Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 102

   

From this expedition they had returned three days ago, the sons whitefaced and silent, the old man burning with cold satisfaction.

“Ich war dort. Ich habe ihn geschen,” said Herr Gottfried, sweat trickling down his cheeks at the recollection. I was there. I saw.

Summoned by a hysterical message from the women, the Pastor had ridden into the stableyard, to find two long tails of dark hair hanging from the barn door, stirring gently in the wind above the crudely painted legend Rache.

“That means ‘revenge,’ ” Lord John translated for me.

“I know,” I said, my mouth so dry I could barely speak. “I’ve read Sherlock Holmes. You mean he…”

“Evidently so.”

The Pastor was still speaking; he seized me by the arm and shook it, trying to communicate his urgency. Grey’s look sharpened at whatever the minister was saying, and he broke in with an abrupt question, answered by frenzied noddings.

“He’s coming here. Mueller.” Grey swung round to me, his face set in alarm.

Terribly upset by the scalps, the Pastor had gone in search of Herr Mueller, only to find that the patriarch had nailed his grisly trophies to the barn and then left the farm, bound—he had said—for Fraser’s Ridge, to see me.

If I hadn’t been sitting down already, I might have collapsed at this. I could feel the blood draining from my cheeks, and was sure I looked as pale as Pastor Gottfried.

“Why?” I said. “Is he—he couldn’t! He couldn’t think I had done anything to Petronella or the baby. Could he?” I turned in appeal toward the Pastor, who pushed a pudgy, trembling hand through his gray-streaked hair, disordering its carefully larded strands.

“The clerical gentleman doesn’t know what Mueller thinks, or what his purpose is in coming here,” said Lord John. He cast an interested eye over the pastor’s unprepossessing form. “Much to his credit, he set off alone, hell-for-leather after Mueller, and found him two hours later—insensible by the side of the road.”

The huge old farmer had evidently gone for days without food on his hunt for revenge. Intemperance was not a common failing among the Lutherans, but under the stimulus of fatigue and emotion, Mueller had drunk deeply upon his return, and the enormous draughts of beer he had consumed had been too much for him. Overcome, he had contrived to hobble his mule, but then had wrapped himself in his coat and fallen asleep among the trailing arbutus by the road.

The Pastor had made no attempt to rouse Mueller, being well acquainted with the man’s temper and feeling it would not be improved by drink. Instead, Gottfried had mounted his own horse and ridden as quickly as he could, trusting to Providence to bring him here in time to warn us.

He had had no doubt that my Mann would be competent to deal with Mueller, no matter what his state or intentions, but with Jamie gone…

Pastor Gottfried looked helplessly from me to Lord John, and back again.

“Vielleicht solten Sie gehen?” he suggested, making his meaning clear with a jerk of his head toward the paddock.

“I can’t leave,” I said, and gestured toward the house. “Mein—Christ, what’s nephew?—Mein junger Mann ist nicht gut.”

“Ihr Neffe ist krank” Lord John corrected briskly. “Haben Sie jemals Masern gehabt?”

The Pastor shook his head, distress altering to alarm.

“He hasn’t had the measles,” Lord John said, turning to me. “He mustn’t stay here, then, or he will put himself in danger of contracting the disease, is that so?”

“Yes.” The shock was beginning to recede slightly, and I was starting to pull myself together. “Yes, he should go at once. It’s safe for him to be near you, you aren’t contagious any longer. Ian is, though.” I made a vain attempt at smoothing my hair, which was standing on end—little wonder if it was, I thought. Then I thought of the scalps on Mueller’s barn door and my hair actually did stand on end, my own scalp rippling with horror.

Lord John was speaking authoritatively to the little Pastor, urging him toward his horse by means of a grip on his sleeve. Gottfried was making protests, but increasingly weak ones. He glanced back at me, round face full of trouble.

I tried to smile reassuringly at him, though I felt as distressed as he did.

“Danke,” I said. “Tell him it will be all right, will you?” I said to Lord John. “He won’t go, otherwise.” He nodded briefly.

“I have. I told him I am a soldier; that I will not let any harm come to you.”

The Pastor stood for a moment, hand on his horse’s bridle, talking earnestly to Lord John. Then he dropped the bridle, turned with decision and crossed the dooryard to me. Reaching up, he laid a hand gently on my tousled head.

“Seid gesegnet,” he said. “Benedicite.”

“He said—” began Lord John.

“I understand.”

We stood silently in the dooryard, watching Gottfried make his way through the chestnut grove. It seemed incongruously peaceful out here, with a soft autumn sun warm on my shoulders, and birds going about their business overhead. I heard the far-off knocking of a woodpecker, and the liquid duet of the mockingbirds that lived in the big blue spruce. No owls, but naturally there would be no owls now; it was midmorning.

Who? I wondered, as another aspect of the tragedy belatedly occurred to me. Who had been the target of Mueller’s blind revenge? The Mueller farm was several days ride from the mountain line that separated Indian territory from the settlements, but he could have reached several Tuscarora or Cherokee villages, depending on his direction.

Had he entered a village? If so, what carnage had he and his sons left behind? Worse, what carnage might ensue?

I shuddered, cold in spite of the sun. Mueller was not the only man who believed in revenge. The family, the clan, the village of whomever he had murdered—they would seek vengeance for their slain, as well; and they might not stop with the Muellers—if they even knew the identity of the killers.

And if they did not, but only knew the murderers to be white…I shuddered again. I had heard enough massacre stories to realize that the victims very seldom did anything to provoke their fate; they only had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fraser’s Ridge lay directly between Mueller’s farm and the Indian villages—which at the moment seemed distinctly the wrong place to be.

“Oh, God, I wish Jamie were here.” I wasn’t aware that I had spoken aloud, until Lord John replied.

“So do I,” he said. “Though I begin to think that William may be far safer with him than the boy might be here—and not only by reason of the illness.”

I glanced at him, realizing suddenly how weak he still was; this was the first time he had been out of bed in a week. He was white-faced under the remnants of his rash, and he was gripping the doorjamb for support, to keep from falling down.

“You shouldn’t even be up!” I exclaimed, and grasped him by the arm. “Go in and lie down at once.”

“I am quite all right,” he said irritably, but he didn’t jerk away, or protest when I insisted he get back into bed.

I knelt to check Ian, who was tossing restlessly on the trundle, blazing with fever. His eyes were shut, his features swollen and disfigured with the emergent rash, the glands in his neck round and hard as eggs.

Rollo poked an inquiring nose under my elbow, nudged his master gently and whined.

“He’ll be all right,” I said firmly. “Why don’t you go outside and keep an eye out for visitors, hm?”

Rollo ignored this advice, though, and instead sat patiently watching as I wrung out a rag in cool water and bathed Ian. I nudged him half awake, brushed his hair, gave him the chamber pot, and coaxed bee-balm syrup into him—all the time listening for the sound of hooves, and Clarence’s joyful announcement that company was coming.

It was a long day. After several hours of starting at every sound and looking over my shoulder at every step, I finally settled into the day’s work. I nursed Ian, who was feverish and miserable, fed the stock, weeded the garden, picked tender young cucumbers for pickling, and set Lord John, who was disposed to be helpful, to work shelling beans.

I looked into the woods with longing, on my way from privy to goat-pen. I would have given a lot simply to walk away into those cool green depths. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d had such an impulse. But the autumn sun beat down on the Ridge, and the hours wore on in tranquil peace, without a sign of Gerhard Mueller.

“Tell me about this Mueller,” Lord John said. His appetite was coming back; he’d finished his helping of fried mush, though he pushed aside the salad of dandelion greens and pokeweed.

I plucked a tender stalk of pokeweed from the bowl and nibbled it myself, enjoying the sharp taste.

“He’s the head of a large family; German Lutherans, as you no doubt gathered. They live about fifteen miles from here, down in the river valley.”

“Yes?”

“Gerhard is big, and he’s stubborn, as you no doubt gathered. Speaks a few words of English, but not much. He’s old, but my God, he’s strong!” I could still see the old man, shoulders corded with stringy muscle, tossing fifty-pound sacks of flour into his wagon like so many sacks of feathers.

“This fight he had with Jamie—did he appear the sort to hold a grudge?”

“He’s very definitely the sort to hold a grudge, but not about that. It wasn’t really a fight. It—” I shook my head, searching for a way to describe it. “Do you know anything about mules?”

His fair brows lifted and he smiled.

“A bit, yes.”

“Well, Gerhard Mueller is a mule. He’s not really bad-tempered, and he isn’t precisely stupid—but he doesn’t pay a great deal of attention to anything other than what’s in his head, and it takes a good deal of force to switch his attention to anything else.”

I had not been present at the altercation in the mill, but had had it described to me by Ian. The old man had got it firmly stuck into his head that Felicia Woolam, one of the mill owner’s three daughters, had given him short weight and owed him another sack of flour.

In vain, Felicia protested that he had brought her five bags of wheat; she had ground them, and filled four bags with the resulting flour. The difference, she insisted, was due to the chaff and hulls removed from the grain. Five bags of wheat equalled four bags of flour.

“Fünf!” Mueller had said, waving his open hand in her face. “Es gibt fünf!” He would not be persuaded otherwise, and began to curse volubly in German, glowering and backing the girl into a corner.

Ian, having tried without success to distract the old man’s attention, had dashed outside to fetch Jamie from his conversation with Mr. Woolam. Both men had come hurriedly inside, but had no more success than Ian in changing Mueller’s conviction that he had been cheated.

Ignoring their exhortations, he had advanced on Felicia, clearly intent on taking by force an extra bag of flour from the stack behind her.

“At that point, Jamie gave up trying to reason with him, and hit him,” I said.

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