A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 51

   

She made a brief, explanatory gesture toward the large canvas she was working on, which showed Farquard Campbell, looking rather like a stuffed ferret in his best suit, surrounded by numerous children and grandchildren, most of these mere whitish blobs at the moment. Her strategy was to have their mothers drag the small ones in one at a time, to have each child’s limbs and features hastily sketched into the appropriate blob before natural wriggliness or tantrums obtruded.

Ian glanced at the canvas, but his attention returned to the miniatures of her parents. He stood looking at them, a slight smile on his long, half-homely face. Then, feeling her eyes on him, he glanced up, alarmed.

“Oh, no, ye don’t!”

“Oh, come on, Ian, let me just sketch you,” she coaxed. “It won’t hurt, you know.”

“Och, that’s what you think,” he countered, backing away as though the pencil she had taken up might be a weapon. “The Kahnyen’kehaka think to have a likeness of someone gives ye power over them. That’s why the medicine society wear false faces—so the demons causing the illness willna have their true likeness and willna ken who to hurt, aye?”

This was said in such a serious tone that she squinted at him, to see whether he was joking. He didn’t seem to be.

“Mmm. Ian—Mama explained to you about germs, didn’t she?”

“Aye, she did, o’ course,” he said, in a tone exhibiting no conviction at all. “She showed me things swimmin’ about, and said they were livin’ in my teeth!” His face showed momentary repugnance at the notion, but he left the matter to return to the subject at hand.

“There was a traveling Frenchman came to the village once, a natural philosopher—he’d drawings he’d made of birds and animals, and that astonished them—but then he made the mistake of offering to make a likeness of the war chief’s wife. I barely got him out in one piece.”

“But you aren’t a Mohawk,” she said patiently, “and if you were—you’re not afraid of me having power over you, are you?”

He turned his head and gave her a sudden queer look that went through her like a knife through butter.

“No,” he said. “No, of course not.” But his voice had little more conviction than when discussing germs.

Still, he moved to the stool she kept for sitters, set in good light from the open doors that led to the terrace, and sat down, chin lifted and jaw set like one about to be heroically executed.

Suppressing a smile, she took up the sketching block and drew as quickly as she could, lest he change his mind. He was a difficult subject; his features lacked the solid, clear-cut bone structure that both her parents and Roger had. And yet it was in no way a soft face, even discounting the stippled tattoos that curved from the bridge of his nose across his cheeks.

Young and fresh, and yet the firmness of his mouth—it was slightly crooked, she saw with interest; how had she never noticed that before?—belonged to someone much older, bracketed by lines that would cut much deeper with age, but were already firmly entrenched.

The eyes . . . she despaired of getting those right. Large and hazel, they were his one claim to beauty, and yet, beautiful was the last thing you would call them. Like most eyes, they weren’t one color at all, but many—the colors of autumn, dark wet earth and crackling oak leaves, and the touch of setting sun on dry grass.

The color was a challenge, but one she could meet. The expression, though—it changed in an instant from something so guilelessly amiable as to seem almost half-witted to something you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

The expression at present was somewhere between these two extremes, but shifted suddenly toward the latter as his attention focused on the open doors behind her, and the terrace beyond.

She glanced over her shoulder, startled. Someone was there; she saw the edge of his—or her—shadow, but the person who threw it was keeping out of sight. Whoever it was began to whistle, a tentative, breathy sound.

For an instant, everything was normal. Then the world shifted. The intruder was whistling “Yellow Submarine.”

All the blood rushed from her head, and she swayed, grabbing the edge of an occasional table to keep from falling. Dimly, she sensed Ian rising like a cat from his stool, seizing one of her palette knives, and sliding noiselessly out of the room into the hallway.

Her hands had gone cold and numb; so had her lips. She tried to whistle a phrase in reply, but nothing but a little air emerged. Straightening up, she took hold of herself, and sang the last few words instead. She could barely manage the tune, but there was no doubt of the words.

Dead silence from the terrace; the whistling had stopped.

“Who are you?” she said clearly. “Come in.”

The shadow lengthened slowly, showing a head like a lion’s, light shining through the curls, glowing on the terrace stones. The head itself poked cautiously into sight around the corner of the door. It was an Indian, she saw, with astonishment, though his dress was mostly European—and ragged—bar a wampum necklet. He was lean and dirty, with close-set eyes, which were fixed on her with eagerness and something like avidity.

“You alone, man?” he asked, in a hoarse whisper. “Thought I heard voices.”

“You can see I am. Who on earth are you?”

“Ah . . . Wendigo. Wendigo Donner. Your name’s Fraser, right?” He had edged all the way into the room now, though still glancing warily from side to side.

“My maiden name, yes. Are you—” She stopped, not sure how to ask.

“Yeah,” he said softly, looking her up and down in a casual way that no man of the eighteenth century would have employed to a lady. “So are you, aren’t you? You’re her daughter, you have to be.” He spoke with a certain intensity, moving closer.

She didn’t think he meant her harm; he was just very interested. Ian didn’t wait to see, though; there was a brief darkening of the light from the door, and then he had Donner from behind, the Indian’s squawk of alarm choked off by the arm across his throat, the point of the palette knife jabbing him under the ear.

“Who are ye, arsebite, and what d’ye want?” Ian demanded, tightening the arm across Donner’s throat. The Indian’s eyes bulged, and he made small mewling noises.

“How do you expect him to answer you, if you’re choking him?” This appeal to reason caused Ian to relax his grip, albeit reluctantly. Donner coughed, rubbing his throat ostentatiously, and shot Ian a resentful look.

“No need for that, man, I wasn’t doin’ nothin’ to her.” Donner’s eyes went from her to Ian and back. He jerked his head toward Ian. “Is he . . . ?”

“No, but he knows. Sit down. You met my mother when she—when she was kidnapped, didn’t you?”

Ian’s feathery brows shot up at this, and he took a firmer grip on the palette knife, which was flexible but had a definite point.

“Yeah.” Donner lowered himself gingerly onto the stool, keeping a wary eye on Ian. “Man, they nearly got me. Your mother, she told me her old man was gnarly and I didn’t want to be there when he showed up, but I didn’t believe her. Almost, I didn’t. But when I heard those drums, man, I bugged out, and a damn good thing I did, too.” He swallowed, looking pale. “I went back, in the morning. Jeez, man.”

Ian said something under his breath, in what Brianna thought was Mohawk. It sounded unfriendly in the extreme, and Donner evidently discerned enough of the meaning to make him scoot his stool a little farther away, hunching his shoulders.

“Hey, man, I didn’t do nothin’ to her, okay?” He looked pleadingly at Brianna. “I didn’t! I was gonna help her get away—ask her, she’ll tell you! Only Fraser and his guys showed up before I could. Christ, why would I hurt her? She’s the first one I found back here—I needed her!”

“The first one?” Ian said, frowning. “The first—”

“The first . . . traveler, he means,” Brianna said. Her heart was beating fast. “What did you need her for?”

“To tell me how to get—back.” He swallowed again, his hand going to the wampum ornament around his neck. “You—did you come through, or were you born here? I’m figuring you came through,” he added, not waiting for an answer. “They don’t grow ’em as big as you now. Little bitty girls. Me, I like a big woman.” He smiled, in what he plainly intended to be an ingratiating manner.

“I came,” Brianna said shortly. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Trying to get close enough to talk to your mother.” He glanced uneasily over his shoulder; there were slaves in the kitchen garden, their voices audible. “I hid out with the Cherokee for a while, then I figured to come down and talk to her at Fraser’s Ridge when it was safe, but the old lady there told me you were all down here. Heck of a long way to walk,” he added, looking vaguely resentful.

“But then that big black dude ran me off twice, when I tried to get in before. Guess I didn’t meet the dress code.” His face flickered, not quite managing a smile.

“I been sneaking around for the last three days, trying to catch a glimpse of her, find her alone outside. But I saw her talking to you, out on the terrace, and heard you call her Mama. Seeing how big you are, I figured you must be . . . well, I figured if you didn’t pick up on the song, no harm done, huh?”

“So ye want to go back where ye came from, do ye?” Ian asked. Plainly he thought this was an excellent idea.

“Oh, yeah,” Donner said fervently. “Oh, yeah!”

“Where did you come through?” Brianna asked. The shock of his appearance was fading, subsumed by curiosity. “In Scotland?”

“No, is that where you did it?” he asked eagerly. Scarcely waiting for her nod, he went on. “Your mother said she came and then went back and came again. Can you-all go back and forth, like, you know, a revolving door?”

Brianna shook her head violently, shuddering in recollection.

“God, no. It’s horrible, and it’s so dangerous, even with a gemstone.”

“Gemstone?” He pounced on that. “You gotta have a gemstone to do it?”

“Not absolutely, but it seems to be some protection. And it may be that there’s some way to use gemstones to—to steer, sort of, but we don’t really know about that.” She hesitated, wanting to ask more questions, but wanting still more to fetch Claire. “Ian—could you go get Mama? I think she’s in the kitchen garden with Phaedre.”

Her cousin gave the visitor a flat, narrow look, and shook his head.

“I’ll not leave ye alone wi’ this fellow. You go; I’ll watch him.”

She would have argued, but long experience with Scottish males had taught her to recognize intractable stubbornness when she saw it. Besides, Donner’s eyes were fixed on her in a way that made her slightly uncomfortable—he was looking at her hand, she realized, at the cabochon ruby in her ring. She was reasonably sure she could fight him off, if necessary, but still . . .

“I’ll be right back,” she said, hastily stabbing a neglected brush into the pot of turps. “Don’t go anywhere!”

I WAS SHOCKED, but less so than I might have been. I had felt that Donner was alive. Hoped he was, in spite of everything. Still, seeing him face to face, sitting in Jocasta’s morning room, struck me dumb. He was talking when I came in, but stopped when he saw me. He didn’t stand up, naturally, nor yet offer any observations on my survival; just nodded at me, and resumed what he’d been saying.

“To stop whitey. Save our lands, save our people.”

“But you came to the wrong time,” Brianna pointed out. “You were too late.”

Donner gave her a blank look.

“No, I didn’t—1766, that’s when I was supposed to come, and that’s when I came.” He pounded the heel of his hand violently against the side of his head. “Crap! What was wrong with me?”

“Congenital stupidity?” I suggested politely, having regained my voice. “That, or hallucinogenic drugs.”

The blank look flickered a little, and Donner’s mouth twitched.

“Oh. Yeah, man. There was some of that.”

“But if you came to 1766—and meant to”—Bree objected—“what about Robert Springer—Otter-Tooth? According to the story Mama heard about him, he meant to warn the native tribes against white men and prevent them colonizing the place. Only he arrived too late to do that—and even so, he must have arrived forty or fifty years before you did!”

“That wasn’t the plan, man!” Donner burst out. He stood up, rubbing both hands violently through his hair in agitation, making it stand out like a bramble bush. “Jeez, no!”

“Oh, it wasn’t? What the bloody hell was the plan, then?” I demanded. “You did have one.”

“Yeah. Yeah, we did.” He dropped his hands, glancing round as though fearing to be overheard. He licked his lips.

“Bob did want to do what you said—only the rest said, nah, that wouldn’t work. Too many different groups, too much pressure to trade with the whiteys . . . just no way it would fly, you know? We couldn’t stop it all, just maybe make it better.”

The official plan of the group had been somewhat less ambitious in scope. The travelers would arrive in the 1760s, and over the course of the next ten years, in the confusion and reshuffling, the movement of tribes and villages attendant upon the end of the French and Indian War, would infiltrate themselves into various Indian groups along the Treaty Line in the Colonies and up into the Canadian territories.

They would then use such persuasive powers as they had gained to sway the Indian nations to fight on the British side in the oncoming Revolution, with the intent of insuring a British victory.

“See, the English, they act like the Indians are sovereign nations,” he explained, with a glibness suggesting this was a theory learned by rote. “They won, they’d go on doing trade and like that, which is okay, but they wouldn’t be trying to push the Indians back and stomp ’em out. The colonists”—he waved scornfully toward the open door—“greedy sons o’ bitches been shoving their way into Indian lands for the last hundred years; they ain’t going to stop.”

Bree raised her brows, but I could see that she found the notion intriguing. Evidently, it wasn’t quite as insane as it sounded.

“How could you think you’d succeed?” I demanded. “Only a few men to—oh, my God,” I said, seeing his face change. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ—you weren’t the only ones, were you?”

Donner shook his head, wordless.

“How many?” Ian asked. He sounded calm, but I could see that his hands were clenched on his knees.

“I dunno.” Donner sat down abruptly, slumping into himself like a bag of grain. “There were like, two or three hundred in the group. But most of ’em couldn’t hear the stones.” His head lifted a little, and he glanced at Brianna. “Can you?”

She nodded, ruddy brows drawn together.

“But you think there were more . . . travelers . . . than you and your friends?”

Donner shrugged, helpless.

“I got the idea there were, yeah. But Raymond said only five at a time could pass through. So we trained in, like, cells of five. We kept it secret; nobody in the big group knew who could travel and who couldn’t, and Raymond was the only one who knew all of ’em.”

I had to ask.

“What did Raymond look like?” A possibility had been stirring in the back of my mind, ever since I’d heard that name.

Donner blinked, having not expected that question.

“Jeez, I dunno,” he said helplessly “Short dude, I think. White hair. Wore it long, like we all did.” He raked a hand through his knotted locks in illustration, brows furrowed in the search for memory.

“A rather . . . wide . . . forehead?” I knew I oughtn’t to prompt him, but couldn’t help myself, and drew both index fingers across my own brow in illustration.

He stared at me in confusion for a moment.

“Man, I don’t remember,” he said, shaking his head helplessly. “It was a long time ago. How would I remember something like that?”

I sighed.

“Well, tell me what happened, when you came through the stones.”

Donner licked his lips, blinking in the effort of recall. It wasn’t just native stupidity, I saw; he didn’t like thinking about it.

“Yeah. Well, there were five of us, like I said. Me, and Rob, and Jeremy and Atta. Oh, and Jojo. We came through on the island, and—”

“What island?” Brianna, Ian, and I all chorused together.

“Ocracoke,” he said, looking surprised. “It’s the northmost portal in the Bermuda Triangle group. We wanted to be as close as we could get to—”

“The Ber—” Brianna and I began, but broke off, looking at each other.

“You know where a number of these portals are?” I said, striving for calm.

“How many are there?” Brianna chimed in, not waiting for his answer.

The answer, in any event, was confused—no surprise there. Raymond had told them that there were many such places in the world, but that they tended to occur in groups. There was such a group in the Caribbean, another in the Northeast, near the Canadian border. Another in the Southwestern desert—Arizona, he thought, and down through Mexico. Northern Britain and the coast of France, as far as the tip of the Iberian peninsula. Probably more, but that’s all he’d mentioned.

Not all of the portals were marked with stone circles, though those in places where people had lived for a long time tended to be.

“Raymond said those were safer,” he said, shrugging. “I dunno why.”

The spot on Ocracoke hadn’t been bounded by a full circle of stones, though it was marked. Four stones, he said. One of them had marks on it Raymond said were African—maybe made by slaves.

“It’s kind of in the water,” he said, shrugging. “A little stream runs through it, I mean. Ray said he didn’t know about water, whether that made any difference, but he thought it might. But we didn’t know what kind of difference. You guys know?”

Brianna and I shook our heads, round-eyed as a pair of owls. Ian’s brow, already furrowed, drew further down at this, though. Had he heard something, during his time with Geillis Duncan?

The five of them—and Raymond—had driven as far as they could; the road that led down the Outer Banks was a poor one, which tended to wash away in storms, and they were obliged to leave the car several miles away from the spot, struggling through the scrub pines of the coastal forest and patches of unexpected quicksand. It was late fall—

“Samhain,” Brianna said softly, but softly enough that Donner was not distracted from the flow of his story.

Late fall, he said, and the weather was bad. It had been raining for days, and the footing was uncertain, slippery and boggy by turns. The wind was high, and the storm surge pounded the beaches; they could hear it, even in the secluded spot where the portal lay.

“We were all scared—maybe all but Rob—but it was way exciting, man,” he said, beginning to show a glimmer of enthusiasm. “The trees were just about layin’ down flat, and the sky, it was green. The wind was so bad, you could taste salt, all the time, because little bits of ocean were flying through the air, mixed with the rain. We were, like, soaked through to our choners.”

“Your what?” Ian said, frowning.

“Underpants—you know, drawers. Smallclothes,” Brianna said, flapping an impatient hand. “Go on.”

Once arrived at the place, Raymond had checked them all, to see that they carried the few necessities they might need—tinderboxes, tobacco, a little money of the time—and then given each one a wampum necklet, and a small leather pouch, which he said was an amulet of ceremonial herbs.

“Oh, you know about that,” he said, seeing the expression on my face. “What kind did you use?”

“I didn’t,” I said, not wanting him to wander from his story. “Go on. How did you plan to hit the right time?”

“Oh. Well.” He sighed, hunching on his stool. “We didn’t. Ray said it would be just about two hundred years, give or take a couple. It wasn’t like we could steer—that’s what I was hoping you guys would know. How to get to a specific time. ’Cuz, boy, I’d sure like to go back and get there before I got messed up with Ray and them.”

They had, at Raymond’s direction, walked a pattern among the stones, chanting words. Donner had no idea what the words meant, nor even what the language was. At the conclusion of the pattern, though, they had walked single file toward the stone with African markings, passing carefully to the left of it.

“And, like—pow!” He smacked a fist into the palm of his other hand. “First guy in line—he’s gone, man! We were just freaked out. I mean, that’s what was s’posed to happen, but . . . gone,” he repeated, shaking his head. “Just . . . gone.”

Agog at this evidence of effectiveness, they had repeated the pattern and the chant, and at each repetition, the first man to pass the stone had vanished. Donner had been the fourth.

“Oh, God,” he said, going pale at the memory. “Oh, God, I never felt anything like that before and I hope I never do again.”

“The amulet—the pouch you had,” Brianna said, ignoring his pallor. Her own face was intense, blazing with interest. “What happened to that?”

“I dunno. I maybe dropped it, maybe it went someplace else. I passed out, and when I came to, it wasn’t with me.” The day was warm and close, but he began to shiver. “Jojo. He was with me. Only he was dead.”

That statement struck me like a knife blow, just under the ribs. Geillis Duncan’s notebooks had held lists of people found near stone circles—some alive, some dead. I hadn’t needed anything to tell me that the journey through the stones was a perilous passage—but this reminder made me feel weak in the knees, and I sat down on Jocasta’s tufted ottoman.

“The others,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “Did they . . .”

He shook his head. He was still clammy and shivering, but sweat glazed his face; he looked very unwell.

“Never saw ’em again,” he said.

He didn’t know what had killed Jojo; didn’t pause to look, though he had a vague notion that there might have been burn marks on his shirt. Finding his friend dead, and none of the others nearby, he had stumbled off in a panic through scrub forest and salt marsh, collapsing after several hours of wandering, lying in the sand dunes among stiff grass all night. He had starved for three days, found and eaten a nest of turtle eggs, eventually made his way to the mainland on a stolen canoe, and thereafter had drifted haplessly, working here and there at menial jobs, seeking refuge in drink when he could afford it, falling into company with Hodgepile and his gang a year or so past.

The wampum necklets, he said, were to allow the conspirators to identify each other should they meet at some point—but he had never seen anybody else wearing one.

Brianna wasn’t paying attention to this rambling part of the story, though; she had jumped ahead.

“Do you think Otter-Tooth—Springer—screwed up your group by deliberately trying to go to a different time?”

He looked at her, mouth hanging open a little.

“I never thoughta that. He went first. He went first,” he repeated, in a wondering sort of way.

Brianna began to ask another question, but was interrupted by the sound of voices in the hall, coming toward the morning room. Donner was on his feet in an instant, eyes wide with alarm.

“Crap,” he said. “It’s him. You gotta help me!”

Before I could inquire exactly why he thought so, or who “him” was, the austere form of Ulysses appeared in the doorway.

“You,” he said to the cowering Donner, in awful tones. “Did I not tell you to begone, sirrah? How dare you to enter Mrs. Innes’s house and pester her relations?”

He stepped aside, then, with a nod to whomever stood beside him, and a small, round, cross-looking gentleman in a rumpled suit peered in.

“That’s him,” he said, pointing an accusatory finger. “That’s the blackguard what stole my purse at Jacobs’s ordinary this morning! Took it right out my pocket whilst I was eatin’ ham for breakfast!”

“It wasn’t me!” Donner made a poor attempt at a show of outrage, but guilt was written all over his face, and when Ulysses seized him by the scruff of the neck and unceremoniously rummaged his clothing, the purse was discovered, to the outspoken gratification of the owner.

“Thief!” he cried, shaking his fist. “I been a-following of you all the morning. Damn’ tick-bellied, louse-ridden, dog-eatin’ savage—oh, I do beg pardon, ladies,” he added, bowing to me and Brianna as an afterthought before resuming his denunciation of Donner.

Brianna glanced at me, eyebrows raised, but I shrugged. There was no way of preserving Donner from the righteous wrath of his victim, even had I really wanted to. At the gentleman’s behest, Ulysses summoned a pair of grooms and a set of manacles—the sight of which made Brianna grow somewhat pale—and Donner was marched off, protesting that he hadn’t done it, he’d been framed, wasn’t him, he was a friend of the ladies, really, man, ask ’em! . . . to be conveyed to the gaol in Cross Creek.

There was a deep silence in the wake of his removal. At last, Ian shook his head as though trying to rid himself of flies, and putting down the palette knife at last, picked up the sketching block, where Brianna had made Donner try to draw the pattern he said the men had walked. A hopeless scrawl of circles and squiggles, it looked like one of Jemmy’s drawings.

“What kind of name is Weddigo?” Ian asked, putting it down.

Brianna had been clutching her pencil so tightly that her knuckles were white. She unfolded her hand and put it down, and I saw that her hands were shaking slightly.

“Wendigo,” she said. “It’s an Ojibway cannibal spirit that lives in the wood. It howls in storms and eats people.”

Ian gave her a long look.

“Nice fellow,” he said.

“Wasn’t he, just.” I felt more than a little shaken myself. Apart from the shock of Donner’s appearance and revelations, and then his arrest, small jolts of memory—vivid images of my first meeting with him—kept shooting uncontrollably through my mind, despite my efforts to shut them out. I could taste blood in my mouth, and the stink of unwashed men drowned the scent of flowers from the terrace.

“I suppose it’s what one would call a nom de guerre,” I said, with an attempt at nonchalance. “He can’t have been christened that, surely.”

“Are you all right, Mama?” Bree was frowning at me. “Shall I get something? A glass of water?”

“Whisky,” Ian and I said in unison, and I laughed, despite the shakiness. By the time it arrived, I was in command of myself again.

“What do you think will happen to him, Ulysses?” I asked, as he held the tray for me. The butler’s stolidly handsome face showed nothing beyond a mild distaste for the recent visitor; I saw him frown at the scumbled bits of dirt that Donner’s shoes had left on the parquet floor.

“I suppose they will hang him,” he said. “Mr. Townsend—that was the gentleman’s name—had ten pound in the purse he stole.” More than enough to merit hanging. The eighteenth century took a dim view of thievery; as little as a pound could incur a capital sentence.

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