Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 200

   

“Oh, ’deed I have, ’deed I have, Mrs. Claire. Halfway up the Mohawk River, to the place they call the Upper Castle.”

“The Mohawk?” My heart began to beat faster.

“Mm.” He withdrew something from his bag, squinted at it, put it back, and rummaged further. “Imagine my surprise, Mrs. Claire, when I stopped at a Mohawk village to the south, to see a familiar face.”

“Ian! You’ve seen Ian? Is he all right?” I was so excited, I grasped him by the arm.

“Oh, aye,” he assured me. “Fine-lookin’ boy—though I will say it did give me a right turn to see him rigged out like a brave, and his face burnt dark enough that I might ha’ taken him for one, did he not hail me by name.”

At last he found what he was looking for, and handed me a small package wrapped in thin leather and tied with a strip of buckskin—a woodpecker’s feather thrust through the knot.

“He trusted me with that, ma’am, to bring to you and your goodman.” He smiled kindly. “Reckon as you’ll want to read that right promptly; I’ll meet up with ye a mite later, Mrs. Claire.” He bowed with solemn formality, and walked away, hailing acquaintances as he passed.

I wouldn’t read it without waiting for Jamie; luckily, he appeared no more than a few minutes later. The letter was written on what seemed to be the torn-out flyleaf of a book, its ink the pale brown of oak-galls, but legible enough. Ian salutat avunculus Jacobus, the note began, and a grin broke out on Jamie’s face.

Ave! That exhausting my Remembrance of the Latin tongue, I must now lapse into Plain English, of which I recall much more. I am well, Uncle, and Happy—I ask you to believe it. I have been married, after the custom of the Mohawk, and live in the house of my Wife. You will remember Emily, who carves so cleverly. Rollo has sired a Great many puppies; the village is littered with small wolfish Replicas. I cannot hope to claim the same profligacy of Procreation—yet I hope you will write to my Mother with the wish that she has not yet so many Grandchildren that she will overlook the addition of one more. The birth will be in spring; I will send Word of its outcome so soon as I may. In the meantime, you will oblige me by Remembering me to all at Lallybroch, at River Run, and Fraser’s Ridge. I remember them all most Fondly, and will, so long as I shall live. My love to Auntie Claire, to Cousin Brianna, and most of all to yourself. Your most affectionate nephew, Ian Murray. Vale, avunculus.

Jamie blinked once or twice, and folding the torn page carefully, tucked it in his sporran.

“It’s avuncule, ye wee idiot,” he said softly. “A greeting takes the vocative case.”

Looking over the dotted campfires that evening, I would have said that every Scottish family between Philadelphia and Charleston had come—and yet more arrived with the dawn next day, and kept coming.

It was on the second day, while Lizzie, Brianna, and I were comparing babies with two of Farquard Campbell’s daughters, that Jamie made his way through a mass of women and children, a wide smile on his face.

“Mrs. Lizzie,” he said. “I’ve a wee surprise for ye. Fergus!”

Fergus, likewise beaming, came from behind a wagon, ushering a slight man with windblown, thin fair hair.

“Da!” Lizzie shrieked, and flung herself into his arms. Jamie put a finger in his ear and wiggled it, looking amazed.

“I dinna think I’ve ever heard her make a noise that loud before,” he said. He grinned at me and handed me two pieces of paper; originally part of one document, they had been carefully torn apart so that the notched edge of one fitted the jagged edge of the other.

“That’ll be Mr. Wemyss’s indenture,” he said. “Put it away for now, Sassenach; we’ll burn it at the bonfire tonight.”

Then he vanished back into the crowd, summoned by a wave and a shout of Mac Dubh! from across the clearing.

By the third day of the Gathering, I had heard so much news, gossip, and general chatter that my ears rang with the sound of Gaelic. Those who were not talking were singing; Roger was in his element, wandering through the grounds and listening. He was hoarse from singing himself; he had been up most of the night before, strumming a borrowed guitar and singing to a crowd of enchanted listeners while Brianna sat curled by his feet, looking smug.

“Is he any good?” Jamie had murmured to me, squinting dubiously at his putative son-in-law.

“Better than good,” I assured him.

He lifted one eyebrow and shrugged, then leaned down to take the baby from me.

“Aye, well, I’ll take your word for it. I think wee Ruaidh and I will go and find a game of dice.”

“You’re going gambling with a baby?”

“Of course,” he said, and grinned at me. “He’s never too young to learn an honest trade, in case he canna sing for his supper like his Da.”

“When you make bashed neeps,” I said, “be sure to boil the tops along with the turnips. Then save the pot liquor and give it to the children; you take some too—it’s good for your milk.”

Maisri Buchanan pressed her smallest child to her breast and nodded solemnly, committing my advice to memory. I could not persuade most of the new immigrants either to eat fresh greens or to feed them to their families, but now and then I found opportunity to introduce a bit of vitamin C surreptitiously into their usual diet—which consisted for the most part of oatmeal and venison.

I had tried the expedient of making Jamie eat a plate of sliced tomatoes in public view, in hopes that the sight of him would ease some of the new immigrants’ fears. This had not been successful; most of them regarded him with a half-superstitious awe, and I was given to understand that Himself could naturally survive the eating of things that would kill a normal person dead on the spot.

I dismissed Maisri, and welcomed the next visitor to my impromptu clinic, a woman with two little girls, covered with an eczematous rash that I at first thought evidence of more nutritional deficiency, but which fortunately proved to be only poison ivy.

I became aware of a stir in the crowd, and paused in my ministrations, turning to see who had arrived. Sunlight glinted from metal near the edge of the clearing, and Jamie’s was not the only hand to go to gun or knife hilt.

They came into the sun in marchstep, though their drums were muffled, with no more than a soft tap-tap! of stick on rim to guide them. Muskets pointing skyward, broadswords waggling like scorpion tails, they emerged from the grove in small bursts of scarlet, two by two, green kilts aswish around their knees.

Four, and six, and eight, and ten…I was counting silently, with everyone else. Forty men came on, eyes straight ahead beneath their bearskin caps, looking neither to left nor to right, with no sound but the shuffle of feet and the tap of their drum.

Across the clearing, I saw MacNeill of Barra rise from his seat and straighten up; there was a subtle stir around him, a few steps bringing his men to stand near him. I didn’t need to look around to sense the same thing happening behind me; felt, rather than saw, the eddies of similar small rallyings around the mountain’s foot, each group with one eye on the intruders, one eye on its chief for direction.

I looked for Brianna and was startled, if not surprised, to find her just behind me, the baby in her arms, watching intently over my shoulder.

“Who are they?” she asked, low-voiced, and I could hear the echo of the question running through the Gathering like ripples in water.

“A Highland regiment,” I said.

“I see that,” she said tartly. “Friend or foe?”

That was plainly the question—were they here as Scots, or as soldiers? But I didn’t have an answer, nor did anyone else, judging from the shiftings and mutterings among the crowd. There were incidents of troops coming to disperse unruly groups, of course. But surely not a peaceable gathering like this, which had no political purpose?

At one time, though, the mere presence of a number of Scots in one place was a political declaration, and most of those present remembered those times. The murmuring got louder, Gaelic spoken with the muffled sibilance of vehemence, sighing round the mountain like the wind before a storm.

There were forty soldiers coming up the road with guns and swords. There were two hundred Scotsmen here, most of them armed, many with slaves and servants. But also with their wives and children.

I thought of the days after Culloden, and without looking round, said to Brianna, “If anything happens—anything at all—take the baby up into the rocks.”

Roger appeared suddenly in front of me, his attention focused on the soldiers. He didn’t look at Jamie but moved silently so they stood, shoulder to shoulder, a bulwark before us. All over the clearing, the same thing was happening; the women gave not an inch, but their men stepped out before them. Anyone coming into the clearing would think that the women had melted into invisibility, leaving an implacable phalanx of Scotsmen staring down the glen.

Then two men rode out from the shelter of the trees; an officer on horseback, his aide by his side, regimental banner flying. Spurring up, they rode past the column of soldiers into the edge of the crowd. I saw the aide lean down from his horse to ask a question, saw the officer’s head turn toward us in acknowledgment of the answer.

The officer barked an order and the soldiers stood to rest, muskets planted in the dust, their checkered legs apart. The officer turned his horse into the crowd, slowly nosing his way among the throng, who gave way reluctantly before him.

He was coming toward us; I saw his eyes fix on Jamie from a distance, so conspicuous by his height and his hair, bright as scarlet maple leaves.

The man drew up before us, and took off his feathered cap. He slid off his horse, took two steps toward Jamie, and bowed, rigidly correct. He was a short man, but solid, maybe thirty, with dark eyes that glittered bright as the gorget at his throat. Closer now, I saw what I had missed before, the smaller bit of metal pinned to the shoulder of his red coat; a battered brooch of tarnished gilt.

“Ma name is Airchie Hayes,” he said in broad Scots. His eyes were fixed on Jamie’s face, dark with hope. “They say ye kent my faither.”

71

CIRCLE’S CLOSE

I have a thing to say to you,” Roger said. He’d waited for some time to catch Jamie Fraser alone. Fraser was much in demand; everyone wanted his ear for a moment. For this moment, though, he was by himself, sitting on the fallen log from which he held court. He looked up at Roger, brows raised, but nodded toward a seat on the log.

Roger sat down. He had the baby with him; Brianna and Lizzie were making the dinner, and Claire had gone to visit with the Camerons of Isle Fleur, whose fire was nearby. The night air was thick with the scent of woodsmoke rather than peat fires, but in many ways it might be Scotland, he thought.

Jamie’s eye lighted on the curve of little Jemmy’s skull, dusted with copper fuzz that shone in the firelight. He held out his arms, and with only the slightest hesitation, Roger carefully passed the sleeping baby to him.

“Balach Boidheach,” Jamie murmured as the baby stirred against him. “There now, it’s fine.” He looked across at Roger. “You’ve a thing to say to me, you said.”

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