A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 40

   

“I did wonder,” she said, “where does your soul go?”

“Er . . .” I said. “Well, I should think it simply stays with your body. It must. I mean—you aren’t dead.”

Both Lizzie and Bobby were shaking their heads decidedly.

“No, it doesn’t,” Lizzie said. “When ye’re sleepin’, ye’re still there. When ye do that”—she gestured toward the mask, a faint uneasiness on her small features—“ye’re not.”

“That’s true, mum,” Bobby assured me. “You’re not.”

“D’ye think maybe ye go to limbo, wi’ the unbaptized babes and all?” Lizzie asked anxiously.

Malva gave an unladylike snort.

“Limbo’s no real place,” she said. “It’s only a notion thought up by the Pope.”

Lizzie’s mouth dropped open in shock at this blasphemy, but Bobby luckily distracted her by feeling dizzy and requiring to lie down.

Malva seemed inclined to go on with the argument, but beyond repeating, “The Pope . . .” once or twice, simply stood, swaying to and fro with her mouth open, blinking a little. I glanced at Lizzie, only to find her glassy-eyed as well. She gave an enormous yawn and blinked at me, eyes watering.

It occurred to me that I was beginning to feel a trifle light-headed myself.

“Goodness!” I snatched the ether mask from Malva’s hand, and guided her hastily to a stool. “Let me get rid of this, or we’ll all be giddy.”

I flipped open the mask, pulled the damp wad of cotton wool out of it, and carried it outside at arm’s length. I’d opened both the surgery windows, to provide ventilation and save us all being gassed, but ether was insidious. Heavier than air, it tended to sink toward the floor of a room and accumulate there, unless there was a fan or some other device to remove it. I might have to operate in the open air, I thought, were I using it for any length of time.

I laid the cotton-wool pad on a stone to dry out, and came back, hoping that they were all too groggy now to continue their philosophical speculations. I didn’t want them following that line of thought; let it get around the Ridge that ether separated people from their souls, and I’d never get anyone to let me use it on them, no matter how dire the situation.

“Well, thank you all for helping,” I said, smiling as I entered the room, relieved to find them all looking reasonably alert. “You’ve done something very useful and valuable. You can all go along about your business now, though—I’ll tidy up.”

Malva and Lizzie hesitated for a moment, neither girl wanting to leave Bobby to the other, but under the impetus of my shooing, drifted toward the door.

“When are ye to be wed, Miss Wemyss?” Malva asked casually—and loudly enough for Bobby to hear—though she certainly knew; everyone on the Ridge did.

“In August,” Lizzie replied coolly, lifting her small nose half an inch. “Right after the haying—Miss Christie.” And then I shall be Mrs. McGillivray, her satisfied expression said. And you—Miss Christie—without an admirer to your name. Not that Malva attracted no notice from young men; only that her father and brother were assiduous in keeping them away from her.

“I wish ye great joy of it,” Malva said. She glanced at Bobby Higgins, then back at Lizzie, and smiled, demure beneath her starched white cap.

Bobby stayed sitting on the table for a moment, looking after the girls.

“Bobby,” I said, struck by the deeply thoughtful expression on his face, “the figure you saw under the anesthetic—did you recognize it?”

He looked at me, then his eyes slid back to the empty doorway, as though unable to keep away.

“Oh, no, mum,” he said, in such a tone of earnest conviction that I knew he lied. “Not at all!”

43

DISPLACED PERSONS

THEY HAD STOPPED to water the horses by the edge of the small lake the Indians called Thick Rushes. It was a warm day, and they hobbled the horses, stripped, and waded into the water, spring-fed and gloriously cold. Cold enough to shock the senses and, for a moment at least, drive away Jamie’s moody contemplation of the note MacDonald had delivered him from John Stuart, the Indian Superintendent of the Southern Department.

It had been complimentary enough, praising his celerity and enterprise in drawing the Snowbird Cherokee into the British sphere of influence—but had gone on to urge more vigorous involvement, pointing out Stuart’s own coup in directing the choice of leaders among the Choctaws and the Chickasaw, at a congress he had himself convened two years before.

. . . The competition and anxiety of the candidates for medals and commissions was as great as can be imagined and equalled the struggles of the most aspiring and ambitious for honours and preferment in great states. I took every step to be informed of characters and filled the vacancies with the most worthy and likely to answer the purposes of maintaining order and the attachment of this nation to the British interest. I urge you to strive for similar good results to be achieved among the Cherokee.

“Oh, aye,” he said aloud, popping up among the rushes and shaking water from his hair. “I’m to depose Tsisqua, nay doubt by assassination, and bribe them all to install Pipestone Carver”—the smallest and most self-effacing Indian Jamie had ever seen—“as peace chief. Heugh!” He sank again, in a rush of bubbles, entertaining himself by cursing Stuart’s presumption, watching his words rise up in wavering quicksilver balls, to disappear magically at the bright light of the surface.

He rose again, gasping, then gulped air and held his breath.

“What was that?” said a startled voice nearby. “Is it them?”

“No, no,” said another, low and urgent. “There are only two; I see them both, over there, do you see?”

He opened his mouth and breathed like a zephyr, striving to hear over the pounding of his heart.

He had understood them, but for an instant, could not put a name to their tongue. Indians, aye, but not Cherokee, they were . . . Tuscarora, that was it.

He hadn’t spoken with any Tuscarora for years; most of them had gone north in the wake of the measles epidemic that had destroyed so many—going to join their Mohawk “fathers” in the lands ruled by the Iroquois League.

These two were arguing in whispers, but near enough that he made out most of what they said; they were no more than a few feet from him, hidden by a thick growth of rushes and cattail plants that stood nearly as high as a man’s head.

Where was Ian? He could hear distant splashing, at the far end of the lake, and turning his head gently, saw from the corner of his eye that Ian and Rollo were sporting in the water, the dog submerged to his ruff, paddling to and fro. If one didn’t know—and the beast didn’t sense the intruders and bark—it looked very much like two men swimming.

The Indians had concluded that this was likely the case—two horses, thus two men, and both safely distant. With much creaking and rustling, they began to make their way stealthily in the direction of the horses.

Jamie was half-inclined to let them try to take Gideon and see how far they got with such an enterprise. But they might only make off with Ian’s horse and the pack mule—and Claire would be fashit, did he let them take Clarence. Feeling himself very much at a disadvantage, he slithered nak*d through the reeds, grimacing at the rasp of them on his skin, and crawled up among the cattails, into the mud of the shore.

Had they the wit to look back, they must have seen the cattails shaking—and he hoped Ian would see—but they were intent on their errand. He could glimpse them now, skulking in the tall grass at the forest edge, glancing to and fro—but never in the right direction.

Only two, he was sure of that now. Young, from the way they moved, and unsure. He couldn’t see if they were armed.

Slimed with mud, he crept further, sinking onto his belly in the rank grasses near the lake, squirming rapidly toward the shelter of a sumac bush. What he wanted was a club, and quickly.

In such circumstances, of course, nothing came to hand but twigs and long-rotted branches. For lack of better, he seized a good-sized stone, but then found what he wanted: a dogwood branch cracked by wind and hanging in reach, still attached to the tree. They were approaching the grazing horses now; Gideon saw them and lifted his head abruptly. He went on chewing, but his ears lay half back in patent suspicion. Clarence, the ever-sociable, took notice and raised his head, as well, ears twitching to alertness.

Jamie seized the chance, and as Clarence emitted a welcoming bray, he ripped the branch from the tree and charged the intruders, roaring, “Tulach Ard!” at the top of his voice.

Wide eyes met his, and one man bolted, long hair flying. The other followed, but limping badly, going down on one knee as something gave way. He was up again at once, but too slow; Jamie swept the branch at his legs with a two-handed fury that knocked him flat, and leapt on his back, driving a vicious knee into his kidney.

The man made a strangled noise and froze, paralyzed by pain. Jamie had dropped his rock—no, there it was. He snatched it up and thumped the man solidly behind the ear, for luck. Then he was off and running after the other, who had made for the wood but sheered off, blocked by a rock-bound streamlet in his path. Now the man was bounding through the sedges; Jamie saw him cast a terrified look toward the water, where Ian and Rollo were making their way toward him, swimming like beaver.

The Indian might have made it to the sanctuary of the forest, had one foot not suddenly sunk in soft mud. He staggered sideways, and Jamie was on him, feet sliding in the mud, grappling.

The man was young and wiry and fought like an eel. Jamie, with the advantage of size and weight, managed to push him over, and they fell together and rolled about in the sedges and mud, clawing and thumping. The Indian caught Jamie’s long hair and yanked, bringing tears to his eyes; he punched the man hard in the ribs to make him let go, and when he did, butted him in the face.

Their foreheads met with a dull thunk, and blinding pain shot through his head. They fell apart, gasping, and Jamie rolled up onto his knees, head spinning and eyes watering, trying to see.

There was a blur of gray and a shriek of terror. Rollo gave one deep-chested, snarling bark, then settled into a rumbling, continuous growl. Jamie shut one eye, a hand to his throbbing forehead, and made out his opponent lying flat in the mud, Rollo poised over him, black lips drawn back to show all his teeth.

The splash of feet running through the shallows, and Ian was there, gasping for breath.

“Are ye all right, Uncle Jamie?”

He took his hand away and looked at his fingers. No blood, though he would have sworn his head was split open.

“No,” he said, “but better than him. Oh, Jesus.”

“Did ye kill the other one?”

“Probably not. Oh, God.”

Lowering himself to his hands and knees, he crawled a short distance away and threw up. Behind him, he could hear Ian sharply demanding to know who the men were and whether there were others with them, in Cherokee.

“They’re Tuscarora,” he said. His head still throbbed, but he felt a little better.

“Oh, aye?” Ian was surprised, but at once shifted into the tongue of the Kahnyen’kehaka. The young captive, already terrorized by Rollo, looked as though he might die of fright, seeing Ian’s tattoos and hearing him speak Mohawk. Kahnyen’kehaka was of the same family as Tuscarora, and plainly the young man could make out what Ian said, for he replied, stammering with fear. They were alone. Was his brother dead?

Jamie rinsed his mouth with water, splashed it on his face. That was better, though a lump like a duck’s egg was swelling over his left eye.

“Brother?”

Yes, the young man said, his brother. If they did not mean to kill him now, might he go and see? His brother was wounded.

Ian glanced at Jamie for agreement, then called Rollo off with a word. The bedraggled captive struggled painfully to his feet, staggering, and set off back along the shore, followed by the dog and the two nak*d Scots.

The other man was indeed wounded; blood was seeping through a crude bandage round his leg. He had made the bandage of his shirt, and was bare-chested, scrawny, and starved-looking. Jamie glanced from one to the other; neither could be older than twenty, he thought, and likely younger than that, with their faces pinched by hunger and ill-usage, their clothes little more than rags.

The horses had moved off a little, nervous of the fighting, but the clothes the Scots had left hanging from the bushes were still there. Ian pulled on his breeches and went to fetch food and drink from the saddlebags, while Jamie dressed more slowly, interrogating the young man as the latter anxiously examined his brother.

They were Tuscarora, the young man confirmed. His name was a long one, meaning roughly “the gleam of light on water in a spring”; this was his brother, “the goose that encourages the leader when they fly,” more simply known as Goose.

“What happened to him?” Jamie pulled his shirt over his head and nodded—wincing at the movement—at the gash in Goose’s leg, quite obviously made by something like an ax.

Light on Water took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. He had a substantial knot on his head, as well.

“Tsalagi,” he said. “We were two score in number; the rest are dead, or taken. You will not give us to them, Lord? Please?”

“Tsalagi? Which?”

Light shook his head; he could not say. His band had chosen to stay when his village moved north, but they had not prospered; there were not enough men to defend a village and hunt, and without defenders, others stole their crops, took their women.

Growing poorer, they, too, had taken to stealing and to begging to survive through the winter. More had died of cold and sickness, and the remnants moved from place to place, now and then finding a place to settle for a few weeks, but then driven out by the much stronger Cherokee.

A few days past, they had been set upon by a party of Cherokee warriors, who had taken them by surprise, killed most of them, and taken some women.

“They took my wife,” Light said, his voice unsteady. “We came to—to take her back.”

“They will kill us, of course,” said Goose weakly, but with a fair amount of cheerfulness. “But that doesn’t signify.”

“Of course not,” Jamie said, smiling despite himself. “Do you know where they took her?”

The brothers knew the direction taken by the raiders, and had been following, to track them to their village. That way, they said, pointing toward a notch. Ian glanced at Jamie, and nodded.

“Bird,” he said. “Or Fox, I should say,” for Running Fox was war chief of the village; a good warrior, though somewhat lacking in imagination—a trait Bird possessed in quantity.

“Shall we help them, then?” Ian said in English. His feathery brows arched in question, but Jamie could see that it was a question in form only.

“Oh, aye, I expect we will.” He rubbed gingerly at his forehead; the skin over the lump was already stretched and tender. “Let’s eat first, though.”

IT WAS NOT a question of whether the thing might be done; only how. Jamie and Ian both dismissed out of hand any suggestion that the brothers might steal back Light’s wife.

“They will kill ye,” Ian assured them.

“We don’t mind,” Light said stoutly.

“Of course ye don’t,” said Jamie. “But what of your wife? She’d be left alone, then, and in no better case.”

Goose nodded judiciously.

“He’s right, you know,” he said to his glowering brother.

“We could ask for her,” Jamie suggested. “A wife for you, Ian. Bird thinks well of ye; he’d likely give her to you.”

He was only half-joking. If no one had yet taken the young woman to wife, the person who had her as slave might be persuaded to give her to Ian, who was deeply respected.

Ian gave a perfunctory smile, but shook his head.

“Nay, we’d best ransom her. Or—” He looked consideringly at the two Indians, industriously eating their way through the remainder of the food in the saddlebags. “Might we ask Bird to adopt them?”

That was a thought, to be sure. For once they had got the young woman back, by whatever means, she and the brothers would be in the same dire case—wandering and hungry.

The brothers frowned, though, and shook their heads.

“Food is a good thing,” Goose said, licking his fingers. “But we saw them kill our family, our friends. If we hadn’t seen it ourselves, it would be possible. But—”

“Aye, I see,” Jamie said, and was struck for an instant by mild astonishment that he did see; evidently, he had spent longer among the Indians than he supposed.

The brothers exchanged glances, obviously communicating something. Decision made, Light made a gesture of respect to Jamie.

“We are your slaves,” he pointed out with some diffidence. “It is yours to decide what to do with us.” He paused delicately, waiting.

Jamie rubbed a hand over his face, considering that perhaps he hadn’t spent quite enough time with Indians after all. Ian didn’t smile, but seemed to emit a low vibration of amusement.

MacDonald had told him stories of campaigns during the French and Indian War; soldiers who took Indian prisoners commonly either killed them for scalp money or sold them as slaves. Those campaigns lay a scant ten years in the past; the peace since had been frequently uneasy, and God knew the various Indians made slaves of their prisoners, unless they chose—for whatever inscrutable Indian motive—to adopt or kill them, instead.

Jamie had captured the two Tuscarora; ergo, by custom, they were now his slaves.

He understood quite well what Light was suggesting—that he adopt the brothers, and doubtless the young woman, too, once he’d rescued her—and how in God’s name had he suddenly become responsible for doing that?

“Well, there’s nay market for their scalps just now,” Ian pointed out. “Though I suppose ye could sell the two of them to Bird. Though they’re no worth a great deal, scrawny and ill-feckit as they are.”

The brothers stared at him, impassive, awaiting his decision. Light belched suddenly, and looked surprised at the sound. Ian did laugh at that, a low creaking noise.

“Oh, I couldna do any such thing, and the three of ye ken that perfectly well,” Jamie said crossly. “I should have hit ye harder and saved myself trouble,” he said to Goose, who grinned at him, with gap-toothed good nature.

“Yes, Uncle,” he said, bowing low in deep respect.

Jamie made a displeased sound in response, but the two Indians took no notice.

It would have to be the medals, then. MacDonald had brought him a chest bulging with medals, gilt buttons, cheap brass compasses, steel knife blades, and other bits of attractive rubbish. Since the chiefs derived their power from their popularity, and their popularity increased in direct proportion to their ability to give gifts, the British Indian agents exerted influence by distributing largesse to those chiefs who indicated a willingness to ally themselves to the Crown.

He’d brought only two small bags of such bribery; the rest left at home for future use. What he had on hand would, he was sure, be sufficient to ransom Mrs. Light, but to expend it all in such fashion would leave him empty-handed with respect to the other village chiefs—and that wouldn’t do.

Well, and he supposed he must send Ian back, then, to fetch more. But not until he’d arranged the ransom; he wanted Ian’s help in that matter.

“Fine, then,” he said, standing up. He fought off a wave of dizziness. “But I am not adopting them.” The last thing he needed just this minute was three more mouths to feed.

44

SCOTCHEE

ARRANGING THE RANSOM was, as he had supposed, a simple matter of bargaining. And in the end, Mrs. Light came fairly cheap, at the price of six medals, four knives, and a compass. Granted, he hadn’t seen her until the conclusion of the dealing—if he had, he might have offered even less; she was a small, pockmarked lass of perhaps fourteen, with a slight walleye.

Still, he reflected, there was no accounting for taste, and both Light and Goose had been willing to die for her. Doubtless she had a kind heart, or some other excellent quality of character, such as a talent and affinity for bed.

He was quite shocked to find himself thinking such a thing, and looked at her more closely. It was in no way obvious—and yet, now that he did look—she did radiate that strange appeal, that remarkable gift, held by a few women, that bypassed such superficial appreciations as looks, age, or wit, and caused a man simply to wish to seize her and—

He choked the sprouting image off at the root. He’d known a few such women, most of them French. And had thought more than once that perhaps it was his own wife’s French heritage that was responsible for her possession of that most desirable but very dangerous gift.

He could see Bird eyeing the girl thoughtfully, quite obviously regretting that he had let her go for so little. Fortunately, a distraction occurred to drive the matter from his attention—the return of a hunting party, bringing with them guests.

The guests were Cherokee of the Overhill Band, far from their home in the Tennessee mountains. And with them was a man Jamie had often heard of, but never met until this day—one Alexander Cameron, whom the Indians called “Scotchee.”

A dark, weathered man of middle-age, Cameron was distinguishable from the Indians only by his heavy beard and the long, inquisitive shape of his nose. He had lived with the Cherokee since the age of fifteen, had a Cherokee wife, and was much esteemed among them. He was also an Indian agent, thick with John Stuart. And his presence here, two hundred miles from home, caused Jamie’s own long, inquisitive nose to twitch with interest.

The interest was frankly mutual; Cameron examined him with deep-set eyes in which intelligence and wiliness showed in equal measure.

“The redheided Bear-Killer, och, och!” he exclaimed, shaking Jamie warmly by the hand, and then embracing him in the Indian fashion. “I’ve heard such tales of ye, ken, and fair dyin’ to meet ye to see were they true.”

“I doubt it,” Jamie said. “The last one I heard myself, I’d done for three bears at once, killin’ the last of them high in a tree, where he’d chased me after chewin’ off my foot.”

Despite himself, Cameron looked down at Jamie’s feet, then looked up and hooted with laughter, all the lines of his face curving in such irresistible merriment that Jamie felt his own laughter bubble up.

It was not, of course, proper to speak of business yet awhile. The hunting party had brought down one of the woods buffaloes, and a great feast was preparing: the liver taken away to be singed and devoured at once, the strap of tender meat from the back roasted with whole onions, and the heart—so Ian told him—to be shared among the four of them: Jamie, Cameron, Bird, and Running Fox, a mark of honor.

After the liver had been eaten, they retired to Bird’s house to drink beer for an hour or two, while the women made ready the rest of the food. And in the course of nature, he found himself outside, having a comfortable piss against a tree, when a quiet footfall came behind him, and Alexander Cameron stepped up alongside, undoing the fall of his breeches.

It seemed natural—though plainly Cameron had intended it—to walk about together for a bit then, the cool air of the evening a respite from the smoke inside the house, and speak of things of common interest—John Stuart, for one, and the ways and means of the Southern Department. Indians, for another; comparing the personalities and means of dealing with the various village chiefs, speculating as to who would make a leader, and whether there might be a great congress called within the year.

“Ye’ll be wondering, I expect,” Cameron said quite casually, “at my presence here?”

Jamie made a slight motion of the shoulders, admitting interest, but indicating a polite lack of inquisition into Cameron’s affairs.

Cameron chuckled.

“Aye, well. It’s no secret, to be sure. It’s James Henderson, is what it is—ye’ll ken the name, maybe?”

He did. Henderson had been Chief Justice of the Superior Court in North Carolina—until the Regulation had caused him to leave, climbing out the window of his courthouse and fleeing for his life from a mob bent on violence.

A wealthy man, and one with a due regard for the value of his skin, Henderson had retired from public life and set about increasing his fortune. To which end, he proposed now to buy an enormous tract of land from the Cherokee, this located in Tennessee, and establish townships there.

Jamie gave Cameron an eye, apprehending at once the complexity of the situation. For the one thing, the lands in question lay far, far inside the Treaty Line. For Henderson to instigate such dealings was an indication—had any been needed—of just how feeble the grasp of the Crown had grown of late. Plainly, Henderson thought nothing of flouting His Majesty’s treaty, and expected no interference with his affairs as a result of doing so.

That was one thing. For another, though—the Cherokee held land in common, as all the Indians did. Leaders could and did sell land to whites, without such legal niceties as clear title, but were still subject to the ex post facto approval or disapproval of their people. Such approval would not affect the sale, which would be already accomplished, but could result in the fall of a leader, and in a good deal of trouble for the man who tried to take possession of land paid for in good faith—or what passed for good faith, in such dealings.

“John Stuart knows of this, of course,” Jamie said, and Cameron nodded, with a small air of complacency.

“Not officially, mind,” he said.

Naturally not. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs could hardly countenance such an arrangement officially. At the same time, it would be smiled on unofficially, as such a purchase could not help but further the department’s goal of bringing the Indians further under the sway of British influence.

Jamie wondered idly whether Stuart profited in any personal way from the sale. Stuart had a good reputation and was not known to be corrupt—but he might well have a silent interest in the matter. Then again, he might have no financial interest himself, and be turning an officially blind eye to the arrangement only in furtherance of the department’s purposes.

Cameron, though . . . He couldn’t say, of course, but would be most surprised if Cameron had no finger in the pie.

He did not know where Cameron’s natural interest lay, whether with the Indians among whom he lived or with the British to whom he had been born. He doubted that anyone did—perhaps not even Cameron. Regardless of his abiding interests, though, Cameron’s immediate goals were clear. He wished the sale to be met with approval—or at least indifference—by the surrounding Cherokee, thus keeping his own pet chiefs in good odor with their followers, and allowing Henderson to go forward with his plans with no undue harassment by Indians in the area.

“I shall not, of course, say anything for a day or two,” Cameron told him, and he nodded. There was a natural rhythm to such business. But of course, Cameron had told him now so that he might be of help when the subject arose in due course.

Cameron took it for granted that he would help. There was no explicit promise of a bit of Henderson’s pie for himself, but no need; it was the sort of opportunity that was a perquisite of being an Indian agent—the reason that such appointments were considered plums.

Given what Jamie knew of the near future, he had neither expectation nor interest in Henderson’s purchase—but the subject did give him a welcome opportunity for a useful quid pro quo.

He coughed gently.

“Ye ken the wee Tuscarora lassie I bought from Bird?”

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