An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 31

   

She’d meant to go into her study, but found herself drifting across the hall, through the open door to Roger’s. It was the old speak-a-word room of the house; the room where her uncle Ian had run the affairs of the estate for years—her father for a short time before that, and her grandfather before him.

And now it was Roger’s. He’d asked if she wanted the room, but she’d said no. She liked the little sitting room across the hall, with its sunny window and the shadows of the ancient yellow rose that flagged that side of the house with its color and scent. Aside from that, though, she just felt that this room was a man’s place, with its clean, scuffed wooden floor and comfortably battered shelves.

Roger had managed to find one of the old farm ledgers, from 1776; it sat on an upper shelf, its worn cloth binding sheltering the patient, careful minutiae of life on a Highland farm: one-quarter pound of silver fir seed, a he-goat for breeding, six rabbits, thirty-weight of seed potatoes … had her uncle written it? She didn’t know, had never seen a sample of his writing.

She wondered, with an odd little quiver of the insides, if her parents had made it back to Scotland—back here. Had seen Ian and Jenny again; if her father had sat—would sit?—here in this room, at home once more, talking over the matters of Lallybroch with Ian. And her mother? From the little Claire had said about it, she hadn’t parted from Jenny on the best of terms, and Brianna knew her mother felt sad about that; once, they had been close friends. Maybe things could be mended—maybe they had been mended.

She glanced at the wooden box, safe on its high shelf beside the ledger, the little cherrywood snake curved in front of it. On impulse, she took the snake down, finding some comfort in the sleek curve of the body and the comical look of its face, peering back over its nonexistent shoulder. She smiled back at it, involuntarily.

“Thanks, Uncle Willie,” she said softly, out loud, and felt an extraordinary shiver run through her. Not fear, or cold—a kind of delight, but a quiet kind. Recognition.

She’d seen that snake so often—on the Ridge, and now here, where it had first been made—that she never thought of its maker, her father’s older brother, dead at the age of eleven. But he was here, too, in the work of his hands, in the rooms that had known him. When she’d visited Lallybroch before—in the eighteenth century—there had been a painting of him on the upstairs landing, a small, sturdy red-haired boy, standing with a hand on the shoulder of his baby brother, blue-eyed and serious.

Where is that now? she wondered. And the other paintings done by her grandmother? There was the one self-portrait, which had made it somehow to the National Portrait Gallery—she must be sure to take the kids down to London to see it, when they were a little older—but the others? There had been one of a very young Jenny Murray feeding a tame pheasant who had her uncle Ian’s soft brown eyes, and she smiled at the memory.

It had been the right thing. Coming here, bringing the kids … home. It didn’t matter if it took a little doing for her and Roger to find their places. Though maybe she shouldn’t speak for Roger, she thought with a grimace.

She looked up at the box again. She wished her parents were here—either of them—so she could tell them about Roger, ask their opinion. Not that she wanted advice, so much…. What she wanted, if she was honest, she thought, was a reassurance that she’d done the right thing.

With a heightened flush in her cheeks, she reached up with both hands and brought down the box, feeling guilty for not waiting to share the next letter with Roger. But … she wanted her mother just now. She took the first letter on top that bore her mother’s writing on the outside.

Offices of L’Oignon, New Bern, North Carolina April 12, 1777

Dear Bree (and Roger and Jem and Mandy, of course),

We’ve made it to New Bern, without major incident. Yes, I hear you thinking, Major? And it is true that we were held up by a pair of would-be bandits on the road south of Boone. Given that they were probably nine and eleven respectively, and armed solely with an ancient wheel-lock musket that would have blown them both to bits had they been able to fire it, though, we weren’t in any marked danger.

Rollo leapt out of the wagon and knocked one of them flat, whereupon his brother dropped the gun and legged it. Your cousin Ian ran him down, though, hauling him back by the scruff of the neck.

It took your father some time to get anything sensible out of them, but a little food worked wonders. They said their names are Herman and—no, really—Vermin. Their parents died during the winter—their father went hunting and didn’t come back, the mother died giving birth, and the baby died a day later, as the two boys had no way to feed it. They know of no people on their father’s side, but they said their mother’s family name was Kuykendall. Luckily, your father knows a Kuykendall family, near Bailey Camp, and so Ian took the little vagabonds off to find the Kuykendalls and see if they could be settled. If not, I suppose he’ll bring them along to New Bern, and we’ll try to apprentice them somewhere, or perhaps take them with us to Wilmington and find them a berth as cabin boys.

Fergus and Marsali and the children seem all to be doing very well, both physically—bar a family tendency to enlarged adenoids and the biggest wart I’ve ever seen on Germain’s left elbow—and financially.

Aside from the Wilmington Gazette, L’Oignon is the only regular newspaper in the colony, and Fergus thus gets a great deal of business. Add in the printing and sale of books and pamphlets, and he’s doing very well indeed. The family now owns two milch goats, a flock of chickens, a pig, and three mules, counting Clarence, whom we are bequeathing to them on our way to Scotland.

Conditions and uncertainties being what they are [meaning, Brianna thought, that you don’t know who might read this letter, or when] I’d better not be specific about what he’s printing, besides newspapers. L’Oignon itself is carefully evenhanded, printing rabid denunciations by both Loyalists and those less loyal, and publishing satirical poetry by our good friend “Anonymous,” lampooning both sides of the present political conflict. I’ve seldom seen Fergus so happy.

War agrees with some men, and Fergus, rather oddly, is one of them. Your cousin Ian is another, though in his case, I think perhaps it keeps him from thinking too much.

I do wonder what his mother will make of him. But knowing her as I do, my guess is that after the first shock has passed, she’ll begin the work of finding him a wife. Jenny is a very perceptive woman, all things said—and just as stubborn as your father. I do hope he remembers that.

Speaking of your father, he’s out and about a good deal with Fergus, doing bits of “business” (unspecified, which means he’s probably doing something that would turn my hair white—or whiter—to know about) and inquiring among the merchants for a possible ship—though I think our chances of finding one will be better in Wilmington, where we’ll go as soon as Ian joins us.

Meanwhile, I’ve set up my shingle—literally. It’s tacked to the front of Fergus’s printshop, and says, TEETH PULLED, RASHES, PHLEGM, AND THE AGUE CURED, this being Marsali’s work. She wanted to add a line about the pox, but both Fergus and I dissuaded her—he from a fear that it would lower the tone of his establishment, self from a certain morbid attachment to truth in advertising, as there is in fact nothing I can presently do about any condition they call the pox. Phlegm … well, there’s always something you can do about phlegm, even if it’s nothing more than a cup of hot tea (these days, that’s hot water over sassafras root, catnip, or lemon balm) with a dram in it.

I called on Dr. Fentiman in Cross Creek on our way, and was able to buy several necessary instruments and a few medicines from him to refurbish my kit (this at the cost of a bottle of whisky and of being forced to admire the latest addition to his ghastly collection of pickled curiosities—no, you don’t want to know; you really don’t. A good thing he can’t see Germain’s wart, or he’d be down to New Bern in a flash, sneaking round the printshop with an amputation saw).

I still lack a pair of good surgical scissors, but Fergus knows a silversmith called Stephen Moray in Wilmington who he says could make a pair to my specifications. For the moment, I occupy myself largely in the pulling of teeth, as the barber who used to do it was drowned last November, having fallen into the harbor while drunk.

With all my love,

Mama

P.S. Speaking of the Wilmington Gazette, your father has it in mind to call there and see if he can find out just who left that blasted notice about the fire. Though I suppose I oughtn’t to complain; if you hadn’t found it, you might never have come back. And while there are a lot of things I wish hadn’t happened as a result of your coming—I can’t ever regret that you know your father, and he you.

WEE DEMONS

IT WASN’T MUCH DIFFERENT than any of the deer trails they’d come across; in fact, it had doubtless begun as one of them. But there was something about this particular trace that said “people” to Ian, and he’d been so long accustomed to such judgments that he seldom registered them consciously. He didn’t now, but gave Clarence’s leading rein a twitch, turning his own horse’s head aside.

“Why’re we stoppin’?” Herman asked suspiciously. “Ain’t nothin’ here.”

“There’s someone living up there.” Ian jerked his chin toward the wooded slope. “The trail’s not wide enough for horses; we’ll tie up here, and walk.”

Herman and Vermin exchanged a wordless glance of deep skepticism, but slid off the mule and trudged after Ian, up the trail.

He was beginning to have his doubts; no one he’d spoken to in the last week knew of any Kuykendalls in the area, and he couldn’t take too much more time about the matter. He might have to bring the wee savages down to New Bern with him, after all, and he had no notion how they’d take to the suggestion.

He had no notion how they took much of anything, come to that. They were not so much shy as secretive, whispering together behind him as they rode, then shutting up like clams the minute he looked at them, regarding him with carefully bland faces, behind which he plainly saw any amount of reckoning going on. What the devil were they plotting?

If they meant to run from him, he thought he might not make any monstrous great effort to chase them down. If, on the other hand, they meant to steal Clarence and the horse while he slept, that was another matter.

The cabin was there, a curl of smoke coming from its chimney; Herman turned a look of surprise on him, and he smiled at the boy.

“Told ye,” he said, and hallooed.

The door creaked open, and the barrel of a musket poked out of it. This was not an uncommon response to strangers in the far backcountry, and Ian was not put off by it. He raised his voice and stated his business, pushing Herman and Vermin in front of him as evidence of his bona fides.

The gun wasn’t withdrawn, but lifted in a significant manner. Obeying instinct, Ian flung himself flat, yanking the boys down with him, as the shot roared overhead. A woman’s voice yelled something strident in a foreign tongue. He didn’t understand the words, but took the meaning clearly, and pulling the little boys to their feet, ushered them hastily back down the trail.

“Ain’t gonna live with her,” Vermin informed him, focusing a narrow glare of dislike over his shoulder. “Tell you that for free.”

“No, ye’re not,” Ian agreed. “Keep moving, aye?” For Vermin had stopped dead.

“Gotta shit.”

“Oh, aye? Well, be quick about it.” He turned away, having discovered early on that the boys had an exaggerated requirement for privacy in such matters.

Herman had gone on already; the tangled mess of his dirty-blond hair was just visible, some twenty yards down the slope. Ian had suggested that the boys might cut, if not comb, their hair, and maybe wash their faces, as a gesture of civility toward any relations who might be faced with the prospect of taking them in, but this suggestion had been rejected with vehemence. Fortunately he was not responsible for forcing the wee buggers to wash—and to be fair, he thought washing would make little difference to their smell, given the state of their clothes, which they had plainly been living in for some months. He did make them sleep on the other side of the fire from himself and Rollo at night, in hopes of limiting his exposure to the lice both of them crawled with.

Could the notable infestation he sported possibly be where the younger boy’s parents had acquired his name? he wondered. Or had they no notion of its meaning and had only picked it to rhyme with his elder brother’s?

Clarence’s earsplitting bray pulled him abruptly from his thoughts. He lengthened his stride, berating himself for having left his own gun in its saddle loop. He hadn’t wanted to approach the house armed, but—

A shriek from below sent him dodging off the path, into the trees. Another shriek was cut off suddenly, and he scrambled down the slope, as quickly as he might without making a racket. Panther? A bear? Nay, Clarence would be bellowing like a grampus, if it was that; instead, he was gurgling and wheezing like he did when he spotted—

Someone he knew.

Ian stopped dead, behind a screen of poplars, his heart cold in his chest.

Arch Bug turned his head, hearing the noise, faint as it was.

“Come on out, lad,” he called. “I see ye there.”

Plainly he did; the ancient eyes were looking straight at him, and Ian came slowly out of the trees.

Arch had taken the gun from the horse; it was slung across his shoulder. He had an arm crooked round Herman’s throat, and the little boy’s face was bright red from the choking; his feet kicked like a dying rabbit’s, a few inches off the ground.

“Where’s the gold?” Arch said, without preamble. His white hair was neatly bound up, and he seemed, so far as Ian could see, to have taken no harm from the winter. Must have found folk to bide with. Where? he wondered. Brownsville, maybe? Bloody dangerous, if he’d told the Browns about the gold—but he thought old Arch was too downy a bird to talk in such company.

Loading...