Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 35

   

He looked at me with raised brows, but nodded with respect.

“Aye, mum, that it was. ’Twas a month past, I heard the lass let out a rare skelloch, and such a kebbie-lebbie o’ bangin’ and crashin’, as ye’d think the whole stable was comin’ doon aboot my head. When I rushed to see the trouble, I found the bloody corpse of a great poison snake lyin’ crushed in the straw beneath the manger. The manger was dashit all to pieces, and the wee lassie quiverin’ in the corner, the blood streamin’ doon her leg from a splinter where she’d caught herself.” He glanced at the horse with obvious pride. “Och, such a brave wee creature as ye are, lass!”

“The ‘great poison snake’ was perhaps a foot long,” Jocasta said to me in an dry undertone. “And a simple green gardensnake, forbye. But the foolish thing’s got a morbid dread o’ snakes. Let her see one, and she loses her head entirely.” She cocked her head in the direction of the young groom and smiled. “Wee Josh is none so fond o’ them, either, is he?”

The groom grinned in answer.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “I canna thole the creatures, nay more than my lassie.”

Ian, who had been listening to this exchange, couldn’t hold back his curiosity any longer.

“Where d’ye come from, man?” he asked the groom, peering at the young man in fascination.

Josh wrinkled his brow.

“Come from? I dinna come—oh, aye, I tak’ your meaning now. I was born upriver, on Mr. George Burnett’s place. Miss Jo bought me twa year past, at Eastertide.”

“And I think we may assume that Mr. Burnett himself was conceived within crow’s flight of Aberdeen,” Jamie said softly to me. “Aye?”

River Run took in quite a large territory, including not only its prime riverfront acreage but a substantial chunk of the longleaf pine forest that covered a third of the colony. In addition, Hector Cameron had cannily acquired land containing a wide creek, one of many that flowed into Cape Fear.

Thus provided not only with the valuable commodities of timber, pitch, and turpentine but with a convenient means of getting them to market, it was little wonder that River Run had prospered, even though it produced only modest quantities of tobacco and indigo—though the fragrant fields of green tobacco through which we rode looked more than modest to me.

“There’s a wee mill,” Jocasta was explaining, as we rode. “Just above the joining of the creek and the river. The sawing and shaping are done there, and then the boards and barrels are sent downriver by barge to Wilmington. It’s no great distance from the house to the mill by water, if ye choose to row upstream, but I thought to show ye a bit of the country instead.” She breathed the pine-scented air with pleasure. “It’s been a time since I was out, myself.”

It was pleasant country. Once in the pine forest, it was much cooler, the sun blocked out by the clustered needles overhead. Far overhead the trunks of the trees soared upward for twenty or thirty feet before branching out—no great surprise to hear that the largest part of the mill’s output was masts and spars, made for the Royal Navy.

River Run did a great deal of business with the navy, it seemed, judging from Jocasta’s conversation; masts, spars, laths, timbers, pitch, turpentine, and tar. Jamie rode close by her side, listening intently as she explained everything in detail, leaving me and Ian to trail behind. Evidently, she had worked closely with her husband in building River Run; I wondered how she managed the place by herself, now that he was gone.

“Look!” Ian said, pointing. “What’s that?”

I pulled up and walked my horse, along with his, to the tree he had pointed out. A great slab of bark had been taken off, exposing the inner wood for a stretch of four feet or more on one side. Within this area, the yellow-white wood was crosshatched in a sort of herringbone pattern, as though it had been slashed back and forth with a knife.

“We’re near,” Jocasta said. Jamie had seen us stop, and they had ridden back to join us. “That will be a turpentine tree you’re seeing; I smell it.”

We all could; the scent of cut wood and pungent resin was so strong that even I could have found the tree blindfolded. Now that we had stopped, I could hear noises in the distance; the rumblings and thumps of men at work, the chunk of an ax and voices calling back and forth. Breathing in, I also caught a whiff of something burning.

Jocasta edged Corinna close to the cut tree.

“Here,” she said, touching the bottom of the cut, where a rough hollow had been chiseled out of the wood. “We call it the box; that’s where the sap and the raw turpentine drip down and collect. This one is nearly full; there’ll be a slave along soon to dip it out.”

No sooner had she spoken than a man appeared through the trees; a slave dressed in no more than a loincloth, leading a large white mule with a broad strap slung across its back, a barrel suspended on either side. The mule stopped dead when he saw us, flung back his head, and brayed hysterically.

“That will be Clarence,” Jocasta said, loudly enough to be heard above the noise. “He likes to see folk. And who is that with him? Is it you, Pompey?”

“Yah’m. S’me.” The slave gripped the mule by the upper lip and gave it a vicious twist. “Lea’f, vassar!” As I made the mental translation of this expression into “Leave off, you bastard!” the man turned toward us, and I saw that his slurred speech was caused by the fact that the lower left half of his jaw was gone; his face below the cheekbone simply fell away into a deep depression filled with white scar tissue.

Jocasta must have heard my gasp of shock—or only have expected such a response—for she turned her blindfold toward me.

“It was a pitch explosion—fortunate he was not killed. Come, we’re near the works.” Without waiting for her groom, she turned her horse’s head expertly, and made off through the trees, toward the scent of burning.

The contrast of the turpentine works with the quiet of the forest was amazing; a large clearing full of people, all in a hum of activity. Most were slaves, dressed in the minimum of clothing, limbs and bodies smudged with charcoal.

“Is anyone at the sheds?” Jocasta turned her head toward me.

I rose in my stirrups to look; at the far side of the clearing, near a row of ramshackle sheds, I caught a flash of color; three men in the uniform of the British Navy, and another in a bottle-green coat.

“That will be my particular friend,” Jocasta said, smiling in satisfaction at my description. “Mr. Farquard Campbell. Come, Nephew; I should like ye to meet him.”

Seen up close, Campbell proved to be a man of sixty or so, no more than middle height, but with that particular brand of leathery toughness that some Scotsmen exhibit as they age—not so much a weathering as a tanning process that results in a surface like a leather targe, capable of turning the sharpest blade.

Campbell greeted Jocasta with pleasure, bowed courteously to me, acknowledged Ian with the flick of a brow, then turned the full force of his shrewd gray eyes on Jamie.

“It’s verra pleased I am that you’re here, Mr. Fraser,” he said, extending his hand. “Verra pleased, indeed. I’ve heard a deal about ye, ever since your aunt learned of your intentions to visit River Run.”

He appeared sincerely delighted to meet Jamie, which struck me as odd. Not that most people weren’t happy to meet Jamie—he was quite a prepossessing man, if I did say so—but there was an air almost of relief in Campbell’s effusive greeting, which seemed unusual for someone whose outward appearance was entirely one of reserve and taciturnity.

If Jamie noticed anything odd, he hid his puzzlement behind a facade of courtesy.

“I’m flattered that ye should have spared a moment’s thought to me, Mr. Campbell.” Jamie smiled pleasantly, and bowed toward the naval officers. “Gentlemen? I am pleased to make your acquaintance, as well.”

Thus given an opening, a chubby, frowning little person named Lieutenant Wolff and his two ensigns made their introductions, and after perfunctory bows, dismissed me and Jocasta from mind and conversation, turning their attention at once to a discussion of board feet and gallons.

Jamie lifted one eyebrow at me, with a slight nod toward Jocasta, suggesting in marital shorthand that I take his aunt and bugger off while business was conducted.

Jocasta, however, showed not the slightest inclination to remove herself.

“Do go on, my dear,” she urged me. “Josh will show ye everything. I’ll just wait in the shade whilst the gentlemen conduct their business; the heat’s a bit much for me, I’m afraid.”

The men had sat down to discuss business inside an open-fronted shed that boasted a crude table with a number of stools; presumably this was where the slaves took their meals, suffering the blackflies for the sake of air. Another shed served for storage; the third, which was enclosed, I deduced must be the sleeping quarters.

Beyond the sheds, toward the center of the clearing, were two or three large fires, over which huge kettles steamed in the sunshine, suspended from tripods.

“They’ll be cookin’ doon the turpentine, a-boilin’ it intae pitch,” Josh explained, taking me within eyeshot of one of the kettles. “Some is put intae the barrels as is”—he nodded toward the sheds, where a wagon was parked, piled high with barrels—“but the rest is made intae pitch. The naval gentlemen will be sayin’ how much they’ll be needin’, so as we’ll know.”

A small boy of seven or eight was perched on a high, rickety stool, stirring the pot with a long stick; a taller youth stood by with an enormous ladle, with which he removed the lighter layer of purified turpentine at the top of the kettle, depositing this in a barrel to one side.

As I watched them, a slave came out of the forest, leading a mule, and headed for the kettle. Another man came to help, and together they unloaded the barrels—plainly heavy—from the mule, and upended them into the kettle, one at a time, with a great whoosh of pungent yellowish pinesap.

“Och, ye’ll want to stand back a bit, mum,” Josh said, taking my arm to draw me away from the fire. “The stuff does splash a bit, and happen it should take fire, ye wouldna want to be burnt.”

Having seen the man in the forest, I most certainly didn’t want to be burned. I drew away, and glanced back at the sheds. Jamie, Mr. Campbell, and the naval men were sitting on stools around a table inside one hut, sharing something from a bottle and poking at a sheaf of papers on the table.

Standing pressed against the shed wall, out of sight of the men within, was Jocasta Cameron. Having abandoned her pretense of exhaustion, she was plainly listening for all she was worth.

Josh caught the expression of surprise on my face, and turned to see what I was looking at.

“Miss Jo does hate not to have the charge o’ things,” he murmured regretfully. “I havena haird her myself, but yon lass Phaedre did say as how Mistress takes on when she canna manage something—a’rantin’ dreadful, she says, and stampin’ something fierce.”

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