Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 186

   

Roger dug in the waistband of his ragged breeches and brought out a strand of thread, grimy and knotted. “Here,” he said, grasping a double knot. “It was eight days past the day that they took me. Eight days from Fraser’s Ridge.”

“And a week, at least, from River Run to the Ridge.” I let myself breathe again, not sure whether I felt disappointment or relief. “We’d never make it.”

“But the weather is turning,” Jamie said. He nodded toward a big blue spruce, its needles wet and dripping. “When we came, that tree was cased in ice.” He looked at me. “The traveling may be easier; we may make better time—or not.”

“Or not.” I shook my head reluctantly. “You know as well as I do that spring means mud. And mud is worse to travel in than snow.” I felt my heart begin to slow down, accepting it. “No, it’s too late, too risky. She’ll have to stay.”

Jamie was gazing at Roger, over the fire.

“He doesn’t,” he said.

Roger looked at him, startled.

“I—” he began, then firmed his jaw and started over. “I do. You don’t think I’d leave her? And my child?”

I opened my mouth, and felt Jamie stiffen beside me in warning.

“No,” I said sharply. “No. We have to tell him. Brianna will. Better he should know now. If it makes a difference to him, then it’s better he knows before he sees her.”

Jamie’s lips pressed tight together, but he nodded.

“Aye,” he said. “Tell him, then.”

“Tell me what?” Roger’s dark hair was loose, rising around his head in the evening wind. He looked more alive than he had since we had found him, alarmed and excited at once. I bit the bullet.

“It may not be your child,” I said.

His expression didn’t change for a moment; then the words fell into place. He grabbed me by the arms, so suddenly that I yelped with alarm.

“What do you mean? What’s happened?”

Jamie moved like a striking snake. He caught Roger a short, sharp blow under the chin that loosened his grip and sent him sprawling backward on the ground.

“She means that when ye left my daughter to her own devices, she was raped,” he said roughly. “Two days past the time ye lay with her. So maybe the wean’s yours, and maybe it’s not.”

He glared down at Roger.

“So. D’ye mean to stand by her, or no?”

Roger shook his head, trying to clear it, and got slowly back to his feet.

“Raped. Who? Where?”

“In Wilmington. A man named Stephen Bonnet. He—”

“Bonnet?” It was only too clear from Roger’s expression that the name was familiar. He stared wildly from me to Jamie and back. “Brianna was raped by Stephen Bonnet?”

“So I said.” Suddenly all the rage Jamie had been holding since our exit from the village broke loose. He seized Roger by the throat and slammed him into a tree trunk.

“And where were you when it was done, ye coward? She was angry with ye, and so ye ran away and left her! If ye thought ye must go, why did ye not see her safe into my keeping first?”

I grabbed Jamie’s arm and yanked.

“Let go of him!”

He did, and whirled away, breathing hard. Roger, shaken and almost as furious as Jamie, shook down his ruffled clothing.

“I didn’t leave because we argued! I left to find this!” He snatched a handful of his loose breeches, and ripped at the cloth. A spark of green brightness glowed in the palm of his hand.

“I risked my life to get that, to see her safe back through the stones! Do you know where I went to get it, who I got it from? Stephen Bonnet! That’s why it took me so long to come to Fraser’s Ridge; he wasn’t where I expected him to be; I had to ride up and down the coast to find him.”

Jamie was frozen, staring at the gemstone. So was I.

“I shipped with Stephen Bonnet, from Scotland.” Roger was growing a little calmer. “He is a—a—”

“I ken what he is.” Jamie stirred, breaking his trance. “But what he also may be, is the father of my daughter’s child.” He gave Roger a long, cold look. “So I’m askin’ ye, MacKenzie; can ye go back to her, and live with her, knowing that it’s likely Bonnet’s child she bears? For if ye canna do it—then say so now, for I swear, if ye come to her and treat her badly…I will kill ye without a second thought.”

“For God’s sake!” I burst out. “Give him a moment to think, Jamie! Can’t you see that he hasn’t had a chance even to take it in, yet?”

Roger’s fist closed tight over the jewel, then opened. I could hear him breathing, harsh and ragged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know!”

Jamie stooped and picked up the stone, where Roger had dropped it. He flung it hard between Roger’s feet.

“Then go!” he said. “Take yon cursed stone and find your wicked circle. Get ye gone—for my daughter doesna need a coward!”

He had not yet unsaddled the horses; he seized his saddlebags and heaved them across the horse’s back. He untied both his horse and mine, and mounted in one fluid motion.

“Come,” he said to me. I looked helplessly at Roger. He was staring up at Jamie, green eyes glinting with firelight, bright as the emerald in his hand.

“Go,” he said softly to me, not taking his eyes off Jamie. “If I can—then I’ll come.”

My hands and feet seemed not to belong to me; they moved smoothly, without my direction. I walked to my horse, put my foot in the stirrup, and was up.

When I looked back, even the light of the fire had disappeared. There was nothing behind us but the dark.

62

THREE-THIRDS OF A GHOST

River Run, April 1770

They have captured Stephen Bonnet.”

Brianna dropped the game box on the floor. Ivory counters exploded in every direction, and rolled off under the furniture. Speechless, she stood staring at Lord John, who set down his glass of brandy and came hastily to her side.

“Are you all right? Do you require to sit down? I apologize most profoundly. I should not have—”

“Yes, you should. No, not the sofa, I’ll never get out of it.” She waved away his offered hand, and made her way slowly toward a plain wooden chair near the windows. Once solidly on it, she gave him a long, level look.

“Where?” she said. “How?”

He didn’t trouble asking whether he ought to send for wine or burnt feathers; she plainly wasn’t going to swoon.

He drew up a stool beside her, but then thought better, and went to the parlor door. He glanced out into the dark hallway; sure enough, one of the maids was dozing on a stool in the curve of the staircase, available in case they should want anything. The woman’s head snapped up at his step, eyes showing white in the dimness.

“Go to bed,” he said. “We shall not require anything further this evening.”

The slave nodded and shuffled off, relief in the droop of her shoulders; she would have been awake since dawn, and it was near midnight now. He was desperately tired himself, after the long ride from Edenton, but it wasn’t news that could wait. He had arrived in the early evening, but this had been his first opportunity to make an excuse to see Brianna alone.

He closed the double doors and placed a footstool in front of them, to prevent any interruptions.

“He was taken here, in Cross Creek,” he said without preamble, sitting down beside her. “As to how, I could not say. The charge brought was smuggling. Once they discovered his identity, of course, there were others added.”

“Smuggling what?”

“Tea and brandy. At least this time.” He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to relieve the stiffness caused by hours in the saddle. “I heard of it in Edenton; evidently the man is notorious. His reputation extends from Charleston to Jamestown.”

He looked closely at her; she was pale, but not ghastly.

“He is condemned,” he said quietly. “He will hang next week, in Wilmington. I thought you would wish to know.”

She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, but said nothing. He stole a closer look at her, not wanting to stare, but amazed at the sheer size of her. By God, she was immense! In the two months since their engagement, she had doubled in size, at least.

One side of her enormous abdomen bulged suddenly out, startling him. He was having second thoughts about the wisdom of having told her; if the shock of his news brought on her confinement prematurely, he would never forgive himself. Jamie wouldn’t forgive him, either.

She was staring off into space, her brow wrinkled in concentration. He’d seen broodmares in foal look that way; thoroughly absorbed in inward matters. It had been a mistake to send the slave away. He got his feet under him, meaning to go and fetch assistance, but the movement brought her out of her trance.

“Thank you,” she said. The frown was still there, but her eyes had lost that distant look; they were fixed on him with a disconcerting blue directness—the more disconcerting for being so familiar.

“When will they hang him?” She leaned forward a little, hand pressed against her side. Another swell rippled across her belly in apparent response to the pressure.

He sat back, eyeing her stomach uneasily.

“Friday week.”

“Is he in Wilmington now?”

Slightly reassured by her calm demeanor, he reached for his abandoned glass. He took a sip and shook his head, feeling the comfort of the warm liquor spread through his chest.

“No. He is still here; there was no need for trial, as he had been previously convicted.”

“So they’ll move him to Wilmington for the execution? When?”

“I have no idea.” The distant look was back; with deep misgiving, he recognized it this time—not motherly abstraction; calculation.

“I want to see him.”

Very deliberately, he swallowed the rest of the brandy.

“No,” he said definitely, setting down the glass. “Even if your state allowed of travel to Wilmington—which it assuredly does not,” he added, glancing sidelong at her dangerous-looking abdomen—“attendance at an execution could not but have the worst effects upon your child. Now, I am in complete sympathy with your feelings, my dear, but—”

“No you aren’t. You don’t know what my feelings are.” She spoke without heat, but with complete conviction. He stared at her for a moment, then got up and went to fetch the decanter.

She watched the amber liquid purl up in the glass and waited for him to pick it up before she went on.

“I don’t want to watch him die,” she said.

“Thank God for that,” he muttered, and took a mouthful of brandy.

“I want to talk to him.”

The mouthful went down the wrong way and he choked, spluttering brandy over the frills of his shirt.

“Maybe you should sit down,” she said, squinting at him. “You don’t look so good.”

“I can’t think why.” Nonetheless, he sat down, and groped for a kerchief to wipe his face.

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