining ambush at every blind bend, tensing with the anticipation of attack.

Then she heard something crack in the trees to her right—a small dry branch breaking, in a way that neither wind nor animal would break it. Real danger had its own taste, vivid as lemon juice, by contrast with the weak lemonade of imagination.

Her hand tightened on Roger’s arm in warning, and he stopped at once.

“What?” he whispered, hand on his knife. “Where?” He hadn’t heard it.

Damn, why hadn’t she brought her gun, or at least her own dirk? All she had was her Swiss Army knife, carried always in her pocket—and what weapons the landscape offered.

She leaned into Roger, pointing, her hand close to his body to be sure he followed the direction of her gesture. Then she stooped, feeling about in the darkness for a rock, or a stick to use as a club.

“Keep talking,” she whispered.

“The Minister’s Cat is a fraidy cat, is she?” he said, his tone one of fairly convincing teasing.

“The Minister’s Cat is a ferocious cat,” she replied, trying to match his bantering tone, meanwhile fumbling one-handed in her pocket. Her other hand closed on a stone, and she pulled it free of the clinging dirt, cold and heavy in her palm. She rose, all her senses focused on the darkness to their right. “She’ll freaking disembowel anything that—”

“Oh, it’s you,” said a voice in the woods behind her.

She shrieked, and Roger jerked in reflex, spun on his heel to face the threat, grabbed her and thrust her behind him, all in the same motion.

The push sent her staggering backward. She caught a heel in a hidden root in the dark, and fell, landing hard on her backside, from which position she had an excellent view of Roger in the moonlight, knife in hand, charging into the trees with an incoherent roar.

Belatedly, she registered what the voice had said, as well as the unmistakable tone of disappointment in it. A very similar voice, loud with alarm, spoke from the wood on the right.

“Jo?” it said. “What? Jo, what?”

There was a lot of thrashing and yelling going on in the woods to the left. Roger’d got his hands on someone.

“Roger!” she shouted. “Roger, stop! It’s the Beardsleys!”

She’d dropped the rock when she fell, and now got to her feet, rubbing the dirt from her hand on the side of her skirt. Her heart was still pounding, her left buttock was bruised, and her urge to laugh was tinged with a strong desire to strangle one or both of the Beardsley twins.

“Kezzie Beardsley, come out of there!” she bellowed, then repeated it, even louder. Kezzie’s hearing had improved after her mother had removed his chronically infected tonsils and adenoids, but he was still rather deaf.

A loud rustling in the brush yielded the slight form of Keziah Beardsley, dark-haired, white-faced, and armed with a large club, which he swung off his shoulder and tried abashedly to hide behind him when he saw her.

Meanwhile, much louder rustling and a certain amount of cursing behind her portended the emergence of Roger, gripping the scrawny neck of Josiah Beardsley, Kezzie’s twin.

“What in the name of God d’ye wee bastards think ye’re up to?” Roger said, shoving Jo across to stand by his brother in a patch of moonlight. “D’ye realize I nearly killed you?”

There was just enough light for Brianna to make out the rather cynical expression that crossed Jo’s face at this, before it was erased and replaced with one of earnest apology.

“We’re that sorry, Mr. Mac. We heard someone coming, and thought it might be brigands.”

“Brigands,” Brianna repeated, feeling the urge to laugh rising, but keeping it firmly in check. “Where on earth did you get that word?”

“Oh.” Jo looked at his feet, hands clasped behind his back. “Miss Lizzie was a-readin’ to us, from that book what Mr. Jamie brought. ’Twas in there. About brigands.”

“I see.” She glanced at Roger, who met her eye, his annoyance obviously waning into amusement, as well. “The Pirate Gow,” she explained. “Defoe.”

“Oh, aye.” Roger sheathed his dirk. “And why, exactly, did ye think there might be brigands coming?”

Kezzie, with the quirks of his erratic hearing, picked that up and answered, as earnestly as his brother, though his voice was louder and slightly flat, the result of his early deafness.

“We come across Mr. Lindsay, sir, on his way home, and he did tell us what passed, up by Dutchman’s Creek. It’s true, so, what he said? They was all burned to cinders?”

“They were all dead.” Roger’s voice had lost any tinge of amusement. “What’s that to do with you lot lurking in the woods with clubs?”

“Well, you see, sir, McGillivrays’ is a fine, big place, what with the cooper’s shop and the new house and all, and being on a road, like—well, if I was a brigand, sir, ’tis just the sort of place I might choose,” replied Jo.

“And Miss Lizzie’s there, with her Pap. And your son, Mr. Mac,” Kezzie added pointedly. “Shouldn’t want no harm to come to ’em.”

“I see.” Roger smiled a little crookedly. “Well, thanks to ye, then, for the kind thought. I doubt the brigands will be anywhere near, though; Dutchman’s Creek is a long way away.”

“Aye, sir,” Jo agreed. “But brigands might be anywhere, mightn’t they?”

This was undeniable, and sufficiently true as to give Brianna a renewed feeling of chill in the pit of the stomach.

“They might be, but they aren’t,” Roger assured them. “Come along to the house with us, aye? We’re just going to collect wee Jem. I’m sure Frau Ute would give ye a bed by the fire.”

The Beardsleys exchanged inscrutable looks. They were nearly identical—small and lithe, with thick dark hair, distinguished only by Kezzie’s deafness and the round scar on Jo’s thumb—and to see the two fine-boned faces wearing precisely the same expression was a little unnerving.

Whatever information had been exchanged by that look, it had evidently included as much consultation as was required, for Kezzie nodded slightly, deferring to his brother.

“Ah, no, sir,” Josiah said politely. “We’ll bide, I think.” And with no further talk, the two of them turned and crunched off into the dark, scuffling leaves and rocks as they went.

“Jo! Wait!” Brianna called after them, her hand having found something else in the bottom of her pocket.

“Aye, ma’am?” Josiah was back, appearing by her elbow with unsettling abruptness. His twin was no stalker, but Jo was.

“Oh! I mean, oh, there you are.” She took a deep breath to slow her heart, and handed him the carved whistle she’d made for Germain. “Here. If you’re going to stand guard, this might be helpful. To call for help, if someone should come.”

Jo Beardsley had plainly never seen a whistle before, but didn’t care to admit it. He turned the little object over in his hand, trying not to stare at it.

Roger reached out, took it from him, and blew a healthy blast that shattered the night. Several birds, startled from their rest, shot out of the nearby trees, shrieking, followed closely by Kezzie Beardsley, eyes huge with amazement.

“Blow in that end,” Roger said, tapping the appropriate end of the whistle before handing it back. “Squeeze your lips a bit.”

“Much obliged, sir,” Jo murmured. His normal stoic facade had shattered with the silence, and he took the whistle with the wide-eyed look of a boy on Christmas morning, turning at once to show the prize to his twin. It struck her quite suddenly that neither boy likely ever had had a Christmas morning—or any other sort of gift.

“I’ll make another one for you,” she told Kezzie. “Then the two of you can signal back and forth. If you see any brigands,” she added, smiling.

“Oh, yes, ma’am. We’ll do that, we surely will!” he assured her, scarcely glancing at her in his eagerness to examine the whistle his brother had put in his hands.

“Blow it three times, if ye want help,” Roger called after them, taking her arm.

“Aye, sir!” came back from the darkness, followed by a belated faint “Thank you, ma’am!”—this in turn followed at once by a fusillade of puffs, gasps, and breathless rattles, punctuated by briefly successful shrill toots.

“Lizzie’s been teaching them manners, I see,” Roger said. “As well as their letters. D’ye think they’ll ever be truly civilized, though?”

“No,” she said, with a trace of regret.

“Really?” She couldn’t see his face in the dark, but heard the surprise in his voice. “I was only joking. Ye really think not?”

“I do—and no wonder, after the way they grew up. Did you see the way they were with that whistle? No one’s ever given them a present, or a toy.”

“I suppose not. D’ye think that’s what makes boys civilized? If so, I imagine wee Jem will be a philosopher or an artist or something. Mrs. Bug spoils him rotten.”

“Oh, as if you don’t,” she said tolerantly. “And Da, and Lizzie, and Mama, and everyone else in sight.”

“Oh, well,” Roger said, unembarrassed at the accusation. “Wait ’til he has a bit of competition. Germain’s in no danger of spoiling, is he?” Germain, Fergus and Marsali’s eldest son, was harried by two small sisters, known to one and all as the hell-kittens, who followed their brother constantly, teasing and pestering.

She laughed, but felt a slight sense of uneasiness. The thought of another baby always made her feel as though she were perched at the top of a roller coaster, short of breath and stomach clenched, poised somewhere between excitement and terror. Particularly now, with the memory of their lovemaking still softly heavy, shifting like mercury in her belly.

Roger seemed to sense her ambivalence, for he didn’t pursue the subject, but reached for her hand and held it, his own large and warm. The air was cold, the last vestiges of a winter chill lingering in the hollows.

“What about Fergus, then?” he asked, taking up an earlier thread of the conversation. “From what I hear, he hadn’t much of a childhood, either, but he seems fairly civilized.”

“My aunt Jenny had the raising of him from the time he was ten,” she objected. “You haven’t met my aunt Jenny, but believe me, she could have civilized Adolf Hitler, if she put her mind to it. Besides, Fergus grew up in Paris, not the backwoods—even if it was in a brothel. And it sounds like it was a pretty high-class brothel, too, from what Marsali tells me.”

“Oh, aye? What does she tell you?”

“Oh, just stories that he’s told her, now and then. About the clients, and the wh—the girls.”

“Can ye not say ‘whore,’ then?” he asked, amused. She felt the blood rise in her cheeks, and was pleased that it was dark; he teased her more when she blushed.

“I can’t help it that I went to a Catholic school,” she said, defensive. “Early conditioning.” It was true; she couldn’t say certain words, save when in the grip of fury or when mentally prepared. “Why can you, though? You’d think a preacher’s lad would have the same problem.”

He laughed, a little wryly.

“Not precisely the same problem. It was more a matter of feeling obliged to curse and carry on in front of my friends, to prove I could.”

“What kind of carrying on?” she asked, scenting a story. He didn’t often talk about his early life in Inverness, adopted by his great-uncle, a Presbyterian minister, but she loved hearing the small tidbits he sometimes let fall.

“Och. Smoking, drinking beer, and writing filthy words on the walls in the boys’ toilet,” he said, the smile evident in his voice. “Tipping over dustbins. Letting air out of automobile tires. Stealing sweeties from the Post Office. Quite the wee criminal I was, for a time.”

“The terror of Inverness, huh? Did you have a gang?” she teased.

“I did,” he said, and laughed. “Gerry MacMillan, Bobby Cawdor, and Dougie Buchanan. I was odd man out, not only for being the preacher’s lad, but for having an English father and an English name. So I was always out to show them I was a hard man. Meaning I was usually the one in most trouble.”

“I had no idea you were a juvenile delinquent,” she said, charmed at the thought.

“Well, not for long,” he assured her wryly. “Come the summer I was fifteen, the Reverend signed me up on a fishing boat, and sent me to sea with the herring fleet. Couldna just say whether he did it to improve my character, keep me out of jail, or only because he couldn’t stand me round the house any longer, but it did work. Ye want to meet hard men sometime, go to sea with a bunch of Gaelic fishermen.”

“I’ll remember that,” she said, trying not to giggle and producing a series of small, wet snorts instead. “Did your friends end up in jail, then, or did they go straight, without you to mislead them?”

“Dougie joined the army,” he said, a tinge of wistfulness in his voice. “Gerry took over his dad’s shop—his dad was a tobacconist. Bobby . . . aye, well, Bobby’s dead. Drowned, that same summer, out lobstering with his cousin off Oban.”

She leaned closer to him and squeezed his hand, her shoulder brushing his in sympathy.

“I’m sorry,” she said, then paused. “Only . . . he isn’t dead, is he? Not yet. Not now.”

Roger shook his head, and made a small sound of mingled humor and dismay.

“Is that a comfort?” she asked. “Or is it horrible to think about?”

She wanted to keep him talking; he hadn’t talked so much in one go since the hanging that had taken his singing voice. Being forced to speak in public made him self-conscious, and his throat tightened. His voice was still rasping, but relaxed as he was now, he wasn’t choking or coughing.

“Both,” he said, and made the sound again. “I’ll never see him again, either way.” He shrugged slightly, pushing the thought away. “D’ye think of your old friends much?”

“No, not much,” she said softly. The trail narrowed here, and she linked her arm in his, drawing close as they approached the last turn, which would bring them in sight of the McGillivrays’. “There’s too much here.” But she didn’t want to talk about what wasn’t here.

“Do you think Jo and Kezzie are just playing?” she asked. “Or are they up to something?”

“What should they be up to?” he asked, accepting her change of subject without comment. “I canna think they’re lying in wait to commit highway robbery—not at this time of night.”

“Oh, I believe them about standing guard,” she said. “They’d do anything to protect Lizzie. Only—” She paused. They had come out of the forest onto the wagon road; the far verge fell away in a steep bank, looking at night like a bottomless pool of black velvet—by daylight, it would be a tangled mass of fallen snags, clumps of rhododendron, redbud, and dogwood, overgrown with the snarls of ancient grapevines and creepers. The road made a switchback further on and curved back on itself, arriving gently at the McGillivrays’ place, a hundred feet below.

“The lights are still on,” she said with some surprise. The small group of buildings—the Old Place, the New Place, Ronnie Sinclair’s cooper’s shop, Dai Jones’s blacksmith’s forge and cabin—were mostly dark, but the lower windows of the McGillivrays’ New Place were striped with light, leaking through the cracks of the shutters, and a bonfire in front of the house made a brilliant blot of light against the dark.

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