Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 32

   

A small, welcome breeze played across the deck, evaporating the clammy sweat on my face and lifting the ends of Jamie’s hair, drifting them across his face. I could see the small vertical line between his brows and the tilt of his head that indicated deep thought.

Little wonder if he was thinking. In one stroke, we had gone from riches—potential riches, at least—to rags, our well-equipped expedition reduced to a sack of beans and a used medicine chest. So much for his desire not to appear as beggars at Jocasta Cameron’s door—we were little more than that now.

My throat ached for him, pity replacing irritation. Beyond the question of his immediate pride, there was now a terrifying void in that unknown territory marked “The Future.” The future had been well open to question before, but the sharp edges of all such questions had been buffered by the comforting knowledge that we would have money to help accomplish our aims—whatever those turned out to be.

Even our penurious trip north had felt like an adventure, with the certain knowledge that we possessed a fortune, whether it was spendable or not. I had never before considered myself a person who placed much value on money, but having the certainty of security ripped away in this violent fashion had given me a sudden and quite unexpected attack of vertigo, as though I were falling down a long, dark well, powerless to stop.

What had it done to Jamie, who felt not only his danger and mine but the crushing responsibility of so many other lives? Ian, Fergus, Marsali, Duncan, the inhabitants of Lallybroch—even that bloody nuisance Laoghaire. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, thinking of the money Jamie had sent her; the vengeful creature was a good deal better off at present than we were.

At the thought of vengeance, I felt a new stab that displaced all lesser fears. While Jamie was not markedly vengeful—for a Scot—no Highlander would suffer a loss such as this with silent resignation; a loss not only of fortune but of honor. What might he feel compelled to do about it?

Jamie stared fixedly into the dark water, his mouth set; was he seeing once again the graveyard where, swayed by Duncan’s intoxicated sentimentality, he had agreed to help Bonnet escape?

It belatedly occurred to me that the financial aspects of the disaster likely had not yet entered Jamie’s mind—he was occupied in more bitter reflection; it was he who had helped Bonnet escape the hangman’s rope, and set him free to prey on the innocent. How many besides us would suffer because of that?

“You’re not to blame,” I said, touching his knee.

“Who else?” he said quietly, not looking at me. “I kent the man for what he was. I could have left him to the fate he’d earned—but I did not. I was a fool.”

“You were kind. It’s not the same thing.”

“Near enough.”

He breathed in deeply; the air was freshening with the scent of ozone; the rain was near. He reached for the cup of applejack and drank, then looked at me for the first time, holding up the cup inquiringly.

“Yes, thanks.” I struggled to sit up, but Jamie took me by the shoulders and lifted me to lean against him. He held the cup for me to drink, the blood-warm liquid sliding soft across my tongue, then taking fire as it slid down my throat, burning away the traces of sickness and tobacco, leaving in their place rum’s lingering taste of burning sugarcane.

“Better?”

I nodded, and held up my right hand. He slid the ring onto my finger, the metal warm from his hand. Then, folding down my fingers, he squeezed my fist hard in his own and held it, tight.

“Had he been following us since Charleston?” I wondered aloud.

Jamie shook his head. His hair was still loose, heavy waves falling forward to hide his face.

“I dinna think so. If he’d kent we had the jewels, he would have set upon us on the road before we reached Wilmington. No, I expect he learned it from one of Lillington’s servants. I thought we’d be safe enough, for we’d be away to Cross Creek before anyone heard of the gems. Someone talked, though—a footman; perhaps the sempstress who sewed your gown.”

His face was outwardly calm, but it always was, when he was hiding strong emotions. A sudden gust of hot wind shot sideways across the deck; the rain was getting closer. It whipped the loose ends of his hair across his cheek, and he wiped them back, running his fingers through the thick mass.

“I’m sorry for your other ring,” he said, after a moment.

“Oh. It’s—” I started to say “It’s all right,” but the words stuck in my throat, choked by the sudden realization of loss.

I had worn that gold ring for nearly thirty years; token of vows taken, forsaken, renewed, and at last absolved. A token of marriage, of family; of a large part of my life. And the last trace of Frank—whom, in spite of everything, I had loved.

Jamie didn’t say anything, but he took my left hand in his own and held it, lightly stroking my knuckles with his thumb. I didn’t speak either. I sighed deeply and turned my face toward the stern; the trees along the shore were shivering in a rising wind of anticipation, leaves rustling loudly enough to drown the sound of the vessel’s passage.

A small drop struck my cheek, but I didn’t move. My hand lay limp and white in his, looking unaccustomedly frail; it was something of a shock to see it that way.

I was used to paying a great deal of attention to my hands, one way and another. They were my tools, my channel of touch, mingling the delicacy and strength by which I healed. They had a certain beauty, which I admired in a detached sort of way, but it was the beauty of strength and competence, the assurance of power that made its form admirable.

It was the same hand now, pale and long-fingered, the knuckles slightly bony—oddly bare without my ring, but recognizably my hand. Yet it lay in a hand so much larger and rougher that it seemed small, and fragile by comparison.

His other hand squeezed tighter, pressing the metal of the silver ring into my flesh, reminding me of what remained. I lifted his fist and pressed it hard against my heart in answer. The rain began to fall, in large, wet drops, but neither of us moved.

It came in a rush, dropping a veil over boat and shore, pattering noisily on leaves and deck and water, lending a temporary illusion of concealment. It washed cool and soft across my skin, momentary balm on the wounds of fear and loss.

I felt at once horribly vulnerable and yet completely safe. But then—I had always felt that way with Jamie Fraser.

PART FOUR

River Run

10

JOCASTA

Cross Creek, North Carolina, June 1767

River Run stood by the edge of the Cape Fear, just above the confluence that gave Cross Creek its name. Cross Creek itself was good-sized, with a busy public wharf and several large warehouses lining the water’s edge. As the Sally Ann made her way slowly through the shipping lane, a strong, resinous smell hung over town and river, trapped by the hot, sticky air.

“Jesus, it’s like breathin’ turpentine,” Ian wheezed as a fresh wave of the stultifying reek washed over us.

“You is breathin’ turpentine, man.” Eutroclus’s rare smile flashed white and disappeared. He nodded toward a barge tethered to a piling by one of the wharfs. It was stacked with barrels, some of which showed a thick black ooze through split seams. Other, larger barrels bore the brandmarks of their owners, with a large “T” burned into the pinewood below.

“ ’At’s right,” Captain Freeman agreed. He squinted in the bright sunlight, waving one hand slowly in front of his nose, as though this might dispel the stink. “This time o’ year’s when the pitch-bilers come down from the backcountry. Pitch, turpentine, tar—bring it all down by barge t’ Wilmington, then send it on south to the shipyards at Charleston.”

“I shouldna think it’s all turpentine,” Jamie said. He mopped the back of his neck with a handkerchief and nodded toward the largest of the ware-houses, its door flanked by red-coated soldiers. “Smell it, Sassenach?”

I inhaled, cautiously. There was something else in the air here; a hot, familiar scent.

“Rum?” I said.

“And brandywine. And a bit of port, as well.” Jamie’s long nose twitched, sensitive as a mongoose’s. I looked at him in amusement.

“You haven’t lost it, have you?” Twenty years before, he had managed his cousin Jared’s wine business in Paris, and his nose and palate had been the awe of the winery tasting rooms.

He grinned.

“Oh, I expect I could still tell Moselle from horse piss, if ye held it right under my nose. But telling rum from turpentine is no great feat, is it?”

Ian drew a huge lungful of air and let it out, coughing.

“It all smells the same to me,” he said, shaking his head.

“Good,” said Jamie, “I’ll give ye turpentine next time I stand ye a drink. It’ll be a good deal cheaper.”

“Turpentine’s just about what I could afford now,” he added under cover of the laughter this remark caused. He straightened, brushing down the skirts of his coat. “We’ll be there soon. Do I look a terrible beggar, Sassenach?”

Seen with the sun glowing on his neatly ribboned hair, his darkened profile coin-stamped against the light, I privately thought he looked dazzling, but I had caught the faint tone of anxiety in his voice, and knew well enough what he meant. Penniless he might be, but he didn’t mean to look it.

I was well aware that the notion of appearing at his aunt’s door as a poor relation come a-begging stung his pride considerably. The fact that he had been forced into precisely that role didn’t make it any easier to bear.

I looked him over carefully. The coat and waistcoat were not spectacular, but quite acceptable, courtesy of Cousin Edwin; a quiet gray broadcloth with a good hand and an excellent fit, buttons not silver, but not of wood or bone either—a sober pewter, like a prosperous Quaker.

Not that the rest of him bore the slightest resemblance to a Quaker, I thought. The linen shirt was rather grubby, but as long as he kept his coat on, no one would notice, and the missing button on the waistcoat was hidden by the graceful fall of his lace jabot, the sole extravagance he had permitted himself in the way of wardrobe.

The stockings were all right; pale blue silk, no visible holes. The white linen breeches were tight, but not—not quite—indecent, and reasonably clean.

The shoes were the only real flaw in his ensemble; there had been no time to have any made. His were sound, and I had done my best to hide the scuff-marks with a mixture of soot and dripping, but they were clearly a farmer’s footwear, not a gentleman’s; thick-soled, made of rough leather, and with buckles of lowly horn. Still, I doubted that his aunt Jocasta would be looking at his feet first thing.

I stood on tiptoe to straighten his jabot, and brushed a floating down-feather off his shoulder.

“It will be all right,” I whispered back, smiling up at him. “You’re beautiful.”

He looked startled; then the expression of grim aloofness relaxed into a smile.

“You’re beautiful, Sassenach.” He leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. “You’re flushed as a wee apple; verra bonny.” He straightened up, glanced at Ian, and sighed.

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