Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 41

   

Campbell was face-to-face with Byrnes, his lean cheeks convulsed with fury.

“…unspeakable brutality!” he was shouting. His words came unevenly, half swallowed in the shuffle and murmur around me, but I saw him jab a finger emphatically at the hoist and its grisly burden. The slave had stopped struggling; he hung inert.

The overseer’s face was invisible, but his body was stiff with outrage and defiance. One or two of his friends moved slowly toward him, plainly meaning to offer support.

I saw Jamie stand for a moment, assessing events. He drew both pistols from his coat, and coolly checked the priming. Then he stepped forward, and clapped one to Byrnes’ bandaged head. The overseer went rigid with surprise.

“Bring him down,” Jamie said to the nearest thug, loudly enough to be audible over the dying grumbles of the crowd. “Or I blow off what’s left o’ your friend’s face. And then—” He raised the second pistol and aimed it squarely at the man’s chest. The expression on Jamie’s own face made further threats unnecessary.

The man moved reluctantly, narrowed eyes fixed on the pistol. He took hold of the brake-handle of the winch that controlled the hoist, and pulled it back. The hook descended slowly, its cable taut with the strain of its burden. There was a massive sigh from the spectators as the limp body touched the earth.

I had managed to urge my horse forward through the crowd, till I was within a foot or two of the end of the platform. The horse shied and stamped, tossing his head and snorting at the strong smell of blood, but was well trained enough not to bolt. I slid off, ordering a man nearby to bring my box.

The boards of the platform felt strange underfoot, heaving like the dry land does when one steps off a ship. It was no more than a few steps to where the slave lay; by the time I reached him, that cold clarity of mind that is the surgeon’s chief resource had come upon me. I paid no heed to the heated arguments behind me, or to the presence of the remaining spectators.

He was alive; his chest moved in small, jerky gasps. The hook had pierced the stomach, passing through the lower rib cage, emerging from the back at about the level of the kidneys. The man’s skin was an unearthly shade of dark blue-gray, his lips blanched to the color of clay.

“Hush,” I said softly, though there was no sound from the slave save the small hiss of his breath. His eyes were pools of incomprehension, pupils dilated, swamped with darkness.

There was no blood from his mouth; the lungs were not punctured. The breathing was shallow, but rhythmic; the diaphragm had not been pierced. My hands moved gently over him, my mind trying to follow the path of the damage. Blood oozed from both wounds, flowed in a black slick over the ridged muscles of back and stomach, shone red as rubies on the polished steel. No spurting; they had somehow missed both abdominal aorta and the renal artery.

Behind me, a heated argument had broken out; some small, detached portion of my mind noted that Byrnes’ companions were his fellow overseers from two neighboring plantations, presently being rebuked with vigor by Farquard Campbell.

“…blatant disregard of the law! You shall answer for it in court, gentlemen, be assured that you shall!”

“What does it matter?” came a sullen rumble from someone. “It’s bloodshed—and mutilation! Byrnes has his rights!”

“Rights no for the likes of you to decide.” MacNeill’s deep growl joined in. “Rabble, that’s what ye are, no better than the—”

“And where d’you get off, old man, stickin’ your long Scotch nose in where it’s not wanted, eh?”

“What will ye need, Sassenach?”

I hadn’t heard him come up beside me, but he was there. Jamie crouched next to me, my box open on the boards beside him. He held a loaded pistol still in one hand, his attention mostly on the group behind me.

“I don’t know,” I said. I could hear the argument going on in the background, but the words blurred into meaninglessness. The only reality was under my hands.

It was slowly dawning on me that the man I touched was possibly not fatally wounded, in spite of his horrible injury. From everything I could sense and feel, I thought that the curve of the hook had gone upward through the liver. Likely the right kidney was damaged, and the jejunum or gallbladder might be nicked—but none of those would kill him immediately.

It was shock that might do for him, if he was to die quickly. But I could see a pulse throbbing in the sweat-slick abdomen, just above the piercing steel. It was fast, but steady as a drumbeat; I could feel it echo in the tips of my fingers when I placed a hand on it. He had lost blood—the scent of it was thick, overpowering the smell of sweat and fear—but not so much as to doom him.

An unsettling thought came to me—I might be able to keep this man alive. Likely not; in the wake of the thought came a flood of all the things that could go wrong—hemorrhage when I removed the hook being only the most immediate. Internal bleeding, delayed shock, perforated intestine, peritonitis—and yet.

At Prestonpans, I had seen a man pierced through the body with a sword, the location of the wound very much like this. He had received no treatment beyond a bandage wrapped around his body—and yet he had recovered.

“Lawlessness!” Campbell was saying, his voice rising over the babble of argument. “It cannot be tolerated, no matter the provocation. I shall have you all taken in charge, be sure of it!”

No one was paying any attention to the true object of the discussion. Only seconds had passed—but I had only seconds more to act. I placed a hand on Jamie’s arm, pulling his attention away from the debate.

“If I save him, will they let him live?” I asked him, under my breath.

His eyes flicked from one to another of the men behind me, weighing the possibilities.

“No,” he said softly. His eyes met mine, dark with understanding. His shoulders straightened slightly, and he laid the pistol across his thigh. I could not help him make his choice; he could not help with mine—but he would defend me, whichever choice I made.

“Give me the third bottle from the left, top row,” I said, with a nod at the lid of the box, where three rows of clear glass bottles, firmly corked, held a variety of medicines.

I had two bottles of pure alcohol, another of brandy. I poured a good dose of the brownish powdered root into the brandy, and shook it briskly, then crawled to the man’s head and pressed it to his lips.

His eyes were glazed; I tried to look into them, to make him see me. Why? I wondered, even as I leaned close and called his name. I couldn’t ask if this would be his choice—I had made it for him. And having made it, could not ask for either approval or forgiveness.

He swallowed. Once. Twice. The muscles near his blanched mouth quivered; drops of brandy ran across his skin. Once more a deep convulsive gulp, and then his straining neck relaxed, his head heavy on my arm.

I sat with my eyes closed, supporting his head, my fingers on the pulse under his ear. It jumped; skipped a beat and resumed. A shiver ran over his body, the blotched skin twitching as though a thousand ants ran over it.

The textbook description ran through my mind:

Numbness. Tingling. A sensation of the skin crawling, as though affected by insects. Nausea, epigastric pain. Labored breathing, skin cold and clammy, features bloodless. Pulse feeble and irregular, yet the mind remains clear.

None of the visible symptoms were discernible from those he already showed. Epigastric pain, forsooth.

One-fiftieth grain will kill a sparrow in a few seconds. One-tenth grain, a rabbit in five minutes. Aconite was said to be the poison in the cup Medea prepared for Theseus.

I tried to hear nothing, feel nothing, know nothing but the jerky beat beneath my fingers. I tried with all my might to shut out the voices overhead, the murmur nearby, the heat and dust and stink of blood, to forget where I was, and what I was doing.

Yet the mind remains clear.

Oh, God, I thought. It did.

12

THE RETURN OF JOHN QUINCY MYERS

Deeply shaken by the events at the sawmill, Jocasta nonetheless declared her intention of carrying on with the party she had planned.

“It will distract our minds from the sadness,” she said firmly. She turned to me, and reaching out, critically fingered the muslin cloth of my sleeve.

“I’ll call Phaedre to begin a new gown for ye,” she said. “The girl’s a fine sempstress.”

I rather thought it would take more than a new gown and a dinner party to distract my mind, but I caught a warning glance from Jamie and shut my mouth hard to keep the words inside.

In the event, given the shortness of time and a lack of suitable fabric, Jocasta decided to have one of her gowns remade for me.

“How does it look, Phaedre?” Jocasta frowned in my direction, as though she could summon vision by pure will. “Will it do?”

“Do fine,” the maid answered around a mouthful of pins. She thrust in three in quick succession, squinted at me, pinched up a fold of fabric at the waistline and stabbed in two more.

“Be just fine,” she elaborated, mouth now clear. “She shorter than you, Miss Jo, and a bit thinner in the waist. Some bigger in the bosom, though,” Phadre added in an undertone, grinning at me.

“Yes, I know that.” Jocasta spoke tartly, having caught the whisper. “Slash the bodice; we can fill it with Valenciennes lace over a field of green silk—take a scrap from that old dressing gown of my husband’s; it will be the right color to complement this.” She touched the sleeve, with its brilliant green striping. “Band the slash with the green silk, too; it will show off her bosom.” The long pale fingers indicated the line of alteration, drifting across the tops of my br**sts almost absentmindedly. The touch was cool, impersonal and barely felt, but I narrowly prevented myself jerking back.

“You have a most remarkable memory for color,” I said, surprised and slightly unnerved.

“Oh, I remember this dress very well,” she said. She touched the full sleeve lightly. “A gentleman once told me I reminded him of Persephone in it; springtime incarnate, he said.” A faint smile of memory lit her face, then was erased as she lifted her head toward me.

“What color is your hair, my dear? I hadna thought to ask. You sound a bit blond, somehow, but I’ve no notion whether that may be actually the case. Pray, do not tell me ye’re black-haired and sallow!” She smiled, but the joke sounded somehow like a command.

“It’s more or less brown,” I said, touching my hair self-consciously. “Faded a bit, though; it’s gone light in streaks.”

She frowned at this, seeming to consider whether brown was quite suitable. Unable to settle the question for herself, she turned to the maid.

“How does she look, Phaedre?”

The woman took a step back and squinted at me. I realized that she must—as the other house servants were—be in the habit of giving careful descriptions to her mistress. The dark eyes passed swiftly over me, pausing on my face for a long moment of assessment. She took two pins from her mouth before replying.

“Just fine, Miss Jo,” Phaedre said. She nodded once, slowly. “Just fine,” she said again. “She got white skin, white as skim milk; looks real fine with that bright green.”

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