A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 47

   

“D’ye think she would?” Not waiting for an answer, Fraser stood and whipped the line up and back, sending the fly out to drift down over the center of the pool, lighting like a leaf on the water.

Roger watched as he brought it in, playing it over the water in a jerky dance. The Reverend had been a fisherman. All at once, he saw the Ness and its sparkling riffles, running clear brown over the rocks, Dad standing in his battered waders, reeling in his line. He was choked with longing. For Scotland. For his father. For one more day—just one—of peace.

The mountains and the green wood rose up mysterious and wild around them, and the hazy sky unfurled itself over the hollow like angel’s wings, silent and sunlit. But not peaceful; never peace, not here.

“Do you believe us—Claire and Brianna and me—about the war that’s coming?”

Jamie laughed shortly, gaze fixed on the water.

“I’ve eyes, man. It doesna take either prophet or witch to see it standing on the road.”

“That,” said Roger, giving him a curious look, “is a very odd way of putting it.”

“Is it, so? Is that no what the Bible says? When ye shall see the abomination of desolation, standing where it ought not, then let them in Judaea flee to the mountains?”

Let him who readeth understand. Memory supplied the missing part of the verse, and Roger became aware, with a small sense of cold in the bone, that Jamie did indeed see it standing on the road, and recognized it. Nor was he using figures of speech; he was describing, precisely, what he saw—because he had seen it before.

The sound of small boys yelling in joy drifted across the water, and Fraser turned his head a little, listening. A faint smile touched his mouth, then he looked down into the moving water, seeming to grow still. The ropes of his hair stirred against the sunburned skin of his neck, in the same way that the leaves of the mountain ash moved above.

Roger wanted suddenly to ask Jamie whether he was afraid, but kept silence. He knew the answer, in any case.

It doesn’t matter. He breathed deep, and felt the same answer, to the same question, asked of himself. It didn’t seem to come from anywhere, but was just there inside him, as though he had been born with it, always known it.

It doesn’t matter. You will do it anyway.

They stayed for some time in silence. Jamie cast twice more with the green fly, then shook his head and muttered something, reeled it in, changed it for a Dun Fly, and cast again. The little boys charged past on the other bank, nak*d as eels, giggling, and disappeared through the bushes.

Really odd, Roger thought. He felt all right. Still having not the slightest idea what he meant to do, exactly, still seeing the drifting cloud coming toward them, and now knowing much more about what lay within it. But still all right.

Jamie had a fish on the line. He brought it in fast, and jerked it shining and flapping onto the bank, where he killed it with a sharp blow on a rock before tucking it into his creel.

“D’ye mean to turn Quaker?” Jamie asked seriously.

“No.” Roger was startled by the question. “Why do you ask that?”

Jamie made the odd little half-shrugging gesture that he sometimes used when uncomfortable about something, and didn’t speak again until he’d made the new cast.

“Ye said ye didna want Brianna to think ye coward. I’ve fought by the side of a priest before.” One side of his mouth turned up, wry. “Granted, he wasna much of a swordsman, the Monsignor, and he couldna hit the broad side of a barn wi’ a pistol—but he was game enough.”

“Oh.” Roger scratched the side of his jaw. “Aye, I take your meaning. No, I can’t fight with an army, I don’t think.” Saying it, he felt a sharp pang of regret. “But take up arms in defense of—of those who need it . . . I can square that with my conscience, aye.”

“That’s all right, then.”

Jamie reeled in the rest of the line, shook water from the fly, and stuck the hook back into his hat. Laying the line aside, he rummaged in the creel and pulled out a stoneware bottle. He sat down with a sigh, pulled the cork with his teeth, spat it into his hand, and offered Roger the bottle.

“It’s a thing Claire says to me, now and again,” he explained, and quoted: “Malt does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to man.”

Roger lifted an eyebrow.

“Ever read Milton?”

“A bit. She’s right about it.”

“Ye ken the next lines?” Roger lifted the bottle to his lips. “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink, For fellows whom it hurts to think.”

A subterranean laugh moved through Fraser’s eyes.

“This must be whisky, then,” he said. “It only smells like beer.”

It was cool and dark and pleasantly bitter, and they passed the bottle to and fro, not saying much of anything, until the ale was gone. Jamie put the cork thriftily back in, and tucked the empty bottle away in the creel.

“Your wife,” he said thoughtfully, rising and hitching the strap of the creel onto his shoulder.

“Aye?” Roger picked up the battered hat, bestrewn with flies, and gave it to him. Jamie nodded thanks, and set it on his head.

“She has eyes, too.”

52

M-I-C-

FIREFLIES LIT THE GRASS, the trees, and floated through the heavy air in a profusion of cool green sparks. One lighted on Brianna’s knee; she watched it pulse, on-off, on-off, and listened to her husband telling her he meant to be a minister.

They were sitting on the stoop of their cabin as the dusk thickened into night. Across the big clearing, the whoops of small children at play sounded in the bushes, high and cheerful as hunting bats.

“You . . . uh . . . could say something,” Roger suggested. His head was turned, looking at her. There was enough light yet to see his face, expectant, slightly anxious.

“Well . . . give me a minute. I sort of wasn’t expecting this, you know?”

That was true, and it wasn’t. Certainly, she hadn’t consciously thought of such a thing, yet now that he’d stated his intentions—and he had, she thought; he wasn’t asking her permission—she wasn’t at all surprised. It was less a change than a recognition of something that had been there for some time—and in a way, it was a relief to see it and know it for what it was.

“Well,” she said, after a long moment of consideration, “I think that’s good.”

“Ye do.” The relief in his voice was palpable.

“Yes. If you’re helping all these women because God told you to, that’s better than doing it because you’d rather be with them than with me.”

“Bree! Ye can’t think that, that I—” He leaned closer, looking anxiously into her face. “Ye don’t, do you?”

“Well, only sometimes,” she admitted. “In my worse moments. Not most of the time.” He looked so anxious that she reached up and cupped her hand to the long curve of his cheek; the stubble of his beard was invisible in this light, but she could feel it, soft and tickling against her palm.

“You’re sure?” she said softly. He nodded, and she saw his throat move as he swallowed.

“I’m sure.”

“Are you afraid?”

He smiled a little at that.

“Yeah.”

“I’ll help,” she said firmly. “You tell me how, and I’ll help.”

He took a deep breath, his face lightening, though his smile was rueful.

“I don’t know how,” he said. “How to do it, I mean. Let alone what you might do. That’s what scares me.”

“Maybe not,” she said. “But you’ve been doing it, anyway, haven’t you? Do you need to do anything formal about this, though? Or can you just announce you’re a minister, like those TV preachers, and start taking up the collection right away?”

He smiled at the joke, but answered seriously.

“Bloody Romanist. Ye always think no one else has any claim to sacraments. We do, though. I’m thinking I’ll go to the Presbyterian Academy, see what I need to do about ordination. As for taking up the collection—I expect this means I’ll never be rich.”

“I sort of wasn’t expecting that, anyway,” she assured him gravely. “Don’t worry; I didn’t marry you for your money. If we need more, I’ll make it.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Not selling my body, probably. Not after what happened to Manfred.”

“Don’t even joke about that,” he said. His hand came down over hers, large and warm.

Aidan McCallum’s high, piercing voice floated through the air, and a sudden thought struck her.

“Your—your, um, flock . . .” The word struck her funny bone, and she giggled, despite the seriousness of the question. “Will they mind that I’m a Catholic?” She turned to him suddenly, another thought coming rapidly in its wake. “You don’t—you aren’t asking me to convert?”

“No, I’m not,” he said quickly, firmly. “Not in a million years. As for what they might think—or say—” His face twitched, caught between dismay and determination. “If they’re not willing to accept it, well . . . they can just go to hell, that’s all.”

She burst out laughing, and he followed her, his laugh cracked, but without restraint.

“The Minister’s Cat is an irreverent cat,” she teased. “And how do you say that in Gaelic?”

“I’ve no idea. But the Minister’s Cat is a relieved cat,” he added, still smiling. “I didn’t know what ye might think about it.”

“I’m not totally sure what I do think about it,” she admitted. She squeezed his hand lightly. “But I see that you’re happy.”

“It shows?” He smiled, and the last of the evening light glowed briefly in his eyes, a deep and lambent green.

“It shows. You’re sort of . . . lighted up inside.” Her throat felt tight. “Roger—you won’t forget about me and Jem, will you? I don’t know that I can compete with God.”

He looked thunderstruck at that.

“No,” he said, his hand tightening on hers, hard enough to make her ring cut into her flesh. “Not ever.”

They sat silent for a little, the fireflies drifting down like slow green rain, their silent mating song lighting the darkening grass and trees. Roger’s face was fading as the light failed, though she still saw the line of his jaw, set in determination.

“I swear to ye, Bree,” he said. “Whatever I’m called to now—and God knows what that is—I was called to be your husband first. Your husband and the father of your bairns above all things—and that I always shall be. Whatever I may do, it will not ever be at the price of my family, I promise you.”

“All I want,” she said softly to the dark, “is for you to love me. Not because of what I can do or what I look like, or because I love you—just because I am.”

“Perfect, unconditional love?” he said just as softly. “Some would tell ye only God can love that way—but I can try.”

“Oh, I have faith in you,” she said, and felt the glow of him reach her own heart.

“I hope ye always will,” he said. He raised her hand to his lips, kissed her knuckles in formal salutation, his breath warm on her skin.

As though to test the resolution of his earlier declaration, Jem’s voice rose and fell on the evening breeze, a small, urgent siren. “DadddeeeDaaaddeeeDAAADDDEEE . . .”

Roger sighed deeply, leaned over, and kissed her, a moment’s soft, deep connection, then rose to deal with the emergency of the moment.

She sat for a bit, listening. The sound of male voices came from the far end of the clearing, high and low, demand and question, reassurance and excitement. No emergency; Jem wanted to be lifted into a tree too high for him to climb alone. Then laughter, mad rustling of leaves—oh, good grief, Roger was in the tree, too. They were all up there, hooting like owls.

“What are ye laughing at, a nighean?” Her father loomed out of the night, smelling of horses.

“Everything,” she said, scooching over to make room for him to sit beside her. It was true. Everything seemed suddenly bright, the candlelight from the windows of the Big House, the fireflies in the grass, the glow of Roger’s face when he told her his desire. She could still feel the touch of his mouth on hers; it fizzed in her blood.

Jamie reached up and fielded a passing firefly, holding it for a moment cupped in the dark hollow of his hand, where it flashed on and off, the cool light seeping through his fingers. Far off, she heard a brief snatch of her mother’s voice, coming through an open window; Claire was singing “Clementine.”

Now the boys—and Roger—were howling at the moon, though it was no more than a pale sickle on the horizon. She felt her father’s body shake with silent laughter, too.

“It reminds me of Disneyland,” she said on impulse.

“Oh, aye? Where’s that?”

“It’s an amusement park—for children,” she added, knowing that while there were such things as amusement parks in places like London and Paris, these were purely adult places. No one ever thought of entertaining children now, beyond their own games and the occasional toy.

“Daddy and Mama took me there every summer,” she said, slipping back without effort to the hot, bright days and warm California nights. “The trees all had little sparkling lights in them—the fireflies reminded me.”

Jamie spread his palm; the firefly, suddenly free, pulsed to itself once or twice, then spread its wings with a tiny whir and lifted into the air, floating up and away.

“Dwelt a miner, forty-niner, and his daugh-ter, Clementine . . .”

“What was it like, then?” he asked curiously.

“Oh . . . it was wonderful.” She smiled to herself, seeing the brilliant lights of Main Street, the music and mirrors and beautiful, beribboned horses of King Arthur’s Carrousel. “There were . . . rides, we called them. A boat, where you could float through the jungle on a river, and see crocodiles and hippopotamuses and headhunters . . .”

“Headhunters?” he said, intrigued.

“Not real ones,” she assured him. “It’s all make-believe—but it’s . . . well, it’s a world to itself. When you’re there, the real world sort of disappears; nothing bad can happen there. They call it ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’—and for a little while, it really seems that way.”

“Light she was, and like a fairy, and her shoes were number nine, Herring boxes without topses, sandals were for Clementine.”

“And you’d hear music everywhere, all the time,” she said, smiling. “Bands—groups of musicians playing instruments, horns and drums and things—would march up and down the streets, and play in pavilions. . . .”

“Aye, that happens in amusement parks. Or it did, the once I was in one.” She could hear a smile in his voice, as well.

“Mm-hm. And there are cartoon characters—I told you about cartoons—walking around. You can go up and shake hands with Mickey Mouse, or—”

“With what?”

“Mickey Mouse.” She laughed. “A big mouse, life-size—human-size, I mean. He wears gloves.”

“A giant rat?” he said, sounding slightly stunned. “And they take the weans to play with it?”

“Not a rat, a mouse,” she corrected him. “And it’s really a person dressed up like a mouse.”

“Oh, aye?” he said, not sounding terribly reassured.

“Yes. And an enormous carrousel with painted horses, and a railroad train that goes through the Rainbow Caverns, where there are big jewels sticking out of the walls, and colored streams with red and blue water . . . and orange-juice bars. Oh, orange-juice bars!” She moaned softly in ecstatic remembrance of the cold, tart, overwhelming sweetness.

“It was nice, then?” he said softly.

“Thou art lost and gone forever, Dreadful sor-ry . . . Clementine.”

“Yes,” she said, sighed, and was silent for a moment. Then she leaned her head against his shoulder, and wrapped her hand around his arm, big and solid.

“You know what?” she said, and he made a small interrogatory noise in reply.

“It was nice—it was great—but what I really, really loved about it was that when we were there, it was just the three of us, and everything was perfect. Mama wasn’t worrying about her patients, Daddy wasn’t working on a paper—they weren’t ever silent or angry with each other. Both of them laughed—we all laughed, all the time . . . while we were there.”

He made no reply, but tilted his head so it rested against hers. She sighed again, deeply.

“Jemmy won’t get to go to Disneyland—but he’ll have that. A family that laughs—and millions of little lights in the trees.”

PART SEVEN

Rolling Downhill

53

PRINCIPLES

From Fraser’s Ridge, North Carolina,

on the Third day of July, Anno Domini 1774,

James Fraser, Esq.

To his Lordship, John Grey, at Mount Josiah

Plantation, in the colony of Virginia

My Dear Friend,

I cannot begin to express our Gratitude for your kind Behavior in sending a Draft drawn upon your own Bank, as advance Payment against the eventual Sale of the Objects I confided to your disposition. Mr. Higgins, in delivering this Document, was of course most tactful—and yet, I gathered from his anxious Demeanor and his efforts at Discretion that you may perhaps believe us to be in dire Straits. I hasten to assure you that this is not the Case; we will do well enough, so far as Matters of Victuals, Clothes, and the Necessities of Life.

I said that I would tell you the Details of the Affair, and I see that I must, if only to disabuse you of the Vision of rampant Starvation among my family and tenants.

Beyond a small legal Obligation requiring Cash, I have a Matter of Business in Hand, involving the acquisition of a Number of Guns. I had been in Hopes of acquiring these through the good offices of a Friend, but find that this Arrangement will no longer answer; I must look further abroad.

I and my Family are invited to a Barbecue in honor of Miss Flora MacDonald, the Her**ne of the Rising—you are familiar with the Lady, I believe? I recall your telling me once of your meeting with her in London, whilst she was imprisoned there—to take place next month at my aunt’s Plantation, River Run. As this Affair will be attended by a great many Scots, some coming from considerable Distances, I am in Hopes that with Cash in Hand, I may make Arrangements to procure the requisite Weapons via other Avenues. In re which, should your own Connexions suggest any such useful Avenues, I should be grateful to hear of them.

I write quickly, as Mr. Higgins has other Errands, but my Daughter bids me send herewith a box of Matchsticks, her own Invention. She has schooled Mr. Higgins most carefully in their Use, so if he does not burst inadvertently into Flame on the way back, he will be able to demonstrate them to you.

Your humble and ob’t. servant,

James Fraser

P.S. I require thirty Muskets, with as much Powder and Ammunition as may be possible. These need not be of the latest Manufacture, but must be well-kept and functional.

“‘OTHER AVENUES?’” I said, watching him sand the letter before folding it. “You mean smugglers? And if so, are you sure that Lord John will understand what you mean?”

“I do, and he will,” Jamie assured me. “I ken a few smugglers myself, who bring things in through the Outer Banks. He’ll know the ones who come through Roanoke, though—and there’s more business there, because of the blockade in Massachusetts. Goods come in through Virginia, and go north overland.”

He took a half-burned beeswax taper from the shelf and held it to the coals in the hearth, then dripped soft brown wax in a puddle over the seam of the letter. I leaned forward and pressed the back of my left hand into the warm wax, leaving the mark of my wedding ring in it.

“Damn Manfred McGillivray,” he said, with no particular heat. “It will be three times the cost, and I must get them from a smuggler.”

“Will you ask about him, though? At the barbecue, I mean?” Flora MacDonald, the woman who had saved Charles Stuart from the English after Culloden, dressing him in her maid’s clothes and smuggling him to a rendezvous with the French on the Isle of Skye, was a living legend to the Scottish Highlanders, and her recent arrival in the colony was the subject of vast excitement, news of it coming even as far as the Ridge. Every well-known Scot in the Cape Fear valley—and a good many from farther away—would be present at the barbecue to be held in her honor. No better place to spread the word for a missing young man.

He glanced up at me, surprised.

“Of course I will, Sassenach. What d’ye think I am?”

“I think you’re very kind,” I said, kissing him on the forehead. “If a trifle reckless. And I notice you carefully didn’t tell Lord John why you need thirty muskets.”

He gave a small snort, and swept the grains of sand carefully off the table into the palm of his hand.

“I dinna ken for sure myself, Sassenach.”

“Whatever do you mean by that?” I asked, surprised. “Do you not mean to give them to Bird, after all?”

He didn’t answer at once, but the two stiff fingers of his right hand tapped gently on the tabletop. Then he shrugged, reached to the stack of journals and ledgers, and pulled out a paper, which he handed to me. A letter from John Ashe, who had been a fellow commander of militia during the War of the Regulation.

“The fourth paragraph,” he said, seeing me frown at a recounting of the latest contretemps between the Governor and the Assembly. I obligingly skimmed down the page, to the indicated spot, and felt a small, premonitory shiver.

“A Continental Congress is proposed,” I read, “with delegates to be sent from each colony. The lower house of the Connecticut Assembly has moved already to propose such men, acting through Committees of Correspondence. Some gentlemen with whom you are well-acquainted propose that North Carolina shall do likewise, and will meet to accomplish the matter in mid-August. I could wish that you would join us, friend, for I am convinced that your heart and mind must lie with us in the matter of liberty; surely such a man as yourself is no friend to tyranny.

“Some gentlemen with whom you are well-acquainted,” I repeated, putting down the letter. “Do you know who he means?”

“I could guess.”

“Mid-August, he says. Before the barbecue, do you think, or after?”

“After. One of the others sent me the date of the meeting. It’s to be in Halifax.”

I put down the letter. The afternoon was still and hot, and the thin linen of my shift was damp, as were the palms of my hands.

“One of the others,” I said. He shot me a quick glance, with a half-smile, and picked up the letter.

“In the Committee of Correspondence.”

“Oh, naturally,” I said. “You might have told me.” Naturally, he would have found a means of inveigling himself into the North Carolina Committee of Correspondence—the center of political intrigue, where the seeds of rebellion were being sown—meanwhile holding a commission as Indian agent for the British Crown and ostensibly working to arm the Indians, in order to suppress precisely those seeds of rebellion.

“I am telling ye, Sassenach,” he said. “This is the first time they’ve asked me to meet wi’ them, even in private.”

“I see,” I said softly. “Will you go? Is it—is it time?” Time to make the leap, declare himself openly as a Whig, if not yet a rebel. Time to change his public allegiance, and risk the brand of treason. Again.

He sighed deeply and rubbed a hand through his hair. He’d been thinking; the short hairs of several tiny cowlicks were standing on end.

“I don’t know,” he said finally. “It’s two years yet, no? The fourth of July, 1776—that’s what Brianna said.”

“No,” I said. “It’s two years until they declare independence—but, Jamie, the fighting will have started already. That will be much too late.”

He stared at the letters on the desk, and nodded bleakly.

“Aye, it will have to be soon, then.”

“It would be likely safe enough,” I said hesitantly. “What you told me about Henderson buying land in Tennessee: if no one’s stopping him, I can’t see anyone in the government being agitated enough to come up here and try to force us out. And surely not if you were only known to have met with the local Whigs?”

He gave me a small, wry smile.

“It’s no the government I’m worrit by, Sassenach. It’s the folk nearby. It wasna the Governor who hanged the O’Brians and burnt their house, ken? Nor was it Richard Brown, nor Indians. That wasna done for the sake of law nor profit; it was done for hate, and verra likely by someone who knew them.”

That made a more pronounced chill skitter down my spine. There was a certain amount of political disagreement and discussion on the Ridge, all right, but it hadn’t reached the stage of fisticuffs yet, let alone burning and killing.

But it would.

I remembered, all too well. Bomb shelters and ration coupons, blackout wardens and the spirit of cooperation against a dreadful foe. And the stories from Germany, France. People reported on, denounced to the SS, dragged from their houses—others hidden in attics and barns, smuggled across borders.

In war, government and their armies were a threat, but it was so often the neighbors who damned or saved you.

“Who?” I said baldly.

“I could guess,” he said, with a shrug. “The McGillivrays? Richard Brown? Hodgepile’s friends—if he had any. The friends of any of the other men we killed? The Indian ye met—Donner?—if he’s still alive. Neil Forbes? He’s a grudge against Brianna, and she and Roger Mac would do well to remember it. Hiram Crombie and his lot?”

“Hiram?” I said dubiously. “Granted, he doesn’t like you very much—and as for me—but . . .”

“Well, I do doubt it,” he admitted. “But it’s possible, aye? His people didna support the Jacobites at all; they’ll no be pleased at an effort to overthrow the King from this side of the water, either.”

I nodded. Crombie and the rest would of necessity have taken an oath of loyalty to King George, before being allowed to travel to America. Jamie had—of necessity—taken the same oath, as part of his pardon. And must—of an even greater necessity—break it. But when?

He’d stopped drumming his fingers; they rested on the letter before him.

“I do trust ye’re right, Sassenach,” he said.

“About what? What will happen? You know I am,” I said, a little surprised. “Bree and Roger told you, too. Why?”

He rubbed a hand slowly through his hair.

“I’ve never fought for the sake of principle,” he said, reflecting, and shook his head. “Only necessity. I wonder, would it be any better?”

He didn’t sound upset, merely curious, in a detached sort of way. Still, I found this vaguely disturbing.

“But there is principle to it, this time,” I protested. “In fact, it may be the first war ever fought over principle.”

“Rather than something sordid like trade, or land?” Jamie suggested, raising one eyebrow.

“I don’t say trade and land haven’t anything to do with it,” I replied, wondering precisely how I’d managed to become a defender of the American Revolution—an historical period I knew only from Brianna’s school textbooks. “But it goes well beyond that, don’t you think? We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

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