Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 141

   

“He wasn’t dressed as a soldier, surely?” Foot soldiers wore their hair in a tight folded queue, wrapped round a core of lamb’s wool and powdered with rice flour—which, in this climate, rapidly turned to paste as the flour mixed with sweat. Still, I imagined Sinclair meant the man’s attitude rather than his appearance.

“Och, no; he did claim to be a fur trader—but he walked wi’ a ramrod up his arse, and ye could hear the leather creak when he talked. So Geordie McClintock said.”

“Likely one of Murchison’s men. I’ll tell Jamie—thank you.”

I left the cooper’s shop with Brianna, wondering just how much trouble this Hodgepile might prove to be. Likely not much; the sheer distance from civilization and the inaccessibility of the Ridge was protection against most intrusions; one of Jamie’s purposes in choosing it. The multiple inconveniences of remoteness would be outweighed by its benefits, when it came to war. No battle would be fought on Fraser’s Ridge, I was sure of that.

And no matter how virulent Murchison’s grudge might be, or how good his spies, I couldn’t see his superiors allowing him to mount an armed expedition more than a hundred miles into the mountains, for the sole purpose of extirpating an illegal distillery whose total output was less than a hundred gallons a year.

Lizzie and Ian were waiting for us outside, occupied in gathering kindling from Sinclair’s rubbish heap. A cooper’s work generated immense quantities of shavings, splinters, and discarded chunks of wood and bark, and it was worth the labor of picking them up, to save splitting kindling by hand at home.

“Can you and Ian load the barrels, honey?” I asked Brianna. “I want a look at Lizzie in the sunlight.”

Brianna nodded, still looking abstracted, and went to help Ian heave the half-dozen small kegs outside the shop into the wagon. They were small, but heavy.

It was the skill that went into these particular barrels that had earned Ronnie Sinclair his land and shop, in spite of his less than prepossessing personality; not every cooper knew the trick of charring the inside of an oak barrel so as to lend a beautiful amber color and deep smoky flavor to the whisky aging gently inside.

“Come here, sweetie. Let me see your eyes.” Lizzie obediently widened her eyes, and let me pull down the lower lid to see the white sclera of the eyeball.

The girl was still shockingly thin, but the nasty yellow tinge of jaundice was fading from her skin, and her eyes were nearly white again. I cupped my fingers gently under her jaw; lymph glands only slightly swollen—that was better, too.

“Feeling all right?” I asked. She smiled shyly, and nodded. It was the first time she had been outside the cabin since her arrival with Ian three weeks before; she was still wobbly as a new calf. Frequent infusions of Jesuit bark had helped, though; she had had no fresh attacks of fever in the last week, and I had hopes of clearing up the liver involvement in short order.

“Mrs. Fraser?” she said, and I jumped, startled to hear her talk. She was so shy that she could seldom bring herself to say anything to me or to Jamie directly; she murmured her needs to Brianna, who conveyed them to me.

“Yes, dear?”

“I—I couldna help hearing what yon cooper said—about how Mr. Fraser’s asked word of Miss Brianna’s man. I did wonder—” Her words trailed off in a spasm of shyness, and a faint rose-pink blush showed in her transparent cheeks.

“Yes?”

“Could he ask for my father, do ye think?” The words came out in a rush, and she blushed still harder.

“Oh, Lizzie! I’m sorry.” Brianna, finished with the barrels, came and hugged her little maid. “I hadn’t forgotten, but I hadn’t thought, either. Just a minute, I’ll go and tell Mr. Sinclair.” With a whiff of skirts, she vanished into the cool dimness of the cooper’s shop.

“Your father?” I asked. “Have you lost him?”

The girl nodded, pressing her lips together to prevent their quivering.

“He’ll ha’ gone as a bondsman, but I dinna ken where; only it would be to the southern colonies.”

Well, that limited the search to several hundred thousand square miles, I thought. Still, it could do no harm to ask Ronnie Sinclair to put out word. Newspapers and other printed matter were scarce in the South; most real news still passed by word of mouth, handed on in shops and taverns, or carried by slaves and servants between far-flung plantations.

The thought of newspapers gave me a small nasty jolt of remembrance. Still, seven years seemed comfortingly far away—and Brianna must be right; whether the house was doomed to burn on January 21 or not, surely it would be possible for us not to be in it on that date?

Brianna appeared, rather red in the face, swung aboard the wagon, and picked up the reins, waiting impatiently for the rest of us.

Ian, seeing her flushed face, frowned and glanced toward the cooper’s shop.

“What is it, Coz? Did yon wee mannie say aught amiss to ye?” He flexed his hands, nearly as large as Sinclair’s.

“No,” she said tersely. “Not a word. Are we ready to go?”

Ian picked Lizzie up and swung her into the wagon bed, then put out a hand and helped me up on the seat by Brianna. He glanced at the reins in Brianna’s hands; he had taught her to drive the mules, and took professional pride in her skill.

“Watch the bugger on the gee side,” he advised her. “He’ll no be pullin’ his share o’ the load, unless ye touch him up now and again wi’ a slap across the rump.”

He subsided into the wagon bed with Lizzie as we set off up the road. I could hear him telling her outlandish stories, and her faint giggle in reply. The baby of his own family, Ian was charmed by Lizzie and treated her like a younger sister, by turns nuisance and pet.

I glanced over my shoulder at the receding cooper’s shop, then at Brianna.

“What did he do?” I asked, quietly.

“Nothing. I interrupted him.” The flush across her wide cheekbones grew deeper.

“What on earth was he doing?”

“Drawing pictures on a piece of wood,” she said, and bit the inside of her cheek. “Of nak*d women.”

I laughed, as much from shock as from amusement.

“Well, he hasn’t got a wife, and not likely to get one soon; women are very scarce in the colony generally, and even more so up here. I suppose one can’t blame him.”

I felt an unexpected pang of sympathy for Ronnie Sinclair. He’d been alone for a very long time, after all. His wife had died in the terrible days after Culloden, and he himself had spent more than ten years in prison before being transported to the Colonies. If he had made connections here, they had not endured; he was a solitary man, and suddenly I saw his avid questing for gossip, his stealthy watching—even his use of Brianna for artistic inspiration—in a different light. I knew what it was like to be lonely.

Brianna’s embarrassment had faded, and she was whistling softly under her breath, hunched casually over the reins—a Beatles’ tune, I thought, though I never could keep pop groups straight.

The idle thought floated insidiously through my mind; if Roger didn’t come, she wouldn’t be left alone for long, either here or when she returned to the future. But that was ridiculous. He would come. And if not…

A thought I had been trying to keep at bay sneaked past my defenses and appeared in my mind, full-blown. What if he had chosen not to come? I knew they had had some sort of argument, though Brianna had been tight-lipped about it. Had he been so infuriated that he would go back without her?

I rather thought the possibility had occurred to her, too; she had stopped speaking much of Roger, but I saw the anxious light spring up in her eyes whenever Clarence announced a visitor, and saw it die each time the visitor proved to be one of Jamie’s tenants, or some of Ian’s Tuscaroran friends.

“Hurry up, you blighter,” I muttered under my breath. Brianna caught it, and smartly snapped the reins over the left mule’s rump.

“Gee up!” she shouted, and the wagon rattled faster, jolting over the narrow track toward home.

“It’s a far cry from the still-cellar at Leoch,” Jamie said, ruefully poking at the makeshift pot still at the edge of the small clearing. “It does make whisky, though—of a sort.”

In spite of his diffidence, Brianna could see that he was proud of his infant distillery. It was nearly two miles from the cabin, located—as he explained—close to Fergus’s place, so that Marsali could come up several times a day to keep an eye on the operation. In return for this service, she and Fergus had a slightly larger share in the resulting whisky than did the other farmers on the Ridge, who supplied the raw barley and helped in the distribution of the liquor.

“No, darlin’, ye dinna want to be eating that nasty wee thing,” Marsali said firmly. She grasped her son’s wrist and began prying open his fingers, one by one, in an effort to free the large and madly wriggling insect that—in open contradiction of his mother’s adjuration—he very obviously did want to be eating.

“Feh!” Marsali dropped the cockroach on the ground and stamped on it.

Germaine, a stoic, stubby child, didn’t cry at the loss of his treat, but glowered balefully under his blond fringe. The cockroach, nothing daunted by rough treatment, rose out of the leaf mold and walked off, staggering only slightly.

“Oh, I shouldna think it would do him harm,” Ian said, amused. “I’ve eaten them, now and again, wi’ the Indians. The locusts are better, though—especially the smoked ones.”

Marsali and Brianna both made gagging noises, causing Ian to grin even wider. He picked up another bag of barley and poured a thick layer into a flat rush basket. Two more roaches, suddenly exposed to the light of day, skittered madly over the side of the basket, fell to the ground and dashed away, disappearing under the edge of the crudely built malting floor.

“No, I said!” Marsali kept a tight hold on Germaine’s collar, preventing his determined attempts to follow them. “Stay, ye wee fiend, d’ye want to be smoked, too?” Small wisps of transparent smoke rose up through the cracks of the wooden platform, permeating the small clearing with the breakfast-like scent of roasting grain. Brianna felt her stomach gurgle; it was nearly suppertime.

“Maybe you should leave them in,” she suggested, joking. “Smoked roaches might add a nice flavor to the whisky.”

“I doubt they’d harm it any,” her father agreed, coming up beside her. He wiped his face with a handkerchief, looked at it, and made a slight face at the sooty smudges on it before tucking it back up his sleeve. “All right, Ian?”

“Aye, it’ll do. It’s only the one bag that’s spoilt all through, Uncle Jamie.” Ian rose with his tray of raw barley, and kicked negligently at a split bag, where the soft green of mold and black tinge of rot showed the ill effects of seeping damp. Two more opened bags, with the spoiled top layer scooped off, sat by the edge of the malting floor.

“Let’s finish, then,” Jamie said. “I’m starved.” He and Ian each seized a burlap bag and scattered the fresh barley in a thick layer over the clear space on the platform, using a flat wooden spade to flatten and turn the grain.

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