A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 95

   

Everyone stared at her, and she flushed deeply, dropping her eyes to the sock.

“I mean . . . it’s not like they—er, prophecies—like they’re always accurate, is it? They might have got the details wrong.”

Amy nodded seriously; evidently, vagueness in the matter of detail was an accepted characteristic of prophecies.

Roger cleared his throat explosively; Jamie and Ian exchanged glances, then looked at the fire, leaping on the hearth and the towering stack of bone-dry firewood next to it, the overflowing kindling basket . . . Everyone’s eyes turned expectantly to Jamie, whose face was a study in conflicting emotions.

“I suppose,” he said slowly, “we could remove to Arch’s place.”

I began to count on my fingers: “You, me, Roger, Bree, Ian, Amy, Aidan, Orrie, Jemmy—plus Mr. and Mrs. Bug—is eleven people. In a one-room cabin that measures eight feet by ten?” I closed my fists and stared at him. “No one would have to set the place on fire; half of us would be sitting in the hearth already, well alight.”

“Mmphm. Well, then . . . the Christie place is empty.”

Amy’s eyes went round with horror, and everyone looked automatically away from everyone else. Jamie took a deep breath and let it out, audibly.

“Perhaps we’ll just be . . . very careful,” I suggested. Everyone exhaled slightly, and we resumed our occupations, though without our former sense of snug safety.

Dinner passed without incident, but in midafternoon, a knock came on the door. Amy screamed, and Brianna dropped the shirt she was mending into the fire. Ian leaped to his feet and jerked the door open, and Rollo, jerked out of a doze, charged past him, roaring.

Jamie and Roger struck the doorway—and each other—simultaneously, stuck for an instant, and fell through. All the little boys shrieked and ran to their respective mothers, who were frantically beating at the smoldering shirt as though it were a live snake.

I had leaped to my feet, but was pressed against the wall, unable to get past Bree and Amy. Adso, startled by the racket and by my popping up beside him, hissed and took a swipe at me, narrowly missing my eye.

A number of oaths in a mixture of languages were coming from the dooryard, accompanied by a series of sharp barks from Rollo. Everyone sounded thoroughly annoyed, but there were no sounds of conflict. I edged my way delicately past the knot of mothers and sons, and peered out.

Major MacDonald, wet to the eyebrows and covered in clumps of snow and dirty slush, was gesticulating with some energy at Jamie, while Ian rebuked Rollo, and Roger—from the look on his face—was trying very hard not to burst out laughing.

Jamie, compelled by his own sense of propriety, but eyeing the Major with deep suspicion, invited him in. The inside of the cabin smelled of burned fabric, but at least the riot had calmed down, and the Major greeted us all with a fair assumption of cordiality. There was a lot of fuss, getting him stripped of his soaking-wet clothes, dried off, and—for lack of any better alternative—temporarily swathed in Roger’s spare shirt and breeches, in which he appeared to be drowning, as he was a good six inches shorter than Roger.

Food and whisky having been ceremonially offered and accepted, the household fixed the Major with a collective eye and waited to hear what had brought him to the mountains in the dead of winter.

Jamie exchanged a brief glance with me, indicating that he could hazard a guess. So could I.

“I have come, sir,” MacDonald said formally, hitching up the shirt to keep it from sliding off his shoulder, “to offer ye command of a company of militia, under the orders of General Hugh MacDonald. The General’s troops are gathering, even as we speak, and will undertake their march to Wilmington at the end of the month.”

I felt a deep qualm of apprehension at that. I was accustomed to MacDonald’s chronic optimism and tendency to overstatement, but there was nothing of exaggeration in this statement. Did that mean that the help Governor Martin had requested, the troops from Ireland, would be landing soon, to meet General MacDonald’s troops at the coast?

“The General’s troops,” Jamie said, poking up the fire. He and MacDonald had taken over the fireside, with Roger and Ian ranged on either side of them, like firedogs. Bree, Amy, and I repaired to the bed, where we perched like a row of roosting hens, watching the conversation with a mingling of interest and alarm, while the little boys retired under the table.

“How many men does he have, would ye say, Donald?”

I saw MacDonald hesitate, torn between truth and desire. He coughed, though, and said matter-of-factly, “He had a few more than a thousand when I left him. Ye ken weel, though—once we begin to move, others will come to join us. Many others. The more particularly,” he added pointedly, “if such gentlemen as yourself are in command.”

Jamie didn’t reply to that at once. Meditatively, he shoved a burning wood fragment back into the fire with his foot.

“Powder and shot?” he asked. “Arms?”

“Aye, well; we’d a bit of a disappointment there.” MacDonald took a sip of his whisky. “Duncan Innes had promised us a great deal in that way—but in the end, he was obliged to renege upon his promise.” The Major’s lips pressed tight, and I thought from the expression on his face that perhaps Duncan had not been overreacting in his decision to move to Canada.

“Still,” MacDonald continued more cheerfully, “we are not destitute in that regard. And those gallant gentlemen who have flocked to our cause—and who will come to join us—bring with them both their own weapons and their courage. You, of all people, must appreciate the force of the Hieland charge!”

Jamie looked up at that, and regarded MacDonald for a long moment before replying.

“Aye, well. Ye were behind the cannon at Culloden, Donald. I was in front of them. With a sword in my hand.” He took up his own glass and drained it, then got up and moved to pour another, leaving MacDonald to recover his countenance.

“Touché, Major,” Brianna murmured under her breath. I didn’t think Jamie had ever before referred to the fact that the Major had fought with the government forces during the Rising—but I wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t forgotten.

With a brief nod to the company, Jamie stepped outside—ostensibly to visit the privy, more likely to check on the well-being of the house. Still more likely to give MacDonald a little breathing room.

Roger, with the courtesy of a host—and the suppressed keenness of a historian—was asking MacDonald questions regarding the General and his activities. Ian, impassive and watchful, sat by his feet, one hand toying with Rollo’s ruff.

“The General’s rather elderly for such a campaign, surely?” Roger took another stick of wood and pushed it into the fire. “Especially a winter campaign.”

“He has the odd wee spell of catarrh,” MacDonald admitted, offhand. “But who doesna, in this climate? And Donald McLeod, his lieutenant, is a man of vigor. I assure ye, sir, should the General be at any point indisposed, Colonel McLeod is more than capable of leading the troops to victory!”

He went on at some length about the virtues—both personal and military—of Donald McLeod. I ceased listening, my attention distracted by a stealthy movement on the shelf above his head. Adso.

MacDonald’s red coat was spread over the back of a chair to dry, steaming in the heat. His wig, damp and disheveled from Rollo’s attack, hung on the cloak peg above it. I got up hastily and possessed myself of the wig, receiving a look of puzzlement from the Major, and one of green-eyed hostility from Adso, who plainly considered it low of me to hog this desirable prey for myself.

“Er . . . I’ll just . . . um . . . put it somewhere safe, shall I?” Clutching the damp mass of horsehair to my bosom, I sidled outside and round to the pantry, where I tucked the wig safely away behind the cheese with the phosphorus.

Coming out, I met Jamie, red-nosed with cold, coming back from a reconnaissance of the Big House.

“All’s well,” he assured me. He glanced up at the chimney above us, spuming clouds of thick gray smoke. “Ye dinna suppose the lass might be right, do ye?” He sounded as though he were joking, but he wasn’t.

“God knows. How long ’til tomorrow’s dawn?” The shadows were already falling long, violet and chill across the snow.

“Too long.” He had violet shadows in his face, too, from one sleepless night; this would be another. He hugged me against himself for a moment, though, warm in spite of the fact that he wore nothing over his shirt but the rough jacket in which he did chores.

“Ye dinna suppose MacDonald will come back and fire the house, if I refuse him, do ye?” he asked, releasing me with a fair attempt at a smile.

“What do you mean ‘if’?” I demanded, but he was already on his way back in.

MacDonald stood up in respect when Jamie came in, waiting until he was seated again before taking his own stool.

“Have ye had a moment, then, to think on my offer, Mr. Fraser?” he asked formally. “Your presence would be of the greatest value—and valued greatly by General MacDonald and the Governor, as well as myself.”

Jamie sat silent for a moment, looking into the fire.

“It grieves me, Donald, that we should find ourselves so opposed,” he said at last, looking up. “Ye canna be in ignorance, though, of my position in this matter. I have declared myself.”

MacDonald nodded, lips tightening a little.

“I ken what ye’ve done. But it is not too late for remedy. Ye’ve done nothing yet that is irrevocable—and a man may surely admit mistake.”

Jamie’s mouth twitched a little.

“Oh, aye, Donald. Might you admit your own mistake, then, and join the cause of liberty?”

MacDonald drew himself up.

“It may please ye to tease, Mr. Fraser,” he said, obviously keeping a grip on his temper, “but my offer is made in earnest.”

“I know that, Major. My apologies for undue levity. And also for the fact that I must make ye a poor reward of your efforts, coming so far in bitter weather.”

“Ye refuse, then?” Red smudges burned on MacDonald’s cheeks, and his pale blue eyes had gone the color of the winter sky. “Ye will abandon your kin, your ain folk? Ye would betray your blood, as well as your oath?”

Jamie had opened his mouth to reply, but stopped at this. I could feel something going on inside him. Shock, at this blunt—and very accurate—accusation? Hesitation? He had never discussed the situation in those terms, but he must have grasped them. Most of the Highlanders in the colony either had joined the Loyalist side already—like Duncan and Jocasta—or likely would.

His declaration had cut him off from a great many friends—and might well cut him off from the remnants of his family in the New World, as well. Now MacDonald was holding out the apple of temptation, the call of clan and blood.

But he had had years to think of it, to ready himself.

“I have said what I must, Donald,” he said quietly. “I have pledged myself and my house to what I believe is right. I cannot do otherwise.”

MacDonald sat for a moment, looking at him narrowly. Then, without a word, he stood and pulled Roger’s shirt off over his head. His torso was pale and lean, but with a slight middle-aged softness round the waist, and bore several white scars, the marks of bullet wounds and sabre cuts.

“You don’t mean to go, surely, Major? It’s freezing out, and nearly dark!” I came to stand by Jamie, and Roger and Bree rose, too, adding their protestations to mine. MacDonald, though, was obdurate, merely shaking his head as he pulled on his own damp clothing, fastening his coat with difficulty, as the buttonholes were stiff with damp.

“I will not take hospitality from the hand of a traitor, mum,” he said very quietly, and bowed to me. He straightened then, and met Jamie’s eye, man to man.

“We shall not meet again as friends, Mr. Fraser,” he said. “I regret it.”

“Then let us hope we do not meet again at all, Major,” Jamie said. “I too regret it.”

MacDonald bowed again, to the rest of the company, and clapped his hat on his head. His expression changed as he did so and felt the damp coldness of it on his bare head.

“Oh, your wig! Just a moment, Major—I’ll fetch it.” I rushed out and round to the pantry—just in time to hear a crash as something fell inside. I jerked open the door, left ajar from my last visit, and Adso streaked past me, the Major’s wig in his mouth. Inside, the lean-to was in brilliant blue flames.

I HAD INITIALLY wondered how I would keep awake all night. In the event, it wasn’t difficult at all. In the aftermath of the blaze, I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep again.

It could have been much worse; Major MacDonald, in spite of now being a sworn enemy, had come nobly to our aid, rushing out and flinging his still-wet cloak over the blaze, thus preventing the total destruction of the pantry—and, doubtless, the cabin. The cloak had not put out the fire entirely, though, and quenching the flames that sprang up here and there had entailed a great deal of excitement and rushing about, in the course of which Orrie McCallum was misplaced, toddled off, and fell into the groundhog kiln, where he was found—many frantic minutes later—by Rollo.

He was fished out undamaged, but the hullabaloo caused Brianna to have what she thought was premature labor. Fortunately, this proved to be merely a bad case of hiccups, caused by the combination of nervous strain and eating excessive quantities of sauerkraut and dried-apple pie, for which she had conceived a recent craving.

“Flammable, she said.” Jamie looked at the charred remains of the pantry floor, then at Brianna, who had, in spite of my recommendation that she lie down, come out to see what could be salvaged from the smoking remains. He shook his head. “It’s a miracle that ye’ve not burnt the place to ashes long since, lass.”

She emitted a smothered “hic!” and glowered at him, one hand on her bulging stomach.

“Me? You’d better not be try—hic!—ing to make out that this is my—hic!—fault. Did I put the Major’s—hic!—wig next to the—”

“BOO!” Roger bellowed, darting a hand at her face.

She shrieked, and hit him. Jemmy and Aidan, running out to see what the commotion was about, started dancing round her, ecstatically shouting, “Boo! Boo!” like a gang of miniature lunatic ghosts.

Bree, her eyes gleaming dangerously, bent and scooped up a handful of snow. In an instant, she had molded it into a ball, which she flung at her husband’s head with deadly accuracy. It struck him right between the eyes, exploding in a shower that left white granules clinging to his eyebrows and melting globs of snow running down his cheeks.

“What?” he said incredulously. “What’s that for? I was only trying to—hey!” He ducked the next one, only to be pelted round the knees and waist by handsful of snow lobbed at short range by Jemmy and Aidan, quite berserk by now.

Modestly accepting thanks for his action earlier, the Major had been persuaded—not least by the fact that it was now full dark and beginning to snow again—to accept the hospitality of the cabin, with the understanding that it was Roger, not Jamie, who was offering it. Watching his hosts whooping and hiccing as they plastered one another with snow, he looked as though he might be having second thoughts about being so fine as to refuse to dine with a traitor, but he rather stiffly bowed in response when Jamie and I bade him farewell, then trudged into the cabin, the muddy shreds that Adso had left of his wig clasped in his hand.

It seemed extremely—and most gratefully—quiet as we made our way through the falling snow toward our own house, alone. The sky had gone a pinkish lavender, and the flakes floated down around us, supernatural in their silence.

The house loomed before us, its quiet bulk somehow welcoming, in spite of the darkened windows. Snow was swirling across the porch in little eddies, piling in drifts on the sills.

“I suppose it would be harder for a fire to start if it’s snowing—wouldn’t you think?”

Jamie bent to unlock the front door.

“I dinna much mind if the place bursts into flame by spontaneous combustion, Sassenach, provided I have my supper first.”

“A cold supper, were you thinking?” I asked dubiously.

“I was not,” he said firmly. “I mean to light a roaring fire in the kitchen hearth, fry up a dozen eggs in butter, and eat them all, then lay ye down on the hearth rug and roger ye ’til you—is that all right?” he inquired, noticing my look.

“’Til I what?” I asked, fascinated by his description of the evening’s program.

“’Til ye burst into flame and take me with ye, I suppose,” he said, and stooping, swooped me up into his arms and carried me across the darkened threshold.

112

OATHBREAKER

February 2, 1776

HE CALLED THEM ALL TOGETHER, and they came. The Jacobites of Ardsmuir, the fishermen from Thurso, the outcasts and opportunists who had come to settle on the Ridge over the last six years. He had called for the men, and most came alone, making their way through the dripping woods, slipping on mossy rocks and muddy trails. Some of the wives came, as well, though, curious, wary, though they hung modestly back and allowed Claire to shepherd them into the house one by one.

The men stood in the dooryard, and he regretted that; the memory of the last time they had gathered here was much too fresh in everyone’s mind. But there was no choice about it; there were too many to fit in the house. And it was broad day, now, not night—though he saw more than one man turn his head sharply to glance at the chestnut trees, as though he saw the ghost of Thomas Christie there, poised once more to walk through the crowd.

He crossed himself, and said a hasty prayer, as he always did when he thought of Tom Christie, then stepped out on the porch. They had been talking together—awkwardly, but with a fair assumption of ease—but the talk died abruptly when he appeared.

“I have received word summoning me to Wilmington,” he said to them without preamble. “I go to join the militias there, and I will take with me such men as will come willingly.”

They gaped at him like sheep disturbed at grazing. He had a moment’s unsettling impulse to laugh, but it passed at once.

“We will go as militia, but I do not command your service.” Privately, he doubted that he could command more than a handful of them now, but as well to put a good face on it.

Most were still blinking at him, but one or two had got a grip on themselves.

“You declare yourself a rebel, Mac Dubh?” That was Murdo, bless him. Loyal as a dog, but slow of thought. He needed things to be put in the simplest of terms, but once grasped, he would deal with them tenaciously.

“Aye, Murdo, I do. I am a rebel. So will any man be who marches with me.”

That caused a fair degree of murmuring, glances of doubt. Here and there in the crowd, he heard the word “oath,” and steeled himself for the obvious question.

He was taken aback by the man who asked it, though. Arch Bug drew himself up, tall and stern.

“Ye swore an oath to the King, Seaumais mac Brian,” he said, his voice unexpectedly sharp. “So did we all.”

There was a murmur of agreement at this, and faces turned to him, frowning, uneasy. He took a deep breath, and felt his stomach knot. Even now, knowing what he knew, and knowing too the immorality of a forced oath, to break his sworn word openly made him feel that he had stepped on a step that wasn’t there.

“So did we all,” he agreed. “But it was an oath forced upon us as captives, not one given as men of honor.”

This was patently true; still, it was an oath, and Highlanders did not take any oath lightly. May I die and be buried far from my kin . . . Oath or no, he thought grimly, that fate would likely be theirs.

“But an oath nonetheless, sir,” said Hiram Crombie, lips drawn tight. “We have sworn before God. Do you ask us to put aside such a thing?” Several of the Presbyterians murmured acquiescence, drawing closer to Crombie in show of support.

He took another deep breath, feeling his belly tighten.

“I ask nothing.” And knowing full well what he did, despising himself in a way for doing it—he fell back upon the ancient weapons of rhetoric and idealism.

“I said that the oath of loyalty to the King was an oath extorted, not given. Such an oath is without power, for no man swears freely, save he is free himself.”

No one shouted disagreement, so he went on, voice pitched to carry, but not shouting.

“Ye’ll ken the Declaration of Arbroath, will ye? Four hundred years since, it was our sires, our grandsires, who put their hands to these words: . . . for as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.” He stopped to steady his voice, then went on. “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

He stopped dead then. Not for its effect on the men to whom he spoke, but because of the words themselves—for in speaking them, he had found himself unexpectedly face to face with his own conscience.

To this point, he had been dubious about the justifications of the revolution, and more so of its ends; he had been compelled to the rebel stand because of what Claire, Brianna, and Roger Mac had told him. But in the speaking of the ancient words, he found the conviction he thought he pretended—and was stricken by the thought that he did indeed go to fight for something more than the welfare of his own people.

And ye’ll end up just as dead in the end, he thought, resigned. I dinna expect it hurts less, to ken it’s for good cause—but maybe so.

“I shall leave in a week,” he said quietly, and left them staring after him.

HE HAD EXPECTED his Ardsmuir men to come: the three Lindsay brothers, Hugh Abernathy, Padraic MacNeill, and the rest. Not expected, but gladly welcomed, were Robin McGillivray and his son, Manfred.

Ute McGillivray had forgiven him, he saw, with a certain sense of amusement. Besides Robin and Freddie, fifteen men from near Salem had come, all relatives of the redoubtable frau.

A great surprise, though, was Hiram Crombie, who alone of the fisher-folk had decided to join him.

“I have prayed on the matter,” Hiram informed him, managing to look more piously sour than usual, “and I believe ye’re right about the oath. I expect ye’ll have us all hangit and burned oot of our homes—but I’ll come, nonetheless.”

The rest—with great mutterings and agitated debate—had not. He didn’t blame them. Having survived the aftermath of Culloden, the perilous voyage to the colonies, and the hardship of exile, the very last thing a sensible person could wish was to take up arms against the King.

The greatest surprise, though, awaited him as his small company rode out of Cooperville and turned into the road that led south.

A company of men, some forty strong, was waiting at the crossroad. He drew near warily, and a single man spurred out of the crowd and drew up with him—Richard Brown, pale-faced and grim.

“I hear you go to Wilmington,” Brown said without preamble. “If so be as it’s agreeable, my men and I will ride with you.” He coughed, and added, “Under your command, to be sure.”

Behind him, he heard a small “hmph!” from Claire, and suppressed a smile. He was quite aware of the phalanx of narrowed eyes at his back. He caught Roger Mac’s eye, and his son-in-law gave a small nod. War made strange bedfellows; Roger Mac knew that as well as he did—and for himself, he had fought with worse than Brown, during the Rising.

“Be welcome, then,” he said, and bowed from his saddle. “You and your men.”

WE MET ANOTHER militia company near a place called Moore’s Creek, and camped with them under the longleaf pines. There had been a bad ice storm the day before, and the ground was thick with fallen branches, some as large around as my waist. It made the going more difficult, but had its advantages, so far as making campfires went.

I was throwing a hastily assembled bucket of ingredients into the kettle for stew—scraps of ham, with bones, beans, rice, onions, carrots, crumbled stale biscuit—and listening to the other militia commander, Robert Borthy, who was telling Jamie—with considerable levity—about the state of the Emigrant Highland Regiment, as our opponents were formally known.

“There can’t be more than five or six hundred, all told,” he was saying with amused derision. “Old MacDonald and his aides have been tryin’ to scoop ’em up from the countryside for months, and I gather the effort has been akin to scoopin’ water with a sieve.”

On one occasion, Alexander McLean, one of the general’s aides, had set up a rendezvous point, calling upon all the Highlanders and Scotch–Irish in the neighborhood to assemble—cannily providing a hogshead of liquor as inducement. Some five hundred men had in fact shown up—but as soon as the liquor was drunk, they had melted away again, leaving McLean alone, and completely lost.

“The poor man wandered about for nearly two days, lookin’ for the road, before someone took pity on him and led him back to civilization.” Borthy, a hearty backwoods soul with a thick brown beard, grinned widely at the tale, and accepted a cup of ale with due thanks before going on.

“God knows where the rest of ’em are now. I hear tell that what troops Old MacDonald has are mostly brand-new emigrants—the Governor made ’em swear to take up arms to defend the colony before he’d grant them land. Most of them poor sods are fresh off the boat from Scotland—they don’t know north from south, let alone just where they are.”

“Oh, I ken where they are, even if they don’t.” Ian came into the firelight, grubby but cheerful. He had been riding dispatches back and forth among the various militia companies converging on Wilmington, and his statement caused a rush of general interest.

“Where?” Richard Brown leaned forward into the firelight, narrow face keen and foxy.

“They’re comin’ down Negro Head Point Road, marching like a proper regiment,” Ian said, sinking onto a hastily offered log with a small groan. “Is there anything hot to drink, Auntie? I’m frozen and parched, both.”

There was a nasty sort of dark liquid, called “coffee” for courtesy’s sake, and made from boiling burned acorns. I rather dubiously poured him a cup, but he consumed it with every evidence of enjoyment, meanwhile recounting the results of his expeditions.

“They meant to circle round to the west, but Colonel Howe’s men got there first, and cut them off. So then they went across, meaning to take the ford—but Colonel Moore put his men to the quick-step and marched all night to forestall them.”

“They made no move to engage either Howe or Moore?” Jamie asked, frowning. Ian shook his head, and gulped the rest of his acorn coffee.

“Wouldna come close. Colonel Moore says they dinna mean to engage until they reach Wilmington—they’re expecting reinforcement there.”

I exchanged a glance with Jamie. The expected reinforcement was presumably the British regular troops, promised by General Gage. But a rider from Brunswick we had met the day before had told us that no ships had arrived when he left the coast, four days before. If there was reinforcement awaiting them, it would have to come from the local Loyalists—and from the various rumors and reports we’d heard so far, the local Loyalists were a weak reed on which to lean.

“Well, so. They’re cut off on either side, aye? Straight down the road is where they’re headed—they might reach the bridge late tomorrow.”

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