A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 78

   

“Granny lust,” Bree muttered to me, out of the side of her mouth, and I felt laughter bubble up under my stays. I hadn’t laughed since before Malva’s death, and found it balm to the spirit.

Lizzie was explaining earnestly to Monika the estrangement resulting from her unorthodox marriage, to which Monika was nodding, clicking her tongue in sympathetic understanding—and I did wonder how much of it she grasped—and talking baby-talk to Rodney all at once.

“Fat chance of Mr. Wemyss staying estranged,” I said out of the side of my own mouth. “Keep his new wife from her new grandson? Ha!”

“Yes, what’s a little matter of dual sons-in-law?” Bree agreed.

Amy was regarding the tender scene with a slight sense of wistfulness. She reached out and put an arm round Aidan’s skinny shoulders.

“Well, they do say, the more, the merrier,” she said.

86

PRIORITIES

THREE SHIRTS, AN EXTRA PAIR of decent breeches, two pair of stockings, one lisle, one silk—wait, where were the silk ones?

Brianna stepped to the door and called to her husband, who was industriously laying segments of clay pipe into the trench he had dug, assisted by Jemmy and Aidan.

“Roger! What have you done with your silk stockings?”

He paused, frowning, and rubbed his head. Then, handing the shovel to Aidan, he came across to the house, leaping over the open trench.

“I wore them last Sunday to preach, no?” he asked, reaching her. “What did I . . . oh.”

“Oh?” she said suspiciously, seeing his face change from puzzlement to guilt. “What’s ‘oh’?”

“Ahh . . . well, you’d stayed to home with Jem and his stomachache”—a tactically helpful ailment, greatly exaggerated in order to keep her from having to sit through two hours of staring and whispering—“so when Jocky Abernathy asked me would I care to go fishing with him . . .”

“Roger MacKenzie,” she said, fixing him with a look of wrath, “if you put your good silk stockings in a creel full of smelly fish and forgot them—”

“I’ll just nip up to the house and borrow a pair from your Da, shall I?” he said hurriedly. “I’m sure mine will turn up, somewhere.”

“So will your head,” she said. “Probably under a rock!”

That made him laugh, which was not what she had intended, but which had the effect of easing her temper.

“I’m sorry,” he said, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. “It’s probably Freudian.”

“Oh? And what does leaving your stockings wrapped around a dead trout symbolize?” she demanded.

“Generalized guilt and divided loyalties, I imagine,” he said, still joking, but not so much. “Bree—I’ve been thinking. I really don’t think I should go. I don’t need to—”

“Yes, you do,” she said, as firmly as possible. “Da says so, Mama says so, and so do I.”

“Oh, well, then.” He smiled, but she could see the uneasiness under his humor—the more so because she shared it. Malva Christie’s murder had caused an uproar on the Ridge—alarm, hysteria, suspicion, and finger-pointing in every direction. Several young men—Bobby Higgins among them—had simply disappeared from the Ridge, whether from a sense of guilt, or merely from a sense of self-preservation.

There had been accusations enough to go around; even she herself had come in for her share of gossip and suspicion, some of her unguarded remarks about Malva Christie having been repeated. But by far the greatest weight of suspicion rested squarely on her parents.

Both of them were doing their best to go about their daily business, grimly ignoring the gossip and the pointed looks—but it was getting harder; anyone could see that.

Roger had gone at once to visit the Christies—had gone every day since Malva’s death save for his hasty expedition to Halifax—had buried the girl with simplicity and tears—and had since worn himself out with being reasonable and soothing and firm to everyone else on the Ridge. He had immediately put aside his plan to go to Edenton for ordination, but Jamie, hearing of it, had insisted.

“You’ve done everything here you could possibly do,” Brianna said, for the hundredth time. “There’s nothing else you can do to help—and it might be years before you have another chance.”

She knew how urgently he wished to be ordained, and would have done anything to further that wish. For herself, she wished that she could see it; but without a great deal of talk, they had agreed that it was best for her and Jem to go to River Run, and wait there for Roger to make the trip to Edenton and then return. It couldn’t do a candidate for ordination any good to turn up with a Catholic wife and child.

The guilt of leaving, though, with her parents standing in the eye of the whirlwind . . .

“You have to go,” she repeated. “But maybe I—”

He stopped her with a look.

“No, we’ve done that.” His argument was that her presence couldn’t affect public opinion, which was probably true. She realized that his real reason—shared by her parents—was a desire to get her and Jem away from the situation on the Ridge, out of the uproar and safe, preferably before Jem realized that a good many of the neighbors thought that one, if not both, of his grandparents was a cold-blooded murderer.

And, to her private shame, she was eager to go.

Someone had killed Malva—and her baby. Every time she thought of it, the possibilities swam before her, the litany of names. And every time, she was forced to see her cousin’s name among them. Ian had not run away, and she couldn’t—could not—think that it had been him. And yet every day she was obliged to see Ian, and to contemplate the possibility.

She stood staring into the bag she was packing, folding and refolding the shirt in her hands, looking for reasons to go, reasons to stay—and knowing that no reason had any power at all, not now.

A dull thunk! from outside jerked her from her mire of indecision.

“What—” She reached the door in two steps, fast enough to see Jem and Aidan disappearing into the woods like a pair of rabbits. On the edge of the trench lay the cracked pieces of the pipe segment they had just dropped.

“You little snot-rags!” she bellowed, and grabbed for a broom—intending what she didn’t know, but violence seemed the only outlet for the frustration that had just erupted like a volcano, searing through her.

“Bree,” Roger said softly, and put a hand on her back. “It’s not important.”

She jerked away and rounded on him, the blood roaring in her ears.

“Do you have any idea how long it takes to make one of those? How many firings it takes to get one that’s not cracked? How—”

“Yes, I do know,” he said, his voice level. “And it’s still not important.”

She stood trembling, breathing hard. Very gently, he reached out and took the broom from her, standing it neatly back in its place.

“I need—to go,” she said, when she could form words again, and he nodded, his eyes tinged with the sadness he had carried ever since the day of Malva’s death.

“Aye, ye do,” he said quietly.

He came behind her, put his arms around her, his chin resting on her shoulder, and gradually she stopped shaking. Across the clearing, she saw Mrs. Bug come down the path from the garden with an apron full of cabbages and carrots; Claire had not set foot in her garden since . . .

“Will they be all right?”

“We’ll pray that they will,” he said, and tightened his arms around her. She was comforted by his touch, and didn’t notice until later that he had not in fact reassured her that they would.

87

JUSTICE IS MINE,

SAYETH THE LORD

I POKED AT THE LAST PACKAGE from Lord John, trying to work up enough enthusiasm to open it. It was a small wooden crate; perhaps more vitriol. I supposed I should make a fresh batch of ether—but then, what was the point? People had stopped coming to my surgery, even for the treatment of minor cuts and bruises, let alone the odd appendectomy.

I ran a finger through the dust on the counter, and thought that I should at least take care of that; Mrs. Bug kept the rest of the house spotless, but wouldn’t come into the surgery. I added dusting to the long list of things that I should do, but made no move to go and find a dust cloth.

Sighing, I got up and went across the hall. Jamie was sitting at his desk, twiddling a quill and staring at a half-finished letter. He put down the quill when he saw me, smiling.

“How is it, Sassenach?”

“All right,” I said, and he nodded, accepting it at face value. His face showed the lines of strain, and I knew that he was no more all right than I was. “I haven’t seen Ian all day. Did he say he was going?” To the Cherokee, I meant. Little wonder if he wanted to get away from the Ridge; I thought it had taken a good deal of fortitude for him to stay as long as he had, bearing the stares and murmurs—and the outright accusations.

Jamie nodded again, and dropped the quill back into its jar.

“Aye, I told him to go. No purpose to him staying any longer; there’d only be more fights.” Ian didn’t say anything about the fights, but had more than once turned up to supper with the marks of battle on him.

“Right. Well, I’d better tell Mrs. Bug before she starts the supper.” Still, I made no motion to get up, finding some small sense of comfort in Jamie’s presence, some surcease from the constant memory of the small, bloody weight in my lap, inert as a lump of meat—and the sight of Malva’s eyes, so surprised.

I heard horses in the yard, several of them. I glanced at Jamie, who shook his head, brows raised, then rose to go and meet the visitors, whoever they were. I followed him down the hall, wiping my hands on my apron and mentally revising the supper menu to accommodate what sounded like at least a dozen guests, from the whickering and murmuring I heard in the dooryard.

Jamie opened the door, and stopped dead. I looked over his shoulder, and felt terror seize me. Horsemen, black against the sinking sun, and in that moment, I was back in the whisky clearing, damp with sweat and clad in nothing but my shift. Jamie heard my gasp, and put back a hand, to keep me away.

“What d’ye want, Brown?” he said, sounding most unfriendly.

“We’ve come for your wife,” said Richard Brown. There was an unmistakable note of gloating in his voice, and hearing it, the down hairs on my body rippled with cold, and black spots floated in my field of vision. I stepped back, hardly feeling my feet, and took hold of the doorjamb to my surgery, clinging to it for support.

“Well, ye can just be on your way, then,” Jamie replied, with the same unfriendly tone. “Ye’ve nothing to do with my wife, nor she with you.”

“Ah, now, there you’re wrong, Mister Fraser.” My vision had cleared, and I saw him urge his horse up closer to the stoop. He leaned down, peering through the door, and evidently saw me, for he smiled, in a most unpleasant fashion.

“We’ve come to arrest your wife, for the dastard crime of murder.”

Jamie’s hand tensed where he gripped the door, and he drew himself slowly to his fullest height, seeming to expand as he did so.

“Ye’ll leave my land, sir,” he said, and his voice had dropped to a level just above the rustlings of horses and harness. “And ye’ll go now.”

I felt, rather than heard, footsteps behind me. Mrs. Bug, coming to see what was afoot.

“Bride save us,” she whispered, seeing the men. Then she was gone, running back through the house, light-footed as a deer. I should follow her, I knew, escape through the back door, run up into the forest, hide. But my limbs were frozen. I could barely breathe, let alone move.

And Richard Brown was looking at me over Jamie’s shoulder, open dislike mingling with triumph.

“Oh, we’ll leave,” he said, straightening up. “Hand her over, and we’ll be gone. Vanished like the morning dew,” he said, and laughed. Dimly, I wondered whether he was drunk.

“By what right do you come here?” Jamie demanded. His left hand rose, rested on the hilt of his dirk in plain threat. The sight of it galvanized me, finally, and I stumbled down the hall, toward the kitchen where the guns were kept.

“. . . Committee of Safety.” I caught those words in Brown’s voice, raised in threat, and then was through into the kitchen. I grabbed the fowling piece from its hooks above the hearth, and wrenching open the drawer of the sideboard, hastily bundled the three pistols there into the large pockets of my surgical apron, made to hold instruments while I worked.

My hands were shaking. I hesitated—the pistols were primed and loaded; Jamie checked them every night—should I take the shot pouch, the powder horn? No time. I heard Jamie’s voice and Richard Brown’s, shouting now at the front of the house.

The sound of the back door opening jerked my head up, and I saw an unfamiliar man pause in the doorway, looking round. He saw me and started toward me, grinning, hand out to seize my arm.

I lifted a pistol from my apron and shot him, point-blank. The grin didn’t leave his face, but took on a slightly puzzled air. He blinked once or twice, then put a hand to his side, where a reddening spot was beginning to spread on his shirt. He looked at his blood-smeared fingers, and his jaw dropped.

“Well, goddamn!” he said. “You shot me!”

“I did,” I said, breathless. “And I’ll bloody do it again, if you don’t get out of here!” I dropped the empty pistol on the floor with a crash, and scrabbled one-handed in my apron pocket for another, still holding the fowling piece in a death grip.

He didn’t wait to see if I meant it, but whirled and crashed into the door frame, then stumbled through it, leaving a smear of blood on the wood.

Wisps of black-powder smoke floated in the air, mingling oddly with the scent of roasting fish, and I thought for an instant that I might throw up, but managed despite my nausea to set down the fowling piece for a moment and bar the door, my hands shaking so that it took several tries.

Sudden sounds from the front of the house drove nerves and everything else from my mind, and I was running down the hall, gun in hand, before I had made a conscious decision to move, the heavy pistols in my apron banging against my thighs.

They’d dragged Jamie off the porch; I caught a brief glimpse of him in the midst of a surging melee of bodies. They’d stopped shouting. There wasn’t any noise at all, save for small grunts and the impact of flesh, the scuffling of myriad feet in the dust. It was deadly earnest, that struggle, and I knew at once that they meant to kill him.

I leveled the fowling piece at the edge of the crowd farthest from Jamie, and pulled the trigger. The crash of the gun and the startled screams seemed to come together, and the scene before me flew apart, the knot of men dissolving, peppered with bird shot. Jamie had kept hold of his dirk; with a little room around him now, I saw him drive it into one man’s side, wrench it back and lash sideways in the same motion, scoring a bloody furrow across the forehead of a man who had fallen back a little.

Then I caught a glimpse of metal to one side and by reflex shrieked “DUCK!” an instant before Brown’s pistol fired. There was a small tchoong past my ear, and I realized, in a very calm sort of way, that Brown had fired at me, not Jamie.

Jamie had, however, ducked. So had everyone else in the yard, and men were now scrambling to their feet, confused, the impetus of the attack dispersed. Jamie had dived toward the porch; he was up and stumbling toward me, striking viciously with the hilt of his dirk at a man who grabbed at his sleeve, so the man fell back with a cry.

We might have rehearsed it a dozen times. He took the steps of the porch in one leap and flung himself into me, carrying us both through the door, then spun on his heel and slammed the door, throwing himself against it and holding it against the frenzied impact of bodies for the instant it took me to drop the fowling piece, seize the bolt, and lift it into place.

It fell into its hooks with a thunk.

The door vibrated to the blows of fists and shoulders, and the shouting had started up again, but with a different sound. No gloating, no taunting. Cursing still, but with a set, malign intent.

Neither of us paused to listen.

“I barred the kitchen door,” I gasped, and Jamie nodded, diving into my surgery to secure the bolts of the inside shutters there. I heard the crash of breaking glass in the surgery behind me as I ran into his study; the windows there were smaller, and not glass, placed high in the wall. I slammed the shutters to and bolted them, then ran back into the suddenly darkened hallway to find the gun.

Jamie had it already; he was in the kitchen, grabbing things, and as I started toward the kitchen door, he came out of it, hung about with shot pouches, powder horns, and the like, fowling piece in his hand, and with a jerk of the head, motioned me before him up the stairs.

The rooms above were still filled with light; it was like bursting up from underwater, and I gulped the light as though it were air, dazzled and eyes watering as I rushed to bolt the shutters in the boxroom and Amy McCallum’s room. I didn’t know where Amy and her sons were; I could only be grateful that they weren’t in the house at the moment.

I ran into the bedroom, gasping. Jamie was kneeling by the window, methodically loading guns and saying something under his breath in Gaelic—prayer or cursing, I couldn’t tell.

I didn’t ask if he was hurt. His face was bruised, his lip was split, and blood had run down his chin onto his shirt, he was covered with dirt and what I assumed to be smears of other peoples’ blood, and the ear on the side closest me was swollen. But he was steady in his movements, and anything short of a fractured skull would have to wait.

“They mean to kill us,” I said, and didn’t mean it as a question.

He nodded, eyes on his work, then handed me a spare pistol to load.

“Aye, they do. Good job the weans are all safe away, isn’t it?” He smiled at me suddenly, bloody-toothed and fierce, and I felt steadier than I had for a long time.

He’d left one side of the shutter ajar. I moved carefully back behind him and peered out, the loaded pistol primed and in my hand.

“No bodies lying in the dooryard,” I reported. “I suppose you didn’t kill any of them.”

“Not for want of trying,” he replied. “God, what I’d give for a rifle!” He rose cautiously to his knees, the barrel of the fowling piece protruding over the sill, and surveyed the state of the attack.

They had withdrawn for the moment; a small group was visible under the chestnut trees at the far side of the clearing, and they’d taken the horses down toward Bree and Roger’s cabin, safely out of range of flying bullets. Brown and his minions were clearly planning what to do next.

“What do you suppose they would have done, if I’d agreed to go with them?” I could feel my heart again, at least. It was going a mile a minute, but I could breathe, and some feeling was coming back into my extremities.

“I should never ha’ let ye go,” he replied shortly.

“And quite possibly Richard Brown knows that,” I said. He nodded; he’d been thinking along the same lines. Brown had never intended actually to arrest me; only to provoke an incident in which we could both be killed under circumstances dubious enough as to prevent wholesale retaliation by Jamie’s tenants.

“Mrs. Bug got out, did she?” he asked.

“Yes. If they didn’t catch her outside the house.” I narrowed my eyes against the brilliant afternoon sun, searching for a short, broad figure in skirts among the group by the chestnut trees, but I saw only men.

Jamie nodded again, hissing gently through his back teeth as he swiveled the gun barrel slowly through an arc that covered the dooryard.

“We’ll see, then” was all he said. “Come that wee bit closer, man,” he murmured, as one man started cautiously across the yard toward the house. “One shot; that’s all I ask. Here, Sassenach, take this.” He pushed the fowling piece into my hands, and selected his favorite of the pistols, a long-barreled Highland dag with a scroll butt.

The man—it was Richard Brown, I saw—stopped some distance away, pulled a handkerchief from the waist of his breeches, and waved it slowly overhead. Jamie snorted briefly, but let him come on.

“Fraser!” he called, coming to a stop at a distance of forty yards or so. “Fraser! D’ye hear me?”

Jamie sighted carefully and fired. The ball struck the ground a few feet in front of Brown, raising a sudden puff of dust from the path, and Brown leapt in the air as though stung by a bee.

“What’s the matter with you?” he yelled indignantly. “Have ye never heard of a flag o’ truce, you horse-stealin’ Scotcher?”

“If I wanted ye dead, Brown, ye’d be coolin’ this minute!” Jamie shouted back. “Speak your piece.” What he did want was plain: he wanted them wary of coming closer to the house; it was impossible to hit anything accurately with a pistol at forty yards, and not that easy with a musket.

“You know what I want!” Brown called. He took off his hat, wiping sweat and dirt from his face. “I want that goddamn murderous witch of yours.”

The answer to that was another carefully aimed pistol ball. Brown jumped again, but not so high.

“Look you,” he tried again, with a conciliating note in his voice. “We ain’t going to hurt her. We mean to take her to Hillsboro for trial. A fair trial. That’s all.”

Jamie handed me the second pistol to reload, took another, and fired.

You had to give Brown credit for persistence, I thought. Of course, it had probably dawned on him that Jamie either couldn’t or wouldn’t actually hit him, and he doggedly stood his ground through two more shots, yelling that they meant to take me to Hillsboro, and surely to God if I were innocent, Jamie should want a trial, shouldn’t he?

It was hot upstairs, and sweat was trickling down between my br**sts. I blotted the fabric of my shift against my chest.

With no answer save the whine of pistol balls, Brown threw up his hands in exaggerated pantomime of a reasonable man tried beyond endurance, and stamped back to his men beneath the chestnut trees. Nothing had changed, but seeing the narrow back of him made me breathe a little easier.

Jamie was still crouched in the window, pistol at the ready, but seeing Brown go back, he relaxed and sat back on his heels, sighing.

“Is there water, Sassenach?”

“Yes.” The bedroom ewer was full; I poured him a cup and he drank it thirstily. We had food, water, and a fair amount of shot and powder. I did not, however, foresee a long siege ahead.

“What do you suppose they’ll do?” I didn’t go near the window, but by standing to one side, I could see them clearly, gathered in conference under the trees. The air was still and heavy, and the leaves above them hung like damp rags.

Jamie came to stand behind me, dabbing at his lip with the tail of his shirt.

“Fire the house as soon as it’s dark, I suppose,” he said matter-of-factly. “I would. Though I suppose they might try draggin’ Gideon out and threatening to put a ball through his head, and I didna give ye up.” He seemed to think this last was a joke, but I failed to see the humor in it.

He saw my face and put a hand behind my back, drawing me close for a moment. The air was hot and sticky, and we were both wringing wet, but the nearness of him was a comfort, nonetheless.

“So,” I said, taking a deep breath. “It all depends on whether Mrs. Bug got away—and who she’s told.”

“She’ll ha’ gone for Arch, first thing.” Jamie patted me gently, and sat down on the bed. “If he’s to home, he’ll run for Kenny Lindsay; he’s nearest. After that . . .” He shrugged, and closed his eyes, and I saw that his face was pale under the sunburn and the smears of dirt and blood.

“Jamie—are you hurt?”

He opened his eyes and gave me a small, one-sided smile, trying not to stretch his torn lip.

“No, I’ve broken my bloody finger again, is all.” He raised a shoulder in deprecation, but let me lift his right hand to look.

It was a clean break; that was all that could be said for it. The fourth finger was stiff, the joints fused from being so badly broken long ago, in Wentworth Prison. He couldn’t bend it, and it therefore stuck out awkwardly; this wasn’t the first time he’d snapped it.

He swallowed as I felt gently for the break, and closed his eyes again, sweating.

“There’s laudanum in the surgery,” I said. “Or whisky.” I knew he would refuse, though, and he did.

“I’ll want a clear head,” he said, “whatever happens.” He opened his eyes and gave me the ghost of a smile. The room was sweltering and airless, despite the open shutter. The sun was more than halfway down the sky, and the first shadows were gathering in the corners of the room.

I went down to the surgery to fetch a splint and bandage; it wouldn’t help a lot, but it was something to do.

The surgery was dark, with the shutters closed, but with the windows broken, air came through them, making the room seem oddly exposed and vulnerable. I walked in like a mouse, quiet, stopping abruptly, listening for danger, whiskers twitching. Everything was quiet, though.

“Too quiet,” I said aloud, and laughed. Moving with purpose and ignoring the noise, I set my feet down firmly and opened cupboard doors with abandon, banging instruments and rattling bottles as I looked out what I needed.

I stopped into the kitchen before returning upstairs. Partly to reassure myself that the back door was firmly bolted, and partly to see what bits of food Mrs. Bug might have left out. He hadn’t said so, but I knew the pain of the broken finger was making Jamie mildly nauseated—and in him, food generally quelled that sort of disturbance, and made him feel more settled.

The cauldron was still over the coals, but the fire, untended, had burned down so far that the soup had luckily not boiled away. I poked up the embers and put on three sticks of fat pine, as much by way of thumbing my nose at the besiegers outside as from the long-ingrained habit of never letting a fire die. Let them see the spray of sparks from the chimney, I thought, and imagine us sitting peacefully down to eat by our hearth. Or better yet, imagine us sitting by the blazing fire, melting lead and molding bullets.

In this defiant frame of mind, I went back upstairs, equipped with medical supplies, an alfresco lunch, and a large bottle of black ale. I couldn’t help but notice, though, the echo of my footsteps on the stair, and the silence that settled quickly back into place behind me, like water when one steps out of it.

I heard a shot, just as I approached the head of the stair, and took the last steps so fast that I tripped and would have fallen headlong, save for reeling into the wall.

Jamie appeared from Mr. Wemyss’s room, fowling piece in hand, looking startled.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?”

“Yes,” I said crossly, wiping spilled soup off my hand with my apron. “What in the name of God are you shooting at?”

“Nothing. I only wanted to make the point that the back of the house is nay safer than the front, if they thought of creeping up that way. Just to ensure that they do wait for dark to fall.”

I bound up his finger, which seemed to help a little. The food, as I’d hoped, helped considerably more. He ate like a wolf, and rather to my surprise, so did I.

“The condemned ate a hearty meal,” I observed, picking up crumbs of bread and cheese. “I’d always thought being in danger of death would make one too nervous to eat, but apparently not.”

He shook his head, took a swallow of ale, and passed me the bottle.

“A friend once told me, ‘The body has nay conscience.’ I dinna ken that that’s entirely so—but it is true that the body doesna generally admit the possibility of nonexistence. And if ye exist—well, ye need food, that’s all.” He grinned one-sided at me, and tearing the last of the sweet rolls in half, gave one to me.

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