Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 28

   

Ian stood looking down into the water that swirled past the side of the ship in smooth brown riffles. His hands rested on the rail; big hands, broad-backed and browned by the sun.

“Aye,” he said. “And at my age, my own father was in France, too. Fighting.”

I was a bit startled to hear this. I had known that the elder Ian had soldiered in France for a time, but not that he had gone so early for a soldier—nor stayed so long. Young Ian was just fifteen. The elder Ian had served as a foreign mercenary from that age, then, until the age of twenty-two; when a cannon blast had left him with a leg so badly shattered by grapeshot that it had been amputated just below the knee—and he had come home for good.

Jamie looked at his nephew for a moment, frowning slightly. Then he came to stand beside Ian, leaning backward, hands on the rail to balance himself.

“I ken that, aye?” Jamie said quietly. “For I followed him, four years later, when I was outlawed.”

Ian looked up at that, startled.

“Ye were together there in France?”

There was a slight breeze caused by our movement, but it was still a hot day. Perhaps the temperature decided him that it was better to let the subject of higher learning drop for a moment, for Jamie nodded, lifting the thick tail of his hair to cool his neck.

“In Flanders. For more than a year, before Ian was wounded and sent home. We fought wi’ a regiment of Scots mercenaries then—under Fergus mac Leodhas.”

Ian’s eyes were alight with interest.

“Is that where Fergus—our Fergus—got his name, then?”

His uncle smiled.

“Aye, I named him for mac Leodhas; a bonny man, and a great soldier, forbye. He thought weel o’ Ian. Did your Da never speak to you of him?”

Ian shook his head, his brow slightly clouded.

“He’s never said a thing to me. I—I kent he’d lost his leg fighting in France—Mam told me that, when I asked—but he wouldna say a word about it, himself.”

With Dr. Rawlings’s description of amputation vivid in my mind, I thought it likely that the elder Ian hadn’t wanted to recall the occasion.

Jamie shrugged, plucking the sweat-damp shirt away from his chest.

“Aye, well. I suppose he meant to put that time behind him, once he’d come home and settled at Lallybroch. And then…” He hesitated, but Ian was insistent.

“And then what, Uncle Jamie?”

Jamie glanced at his nephew, and one side of his mouth curled up.

“Well, I think he didna want to tell too many tales of war and fighting, lest you lads get thinking on it and set yourselves to go for soldiers, too. He and your mother will ha’ wanted better for you, aye?”

I thought the elder Ian had been wise; it was clear from the look on his face that the younger Ian couldn’t think of a much more exciting prospect than war and fighting.

“That will ha’ been my Mam’s doing,” Ian said, with an air of disgust. “She’d have me wrapped in wool and tied to her apron strings, did I let her.”

Jamie grinned.

“Oh, let her, is it? And d’ye think she’d wrap ye in wool and smother ye wi’ kisses if ye were home this minute?”

Ian dropped the pose of disdain.

“Well, no,” he admitted. “I think she’d skelp me raw.”

Jamie laughed.

“Ye know a bit about women, Ian, if not so much as ye think.”

Ian glanced skeptically from his uncle to me, and back.

“And you’ll ken all about them, I suppose, Uncle?”

I raised one eyebrow, inviting an answer to this, but Jamie merely laughed.

“It’s a wise man who kens the limits of his knowledge, Ian.” He bent and kissed my damp forehead, then turned back to his nephew, adding, “Though I could wish your own limits went a bit further.”

Ian shrugged, looking bored.

“I dinna mean to set up for a gentleman,” he said. “After all, Young Jamie and Michael dinna read Greek; they do well enough!”

Jamie rubbed his nose, considering his nephew thoughtfully.

“Young Jamie has Lallybroch. And wee Michael does well wi’ Jared in Paris. They’ll be settled. We did as best we might for the two o’ them, but there was precious little money to pay for travel or schooling when they came to manhood. There wasna much choice for them, aye?”

He pushed himself off the rail and stood upright.

“But your parents dinna want that for you, Ian, if better might be managed. They’d have ye grow to be a man of learning and influence; duine uasal, perhaps.” It was a Gaelic expression I had heard before, literally “a man of worth.” It was the term for tacksmen and lairds, the men of property and followers who ranked only below chieftains in the Highland clans.

Such a man as Jamie himself had been, before the Rising. But not now.

“Mmphm. And did ye do as your parents wanted for ye, then, Uncle Jamie?” Ian looked blandly at his uncle, with only a wary twitch of the eye to show he knew he was treading on shaky ground. Jamie had been meant to be duine uasal, indeed; Lallybroch had been his by right. It was only in an effort to save the property from confiscation by the Crown that he had made it over legally to Young Jamie, instead.

Jamie stared at him for a moment, then rubbed a knuckle across his upper lip before replying.

“I did say ye’d a fine mind, no?” he answered dryly. “Though since ye ask…I was raised to do two things, Ian. To mind my land and people, and to care for my family. I’ve done those two things, as best I might—and I shall go on doing them as best I can.”

Young Ian had the grace to look abashed at this.

“Aye, well, I didna mean…” he mumbled, looking at his feet.

“Dinna fash, laddie,” Jamie interrupted, clapping him on the shoulder. He grinned wryly at his nephew. “Ye’ll amount to something for your mother’s sake—if it kills us both. And now I think it will be my turn at the pole.”

He glanced forward, to where Troklus’s shoulders gleamed like oily copper, snake-muscled with long labor. Jamie untied his breeches—unlike the other men, he would not take off his shirt for poling, but stripped his breeks for coolness and worked with his shirt knotted between his thighs, in the Highland style—and nodded to Ian.

“You think about it, laddie. Youngest son or no, your life’s not meant to be wasted.”

He smiled at me then, with a sudden heart-stopping brilliance, and handed me his shed breeks. Then, still holding my hand in his, he stood upright and, hand over heart, declaimed,

“Amo, amas, I love a lass,

As cedar tall and slender;

Sweet cowslip’s grace

Is her nominative case,

And she’s o’ the feminine gender.”

He nodded graciously to Ian, who had dissolved in giggles, and lifted my hand to his lips, blue eyes aslant with mischief.

“Can I decline a nymph so divine?

Her voice like a flute is dulcis;

Her oculus bright, her manus white

And soft, when I tacto, her pulse is.

O bow belle, my puella

I’ll kiss in secula seculorum;

If I’ve luck, sir, she’s my uxor,

O dies benedictorum.”

He made a courtly leg to me, blinked solemnly in his version of a wink, and strode off in his shirt.

9

TWO-THIRDS OF A GHOST

The surface of the river gleamed like oil, the water moving gently past without a ripple. There was a single lantern hung from the starboard bow; sitting on a low stool perched on the forward deck, I could see the light below, not so much reflected in the water as trapped under it, moving slowly side by side with the boat.

The moon was a faint sickle, making its feeble sweep through the treetops. Beyond the thick trees that lined the river, the ground fell away in broad sweeps of darkness, over the rice plantations and tobacco fields. The heat of the day was sucked down into the earth, glowing with unseen energy beneath the surface of the soil, the rich, fertile flatlands simmering in black heat behind the screen of pines and sweetgum trees, working the alchemy of water and trapped sun.

To move at all was to break a sweat. The air was tangible, each tiny ripple of warmth a caress against my face and arms.

There was a soft rustle in the dark behind me, and I reached up a hand, not turning to look. Jamie’s big hand closed gently over mine, squeezed and let go. Even that brief touch left my fingers damp with perspiration.

He eased himself down next to me with a sigh, plucking at the collar of his shirt.

“I dinna think I’ve breathed air since we left Georgia,” he said. “Every time I take a breath, I think I’ll maybe drown.”

I laughed, feeling a trickle of sweat snake down between my br**sts.

“It will be cooler in Cross Creek; everyone says so.” I took a deep breath myself, just to prove I could. “Doesn’t it smell wonderful, though?” The darkness released all the pungent green scents of the trees and plants along the water’s edge, mingling with the damp mud of the riverbank and the scent of sun-warmed wood from the deck of the boat.

“Ye’d have made a good dog, Sassenach.” He leaned back against the wall of the cabin with a sigh. “It’s no wonder yon beast admires ye so.”

The click of toenails on deckboards announced the arrival of Rollo, who advanced cautiously toward the rail, stopped a careful foot short of it, and lowered himself gingerly to the deck. He laid his nose on his paws and sighed deeply. Rollo disapproved almost as strongly of boats as Jamie did.

“Hullo there,” I said. I extended a hand for him to sniff, and he politely condescended to let me scratch his ears. “And where’s your master, eh?”

“In the cabin, bein’ taught new ways to cheat at cards,” Jamie said wryly. “God kens best what will happen to the lad; if he’s not shot or knocked on the head in some tavern, he’ll likely come home wi’ an ostrich he’s won at faro next.”

“Surely they haven’t either ostriches or faro games up in the mountains? If there aren’t any towns to speak of, surely there aren’t many taverns, either.”

“Well, I shouldna think so,” he admitted. “But if a man’s bound to go to the devil, he’ll find a way to do it, no matter where ye set him down.”

“I’m sure Ian isn’t going to the devil,” I replied soothingly. “He’s a fine boy.”

“He’s a man,” Jamie corrected. He cocked an ear toward the cabin, where I could hear muffled laughter and the occasional comfortable obscenity. “A damn young one, though, and fat-heided with it.” He looked at me, a rueful smile visible in the lantern light.

“If he were a wee lad yet, I could keep some rein on him. As it is—” He shrugged. “He’s old enough to mind his own business, and he’ll not thank me for sticking my nose in.”

“He always listens to you,” I protested.

“Mmphm. Wait till I tell him something he doesna want to hear.” He leaned his head against the wall, closing his eyes. Sweat gleamed across the high cheekbones, and a small trickle ran down the side of his neck.

Loading...