One of them shrugged. The other pointed off toward the lake and said something. Evidently, the snake had prudently decided that it was outnumbered and returned to its own pursuits.
William stood up awkwardly, frying pan in hand. The men all exchanged nervous smiles.
He was comfortable with Indians, generally; many of them crossed his land, and his father always made them welcome, smoking with them on the veranda, taking supper with them. He couldn’t tell which people these two claimed—the faces had the look of some one of the Algonkian tribes, high-cheeked and bold, but surely this was far south of their usual hunting grounds?
The Indians were examining him in turn, and exchanged a glance that set something tingling at the base of his spine. One of them said something to the other, watching him sidelong to see whether he understood. The other smiled broadly at him, showing brown-stained teeth.
“Tobacco?” the Indian asked, extending a hand, palm upward.
William nodded, trying to slow his breathing, and reached slowly into his coat, right-handed, so as not to have to set down the frying pan in his left.
Likely these two knew the way out of the swamp; he should establish friendly relations, and then … He was trying to think logically, but his lower faculties were interfering. His lower faculties thought he should get the devil away from here, and now.
Coming out with the waxed parcel of tobacco, he threw it as hard as he could at the foremost Indian, who had started toward him, and ran.
A startled exclamation behind him, and then the sound of grunts and thumping feet. His lower faculties, thoroughly justified in their apprehensions, spurred him on, but he knew he couldn’t keep it up for long; being chased by the snake had consumed most of what strength he had—and being obliged to run with an iron frying pan in one hand wasn’t helping.
His best chance lay in outdistancing them sufficiently as to find a hiding place. With this thought in mind, he drove himself to greater exertions, dashing over open ground beneath a growth of gum trees, then swerving into a thicket of juniper, popping out again almost immediately onto a game trail. He hesitated for an instant—hide in the thicket?—but the urge to run was overwhelming, and he pounded down the narrow trail, vines and branches snatching at his clothes.
He heard the pigs in time, thank God. Startled snorts and grunts, and a great rustling of brush and sucking sounds, as a number of heavy bodies scrambled to their feet. He smelled warm mud and the reek of pig flesh; there must be a wallow round the curve of the path.
“Shit,” he said under his breath, and leapt into the brush off the path. Jupiter, now what? Climb a tree? He was breathing hard, sweat running in his eyes.
All the trees nearby were juniper, some very large but dense and twisted, impossible to climb. He dodged round one and crouched behind it, trying to still his breathing.
His heart was hammering in his ears; he’d never hear pursuit. Something touched his hand, and he swung the frying pan by reflex, leaping to his feet.
The dog let out a surprised yelp as the pan glanced off its shoulder, then bared its teeth and growled at him.
“What the devil are you doing here?” William hissed at it. Bloody hell, the thing was the size of a small horse!
The dog’s hackles rose, making it look exactly like a wolf—Jesus, it couldn’t be a wolf, surely?—and it began to bark.
“Shut up, for God’s sake!” But it was too late; he could hear Indian voices, excited and quite near. “Stay,” he whispered, putting out a palm toward the dog as he edged backward. “Stay. Good dog.”
The dog did not stay, but followed him, continuing to growl and bark. The sound of this further disturbed the pigs; there was a thunder of hooves along the path and a surprised whoop from one of the Indians.
William caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye and whirled, weapon at the ready. A very tall Indian blinked at him. Hell, more of them.
“Leave off, dog,” said the Indian mildly, in a distinct Scots accent. William blinked in turn.
The dog did cease barking, though it continued to circle him, unnervingly close and growling all the time.
“Who—” William began, but was interrupted by the two original Indians, who at this point appeared suddenly out of the undergrowth. They came to an abrupt halt at sight of the newcomer—and cast a wary eye at the dog, who turned its attention on them, wrinkling back its muzzle and displaying an impressive array of gleaming teeth.
One of the original Indians said something sharp to the newcomer—thank God, they weren’t together. The tall Indian replied, in a distinctly unfriendly tone. William had no idea what he’d said, but it didn’t sit well with the other two. Their faces darkened, and one put a hand impulsively to his club. The dog made a sort of gurgling noise in its throat, and the hand fell at once.
The original Indians seemed disposed to argue, but the tall Indian cut them off, saying something peremptory and flipped a hand in an unmistakable “Be off with you” gesture. The other two exchanged glances, and William, straightening up, moved to stand by the side of the tall Indian and glowered at them. One of them gave him back the evil look, but his friend looked thoughtfully from the tall Indian to the dog and shook his head, the movement almost imperceptible. Without a further word, the two turned and left.
William’s legs were shaking, waves of fever heat passing over him. Despite a disinclination to get any closer to the dog’s level than necessary, he sat down on the ground. His fingers had gone stiff, he’d clutched the handle of the frying pan so hard. With some difficulty, he unbent them and set the thing down beside him.
“Thank you,” he said, and wiped a sleeve across his sweating jaw. “You—speak English?”
“I’ve met Englishmen who’d say no, but I think ye’ll maybe understand me, at least.” The Indian sat down beside him, looking at him curiously.
“Christ,” William said, “you aren’t an Indian.” That certainly wasn’t an Algonkian face. Seen clearly now, the man was much younger than he’d thought, perhaps only a little older than himself, and plainly white, though his skin was sun-browned and he bore facial tattoos, a double line of dots that looped across his cheekbones. He was dressed in leather shirt and leggings, and wore a most incongruous red-and-black Scotchman’s plaid over one shoulder.
“Aye, I am,” the man said dryly. He raised his chin, indicating the direction taken by the departing Indians. “Where did ye meet wi’ that lot?”
“By the lake. They asked for tobacco, and I—gave it to them. But then they chased me; I don’t know why.”
The man shrugged.
“They thought to take ye west and sell ye as a slave in the Shawnee lands.” He smiled briefly. “They offered me half your price.”
William took a deep breath.
“I thank you, then. That is—I suppose you haven’t any intention of doing the same thing?”
The man didn’t laugh aloud, but gave off a distinct sense of amusement.
“No. I’m no going west.”
William began to feel a little easier, though the heat of his endeavors was beginning to give way to chills again. He wrapped his arms about his knees. His right arm was beginning to hurt again.
“You don’t—do you suppose they might come back?”
“No,” the man said, casually indifferent. “I told them to be gone.”
William stared at him.
“And why do you think they’ll do as you say?”
“Because they’re Mingo,” the man replied patiently, “and I’m Kahnyen’kehaka—a Mohawk. They’re afraid of me.”
William gave him a narrow look, but the man was not practicing upon him. He was nearly as tall as William himself, but thin as a coach whip, his dark-brown hair slicked back with bear grease. He looked competent, but not a person to inspire fear.
The man was studying him with an interest equal to his own. William coughed and cleared his throat, then extended a hand. “Your servant, sir. I’m William Ransom.”
“Oh, I ken ye well enough,” the man said, a rather odd note in his voice. He put out his own hand and shook William’s firmly. “Ian Murray. We’ve met.” His eyes traveled over William’s torn, disheveled clothes, his scratched, sweating face, and his mud-caked boots. “Ye look a bit better than the last time I saw ye—but not much.”
MURRAY LIFTED THE CAMP kettle off the fire and set it on the ground. He laid the knife in the embers for a moment, then dipped the hot blade into the frying pan, now filled with water. The hot metal hissed and gave off clouds of steam.
“Ready?” he said.
William knelt down by a big poplar log and laid his injured arm flat on the wood. It was visibly swollen, the bulge of a large remnant splinter dark under his skin, the skin around it stretched and transparent with pus, painfully inflamed.
The Mohawk—he couldn’t yet think of him as anything else, despite the name and accent—glanced at him across the log, eyebrows raised quizzically.
“Was that you I heard? Screamin’, earlier?” He took hold of William’s wrist.
“I shouted, yes,” William said stiffly. “A snake struck at me.”
“Oh.” Murray’s mouth twitched a little. “Ye scream like a lassie,” he said, eyes returning to his work. The knife pressed down.
William made a deeply visceral noise.
“Aye, better,” said Murray. He smiled briefly, as though to himself, and with a firm grip on William’s wrist sliced cleanly through the skin beside the splinter, laying it open for six inches or so. Turning back the skin with the point of the knife, he flicked out the large splinter, then picked delicately at the smaller slivers the cypress shard had left behind.
Having removed as much as he could, he then wrapped a fold of his ragged plaid round the handle of the camp kettle, picked it up, and poured the steaming water into the open wound.
William made a much more visceral sound, this one accompanied by words.
Murray shook his head, and clicked his tongue in reproof.
“Aye, well. I suppose I’ll have to keep ye from dying, because if ye do die, ye’re bound to go to hell, usin’ language like that.”
“I don’t propose to die,” William said shortly. He was breathing hard, and mopped his brow with his free arm. He lifted the other gingerly and shook blood-tinged water from his fingertips, though the resulting sensation made him light-headed. He sat down on the log, rather suddenly.
“Put your heid atween your knees, if ye’re giddy,” Murray suggested.
“I am not giddy.”
There was no response to this save the sound of chewing. While waiting for the kettle to boil, Murray had waded into the water and pulled several handsful of some strong-smelling herb that grew on the verge. He was in process now of chewing the leaves, spitting the resultant green wads into a square of cloth. Extracting a rather shriveled onion from the haversack he carried, he cut a generous slice from this and eyed it critically, but seemed to think it would pass without mastication. He added it to his packet, folding the cloth neatly over the contents.
This he placed over the wound and wrapped it in place with strips of cloth torn from William’s shirttail.
Murray glanced up at him thoughtfully.
“I suppose ye’re verra stubborn?”
William stared at the Scot, put out at this remark, though in fact he had been told repeatedly, by friends, relatives, and military superiors, that his intransigence would one day kill him. Surely it didn’t show on his face!
“What the devil do you mean by that?”
“It wasna meant as an insult,” Murray said mildly, and bent to tighten the knot of the impromptu bandage with his teeth. He turned away and spat out a few threads. “I hope ye are—because it’ll be a good distance to find ye help, and if you’re sufficiently stubborn as not to die on me, that would be good, I think.”
“I said I don’t propose to die,” William assured him. “And I don’t need help. Where—are we anywhere near Dismal Town?”
Murray pursed his lips.
“No,” he said, and raised one brow. “Were ye bound there?”
William considered for an instant, but nodded. No harm in telling him that, surely.
Murray raised an eyebrow.
“I—have business with some gentlemen there.” As he said this, William’s heart gave a lurch. Christ, the book! He’d been so confounded by his various trials and adventures that the true importance of his loss had not even struck him.
Beyond its general entertainment value and its usefulness as palimpsest for his own meditations, the book was vital to his mission. It contained several carefully marked passages whose code gave him the names and locations of those men he was to visit—and, more importantly, what he was to tell them. He could recall a good many of the names, he thought, but for the rest…
His dismay was so great that it overshadowed the throbbing in his arm, and he stood up abruptly, seized by the urge to rush back into the Great Dismal and begin combing it, inch by inch, until he should recover the book.
“Are ye all right, man?” Murray had risen, too, and was looking at him with a combination of curiosity and concern.
“I—yes. Just—I thought of something, that’s all.”
“Well, think about it sitting down, aye? Ye’re about to fall into the fire.”
In fact, William’s vision had gone bright, and pulsating dots of dark and light obscured most of Murray’s face, though the look of alarm was still visible.
“I—yes, I will.” He sat down even more abruptly than he’d risen, a heavy cold sweat sudden on his face. A hand on his good arm urged him to lie down, and he did, feeling dimly that it was preferable to fainting.
Murray made a Scottish noise of consternation and muttered something incomprehensible. William could feel the other man hovering over him, uncertain.