A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 41

   

Cameron laughed.

“Aye. And he’s most perplexed what ye mean to do with her; he says ye willna take any of the lasses he sends to warm your bed. She’s no so much to look at—but still . . .”

“Not that,” Jamie assured him. “She’s marrit, for the one thing. I brought two Tuscaroran lads with me; she belongs to one of them.”

“Oh, aye?” Cameron’s nose twitched with interest, scenting a story. Jamie had been waiting for this opportunity since the sight of Cameron first gave him the notion, and he told it well, with the satisfactory outcome that Cameron agreed to take the three displaced young Tuscaroras with him, and sponsor their adoption into the Overhill Band.

“It’ll no be the first time,” he told Jamie. “There are more and more of them—wee scraps of what were villages, even whole peoples—wandering about the country starved and wretched. Heard of the Dogash, have ye?”

“No.”

“Nor are ye like to,” Cameron said, shaking his head. “There’s no but ten or so of them left. They came to us last winter; offered themselves as slaves, only so that they might survive the cold. No—dinna fash yourself, man,” he assured Jamie, catching sight of Jamie’s expression. “Your wee lads and the lass won’t be slaves; my word on it.”

Jamie nodded his thanks, pleased with the business. They had wandered some distance outside the village, and stood talking near the edge of a gorge, where the wood opened suddenly over a vista of mountain ranges, rolling away and away like furrows plowed in some endless field of the gods, their backs dark and brooding beneath a starlit sky.

“How can there ever be people enough to settle such a wilderness?” he said, moved suddenly by the sight of it. And yet the smell of woodsmoke and cooking meat hung heavy in the air. People did inhabit it, few and scattered as they were.

Cameron shook his head in contemplation.

“They come,” he said, “and they keep on coming. My ain folk came from Scotland. You have,” he added, teeth a brief gleam in his beard. “And dinna mean to go back, I’ll warrant.”

Jamie smiled at that, but made no answer, though a queer feeling rose in his wame at the thought. He did not mean to go back. Had said goodbye to Scotland at the rail of the Artemis, knowing full well it was likely his last sight of the place. And yet, the notion that he would never set foot there again had never fully settled on him ’til this moment.

Calls of “Scotchee, Scotchee” summoned them, and he turned to follow Cameron back to the village, conscious all the time of the glorious, terrifying emptiness behind him—and the more terrifying emptiness within.

THEY SMOKED THAT night, after feasting, in ceremonious observance of Jamie’s bargain with Bird, in welcome to Cameron. When the pipe had gone twice around the fire, they began to tell stories.

Stories of raids, of battles. Exhausted from the day, head still throbbing, mellowed by food and spruce beer, and slightly intoxicated by the smoke, Jamie had meant only to listen. Perhaps it was the thought of Scotland, so casually evoked by Cameron’s remark. But at some point, a memory had stirred, and when the next expectant silence fell, he was surprised to hear his own voice, telling them of Culloden.

“And there near a wall I saw a man I knew, named MacAllister, besieged by a horde of enemies. He fought with gun and sword, but both failed him—his blade was broken, his shield shattered upon his breast.”

The fume of the pipe reached him and he raised it and drew deep, as though he drank the air of the moor, hazed with rain and the smoke of the day.

“Still they came, his enemies, to kill him, and he seized up a piece of metal, the tongue of a wagon, and with it, killed six”—he held up both hands, fingers stuck up in illustration—“six of them, before he was at last brought down.”

Sounds of awe and tongue clicks of approval greeted this recounting.

“And you yourself, Bear-Killer, how many men did you kill in this battle?”

The smoke burned in his chest, behind his eyes, and for an instant he tasted the bitter smoke of cannon fire, not sweet tobacco. He saw—he saw—Alistair MacAllister, dead at his feet among the red-clothed bodies, the side of his head crushed in and the round curve of his shoulder shining solid through the cloth of the shirt, so wetly did it cling to him.

He was there, on the moor, the wet and cold no more than a shimmer on his skin, rain slick on his face, his own shirt sopping and steaming on him with the heat of his rage.

And then he no longer stood on Drumossie, and became aware a second too late of the indrawn breaths around him. He saw Robert Talltree’s face, the wrinkles all turned up in astonishment, and only then looked down, to see all ten of his fingers flex and fold, and the four fingers of the right extend again, quite without his meaning it. The thumb wavered, indecisive. He watched this with fascination, then, coming finally to his wits, balled his right hand as well as he could and wrapped the left around it, as though to throttle the memory that had been thrust with such unnerving suddenness into the palm of his hand.

He looked up to see Talltree glance sharply at his face, and he saw the dark old eyes harden, then narrow under a frown—and then the old man took the pipe, drank deep, and blew the smoke across him, bowing forward. Talltree did this twice more, and a hum of hushed approval at the honor came from the clustered men.

He took the pipe and returned the honor of the gesture, then passed it to the next man, refusing to speak further.

They didn’t push him to, seeming to recognize and respect the shock he felt.

Shock. Not even that. What he felt was the blankest astonishment. Cautiously, unwilling, he stole a keek at that picture of Alistair. God, it was there.

He realized that he was holding his breath, not wanting to breathe the reek of blood and spilled bowels. He breathed, soft smoke and a copper tang of seasoned bodies, and could have wept, swept with sudden longing for the cold, sharp air of the Highlands, pungent with the scents of peat and gorse.

Alexander Cameron said something to him, but he couldn’t reply. Ian, seeing the difficulty, leaned forward to answer, and they all laughed. Ian gave him a curious look, but then turned back to the conversation, beginning a story of a famous game of lacrosse he had played among the Mohawk. Leaving Jamie to sit still, wreathed in the smoke.

Fourteen men. And he did not remember a single face. And that random thumb, hovering uncertainly. Whatever did he mean by that? That he had fought yet another, but not made certain of the fellow?

He was afraid even to think of the memory. Unsure what to do with it. But at the same time, conscious of a sense of awe. And despite everything, grateful to have this small thing back.

IT WAS VERY LATE, and most of the men had gone to their own houses, or lay comfortably asleep around the fire. Ian had left the fire, but hadn’t come back. Cameron was still there, smoking his own pipe now, though he shared this with Bird, taking turn and turn about.

“There is a thing I would tell you,” Jamie said abruptly, in the midst of a drowsy silence. “Both of you.” Bird raised his brows in slow question, drugged with tobacco.

He hadn’t known he meant to say it. Had thought to wait, judge his time—if he spoke at all. Perhaps it was the closeness of the house, the dark intimacy of the fireside, or the intoxication of tobacco. Perhaps only the kinship of an exile for those who would suffer the same fate. But he’d spoken; had no choice now but to tell them what he knew.

“The women of my family are . . .” He groped, not knowing the Cherokee word. “Those who see in dreams what is to come.” He darted a look at Cameron, who appeared to take this in his stride, for he nodded, and closed his eyes to draw smoke into his lungs.

“Have they the Sight, then?” he asked, mildly interested.

Jamie nodded; it was as good an explanation as any.

“They have seen a thing concerning the Tsalagi. Both my wife and my daughter have seen this thing.”

Bird’s attention sharpened, hearing this. Dreams were important; for more than one person to share a dream was extraordinary, and therefore most important.

“It grieves me to tell you,” Jamie said, and meant it. “Sixty years from this time, the Tsalagi will be taken from their lands, removed to a new place. Many will die on this journey, so that the path they tread will be called . . .” He groped for the word for “tears,” did not find it, and ended, “the trail where they wept.”

Bird’s lips pursed, as though to draw smoke, but the pipe fumed unnoticed in his hands.

“Who will do this?” he asked. “Who can?”

Jamie drew a deep breath; here was the difficulty. And yet—so much less difficult than he had thought, now that it came to the matter.

“It will be white men,” he said. “But it will not be King George’s men.”

“The French?” Cameron spoke with a hint of incredulity, but frowned, nonetheless, trying to see how this might come to pass. “Or the Spanish, do they mean? The Spanish are a good deal closer—but none sae many.” Spain still held the country south of Georgia, and parts of the Indies, but the English held Georgia firmly; there was little apparent chance of any northward movement by the Spaniards.

“No. Not Spanish, not French.” He could wish Ian had stayed, for more than one reason. But the lad had not, and so he would have to struggle with the Tsalagi, which was an interesting tongue, but one in which he could talk fluently only of solid things—and of a very limited future.

“What they tell me—what my women say—” He struggled to find sensible words. “A thing that they see in their dreams, this thing will come to pass, if it concerns many people. But they think it may not come to pass, if it concerns a few, or one.”

Bird blinked, confused—and no wonder. Grimly, Jamie tried again to explain.

“There are large things, and there are small things. A large thing is a thing like a great battle, or the raising up of a notable chief—though he is one man, he is raised up by the voices of many. If my women dream of these large things, then they will happen. But in any large thing, there are many people. Some say do this; others, do that.” He zigzagged his hand to and fro, and Bird nodded.

“So. If many people say, ‘Do this’”—he stabbed his fingers sharply to the left—“then this happens. But what of the people who said, ‘do that’?” And he jerked a thumb back the other way. “These people may choose a different way.”

Bird made the hm-hm-hm! sound he used when startled.

“So it may be that some will not go?” Cameron asked sharply. “They might escape?”

“I hope so,” Jamie said simply.

They sat in silence for a bit, each man staring into the fire, each seeing his own visions—of the future, or the past.

“This wife you have,” Bird said at last, deeply contemplative, “did you pay a great deal for her?”

“She cost me almost everything I had,” he said, with a wry tone that made the others laugh. “But worth it.”

IT WAS VERY LATE when he went to the guesthouse; the moon had set, and the sky had that look of deep serenity, the stars singing to themselves in endless night. His body ached in every muscle, and he was so tired that he stumbled on the threshold. His instincts were still working, though, and he felt, rather than saw, someone move in the shadows of the sleeping-couch.

God, Bird was still at it. Well, tonight it wouldn’t matter; he could lie nak*d with a covey of young women, and sleep sound. Too exhausted to be annoyed by her presence, he struggled for some polite acknowledgment of the woman. Then she stood up.

The firelight showed him an elderly woman, her hair in grizzled plaits, her dress of white buckskin decorated with paint and porcupine quills. He recognized Calls-in-the-Forest, dressed in her best. Bird’s sense of humor had finally got completely out of hand; he had sent Jamie his mother.

All grasp of Tsalagi deserted him. He opened his mouth, but merely gaped at her. She smiled, very slightly, and held out her hand.

“Come and lie down, Bear-Killer,” she said. Her voice was kind and gruff. “I’ve come to comb the snakes from your hair.”

She drew him unresisting to the couch, and made him lie down with his head in her lap. Sure enough; she unplaited his hair and spread it out across her knees, her touch soothing to his throbbing head and the painful knot on his brow.

He had no idea how old she might be, but her fingers were muscular and tireless, making small, rhythmic circles in his scalp, on his temples, behind his ears, near to the bone at the base of his skull. She had thrown sweet grass and some other herb on the fire; the chimney hole was drawing well and he could see white smoke rising upward in a wavering pillar, very calm, but a sense of constant movement in it.

She was humming to herself, or rather whispering some song, the words too indistinct to make out. He watched the silent shapes stream upward in the smoke, and felt his body growing heavy, limbs filled with wet sand, his body a sandbag placed in the path of a flood.

“Talk, Bear-Killer,” she said very softly, breaking off her chant. She had a wooden comb in her hand; he felt the teeth of it caress his scalp, rounded with wear.

“I cannot call your words to me,” he said, searching for each word in Tsalagi, and thus speaking very slowly. She made a small snorting noise in reply.

“The words don’t matter, nor the tongue in which you speak,” she said. “Only talk. I will understand.”

And so he began haltingly to speak—in Gaelic, as it was the only tongue that didn’t seem to require any effort. He understood that he was to speak of what filled his heart, and so began with Scotland—and Culloden. Of grief. Of loss. Of fear.

And in the speaking turned from past to future, where he saw these three specters loom again, cold creatures coming toward him out of the fog, looking through their empty eyes.

Another stood among them—Jack Randall—confusingly on both sides of him. Those eyes were not empty, but alive, intent in a misty face. Had he killed the man, or not? If he had, did the ghost follow at his heels? Or if he had not, was it the thought of vengeance unsatisfied that haunted him, taunted him with its imperfect memory?

But in the speaking, he seemed somehow to rise a little way above his body, and see himself at rest, eyes open, fixed upward, his hair darkly flaming in a halo round his head, streaked with the silver of his age. And here he saw that he merely was, in a place between, apart. And quite alone. At peace.

“I hold to no evil in my heart,” he said, hearing his voice come slow, from a long way off. “This evil does not touch me. More may come, but not this. Not here. Not now.”

“I understand,” whispered the old woman, and went on combing his hair as the white smoke rose silent toward the hole to the sky.

45

A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

June 1774

I SAT BACK ON MY HEELS and stretched, tired but pleased. My back ached, my knees creaked like hinges, my fingernails were caked with dirt, and strands of hair stuck to my neck and cheeks—but the new crops of pole beans, onions, turnips, and radishes were planted, the cabbages weeded and culled, and a dozen large peanut bushes had been pulled up and hung to dry on the garden palisades, safe from marauding squirrels.

I glanced up at the sun; still above the chestnut trees. Time enough then before supper for a last chore or two. I stood up and surveyed my small kingdom, debating where best to spend my remaining time. Rooting up the catmint and lemon balm that threatened to engulf the far corner of the garden? Carting baskets of nicely rotted manure up from the heap behind the barn? No, that was man’s work.

Herbs? My three French lavender bushes stood knee-high, thick with deep blue swabs on slender stalks, and the yarrow was well in bloom, with lacy umbels of white and pink and yellow. I rubbed a finger under my itching nose, trying to recall whether this was the proper phase of the moon in which to cut yarrow. Lavender and rosemary should be cut in the morning, though, when the volatile oils had risen with the sun; it wasn’t as potent if taken later in the day.

Down with the mint, then. I reached for the hoe I had left leaning against the fence, saw a face leering through the palisades, and started back, my heart leaping into my throat.

“Oh!” My visitor had jumped back, too, equally startled. “Bitte, ma’am! Didn’t mean to fright ye.”

It was Manfred McGillivray, peeping shyly through the drooping vines of morning glory and wild yam. He’d come earlier in the day, bringing a canvas-wrapped bundle containing several muskets for Jamie.

“That’s all right.” I stooped to pick up the hoe I had dropped. “Are you looking for Lizzie? She’s in—”

“Ach, no, ma’am. That is, I—do ye think I might have a word, ma’am?” he asked abruptly. “Alone, like?”

“Of course. Come along in; we can talk while I hoe.”

He nodded, and went round to let himself in by the gate. What might he want with me? I wondered. He had on a coat and boots, both covered in dust, and his breeches were badly creased. He’d been riding some way, then, not just from his family’s cabin—and he hadn’t been into the house yet; Mrs. Bug would have dusted him off, forcibly.

“Where have you come from?” I asked, offering him the gourd dipper from my water bucket. He accepted it, drinking thirstily, then wiped his mouth politely on his sleeve.

“Thank ye, ma’am. I’ve been to Hillsboro, for to fetch the . . . er . . . the things for Mr. Fraser.”

“Really? That seems a long way,” I said mildly.

A look of profound uneasiness crossed his face. He was a nice-looking boy, tanned and handsome as a young faun under his crop of dark, curly hair, but he looked almost furtive now, glancing back over his shoulder toward the house, as though fearful of interruption.

“I . . . um . . . well, ma’am, that’s to do, a bit, with what I meant to speak to ye about.”

“Oh? Well . . .” I made a cordial gesture, indicating that he should feel free to unburden himself, and turned away to begin my hoeing, so that he might feel less self-conscious. I was beginning to suspect what he wanted to ask me, though I wasn’t sure what Hillsboro had to do with it.

“It’s . . . ah . . . well, it’s to do with Mrs. Lizzie,” he began, folding his hands behind him.

“Yes?” I said encouragingly, nearly sure that I was right in my suppositions. I glanced toward the western end of the garden, where the bees were buzzing happily among the tall yellow umbels of the dauco plants. Well, it was better than the eighteenth-century notion of condoms, at least.

“I can’t marry her,” he blurted.

“What?” I stopped hoeing and straightened up, staring at him. His lips were pressed tightly together, and I saw now that what I had taken for shyness had been his attempt to mask a deep unhappiness that now showed plainly in the lines of his face.

“You’d better come and sit down.” I led him to the small bench Jamie had made me, set beneath the shade of a black gum tree that overhung the north side of the garden.

He sat, head drooping and hands trapped between his knees. I took off my broad-brimmed sun hat, wiped my face on my apron, and pinned up my hair more neatly, breathing in the cool freshness of the spruce and balsam trees that grew on the slope above.

“What is it?” I asked gently, seeing that he did not know how to start. “Are you afraid that perhaps you don’t love her?”

He gave me a startled look, then turned his head back to the studied contemplation of his knees.

“Oh. No, ma’am. I mean—I don’t, but that’s no matter.”

“It isn’t?”

“No. I mean—I’m sure we should grow to be fond of one another, meine Mutter says so. And I like her well enough now, to be sure,” he added hastily, as though fearing this might sound insulting. “Da says she’s a tidy wee soul, and my sisters are verra fond of her indeed.”

I made a noncommittal sound. I had had my doubts about this match to begin with, and it was beginning to sound as though they were justified.

“Is there . . . perhaps someone else?” I asked delicately.

Manfred shook his head slowly, and I heard him swallow hard.

“No, ma’am,” he said in a low voice.

“You’re sure?”

“Aye, ma’am.” He drew a deep breath. “I mean—there was. But that’s all done with now.”

I was puzzled by this. If he had decided to renounce this mysterious other girl—whether out of fear of his mother, or for some other reason—then what was stopping him from going through with the marriage to Lizzie?

“The other girl—is she by chance from Hillsboro?” Things were coming a little clearer. When I had first met him and his family at the Gathering, his sisters had exchanged knowing glances at mention of Manfred’s visits to Hillsboro. They had known about it then, even if Ute had not.

“Aye. That’s why I went to Hillsboro—I mean, I had to go, for the . . . er . . . But I meant to see . . . Myra . . . and tell her that I would be married to Miss Wemyss and couldna come to see her anymore.”

“Myra.” So she had a name, at least. I sat back, tapping my foot meditatively. “You meant to—so you didn’t see her, after all?”

He shook his head again, and I saw a tear drop and spread suddenly on the dusty homespun of his breeches.

“No, ma’am,” he said, his voice half-choked. “I couldn’t. She was dead.”

“Oh, dear,” I said softly. “Oh, I am so sorry.” The tears were falling on his knees, making spots on the cloth, and his shoulders shook, but he didn’t make a sound.

I reached out and gathered him into my arms, holding him tight against my shoulder. His hair was soft and springy and his skin flushed with heat against my neck. I felt helpless to deal with his grief; he was too old to comfort with mere touch, too young—perhaps—to find any solace in words. There was nothing I could do for the moment save hold him.

His arms went round my waist, though, and he clung to me for several minutes after his weeping was spent. I held him quietly, patting his back and keeping watch through the flickering green shadows of the vine-twined palisades, lest anyone else come looking for me in the garden.

At last he sighed, let go, and sat up. I groped for a handkerchief, and not finding one, pulled off my apron and handed it to him to wipe his face.

“You needn’t marry right away,” I said, when he seemed to have regained possession of himself. “It’s only right that you should take a little time to—to heal. But we can find some excuse to put the wedding off; I’ll speak to Jamie—”

But he was shaking his head, a look of sad determination taking the place of tears.

“No, ma’am,” he said, low-voiced but definite. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Myra was a whore, ma’am. She died of the French disease.”

He looked up at me then, and I saw the terror in his eyes, behind the grief.

“And I think I’ve got it.”

“YE’RE SURE?” Jamie set down the hoof he had been trimming, and looked bleakly at Manfred.

“I’m sure,” I said tartly. I had obliged Manfred to show me the evidence—in fact, I had taken scrapings from the lesion to examine microscopically—then took him straight to find Jamie, barely waiting for the boy to do up his breeches.

Jamie looked fixedly at Manfred, plainly trying to decide what to say. Manfred, purple-faced from the double stress of confession and examination, dropped his own eyes before this basilisk gaze, staring at a crescent of black hoof paring that lay on the ground.

“I’m that sorry, sir,” he murmured. “I—I didna mean to . . .”

“I shouldna suppose anyone does,” Jamie said. He breathed deeply and made a sort of subterranean growling noise that caused Manfred to hunch his shoulders and try to withdraw his head, turtlelike, into the safer confines of his clothing.

“He did do the right thing,” I pointed out, trying to put the best face possible on the situation. “Now, I mean—telling the truth.”

Jamie snorted.

“Well, he couldna be poxing wee Lizzie, now, could he? That’s worse than only going wi’ a whore.”

“I suppose some men would just keep quiet about it, and hope for the best.”

“Aye, some would.” He narrowed his eyes at Manfred, evidently looking for overt indications that Manfred might be a villain of this description.

Gideon, who disliked having his feet messed about and was consequently in bad temper, stamped heavily, narrowly missing Jamie’s own foot. He tossed his head, and emitted a rumbling noise that I thought was roughly the equivalent of Jamie’s growl.

“Aye, well.” Jamie left off glaring at Manfred, and grabbed Gideon’s halter. “Go along to the house with him, Sassenach. I’ll finish here, and then we’ll have Joseph in and see what’s to do.”

“All right.” I hesitated, unsure whether to speak in front of Manfred. I didn’t want to raise his hopes too much, until I’d had a chance to look at the scrapings under the microscope.

The spirochetes of syphilis were very distinctive, but I didn’t think I had a stain that would allow me to see them with a simple light microscope such as mine was. And while I thought my homemade penicillin could likely eliminate the infection, I would have no way of knowing for certain, unless I could see them, and then see that they had disappeared from his blood.

I contented myself with saying, “I have got penicillin, mind.”

“I ken that well enough, Sassenach.” Jamie switched his baleful look from Manfred to me. I’d saved his life with the penicillin—twice—but he hadn’t enjoyed the process. With a Scottish noise of dismissal, he bent and picked up Gideon’s enormous hoof again.

Manfred seemed a bit shell-shocked, and said nothing on the way to the house. He hesitated at the door to the surgery, glancing uneasily from the gleaming microscope to the open box of surgical tools, and then toward the covered bowls lined up on the counter, in which I grew my penicillin colonies.

“Come in,” I said, but was obliged to reach out and take him by the sleeve before he would step across the threshold. It occurred to me that he hadn’t been to the surgery before; it was a good five miles to the McGillivrays’ place, and Frau McGillivray was entirely capable of dealing with her family’s minor ills.

I wasn’t feeling terribly charitable toward Manfred at the moment, but gave him a stool and asked if he would like a cup of coffee. I thought he could probably use a stiff drink, if he was about to have an interview with Jamie and Joseph Wemyss, but supposed I had better keep him clear-headed.

“No, ma’am,” he said, and swallowed, white-faced. “I mean, thank ye, no.”

He looked extremely young, and very frightened.

“Roll up your sleeve then, please. I’m going to draw a bit of blood, but it won’t hurt much. How did you come to meet the, er, young lady? Myra, that was her name?”

“Aye, ma’am.” Tears welled in his eyes at her name; I suppose he really had loved her, poor boy—or thought he had.

He had met Myra in a tavern in Hillsboro. She had seemed kind, he said, and was very pretty, and when she asked the young gunsmith to buy her a glass of geneva, he had obliged, feeling dashing.

“So we drank a bit together, and she laughed at me, and . . .” He seemed rather at a loss to explain how matters had progressed from there, but he had waked up in her bed. That had sealed the matter, so far as he was concerned, and he had seized every excuse to go to Hillsboro thereafter.

“How long did this affair go on?” I asked, interested. Lacking a decent syringe for drawing blood, I’d merely pierced the vein inside his elbow with a fleam, and drained off the welling blood into a small vial.

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