A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 8


I was surprised to see them; it was a good three-day ride to Brownsville from the Ridge, and there was little commerce between the two settlements. It was at least that far to Salem, in the opposite direction, but the inhabitants of the Ridge went there much more frequently; the Moravians were both industrious and great traders, taking honey, oil, salt fish, and hides in trade for cheese, pottery, chickens, and other small livestock. So far as I knew, the denizens of Brownsville dealt only in cheap trade goods for the Cherokee, and in the production of a very inferior type of beer, not worth the ride.

“Good day, mistress.” Richard, the smaller and elder of the brothers, touched the brim of his hat, but didn’t take it off. “Is your husband to home?”

“He’s out by the hay barn, scraping hides.” I wiped my hands carefully on the towel I was carrying. “Do come round to the kitchen; I’ll bring up some cider.”

“Don’t trouble.” Without further ado, he turned and set off purposefully round the house. Lionel Brown, a bit taller than his brother, though with the same spare, almost gangly build and the same tobacco-colored hair, nodded briefly to me as he followed.

They had left their mules, reins hanging, evidently for me to tend. The animals were beginning to amble slowly across the yard, pausing to crop the long grass that edged the path.

“Hmpf!” I said, glaring after the brothers Brown.

“Who are they?” said a low voice behind me. Bobby Higgins had come out and was peering off the corner of the porch with his good eye. Bobby tended to be wary of strangers—and no wonder, given his experiences in Boston.

“Neighbors, such as they are.” I lunged off the porch and caught one of the mules by the bridle as he reached for the peach sapling I had planted near the porch. Disliking this interference in his affairs, he brayed ear-splittingly in my face, and attempted to bite me.

“Here, mum, let me.” Bobby, already holding the other mule’s reins, leaned past to take the halter from me. “Hark at ’ee!” he said to the obstreperous mule. “Hush tha noise, else I take a stick to ’ee, then!”

Bobby had been a foot soldier rather than cavalry, it was clear to see. The words were bold enough, but ill-matched with his tentative manner. He gave a perfunctory yank on the mule’s reins. The mule promptly laid back its ears and bit him in the arm.

He screamed and let go both sets of reins. Clarence, my own mule, hearing the racket, set up a loud bray of greeting from his pen, and the two strange mules promptly trotted off in that direction, stirrup leathers bouncing.

Bobby wasn’t badly hurt, though the mule’s teeth had broken the skin; spots of blood seeped through the sleeve of his shirt. As I was turning back the cloth to have a look at it, I heard footsteps on the porch, and looked up to see Lizzie, a large wooden spoon in hand, looking alarmed.

“Bobby! What’s happened?”

He straightened at once, seeing her, assuming nonchalance, and brushed a lock of curly brown hair off his brow.

“Ah, oh! Naught, miss. Bit o’ trouble with tha sons o’ Belial, like. No fear, it’s fine.”

Whereupon his eyes rolled up in his head and he fell over in a dead faint.

“Oh!” Lizzie flew down the steps and knelt beside him, urgently patting his cheek. “Is he all right, Mrs. Fraser?”

“God knows,” I said frankly. “I think so, though.” Bobby appeared to be breathing normally, and I found a reasonable pulse in his wrist.

“Shall we carry him inside? Or should I fetch a burnt feather, do you think? Or the spirits of ammonia from the surgery? Or some brandy?” Lizzie hovered like an anxious bumblebee, ready to fly off in any of several different directions.

“No, I think he’s coming round.” Most faints last only a few seconds, and I could see his chest lift as his breathing deepened.

“Bit o’ brandy wouldn’t come amiss,” he murmured, eyelids beginning to flutter.

I nodded to Lizzie, who vanished back into the house, leaving her spoon behind on the grass.

“Feeling a bit peaky, are you?” I inquired sympathetically. The injury to his arm was no more than a scratch, and I certainly hadn’t done anything of a shocking nature to him—well, not physically shocking. What was the trouble here?

“I dunno, mum.” He was trying to sit up, and while he was white as a sheet, seemed otherwise all right, so I let him. “It’s only, every now and again, I gets these spots, like, whirring round me head like a swarm o’ bees, and then it all goes black.”

“Now and again? It’s happened before?” I asked sharply.

“Yessum.” His head wobbled like a sunflower in the breeze, and I put a hand under his armpit, lest he fall over again. “His Lordship was in hopes you might know summat would stop it.”

“His Lord—oh, he knew about the fainting?” Well, of course he would, if Bobby were in the habit of falling over in front of him.

He nodded, and took a deep, gasping breath.

“Doctor Potts bled me regular, twice a week, but it didn’t seem to help.”

“I daresay not. I hope he was of somewhat more help with your piles,” I remarked dryly.

A faint tinge of pink—he had scarcely enough blood to provide a decent blush, poor boy—rose in his cheeks, and he glanced away, fixing his gaze on the spoon.

“Erm . . . I, um, didn’t mention that to anybody.”

“You didn’t?” I was surprised at that. “But—”

“See, ’twas only the riding. From Virginia.” The pink tinge grew. “I’d not have let on, save I was in such agony after a week on yon bloody horse—saving your presence, mum—I’d no chance of hiding it.”

“So Lord John didn’t know about that, either?”

He shook his head vigorously, making the disheveled brown curls flop back over his forehead. I felt rather annoyed—with myself for having evidently misjudged John Grey’s motives, and with John Grey, for making me feel a fool.

“Well . . . are you feeling a bit better, now?” Lizzie was not appearing with the brandy, and I wondered momentarily where she was. Bobby was still very pale, but nodded gamely, and struggled to his feet, where he stood swaying and blinking, trying to keep his balance. The “M” branded on his cheek stood out, an angry red against the pallid skin.

Distracted by Bobby’s faint, I had ignored the sounds coming from the other side of the house. Now, though, I became aware of voices, and approaching footsteps.

Jamie and the two Browns came into sight round the corner of the house, then stopped, seeing us. Jamie had been frowning slightly; the frown grew deeper. The Browns, by contrast, seemed oddly elated, though in a grim sort of way.

“So it’s true, then.” Richard Brown stared hard at Bobby Higgins, then turned to Jamie. “You’ve a murderer on your premises!”

“Have I?” Jamie was coldly polite. “I’d no idea.” He bowed to Bobby Higgins with his best French-court manner, then straightened, gesturing to the Browns. “Mr. Higgins, may I present Mr. Richard Brown and Mr. Lionel Brown. Gentlemen, my guest, Mr. Higgins.” The words “my guest” were spoken with a particular emphasis that made Richard Brown’s thin mouth compress to near invisibility.

“Have a care, Fraser,” he said, staring hard at Bobby, as though daring him to evaporate. “Keeping the wrong company can be dangerous, these days.”

“I choose my company as I will, sir.” Jamie spoke softly, biting off each word between his teeth. “And I do not choose yours. Joseph!”

Lizzie’s father, Joseph Wemyss, appeared round the corner, leading the two renegade mules, who now seemed docile as kittens, though either of them dwarfed Mr. Wemyss.

Bobby Higgins, flabbergasted by the proceedings, looked wildly at me for explanation. I shrugged slightly, and kept silence as the two Browns mounted and rode out of the clearing, backs stiff with anger.

Jamie waited ’til they’d disappeared from view, then blew out his breath, rubbing a hand viciously through his hair and muttering something in Gaelic. I didn’t follow the finer points, but I gathered that he was comparing the character of our recent visitors to that of Mr. Higgins’s piles—to the detriment of the former.

“Beg pardon, sir?” Higgins looked bewildered, but anxious to please.

Jamie glanced at him.

“Let them awa’ and bile their heids,” he said, dismissing the Browns with a flip of the hand. He caught my eye and turned toward the house. “Come ben, Bobby; I’ve a thing or two to say to ye.”

I FOLLOWED them in, both from curiosity and in case Mr. Higgins should feel faint again; he seemed steady enough, but still very pale. By contrast with Bobby Higgins, Mr. Wemyss—fair-haired and slight as his daughter—looked the picture of ruddy health. Whatever was the matter with Bobby? I wondered. I stole a discreet look at the seat of his breeches as I followed him, but that was all right; no bleeding.

Jamie led the way into his study, gesturing at the motley collection of stools and boxes he used for visitors, but both Bobby and Mr. Wemyss chose to stand—Bobby for obvious reasons, Mr. Wemyss from respect; he was never comfortable sitting in Jamie’s presence, save at meals.

Unhampered by either bodily or social reservations, I settled myself on the best stool and raised one eyebrow at Jamie, who had sat down himself at the table he used as a desk.

“This is the way of it,” he said without preamble. “Brown and his brother have declared themselves head of a Committee of Safety, and came to enlist me and my tenants as members of it.” He glanced at me, the corner of his mouth curling a little. “I declined, as ye doubtless noticed.”

My stomach contracted slightly, thinking of what Major MacDonald had said—and of what I knew. It was beginning, then.

“Committee of Safety?” Mr. Wemyss looked bewildered, and glanced at Bobby Higgins—who was beginning to look substantially less so.

“Have they, so?” Bobby said softly. Strands of curly brown hair had escaped from their binding; he fingered one back behind his ear.

“Ye’ve heard of such committees before, Mr. Higgins?” Jamie inquired, raising one brow.

“Met one, zur. Close-like.” Bobby touched a finger briefly below his blind eye. He was still pale, but beginning to recover his self-possession. “Mobs they be, zur. Like they mules, but more of them—and more wicious.” He gave a lopsided smile, smoothing the shirt-sleeve over the bite on his arm.

The mention of mules reminded me abruptly, and I stood up, putting a sudden stop to the conversation.

“Lizzie! Where’s Lizzie?”

Not waiting for an answer to this rhetorical question, I went to the study door and shouted her name—only to be met by silence. She’d gone in for brandy; there was plenty, in a jug in the kitchen, and she knew that—I’d seen her reach it down for Mrs. Bug only the night before. She must be in the house. Surely she wouldn’t have gone—

“Elizabeth? Elizabeth, where are you?” Mr. Wemyss was right behind me, calling, as I strode down the hall to the kitchen.

Lizzie was lying in a dead faint on the hearth, a limp bundle of clothes, one frail hand flung out as though she had tried to save herself as she fell.

“Miss Wemyss!” Bobby Higgins shouldered his way past me, looking frantic, and scooped her up into his arms.

“Elizabeth!” Mr. Wemyss elbowed his way past me as well, his face nearly as white as his daughter’s.

“Do let me look at her, will you?” I said, elbowing firmly back. “Put her down on the settle, Bobby, do.”

He rose carefully with her in his arms, then sat down on the settle, still holding her, wincing slightly as he did so. Well, if he wanted to be a hero, I hadn’t time to argue with him. I knelt and seized her wrist in search of a pulse, smoothing the pale hair off her face with my other hand.

One look had been enough to tell me what was likely the matter. She was clammy to the touch, and the pallor of her face was tinged with gray. I could feel the tremor of oncoming chills that ran through her flesh, unconscious as she was.

“The ague’s back, is it?” Jamie asked. He’d appeared by my side, and was gripping Mr. Wemyss by the shoulder, at once comforting and restraining.

“Yes,” I said briefly. Lizzie had malaria, contracted on the coast a few years before, and was subject to occasional relapses—though she hadn’t had one in more than a year.

Mr. Wemyss took a deep, audible breath, a little color coming back to his face. He was familiar with malaria, and had confidence that I could deal with it. I had, several times before.

I hoped that I could this time. Lizzie’s pulse was fast and light under my fingers, but regular, and she was beginning to stir. Still, the speed and suddenness with which the attack had come on was frightening. Had she had any warning? I hoped the concern I felt didn’t show on my face.

“Take her up to her bed, cover her, get a hot stone for her feet,” I said, rising and addressing Bobby and Mr. Wemyss briskly in turn. “I’ll start some medicine brewing.”

Jamie followed me down to the surgery, glancing back over his shoulder to be sure that the others were out of earshot before speaking.

“I thought ye were out of the Jesuit bark?” he asked, low-voiced.

“I am. Damn it.” Malaria was a chronic disease, but for the most part, I had been able to keep it under control with small, regular doses of cinchona bark. But I had run out of cinchona during the winter, and no one had yet been able to travel down to the coast for more.

“So, then?”

“I’m thinking.”

I pulled open the door of the cupboard, and gazed at the neat ranks of glass bottles therein—many of them empty, or with no more than a few scattered crumbs of leaf or root inside. Everything was depleted, after a cold, wet winter of grippe, influenza, chilblains, and hunting accidents.

Febrifuges. I had a number of things that would help a normal fever; malaria was something else. There was plenty of dogwood root and bark, at least; I had collected immense quantities during the fall, foreseeing the need. I took that down, and after a moment’s thought, added the jar containing a sort of gentian known locally as “agueweed.”

“Put on the kettle, will you?” I asked Jamie, frowning to myself as I crumbled roots, bark, and weed into my mortar. All I could do was to treat the superficial symptoms of fever and chill. And shock, I thought, better treat for that, too.

“And bring me a little honey, too, please!” I called after him, as he had already reached the door. He nodded and went hurriedly toward the kitchen, his footsteps quick and solid on the oak floorboards.

I began to pound the mixture, still turning over additional possibilities. Some small part of my mind was half-glad of the emergency; I could put off for a little while the necessity of hearing about the Browns and their beastly committee.

I had a most uneasy feeling. Whatever they wanted, it didn’t portend anything good, I was sure; they certainly hadn’t left on friendly terms. As for what Jamie might feel obliged to do in response to them—

Horse chestnut. That was sometimes used for the tertian ague, as Dr. Rawlings called it. Did I have any left? Glancing quickly over the jars and bottles in the medicine chest, I stopped, seeing one with an inch or so of dried black globules left at the bottom. Gallberries, the label read. Not mine; it was one of Rawlings’s jars. I’d never used them for anything. But something niggled at my memory. I’d heard or read something about gallberries; what was it?

Half-unconsciously, I picked up the jar and opened it, sniffing. A sharp, astringent smell rose from the berries, slightly bitter. And slightly familiar.

Still holding the jar, I went to the table where my big black casebook lay, and flipped hastily to the early pages, those notes left by the man who had first owned both book and medicine chest, Daniel Rawlings. Where had it been?

I was still flipping pages, scanning for the shape of a half-remembered note, when Jamie came back, a jug of hot water and a dish of honey in hand—and the Beardsley twins dogging his steps.

I glanced at them, but said nothing; they tended to pop up unexpectedly, like a pair of jack-in-the boxes.

“Is Miss Lizzie fearfully sick?” Jo asked anxiously, peering around Jamie to see what I was doing.

“Yes,” I said briefly, only half paying attention to him. “Don’t worry, though; I’m fixing her some medicine.”

There it was. A brief notation, added as an obvious afterthought to the account of treatment of a patient whose symptoms seemed clearly malarial—and who had, I noticed with an unpleasant twinge, died.

I am told by the Trader from whom I procured Jesuit Bark that the Indians use a Plant called Gallberry, which rivals the Bark of Cinchona for bitterness and is thought capital for Use in tertian and quartan Fevers. I have collected some for Experiment and propose to try an Infusion so soon as the Opportunity presents itself.

I picked out one of the dried berries and bit into it. The pungent taste of quinine at once flooded my mouth—accompanied by a copious flood of saliva, as my mouth puckered at the eye-watering bitterness. Gallberry, indeed!

I dived for the open window, spat into the herb bed beneath and went on spitting, to the accompaniment of giggles and snorts from the Beardsleys, who were most diverted at the unexpected entertainment.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?” Amusement was fighting with worry for dominance of Jamie’s face. He poured a bit of water from the jug into a clay beaker, added a dollop of honey as an afterthought, and handed it to me.

“Fine,” I croaked. “Don’t drop that!” Kezzie Beardsley had picked up the jar of gallberries and was sniffing cautiously at it. He nodded at my admonition, but didn’t put the jar down, instead handing it off to his brother.

I took a good mouthful of hot, honeyed water, and swallowed. “Those—they have something like quinine in them.”

Jamie’s face changed at once, the worry lessening.

“So they’ll help the lass?”

“I hope so. There aren’t many, though.”

“D’ye mean you need more o’ these things for Miss Lizzie, Mrs. Fraser?” Jo glanced up at me, dark eyes sharp over the little jar.

“Yes,” I said, surprised. “You don’t mean you know where to get any, surely?”

“Aye, ma’am,” Kezzie said, his voice a little loud, as usual. “Indians got ’em.”

“Which Indians?” Jamie asked, his gaze sharpening.

“Them Cherokee,” Jo said, waving vaguely over one shoulder. “By the mountain.”

This description might have suited half a dozen villages, but evidently it was a specific village that they had in mind, for the two of them turned as one, obviously intending to go directly and fetch back gallberries.

“Wait a bit, lads,” Jamie said, snagging Kezzie by the collar. “I’ll go along with ye. Ye’ll be needing something to trade, after all.”

“Oh, we got hides a-plenty, sir,” Jo assured him. “’Twas a good season.”

Jo was an expert hunter, and while Kezzie still hadn’t sufficiently keen hearing to hunt well, his brother had taught him to run traplines. Ian had told me that the Beardsleys’ shack was stacked nearly to the rooftree with the hides of beaver, marten, deer, and ermine. The smell of it always clung to them, a faint miasma of dried blood, musk, and cold hair.

“Aye? Well, that’s generous of ye, Jo, to be sure. But I’ll come, nonetheless.” Jamie glanced at me, acknowledging the fact that he had made his decision—but asking for my approval, nonetheless. I swallowed, tasting bitterness.

“Yes,” I said, and cleared my throat. “If—if you’re going, let me send some things, and tell you what to ask for in trade. You won’t leave until morning, surely?”

The Beardsleys were vibrating with impatience to be gone, but Jamie stood still, looking at me, and I felt him touch me, without words or movement.

“No,” he said softly, “we’ll bide for the night.” He turned then to the Beardsleys. “Go up, will ye, Jo, and ask Bobby Higgins to come down. I’ll need to speak with him.”

“He’s up with Miss Lizzie?” Jo Beardsley looked displeased at this, and his brother’s face echoed his expression of slit-eyed suspicion.

“What’s he a-doin’ in her room, then? Don’t he know she’s betrothed?” Kezzie asked, righteously.

“Her father’s with her, too,” Jamie assured them. “Her reputation’s safe, aye?”

Jo snorted briefly, but the brothers exchanged glances, then left together, slender shoulders set in determination to oust this threat to Lizzie’s virtue.

“So you’ll do it?” I set down the pestle. “Be an Indian agent?”

“I think I must. If I do not—Richard Brown surely will. I think I canna risk that.” He hesitated, then drew close and touched me lightly, fingers on my elbow. “I’ll send the lads back at once with the berries ye need. I may need to stay for a day, maybe two. For the talking, aye?” To tell the Cherokee that he was now an agent for the British Crown, he meant—and to make arrangements for word to be spread that the headmen of the mountain villages should come down later to a council for parley and gifts.

I nodded, feeling a small bubble of fear swell under my breastbone. It was starting. No matter how much one knows that something dreadful is going to happen in the future, one somehow never thinks it will be today.

“Not—don’t stay away too long, will you?” I blurted, not wanting to burden him with my fears, but unable to keep quiet.

“No,” he said softly, and his hand rested for an instant in the small of my back. “Dinna fash yourself; I’ll not tarry.”

The sound of feet descending the stairs echoed in the hall. I supposed Mr. Wemyss had shooed the Beardsleys out, along with Bobby. They didn’t stop, but went off without speaking, casting looks of veiled dislike at Bobby, who seemed quite oblivious to them.

“Yon lad said you wanted to speak to me, zur?” He’d regained some color, I was glad to see, and seemed steady enough on his feet. He glanced uneasily at the table, still spread with the sheet I’d put him on, and then at me, but I merely shook my head. I’d finish dealing with his piles later.

“Aye, Bobby.” Jamie made a brief gesture toward a stool, as though to invite Bobby to sit, but I cleared my throat in a meaningful manner, and he stopped, then leaned against the table, rather than sitting down himself.

“Those two who came—Brown, they’re called. They’ve a settlement some way away. Ye said ye’ve heard of the Committees of Safety, aye? So ye’ll have some notion what they’re about.”

“Aye, zur. Tha Browns, zur—did they want me?” He spoke calmly enough, but I saw him swallow briefly, Adam’s apple bobbing in his slender throat.

Jamie sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. The sun was slanting through the window now, and struck him directly, making his red hair glow with flame—and picking out here and there a flicker of the silver that was beginning to show among the ruddy strands.

“They did. They kent ye were here; heard of ye, doubtless from someone ye met along the way. Ye’ll have told folk where ye were headed, I suppose?”

Bobby nodded, wordless.

“What did they want with him?” I asked, tipping the ground root bark and berries into a bowl and pouring hot water over them to steep.

“They didna make that quite clear,” Jamie said dryly. “But then, I didna give them the chance. I only told them they’d take a guest from my hearth over my dead body—and theirs.”

“I thanks ’ee for that, zur.” Bobby took a deep breath. “They—knew, I reckon? About Boston? I’d not told anyone that, surely.”

Jamie’s frown deepened slightly.

“Aye, they did. They pretended to think I didna ken; told me I was harboring a murderer unbeknownst, and a threat to the public welfare.”

“Well, the first is true enough,” Bobby said, touching his brand gingerly, as though it still burned him. He offered a wan smile. “But I dunno as I s’ould be a threat to anyone, these days.”

Jamie dismissed that.

“The point is, Bobby, that they do ken ye’re here. They’ll not come and drag ye away, I think. But I’d ask ye to go canny about the place. I’ll make provision to see ye safely back to Lord John, when the time comes, with an escort. I gather ye’re no quite finished with him?” he asked, turning to me.

“Not quite,” I replied equably. Bobby looked apprehensive.

“Well, then.” Jamie reached into the waist of his breeches, and drew out a pistol, which had been hidden by the folds of his shirt. It was, I saw, the fancy gilt-edged one.

“Keep it by ye,” Jamie said, handing it to Bobby. “There’s powder and shot in the sideboard. Will ye look out for my wife and family, then, whilst I’m gone?”

“Oh!” Bobby looked startled, but then nodded, tucking the pistol away in his own breeches. “I will so, zur. Depend upon it!”

Jamie smiled at him, his eyes warming.

“That’s a comfort to me, Bobby. Will ye maybe go and find my son-in-law? I’ll need a word with him before I go.”

“Aye, zur. Right away!” He squared his shoulders and set off, an expression of determination on his poet’s face.

“What do you think they would have done with him?” I asked softly, as the outer door closed behind him. “The Browns.”

Jamie shook his head.

“God knows. Hanged him at a crossroad, maybe—or maybe only beaten him and driven him out of the mountains. They want to make a show of being able to protect the folk, aye? From dangerous criminals and the like,” he added, with a twist of the mouth.

“A government derives its powers from the just consent of the governed,” I quoted, nodding. “For a Committee of Safety to have any legitimacy, there needs to be an obvious threat to the public safety. Clever of the Browns to have reasoned that out.”

He gave me a look, one auburn brow raised.

“Who said that? The consent of the governed.”

“Thomas Jefferson,” I replied, feeling smug. “Or rather, he will say it in another two years.”

“He’ll steal it from a gentleman named Locke in another two years,” he corrected. “I suppose Richard Brown must ha’ been decently educated.”

“Unlike me, you mean?” I said, unruffled. “If you expect trouble from the Browns, though, should you have given Bobby that particular pistol?”

He shrugged.

“I’ll need the good ones. And I doubt verra much that he’ll fire that one.”

“Counting on its deterrent effect?” I was skeptical, but he was likely right.

“Aye, that. But more on Bobby.”

“How so?”

“I doubt he’d fire a gun again to save his own life—but he would, maybe, to save yours. And should it come to such a pass, they’ll be too close to miss.” He spoke with dispassion, but I felt the hairs prickle down my nape.

“Well, that’s a comfort,” I said. “And just how do you know what he’d do?”

“Talked to him,” he said briefly. “The man he shot in Boston was the first he’d ever killed. He doesna want to do it again.” He straightened, and moved restlessly toward the counter, where he busied himself in straightening a scatter of small instruments I had laid out for cleaning.

I moved to stand beside him, watching. There was a handful of small cautery irons and scalpels, soaking in a beaker of turpentine. He took them out, one by one, wiped them dry and laid them back in their box, neatly, side by side. The spade-shaped metal ends of the irons were blackened by use; the scalpel blades were weathered to a soft glow, but the sharp edges gleamed, a hairbreadth of bright silver.