Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 114

   

Brianna turned the page over, expecting continuation, but the passage stopped on that abrupt note. There was a break of several days before the letter resumed, on the 4th of October.

Tuesday, 4 October

The Indian in the corncrib died early this morning, in spite of Claire’s best efforts to save him. His face, body and limbs were entirely suffused with a dreadful Rash, giving him a most Grewsome and Mottled look.

Claire thinks he suffered from the Measle, and is much Concerned, this being a Vicious Disease, plaguish and quick to Spread. She would not suffer anyone to go near the Body save only herself—she says she is Safe from it, by means of some charm—but we did all Assemble near Midday, whereat I read some Scripture suitable to the Occasion, and we said a Prayer for the Repose of his soul—for I trust that even unbaptised Savages may find rest in God’s Mercy.

We are in some doubt how this poor soul’s Earthly Remains shall be Disposed. I would in common course send Ian to summon his Friends, that they might give him such Burial as is common among the Indians.

Claire says we must not do this, however, for the Corpse itself may Spread the Disease among the man’s own People, a Disaster which he would not Chuse to bring upon his Friends. She advocates burying or Burning the Corpse ourselves, and yet I am reluctant to undertake such Action, which might be easily Misunderstood by the man’s Companions—they thinking that we Sought by this means to hide some Complicity in his Death.

I have said nothing of this Concern to our Guests. If Danger seems Imminent, I must send them away. Still, I am loathe to Part with their society, so isolated is our situation. For now, we have Laid the Body in a small Dry Cave in the hill above the House, wherein I had thought to build a Stable or Storehouse.

I ask your forgiveness for thus Unburdening my Mind at the cost of your own Peace. I think all will be Well in the end, but for the Moment, I confess to some Worry. Should Danger—either from Indians or Disease—seem to threaten, I will send this Letter at once in the care of our Guests, that it may be Certain of reaching you.

If all is Well, I will write quickly to tell you.

Your Most Loving Brother,

Jamie Fraser

Brianna’s mouth felt dry and she swallowed, forcing saliva. There were two sheets yet to the letter; they clung together for a moment, stubbornly resisting her efforts to separate them, and then gave way.

Postscriptum, 20 October

We are all Safe, though the Manner of our Deliverance is most Melancholy; I will tell you of it later, having no great Heart for the matter at present.

Ian has been Sick of the Measle, as has Lord John, but they are both Recovered, and Claire bids me say that Ian does Exceeding well, you shall have no Fear for him. He writes in his own Hand, that you may know it is the Truth.

—J.

On the last sheet was writing in a different hand, this one neat and carefully schooled to an even slant, though here and there a blot defaced the page, perhaps the result either of the writer’s illness or a defective pen.

Dear Mam—

I have been Sick, but am all Right agayne. I had a Fever, with most Peculiar Dreams, full of odd things. There was a great Wolf that came and spoke to me in the Voice of a man, but Auntie Claire says this must have been Rollo, who Stayed by me all the time I was Ill, he is a very Good Dog and does not bite very often.

The Measles came out in small Bumps beneath my Skin, and itched like Fury. I should have thought I had sat down on an Anthill, or wandered into a Hornet’s nest. My head felt twice its usual Size, and I sneezed quite Ferocious.

I had three Eggs to my Breakfast today, and porridge, and have Walked to the privy alone twice, so I am quite Well, though I thought at first the Sickness had left me Blind—I could see nothing but a great Dazzle of Light when I went outside, but Auntie said this would soon be remedied, and it was.

I will write more later—Fergus is waiting to take the Letter away.

Your most Obedient and Devoted Son,

Ian Murray

P.S. The Porpentine skull is for Henry and Mattie, I hope they will like it.

Brianna sat on the stool for some time, the whitewashed wall cool at her back, smoothing the pages of the letter and staring absently at the bookcase, with its neat row of cloth and leather bindings. Robinson Crusoe popped out at her, the title picked out in gold on the spine.

A savage place, Jenny had said. A dangerous place, too, where life could shift within a heartbeat from the humorous difficulty of a hog in the pantry to the instant threat of death by violence.

“And I thought this was primitive,” she murmured, with a glance at the peat fire on the hearth.

Not so primitive after all, she thought as she followed Ian through the barnyard and out past the outbuildings. Everything was well kept and tidy; the drystone walls and buildings all in good repair, if a little shabby. The chickens were carefully confined to their own yard, and a hovering cloud of flies behind the barn announced the presence of a discreet manure pit, well away from the house.

The only real difference between this farmyard and modern ones she had seen was the absence of rusting farm equipment; there was a shovel resting against the barn, and two or three battered plowshares in a shed that they passed, but no ramshackle tractor; no tangles of wire and scattered metal scraps.

The animals were healthy, too, if somewhat smaller than their modern counterparts. A loud “Baaah!” announced the presence of a small herd of fat sheep in a paddock on the hillside, who trotted eagerly up to the fence as they passed, woolly backs wobbling and yellow eyes agleam in anticipation.

“Spoilt bastards,” Ian said, but with a smile. “Think anyone’s come up here has come to feed ye, don’t you? My wife’s,” he added, turning to Brianna. “She gives them all the cast-off truck from the kailyard, till ye’d think they’d burst.”

The ram, a majestic creature with great coiled horns, extended his head over the fence and emitted an imperious “Beheheh!” that was immediately echoed by his faithful flock.

“Bugger off, Hughie,” said Ian, with tolerant scorn. “You’re no mutton yet, but the day’ll come, aye?” He waved dismissively at the ram and turned up the hill, kilt swinging.

Brianna hung back a step, watching his stride in fascination. Ian wore his kilt with an air quite unlike anything she was used to; not a costume nor a uniform—with a conscious bearing, but more as though it were part of his body than an article of clothing.

In spite of that, she knew it wasn’t usual for him to wear it; Jenny’s eyes had opened wide when he had come down to breakfast; then she had bent her head, burying a smile in her cup. Young Jamie had flicked a dark brow at his father, got back a bland look, and settled to his sausage with a faint shrug, and one of those small subterranean noises common to Scottish males.

The plaid cloth was old—she could see the fading along the creases and the wornness at the hem—but carefully kept. It would have been hidden away after Culloden, along with the pistols and the swords, with the pipes and their pibrochs—all the symbols of pride conquered.

No, not quite conquered, she thought, with a queer small tug at her heart. She remembered Roger Wakefield, squatting beside her under a gray sky on the battlefield at Culloden, his face lean and dark, eyes shadowed with knowledge of the dead nearby.

“Scots have long memories,” he’d said, “and they’re not the most forgiving of people. There’s a clan stone out there with the name of MacKenzie carved on it, and a good many of my relatives under it.” He had smiled then, but not in jest. “I don’t feel quite so personal about it as some, but I haven’t forgotten either.”

No, not conquered. Not through a thousand years of strife and treachery, and not now. Defeated, scattered, but still surviving. Like Ian, maimed but upright. Like her father, exiled but still a Highlander.

With an effort she put Roger from her mind, and hurried to keep up with Ian’s long, limping stride.

His lean face had lighted with pleasure when she had asked him to show her Lallybroch. It had been arranged that Young Jamie would take her to Inverness in a week’s time, to see her safely aboard a ship to the Colonies, and she meant to use her time here to good advantage.

They walked—at a good pace, despite Ian’s leg—over the fields toward the small foothills that rimmed the valley to the north, rising toward the pass through the black crags. It was a beautiful place, she thought. The pale green fields of oats and barley rippled with shifting light, cloud-shadows scudding through the spring sunshine, driven by the breeze that bent the stems of budding grass.

One field lay in long, dark ridges, the dirt humped and bare. At the side of the field stood a large heap of rough stones, neatly stacked.

“Is that a cairn?” she asked Ian, voice lowered in respect. Cairns were the memorials of the dead, her mother had told her—sometimes the very long dead—new rocks added to the heap by each passing visitor.

He glanced at her in surprise, caught the direction of her gaze, and grinned.

“Ah, no, lass. Those are the stones we turned up wi’ the plow in the spring. Every year we take them out, and every year there come new ones. Damned if I ken where they come from,” he added, shaking his head in resignation. “Stone fairies come and sow them in the night, I expect.”

She didn’t know whether this was a joke or not. Uncertain whether to laugh, she asked a question instead.

“What will you plant here?”

“Oh, it’s planted already.” Ian shaded his eyes, squinting across the long field with pride. “This is the tattie field. The new vines will be up by the end of the month.”

“Tattie—oh, potatoes!” She looked at the field with new interest. “Mama told me about that.”

“Aye, it was Claire’s notion—and a good one, too. There’s more than once the tatties have kept us from starving.” He smiled briefly but said nothing more, and moved off, heading for the wild hills beyond the fields.

It was a long walk. The day was breezy, but warm, and Brianna was sweating by the time they paused at last, halfway up a rough track through the heather. The narrow path seemed to perch precariously between a steep hillside and an even steeper fall down a sheer rock face into a small, splashing burn.

Ian stopped, wiping his brow with his sleeve, and motioned her to a seat amid the heaps of granite boulders. From this vantage point, the valley lay below them, the farmhouse seeming small and incongruous, its fields a feeble intrusion of civilization on the surrounding wilderness of crag and heather.

He brought out a stone bottle from the sack he carried, and drew the cork with his teeth.

“That’ll be your mother’s doing, too,” he said with a grin, handing her the bottle. “That I’ve kept my teeth, I mean.” He passed the tip of his tongue meditatively over his front teeth, shaking his head.

“A great one for eatin’ weeds, your mother, but who’s to argue, eh? Half the men my age are eatin’ naught but porridge now.”

“She was always telling me to eat up my vegetables, when I was little. And brush after every meal.” Brianna took the bottle from him and tilted it into her mouth; the ale was strong and bitter, but welcomely cool after the long walk.

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