A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 80


We were some distance south of Hillsboro. The weather continued wet, the roads muddy, and the travel difficult. I think Richard Brown would have been pleased to relinquish us to the sheriff of Rowan county—if such a person had been available. The office, he was informed, was currently unfilled, the last occupant having decamped hurriedly overnight and no one yet found willing to replace him.

A matter of politics, I gathered, the recent sheriff having leaned toward independency, whilst the majority of persons in the county were still strongly Loyalist. I didn’t learn the specifics of the incident that had triggered the recent sheriff’s hasty departure, but the taverns and inns near Hillsboro were buzzing like hornets’ nests in the wake of it.

The Circuit Court had ceased to meet some months before, Brown was informed, the justices who attended it feeling it too dangerous to appear in the present unsettled state of things. The sole justice of the peace he was able to discover felt similarly, and declined point-blank to take custody of us, informing Brown that it was more than his life was worth, to be involved in anything even faintly controversial at the moment.

“But it’s nothing to do with politics!” Brown had shouted at him, frustrated. “It’s murder, for God’s sake—black murder!”

“Anything and everything’s political these days, sir,” the JP, one Harvey Mickelgrass, informed him sadly, shaking his head. “I should not venture to address even a case of drunk and disorderly, for fear of having my house pulled down around my ears and my wife left widowed. The sheriff attempted to sell his office, but could find no one willing to purchase it. No, sir—you will have to go elsewhere.”

Brown would by no means take us to Cross Creek or Campbelton, where Jocasta Cameron’s influence was strong, and where the local justice was her good friend, Farquard Campbell. And so we headed south, toward Wilmington.

Brown’s men were disedified; they had expected a simple lynching and house-burning, perhaps the odd bit of looting—not this long-drawn-out and tedious plodding from place to place. Their spirits were further lowered when Ezra, who had been clinging to his horse in a dogged daze of fever, fell suddenly into the road and was picked up dead.

I didn’t ask to examine the body—and wouldn’t have been given leave in any case—but I rather thought from the lolling looks of him that he had simply lost consciousness, tumbled off, and broken his neck.

Not a few of the others cast looks of open fear toward me in the wake of this occurrence, though, and their sense of enthusiasm for the venture diminished visibly.

Richard Brown was not deterred; he would, I was sure, have shot us without mercy long since, had it not been for Tom Christie, silent and gray as the morning fog on the roads. He said little, and that little confined to necessities. I should have thought him moving mechanically, in the numb haze of grief—had I not turned one evening as we camped by the road, to see his eyes fixed upon me, with a look of such nak*d anguish in them that I glanced hastily away, only to see Jamie, sitting beside me, watching Tom Christie with a very thoughtful expression.

For the most part, though, he kept his face impassive—what could be seen of it, under the shade of his leather slouch hat. And Richard Brown, prevented by Christie’s presence from doing us active harm, took every opportunity to spread his version of the tale of Malva’s murder—perhaps as much to harrow Tom Christie in the hearing of it, over and over again, as for its effect on our reputations.

At any rate, I should not have been surprised when they stoned us, in a small, nameless hamlet south of Hillsboro—but I was. A young boy had seen us on the road, stared as we rode by—then vanished like a fox, scampering down a bank with the news. And ten minutes later, we rode around a bend in the road and into a fusillade of stones and shrieks.

One struck my mare on the shoulder and she shied violently. I kept my seat narrowly, but was off-balance; another hit me in the thigh, and another high in the chest, knocking the breath from me, and when one more bounced painfully off my head, I lost my grip on the reins, and as the horse, panicked, curvetted and spun, I flew off, landing on the ground with a bone-shaking thud.

I should have been terrified; in fact, I was furious. The stone that had hit me in the head had glanced off—thanks to the thickness of my hair and the cap I wore—but with the infuriating sting of a slap or a pinch, rather than true impact. I was on my feet by reflex, staggering, but caught sight of a jeering boy on the bank above me, hooting and dancing in triumph. I lunged, caught him by the foot and jerked.

He yelped, slipped, and fell on top of me. We crashed to the ground together, and rolled in a tangle of skirts and cloak. I was older, heavier, and completely berserk. All the fear, misery, and uncertainty of the last weeks came to an instant boil, and I punched his sneering face, twice, as hard as I could. I felt something crack in my hand, and pain shot up my arm.

He bellowed, and wriggled to escape—he was smaller than I was, but strong with panic. I struggled to keep a grip on him, got him by the hair—he struck out at me, flailing, and knocked off my cap, getting one hand in my hair and yanking hard.

The pain reignited my fury and I jammed a knee into him, anywhere I could, again, and once more, blindly seeking his soft parts. His mouth opened in a soundless “O” and his eyes bulged; his fingers relaxed and let go of my hair, and I reared up over him and slapped him as hard as I possibly could.

A big rock struck my shoulder with a numbing blow and I was knocked sideways by the impact. I tried to hit him again, but couldn’t lift my arm. Panting and sobbing, he writhed free of my cloak and scrambled away on hands and knees, nose bleeding. I whirled on my knees to look after him, and looked straight into the eyes of a young man, his face intent and blazing with excitement, rock at the ready.

It hit me in the cheekbone and I swayed, my vision gone blurry. Then something very large hit me from behind, and I found myself flat on my face, pressed into the ground, the weight of a body on top of mine. It was Jamie; I could tell by the breathless “Holy Mother.” His body jerked as the stones hit him; I could hear the horrifying thud of them into his flesh.

There was a lot of shouting going on. I heard Tom Christie’s hoarse voice, then the firing of a single shot. More yelling, but of a different character. One or two soft thumps, stones striking earth nearby, a last grunt from Jamie as one slammed into him.

We lay pressed flat for a few moments, and I became aware of the uncomfortably spiky plant squashed under my cheek, the scent of its leaves harsh and bitter in my nose.

Then Jamie sat up, slowly, drawing in his breath with a catch, and I rose in turn on a shaky arm, nearly falling. My cheek was puffed and my hand and shoulder throbbed, but I had no attention to spare for that.

“Are you all right?” Jamie had got halfway to his feet, then sat down again, suddenly. He was pale, and a trickle of blood ran down the side of his face from a cut in his scalp, but he nodded, a hand pressed to his side.

“Aye, fine,” he said, but with a breathlessness that told me he likely had cracked ribs. “Ye’re all right, Sassenach?”

“Fine.” I managed to get to my feet, trembling. Brown’s men were scattered, some chasing the horses who had fled in the melee, others cursing, gathering up scattered bits of belongings from the road. Tom Christie was vomiting into the bushes by the road. Richard Brown stood under a tree, watching, his face white. He glanced at me sharply, then away.

We stopped at no more taverns on the way.



WHEN YE GO TO HIT SOMEONE, Sassenach, ye want to do it in the soft parts. Faces have too many bones. And then there’s the teeth to be thinkin’ of.”

Jamie spread her fingers, gently pressing the scraped, swollen knuckles, and air hissed between her own teeth.

“Thanks so much for the advice. And you’ve broken your hand how many times, hitting people?”

He wanted to laugh; the vision of her pounding that wee boy in a fury of berserk rage, hair flying in the wind and a look of blood in her eye, was one he would treasure. He didn’t, though.

“Your hand’s not broken, a nighean.” He curled her fingers, cupping her loose fist with both of his.

“How would you know?” she snapped. “I’m the doctor here.”

He stopped trying to hide his smile.

“If it were broken,” he said, “ye’d be white and puking, not red-faced and crankit.”

“Crankit, my arse!” She pulled her hand free, glaring at him as she nursed it against her bosom. She was in fact only slightly flushed, and most attractive, with her hair curling out in a wild mass round her head. One of Brown’s men had picked up her fallen cap after the attack, timidly offering it to her. Enraged, she had snatched it from him and stuffed it violently into a saddlebag.

“Are ye hungry, lass?”

“Yes,” she admitted grudgingly, as aware as he was that folk with broken bones generally had little appetite immediately, though they ate amazingly, once the pain had backed a bit.

He rummaged in the saddlebag, blessing Mrs. Bug as he came out with a handful of dried apricots and a large wrapped wedge of goat’s cheese. Brown’s men were cooking something over their fire, but he and Claire had not touched any food but their own, not since the first night.

How much longer might this farce go on? he wondered, breaking off a bit of cheese and handing it to his wife. They had food for perhaps a week, with care. Long enough, maybe, to reach the coast, and the weather held good. And what then?

It had been plain to him from the first that Brown had no plan, and was attempting to deal with a situation that had been out of his control since the first moment. Brown had ambition, greed, and a respectable sense of revenge, but almost no capacity of forethought, that much was clear.

Now, here he was, saddled with the two of them, forced to travel on and on, the unwelcome responsibility dragging like a worn-out shoe tied to a dog’s tail. And Brown the hindered dog, snarling and turning in circles, snapping at the thing that hampered him, and biting his own tail in consequence. Half his men had been wounded by the flung stones. Jamie thoughtfully touched a large, painful bruise on the point of his elbow.

He himself had had no choice; now Brown hadn’t, either. His men were growing restive; they had crops to tend, and hadn’t bargained for what they must see now as a fool’s errand.

It would be a simple matter to escape by himself. But then what? He could not leave Claire in Brown’s hands, and even were he able to get her safe away, they could not return to the Ridge with matters as they were; to do so would be to find themselves straight back in the pot.

He sighed, then caught his breath and let it out gingerly. He didn’t think his ribs were cracked, but they hurt.

“Ye’ve a bit of ointment, I expect?” he said, nodding at the bag that held her bits of medicine.

“Yes, of course.” She swallowed her bite of cheese, reaching for the bag. “I’ll put some on that cut on your head.”

He let her do that, but then insisted upon anointing her hand in turn. She objected, insisting that she was perfectly fine, needed no such thing, they should save the ointment in case of future need—and yet she let him take her hand and smooth the sweet-smelling cream into her knuckles, the small fine bones of her hand hard under his fingers.

She so hated being helpless in any way—but the armor of righteous fury was wearing off, and while she kept a fierce face for Brown and the rest, he knew she was afraid. Not without reason, either.

Brown was uneasy, unable to settle. He moved to and fro, talking aimlessly with one man or another, needlessly checking the hobbled horses, pouring a cup of chicory coffee and holding it undrunk until it grew cold, then flinging it into the weeds. And all the time, his restless gaze returned to them.

Brown was hasty, impetuous, and half-baked. He was not entirely stupid, Jamie thought. And clearly he had realized that his strategy of spreading gossip and scandal concerning his prisoners in order to endanger them had severe defects, so long as he was himself obliged to continue in close proximity to said prisoners.

Their simple meal finished, Jamie lay down, carefully, and Claire curled herself into him spoonwise, wanting comfort.

Fighting was an exhausting business, and so was fear; she was asleep in moments. Jamie felt the pull of sleep, but would not yield to it yet. He occupied himself instead in reciting some of the poems Brianna had told him—he quite liked the one about the silversmith in Boston, riding to spread the alarm to Lexington, which he considered a handsome piece.

The company was beginning to settle for the night. Brown was still a-fidget, sitting staring darkly at the ground, then leaping to his feet to stride up and down. By contrast, Christie had barely stirred, though he made no move to go to bed. He sat on a rock, his supper barely touched.

A flicker of movement near Christie’s boot; a wee small mouse, making feints toward the neglected plate that sat on the ground, filled with bounty.

It had occurred to Jamie a couple of days before, in the vague way that one recognizes a fact unconsciously known for some time, that Tom Christie was in love with his wife.

Poor bugger, he thought. Surely Christie did not believe that Claire had had aught to do with the death of his daughter; if so, he would not be here. Did he think that Jamie, though . . . ?

He lay in the shelter of the darkness, watching the fire play across Christie’s haggard features, his eyes half-hooded, giving no hint of his thoughts. There were men who could be read like books; Tom Christie wasn’t one of them. But if ever he had seen a man being eaten alive before his eyes . . .

Was it the fate of his daughter, alone—or also the desperate need of a woman? He’d seen that need before, that gnawing at the soul, and knew it personally. Or did Christie think that Claire had killed wee Malva, or been in some way involved? There would be a quandary for an honorable man.

The need of a woman . . . the thought brought him back to the moment, and the awareness that the sounds he had been listening for in the wood behind him were now there. He had known for the past two days that they were followed, but last night they had camped in an open meadow, with no cover at all.

Moving slowly, but with no attempt at furtiveness, he rose, covered Claire with his cloak, and stepped into the wood, like one called by nature.

The moon was pale and hunchbacked and there was little light beneath the trees. He closed his eyes to damp the fire shadow and opened them again to the dark world, that place of shapes that lacked dimension and air that held spirits.

It was no spirit that stepped out from behind the blur of a pine tree, though.

“Blessed Michael defend us,” he said softly.

“The blessed host of angels and archangels be with ye, Uncle,” said Ian, in the same soft tone. “Though I am thinking that a few thrones and dominations wouldna come amiss, either.”

“Well, I wouldna argue, if Divine Intervention chose to take a hand,” Jamie said, heartened most amazingly by his nephew’s presence. “I’m sure I’ve no notion how else we shall escape this foolish coil.”

Ian grunted at that; Jamie saw his nephew’s head turn, checking the faint glow of the camp. Without discussion, they moved further into the wood.

“I canna be gone for long, without they come after me,” he said. “First, then—is all well wi’ the Ridge?”

Ian lifted a shoulder.

“There’s talk,” he said, the tone of his voice indicating that “talk” covered everything from auld wives’ gossip to the sort of insult that must be settled by violence. “No one killed yet, though. What shall I do, Uncle Jamie?”

“Richard Brown. He’s thinking, and God only kens what that will lead to.”

“He thinks too much; such men are dangerous,” Ian said, and laughed. Jamie, who had never known his nephew to read a book willingly, gave him a look of disbelief, but dismissed questions in favor of the pressing concerns of the moment.

“Aye, he is,” he said dryly. “He’s been spreading the story in pothouses and inns as we go—at a guess, in hopes of rousing public indignation to the point that some poor fool of a constable can be pushed into taking us off his hands, or better yet, that a mob might be stirred up to seize us and hang us out of hand, thus resolving his difficulty.”

“Oh, aye? Well, if that’s what he had in mind, Uncle, it’s working. Ye wouldna countenance some of the things I’ve heard, following in your tracks.”

“I know.” Jamie stretched gently, easing his painful ribs. It was only the mercy of God that it hadn’t been worse—that, and Claire’s rage, which had interrupted the attack, as everyone stopped to watch the engrossing spectacle of her hatcheling her assailant like a bundle of flax.

“It’s come home to him, though, that if ye mean to pin a target on someone, it’s wise to step away smartly thereafter. He’s thinking, as I say. Should he go off, then, or send someone . . .”

“I’ll follow, aye, and see what’s to do.”

He sensed rather than saw Ian’s nod; they stood in black shadow, the faint haze of moonlight like fog in the space between the trees. The lad moved, as though to go, then hesitated.

“Ye’re sure, Uncle, as it wouldna be better to wait a bit, then creep away? There’s nay bracken, but there’s decent cover in the hills nearby; we could be safe hidden by dawn.”

It was a great temptation. He felt the pull of the dark wild forest, above all, the lure of freedom. If he could but walk away into the greenwood, and stay there . . . But he shook his head.

“It wouldna do, Ian,” he said, though he let regret show in his voice. “We should be fugitives, then—and doubtless wi’ a price on our heads. With the countryside already roused against us—broadsides, posted bills? The public would do Brown’s work for him, promptly. And then, to run would seem an admission of guilt, forbye.”

Ian sighed, but nodded agreement.

“Well, then,” he said. He stepped forward and embraced Jamie, squeezing hard for an instant, and then was gone.

Jamie let out a long, tentative breath against the pain of his injured ribs.

“God go with ye, Ian,” he said to the dark, and turned back.

When he lay down again beside his wife, the camp was silent. The men lay like logs, wrapped in their blankets. Two figures, though, remained by the embers of the dying fire: Richard Brown and Thomas Christie, each alone on a rock with his thoughts.

Ought he to wake Claire, tell her? He considered for a moment, his cheek against the warm softness of her hair, and reluctantly decided no. It might hearten her a little to know of Ian’s presence—but he dare not risk rousing Brown’s suspicion; and if Brown were to perceive by any change in Claire’s mood or face that something had happened . . . no, best not. At least not yet.

He glanced along the ground at Christie’s feet, and saw the faint pale scurry of movement in the dark; the mouse had brought friends to share her feast.




AT DAWN, RICHARD BROWN WAS GONE. The rest of the men seemed grim, but resigned, and under the command of a squatty, morose sort of fellow named Oakes, we resumed our push south.

Something had changed in the night; Jamie had lost a little of the tension that had infused him since our departure from the Ridge. Stiff, sore, and disheartened as I was, I found this change some comfort, though wondering what had caused it. Was it the same thing that had caused Richard Brown to leave on his mysterious errand?

Jamie said nothing, though, beyond inquiring after my hand—which was tender, and so stiff that I couldn’t immediately flex my fingers. He continued to keep a watchful eye on our companions, but the lessening of tension had affected them, too; I began to lose my fear that they might suddenly lose patience and string us up, Tom Christie’s dour presence notwithstanding.

As though in accord with this more relaxed atmosphere, the weather suddenly cleared, which heartened everyone further. It would have been stretching things to say that there was any sense of rapprochement, but without Richard Brown’s constant malevolence, the other men at least became occasionally civil. And as it always did, the tedium and hardships of travel wore everyone down, so that we rolled down the rutted roads like a pack of marbles, occasionally caroming off one another, dusty, silent, and united in exhaustion, if nothing else, by the end of each day.

This neutral state of affairs changed abruptly in Brunswick. For a day or two before, Oakes had been plainly anticipating something, and when we reached the first houses, I could see him beginning to draw great breaths of relief.

It was therefore no surprise when we stopped to refresh ourselves at a pothouse on the edge of the tiny, half-abandoned settlement, to find Richard Brown awaiting us. It was a surprise when, without more than a murmured word from Brown, Oakes and two others suddenly seized Jamie, knocking the cup of water from his hand and slamming him against the wall of the building.

I dropped my own cup and flung myself toward them, but Richard Brown grabbed my arm in a viselike grip and dragged me toward the horses.

“Let go! What are you doing? Let go, I say!” I kicked him, and had a good go at scratching out his eyes, but he got hold of both my wrists, and shouted for one of the other men to help. Between the two of them, they got me—still screaming at the top of my lungs—on a horse in front of another of Brown’s men. There was a deal of shouting from Jamie’s direction, and general hubbub, as a few people came out of the pothouse, staring. None of them seemed disposed to interfere with a large group of armed men, though.

Tom Christie was shouting protests; I glimpsed him hammering on the back of one man, but to no avail. The man behind me wrapped an arm round my middle and jerked it tight, knocking out what breath I had left.

Then we were thundering down the road, Brunswick—and Jamie—disappearing in the dust.

My furious protests, demands, and questions brought no response, of course, beyond an order to be quiet, this accompanied by another warning squeeze of the restraining arm around me.

Shaking with rage and terror, I subsided, and at that point, saw that Tom Christie was still with us, looking shaken and disturbed.

“Tom!” I shouted. “Tom, go back! Don’t let them kill him! Please!”

He looked in my direction, startled, rose in his stirrups, and looked back toward Brunswick, then turned toward Richard Brown, shouting something.

Brown shook his head, reined his mount in so that Christie could come up alongside, and leaning over, yelled something at him that must have passed for explanation. Christie clearly didn’t like the situation, but after a few impassioned exchanges, he subsided, scowling, and dropped back. He pulled his horse’s head aside and circled back to come within speaking distance of me.

“They will not kill nor harm him,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the rumble of hooves and rattle of harness. “Brown’s word of honor upon it, he says.”

“And you believe him, for God’s sake?”

He looked disconcerted at that, glanced again at Brown, who had spurred up to ride ahead, then back at Brunswick. Indecision played across his features, but then his lips firmed and he shook his head.

“It will be all right,” he said. But he would not meet my eyes, and in spite of my continued entreaties to him to go back, to stop them, he slackened his pace, falling back so that I couldn’t see him anymore.

My throat was raw from screaming, and my stomach hurt, bruised and clenched in a knot of fear. Our speed had slowed, now that we had left Brunswick behind, and I concentrated on breathing; I wouldn’t speak until I was sure I could do so without my voice trembling.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked finally. I sat stiff in the saddle, enduring an unwanted intimacy with the man behind me.

“New Bern,” he said, with a note of grim satisfaction. “And then, thank God, we’ll be shut of you at last.”

THE JOURNEY TO NEW BERN passed in a blur of fear, agitation, and physical discomfort. While I did wonder what was about to happen to me, all such speculations were drowned by my anxiety about Jamie.

Tom Christie was plainly my only hope of finding out anything, but he avoided me, keeping his distance—and I found that as alarming as anything else. He was clearly troubled, even more so than he had been since Malva’s death, but he no longer bore a look of dull suffering; he was actively agitated. I was terribly afraid that he knew or suspected Jamie was dead, but would not admit it—either to me, or to himself.

All of the men clearly shared my captor’s urge to be rid of me as soon as possible; we stopped only briefly, when absolutely necessary for the horses to rest. I was offered food, but could not eat. By the time we reached New Bern, I was completely drained from the sheer physical exertion of the ride, but much more so from the constant strain of apprehension.

Most of the men remained at a tavern on the outskirts of the town; Brown and one of the other men took me through the streets, accompanied by a silent Tom Christie, arriving at last at a large house of whitewashed brick. The home, as Brown informed me with a sense of lively pleasure, of Sheriff Tolliver—also, the town gaol.

The sheriff, a darkly handsome sort, viewed me with a sort of interested speculation, mingled with a growing disgust as he heard the crime of which I was accused. I made no attempt at rebuttal or defense; the room was going in and out of focus, and all my attention was required to keep my knees from giving way.

I barely heard most of the exchange between Brown and the sheriff. At the last, though, just before I was led away into the house, I found Tom Christie suddenly beside me.

“Mrs. Fraser,” he said, very low. “Believe me, he is safe. I would not have his death on my conscience—nor yours.” He was looking at me directly, for the first time in . . . days? weeks? . . . and I found the intensity of his gray eyes both disconcerting and oddly comforting.

“Trust in God,” he whispered. “He will deliver the righteous out of all his dangers.” And with a sudden hard and unexpected squeeze of my hand, he was gone.

AS EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY gaols went, it could have been worse. The women’s quarters consisted of a small room at the back of the sheriff’s house, which had likely been a storeroom of sorts originally. The walls were roughly plastered, though some escape-minded former occupant had chipped away a large chunk of the plaster, before discovering that beneath it lay a layer of lath, and beneath that an impenetrable wall of baked-clay brick, which confronted me at once with its bland impenetrability when the door was opened.

There was no window, but an oil dip burned on a ledge by the door, casting a faint circle of light that illuminated the daunting bare patch of brick, but left the corners of the room in deep shadow. I couldn’t see the night-soil bucket, but knew there was one; the thick, acrid tang of it stung my nose, and I automatically began breathing through my mouth as the sheriff pushed me into the room.

The door closed firmly behind me, and a key grated in the lock.

There was a single, narrow bedstead in the shadows, occupied by a large lump under a threadbare blanket. The lump took its time, but eventually stirred and sat up, resolving itself into a small, plump woman, capless and frowsy with sleep, who sat blinking at me like a dormouse.

“Ermp,” she said, and rubbed her eyes with her fists, like a small child.

“So sorry to disturb you,” I said politely. My heart had slowed a bit by now, though I was still shaking and short of breath. I pressed my hands flat against the door to stop them trembling.

“Think nothing of it,” she said, and yawned suddenly, like a hippopotamus, showing me a set of worn but serviceable molars. Blinking and smacking her lips absently, she reached down beside her, pulled out a battered pair of spectacles, and set them firmly on her nose.