Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 51

   

While every inn brewed its own beer, and every household had its receipts for applejack and cherry-wine, the more potent spirits were the province of the Crown: brandy, whisky, and rum were imported to the colony in small quantities under heavy guard, and sold at great cost under the Crown’s seal.

“I should say they haven’t got much in stock right now,” I said, nodding at the single guard.

“No, the shipments of liquor come upstream from Wilmington once a month. Campbell says they choose a different day each time, so as to run less risk of robbery.”

He spoke abstractedly, a small frown lingering between his eyebrows.

“Did Campbell believe us, do you think? About her doing it herself?” Without really meaning to, I cast a half glance into the wagon behind me.

Jamie made a derisory Scottish noise in the back of his throat.

“Of course not, Sassenach; the man’s no a fool. But he’s a good friend to my aunt; he’ll not make trouble if he doesn’t have to. Let’s hope the woman had no one who’ll make a fuss.”

“Rather a cold-blooded hope,” I said quietly. “I thought you felt differently, in your aunt’s drawing room. You’re probably right, though; if she’d had someone, she wouldn’t be dead now.”

He heard the bitterness in my voice, and looked down at me.

“I dinna mean to be callous, Sassenach,” he said gently. “But the poor lassie is dead. I canna do more for her than see her decently into the ground; it’s the living I must take heed for, aye?”

I heaved a sigh and squeezed his arm briefly. My feelings were a good deal too complex to try to explain; I had known the girl no more than minutes before her death, and could in no way have prevented it—but she had died under my hands, and I felt the physician’s futile rage in such circumstances; the feeling that somehow I had failed, had been outwitted by the Dark Angel. And beyond rage and pity, was an echo of unspoken guilt; the girl was near Brianna’s age—Brianna, who in like circumstances would also have no one.

“I know. It’s only…I suppose I feel responsible for her, in a way.”

“So do I,” he said. “Never fear, Sassenach; we’ll see she’s done rightly by.” He reined the horses in under a chestnut tree, and swung down, offering me a hand.

There were no barracks; Campbell had told Jamie that the warehouse guard’s ten men were quartered in various houses in the town. Upon inquiry of the clerk laboring in the office, we were directed across the street to the sign of the Golden Goose, wherein the Sergeant might presently be found at his luncheon.

I saw the Sergeant in question at once as I entered the tavern; he was sitting at a table by the window, his white leather stock undone and his tunic unbuttoned, looking thoroughly relaxed over a mug of ale and the remains of a Cornish pasty. Jamie came in behind me, his shadow momentarily blocking the light from the open door, and the Sergeant looked up.

Dim as it was in the taproom, I could see the man’s face go blank with shock. Jamie came to an abrupt halt behind me. He said something in Gaelic under his breath that I recognized as a vicious obscenity, but then he was moving forward past me, with no sign of hesitation in his manner.

“Sergeant Murchison,” he said, in tones of mild surprise, as one might greet a casual acquaintance. “I hadna thought to lay eyes on you again—not in this world, at least.”

The Sergeant’s expression strongly suggested that the feeling had been mutual. Also that any meeting this side of heaven was too soon. Blood flooded his beefy, pockmarked cheeks with red, and he shoved back his bench with a screech of wood on the sanded floor.

“You!” he said.

Jamie took off his hat and inclined his head politely.

“Your servant, sir,” he said. I could see his face now, outwardly pleasant, but with a wariness that creased the corners of his eyes. He showed it a good deal less, but the Sergeant wasn’t the only one to be taken aback.

Murchison was regaining his self-possession; the look of shock was replaced by a faint sneer.

“Fraser. Oh, beg pardon, Mr. Fraser, it will be now, won’t it?”

“It will.” Jamie kept his voice neutral, despite the insulting tone of this. Whatever past conflict lay between them, the last thing he wanted now was trouble. Not with what lay in the wagon outside. I wiped my sweaty palms surreptitiously on my skirt.

The Sergeant had begun to do up his tunic buttons, slowly, not taking his eyes off Jamie.

“I had heard there was a man called Fraser, come to leech off Mistress Cameron at River Run,” he said, with an unpleasant twist of thick lips. “That’ll be you, will it?”

The wariness in Jamie’s eyes froze into a blue as cold as glacier ice, though his lips stayed curved in a pleasant smile.

“Mistress Cameron will be my kinswoman. It is on her behalf that I have come now.”

The Sergeant tilted back his head and scratched voluptuously at his throat. There was a deep, hard-edged red crease across the expanse of fat pale flesh, as though someone had tried unsuccessfully to garrote the man.

“Your kinswoman. Well, easy to say so, ain’t it? The lady’s blind as a bat, I hear. No husband, no sons; fair prey for any sharpster comes a-calling, claiming family.” The sergeant lowered his head and smirked at me, his self-possession fully restored.

“And this’ll be your doxy, will it?” It was gratuitous malice, a shot at random; the man had scarcely glanced at me.

“This will be my wife, Mistress Fraser.”

I could see the two stiff fingers of Jamie’s right hand twitch once against the skirt of his coat, the only outward sign of his feelings. He tilted his head back an inch and raised his brows, considering the Sergeant with an air of dispassionate interest.

“And which one are you, sir? I beg pardon for my imperfect recollection, but I confess that I cannot tell you from your brother.”

The Sergeant stopped as though he had been shot, frozen in the act of fastening his stock.

“Damn you!” he said, choking on the words. His face had gone an unhealthy shade of plum, and I thought that he ought really to mind his blood pressure. I didn’t say so, though.

At this point, the Sergeant seemed to notice that everyone in the taproom was staring at him with great interest. He glared ferociously around him, snatched up his hat, and stamped toward the door, pushing past me as he went, so that I staggered back a pace.

Jamie grabbed my arm to steady me, then ducked beneath the lintel himself. I followed, in time to see him call after the Sergeant.

“Murchison! A word with you!”

The soldier whirled on his heel, hands fisted against the skirts of his scarlet coat. He was a good-sized man, thick through torso and shoulder, and the uniform became him. His eyes glittered with menace, but he had gained possession of himself again.

“A word, is it?” he said. “And what might you have to say to me, Mister Fraser?”

“A word in your professional capacity, Sergeant,” Jamie said coolly. He nodded toward the wagon, which we had left beneath a nearby tree. “We’ve brought ye a corpse.”

For the second time, the Sergeant’s face went blank. He glanced at the wagon; flies and gnats had begun to gather in small clouds, circling lazily over the open bed.

“Indeed.” He was a professional; while the hostility of his manner was undiminished, the hot blood faded from his face, and the clenched fists relaxed.

“A corpse? Whose?”

“I have no idea, sir. It was my hope that you might be able to tell us. Will ye look?” He nodded toward the wagon, and after a moment’s hesitation, the Sergeant nodded briefly back, and strode toward the wagon.

I hurried after Jamie, and was in time to see the Sergeant’s face as he drew back the corner of the makeshift shroud. He had no skill at all in hiding his feelings—perhaps in his profession it wasn’t necessary. Shock flickered over his face like summer lightning.

Jamie, could see the Sergeant’s face as well as I.

“Ye’ll know her, then?” he said.

“I—she—that is…yes, I know her.” The Sergeant’s mouth snapped shut abruptly, as though he was afraid to let any more words out. He continued to stare at the girl’s dead face, his own tightening, freezing out all feeling.

A few men had followed us out of the tavern. While they stayed at a discreet distance, two or three were craning their necks with curiosity. It wasn’t going to be long before the whole district knew what had happened at the mill. I hoped Duncan and Ian were well on their way.

“What has happened to her?” the Sergeant asked, staring down at the fixed white face. His own was nearly as pale.

Jamie was watching him intently, and making no pretense otherwise.

“You’ll know her, then?” he said again.

“She is—she was—a laundress. Lissa—Lissa Garver is her name.” The Sergeant spoke mechanically, still looking down into the wagon as though unable to tear his eyes away. His face was expressionless but his lips were white, and his hands were clenched into fists at his sides. “What happened?”

“Has she people in the town? A husband, maybe?”

It was a reasonable question, but Murchison’s head jerked up as though Jamie had stabbed him with it.

“None of your concern, is it?” he said. He stared at Jamie, a thin rim of white visible around the iris of his eye. He bared his teeth in what might have been politeness, but wasn’t. “Tell me what happened to her.”

Jamie’s eyes met the Sergeant’s without blinking.

“She meant to slip a bairn, and it went wrong,” he said quietly. “If she has a husband, he must be told. If not—if she has no people—I will see her decently buried.”

Murchison turned his head to look down into the wagon once more.

“She has someone,” he said shortly. “You need not trouble yourself.” He turned away, and rubbed a hand over his face, scrubbing violently as though to wipe away all feeling. “Go to my office,” he said, voice half muffled. “You must make a statement—see the clerk. Go!”

The office was empty, the clerk no doubt gone in search of his own luncheon. I sat down to wait, but Jamie prowled restlessly around the small room, eyes flitting from the regimental banners on the wall to the drawered cabinet in the corner behind the desk.

“Damn the luck,” he said, half to himself. “It would have to be Murchison.”

“I take it you know the Sergeant well?”

He glanced at me with a wry quirk of the lips.

“Well enough. He was in the garrison at Ardsmuir prison.”

“I see.” No love lost between them, then. It was close in the little office; I blotted a trickle of sweat that ran down between my br**sts. “What do you suppose he’s doing here?”

“That much I ken; he was sent in charge of the prisoners when they were transported to be sold. I imagine the Crown saw no good reason to bring him back to England, when there was need of soldiers here—that would have been during the war wi’ the French, aye?”

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