A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 62

   

He arched his back a little, then relaxed.

“Well, I’ll tell ye, Sassenach,” he said. “If I havena got calluses there, it’s no fault of yours, believe me.”

67

THE LAST LAUGH

IT WAS AN OLD MUSKET, made perhaps twenty years before, but well-kept. The stock was polished with wear, the wood beautiful to the touch, and the metal of the barrel mellow and clean.

Standing Bear clutched it in ecstasy, running awed fingers up and down the gleaming barrel, bringing them to his nose to sniff the intoxicating perfume of oil and powder, then beckoning his friends to come and smell it, too.

Five gentlemen had received muskets from the beneficent hand of Bird-who-sings-in-the-morning, and a sense of delight ran through the house, spreading in ripples through the village. Bird himself, with twenty-five muskets still to give, was drunk with the sense of inestimable wealth and power, and thus in a mood to welcome anyone and anything.

“This is Hiram Crombie,” Jamie said to Bird, in Tsalagi, indicating Mr. Crombie, who had stood by him, white-faced with nerves, throughout the preliminary talk, the presentation of the muskets, the summoning of the braves, and the general rejoicing over the guns. “He has come to offer his friendship, and to tell you stories of the Christ.”

“Oh, your Christ? The one who went to the lower world and came back? I always wondered, did he meet Sky-woman there, or Mole? I am fond of Mole; I would like to know what he said.” Bird touched the stone pendant at his neck, a small red carving of Mole, the guide to the underworld.

Mr. Crombie’s brow was furrowed, but luckily he had not yet developed any sense of ease in Tsalagi; he was still in the stage of mentally translating each word into English, and Bird was a rapid speaker. And Ian had found no occasion to teach Hiram the word for Mole.

Jamie coughed.

“I am sure he will be happy to tell you all the stories he knows,” he said. “Mr. Crombie,” he said, switching momentarily to English, “Tsisqua offers you welcome.”

Bird’s wife Penstemon’s nostrils flared delicately; Crombie was sweating with nervousness, and smelled like a goat. He bowed earnestly, and presented Bird with the good knife he had brought as a present, slowly reciting the complimentary speech he had committed to memory. Reasonably well, too, Jamie thought; he’d mispronounced only a couple of words.

“I come to b-bring you great joy,” he finished, stammering and sweating.

Bird looked at Crombie—small, stringy, and dripping wet—for a long, inscrutable moment, then back at Jamie.

“You’re a funny man, Bear-Killer,” he said with resignation. “Let us eat!”

It was autumn; the harvest was in and the hunting was good. And so the Feast of the Guns was a notable occasion, with wapiti and venison and wild pig raised steaming from pits and roasted over roaring fires, with overflowing platters of maize and roasted squash and dishes of beans spiced with onion and coriander, dishes of pottage, and dozen upon dozen of small fish rolled in cornmeal, fried in bear grease, their flesh crisp and sweet.

Mr. Crombie, very stiff to begin with, began to unbend under the influence of food, spruce beer, and the flattering attention paid him. A certain amount of the attention, Jamie thought, was due to the fact that Ian, a wide grin on his face, stayed by his pupil for a time, prompting and correcting, ’til Hiram should feel more at ease in the tongue, and able to manage on his own. Ian was extremely popular, particularly with the young women of the village.

For himself, he enjoyed the feasting very much; relieved of responsibility, there was nothing to do save to talk and listen and eat—and in the morning he would go.

It was an odd feeling, and one he was not sure he had ever had before. He had had many leavetakings, most regretful—a few taken with a sense of relief—some that wrenched the heart from his chest and left him aching. Not tonight. Everything seemed strangely ceremonious, something consciously done for the last time, and yet there was no sadness in it.

Completion, he supposed, was the sense of it. He had done what he could do, and now must leave Bird and the others to make their own way. He might come again, but never again by duty, in his role as the agent of the King.

That was a peculiar thought in itself. He had never lived without the consciousness of allegiance—whether willing or not, witting or not—to a king, whether that be German Geordie’s house or the Stuarts. And now he did.

For the first time, he had some glimmer of what his daughter and his wife had tried to tell him.

Hiram was trying to recite one of the psalms, he realized. He was doing a good job of it, because he had asked Ian to translate it, and had then carefully committed it to memory. However . . .

“Oil runs down over the head and the beard . . .”

Penstemon cast a wary glance at the small pot of melted bear grease that they were using as a condiment, and narrowed her eyes at Hiram, plainly intending to snatch the dish from him if he tried to pour it over his head.

“It’s a story of his ancestors,” Jamie said to her, with a brief shrug. “Not his own custom.”

“Oh. Hm.” She relaxed a little, though continuing to keep a close eye on Hiram. He was a guest, but not all guests could be trusted to behave well.

Hiram did nothing untoward, though, and with many protests of sufficiency, and awkward compliments toward his hosts, was persuaded to eat until his eyes bulged, which pleased them.

Ian would stay for a few days, to be sure that Hiram and Bird’s people were in some sort of mutual accord. Jamie was not quite sure that Ian’s sense of responsibility would overcome his sense of humor, though—in some ways, Ian’s sense of humor tended toward the Indians’. A word from Jamie might therefore not come amiss, just by way of precaution.

“He has a wife,” Jamie said to Bird, with a nod toward Hiram, now engaged in close discourse with two of the older men. “I think he would not welcome a young woman in his bed. He might be rude to her, not understanding the compliment.”

“Don’t worry,” said Penstemon, overhearing this. She glanced at Hiram, and her lip curled with scorn. “Nobody would want a child from him. Now, a child from you, Bear-Killer . . .” She gave him a long look beneath her lashes, and he laughed, saluting her with a gesture of respect.

It was a perfect night, cold and crisp, and the door was left open that the air might come in. The smoke from the fire rose straight and white, streaming toward the hole above, its moving wraiths like spirits ascending in joy.

Everyone had eaten and drunk to the point of a pleasant stupor, and there was momentary silence and a pervading sense of peace and happiness.

“It is good for men to eat as brothers,” Hiram observed to Standing Bear, in his halting Tsalagi. Or rather, tried to. And after all, Jamie reflected, feeling his ribs creak under the strain, it was really a very minor difference between “as brothers” and “their brothers.”

Standing Bear gave Hiram a thoughtful look, and edged slightly farther away from him.

Bird observed this, and after a moment’s silence, turned to Jamie.

“You’re a very funny man, Bear-Killer,” he repeated, shaking his head. “You win.”

To Mr. John Stuart,

Superintendent of the Southern

Department of Indian Affairs

From Fraser’s Ridge,

on the First Day of November,

Anno Domini 1774,

James Fraser, Esq.

My dear sir,

This is to notify you of my Resignation as Indian Agent, as I find that my personal Convictions will no longer allow me to perform my Office on behalf of the Crown in good Conscience.

In thanks for your kind Attention and many Favors, and wishing you well in future, I remain

Your most humble Servant,

J. Fraser

PART NINE

The Bones of Time

68

SAVAGES

ONLY TWO LEFT. The pool of liquid wax glowed with the light of the flaming wick above it, and the jewels slowly came into view, one green, one black, glowing with their own inner fire. Jamie dipped the feather end of a quill gently into the melted wax and scooped the emerald up, raising it into the light.

He dropped the hot stone into the handkerchief I held waiting, and I rubbed it quickly, to get off the wax before it should harden.

“Our reserves are getting rather low,” I said, in uneasy jest. “Let’s hope there aren’t any more expensive emergencies.”

“I shallna touch the black diamond, regardless,” he said definitely, and blew out the wick. “That one is for you.”

I stared at him.

“What do you mean by that?”

He shrugged a little, and reached to take the emerald in its handkerchief from me.

“If I should be killed,” he said very matter-of-factly. “Ye’ll take it and go. Back through the stones.”

“Oh? I don’t know that I would,” I said. I didn’t like talking about any contingency that involved Jamie’s death, but there was no point in ignoring the possibilities. Battle, disease, imprisonment, accident, assassination . . .

“You and Bree were going about forbidding me to die,” I said. “I’d do the same thing, if I had the faintest hope of your paying the least attention.”

He smiled at that.

“I always mind your words, Sassenach,” he assured me gravely. “But ye do tell me that man proposes and God disposes, and should He see fit to dispose of me—ye’ll go back.”

“Why would I?” I said, nettled—and unsettled. The memories of his sending me back through the stones on the eve of Culloden were not ones I ever wished to recall, and here he was, prying open the door to that tightly sealed chamber of my mind. “I’d stay with Bree and Roger, wouldn’t I? Jem, Marsali and Fergus, Germain and Henri-Christian and the girls—everyone’s here. What is there to go back to, after all?”

He took the stone from its cloth, turning it over between his fingers, and looked thoughtfully at me, as though making up his mind whether to tell me something. Small hairs began to prickle on the back of my neck.

“I dinna ken,” he said at last, shaking his head. “But I’ve seen ye there.”

The prickling ran straight down the back of my neck and down both arms.

“Seen me where?”

“There.” He waved a hand in a vague gesture. “I dreamt of ye there. I dinna ken where it was; I only know it was there—in your proper time.”

“How do you know that?” I demanded, my flesh creeping briskly. “What was I doing?”

His brow furrowed in the effort of recollection.

“I dinna recall, exactly,” he said slowly. “But I knew it was then, by the light.” His brow cleared suddenly. “That’s it. Ye were sitting at a desk, with something in your hand, maybe writing. And there was light all round ye, shining on your face, on your hair. But it wasna candlelight, nor yet firelight or sunlight. And I recall thinking to myself as I saw ye, Oh, so that’s what electric light is like.”

I stared at him, open-mouthed.

“How can you recognize something in a dream that you’ve never seen in real life?”

He seemed to find that funny.

“I dream of things I’ve not seen all the time, Sassenach—don’t you?”

“Well,” I said uncertainly. “Yes. Sometimes. Monsters, odd plants, I suppose. Peculiar landscapes. And certainly people that I don’t know. But surely that’s different? To see something you know about, but haven’t seen?”

“Well, what I saw may not be what electric light does look like,” he admitted, “but that’s what I said to myself when I saw it. And I was quite sure that ye were in your own time.

“And after all,” he added logically, “I dream of the past; why would I not dream of the future?”

There was no good answer to a thoroughly Celtic remark of that nature.

“Well, you would, I suppose,” I said. I rubbed dubiously at my lower lip. “How old was I, in this dream of yours?”

He looked surprised, then uncertain, and peered closely at my face, as though trying to compare it with some mental vision.

“Well . . . I dinna ken,” he said, sounding for the first time unsure. “I didna think anything about it—I didna notice that ye had white hair, or anything of the sort—it was just . . . you.” He shrugged, baffled, then looked down at the stone in my hand.

“Does it feel warm to your touch, Sassenach?” he asked curiously.

“Of course it does,” I said, rather crossly. “It’s just come out of hot wax, for heaven’s sake.” And yet the emerald did seem to pulse gently in my hand, warm as my own blood and beating like a miniature heart. And when I handed it to him, I felt a small, peculiar reluctance—as though it did not want to leave me.

“Give it to MacDonald,” I said, rubbing my palm against the side of my skirt. “I hear him outside, talking to Arch; he’ll be wanting to be off.”

MACDONALD HAD COME pelting up to the Ridge in the midst of a rainstorm the day before, weathered face nearly purple with cold, exertion, and excitement, to inform us that he had found a printing establishment for sale in New Bern.

“The owner has already left—somewhat involuntarily,” he told us, dripping and steaming by the fire. “His friends seek to sell the premises and equipment promptly, before they might be seized or destroyed, and thus provide him with funds to reestablish himself in England.”

By “somewhat involuntarily,” it turned out, he meant that the print shop’s owner was a Loyalist, who had been kidnapped off the street by the local Committee of Safety and shoved willy-nilly onto a ship departing for England. This form of impromptu deportation was becoming popular, and while it was more humane than tar and feathers, it did mean that the printer would arrive penniless in England, and owing money for his passage, to boot.

“I happened to meet wi’ some of his friends in a tavern, tearin’ their hair over his sad fate and drinking to his welfare—whereupon I told them that I might be able to put them in the way of an advantage,” the Major said, swelling with satisfaction. “They were all ears, when I said that ye might—just might, mind—have ready cash.”

“What makes ye think I do, Donald?” Jamie asked, one eyebrow cocked.

MacDonald looked surprised, then knowing. He winked and laid a finger beside his nose.

“I hear the odd bit, here and there. Word has it that ye’ve got a wee cache of gems—or so I hear, from a merchant in Edenton whose bank dealt wi’ one.”

Jamie and I exchanged looks.

“Bobby,” I said, and he nodded in resignation.

“Well, as for me, mum’s the word,” MacDonald said, observing this. “Ye can rely upon my discretion, to be sure. And I doubt the matter’s widely known. But then—a poor man doesna go about buying muskets by the dozen, now, does he?”

“Oh, he might,” Jamie said, resigned. “Ye’d be surprised, Donald. But as it is . . . I imagine a bargain might be struck. What are the printer’s friends asking—and will they offer insurance, in case of fire?”

MACDONALD HAD BEEN empowered to negotiate on behalf of the printer’s friends—they being anxious to get the problematical real estate sold before some patriotic soul came and burned it down—and so the bargain was concluded on the spot. MacDonald was sent hurtling back down the mountain to change the emerald into money, conclude payment on the printer’s shop, leaving the residue of the money with Fergus for ongoing expenses—and let it be known as quickly as possible in New Bern that the premises were shortly to be under new management.

“And if anyone asks about the politics of the new owner . . .” Jamie said. To which MacDonald merely nodded wisely, and laid his finger alongside his red-veined nose once more.

I was reasonably sure that Fergus had no personal politics to speak of; beyond his family, his sole allegiance was to Jamie. Once the bargain was made, though, and the frenzy of packing begun—Marsali and Fergus would have to leave at once, to have any chance of making it to New Bern before winter set in in earnest—Jamie had had a serious talk with Fergus.

“Now, it’ll no be like it was in Edinburgh. There’s no but one other printer in the town, and from what MacDonald says, he’s an elderly gentleman, and sae much afraid o’ the committee and the Governor both, he willna print a thing but books of sermons and handbills advertising horseraces.”

“Très bon,” said Fergus, looking even happier, if such a thing was possible. He’d been going about lit up like a Chinese lantern since hearing the news. “We will have all of the newspaper and broadsheet business, to say nothing of the printing of scandalous plays and pamphlets—there is nothing like sedition and unrest for the printing business, milord, you know that yourself.”

“I do know that,” Jamie said very dryly. “Which is why I mean to beat the need for care into your thick skull. I dinna wish to hear that ye’ve been hanged for treason, nor yet tarred-and-feathered for no being treasonous enough.”

“Oh, la.” Fergus waved an airy hook. “I know well enough how this game is played, milord.”

Jamie nodded, still looking dubious.

“Aye, ye do. But it’s been some years; ye may be out of practice. And ye’ll not know who’s who in New Bern; ye dinna want to find yourself buying meat from the man ye’ve savaged in the morning’s paper, aye?”

“I’ll mind that, Da.” Marsali sat by the fire, nursing Henri-Christian, and taking close heed. If anything, she looked happier than Fergus, upon whom she looked adoringly. She switched the look of adoration to Jamie, and smiled. “We’ll take good care, I promise.”

Jamie’s frown softened as he looked at her.

“I’ll miss ye, lass,” he said softly. Her look of happiness dimmed, but didn’t go out entirely.

“I’ll miss ye, too, Da. All of us will. And Germain doesna want to leave Jem, o’ course. But . . .” Her eyes drifted back to Fergus, who was making a list of supplies, whistling “Alouette” under his breath, and she hugged Henri-Christian closer, making him kick his legs in protest.

“Aye, I know.” Jamie coughed, to cover his emotion, and wiped a knuckle underneath his nose. “Now then, wee Fergus. Ye’ll have a bit of money over; be sure to bribe the constable and the watch first of all. MacDonald’s given me the names o’ the Royal Council, and the chief Assemblymen—he’ll be of help wi’ the council, as he’s the Governor’s man. Be tactful, aye? But see he’s taken care of; he’s been a great help in the matter.”

Fergus nodded, head bent over his paper.

“Paper, ink, lead, bribes, shammy leather, brushes,” he said, writing busily, and resumed absently singing, “Alouette, gentil alouette . . .”

IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO get a wagon up to the Ridge; the only approach was by the narrow trail that wound up the slope from Coopersville—one of the factors that had led to the development of that minor crossroads into a small hamlet, as itinerant peddlers and other travelers tended to stop there, making brief forays on foot upward into the mountain.

“Which is all very well for discouraging hostile invasion onto the Ridge,” I told Bree, panting as I set down a large canvas-wrapped bundle of candlesticks, chamber pots, and other small household belongings at the side of the trail. “But it unfortunately makes it rather difficult to get off the bloody Ridge, too.”

“I suppose it never occurred to Da that anyone would want to leave,” Bree said, grunting as she lowered her own burden—Marsali’s cauldron, packed with cheeses, sacks of flour, beans, and rice, plus a wooden box full of dried fish and a string bag of apples. “This thing weighs a ton.”

She turned and bellowed, “GERMAIN!” up the trail behind us. Dead silence. Germain and Jemmy were meant to be shepherding Mirabel the goat down to the wagon. They had left the cabin with us, but had been dropping steadily behind.

Neither a call nor a mehhhh came from the trail, but Mrs. Bug came into view, trundling slowly under the weight of Marsali’s spinning wheel, which she bore on her back, and holding Mirabel’s halter in one hand. Mirabel, a small, neat white goat with gray markings, blatted happily at sight of us.

“I found the puir wee lassie tethered to a bush,” Mrs. Bug said, setting down the spinning wheel with a wheeze and wiping her face with her apron. “No sign o’ the lads, the wicked wee creatures.”

Brianna made a low growling noise that boded ill for either Jemmy or Germain, if she caught them. Before she could stomp back up the trail, though, Roger and Young Ian came down, each carrying one end of Marsali’s loom, collapsed for the occasion into a large bundle of heavy timbers. Seeing the traffic jam in the road, though, they stopped, setting down their burden with sighs of relief.

“What’s amiss, then?” Roger asked, glancing from face to face, and settling on the goat with a frown. “Where are Jem and Germain?”

“Dollars to donuts the little fiends are hiding somewhere,” Bree said, smoothing tumbled red hair out of her face. Her plait had come undone, and straggling wisps of hair were sticking damply to her face. I was momentarily grateful for my short thicket of curls; no matter what it looked like, it was certainly convenient.

“Shall I go and look?” Ian asked, emerging from the wooden pudding basin he’d been carrying upside down on his head. “They’ll no have gone far.”

Sounds of hasty feet from below made everyone turn expectantly in that direction—but it was not the boys, but Marsali, breathless and wide-eyed.

“Henri-Christian,” she gasped, her eyes flicking rapidly round the group. “Have ye got him, Mother Claire? Bree?”

“I thought you had him,” Bree said, catching Marsali’s sense of urgency.

“I did. Wee Aidan McCallum was minding him for me, whilst I loaded things into the wagon. But then I stopped to feed him”—a hand went briefly to her bosom—“and they were both vanished! I thought perhaps . . .” Her words died away as she began scanning the bushes along the trail, her cheeks flushed with exertion and annoyance.

“I’ll strangle him,” she said through gritted teeth. “And where’s Germain, then?” she cried, catching sight of Mirabel, who had taken advantage of the stop to nibble tasty thistles by the path.

“This is beginning to have the look of a plan about it,” Roger observed, obviously amused. Ian, too, seemed to be finding something funny in the situation, but vicious glares from the frazzled females present wiped the smirks off their faces.

“Yes, do go and find them, please,” I said, seeing that Marsali was about to either burst into tears or go berserk and throw things.

“Aye, do,” she said tersely. “And beat them, while ye’re at it.”

“YE KEN WHERE THEY ARE?” Ian asked, shading his eyes to look up a trough of tumbled rock.

“Aye, likely. This way.” Roger pushed through a tangle of yaupon and redbud, with Ian after him, and emerged onto the bank of the small creek that paralleled the trail here. Below, he caught a glimpse of Aidan’s favorite fishing place near the ford, but there was no sign of life down there.

Instead, he turned upward, making his way through thick dry grass and loose rocks along the creekbank. Most of the leaves had fallen from the chestnuts and poplars, and lay in slippery mats of brown and gold underfoot.

Aidan had shown him the secret place some time ago; a shallow cave, barely three feet high, hidden at the top of a steep slope overgrown by a thicket of oak saplings. The oaks were bare now, and the cave’s opening easily visible, if you knew to look for it. It was particularly noticeable at the moment, because smoke was coming out of it, slipping veil-like up the face of the rock above, leaving a sharp scent in the cold, dry air.

Ian raised one eyebrow. Roger nodded, and made his way up the slope, making no effort to be quiet about it. There was a mad scuffle of noises inside the cave, thumpings and low cries, and the veil of smoke wavered and stopped, replaced by a loud hiss and a puff of dark gray from the cave mouth as someone threw water on the fire.

Ian, meanwhile, had made his way silently up the side of the rockface above the cave, seeing a small crevice from which a tiny plume of smoke issued. Clinging one-handed to a dogwood that grew out of the rock, he leaned perilously out, and cupping a hand near his mouth, let out a frightful Mohawk scream, directed into the crevice.

Terror-stricken shrieks, much higher-pitched, issued from the cave, followed in short order by a tumble of little boys, pushing and tripping over each other in their haste.

“Ho, there!” Roger snagged his own offspring neatly by the collar as he rushed past. “The jig’s up, mate.”

Germain, with Henri-Christian’s sturdy form clutched to his midsection, was attempting to escape down the slope, but Ian leapt past him, springing pantherlike down the rocks, and grabbed the baby from him, bringing him to a reluctant stop.

Only Aidan remained at large. Seeing his comrades in captivity, he hesitated at the edge of the slope, obviously wanting to flee, but nobly gave in, coming back with dragging step to share their fate.

“Right, lads; sorry, it’s not on.” Roger spoke with some sympathy; Jemmy had been upset for days at the prospect of Germain’s leaving.

“But we do not want to go, Uncle Roger,” Germain said, employing his most effective look of wide-eyed pleading. “We will stay here; we can live in the cave, and hunt for our food.”

“Aye, sir, and me and Jem, we’ll share our dinners wi’ them,” Aidan piped up in anxious support.

“I brought some of Mama’s matches, so they’ve got a fire to keep warm,” Jem chipped in eagerly, “and a loaf of bread, too!”

“So ye see, Uncle—” Germain spread his hands gracefully in demonstration, “we shall be no trouble to anyone!”

“Oh, nay trouble, is it?” Ian said, with no less sympathy. “Tell your mother that, aye?”

Germain put his hands behind him, clutching his buttocks protectively by reflex.

“And what were ye thinking, dragging your wee brother up here?” Roger said a little more severely. “He can barely walk yet! Two steps out of there”—he nodded at the cave—“and he’d be tumbling down the burn and his neck broken.”

“Oh, no, sir!” Germain said, shocked. He fumbled in his pocket and drew out a piece of string. “I should tie him up, when I was not there, so he shouldna wander or fall. But I couldna be leaving him; I promised Maman, when he was born, I said I would never leave him.”

Tears were beginning to trickle down Aidan’s thin cheeks. Henri-Christian, totally confused, began to howl in sympathy, which made Jem’s lower lip tremble, as well. He wriggled out of Roger’s grasp, ran to Germain, and clutched him passionately about the middle.

“Germain can’t go, Daddy, please don’t make him go!”

Roger rubbed his nose, exchanged brief looks with Ian, and sighed.

He sat down on a rock, and motioned to Ian, who was having a certain amount of difficulty in deciding which way up to hold Henri-Christian. Ian gave him the baby with a noticeable air of relief, and Henri-Christian, feeling the need of security, seized Roger’s nose with one hand and his hair with the other.

“Look, a bhailach,” he said, detaching Henri-Christian’s grasp with some difficulty. “Wee Henri-Christian needs his mother to feed him. He’s barely got teeth, for God’s sake—he canna be living up here in the wild, eating raw meat wi’ you savages.”

“He has too got teeth!” Aidan said stoutly, extending a bitten forefinger in proof. “Look!”

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