A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 53

   

“I’ll have an ounce,” I said, though in fact I had plenty growing in my own garden. “Where are your parents?”

The mouth went down again, and the lower lip quivered.

“Mama’s in the back, packing. And Papa’s gone to sell Jack to Mr. Raintree.”

Jack was the apothecary’s wagon horse, and Miranda’s particular pet. I bit the inside of my lip.

“Mr. Raintree’s a very kind man,” I said, striving for what comfort there might be. “And he has a nice pasture for his horses, and a warm stable; I think Jack might be happy there. He’ll have friends.”

She nodded, mouth pinched tight, but two fat tears escaped to roll down her cheeks.

With a quick glance behind me, to assure that no one was coming in, I stepped round the counter, sat down on an upturned keg, and drew her onto my lap, where she melted at once, clinging to me and crying, though making an obvious effort not to be heard in the living quarters behind the shop.

I patted her and made small soothing noises, feeling an unease beyond mere sympathy for the girl. Clearly the Bogueses were selling up. Why?

So infrequently as I came down the mountain, I had no idea what Ralston Bogues’s politics might be these days. Not being Scottish, he hadn’t come to the barbecue in Flora MacDonald’s honor. The shop had always been prosperous, though, and the family decently off, judging by the children’s clothes—Miranda and her two little brothers always had shoes. The Bogueses had lived here all of Miranda’s life, at least, and likely longer. For them to be leaving in this manner meant that something serious had happened—or was about to.

“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked Miranda, who was now sitting on my knee, sniffing and wiping her face on my apron. “Perhaps Mr. Raintree can write to you, to tell you how Jack is faring.”

She looked a little more hopeful at that.

“Can he send a letter to England, do you think? It’s a terrible long way.”

England? It was serious.

“Oh, I should think so,” I said, tucking wisps of hair back under her cap. “Mr. Fraser writes a letter every night, to his sister in Scotland—and that’s much further away even than England!”

“Oh. Well.” Looking happier, she scrambled off my lap and smoothed down her dress. “Can I write to Jack, do you think?”

“I’m sure Mr. Raintree will read the letter to him if you do,” I assured her. “Can you write well, then?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am,” she said earnestly. “Papa says I read and write better than he ever did when he was my age. And in Latin. He taught me to read all the names of the simples, so I could fetch him what he wanted—see that one?” She pointed with some pride to a large china apothecary’s jar, elegantly decorated with blue and gold scrolls. “Electuary Limonensis. And that one is Ipecacuanha!”

I admired her prowess, thinking that at least I now knew her father’s politics. The Bogueses must be Loyalists, if they were returning to England. I would be sorry to see them go, but knowing what I knew of the immediate future, I was glad that they would be safe. At least Ralston would likely have got a decent price for his shop; a short time hence, Loyalists would have their property confiscated, and be lucky to escape arrest—or worse.

“Randy? Have you seen Georgie’s shoe? I’ve found one under the chest, but—oh, Mrs. Fraser! Your pardon, ma’am, I didn’t know anyone was here.” Melanie Bogues’s sharp glance took in my position behind the counter, her daughter’s pink-rimmed eyes, and the damp spots on my apron, but she said nothing, merely patting Miranda’s shoulder as she passed.

“Miranda tells me you’re leaving for England,” I said, rising and moving unobtrusively out from behind the counter. “We’ll be sorry to see you go.”

“That’s kind of you, Mrs. Fraser.” She smiled unhappily. “We’re sorry to go, as well. And I’m not looking forward to the voyage, I can tell you!” She spoke with the heartfelt emotion of someone who had made such a voyage before and would strongly prefer to be boiled alive before doing it again.

I sympathized very much, having done it myself. Doing it with three children, two of them boys under five . . . the imagination boggled.

I wanted to ask her what had caused them to make such a drastic decision, but couldn’t think how to broach the matter in front of Miranda. Something had happened; that was clear. Melanie was jumpy as a rabbit, and somewhat more harried than even packing up a household containing three children might account for. She kept darting glances over her shoulder, as though fearing something sneaking up on her.

“Is Mr. Bogues—” I began, but was interrupted by a shadow falling across the stoop. Melanie started, hand to her chest, and I whirled round to see who had come.

The doorway was filled by a short, stocky woman, dressed in a very odd combination of garments. For an instant, I thought she was an Indian, for she wore no cap, and her dark hair was braided—but then she came into the shop, and I saw that she was white. Or rather, pink; her heavy face was flushed with sunburn and the tip of her pug nose was bright red.

“Which one of you is Claire Fraser?” she demanded, looking from me to Melanie Bogues.

“I am,” I said, repressing an instinctive urge to take a step backward. Her manner wasn’t threatening, but she radiated such an air of physical power that I found her rather intimidating. “Who are you?” I spoke from astonishment, rather than rudeness, and she did not seem offended.

“Jezebel Hatfield Morton,” she said, squinting intently at me. “Some geezer at the docks tellt me that you was headin’ here.” In marked contrast to Melanie Bogue’s soft English accent, she had the rough speech I associated with people who had been in the backcountry for three or four generations, speaking to no one in the meantime save raccoons, possums, and one another.

“Er . . . yes,” I said, seeing no point in denying it. “Did you need help of some kind?”

She didn’t look it; had she been any healthier, she would have burst the seams of the man’s shirt she was wearing. Melanie and Miranda were staring at her, wide-eyed. Whatever danger Melanie had been afraid of, it wasn’t Miss Morton.

“Not to say help,” she said, moving further into the shop. She tilted her head to one side, examining me with what looked like fascination. “I was thinkin’ you might know where’bouts that skunk Isaiah Morton be, though.”

My mouth dropped open, and I shut it quickly. Not Miss Morton, then—Mrs. Morton. The first Mrs. Isaiah Morton, that is. Isaiah Morton had fought with Jamie’s militia company in the War of the Regulation, and he had mentioned his first wife—breaking out in a cold sweat as he did so.

“I . . . ah . . . believe he’s working somewhere upcountry,” I said. “Guilford? Or was it Paleyville?”

Actually, it was Hillsboro, but that scarcely mattered, since at the moment, he wasn’t in Hillsboro. He was, in fact, in Cross Creek, come to take delivery of a shipment of barrels for his employer, a brewster. I’d seen him at the cooper’s shop barely an hour earlier, in company with the second Mrs. Morton and their infant daughter. Jezebel Hatfield Morton did not look like the sort of person to be civilized about such things.

She made a low noise in her throat, indicative of disgust.

“He’s a dang slippery little weasel. But I’ll kotch up to him yet, don’t you trouble none about that.” She spoke with a casual assurance that boded ill for Isaiah.

I thought silence was the wiser course, but couldn’t stop myself asking, “Why do you want him?” Isaiah possessed a certain uncouth amiability, but viewed objectively, he scarcely seemed the sort to inflame one woman, let alone two.

“Want him?” She looked amused at the thought, and rubbed a solid fist under her reddened nose. “I don’t want him. But ain’t no man runs out on me for some whey-faced trollop. Once I kotch up to him, I mean to stave his head in and nail his fly-bit hide to my door.”

Spoken by another person, this statement might have passed for rhetoric. As spoken by the lady in question, it was an unequivocal declaration of intent. Miranda’s eyes were round as a frog’s, and her mother’s nearly so.

Jezebel H. Morton squinted at me, and scratched thoughtfully beneath one massive breast, leaving the fabric of her shirt pasted damply to her flesh.

“I heerd tell as how you saved the little toad-sucker’s life at Alamance. That true?”

“Er . . . yes.” I eyed her warily, watching for any offensive movement. She was blocking the door; if she made for me, I would dive across the counter and dash through the door into the Bogueses’ living quarters.

She was wearing a large pig-sticker of a knife, unsheathed. This was thrust through a knotted wampum belt that was doing double duty, holding up a kilted mass of what I thought might originally have been red flannel petticoats, hacked off at the knee. Her very solid legs were bare, as were her feet. She had a pistol and powder horn slung from the belt, as well, but made no move to reach for any of her weapons, thank God.

“Too bad,” she said dispassionately. “But then, if he’d died, I’d not have the fun of killin’ him, so I s’pose it’s as well. Don’t worry me none; if’n I don’t find him, one of my brothers will.”

Business apparently disposed of for the moment, she relaxed a bit, and looked around, noticing for the first time the empty shelves.

“What-all’s goin’ on here?” she demanded, looking interested.

“We’re selling up,” Melanie murmured, attempting to shove Miranda safely behind her. “Going to England.”

“That so?” Jezebel looked mildly interested. “What happened? They kill your man? Or tar and feather him?”

Melanie went white.

“No,” she whispered. Her throat moved as she swallowed, and her frightened gaze went toward the door. So that was the threat. I felt suddenly cold, in spite of the sweltering heat.

“Oh? Well, if you care whether they do, maybe you best move on down to Center Street,” she suggested helpfully. “They’re fixin’ to make roast chicken out of somebody, sure as God made little green apples. You can smell hot tar all over town, and they’s a boiling of folks comin’ forth from the taverns.”

Melanie and Miranda uttered twin shrieks, and ran for the door, shoving past the unflappable Jezebel. I was moving rapidly in the same direction, and narrowly avoided a collision, as Ralston Bogues stepped through the door, just in time to catch his hysterical wife.

“Randy, you go mind your brothers,” he said calmly. “Be still, Mellie, it’s all right.”

“Tar,” she panted, clutching him. “She said—she said—”

“Not me,” he said, and I saw that his hair dripped and his face shone pale through its sweat. “They’re not after me. Not yet. It’s the printer.”

Gently, he disengaged his wife’s hands from his arm, and stepped round the counter, casting a brief glance of curiosity at Jezebel.

“Take the children, go to Ferguson’s,” he said, and pulled a fowling piece from its hiding place beneath the counter. “I’ll come so soon as I may.” He reached into a drawer for the powder horn and cartridge box.

“Ralston!” Melanie spoke in a whisper, glancing after Miranda’s retreating back, but the entreaty was no less urgent for its lack of volume. “Where are you going?”

One side of his mouth twitched, but he didn’t reply.

“Go to Ferguson’s,” he repeated, eyes fixed on the cartridge in his hand.

“No! No, don’t go! Come with us, come with me!” She seized his arm, frantic.

He shook her off, and went doggedly about the business of loading the gun.

“Go, Mellie.”

“I will not!” Urgent, she turned to me. “Mrs. Fraser, tell him! Please, tell him it’s a waste—a terrible waste! He mustn’t go.”

I opened my mouth, unsure what to say to either of them, but had no chance to decide.

“I don’t imagine Mistress Fraser will think it a waste, Mellie,” Ralston Bogues said, eyes still on his hands. He slung the strap of the cartridge box over his shoulder and cocked the gun. “Her husband is holding them off right now—by himself.”

He looked up at me then, nodded once, and was gone.

JEZEBEL WAS RIGHT: you could smell tar all over town. This was by no means unusual in the summertime, especially near the warehouse docks, but the hot thick reek now took on an atmosphere of threat, burning in my nostrils. Tar—and fear—aside, I was gasping from the effort to keep up with Ralston Bogues, who was not precisely running, but was moving as fast as it was possible to go without breaking into a lope.

Jezebel had been right about the people boiling out of taverns, too; the corner of Center Street was choked with an excited crowd. Mostly men, I saw, though there were a few women of the coarser type among them, fishwives and bond servants.

The apothecary hesitated when he saw them. A few faces turned toward him; one or two plucked at their neighbors’ sleeves, pointing—and with not very friendly expressions on their faces.

“Get away, Bogues!” one man yelled. “It’s not your business—not yet!”

Another stooped, picked up a stone, and hurled it. It clacked harmlessly on the wooden walk, a few feet short of Bogues, but it drew more attention. Bits of the crowd were beginning to turn, surging slowly in our direction.

“Papa!” said a small, breathless voice behind me. I turned to see Miranda, cap lost and pigtails unraveling down her back, her face the color of beetroot from running.

There wasn’t time to think about it. I picked her up and swung her off her feet, toward her father. Taken off guard, he dropped the gun and caught her under the arms.

A man lunged forward, reaching for the gun, but I swooped down and got it first. I backed away from him, clutching it to my chest, daring him with my eyes.

I didn’t know him, but he knew me; his eyes flicked over me, hesitating, then he glanced back over his shoulder. I could hear Jamie’s voice, and a lot of others, all trying to shout each other down. The breath was still whistling in my chest; I couldn’t make out any words. The tone of it was argument, though; confrontation, not bloodshed. The man wavered, glanced at me, away—then turned and shoved his way back into the gathering crowd.

Bogues had had the sense to keep hold of his daughter, who had her arms wrapped tightly round his neck, face buried in his shirt. He darted his eyes at me, and made a small gesture, as though to take back the gun. I shook my head and held it tighter. The stock was warm and slick in my hands.

“Take Miranda home,” I said. “I’ll—do something.”

It was loaded and primed. One shot. The best I could do with that was to create a momentary distraction—but that might help.

I pushed my way through the crowd, the gun pointed carefully down not to spill the powder, half-hidden in my skirts. The smell of tar was suddenly much stronger. A cauldron of the stuff lay overturned in front of the printer’s shop, a black sticky puddle smoking and reeking in the sun.

Glowing embers and blackened chunks of charcoal were scattered across the street, under everyone’s feet; a solid citizen whom I recognized as Mr. Townsend was kicking the bejesus out of a hastily built fire, thwarting the attempts of a couple of young men to rebuild it.

I looked for Jamie and found him precisely where Ralston Bogues had said he was—in front of the door to the printer’s shop, clutching a tar-smeared broom and with the light of battle in his eye.

“That your man?” Jezebel Morton had caught up, and was peering interestedly over my shoulder. “Big ’un, ain’t he?”

Tar was spattered all over the front of the shop—and Jamie. A large glob was stuck in his hair, and I could see the flesh of his arm reddened where a long string of hot tar had struck. Despite this, he was grinning. Two more tar-daubed brooms lay on the ground nearby, one broken—almost certainly over someone’s head. At least for the moment, he was having fun.

I didn’t at once see the printer, Fogarty Simms. Then a frightened face showed briefly at the window, but ducked out of sight as a rock flung from the crowd crashed into the window frame, cracking the glass.

“Come out, Simms, you slinkin’ coward!” bellowed a man nearby. “Or shall we smoke you out?”

“Smoke him! Smoke him!” Enthusiastic shouts came from the crowd, and a young man near me bent, scrabbling after a burning brand scattered from the fire. I stamped viciously on his hand as he grasped it.

“Jesus God!” He let go and fell to his knees, clutching his hand between his thighs, open-mouthed and gasping with pain. “Oh, oh, Jesus!”

I edged away, shouldering my way through the press. Could I get near enough to give Jamie the gun? Or would that make matters worse?

“Get away from the door, Fraser! We’ve no quarrel with you!”

I recognized that cultivated voice; it was Neil Forbes, the lawyer. He wasn’t dressed in his usual natty suiting, though; he wore rough homespun. So it wasn’t an impromptu attack—he’d come prepared for dirty work.

“Hey! You speak for yourself, Forbes! I’ve a quarrel with him!” That was a burly man in a butcher’s apron, red-faced and indignant, sporting a swollen and empurpled eye. “Look what he did to me!” He waved a meaty hand at the eye, then at the front of his clothing, where a tar-clotted broom had quite evidently caught him square in the chest. He shook a massive fist at Jamie. “You’ll pay for this, Fraser!”

“Aye, but I’ll pay ye in the same coin, Buchan!” Jamie feinted, broom held like a lance. Buchan yelped and skittered backward, face comically alarmed, and the crowd burst into laughter.

“Come back, man! Ye want to play savage, ye’ll need a bit more paint!” Buchan had turned to flee, but was blocked by the crowd. Jamie lunged with the broom, smudging him neatly on the seat of his breeches. Buchan leaped in panic at the jab, causing more laughter and hoots of derision as he shoved and stumbled out of range.

“The rest of ye want to play savage, too, do ye?” Jamie shouted. He swiped his broom through the steaming puddle and swung it hard in a wide arc before him. Droplets of hot tar flew through the air, and men yelled and pushed to get out of the way, stepping on each other and knocking each other down.

I was shoved to one side and fetched up hard against a barrel standing in the street. I would have fallen, save for Jezebel, who caught me by the arm and hauled me up, with no apparent effort.

“Yon feller’s right rumbustious,” she said with approval, eyes fixed on Jamie. “I could admire me a man like that!”

“Yes,” I said, nursing a bruised elbow. “So could I. Sometimes.”

Such sentiments appeared not to be universal.

“Give him up, Fraser, or wear feathers with him! Frigging Tories!”

The shout came from behind me, and I turned to see that the speaker had come prepared; he clutched a feather pillow in one hand, the end of it already ripped open, so that down feathers flew in spurts with each gesture.

“Tar and feather ’em all!”

I turned again at the shout from above, and looked up in time to see a young man fling wide the shutters in the upper story of the house on the other side of the street. He was trying to stuff a feather bed through the window but was being substantially impeded in this endeavor by the housewife whose property it was. This lady had leaped on his back and was beating him about the head with a spurtle, uttering shrieks of condemnation.

A young man near me started clucking like a chicken, flapping his elbows—to the intense amusement of his friends, who all began to do it, too, drowning out any attempts at reason—not that there was much of that.

A chant started up at the far side of the street.

“Tory, Tory, Tory!”

The tenor of the situation was changing, and not for the better. I half-lifted the fowling piece, unsure what to do, but knowing that I must do something. Another moment, and they’d rush him.

“Give me the gun, Auntie,” said a soft voice at my shoulder, and I whirled round to find Young Ian there, breathing hard. I gave it to him without the slightest hesitation.

“Reste d’retour!” Jamie shouted in French. “Oui, le tout! Stay back, all of you!” He might have been shouting at the crowd, but he was looking at Ian.

What the devil did he—then I caught sight of Fergus, elbowing viciously to keep his place near the front of the crowd. Young Ian, who had been about to raise the gun, hesitated, holding it close.

“He’s right, stay back!” I said urgently. “Don’t fire, not yet.” I saw now that a hasty shot might do more harm than good. Look at Bobby Higgins and the Boston Massacre. I didn’t want any massacres taking place in Cross Creek—particularly not with Jamie at the center of them.

“I won’t—but I’m no going to let them take him, either,” Ian muttered. “If they go for him—” He broke off, but his jaw was set, and I could smell the sharp scent of his sweat, even above the reek of tar.

A momentary distraction had intervened, thank God. Yells from above made half the crowd turn to see what was happening.

Another man—evidently the householder—had popped up in the window above, jerking the first man back and punching him. Then the struggling pair disappeared from view, and within a few seconds, the sounds of altercation ceased and the woman’s shrieks died away, leaving the feather bed hanging in limp anticli**x, half in and half out of the window.

The chant of “Tory Tory Tory!” had died out during the fascination with the conflict overhead, but was now starting up again, punctuated by bellows for the printer to come out and give himself up.

“Come out, Simms!” Forbes bellowed. I saw that he had equipped himself with a fresh broom, and was edging closer to the print shop’s door. Jamie saw him, too, and I saw his mouth twist with derision.

Silas Jameson, the proprietor of a local ordinary, was behind Forbes, crouched like a wrestler, his broad face wreathed in a vicious grin.

“Come out, Simms!” he echoed. “What kind of man takes shelter beneath a Scotsman’s skirts, eh?”

Jameson’s voice was loud enough that everyone heard that, and most laughed—including Jamie.

“A wise one!” Jamie shouted back, and shook the end of his plaid at Jameson. “This tartan’s sheltered many a poor lad in its time!”

“And many a lassie, too, I’ll wager!” shouted some ribald soul in the crowd.

“What, d’ye think I’ve your wife under my plaid?” Jamie was breathing hard, shirt and hair pasted to him with sweat, but still grinning as he seized the hem of his kilt. “Ye want to come and have a look for her, then?”

“Is there room under there for me, too?” called one of the fishwives promptly.

Laughter rolled through the crowd. Fickle as any mob, their mood was changing back from threat to entertainment. I took a deep, trembling breath, feeling sweat roll down between my br**sts. He was managing them, but he was walking a razor’s edge.

If he’d made up his mind to protect Simms—and he had—then no power on earth would make him give the printer up. If the mob wanted Simms—and they did—they’d have to go through Jamie. And they would, I thought, any minute.

“Come out, Simms!” yelled a voice from the Scottish Lowlands. “Ye canny be hidin’ up Fraser’s backside all day!”

“Better a printer up my arse than a lawyer!” Jamie shouted back, waving his broom at Forbes in illustration. “They’re smaller, aye?”

That made them roar; Forbes was a beefily substantial sort, while Fogarty Simms was a pinched starveling of a man. Forbes went very red in the face, and I saw sly looks being cast in his direction. Forbes was in his forties, never married, and there was talk . . .

“I wouldna have a lawyer up my backside at all,” Jamie was shouting happily, poking at Forbes with his broom. “He’d steal your shite and charge ye for a clyster!”

Forbes’s mouth opened, and his face went purple. He backed up a step, and seemed to be shouting back, but no one could hear his response, drowned as it was by the roar of laughter from the crowd.

“And then he’d sell it back to ye for night soil!” Jamie bellowed, the instant he could be heard. Neatly reversing his broom, he jabbed Forbes in the belly with the handle.

The crowd whooped in glee, and Forbes, no kind of a fighter, lost his head and charged Jamie, his own broom held like a shovel. Jamie, who had quite obviously been waiting for some such injudicious move, stepped aside like a dancer, tripped Forbes, and smacked him across the shoulders with the tar-smeared broom, sending him sprawling into the cooling tar puddle, to the raucous delight of the whole street.

“Here, Auntie, hold this!” The fowling piece was thrust suddenly back into my hands.

“What?” Completely taken aback, I whirled round to see Ian moving fast behind the crowd, beckoning to Fergus. In seconds, unnoticed by the crowd—whose attention was riveted on the fallen Forbes—they had reached the house where the feather bed hung from the window.

Ian stooped and cupped his hands; as though they had rehearsed it for years, Fergus stepped into this improvised stirrup and launched himself upward, swiping at the feather bed with his hook. It caught; he dangled for a moment, grabbing frantically with his sound hand at the hook, to keep it from coming off.

Ian sprang upward and seized Fergus round the waist, yanking downward. Then the fabric of the bed gave way under their combined weight, Fergus and Ian tumbled to the ground, and a perfect cascade of goose feathers poured out on top of them, only to be caught at once by the thick, damp air and whirled up into a delirious snowstorm that filled the street and plastered the surprised mob with clumps of sticky down.

The air seemed filled with feathers; they were everywhere, tickling eyes and nose and throat, sticking to hair and clothes and lashes. I wiped a bit of down from a watering eye and stepped hastily back, away from the half-blind people staggering near me, yelling and bumping into one another.

I had been watching Fergus and Ian, but when the featherstorm struck, I—unlike everyone else in the street—looked back at the print shop, in time to see Jamie reach through the door, seize Fogarty Simms by the arm, and snatch him out of the shop like a winkle on a pin.

Jamie gave Simms a shove that sent him staggering, then whirled back to snatch up his broom and cover the printer’s escape. Ralston Bogues, who had been lurking in the shadow of a tree, popped out, a club in his hand, and ran after Simms to protect him, glancing back and brandishing the club to discourage pursuers.

This action had not gone totally unnoticed; though most of the men were distracted, batting and clawing at the bewildering cloud of feathers that surrounded them, a few had seen what was going on, and raised a halloo, yelping like hounds as they tried to push through the crowd in pursuit of the fleeing printer.

If ever there was a moment . . . I’d shoot above their heads and they’d duck, giving Simms time to get away. I raised the gun with decision, reaching for the trigger.

The fowling piece was snatched from my grasp so deftly that I didn’t realize for an instant that it was gone, but stood staring in disbelief at my empty hands. Then a bellow came from behind me, loud enough to stun everyone nearby into silence.

“Isaiah Morton! You gonna die, boy!”

The fowling piece went off by my ear with a deafening bwoom! and a cloud of soot that blinded me. Choking and coughing, I scrubbed at my face with my apron, recovering sight in time to see the short, pudgy figure of Isaiah Morton a block away, running as fast as his legs would carry him. Jezebel Hatfield Morton was after him in an instant, ruthlessly flattening anyone in her way. She leapt nimbly over a besmeared and befeathered Forbes, who was still on his hands and knees, looking dazed, then pushed through the remnants of the mob and hared down the street, short flannel petticoats flying, moving at a surprising rate of speed for someone of her build. Morton careened round a corner and disappeared, implacable Fury close on his tail.

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