An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 55

   

He was high above the farm now, and slowed to look up the slope. Brianna had said the cave was on the south face of the hill, about forty feet above a large whitish boulder known locally as “Leap o’ the Cask.” So known because the Dunbonnet’s servant, bringing ale to the hidden laird, had encountered a group of British soldiers and, refusing to give them the cask he carried, had had his hand cut off—

“Oh, Jesus,” Roger whispered. “Fergus. Oh, God, Fergus.” Could see at once the laughing, fine-boned face, dark eyes snapping with amusement as he lifted a flapping fish with the hook he wore in place of his missing left hand—and the vision of a small, limp hand, lying bloody on the path before him.

Because it was here. Right here. Turning, he saw the rock, big and rough, bearing silent, stolid witness to horror and despair—and to the sudden grip of the past that took him by the throat, fierce as the bite of a noose.

He coughed hard, trying to open his throat, and heard the hoarse eerie bell of another stag, close above him on the slope but still invisible.

He ducked off the trail, flattening himself against the rock. Surely to God he hadn’t sounded bad enough that the stag had taken him for a rival? No—more likely it was coming down in challenge to the one he’d seen a few moments before.

Sure enough; an instant later a big stag came down from above, picking its way almost daintily through heather and rocks. It was a fine animal, but was already showing the strain of rutting season, its ribs shadowed under the thick coat and the flesh of its face sunk in, eyes red with sleeplessness and lust.

It saw him; the big head swiveled in his direction, and he saw the rolling, bloodshot eyes fix on him. It wasn’t afraid of him, though; likely had no room in its brain for anything save fighting and copulation. It stretched its neck in his direction and belled at him, eyes showing white with the effort.

“Look, mate, you want her, you can have her.” He backed slowly away, but the deer followed him, menacing him with lowered antlers. Alarmed, he spread his arms, waved and shouted at the deer; normally that would have sent it bounding away. Red deer in rut weren’t normal; the thing lowered its head and charged him.

Roger dodged aside and threw himself flat at the base of the rock. He was wedged as tightly next the rock’s face as he could get, in hopes of keeping the maddened stag from trampling him. It stumbled to a stop a few feet from him, thrashing at the heather with its antlers and breathing like a bellows—but then it heard the blatting of the challenger below, and jerked its head up.

Another roar from below, and the new stag turned on its haunches and bounded clear over the trail, the sound of its hell-bent passage down the slope marked by the crunch of breaking heather and the rattle of stones spurned by its hooves.

Roger scrambled to his feet, adrenaline running through his veins like quicksilver. He hadn’t realized the red deer were at it up here, or he’d not have been wasting time strolling along maundering about the past. He needed to find Jem now, before the boy ran afoul of one of the things.

He could hear the roars and clashing of the two below, fighting it out for control of a harem of hinds, though they were out of sight from where he stood.

“Jem!” he bellowed, not caring whether he sounded like a rutting deer or a bull elephant. “Jem! Where are you? Answer me this minute!”

“I’m up here, Da.” Jemmy’s voice came from above him, a little tremulous, and he whirled to see Jem sitting on the Leap o’ the Cask, string bag clutched to his chest.

“Right, you. Down. Now.” Relief fought with annoyance but edged it out. He reached up, and Jem slid down the rock, landing heavily in his father’s arms.

Roger grunted and set him down, then leaned down to pick up the string bag, which had fallen to the ground. In addition to bread and lemon squash, he saw, it held several apples, a large chunk of cheese, and a packet of chocolate biscuits.

“Planning to stay for a while, were ye?” he asked. Jemmy flushed and looked away.

Roger turned and looked up the slope.

“Up there, is it? Your grandda’s cave?” He couldn’t see a thing; the slope was a jumble of rock and heather, liberally splotched with scrubby gorse bushes and the odd sprout of rowan and alder.

“Aye. Just there.” Jemmy pointed up the slope. “See, where that witch tree’s leaning?”

He saw the rowan—a full-grown tree, gnarled with age; surely it couldn’t have been there since Jamie’s time, could it?—but still saw no sign of the cave’s opening. The sounds of combat from below had ceased; he glanced round in case the loser should be coming back this way, but evidently not.

“Show me,” he said.

Jem, who had been looking deeply uneasy, relaxed a little at this and, turning, scrambled up the slope, Roger at his heels.

You could be right next to the cave’s opening and never see it. It was screened by an outcrop of rock and a heavy growth of gorse; you couldn’t see the narrow opening at all unless you were standing in front of it.

A cool breath came out of the cave, moist on his face. He knelt down to peer in; couldn’t see more than a few feet inside, but it wasn’t inviting.

“Be cold to sleep in there,” he said. He glanced at Jem, and motioned to a nearby rock.

“Want to sit down and tell me what happened at school?”

Jem swallowed and shifted from foot to foot.

“No.”

“Sit down.” He didn’t raise his voice, but made it evident he expected to be obeyed. Jem didn’t quite sit down but edged backward, leaning against the rocky outcrop that hid the cave mouth. He wouldn’t look up.

“I got the strap,” Jem muttered, chin buried in his chest.

“Oh?” Roger kept his voice casual. “Well, that’s a bugger. I got it once or twice, when I was at school. Didn’t like it.”

Jem’s head jerked up, eyes wide.

“Aye? What for, then?”

“Fighting, mostly,” Roger said. He supposed he oughtn’t to be telling the boy that—bad example—but it was the truth. And if fighting was Jem’s problem…

“That what happened today?” He’d looked Jem over briefly when he sat down, and gave him a closer look now. Jem seemed undamaged, but when he turned his head away, Roger could see that something had happened to his ear. It was a deep crimson, the lobe of it nearly purple. He suppressed an exclamation at sight of it and merely repeated, “What happened?”

“Jacky McEnroe said if ye heard I’d got the strap, ye’d give me another whipping when I got home.” Jem swallowed, but now looked at his father directly. “Will you?”

“I don’t know. I hope I won’t have to.”

He’d tawsed Jemmy once—he’d had to—and neither of them wanted to repeat the experience. He reached out and touched Jem’s flaming ear gently.

“Tell me what happened, son.”

Jem took a deep breath, blowing out his cheeks, then deflated into resignation.

“Aye. Well, it started when Jimmy Glasscock said Mam and me and Mandy were all goin’ to burn in hell.”

“Yeah?” Roger wasn’t all that surprised; Scottish Presbyterians weren’t known for their religious flexibility, and the breed hadn’t altered all that much in two hundred years. Manners might keep most of them from telling their papist acquaintance they were going straight to hell—but most of them likely thought it.

“Well, ye know what to do about that, though, don’t you?” Jem had heard similar sentiments expressed on the Ridge—though generally more quietly, Jamie Fraser being who he was. Still, they’d talked about it, and Jem was well prepared to answer that particular conversational gambit.

“Oh, aye.” Jem shrugged, looking down at his shoes again. “Just say, ‘Aye, fine, I’ll see ye there, then.’ I did.”

“And?”

Deep sigh.

“I said it in the Gàidhlig.”

Roger scratched behind his ear, puzzled. Gaelic was disappearing in the Highlands, but was still common enough that you heard it once in a while in the pub or the post office. No doubt a few of Jem’s classmates had heard it from their grans, but even if they didn’t understand what he’d said… ?

“And?” he repeated.

“And Miss Glendenning grabbed me by the ear and like to tore it off.” A flush was rising in Jemmy’s cheeks at the memory. “She shook me, Da!”

“By the ear?” Roger felt an answering flush in his own cheeks.

“Yes!” Tears of humiliation and anger were welling in Jem’s eyes, but he dashed them away with a sleeve and pounded his fist on his leg. “She said, ‘We—do—not—speak—like—THAT! We—speak—ENGLISH!’ ” His voice was some octaves higher than the redoubtable Miss Glendenning’s, but his mimicry made the ferocity of her attack more than evident.

“And then she took a strap to you?” Roger asked incredulously.

Jem shook his head, and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

“No,” he said. “That was Mr. Menzies.”

“What? Why? Here.” He handed Jem a crumpled paper handkerchief from his pocket, and waited while the boy blew his nose.

“Well… I was already fussed wi’ Jimmy, and when she grabbed me like that, it hurt bad. And… well, my dander got up,” he said, giving Roger a blue-eyed look of burning righteousness that was so much his grandfather that Roger nearly smiled, despite the situation.

“And ye said something else to her, did ye?”

“Aye.” Jem dropped his eyes, rubbing the toe of his sneaker in the dirt. “Miss Glendenning doesna like the Gàidhlig, but she doesn’t know any, either. Mr. Menzies does.”

“Oh, God.”

Drawn by the shouting, Mr. Menzies had emerged onto the play yard just in time to hear Jem giving Miss Glendenning the benefit of some of his grandfather’s best Gaelic curses, at the top of his lungs.

“So he made me bend over a chair and gave me three good ones, then sent me to the cloakroom to stay ’til school was out.”

“Only you didn’t stay there.”

Jem shook his head, bright hair flying.

Roger bent and picked up the string bag, fighting back outrage, dismay, laughter, and a throat-clutching sympathy. On second thought, he let a bit of the sympathy show.

“Running away from home, were ye?”

“No.” Jem looked up at him, surprised. “I didna want to go to school tomorrow, though. Not and have Jimmy laugh at me. So I thought to stay up here ’til the weekend, and maybe by Monday, things would get sorted. Miss Glendenning might die,” he added hopefully.

“And maybe your mam and I would be so worried by the time ye came down, ye’d get off without a second whipping?”

Jem’s deep-blue eyes widened in surprise.

“Och, no. Mam would give me laldy if I just went off wi’ no word. I put a note on my bed. Said I was living rough a day or two.” He said this with perfect matter-of-factness. Then he wiggled his shoulders and stood up, sighing.

“Can we get it over and go home?” he asked, his voice trembling only a little. “I’m hungry.”

“I’m not going to whip you,” Roger assured him. He reached out an arm and gathered Jemmy to him. “Come here, pal.”

Jemmy’s brave facade gave way at that, and he melted into Roger’s arms, crying a little in relief but letting himself be comforted, cuddling like a puppy against his father’s shoulder, trusting Da to make it all right. And his da bloody would, Roger promised silently. No matter if he had to strangle Miss Glendenning with his bare hands.

“Why is it bad to speak Gàidhlig, Da?” he murmured, worn out by so much emotion. “I didna mean to do anything bad.”

“It’s not,” Roger whispered, smoothing the silky hair behind Jem’s ear. “Dinna fash yourself. Mam and I will get it sorted. I promise. And ye haven’t got to go to school tomorrow.”

Jem sighed at that, going inert as a bag of grain. Then he lifted his head and gave a small giggle.

“D’ye think Mam will give Mr. Menzies laldy?”

TUNNEL TIGERS

BRIANNA’S FIRST INTIMATION of disaster was the slice of light on the track, shrinking to nothing in the split second it took for the enormous doors to swing shut, echoing behind her with a boom that seemed to shiver the air in the tunnel.

She said something that she would have washed Jem’s mouth out for saying, and said it with heartfelt fury—but said it also under her breath, having realized in the instant that it took the doors to close what was happening.

She couldn’t see a thing save the swirls of color that were her retinas’ response to sudden dark, but she was only ten feet or so inside the tunnel and could still hear the sound of the bolts sliding home; they were worked by big wheels on the outside of the steel doors and made a grinding sound like bones being chewed. She turned carefully, took five steps, and put out her hands. Yes, there were the doors; big, solid, made of steel, and now solidly locked. She could hear the sound of laughter outside.

Giggling, she thought with furious contempt. Like little boys!

Little boys, indeed. She took a few deep breaths, fighting off both anger and panic. Now that the dazzle of the darkness had faded, she could see the thin line of light that bisected the fifteen-foot doors. A man-height shadow interrupted the light but was jerked away, to the accompaniment of whispers and more giggling. Someone trying to peek in, the idiot. Good luck to him, seeing anything in here. Aside from the hair of light between the doors, the hydroelectric tunnel under Loch Errochty was dark as the pits of hell.

At least she could use that hair of light for orientation. Still breathing with deliberation, she made her way—stepping carefully; she didn’t want to amuse the baboons outside any more than necessary by stumbling and falling noisily—to the metal box on the left wall where the power switches that controlled the tunnel lighting were located.

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