An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 19

   

I would remember.

The light began to go, brightness falling from the air. He stirred, finally, lifting his head a little.

“Let me be enough,” he said quietly.

I started at the sound of his voice, but he hadn’t been speaking to me.

He opened his eyes and rose then, quiet as he’d sat, and came past the stream, long feet bare and silent on the layers of damp leaves. As he came past the outcropping of rock, he saw me and smiled, reaching out to take the plaid I held out to him, wordless. He said nothing, but took my cold hand in his large warm one and we turned toward home, walking together in the mountain’s peace.

A FEW DAYS LATER, he came to find me. I was foraging along the creek bank for leeches, which had begun to emerge from their winter’s hibernation, ravenous for blood. They were simple to catch; I merely waded slowly through the water near shore.

At first, the thought of acting as live bait for the leeches was repellent, but after all, that was how I usually obtained leeches—by letting Jamie, Ian, Bobby, or any of a dozen young males wade through the streams and pick them off. And once you got used to the sight of the creatures, slowly engorging with your blood, it wasn’t all that bad.

“I have to let them have enough blood to sustain themselves,” I explained, grimacing as I eased a thumbnail under the sucker of a leech in order to dislodge it, “but not enough that they’ll be comatose, or they won’t be of any use.”

“A matter of nice judgment,” Jamie agreed, as I dropped the leech into a jar filled with water and duckweed. “When ye’ve done feeding your wee pets, then, come along and I’ll show ye the Spaniard’s Cave.”

It was no little distance. Perhaps four miles from the Ridge, through cold, muddy creeks and up steep slopes, then through a crack in a granite cliff face that made me feel as though I were being entombed alive, only to emerge into a wilderness of jutting boulders, smothered in nets of wild grape.

“We found it, Jem and I, out hunting one day,” Jamie explained, lifting a curtain of leaves for me to pass beneath. The vines snaked over the rocks, thick as a man’s forearm and knotted with age, the rusty-green leaves of spring not yet quite covering them. “It was a secret between us. We agreed we’d tell no one else—not even his parents.”

“Nor me,” I said, but wasn’t offended. I heard the loss in his voice at the mention of Jem.

The entrance to the cave was a crack in the ground, over which Jamie had pushed a large, flat rock. He slid this back with some effort, and I bent over cautiously, experiencing a brief clench of the innards at the faint sound of moving air through the fissure. The surface air was warm, though; the cave was drawing, not blowing.

I remembered all too well the cave at Abandawe, that had seemed to breathe around us, and it took some force of will to follow Jamie as he disappeared into the earth. There was a rough wooden ladder—new, I saw, but replacing a much older one that had fallen to pieces; some bits of rotted wood were still in place, dangling from the rock on rusted iron spikes.

It could have been no more than ten or twelve feet to the bottom, but the neck of the cave was narrow, and the descent seemed endless. At last I reached the bottom, though, and saw that the cave had opened out, like the bottom of a flask. Jamie was crouched to one side; I saw him draw out a small bottle and smelled the sharp scent of turpentine.

He’d brought a torch, a pine knot with a head dipped in tar and wrapped with a rag. He soaked the rag with turpentine, then drew the fire-starter Bree had made for him. A shower of sparks lit his face, intent and ruddy. Twice more, and the torch caught, the flame bursting through the flammable cloth and catching the tar.

He lifted the torch, and gestured toward the floor behind me. I turned and nearly jumped out of my skin.

The Spaniard leaned against the wall, bony legs stretched out, skull fallen forward as if in a doze. Tufts of reddish, faded hair still clung here and there, but the skin had gone entirely. His hands and feet were mostly gone, too, the small bones carried away by rodents. No large animals had been able to get at him, though, and while the torso and long bones showed signs of nibbling, they were largely intact; the swell of the rib cage poked through a tissue of cloth so faded that there was no telling what color it had ever been.

He was a Spaniard, too. A crested metal helmet, red with rust, lay by him, along with an iron breastplate and a knife.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I whispered. Jamie crossed himself, and knelt by the skeleton.

“I’ve no notion how long he’s been here,” he said, also low-voiced. “We didna find anything with him save the armor and that.” He pointed to the gravel just in front of the pelvis. I leaned closer to look; a small crucifix, probably silver, now tarnished black, and a few inches away, a tiny triangular shape, also black.

“A rosary?” I asked, and Jamie nodded.

“I expect he was wearing it about his neck. It must have been made of wood and string, and when it rotted, the metal bits fell. That”—his finger gently touched the little triangle—“says Nr. Sra. Ang. on the one side—Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, I think it means, ‘Our Lady of the Angels.’ There’s a wee picture of the Blessed Virgin on the other side.”

I crossed myself by reflex.

“Was Jemmy scared?” I asked, after a moment’s respectful silence.

“I was,” Jamie said dryly. “It was dark when I came down the shaft, and I nearly stepped on this fellow. I thought he was alive, and the shock of it liked to stop my heart.”

He’d cried out in alarm, and Jemmy, left aboveground with strict instructions not to move from the spot, had promptly scrambled into the hole, losing his grip of the broken ladder halfway down and landing feetfirst on his grandfather.

“I heard him scrabbling and looked up, just in time to have him plunge out of the heavens and strike me in the breast like a cannonball.” Jamie rubbed the left side of his chest with rueful amusement. “If I hadn’t looked up, he’d have broken my neck—and he’d never have got out, by himself.”

And we’d never have known what happened to either one of you. I swallowed, dry-mouthed at the thought. And yet … on any given day, something just as random might happen. To anyone.

“A wonder neither one of you broke anything,” I said instead, and gestured toward the skeleton. “What do you think happened to this gentleman?” His people never knew.

Jamie shook his head.

“I dinna ken. He wasna expecting an enemy, because he wasna wearing his armor.”

“You don’t think he fell in and couldn’t get out?” I squatted by the skeleton, tracing the tibia of the left leg. The bone was dried and cracked, gnawed at the end by small sharp teeth—but I could see what might be a greenstick fracture of the bone. Or might just be the cracking of age.

Jamie shrugged, glancing up.

“I shouldna think so. He was a good bit shorter than I am, but I think the original ladder must have been here when he died—for if someone built the ladder later, why would they leave this gentleman here at the bottom of it? And even with a broken leg, he should have been able to climb it.”

“Hmm. He might have died of a fever, I suppose. That would account for his taking off his breastplate and helmet.” Though I personally would have taken them off at the first opportunity; depending on the season, he must either have been boiled alive or suffered severely from mildew, semi-enclosed in metal.

“Mmphm.”

I glanced up at this sound, which indicated dubious acceptance of my reasoning but disagreement with my conclusion.

“You think he was killed?”

He shrugged.

“He has armor—but nay weapon save a wee knife. And ye can see he was right-handed, but the knife’s lying to his left.”

The skeleton had been right-handed; the bones of the right arm were noticeably thicker, even by the flicker of torchlight. Possibly a swordsman? I wondered.

“I kent a good many Spanish soldiers in the Indies, Sassenach. All of them fair bristled wi’ swords and spears and pistols. If this man died of a fever, his companions might take his arms—but they’d take the armor, too, and the knife. Why leave it?”

“But by that token,” I objected, “why did whoever killed him—if he was killed—leave the armor and the knife?”

“As for the armor—they didna want it. It wouldna be particularly useful to anyone other than a soldier. As for the knife—because it was sticking in him?” Jamie suggested. “And it’s no a very good knife to begin with.”

“Very logical,” I said, swallowing again. “Putting aside the question of how he died—what in God’s name was he doing in the mountains of North Carolina in the first place?”

“The Spanish sent explorers up as far as Virginia, fifty or sixty years ago,” he informed me. “The swamps discouraged them, though.”

“I can see why. But why … this?” I stood up, waving a hand to encompass the cave and its ladder. He didn’t reply, but took my arm and lifted his torch, turning me to the side of the cave opposite the ladder. Well above my head, I saw another small fissure in the rock, black in the torchlight, barely wide enough for a man to wriggle through.

“There’s a smaller cave through there,” he said, nodding upward. “And when I put Jem up to look, he told me there were marks in the dust—square marks, as though heavy boxes had sat there.”

Which is why, when the need to hide treasure had occurred to him, so had thought of the Spaniard’s Cave.

“We’ll bring the last of the gold tonight,” he said, “and pile rocks to hide the opening up there. Then we’ll leave the señor here to his rest.”

I was obliged to admit that the cave made as suitable a resting place as any. And the Spanish soldier’s presence would likely discourage anyone who stumbled on the cave from further investigation, both Indians and settlers having a distinct aversion to ghosts. For that matter, so did Highlanders, and I turned curiously to Jamie.

“You and Jem—you weren’t troubled about being haunted by him?”

“Nay, we said the proper prayer for the repose of his soul, when I sealed the cave, and scattered salt around it.”

That made me smile.

“You know the proper prayer for every occasion, don’t you?”

He smiled faintly in return, and rubbed the head of the torch in the damp gravel to extinguish it. A faint shaft of light from above glowed on the crown of his head.

“There’s always a prayer, a nighean, even if it’s only A Dhia, cuidich mi.” Oh, God—help me.

A KNIFE THAT KNOWS MY HAND

NOT ALL THE GOLD rested with the Spaniard. Two of my petticoats had an extra turnup in the hem, with shavings of gold evenly distributed in tiny pockets, and my large pocket itself had several ounces of gold stitched into the seam at the bottom. Jamie and Ian each carried a small amount in his sporran. And each of them would carry two substantial shot pouches on his belt. We had retired, the three of us, to the New House clearing, to make the shot in private.

“Now, ye’ll no forget which side to load from, aye?” Jamie dropped a fresh musket ball out of the mold, glowing like a miniature sunrise, into the pot of grease and soot.

“As long as ye dinna take my shot bag in mistake, no,” Ian said caustically. He was making lead shot, dropping the hot fresh balls into a hollow lined with moist leaves, where they smoked and steamed in the crisp spring evening.

Rollo, lying nearby, sneezed as a wisp of smoke drifted past his nose, and snorted explosively. Ian glanced at him with a smile.

“Will ye like chasing the red deer through the heather, a cù?” he asked. “Ye’ll need to keep off the sheep, though, or someone’s like to shoot ye for a wolf.”

Rollo sighed and let his eyes go to drowsy slits.

“Thinking what ye’ll say to your mam when ye see her?” Jamie asked, squinting against the smoke of the fire as he held the ladle of gold shavings over the flame.

“Tryin’ not to think too much,” Ian replied frankly. “I get a queer feeling in my wame when I think of Lallybroch.”

“Good queer or bad queer?” I asked, gingerly scooping the cooled gold balls out of the grease with a wooden spoon and dropping them into the shot pouches.

Ian frowned, eyes fixed on his ladle as the lead went suddenly from crumpled blobs to a quivering puddle.

“Both, I think. Brianna told me once about a book she’d read in school that said ye can’t go home again. I think that’s maybe true—but I want to,” he added softly, eyes still on his work. The melted lead hissed into the mold.

I looked away from the wistfulness in his face, and found Jamie looking at me, his gaze quizzical, eyes soft with sympathy. I looked away from him, too, and rose to my feet, groaning slightly as my knee joint cracked.

“Yes, well,” I said briskly. “I suppose it depends on what you think home is, doesn’t it? It isn’t always a place, you know.”

“Aye, that’s true.” Ian held the bullet mold for an instant, letting it cool. “But even when it’s a person—ye can’t always go back, aye? Or maybe ye can,” he added, his mouth quirking a little as he glanced up at Jamie, and then at me.

“I think ye’ll find your parents much as ye left them,” Jamie said dryly, choosing to ignore Ian’s reference. “You may come as a greater shock to them.”

Ian glanced down at himself and smiled.

“Got a bit taller,” he said.

I gave a brief snort of amusement. He’d been fifteen when he’d left Scotland—a tall, scrawny gowk of a boy. He was a couple of inches taller now. He was also lean and hard as a strip of dried rawhide, and normally tanned to much the same color, though the winter had bleached him, making the tattooed dots that ran in semicircles across his cheekbones stand out more vividly.

Loading...