Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 25

   

“I’ll let ye return the favor, Sassenach—after dark.” He made an unsuccessful attempt at a leer. Unable to close one eye at a time, his ability to wink lewdly was substantially impaired, but he managed to convey his meaning nonetheless.

“Indeed,” I said. I fluttered my lashes at him. “And just what is it you’d like rubbed after dark?”

“After dark?” Ian asked, popping up again like a jack-in-the-box before his uncle could answer. “What happens after dark?”

“That’s when I drown ye and cut ye up for fish bait,” his uncle informed him. “God’s sake, can ye not settle, Ian? Ye’re bumpin’ about like a bumblebee in a bottle. Go and sleep in the sun, like your beast—there’s a sensible dog.” He nodded at Rollo, sprawled like a rug on the cabin roof with his eyes half-closed, twitching an occasional ear against the flies.

“Sleep?” Ian looked at his uncle in amazement. “Sleep?”

“It’s what normal people do when they’re tired,” I told him, stifling a yawn. The growing heat and the boat’s slow movement were highly soporific, after the short night—we had been up before dawn. Unfortunately, the narrow benches and rough deck planks of the Sally Ann didn’t look any more inviting than the tavern’s settle had been.

“Oh, I’m not a scrap tired, Auntie!” Ian assured me. “I dinna think I’ll sleep for days!”

Jamie eyed his nephew.

“We’ll see if ye still think so, after a turn at the pole. In the meantime, perhaps I can find something to occupy your mind. Wait a bit—” He broke off, and ducked into the low cabin, where I heard him rootling through the baggage.

“God, it’s hot!” said Ian, fanning himself. “What’s Uncle Jamie after, then?”

“God knows,” I said. Jamie had brought aboard a large crate, about the contents of which he had been most evasive. He had been playing cards when I had fallen asleep the night before, and my best guess was that he had acquired some embarrassing object in the course of gambling, which he was reluctant to expose to Ian’s teasing.

Ian was right; it was hot. I could only hope that there would be a breeze later; for the moment, the sail above hung limp as a dishcloth, and the fabric of my shift clung damp against my legs. With a murmured word to Ian, I edged past and sidled toward the bow, where the water barrel stood.

Fergus was standing in the prow, arms crossed, giving a splendid impression of a noble figurehead, with his sternly handsome profile pointed upriver, thick, dark hair flowing back from his brow.

“Ah, milady!” He greeted me with a sudden dazzle of white teeth. “Is this not a splendid country?”

What I could see at the moment was not particularly splendid, the landscape consisting of an extensive mudflat, reeking in the sun, and a large collection of gulls and seabirds, all raucously excited about something smelly they had found near the water’s edge.

“Milord tells me that any man may enter a claim for fifty acres of land, so long as he builds a house upon it, and promises to work it for a period of ten years. Imagine—fifty acres!” He rolled the words around in his mouth, savoring them with a kind of awe. A French peasant might think himself well blessed with five.

“Well, yes,” I said, a little doubtfully. “I think you ought to pick your fifty acres carefully, though. Some parts of this place aren’t much good for farming.” I didn’t hazard a guess as to how difficult Fergus might find it to carve a farm and homestead out of a howling wilderness with one hand, no matter how fertile the ground.

He wasn’t paying attention in any case, his eyes shiny with dreams.

“I might perhaps have a small house built by Hogmanay,” he murmured to himself. “Then I could send for Marsali and the child in the spring.” His hand went automatically to the vacant spot on his chest, where the greenish medal of St. Dismas had hung since his childhood.

He had come to join us in Georgia, leaving his young and pregnant wife behind in Jamaica, under the care of friends. He assured me that he had no fear for her safety, however, for he had left her also under the protection of his patron saint, with strict instructions not to remove the battered medal from around her neck until she was safely delivered.

I wouldn’t myself have thought that mothers and babies fell into the sphere of influence of the patron saint of thieves, but Fergus had lived as a pickpocket for all his early life, and his trust in Dismas was absolute.

“Will you call the baby Dismas, if it’s a boy?” I asked, joking.

“No,” he said in all seriousness. “I shall call him Germaine. Germaine James Ian Aloysius Fraser—James Ian for Milord and Monsieur,” he explained, for so he always referred to Jamie and his brother-in-law, Ian Murray.

“Marsali liked Aloysius,” he added dismissively, making it clear that he had had nothing to do with the choice of so undistinguished a name.

“And what if it’s a girl?” I asked, with a sudden vivid memory. Twenty-odd years before, Jamie had sent me back through the stones, pregnant. And the last thing he had said to me, convinced the child I carried was a boy, was, “Name him Brian, for my father.”

“Oh.” Fergus had clearly not considered this possibility, either, for he looked vaguely disconcerted. Then his features cleared.

“Genevieve,” he said firmly. “For Madame,” by this meaning Jenny Murray, Jamie’s sister. “Genevieve Claire, I think,” he added, with another dazzling smile.

“Oh,” I said, flustered and oddly flattered. “Well. Thank you. Are you sure that you ought not to go back to Jamaica to be with Marsali, Fergus?” I asked, changing the subject.

He shook his head decidedly.

“Milord may have need of me,” he said. “And I am of more use here than I should be there. Babies are women’s work, and who knows what dangers we may encounter in this strange place?”

As though in answer to this rhetorical question, the gulls rose in a squawking cloud, wheeling out over the river and mudflats, revealing the object of their appetite.

A stout pine stake had been driven into the mud of the bank, the top of it a foot below the dark, weedy line that marked the upper reaches of the incoming tide. The tide was still low; it had reached no higher than halfway up the stake. Above the lapping waves of silty water hung the figure of a man, fastened to the stake by a chain around his chest. Or what had once been his chest.

I couldn’t tell how long he had been there, but quite long enough, from the looks of him. A narrow gash of white showed the curve of skull where skin and hair had been stripped off. Impossible to say what he had looked like; the birds had been busy.

Beside me, Fergus said something very obscene in French, softly under his breath.

“Pirate,” said Captain Freeman laconically, coming up beside me and pausing long enough to spit a brown stream of tobacco juice into the river. “If they ain’t taken to Charleston for hangin’, sometimes they stake ’em out at low tide and let the river have ’em.”

“Are—are there a lot of them?” Ian had seen it, too; he was much too old to reach for my hand, but he stood close beside me, his face pale under its tan.

“Not so much, no more. The Navy does a good job keepin’ ’em down. But go back a few years, why, you could see four or five pirates out here at a time. Folk would pay to come out by boat, to sit and watch ’em drown. Real pretty out here when the tide comes in at sunset,” he said, jaws moving in a slow, nostalgic rhythm. “Turns the water red.”

“Look!” Ian, forgetting his dignity, clutched me by the arm. There was a movement near the riverbank, and we saw what had startled the birds away.

It slid into the water, a long, scaly form some five or six feet long, carving a deep groove in the soft mud of the bank. On the far side of the boat, the deckhand muttered something under his breath, but didn’t stop his poling.

“It is a crocodile,” Fergus said, and made the sign of the horns in distaste.

“No, I dinna think so.” Jamie spoke behind me, and I swung around to see him peering over the cabin roof, at the still figure in the water and the V-shaped wake moving toward it. He held a book in his hand, thumb between the pages to hold his place, and now bent his head to consult the volume.

“I believe it is an alligator. They dine upon carrion, it says here, and willna eat fresh meat. When they take a man or a sheep, they pull the victim beneath the water to drown it, but then drag it to their den below ground and leave it there until it has rotted enough to suit their fancy. Of course,” he added, with a bleak glance at the bank, “they’re sometimes fortunate enough to find a meal prepared.”

The figure on the stake seemed to tremble briefly, as something bumped it from below, and Ian made a small choking noise beside me.

“Where did you get that book?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the stake. The top of the wooden pole was vibrating, as though something under the waves was worrying at it. Then the pole was still, and the V-shaped wake could be seen again, traveling back toward the riverbank. I turned away before it could emerge.

Jamie handed me the book, his eyes still fixed on the black mudflat and its cloud of screeching birds.

“The Governor gave it to me. He said he thought it might be of interest on our journey.”

I glanced down at the book. Bound in plain buckram, the title was stamped on the spine in gold leaf—The Natural History of North Carolina.

“Eeugh!” said Ian beside me, watching the scene on shore in horror. “That’s the most awful thing I’ve ever—”

“Of interest,” I echoed, eyes fixed firmly on the book. “Yes, I expect it will be.”

Fergus, impervious to squeamishness of any kind, was watching the reptile’s progress up the mudbank with interest.

“An alligator, you say. Still, it is much the same thing as a crocodile, is it not?”

“Yes,” I said, shuddering despite the heat. I turned my back on the shore. I had met a crocodile at close range in the Indies, and wasn’t anxious to improve my acquaintance with any of its relatives.

Fergus wiped sweat from his upper lip, dark eyes intent on the gruesome thing.

“Dr. Stern once told Milord and myself about the travels of a Frenchman named Sonnini, who visited Egypt and wrote much of the sights he had witnessed and the customs he was told of. He said that in that country, the crocodiles copulate upon the muddy banks of the rivers, the female being laid upon her back, and in that position, incapable of rising without the assistance of the male.”

“Oh, aye?” Ian was all ears.

“Indeed. He said that some men there, hurried on by the impulses of depravity, would take advantage of this forced situation of the female, and hunt away the male, whereupon they would take his place and enjoy the inhuman embrace of the reptile, which is said to be a most powerful charm for the procurement of rank and riches.”

Ian’s mouth sagged open.

“You’re no serious, man?” he demanded of Fergus, incredulous. He turned to Jamie. “Uncle?”

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