Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 184


Jamie had the grace to look abashed at this, but Roger ignored the argument.

“Is she well?” he asked, leaning forward and grasping my arm.

“Yes, she’s fine,” I assured him, hoping it was still true. “She wanted to come with us, but of course we couldn’t let her do that.”

“She wanted to come?” His face lighted up, joy and relief plain to see, even through the hair and filth. “Then she didn’t—” He stopped abruptly, and glanced from me to Jamie and back. “When I met…Mr. Fraser on the mountainside, he seemed to think that she—er—had said—”

“A terrible misunderstanding,” I put in hastily. “She hadn’t told us about the handfasting, so when she turned up pregnant, we, er…assumed…” Jamie was brooding, looking at Roger with no particular favor, but jerked into awareness when I nudged him sharply.

“Oh, aye,” he said, a little grudgingly. “A mistake. I’ve given Mr. Wakefield my apologies and told him I shall do my best to see it right. But we’ve other things to think of now. Have ye seen Ian, Sassenach?”

“No.” I became aware for the first time that Ian was not with them, and felt a small lurch of fear in the pit of my stomach. Jamie looked grim.

“Where have ye been all night, Sassenach?”

“I was with—oh, Jesus!”

I ignored his question for a moment, caught up in the sight of Roger’s foot. The flesh was swollen and reddened over half his foot, with a severe ulceration on the outer margin of the sole. I pressed firmly, a little way in, and felt the nasty give of small pockets of pus under the skin.

“What happened here?”

“I cut it, trying to get away. They bound it and put things on it, but it’s been infected on and off. It gets better, and then it gets worse.” He shrugged; his attention wasn’t on his foot, ugly as it was. He looked up at Jamie, evidently having come to a decision.

“Brianna didn’t send you to meet me, then? She didn’t ask you to—get rid of me?”

“No,” Jamie said, taken by surprise. He smiled briefly, his features suffused with sudden charm. “That was my own notion.”

Roger drew a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly.

“Thank God,” he said, and opened them. “I thought perhaps she’d—we’d had a terrible argument, just before I left her, and I thought maybe that was why she hadn’t told you about the handfasting; that she’d decided she didn’t want to be married to me.” There was sweat on his forehead, either from the news or from my handling of his foot. He smiled, a little painfully. “Having me beaten to death or sold into slavery seemed a trifle extreme, though, even for a woman with her temper.”

“Mmphm.” Jamie was slightly flushed. “I did say I was sorry for it.”

“I know.” Roger looked at him for a minute, evidently making up his mind about something. He took a deep breath, then bent down and put my hand gently away from his foot. He straightened up and met Jamie’s eyes, dead-on.

“I’ve something to tell you. What we fought over. Has she told you what brought her here—to find you?”

“The death notice? Aye, she’s told us. Ye dinna think I’d allow Claire to come with me otherwise?”

“What?” Puzzled wariness showed in Roger’s eyes.

“Ye canna have it both ways. If she and I are to die at Fraser’s Ridge six years from now, we canna very well be killed by the Iroquois any time before that, now can we?”

I stared at him; that particular implication had escaped me. Rather staggering; practical immortality—for a time. But that was assuming—

“That’s assuming that you can’t change the past—that we can’t, I mean. Do you believe that?” Roger leaned forward a little, intent.

“I will be damned if I know. Do you think so?”

“Yes,” Roger said flatly. “I do think the past can’t be changed. That’s why I did it.”

“Did what?”

He licked his lips, but went doggedly on.

“I found that death notice long before Brianna did. I thought, though, that it would be useless to try to change things. So I—I kept it from her.” He looked from me to Jamie. “So now you know. I didn’t want her to come; I did everything I could to keep her away from you. I thought it was too dangerous. And—I was afraid of losing her,” he ended simply.

To my surprise, Jamie was looking at Roger with sudden approval.

“Ye tried to keep her safe, then? To protect her?”

Roger nodded, a certain relief lessening the tension in his shoulders.

“So you understand?”

“Aye, I do. That’s the first thing I’ve heard that gives me a good opinion of ye, sir.”

It wasn’t an opinion I shared at the moment.

“You found that thing—and didn’t tell her?” I could feel the blood climbing into my cheeks.

Roger saw the look on my face, and looked away.

“No. She…um…she saw it your way, I’m afraid. She thought—well, she said I’d betrayed her, and—”

“And you did! Her and us both! Of all the—Roger, how could you do such a thing?”

“He did right,” Jamie said. “After all—” I turned on him fiercely, interrupting.

“He did not! He deliberately kept it from her, and tried to keep her from—don’t you realize, if he’d succeeded, you’d never have seen her?”

“Aye, I do. And what’s happened to her would not have happened.” His eyes were deep blue, steady on mine. “I would it had been so.”

I swallowed down my grief and anger, until I thought I could speak again without choking.

“I don’t think she would have had it so,” I said softly. “And it was hers to say.”

Roger jumped in, before Jamie could reply.

“You said what’s happened to her wouldn’t have—you mean, being pregnant?” He didn’t wait for a reply; he had plainly recovered from the shock of the news sufficiently to begin thinking, and was rapidly reaching the same unpleasant conclusions Brianna had come to, some months earlier. He swung his head toward me, eyes wide with shock.

“She’s seven months along, you said. Jesus! She can’t go back!”

“Not now,” I said, with bitter emphasis. “She might have, when we first found out. I tried to make her go back to Scotland, or at least to the Indies—there’s another…opening, there. But she wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t go without finding out what happened to you.”

“What happened to me,” he repeated, and glanced at Jamie. Jamie’s shoulders tensed, and he set his jaw.

“Aye,” he said. “It’s my fault, and no remedy for it. She’s trapped here. And I can do nothing for her—save bring ye back to her.” And that, I realized, was why he had not wanted to tell Roger anything; for fear that when he realized Brianna was trapped in the past, Roger would refuse to come back with us. Following her into the past was one thing; staying there forever with her was something else again. Neither was it guilt over Bonnet alone that had eaten Jamie up on our journey here; the Spartan boy with the fox gnawing at his vitals would have recognized a kindred soul on the spot, I thought, looking at him with exasperated tenderness.

Roger gazed at him, completely at a loss for words.

Before he could find any, a noise of shuffling footsteps approached the door of the hut. The flap lifted, and a large number of Mohawks came in, one after the other.

We looked at them in astonishment; there were about fifteen of them, men and women and children, all dressed for traveling, in leggings and furs. One of the older women held a cradleboard, and without hesitation she walked up to Roger and pressed it into his arms, saying something in Mohawk.

He frowned at her, not understanding. Jamie, suddenly alert, leaned toward her and said a few halting words. She repeated what she had said, impatiently, then looked behind her and motioned to a young man.

“You are…priest,” he said haltingly to Roger. He pointed at the cradleboard. “Water.”

“I’m not a priest.” Roger tried to give the board back to the woman, but she refused to take it.

“Prees,” she said definitely. “Babtize.” She motioned to one of the younger women, who stepped forward, holding a small bowl made of horn, filled with water.

“Father Alexandre—he say you priest, son of priest,” said the young man. I saw Roger’s face go pale beneath the beard.

Jamie had stepped aside, murmuring in French patois to a man he recognized among the crowd. Now he pushed his way back to us.

“These are what is left of the priest’s flock,” he said softly. “The council has told them to leave. They mean to travel to the Huron mission at Ste. Berthe, but they would have the child baptized, lest it die on the journey.” He glanced at Roger. “They think ye are a priest?”

“Evidently.” Roger looked down at the child in his arms.

Jamie hesitated, glancing at the waiting Indians. They stood patiently, their faces calm. I could only guess what lay behind them. Fire and death, exile—what else? There were marks of sorrow on the face of the old woman who brought the baby; she would be its grandmother, I thought.

“In case of need,” Jamie said quietly to Roger, “any man may do the office of a priest.”

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for Roger to go any whiter, but he did. He swayed briefly, and the old lady, alarmed, reached out a hand to steady the cradleboard.

He caught himself, though, and nodded to the young woman with the water, to come closer.

“Parlez-vous français?” he asked, and heads nodded, some with certainty, some with less.

“C’est bien,” he said, and taking a deep breath, lifted the cradleboard, showing the child to the congregation. The baby, a round-faced charmer with soft brown curls and a golden skin, blinked sleepily at the change of perspective.

“Hear the words of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said clearly in French. “Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus, and sure of his presence with us, we baptize those whom he has called to be his own.”

Of course, I thought, watching him. He was the son of a priest, so to speak; he would often enough have seen the Reverend administer the sacrament of baptism. If he didn’t recall the entire service, he seemed to know the general form of it.

He had the baby passed from hand to hand among the congregation—for so his agreement had made them—following and asking questions of each person there, in a low voice.

“Qui est votre Seigneur, votre Sauveur?” Who is your Lord and Savior?

“Voulez-vous placer votre foi en Lui?” Do you have faith in Him?

“Do you promise to tell this child the good news of the gospel, and all that Christ commands, and by your fellowship, to strength his family ties with the household of God?”

Head after head bobbed in reply.

“Oui, certainement. Je le promets. Nous le ferons.” Yes, of course. I promise. We will.