An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 121

   

“I heard heard wolves howling on my walk back,” he remarked. “Closer than was comfortable.” He sat down and looked directly at her.

“Ian Murray?” he asked bluntly.

“How did thee know that?” Her hands were trembling, and she wiped them irritably on her apron.

“I met his dog just now.” He eyed her with interest. “What did he say to thee?”

“I—nothing.”

Denny cocked one brow in disbelief, and she relented.

“Not much. He said—I was in love with him.”

“Is thee?” Denny asked, sounding not at all surprised.

“How can I be in love with such a man?”

“If thee were not, I do not suppose thee would be asking me to pray for thee,” he pointed out logically. “Thee would simply send him away. ‘How’ is probably not a question I am qualified to answer—though I imagine thee means it rhetorical, in any case.”

She laughed, in spite of her agitation.

“No,” she said, smoothing the apron over her knees. “I do not mean it rhetorical. More… well, would thee say that Job was being rhetorical when he asked the Lord what He was thinking? I mean it in that way.”

“Questioning the Lord is an awkward business,” her brother said thoughtfully. “Thee does get answers, but they are inclined to lead thee to strange places.” He smiled at her again, but gently and with a depth of sympathy in his eyes that made her look away.

She sat pleating the cloth of the apron between her fingers, hearing the shouts and drunken singing that marked every night in camp. She wished to say that places didn’t get much stranger than this—two Friends, in the midst of an army, and part of it—but it was indeed Denny’s questioning of the Lord that had got them here, and she did not wish him to feel that she blamed him for it.

Instead, she looked up and asked earnestly, “Has thee ever been in love, Denny?”

“Oh,” he said, and looked at his own hands, cupped on his knees. He still smiled, but it had altered, become inward, as though he saw something inside his head. “Yes. I suppose so.”

“In England?”

He nodded. “Yes. It—would not do, though.”

“She … was not a Friend?”

“No,” he said softly. “She was not.”

In a way, that was a relief; she had been fearing that he had fallen in love with a woman who would not leave England, but had felt obliged himself to return to America—for her sake. Insofar as her own feelings for Ian Murray were concerned, though, this did not augur well.

“I’m sorry about the grease,” she said abruptly.

He blinked.

“Grease?”

“For someone’s arsehole, Friend Murray said. The dog ate it.”

“The dog ate … oh, the dog ate the grease.” His mouth twitched, and he rubbed the thumb of his right hand slowly over his fingers. “That’s all right; I found some.”

“You’re hungry,” she said abruptly, and stood up. “Wash thy hands and I’ll put the coffee on.”

“That would be good. I thank thee, Rachel. Rachel…” He hesitated, but was not a man to avoid things. “Friend Murray said to thee that thee loves him—but not that he loves thee? That seems—a peculiar way of expression, does it not?”

“It does,” she said, in a tone indicating that she didn’t wish to discuss Ian Murray’s peculiarities. She was not about to try to explain to Denny that Ian Murray had not declared himself to her in words because he hadn’t needed to. The air around her still shimmered with the heat of his declaration. Though…

“Perhaps he did,” she said slowly. “He said something to me, but it wasn’t in English, and I didn’t understand. Does thee know what ‘mo cree-ga ’ might mean?”

Denny frowned for a moment, then his brow cleared.

“That would be the Highlander’s tongue, what they call the Gàidhlig, I think. No, I don’t know what it means—but I have heard Friend Jamie say that to his wife, in such circumstances as to make it evident that it is a term of deep … affection.” He coughed.

“Rachel—does thee wish me to speak to him?”

Her skin still burned, and her face felt as though it glowed with fever, but at this, a deep shard of ice seemed to pierce her heart.

“Speak to him,” she repeated, and swallowed. “And say… what?” She had found the coffeepot and the pouch of roasted acorns and chicory. She poured a handful of the blackened mixture into her mortar and commenced to pound it as though the cup were full of snakes.

Denny shrugged, watching her with interest.

“Thee will break that mortar,” he observed. “As to what I should say—why, thee must tell me, Rachel.” His eyes were still intent upon her, but serious now, with no hint of humor. “I will tell him to stay away and never to speak to thee again, if thee wishes it. Or if thee prefers, I can assure him that thy affection for him is only that of a friend and that he must refrain from further awkward declarations.”

She poured the grounds into the pot and then added water from the canteen she kept hanging on the tent pole.

“Are those the only alternatives you see?” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

“Sissy,” he said, very gently, “thee cannot wed such a man and remain a Friend. No meeting would accept such a union. Thee knows that.” He waited a moment and added, “Thee did ask me to pray for thee.”

She didn’t answer or look at him but untied the tent flap and went out to put the coffeepot among the coals, pausing to poke up the fire and add more wood. The air glowed near the ground, lit by the smoke and fiery haze of thousands of small fires like hers. But the night above stretched black and clear and infinite, the stars burning with their own cold fire.

When she went back in, he was half under the bed, muttering.

“What?” she demanded, and he backed out, bringing with him the small crate that held their foodstuffs—save that it didn’t. Only a scattering of raw acorns and an apple, half-gnawed by mice, remained.

“ What?” she repeated, shocked. “What has happened to the food?”

Denny was flushed and plainly angry, and rubbed his knuckles hard across his lips before replying.

“Some misbegotten son of a—of Belial… has slit the tent and taken it.”

The resultant flood of fury at this news was almost welcome, for the distraction that it offered.

“Why, that—that—”

“Doubtless,” Denny said, taking a deep breath and seeking to regain control of himself, “he was hungry. Poor soul,” he added, with a distinct lack of charitable intonation.

“If so, he might have asked to be fed,” she snapped. “He is a thief, plain and simple.” She tapped a foot, fuming. “Well. I will go and beg some food myself, then. Watch the coffee.”

“Thee need not go on my account,” he protested, but it was a halfhearted protest; she knew he had not eaten since morning and was starved, and she said as much to him with a wide-eyed stare in his direction.

“The wolves…” he said, but she was already wrapping up her cloak and pulling on her cap.

“I’ll take a torch,” she assured him. “And it would be an unlucky wolf who made the mistake of crossing me in my present mood, I assure thee!” She seized her gathering bag and went out quickly, before he could ask her where she proposed to go.

SHE MIGHT HAVE gone to a dozen different tents nearby. Puzzlement and suspicion of the Hunters had faded after Denny’s adventures as a deserter, and Rachel herself had cordial relations with a number of the militia wives who camped near them.

She might have told herself that she hesitated to disturb these worthy women so late. Or that she wished to hear the latest news regarding the surrender—Friend Jamie was always privy to the negotiations and would tell her what he could. Or that she thought to consult Claire Fraser regarding a small but painful wart upon her great toe and might as well do this while seeking food, for the sake of convenience.

But she was an honest woman and told herself none of these things. She was walking toward the Frasers’ camp as though drawn by a magnet, and the magnet’s name was Ian Murray. She saw this clearly, thought her own behavior insane—and could no more do otherwise than she could change the color of her eyes.

What she meant to do, say, or even think if she did see him was unimaginable, but she walked on nonetheless, steady as though she went to market, the light of her torch a beacon upon the trampled dirt of her path, her own shadow following, huge and strange upon the pale canvas of the tents she passed.

DESPOILER

I WAS TENDING the fire when I heard the sound of slow footsteps approaching. I turned, to see a massive shape between me and the moon, coming fast. I tried to run but couldn’t make my legs obey me. As in all the best nightmares, I tried to scream, only to find it trapped in my throat. I choked, and it came out as a small, strangled “eep.”

The monstrous shape—manlike, but humped and headless, grunting—stopped before me, and there was a short whoosh and a loud thump of something hitting the ground that sent the cold air rushing up under my skirt.

“I brought ye a present, Sassenach,” Jamie said, grinning and wiping sweat from his jaw.

“A… present,” I said faintly, looking at the enormous heap of… what?… he had dropped on the ground at my feet. Then the smell reached me.

“A buffalo robe!” I exclaimed. “Oh, Jamie! A real buffalo robe?”

Not much doubt of that. It was not—thank God—a fresh one, but the scent of its original owner was still perceptible, even in the cold. I fell to my knees, running my hands over it. It was well-cured, flexible, and relatively clean, the wool of it rough under my hands but free of mud, burrs, clumps of dung, and the other impedimenta that normally attended live buffalo. It was enormous. And warm. Wonderfully warm.

I sank my freezing hands into the depths of it, which still held Jamie’s body heat.

“Oh,” I breathed. “You won it?”

“I did,” he said proudly. “From one of the British officers. A decent man at cards,” he added fairly, “but no luck.”

“You’ve been playing with British officers?” I cast an uneasy look in the direction of the British camp, though it wasn’t visible from here.

“Just one. A Captain Mansel. He came wi’ the latest reply from Burgoyne and was obliged to wait while Granny chews it over. He’ll be lucky if he’s not skinned to the bone before he goes back,” he added callously. “Worse luck wi’ cards I never saw.”

I paid no attention, engrossed in examining the robe. “This is marvelous, Jamie! It’s huge!”

It was. A good eight feet long, and wide enough that two people could lie cradled in its warmth—provided they didn’t mind sleeping close. The thought of crawling into that enveloping shelter, warm and cozy, after so many nights shivering under threadbare blankets …

Jamie appeared to have been thinking along similar lines.

“Big enough for the two of us,” he said, and touched my breast, very delicately.

“Oh, really?”

He leaned closer, and I caught his own scent above the gamy pong of the buffalo robe—dry leaves, and the bitterness of acorn coffee, laced with sweet brandy, top notes to the deep male scent of his skin.

“I could pick you out of a dozen men in a dark room,” I said, closing my eyes and inhaling enjoyably.

“I daresay ye could; I havena bathed in a week.” He put his hands on my shoulders and bent his head until our foreheads touched.

“I want to unlace the neck o’ your shift,” he whispered, “and suckle your br**sts until ye curl up like a wee shrimp, wi’ your knees in my balls. Then take ye fast and hard, and fall asleep wi’ my head pillowed on your naked br**sts. Really,” he added, straightening up.

“Oh,” I said. “What a good idea.”

IN FAVOR AS I WAS of the suggested program, I could see that Jamie required nourishment before executing anything of a further strenuous nature; I could hear his stomach rumbling from a yard away.

“Playing cards takes it out of you, does it?” I observed, watching him demolish three apples in six bites.

“Aye, it does,” he said briefly. “Have we any bread?”

“No, but there’s beer.”

As though the word had evoked him, Young Ian materialized out of the gloom.

“Beer?” he said hopefully.

“Bread?” Jamie and I said together, sniffing like dogs. Wafting from Ian’s clothes was a yeasty, half-burned fragrance, which proved to come from two small loaves in his pockets.

“Where did you get these, Ian?” I asked, handing him a canteen of beer.

He drank deep, then lowered the canteen and stared vacantly at me for a moment.

“Ah?” he said vaguely.

“Are you all right, Ian?” I peered at him in some concern, but he blinked, and intelligence returned momentarily to his face.

“Aye, Auntie, fine. I’ll just… ah… oh, thank ye for the beer.” He handed back the empty canteen, smiled at me as though I were a stranger, and wandered off into the darkness.

“Did you see that?” I turned to find Jamie absorbed in dabbing up bread crumbs from his lap with a moistened finger.

“No, what? Here, Sassenach.” He handed me the second loaf.

“Ian acting like a half-wit. Here, you have half; you need it more than I do.”

He didn’t argue.

“He wasna bleeding or staggering, was he? Well, then, I suppose he’s fallen in love wi’ some poor lass.”

“Oh? Well, that would fit the symptoms. But…” I nibbled the bread slowly, to make it last; it was crusty and fresh, clearly just out of the ashes. I’d seen young men in love, certainly, and Ian’s behavior did fit the symptomology. But I hadn’t seen it in Ian, not since … “I wonder who?”

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