Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 140

   

“The camera—the thing that made the pictures—was looking out of the side of the ship, so we could see the foot of the ship itself, settled in the dust, and the dust rising up over it like a horse’s hoof when it puts its foot down.

“It was flat where the ship came down; covered with a soft, powdery kind of dust, with little rocks scattered on it here and there. Then the camera moved—or maybe another one started sending pictures—and you could see that there were rocky cliffs off in the distance. It’s barren—no plants, no water, no air—but sort of beautiful, in an eerie kind of way.”

“It sounds like Scotland,” he said. She laughed at the joke, but thought she heard under the humor his longing for those barren mountains.

Wanting to distract him, she waved upward at the stars, beginning to burn brighter in the velvet sky.

“The stars are really suns, like ours. It’s only that they’re so far away from us, they look tiny. They’re so far away that it may take years and years for their light to reach us; in fact, sometimes a star has died and we still see its light.”

“Claire told me that, long ago,” he said softly. He sat a moment, then got up with an air of decision.

“Come then,” he said. “Let’s take the hive, and be off home.”

The night was warm enough that we had left the hide window-covering unpinned and rolled aside. Occasional moths and June bugs blundered in to drown themselves in the cauldron or commit fiery suicide on the hearth, but the cool leaf-scented air that washed over us was worth it.

On the first night, Ian had gallantly given Brianna the trundle bed and gone off to sleep with Rollo on a pallet in the herb shed, assuring her that he liked the privacy. Leaving, his quilt over one arm, he had clapped Jamie solidly on the back and squeezed his shoulder in a surprisingly adult gesture of congratulation that made me smile.

Jamie had smiled, too; in fact, he had scarcely stopped smiling in several days. He wasn’t smiling now, though his face bore a tender, inward look. There was a half-full moon riding the sky, and enough light came through the window for me to see him clearly as he lay on his back beside me.

I was surprised that he wasn’t asleep yet. He had risen well before dawn and spent the day with Brianna on the mountain, returning long after dark with a plaid full of smoke-stunned bees, who were likely to be more than irritated when they woke in the morning and discovered the trick perpetrated on them. I made a mental note to keep away from the end of the garden where the row of bee gums sat; newly moved bees were inclined to sting first and ask questions afterward.

Jamie gave a massive sigh, and I rolled toward him, curving myself to fit against him. The night wasn’t cold, but he wore a shirt to bed, in deference to Brianna’s modesty.

“Can’t sleep?” I asked softly. “Does the moonlight bother you?”

“No.” He was looking out at the moon, though; it rode high above the ridge, not yet full, but a luminous white that flooded the sky.

“If it’s not the moon, it’s something.” I rubbed his stomach lightly, and let my fingers curve around the wide arch of his ribs.

He sighed again, and squeezed my hand.

“Och, it’s no more than a foolish regret, Sassenach.” He turned his head toward the trundle bed, where the dark spill of Brianna’s hair fell in a moon-polished mass across the pillow. “I am only sorry that we must lose her.”

“Mm.” I let my hand rest flat on his chest. I had known it would come—both the realization and the parting itself—but I hadn’t wanted to speak of it, and break the temporary spell that had bound the three of us so closely.

“You can’t really lose a child,” I said softly, one finger tracing the small, smooth hollow in the center of his chest.

“She must go back, Sassenach—ye know it as well as I do.” He stirred impatiently but didn’t move away. “Look at her. She’s like Louis’s camel, no?”

Despite my own regrets, I smiled at the thought. Louis of France kept a fine menagerie at Versailles, and on good days the keepers would exercise certain of the animals, leading them through the spreading gardens, to the edification of startled passersby.

We had been walking in the gardens one day, and turned a corner to find the Bactrian camel advancing toward us down the path, splendid and stately in its gold and silver harness, towering in calm disdain above a crowd of gawking spectators—strikingly exotic, and utterly out of place among the formalized white statues.

“Yes,” I said, though with a reluctance that squeezed my heart. “Yes, of course she’ll have to go back. She belongs there.”

“I ken that well enough.” He put his own hand over mine, but kept his face turned away, looking at Brianna. “I shouldna grieve for it—but I do.”

“So do I.” I put my forehead against his shoulder, breathing in the clean male scent of him. “It’s true, though—what I said. You can’t truly lose a child. Do you—do you remember Faith?”

My voice trembled slightly as I asked it; we had not spoken in years of our first daughter, stillborn in France.

His arm curled around me, pulling me against him.

“Of course I do,” he said softly. “D’ye think I would ever forget?”

“No.” The tears were flowing down my face, but I was not truly weeping; it was no more than the overflow of feeling. “That’s what I mean. I never told you—when we were in Paris, to see Jared—I went to the Hôpital des Anges; I saw her grave there. I—I brought her a pink tulip.”

He was quiet for a moment.

“I took her violets,” he said, so softly I almost didn’t hear him.

I was quite still for a moment, tears forgotten.

“You didn’t tell me.”

“Neither did you.” His fingers traced the bumps of my spine, brushing softly up and down the line of my back.

“I was afraid you’d feel…” My voice trailed off. I had been afraid he would feel guilty, worry that I blamed him—I once had—for the loss. We were newly reunited, then; I had no wish to jeopardize the tender link between us.

“So was I.”

“I’m sorry that you never saw her,” I said at last, and felt him sigh. He turned toward me and put his arms around me, his lips brushing my forehead.

“It doesna matter, does it? Aye, it’s true, what ye say, Sassenach. She was—and we will have her, always. And Brianna. If—when she goes—she will still be with us.”

“Yes. It doesn’t matter what happens; no matter where a child goes—how far or how long. Even if it’s forever. You never lose them. You can’t.”

He didn’t answer, but his arms tightened round me, and he sighed once more. The breeze stirred the air above us with the sound of angels’ wings, and we fell slowly asleep together, as the moonlight bathed us in its ageless peace.

43

WHISKY IN THE JAR

I didn’t like Ronnie Sinclair. I never had liked him. I didn’t like his half-handsome face, his foxy smile, or the way his eyes met mine: so direct, so openly honest, that you knew he was hiding something even when he wasn’t. I particularly didn’t like the way he was looking at my daughter.

I cleared my throat loudly, making him jump. He turned a sharp-toothed smile on me, idly turning a truss ring in his hands.

“Jamie says he’ll need a dozen more of the small whisky casks by the end of the month, and I’ll need a large barrel of hickory wood for the smoked meat, as soon as you can manage.”

He nodded and made a number of cryptic marks on a slab of pine that hung on the wall. Oddly for a Scot, Sinclair couldn’t write but had some sort of private shorthand that enabled him to keep track of orders and accounts.

“Right, Missus Fraser. Anything else?”

I paused, trying to reckon up all the possible necessities for cooperage that might spring up before snowfall. There would be fish and meat to salt down, but those did better in stoneware jars; wooden casks left them tasting of turpentine. I had a good seasoned barrel for apples and another for squash already; the potatoes would be stored on shelves to keep from rotting.

“No,” I decided. “That will be all.”

“Aye, missus.” He hesitated, twirling the cask band faster. “Will Himself be coming down before the casks are ready?”

“No; he has the barley to get in, and the slaughtering to do, as well as the distilling. Everything’s late, because of the trial.” I raised an eyebrow at him. “Why, though? Do you have a message for him?”

Sited at the foot of the cove nearest the wagon road, the cooper’s shop was the first building most visitors encountered, and thus a reception point for most gossip that came from outside Fraser’s Ridge.

Sinclair tilted his gingerly head, considering.

“Och, likely it’s nothing. Only that I’ve heard of a stranger in the district, asking questions about Jamie Fraser.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Brianna’s head snap round, distracted at once from her inspection of the spokeshavers, mallets, saws, and axes on the wall. She turned, skirt rustling in the wood shavings that littered the shop, ankle-deep.

“Do you know the stranger’s name?” she asked anxiously. “Or what he looks like?”

Sinclair shot her a look of surprise. He was oddly proportioned, with slender shoulders but muscular arms, and hands so huge that they might have belonged to a man twice his height. He looked at her, and his broad thumb unconsciously stroked the metal of the ring, slowly, over and over again.

“Why, I couldna speak to his appearance, mistress,” he said, politely enough, but with a hungry look in his eyes that made me want to take the truss ring away from him and wrap it around his neck. “He gave his name as Hodgepile, though.”

Brianna’s face lost its look of hope, though the muscle at the edge of her mouth curved slightly at the name.

“I don’t suppose that could be Roger,” she murmured to me.

“Likely not,” I agreed. “He wouldn’t have any reason to use a false name, anyway.” I turned back to Sinclair.

“You won’t have heard of a man called Wakefield, will you? Roger Wakefield?”

Sinclair shook his head decisively.

“No, missus. Himself has put word about that if such a one should come, he’s to be taken to the Ridge at once. If yon Wakefield sets foot within the county, you’ll hear of it as soon as I do.”

Brianna sighed, and I heard her swallow her disappointment. It was mid-October, and while she said nothing, she was clearly growing more anxious by the day. She wasn’t the only one, either; she had told us what Roger was trying to do, and the thought of the variety of disasters that might have befallen him in the attempt was enough to keep me wakeful at night.

“—about the whisky,” Sinclair was saying, jerking my attention back to him.

“The whisky? Hodgepile was asking about Jamie and whisky?”

Sinclair nodded, and set down the truss ring.

“In Cross Creek. No one would say a word to him, o’ course. But the one who told me did say as the one who spoke to the man thought him a soldier.” He grimaced briefly. “Hard for a lobsterback to wash the flour from his hair.”

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