Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 166

   

We had left the ruby with Brianna, just in case we did not return—the possibility had to be faced. There was no telling whether Geillis Duncan had been right or wrong in her theories regarding the use of gemstones, but at least Brianna would have one.

She had hugged me fiercely and kissed me when we left River Run. I hadn’t wanted to go. Nor had I wanted to stay. I was torn between them once more; between the necessity to stay and look after Brianna, and the equally urgent necessity to go with Jamie.

“You have to go,” Brianna had said firmly. “I’ll be fine; you said yourself I’m healthy as a horse. You’ll be back a long time before I need you.”

She had glanced at her father’s back; he stood in the stableyard, supervising the loading of the horses and mules. She turned back to me, expressionless.

“You have to go, Mama. I trust you to find Roger.” There was an uncomfortable emphasis on the you, and I hoped very much that Jamie couldn’t hear her.

“Surely you don’t think Jamie would—”

“I don’t know,” she interrupted. “I don’t know what he’d do.” Her jaw was set in a way I recognized all too well. Argument was futile, but I tried anyway.

“Well, I know,” I said firmly. “He’d do anything for you, Brianna. Anything. And even if it weren’t you, he’d do everything he possibly could to get Roger back. His sense of honor—” Her face shut up like a trap, and I realized my mistake.

“His honor,” she said flatly. “That’s what matters. I guess it’s all right, though; as long as it makes him get Roger back.” She turned away, bending her head against the wind.

“Brianna!” I said, but she only hunched her shoulders, pulling the shawl tight around them.

“Auntie Claire? We’re ready now.” Ian had appeared nearby, glancing from me to Brianna, his face troubled. I looked from him to Brianna, hesitating, not wanting to leave her like this.

“Bree?” I said again.

Then she had turned back in a flurry of wool and embraced me, her cheek cold against mine.

“Come back!” she whispered. “Oh, Mama—come back safe!”

“I can’t leave you, Bree, I can’t!” I held her tight, all strong bone and tender flesh, the child I had left, the child I had regained—and the woman who now put my arms away from her and stood straight, alone.

“You have to go,” she whispered. The mask of indifference had fallen and her cheeks were wet. She glanced over my shoulder at the archway to the stableyard. “Bring him back. You’re the only one who can bring him back.”

She kissed me quickly, turned and ran, the sound of her steps ringing on the brick path.

Jamie came through the stable arch and saw her, flying through the stormy light like a banshee. He stood still, looking after her, his face expressionless.

“You can’t leave her like this,” I said. I wiped my own wet cheeks with the corner of my shawl. “Jamie, go after her. Please, go and say goodbye, at least.”

He stood still for a moment, and I thought he was going to pretend he hadn’t heard me. But then he turned and walked slowly down the path. The first drops of rain were beginning to fall, splatting on the dusty brick, and the wind belled his cloak as he went.

“Auntie?” Ian’s hand was under my arm, gently urging. I went with him, and let him give me a hand under my foot to mount. Within a few minutes Jamie was back. He had mounted, not looking at me, and, with a signal to Ian, ridden out of the stableyard without looking back. I had looked back, but there was no sign of Brianna.

Night had long since fallen, and Jamie was still in the longhouse with Nacognaweto and the sachem of the village. I looked up whenever anyone came into the house, but it was never him. At length, though, the hide flap over the doorway lifted, and Ian came in, a small, round figure behind him.

“I’ve a surprise for ye, Auntie,” he said, beaming, and stepped aside to show me the smiling round face of the slavewoman Pollyanne.

Or rather, the ex-slave. For here, of course, she was free. She sat down beside me, grinning like a jack-o’-lantern, and turned back the deerskin mantle she wore to show me the little boy in the crook of her arm, his face as round and beaming as her own.

With Ian as interpreter, her own bits of English and Gaelic, and the odd bit of female sign language, we were soon deep in conversation. She had, as Myers surmised, been welcomed by the Tuscarorans and adopted into the tribe, where her skills at healing were valued. She had taken as husband a man who had been widowed in the measles epidemic, and had presented him with this new addition to the family a few months before.

I was delighted that she had found both freedom and happiness, and congratulated her warmly. I was reassured, too; if the Tuscarorans had treated her so kindly, perhaps Roger had not fared as badly as I feared.

A thought struck me, and I pulled Nayawenne’s amulet from the neck of my buckskin shirt.

“Ian—will you ask if she knows who I should give this to?”

He spoke to her in Tuscaroran, and she leaned forward, fingering the amulet curiously as he spoke. At last she shook her head and sat back, replying in her curious deep voice.

“She says they will not want it, Auntie,” Ian translated. “It is the medicine bundle of a shaman, and it is dangerous. It should have been buried with the person to whom it belonged; no one here will touch it, for fear of attracting the shaman’s ghost.”

I hesitated, holding the leather pouch in my hand. The strange sense of holding something alive had not recurred since Nayawenne’s death. Surely it was no more than imagination that seemed to stir against my palm.

“Ask her—what if the shaman wasn’t buried? If the body couldn’t be found?”

Pollyanne’s round face was solemn, listening. She shook her head when Ian had finished and replied.

“She says that in that case the ghost walks with you, Auntie. She says you should not show it to anyone here—they will be frightened.”

“She isn’t frightened, is she?” Pollyanne caught that on her own; she shook her head, and touched her massive bosom.

“Indian now,” she said simply. “Not always.” She turned to Ian, and explained through him that her own people revered the spirits of the dead; in fact, it was not unusual for a man to keep by him the head or some other part of his grandfather or other ancestor, for protection or advice. No, the thought of a ghost walking with me did not trouble her.

Nor did the notion trouble me. In fact, I found the thought of Nayawenne walking with me to be rather a comfort, under the circumstances. I put the amulet back in my shirt. It brushed soft and warm against my skin, like the touch of a friend.

We talked for some time, until long after the others in the longhouse had gone to their separate cubicles, and the sound of snoring filled the smoky air. We were surprised, in fact, by Jamie’s arrival, which let in a draft of cold air.

It was as Pollyanne made her farewells that she hesitated, trying to decide whether to tell me something. She glanced at Jamie, then shrugged her massive shoulders and made up her mind. She leaned close to Ian, murmured something that sounded like honey trickling over rocks, putting both hands to her face, fingertips against the skin. She then embraced me quickly and left.

Ian stared after her in astonishment.

“What did she say, Ian?”

He turned back to me, his sketchy brows drawn together in concern.

“She says I should tell Uncle Jamie, that the night the woman died in the sawmill, she saw a man.”

“What man?”

He shook his head, still frowning.

“She didna ken him. Only that he was a white man, heavy and square, not so tall as Uncle or I. She saw him come out of the mill, and walk fast into the forest. She was sitting in the door to her hut, in the dark, so she thinks he didna see her—but he passed close enough to the fire that she saw his face. She says he was pockmarked”—here he put his fingertips against his face, as she had—“with a face like a pig.”

“Murchison?” My heart skipped a beat.

“Did the man wear a uniform?” Jamie asked, frowning.

“No. But she was curious to know what he had been doing there; he wasna one of the plantation owners, nor yet a hand or an overseer. So she crept to the mill to see, but when she put her head inside, she knew something evil had happened. She said she smelt blood, and then she heard voices, so she didna go in.”

So it had been murder, and Jamie and I had missed preventing it by a matter of moments. It was warm in the longhouse, but I felt cold at the memory of the thick, bloody air in the sawmill, and the hardness of a kitchen skewer in my hand.

Jamie’s hand settled on my shoulder. Without thinking, I reached up and took it. It felt very good in mine, and I realized that we had not purposely touched each other in nearly a month.

“The dead lass was an army laundress,” he said quietly. “Murchison has a wife in England; I suppose he might have found a pregnant mistress to be an encumbrance.”

“No wonder he was making such a fuss of hunting for whoever was responsible—and then seizin’ on yon poor woman who couldna even speak for herself.” Ian’s face was flushed with indignation. “If he could have got her hanged for it, he’d ha’ thought himself safe, I daresay, the wicked wee scut.”

“Perhaps I will pay a call on the Sergeant, when we return,” Jamie said. “Privately.”

The thought made my blood run cold. His voice was soft and even, and his face calm when I turned to look, but I seemed to see the surface of a dark Scottish pool reflected in his eyes, the water ruffled as though something heavy had just sunk below.

“Don’t you think you’ve enough vengeance to keep you occupied for the moment?”

I spoke more sharply than I intended, and his hand slipped abruptly out of mine.

“I expect so,” he said, both face and voice without expression. He turned to Ian.

“Wakefield—or MacKenzie, or whatever the man’s name is—is a good way to the north. They sold him to the Mohawk; a small village below the river. Your friend Onakara has agreed to guide us; we’ll leave at first light.”

He rose and walked away, toward the far end of the house. Everyone else had already retired for the night. Five hearths burned, down the length of the house, each with its own smokehole, and the far wall was divided into cubicles, one for each couple or family, with a low, wide shelf for sleeping and space beneath for storage.

Jamie stopped at the cubicle assigned for our use, where I had left our cloaks and bundles. He slipped off his boots, unbelted the plaid he wore over breeches and shirt, and disappeared into the darkness of the sleeping space without a backward glance.

I scrambled to my feet, meaning to follow him, but Ian stopped me with a hand on my arm.

“Auntie,” he said hesitantly. “Will ye not forgive him?”

“Forgive him?” I stared at him. “For what? For Roger?”

He grimaced.

“No. It was a grievous mistake, but we would do the same again, thinking matters as we did. No—for Bonnet.”

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