Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 40

   

“Hush.” He laid his hand on mine and squeezed hard. His eyes held mine, and kept me from speaking.

“I am already part of it,” he said quietly. “It is my aunt’s property, her men involved. Mr. Campbell is right; I am her kinsman. It will be my duty to go—to see, at least. To be there.” He hesitated then, as though he might say more, but instead merely squeezed my hand again and let me go.

“Then I’m going with you.” I spoke quite calmly, with that eerie sense of detachment that comes with awareness of impending disaster.

His wide mouth twitched briefly.

“I did expect ye would, Sassenach. Go and fetch your wee box, aye? I’ll have the horses brought round.”

I didn’t wait to hear Mr. Campbell’s expostulations, but fled toward the stillroom, my slippers pattering on the tiles like the beat of an anxious heart.

We met Andrew MacNeill on the road, resting his horse in the shade of a chestnut tree. He had been waiting for us; he stepped out of the shadows at the sound of our hoofbeats. He nodded to Campbell as we halted by him, but his eyes were on me, frowning.

“Did you not tell him, Campbell?” he said, and turned the frown on Jamie. “It will be no affair for a woman, Mr. Fraser.”

“Ye called it a matter of bloodshed, did ye no?” Jamie said, a marked edge in his voice. “My wife is ban-lighiche; she has seen war wi’ me, and more. If ye wish me there, she will go with me.”

MacNeill’s lips pressed tight together, but he didn’t argue further. He turned abruptly and swung into his saddle.

“Acquaint us, MacNeill, with the history of this unfortunate affair.” Campbell urged his mare’s nose past the withers of Jamie’s horse, skillfully edging between MacNeill and Jamie. “Mr. Fraser is newly come, as you know, and your lad said only to me that it was bloodshed. I have no particulars.”

MacNeill’s burly shoulders rose slightly, shrugging toward the iron-gray pigtail that bisected his collar. His hat was jammed down on his head, set square with the shoulders, as though he had used a carpenter’s level to even it. A square, blunt man, MacNeill, in words as well as appearance.

Told in brief bursts as we trotted, it was a simple story. The sawmill’s overseer, Byrnes, had had an altercation with one of the turpentine slaves. This man, being armed with the large slash-knife appropriate to his occupation, had attempted to settle the matter by removing Byrnes’ head. Missing his aim, he had succeeded only in depriving the overseer of an ear.

“Barked him like a pine tree,” MacNeill said, a certain grim satisfaction apparent in his voice. “Took his lug and a wee bit o’ the side of his face, as well. Not that it will ha’ impaired his beauty ower-much, the ugly wee pusbag.”

I glanced toward Jamie, who lifted one eyebrow in response. Evidently Byrnes was no favorite with the local planters.

The overseer had shrieked for help, and with the assistance of two customers and several of their slaves, had succeeded in subduing his assailant. The wound stanched and the slave locked in a shed, young Donald MacNeill—who had come to have a saw blade set and found himself unexpectedly in the midst of drama—had been dispatched at once to spread the word to the plantation owners nearby.

“You’ll not know,” Campbell explained, twisting in his saddle to speak to Jamie. “When a slave must be executed, the slaves from those plantations nearby are brought to watch; a deterrent, aye? against future ill-considered action.”

“Indeed,” Jamie said politely. “I believe that was the Crown’s notion in executing my grandsire on Tower Hill after the Rising. Verra effective, too; all my relations have been quite well behaved since.”

I had lived long enough among Scots to appreciate the effects of that little jab. Jamie might have come at Campbell’s request, but the grandson of the Old Fox did no man’s bidding lightly—nor necessarily held English law in high regard.

MacNeill had got the message, all right; the back of his neck flushed turkey-red, but Farquard Campbell looked amused. He uttered a short, dry laugh before turning round.

“Which slave is it, d’ye know?” he asked the older man. MacNeill shook his head.

“Young Donald didna say. But ye ken as well as I do; it’ll be that bugger Rufus.”

Campbell’s shoulders slumped in acknowledgment.

“Jo will be sore pained to hear it,” he murmured, shaking his head regretfully.

“It’s her ain fault,” MacNeill said, brutally thwacking a horsefly that had settled on his leg above the boot. “Yon Byrnes isna fit to mind pigs, let alone run Negroes. I’ve told her often enough; so’ve you.”

“Aye, but Hector hired the man, not Jo,” Campbell protested mildly. “And she couldna well dismiss him out of hand. What’s she to do, then, come and manage the place herself?”

The answer was a grunt as MacNeill shifted his broad buttocks in the saddle. I glanced at Jamie, and found him poker-faced, eyes hidden in the shadow under the brim of his hat.

“There’s little worse than a willful woman,” MacNeill said, a trifle louder than strictly necessary. “They’ve none to blame save themselves if harm comes to them.”

“Whereas,” I chipped in, leaning forward and raising my own voice enough to be heard over the clop and creak of the horses, “if harm comes to them because of some man, the satisfaction of blaming him will be adequate compensation?”

Jamie snorted briefly with amusement; Campbell cackled out loud and poked MacNeill in the ribs with his crop.

“Got ye there, Andrew!” he said.

MacNeill did not reply, but his neck grew even redder. We rode in silence after that, MacNeill’s shoulders hunched just under his ears.

While mildly satisfying, this exchange did nothing to settle my nerves; my stomach was knotted in dread of what might happen when we reached the mill. Despite their dislike of Byrnes and the obvious assumption that whatever had happened had likely been the overseer’s fault, there wasn’t the slightest suggestion that this would alter the slave’s fate in any way.

“A bad law,” Campbell had called it—but the law nonetheless. Still, it was neither outrage nor horror at the thought of judicial atrocity that made my hands tremble and the leather reins slick with sweat; it was wondering what Jamie would do.

I could tell nothing from his face. He rode relaxed, left hand on the reins, the right curled loosely on his thigh, near the bulge of the pistol in his coat.

I was not even sure whether I could take comfort in the fact that he had allowed me to come with him. That might mean that he didn’t expect to commit violence—but in that case, did it mean he would stand by and let the execution happen?

And if he did…? My mouth was dry, my nose and throat choked with the soft brown dust that rose in clouds from the horses’ hooves.

I am already part of it. Part of what, though? Of clan and family, yes—but of this? Highlanders would fight to the death for any cause that touched their honor or stirred their blood, but they were for the most part indifferent to outside matters. Centuries of isolation in their mountain fastnesses had left them disinclined to meddle in the affairs of others—but woe to any who meddled in theirs!

Plainly Campbell and MacNeill saw this as Jamie’s affair—but did he? Jamie was not an isolated Highlander, I assured myself. He was well traveled, well educated, a cultured man. And he knew damn well what I thought of present matters. I had the terrible feeling, though, that my opinion would count for very little in the reckoning of this day.

It was a hot and windless afternoon, with cicadas buzzing loudly in the weeds along the road, but my fingers were cold, and stiff on the reins. We had passed one or two other parties; small groups of slaves, moving on foot in the direction of the sawmill. They didn’t look up as we passed, but melted aside into the bushes, making room as we cantered past.

Jamie’s hat flew off, knocked by a low branch; he caught it deftly and clapped it back on his head, but not before I had caught a glimpse of his face, unguarded for a moment, the lines of it tense with anxiety. With a small shock, it occurred to me that he didn’t know what he was going to do either. And that frightened me more than anything else so far.

We were suddenly in the pine forest; the yellow-green flicker of hickory and alder leaves gave way abruptly to the darker light of cool deep green, like moving from the surface of the ocean into the calmer depths.

I reached back to touch the wooden case strapped on behind my saddle, trying to avoid thinking of what might lie ahead, by making mental preparations for the only role I might reasonably play in this incipient disaster. I likely could not prevent damage; but I could try to repair what had happened already. Disinfection and cleansing—I had a bottle of distilled alcohol, and a wash made from pressed garlic juice and mint. Then dress the wound—yes, I had linen bandages—but surely it would need stitching first?

In the midst of wondering what had been done with Byrnes’ detached ear, I stopped. The buzzing in my own ears was not from cicadas. Campbell, in the lead, reined up sharply, listening, and the rest of us halted behind him.

Voices in the distance, lots of voices, in a deep, angry buzz, like a hive of bees turned upside down and shaken. Then there was the faint sound of shouts and screams, and the sudden loud report of a shot.

We galloped down the last slope, dodging trees, and thundered into the sawmill’s clearing. The open ground was filled with people; slaves and bondsmen, women and children, milling in panic through the stacks of sawn lumber, like termites exposed by the swing of an ax.

Then I lost all consciousness of the crowd. All my attention was fixed at the side of the mill, where a crane hoist was rigged, with a huge curved hook for raising logs to the level of the saw bed.

Impaled on the hook was the body of a black man, twisting in horrid imitation of a worm. The smell of blood struck sweet and hot through the air; there was a pool of it on the platform below the hoist.

My horse stopped, fidgeting, obstructed by the crowd. The shouts had died away into moans and small, disconnected screams from women in the crowd. I saw Jamie slide off in front of me, and force his way through the press of bodies toward the platform. Campbell and MacNeill were with him, shoving grimly through the mob. MacNeill’s hat fell off, unregarded, to be trampled underfoot.

I sat frozen in my saddle, unable to move. There were other men on the platform near the hoist; a small man whose head was wound grotesquely round with bandages, splotched with blood all down one side; several other men, white and mulatto, armed with clubs and muskets, making occasional threatening jabs at the crowd.

Not that there seemed any urge to rush the platform; to the contrary, there seemed a general urge to get away. The faces around me were stamped with expressions ranging from fear to shocked dismay, with only here and there a flash of anger—or satisfaction.

Farquard Campbell emerged from the press, boosted onto the platform by MacNeill’s sturdy shoulder, and advanced at once on the men with clubs, waving his arms and shouting something I couldn’t hear, though the screams and moans around me were dying away into the silence of shock. Jamie seized the edge of the platform and lifted himself up after Campbell, pausing to give a hand to MacNeill.

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