An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 6

   

I DIDN’T BOLT THE DOOR at once, but stepped out to breathe fresh air for a moment, shutting Rollo in behind me. Within moments, Jamie and Ian had vanished into the trees. I glanced uneasily round the clearing, looked across to the black mass of the forest, but could see nothing amiss. Nothing moved, and the night was soundless; I wondered what Ian might have found. Unfamiliar tracks, perhaps? That would account for his sense of urgency; it was clearly about to snow.

No moon was visible, but the sky was a deep pinkish gray, and the ground, though trodden and patchy, was still covered with old snow. The result was a strange, milky glow in which objects seemed to float as though painted on glass, dimensionless and dim. The burnt remains of the Big House stood at the far side of the clearing, no more at this distance than a smudge, as though a giant, sooty thumb had pressed down there. I could feel the heaviness of impending snow in the air, hear it in the muffled sough of the pines.

The MacLeod boys had come over the mountain with their grandmother; they’d said it was very hard going through the high passes. Another big storm would likely seal us in until March or even April.

Thus reminded of my patient, I took one last look round the clearing and set my hand on the latch. Rollo was whining, scratching at the door, and I pushed a knee unceremoniously into his face as I opened it.

“Stay, dog,” I said. “Don’t worry, they’ll be back soon.” He made a high, anxious noise in his throat, and cast to and fro, nudging at my legs, seeking to get out.

“No,” I said, pushing him away in order to bolt the door. The bolt dropped into place with a reassuring thunk, and I turned toward the fire, rubbing my hands. Rollo put back his head and gave a low, mournful howl that raised the hair on the back of my neck.

“What?” I said, alarmed. “Hush!” The noise had made one of the small children in the bedroom wake and cry; I heard rustling bedclothes and sleepy maternal murmurs, and I knelt quickly and grabbed Rollo’s muzzle before he could howl again.

“Shhhhh,” I said, and looked to see whether the sound had disturbed Grannie MacLeod. She lay still, waxen-faced, her eyes closed. I waited, automatically counting the seconds before the next shallow rise of her chest.

… six … seven … “Oh, bloody hell,” I said, realizing.

Hastily crossing myself, I shuffled over to her on my knees, but closer inspection told me nothing I hadn’t seen already. Self-effacing to the last, she had seized my moment of distraction to die inconspicuously.

Rollo was shifting to and fro, no longer howling, but uneasy. I laid a hand gently on the sunken chest. Not seeking diagnosis or offering aid, not any longer. Just … a necessary acknowledgment of the passing of a woman whose first name I didn’t know.

“Well … God rest your soul, poor thing,” I said softly, and sat back on my heels, trying to think what to do next.

Proper Highland protocol held that the door must be opened at once after a death, to allow the soul to leave. I rubbed a knuckle dubiously over my lips; might the soul have made a quick dash when I opened the door to come in? Probably not.

One would think that in a climate as inhospitable as Scotland’s, there would be a bit of climatological leeway in such matters, but I knew that wasn’t the case. Rain, snow, sleet, wind—Highlanders always did open the door and leave it open for hours, both eager to free the departing soul and anxious lest the spirit, impeded in its exit, might turn and take up permanent residence as a ghost. Most crofts were too small to make that a tolerable prospect.

Little Orrie was awake now; I could hear him singing happily to himself, a song consisting of his stepfather’s name.

“Baaaaah-by, baaah-by, BAAAH-by …”

I heard a low, sleepy chuckle, and Bobby’s murmur in reply.

“There’s my wee man. You need the pot, acooshla?” The Gaelic endearment—a chuisle, “my heart’s blood”—made me smile, both at the word and at the oddness of it in Bobby’s Dorset accent. Rollo made an uneasy noise in his throat, though, bringing back to me the need for some action.

If the Higginses and in-laws rose in a few hours to discover a corpse on the floor, they’d all be disturbed, their sense of rightness affronted—and agitated at thought of a dead stranger possibly clinging to their hearth. A very bad omen for the new marriage and the new year. At the same time, her presence was undeniably agitating Rollo, and the prospect of his rousing them all in the next few moments was agitating me.

“Right,” I said under my breath. “Come on, dog.” There were, as always, bits of harness needing mending on a peg near the door. I disentangled a sound length of rein and fashioned a makeshift come-along with which I lassoed Rollo. He was more than happy to go outside with me, lunging ahead as I opened the door, though somewhat less delighted to be dragged to the lean-to pantry, where I wrapped the makeshift leash hastily round a shelf upright, before returning to the cabin for Grannie MacLeod’s body.

I looked about carefully before venturing out again, Jamie’s admonitions in mind, but the night was as still as a church; even the trees had fallen silent.

The poor woman couldn’t weigh more than seventy pounds, I thought; her collarbones poked through her skin, and her fingers were frail as dried twigs. Still, seventy pounds of literal dead weight was a bit more than I could manage to lift, and I was obliged to unfold the blanket wrapped round her and use it as an impromptu sledge, on which I dragged her outside, murmuring mingled prayers and apologies under my breath.

Despite the cold, I was panting and damp with sweat by the time I’d got her into the pantry.

“Well, at least your soul’s had plenty of time to make a getaway,” I muttered, kneeling to check the body before resettling it in its hasty shroud. “And I shouldn’t imagine you want to hang about haunting a pantry, in any case.”

Her eyelids were not quite closed, a sliver of white showing, as though she had tried to open them for one last glimpse of the world—or perhaps in search of a familiar face.

“Benedicite,” I whispered, and gently shut her eyes, wondering as I did so whether one day some stranger might do the same for me. The odds of it were good. Unless …

Jamie had declared his intention to return to Scotland, fetch his printing press, and then come back to fight. But what, said a small, cowardly voice inside me, if we didn’t come back? What if we went to Lallybroch and stayed there?

Even as I thought of that prospect—with its rosy visions of being enfolded by family, able to live in peace, to grow slowly old without the constant fear of disruption, starvation, and violence—I knew it wouldn’t work.

I didn’t know whether Thomas Wolfe had been right about not being able to go home again—well, I wouldn’t know about that, I thought, a little bitterly; I hadn’t had one to go back to—but I did know Jamie. Idealism quite aside—and he did have some, though of a very pragmatic sort—the simple fact was that he was a proper man, and thus required to have proper work. Not just labor; not just making a living. Work. I understood the difference.

And while I was sure that Jamie’s family would receive him with joy—the nature of my own reception was in somewhat more doubt, but I supposed they wouldn’t actually call the priest and try to have me exorcised—the fact was that Jamie was no longer laird of Lallybroch, and never would be.

“ ‘… and his place shall know him no more,’ ” I murmured, wiping the old woman’s intimate parts—surprisingly unwithered; perhaps she had been younger than I thought—with a damp cloth. She hadn’t eaten anything in days; even the relaxation of death hadn’t had much effect—but anyone deserved to go clean to their grave.

I paused. That was a thought. Would we be able to bury her? Or might she just rest peacefully under the huckleberry jam and the sacks of dried beans until spring?

I tidied her clothes, breathing out, openmouthed, trying to judge the temperature from the steam of my breath. This would be only the second major snowfall of the winter, and we had not yet had a really hard freeze; that usually happened in mid to late January. If the ground had not yet frozen, we could probably bury her—provided the men were willing to shovel away the snow.

Rollo had lain down, resigned, while I went about my business, but at this point, his head jerked upright, ears pointed.

“What?” I said, startled, and turned round on my knees to look out the open pantry door. “What’s happening?”

“SHALL WE TAKE HIM NOW?” Ian murmured. He had his bow over one shoulder; he let his arm fall, and the bow dropped silently into his hand, ready.

“No. Let him find it first.” Jamie spoke slowly, trying to make up his mind what was right to do with the man, so suddenly reappeared before him.

Not kill him; he and his wife had made a good deal of trouble with their treachery, aye, but hadn’t intended harm to his family—not to start, at least. Was Arch Bug even truly a thief, by his own lights? Surely Jamie’s aunt Jocasta had no greater—if no lesser—claim to the gold than he did.

He sighed and put a hand to his belt, where his dirk and pistol hung. Still, he couldn’t allow Bug to make off with the gold, nor could he merely drive him off and leave him free to make more trouble. As to what in God’s name to do with him once caught … it would be like having a snake in a sack. But naught to do now save catch him, and worry later what to do with the sack. Perhaps some bargain might be struck …

The figure had reached the black smear of the foundations and was climbing awkwardly among the stones and the charred timbers that remained, the dark cloak lifting and billowing as the air shifted.

Snow began to fall, sudden and silent, big, lazy flakes that seemed not so much to fall from the sky as simply to appear, whirling out of the air. They brushed his face and stuck thick in his lashes; he wiped them away, and motioned to Ian.

“Go behind,” he whispered. “If he runs, send a shaft past his nose to stop him. And keep well back, aye?”

“You keep well back, Uncle,” Ian whispered back. “If ye get within decent pistol shot o’ the man, he can brain ye with his ax. And I’m no going to explain that to Auntie Claire.”

Jamie snorted briefly and nudged Ian away. He loaded and primed his pistol, then walked firmly out through the falling snow toward the ruin of his house.

He’d seen Arch fell a turkey with his ax at twenty feet. And it was true that most pistols weren’t accurate at much more than that. But he didn’t mean to shoot the man, after all. He drew the pistol, holding it clear in his hand.

“Arch!” he called. The figure had its back to him, bent over as it rooted about in the ashes. At his call, it seemed to stiffen, still crouched.

“Arch Bug!” he shouted. “Come out o’ there, man. I’d speak with ye!”

In answer, the figure drew itself up abruptly, turned, and a spurt of flame lit the falling snow. In the same instant, the flame seared his thigh, and he staggered.

He was conscious mostly of surprise; he’d never known Arch Bug to use a pistol, and was impressed that he could aim so well with his left—

He’d gone to one knee in the snow, but even as he brought his own weapon up to bear, he realized two things: the black figure was aiming a second pistol at him—but not with the left hand. Which meant—

“Jesus! Ian!” But Ian had seen him fall, and seen the second pistol, too. Jamie didn’t hear the arrow’s flight, above the rush of wind and snow; it appeared as though by magic, stuck in the figure’s back. The figure went straight and stiff, then fell in a heap. Almost before it hit the ground, he was running, hobbling, his right leg buckling under him with every step.

“God, no, God, no,” he was saying, and it sounded like someone else’s voice.

A voice came through snow and night, calling out in desperation. Then Rollo was bounding past him, a blur—who had let him out?—and a rifle cracked from the trees. Ian bellowed, somewhere near, calling the dog, but Jamie had no time to look, was scrambling heedless over the blackened stones, slipping on the skim of fresh snow, stumbling, his leg was cold and hot at once, but no matter, oh, God, please, no …

He reached the black figure and flung himself on his knees beside it, grappling. He knew at once; he’d known from the moment he realized the pistol had been held in her right hand. Arch, with his missing fingers, couldn’t fire a pistol right-handed. But, oh, God, no …

He’d got her over, feeling the short, heavy body limp and unwieldy as a fresh-killed deer. Pushed back the hood of the cloak, and passed his hand, gentle, helpless, over the soft round face of Murdina Bug. She breathed against his hand—perhaps … but he felt the shaft of the arrow, too, against his hand. It had come through her neck, and her breath bubbled wet; his hand was wet, too, and warm.

“Arch?” she said hoarsely. “I want Arch.” And died.

LIFE FOR LIFE

I TOOK JAMIE into the pantry. It was dark, and cold, particularly for a man with no breeches on, but I didn’t want to risk any of the Higginses being wakened. God, not now. They’d all erupt from their sanctum like a flight of panicked quail—and I quailed myself at thought of having to deal with them before I had to. It would be sufficiently horrible to tell them what had happened by daylight; I couldn’t face the prospect now.

For lack of any better alternative, Jamie and Ian had laid Mrs. Bug in the pantry alongside Grannie MacLeod, tucked under the lowest shelf, her cloak drawn up over her face. I could see her feet sticking out, with their cracked, worn boots and striped stockings. I had a sudden vision of the Wicked Witch of the West, and clapped a hand to my mouth before anything truly hysterical could escape.

Jamie turned his head toward me, but his gaze was inward, his face haggard, deep-lined in the glow of the candle he carried.

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