Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 103

   

He had at first been reluctant to do so, Mueller being nearly seventy, but rapidly changed his mind when his first blow bounced off Mueller’s jaw as though it had been made of seasoned oakwood.

The old man had turned on him like a cornered boar, whereupon Jamie had struck him first in the stomach, and then in the mouth as hard as possible, knocking Mueller down and splitting his own knuckles on the old man’s teeth.

With a word to Woolam—who was a Quaker and thus opposed to violence—he had then seized Mueller by the legs and dragged the dazed farmer outside, where one of the Mueller sons was waiting patiently in the wagon. Hauling the old man up by the collar, Jamie had pinned him against the wagon and held him there, talking pleasantly in German, until Mr. Woolam—having hastily rebagged the flour—came out and loaded five sacks into the wagon, under the gimlet eye of the old man.

Mueller had counted them twice, carefully, then turned to Jamie, and said with dignity, “Danke, mein Herr.” He had then climbed into the wagon beside his bemused son, and driven away.

Grey scratched at the remnants of his rash, smiling.

“I see. So he appeared to hold no ill will?”

I shook my head, chewing, then swallowed.

“Not at all. He was kindness itself to me, when I went to the farm to help with Petronella’s baby.” My throat closed suddenly on the renewed realization that they were gone, and I choked on the bitter taste of the dandelion leaves, bile rising in my throat.

“Here.” Grey pushed the pot of ale across the table toward me.

I drank deeply, the cool sourness soothing for a moment the deeper bitterness of spirit. I set the pot down and sat for a moment, eyes closed. There was a fresh-smelling breeze from the window, but the sun was warm on the tabletop under my hands. All the tiny joys of physical existence were still mine, and I was the more acutely aware of them, for the knowledge that they had been so abruptly taken from others—from those who had barely tasted them.

“Thank you,” I said, opening my eyes.

Grey was watching me, with an expression of deep sympathy.

“You’d think it wouldn’t be such a shock,” I said, needing suddenly to try to explain. “They die here so easily. The young ones, especially. It isn’t as though I haven’t seen it before. And there’s so seldom anything I can do.”

I felt something warm on my cheek, and was surprised to find it was a tear. He reached into his sleeve, pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to me. It wasn’t especially clean, but I didn’t mind.

“I did sometimes wonder what he saw in you,” he said, his tone deliberately light. “Jamie.”

“Oh, you did? How flattering.” I sniffed, and blew my nose.

“When he began to speak of you, both of us thought you dead,” he pointed out. “And while you are undoubtedly a handsome woman, it was never of your looks that he spoke.”

To my surprise, he picked up my hand and held it lightly.

“You have his courage,” he said.

That made me laugh, if only halfheartedly.

“If you only knew,” I said.

He didn’t reply to that, but smiled faintly. His thumb ran lightly over the knuckles of my hand, his touch light and warm.

“He doesn’t hold back for fear of skinned knuckles,” he said. “Neither do you, I think.”

“I can’t.” I took a deep breath and wiped my nose; the tears had stopped. “I’m a doctor.”

“So you are,” he said quietly, and paused. “I have not thanked you for my life.”

“It wasn’t me. There isn’t really anything much I can do, for something like a disease. All I can do is to…be there.”

“A little more than that,” he said dryly, and released my hand. “Will you have more ale?”

I was beginning to see quite clearly what Jamie saw in John Grey.

The afternoon passed quietly. Ian tossed and moaned, but by late afternoon, the rash was fully developed, and his fever seemed to drop a little. He wouldn’t be wanting food, but perhaps I could induce him to take a little milk broth. The thought reminded me that it was nearly milking time, and I stood up, with a murmured word to Lord John, and put aside my mending.

I opened the cabin door and stepped out, directly in front of Gerhard Mueller, who was standing in the dooryard.

Mueller’s eyes were a reddish brown, and seemed always to be burning with an inner intensity. They burned more brightly now, for the bruised frailty of the flesh surrounding them. The deep-set eyes fixed on me, and he nodded, once, and then again.

Mueller had shrunk since I had last seen him. All his flesh had fallen away; still a huge man, he was more bone than muscle now, cadaverous and ancient. His eyes were fixed on mine, the only spark of life in a face like crumpled paper.

“Herr Mueller,” I said. My voice sounded calm to my own ears; I hoped it sounded the same to him. “Wie geht es Euch?”

The old man stood swaying in front of me, as though the evening breeze might knock him down. I didn’t know if he had lost his mount, or left it down below the ridge, but there was no sign of horse or mule.

He took a step toward me, and I took one back, involuntarily.

“Frau Klara,” he said, and there was a note of pleading in his voice.

I stopped, wanting to call out to Lord John, but hesitant. He wouldn’t call me by my first name if he meant to do me harm.

“They are dead,” he said. “Mein Mädchen. Mein Kind.” Tears welled suddenly in the bloodshot eyes, and ran slowly down the weather-beaten grooves of his face. The misery in his eyes was so acute that I reached out and took his huge, work-scarred old hand in mine.

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

He nodded again, his old mouth working. He let me lead him to the bench by the door, where he sat down quite suddenly, as though all the strength had gone out of his legs.

The door opened, and John Grey came out. He had his pistol in his hand, but when I shook my head at him, he slid it at once into his shirt. The old man had not let go of my hand; he pulled, forcing me to sit down beside him.

“Gnädige Frau,” he said, and suddenly turned and embraced me, hugging me tight against his filthy coat. He shook with soundless crying, and even knowing what he had done, I put my own arms around him.

He smelled dreadful, sour and reeking with old age and sorrow, with beer and sweat and filth, and somewhere under all the other odors was the fetor of dried blood. I shuddered, caught in a web of pity, horror, and revulsion, but could not pull away.

He let go, finally, and seemed suddenly to see John Grey, who was hovering nearby, not sure whether to intervene or not. The old man started at sight of him.

“Mein Gott!” he exclaimed, in tones of horror. “Er hat Masern!” The sun was sinking fast, bathing the dooryard in bloody light. It struck Grey full in the face, highlighting the darkened spots on his face, flushing his skin with red.

Mueller turned to me, and frantically seized my face between his huge, horny paws. His thumbs scraped across my cheeks, and an expression of relief came into his sunken eyes, as he saw that my skin was still clear.

“Gott sei dank’,” he said, and letting go of my face, began to rummage in his coat, saying something in German so urgent and so mumbled that I could make out no more than the occasional word.

“He says he was afraid he would be too late, and is glad that he was not,” Grey said, seeing my bewilderment. He eyed the old farmer with suspicious dislike. “He says he’s brought you something—a charm of some kind. It will ward off the curse, and keep you safe from the illness.”

The old man withdrew an object wrapped in cloth from the recesses of his coat, and laid it in my lap, still babbling in German.

“He thanks you for all your help to his family—he thinks you are a fine woman, as dear to him as one of his daughters-in-law—he says that…” Mueller unfolded the cloth with shaking hands, and the words died in Grey’s throat.

I opened my mouth, but made no sound. I must have made some involuntary movement, for the cloth slipped suddenly to the ground, spilling out the sheaf of white-streaked hair to which a small silver ornament still clung. With it was the leather pouch, the woodpecker’s feathers draggled with blood.

Mueller was still speaking, and Grey was trying to, but I was only dimly aware of their words. Inside my ears echoed the words I had heard a year before, down by the stream, in Gabrielle’s soft voice, translating for Nayawenne.

Her name meant. “It may be; it will happen.” Now it had, and all that was left me for consolation was her words: “She says you must not be troubled; sickness is sent from the gods. It won’t be your fault.”

29

CHARNEL HOUSES

Jamie smelled the smoke long before the village came in sight. Willie saw him stiffen, and tensed in his own saddle, glancing warily around them.

“What?” the boy whispered. “What is it?”

“I dinna ken.” He kept his own voice low, though there was no evidence that anyone was near enough to hear them. He swung down from his horse and handed the reins to Willie, nodding toward a vine-covered cliff face whose foot was shrouded in brush.

“Take the horses behind the cliff, lad,” he said. “There’s a deer path there, that leads up to a spruce grove. Get well in among the trees, and wait there for me.” He hesitated, not wanting to scare the boy, but there was no help for it.

“If I should not come back by dark,” he said, “leave at once. Dinna wait for the morning; go back to the wee stream we just crossed, turn to your left, and follow it to a place where there’s a waterfall—you’ll hear it, even in the dark. Behind the falls there’s a wee cave; the Indians use it when they’re hunting.”

A small rim of white showed all the way around the lad’s blue irises. Jamie took a firm grip of the boy’s leg, just above the knee, to impress the directions upon him, and felt a quiver run through the long muscle of the thigh.

“Stay there till the morning,” he said, “and if I havena caught ye up by then—go home. Keep the sun on your left in the morning, on your right after noon, and in two days give your horse his head; you’ll be near enough home for him to find the way, I think.”

He took a deep breath, wondering what else to say, but there was nothing.

“God go with ye, lad.” He gave Willie as reassuring a smile as he could muster, clapped the horse on the rump to start it, and turned toward the scent of burning.

It wasn’t the normal smell of village fires; not even of the big ceremonial fires that Ian had told him of, when they burned whole trees in the firepit in the center of the village. Those were the size of Beltane fires, Ian said, and he knew the crackle and size of such a blaze. This was much bigger.

With great caution he made a wide circle, at last coming to a small hill from which he knew that he could gain a view of the village. As soon as he emerged from the forest’s shelter, though, he saw it. Rolling plumes of gray smoke were rising from the smoldering remnants of every longhouse in the village.

A thick brownish pall of smoke hung over the forest as far as he could see. He took a quick breath, coughed, and hastily drew a fold of his plaid across his nose and mouth, crossing himself with his free hand. He had smelled burning flesh before, and a sudden cold sweat bathed him at the memory of the funeral pyres of Culloden.

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