An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 5

   

Jamie and Ian exchanged glances, and I felt a slight stirring of the hair at the back of my neck.

“No,” Ian answered. “The Cherokee near here all ken her weel, and wouldna touch her with a ten-foot pole. They think she’s a demon, aye?”

“And traveling Indians from the north would have arrows or tomahawks,” Jamie finished.

“Ye’re sure it wasna a panther?” Amy asked, dubious. “They hunt in the winter, no?”

“They do,” Jamie assured her. “I saw pug-marks up by the Green Spring yesterday. D’ye hear me there?” he said, bending to speak to the boys under the table. “Go canny, aye?

“But no,” he added, straightening up. “Ian kens the difference between claw marks and a knife slash, I think.” He gave Ian a grin. Ian politely refrained from rolling his eyes, and merely nodded, eyes fixed dubiously on the toast basket.

No one suggested that any resident of the Ridge or from Brownsville might have been hunting the white sow. The local Presbyterians would not have seen eye-to-eye with the Cherokee on any other spiritual matter you might name, but they were in decided agreement on the sow’s demonic character.

Personally, I wasn’t sure they weren’t right. The thing had survived even the burning of the Big House unscathed, emerging from her den beneath its foundations amid a shower of burnt wood, followed by her latest litter of half-grown piglets.

“Moby Dick!” I now said aloud, inspired.

Rollo raised his head with a startled “Wuff?,” gave me a yellow-eyed look and laid it down again, sighing.

“Dick who?” said Jamie, drowsy. He sat up, stretching and groaning, then rubbed a hand over his face and blinked at me.

“I just thought what it is that sow reminds me of,” I explained. “Long story. About a whale. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

“If I live that long,” he said, with a yawn that nearly dislocated his jaw. “Where’s the whisky—or d’ye need it for yon poor woman?” He nodded at Grannie MacLeod’s blanket-wrapped form.

“Not yet. Here.” I bent and rummaged in the basket beneath my chair, coming up with a corked bottle.

He pulled the cork and drank, the color gradually coming back to his face. Between spending his days hunting or chopping wood and half the nights lurking in a freezing forest, even Jamie’s great vitality was showing signs of flagging.

“How long will you keep this up?” I asked, low-voiced so as not to rouse the Higginses—Bobby, Amy, the two little boys, and Amy’s two sisters-in-law from her first marriage, who had come for the wedding held a few days before, accompanied by a total of five children under the age of ten—all asleep in the small bedroom. The departure of the MacLeod boys had eased the congestion in the cabin slightly, but with Jamie, me, Ian, Ian’s dog, Rollo, and the old woman sleeping on the floor of the main room, and such possessions as we had managed to salvage from the fire stacked round the walls, I sometimes felt a distinct surge of claustrophobia. Little wonder if Jamie and Ian were patrolling the woods, as much to get a breath of air as from a conviction that there was something out there.

“No much longer,” he assured me, shuddering slightly as a large swallow of whisky went down. “If we dinna see anything tonight, we’ll—” He broke off, his head turning abruptly toward the door.

I hadn’t heard anything, but saw the latch move, and an instant later, a freezing gust of air rolled into the room, poking frigid fingers under my skirts and stirring up a shower of sparks from the fire.

I hastily seized a rag and beat these out before they could set Grannie MacLeod’s hair or bedding on fire. By the time I had the fire back under control, Jamie was putting pistol, shot bag, and powder horn on his belt, talking low-voiced with Ian by the door. Ian himself was red-cheeked with cold and clearly excited about something. Rollo was up, too, nosing at Ian’s legs, tail wagging in anticipation of an icy adventure.

“Best ye stay, a cù,” Ian told him, rubbing his ears with cold fingers. “Sheas.”

Rollo made a disgruntled noise in his throat and tried to push past Ian, but was deftly blocked by a leg. Jamie turned, shrugging on his coat, bent, and kissed me hastily.

“Bolt the door, a nighean,” he whispered. “Dinna open to anyone save me or Ian.”

“What—” I began, but they were gone.

THE NIGHT WAS COLD and pure. Jamie breathed deep and shivered, letting the cold enter him, strip away the warmth of wife, the smoke and smell of his hearth. Ice crystals shimmered in his lungs, sharp in his blood. He turned his head to and fro like a wolf scenting, breathing the night. There was little wind, but the air moved from the east, bringing the bitter smell of ashes from the ruins of the Big House … and a faint tang he thought was blood.

He looked to his nephew, question in the c**k of his head, and saw Ian nod, dark against the lavender glow of the sky.

“There’s a dead pig, just beyond Auntie’s garden,” the lad said, low-voiced.

“Oh, aye? Not the white sow, ye don’t mean?” His heart misgave him for an instant at the thought, and he wondered whether he’d mourn the thing or dance on its bones. But no. Ian shook his head, the movement felt rather than seen.

“Nay, not that wily beast. A young one, maybe last year’s farrowing. Someone’s butchered it, but taken nay more than a collop or two from the haunch. And a good bit of what they did take, they scattered in chunks down the trail.”

Jamie glanced round, surprised.

“What?”

Ian shrugged.

“Aye. One more thing, Uncle. ’Twas killed and butchered with an ax.”

The ice crystals in his blood solidified with a suddenness that nearly stopped his heart.

“Jesus,” he said, but it was not so much shock as it was unwilling admission of something he had known for a long time. “It’s him, then.”

“Aye.” Both of them had known it, though neither one had been willing to speak of it. Without consultation, they moved away from the cabin, into the trees.

“Aye, well.” Jamie took a long, deep breath and sighed, the mist of it white in the darkness. He’d hoped the man had taken his gold and his wife and left the Ridge—but it had never been more than a hope. Arch Bug was a Grant by blood, and clan Grant were a vengeful lot.

The Frasers of Glenhelm had caught Arch Bug on their lands some fifty years before, and given him the choice: lose an eye or the first two fingers of his right hand. The man had come to terms with his crippled hand, turning from the bow he could no longer draw to the use of an ax, which he wielded and threw with a skill equal to any Mohawk’s, despite his age.

What he had not come to terms with was the loss of the Stuart cause and the loss of the Jacobite gold, sent too late from France, rescued—or stolen, depending on your view of things—by Hector Cameron, who had brought one third of it to North Carolina, this share then stolen—or retrieved—from Cameron’s widow in turn by Arch Bug.

Nor had Arch Bug come to terms with Jamie Fraser.

“Is it threat, d’ye think?” Ian asked. They had moved away from the cabin, but kept to the trees, circling the large clearing where the Big House had been. The chimney and half a wall still stood, charred and bleak against the dirty snow.

“I canna think so. If it was threat he meant, why wait until now?” Still, he gave silent thanks that his daughter and her weans were safely gone. There were worse threats than a dead pig, and he thought Arch Bug would not hesitate to make them.

“Perhaps he left,” Ian suggested. “To see his wife settled, and he’s only now come back.”

It was a reasonable thought—if there was one thing in the world Arch Bug loved, it was his wife, Murdina, his helpmate of more than fifty years.

“Perhaps,” Jamie said. And yet … And yet he’d felt eyes on his back more than once in the weeks since the Bugs had left. Felt silence in the forest that was not the silence of the trees and rocks.

He didn’t ask whether Ian had looked for the ax-wielder’s track; if one could be found, Ian would have found it. But it hadn’t snowed in more than a week, and what was left on the ground was patchy and trodden by the feet of innumerable people. He looked up at the sky; snow again, and soon.

He made his way up a small outcrop, careful among the ice; the snow was melting in the day, but the water froze again at night, hanging from the cabin’s eaves and from every branch in glittering icicles that filled the forest with the light of blue dawn, then dripped gold and diamonds in the rising sun. Now they were colorless, tinkling like glass as his sleeve brushed the twigs of an ice-covered bush. He stopped, crouching at the top of the outcrop, looking down across the clearing.

All right. The certainty that Arch Bug was here had set off a chain of half-conscious deductions, the conclusion of which now floated to the top of his mind.

“He’d come again for one of two reasons,” he said to Ian. “To do me harm—or to get the gold. All of it.”

He’d given Bug a chunk of gold when he’d sent the man and his wife away, upon the discovery of the Bugs’ treachery. Half a French ingot, it would have allowed an elderly couple to live the rest of their lives in modest comfort. But Arch Bug was not a modest man. He’d once been tacksman to the Grant of Grant, and while he’d hidden his pride for a time, it was not the nature of pride to stay buried.

Ian glanced at him, interested.

“All of it,” he repeated. “So ye think he hid it here—but somewhere he couldna get it easily when ye made him go.”

Jamie lifted one shoulder, watching the clearing. With the house now gone, he could see the steep trail that led up behind it, toward the place where his wife’s garden had once stood, safe behind its deer-proof palisades. Some of the palisades still stood, black against the patchy snow. He would make her a new garden one day, God willing.

“If his purpose was only harm, he’s had the chance.” He could see the butchered pig from here, a dark shape on the path, shadowed by a wide pool of blood.

He pushed away a sudden thought of Malva Christie, and forced himself back to his reasoning.

“Aye, he’s hidden it here,” he repeated, more confident now. “If he had it all, he’d be long gone. He’s been waiting, trying for a way to get to it. But he hasna been able to do it secretly—so now he’s trying something else.”

“Aye, but what? That—” Ian nodded toward the amorphous shape on the path. “I thought it might be a snare or a trap of some kind, but it’s not. I looked.”

“A lure, maybe?” The smell of blood was evident even to him; it would be a plain call to any predator. Even as he thought this, his eye caught movement near the pig, and he put a hand on Ian’s arm.

A tentative flicker of movement, then a small, sinuous shape darted in, disappearing behind the pig’s body.

“Fox,” both men said together, then laughed, quietly.

“There’s that panther in the wood above the Green Spring,” Ian said dubiously. “I saw the tracks yesterday. Can he mean to draw it wi’ the pig, in hopes that we should rush out to deal with it and he could reach the gold whilst we were occupied?”

Jamie frowned at that, and glanced toward the cabin. True, a panther might draw the men out—but not the women and children. And where might he have put the gold in such a densely inhabited space? His eye fell on the long, humped shape of Brianna’s kiln, lying some way from the cabin, unused since her departure, and a spurt of excitement drew him upright. That would be—but no; Arch had stolen the gold from Jocasta Cameron one bar at a time, conveying it secretly to the Ridge, and had begun his theft long before Brianna had gone. But maybe …

Ian stiffened suddenly, and Jamie turned his head sharp to see what the matter was. He couldn’t see anything, but then caught the sound that Ian had heard. A deep, piggish grunt, a rustle, a crack. Then there was a visible stirring among the blackened timbers of the ruined house, and a great light dawned.

“Jesus!” he said, and gripped Ian’s arm so tightly that his nephew yelped, startled. “It’s under the Big House!”

The white sow emerged from her den beneath the ruins, a massive cream-colored blotch upon the night, and stood swaying her head to and fro, scenting the air. Then she began to move, a ponderous menace surging purposefully up the hill.

Jamie wanted to laugh at the sheer beauty of it.

Arch Bug had cannily hidden his gold beneath the foundations of the Big House, choosing his times when the sow was out about her business. No one would have dreamed of invading the sow’s domain; she was the perfect guardian—and doubtless he’d meant to retrieve the gold in the same way when he was ready to go: carefully, one ingot at a time.

But then the house had burned, the timbers collapsing into the foundation, rendering the gold unreachable without a great deal of work and trouble—which would certainly draw attention. It was only now, when the men had cleared away most of the rubble—and spread soot and charcoal all over the clearing in the process—that anyone might be able to reach something hidden under it without attracting notice.

But it was winter, and the white sow, while not hibernating like a bear, kept strictly to her cozy den—save when there was something to eat.

Ian made a small exclamation of disgust, hearing slobbering and crunching from the path.

“Pigs havena got much delicacy of feeling,” Jamie murmured. “If it’s dead, they’ll eat it.”

“Aye, but it’s likely her own offspring!”

“She eats her young alive now and then; I doubt she’d boggle at eating them dead.”

“Hst!”

He hushed at once, eyes fixed on the blackened smear that had once been the finest house in the county. Sure enough, a dark figure emerged from behind the springhouse, sidling cautiously on the slippery path. The pig, busy with her grisly feast, ignored the man, who seemed to be clad in a dark cloak and carrying something like a sack.

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