Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 52

   

“What was that business about his brother?”

He snorted, a brief, humorless sound.

“There were two o’ them—twins. Wee Billy and Wee Bobby, we called them. Alike as peas, and not only in looks.”

He paused, marshaling memories. He didn’t often speak of his time in Ardsmuir, and I could see the shadows of it pass across his face.

“Ye’ll maybe know the sort of man is decent enough on his own, but get him wi’ others like him, and they might as well be wolves?”

“Bit hard on the wolves,” I said, smiling. “Think of Rollo. But yes, I know what you mean.”

“Pigs, then. But beasts, when they’re together. There’s no lack of such men in any army; it’s why armies work—men will do terrible things in a mob, that they wouldna dream of on their own.”

“And the Murchisons were never on their own?” I asked slowly.

He gave me a slight nod of acknowledgment.

“Aye, that’s it. There were the two of them, always. And what one might scruple at, the other would not. And of course, when it came to trouble—why, there was no saying which was to blame, was there?”

He was still prowling, restless as a caged panther. He paused by the window, looking out.

“I—the prisoners—we might complain of ill-treatment, but the officers couldna discipline both for the sins of one, and a man seldom knew which Murchison it was that had him on the ground wi’ a boot in the ribs, or which it was that hung him from a hook by his fetters and left him so until he’d soil himself for the amusement of the garrison.”

His eyes were fixed on something outside, his expression unguarded. He’d spoken of beasts; I could see that the memories had roused one. His eyes caught the light from the window, gem-blue and unblinking.

“Are both of them here?” I asked, as much to break that unnerving stare as because I wanted to know.

It worked; he turned abruptly from the window.

“No,” he said, shortly. “This is Billy. Wee Bobby died at Ardsmuir.” His two stiff fingers twitched against the fabric of his kilt.

It had occurred to me briefly to wonder why he had worn his kilt this morning, instead of changing to breeks; the crimson tartan might be quite literally a red flag to a bull, flaunted thus before an English soldier. Now I knew.

They’d taken it from him once before, thinking to take with it pride and manhood. They had failed in that attempt, and he meant to underscore that failure, whether it was sense to do so or not. Sense had little to do with the sort of stubborn pride that could survive years of such insult—and while he had more than his share of both, I could see that pride was well in the ascendancy at present.

“From the Sergeant’s reactions, I suppose we may assume it wasn’t natural causes?” I asked.

“No,” he said. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders slightly, easing them inside the tight coat.

“They marched us out to the stone quarry each morning, and back again at twilight, wi’ two or three guards to each wagon. One day, Wee Bobby Murchison was the sergeant in charge. He came out wi’ us in the morning—but he didna come back with us at night.” He glanced once more at the window. “There was a verra deep pool at the bottom of the quarry.”

His matter-of-fact tone was nearly as chilling as the content of this bald account. I felt a small shiver pass up my spine, in spite of the stifling heat.

“Did you—” I began, but he put a finger to his lips, jerking his head toward the door. A moment later, I heard the footsteps that his keener ears had picked up.

It was the Sergeant, not his clerk. He had been perspiring heavily; streaks of sweat ran down his face beneath his wig, and his whole countenance was the unhealthy color of fresh beef liver.

He glanced at the vacant desk, and made a small, vicious noise in his throat. I felt a qualm on behalf of the absent clerk. The Sergeant shoved aside the clutter on the desk with a sweep of his arm that sent paper cascading onto the floor.

He snatched a pewter inkwell and a sheet of foolscap from the rubble, and banged them down on the desk.

“Write it down,” he ordered. “Where you found her, what happened.” He thrust a spattered goose-quill at Jamie. “Sign it, date it.”

Jamie stared at him, eyes narrowed, but made no move to take the quill. I felt a sudden sinking in my belly.

Jamie was left-handed but had been taught forcibly to write with his right hand, and then had that right hand crippled. Writing, for him, was a slow, laborious business that left the pages blotted, sweat-stained, and crumpled, and the writer himself in no better case. There was no power on earth that would make him humiliate himself in that fashion before the Sergeant.

“Write. It. Down.” The Sergeant bit off the words between his teeth.

Jamie’s eyes narrowed further, but before he could speak, I reached out and snatched the pen from the Sergeant’s grasp.

“I was there; let me do it.”

Jamie’s hand closed on mine before I could dip the quill in the inkwell. He plucked the pen from my fingers and dropped it in the center of the desk.

“Your clerk can wait upon me later, at my aunt’s house,” he said briefly to Murchison. “Come with me, Claire.”

Not waiting for an answer from the Sergeant, he grasped my elbow and all but pulled me to my feet. We were outside before I knew what had happened. The wagon still stood under the tree, but now it was empty.

“Well, she’s safe for the moment, Mac Dubh, but what in hell shall we do with the woman?” Duncan scratched at the stubble on his chin; he and Ian had spent three days in the forest, searching, before finding the slave Pollyanne.

“She’ll no be easy to move,” Ian put in, snaring a piece of bacon off the breakfast table. He broke it in half, and handed one piece to Rollo. “The poor lady near died of terror when Rollo sniffed her out, and we had God’s own time gettin’ her on her feet. We couldna get her on a horse at all; I had to walk with my arm around her, to keep her from fallin’ down.”

“We must get her clear away, somehow.” Jocasta frowned, blank eyes half hooded in thought. “Yon Murchison was at the mill again yesterday morning, making a nuisance of himself, and last night, Farquard Campbell sent to tell me that the man has declared it was murder, and he’s called for men to search the district for the slave who did it. Farquard’s sae hot under his collar, I thought his head would burst into flame.”

“Do ye think she could have done it?” Chewing, Ian looked from Jamie to me. “By accident, I mean?”

In spite of the hot morning, I shuddered, feeling in memory the unyielding stiffness of the metal skewer in my hand.

“You have three possibilities: accident, murder, or suicide,” I said. “There are lots easier ways of committing suicide, believe me. And no motive for murder, that we know of.”

“Be that as it may,” Jamie said, neatly fielding the conversation, “if Murchison takes the slave woman, he’ll have her hanged or flogged to death within a day. He’s no need of trial. No, we must take her clear out of the district. I’ve arranged it with our friend Myers.”

“You’ve arranged what with Myers?” Jocasta asked sharply, her voice cutting through the babble of exclamations and questions that greeted this announcement.

Jamie finished buttering the piece of toast that he held, and handed it to Duncan before speaking.

“We shall take the woman into the mountains,” he said. “Myers says she’ll be welcome among the Indians; he kens a good place for her, he says. And she’ll be safe there from Wee Billy Murchison.”

“We?” I asked politely. “And who’s we?”

He grinned at me in reply.

“Myers and myself, Sassenach. I need to go to the backcountry to have a look before the cold weather comes, and this will be a good chance. Myers is the best guide I could have.”

He carefully refrained from noting that it might be as well for him to be temporarily out of Sergeant Murchison’s sphere of influence, but the implication was not lost on me.

“Ye’ll take me, will ye not, Uncle?” Ian brushed the matted hair out of his face, looking eager. “Ye’ll need help wi’ that woman, believe me—she’s the size of a molasses barrel.”

Jamie smiled at his nephew.

“Aye, Ian. I expect we can use another man along.”

“Ahem,” I said, giving him an evil stare.

“To keep an eye on your auntie, if nothing else,” Jamie continued, giving the stare back to me. “We leave in three days, Sassenach—if Myers can sit a horse by then.”

Three days didn’t allow much time, but with the assistance of Myers and Phaedre, my preparations were completed with hours to spare. I had a small traveling box of medicines and tools, and the saddlebags were packed with food, blankets, and cooking implements. The only small matter remaining was that of attire.

I recrossed the ends of the long silk strip across my chest, tied the ends in a jaunty knot between my br**sts, and examined the results in the looking glass.

Not bad. I extended my arms and jiggled my torso from side to side, testing. Yes, that would do. Though perhaps if I took one more turn around my chest before crossing the ends…

“What, exactly, are ye doing, Sassenach? And what in the name of God are ye wearing?” Jamie, arms crossed, was leaning against the door, watching me with both brows raised.

“I am improvising a brassiere,” I said with dignity. “I don’t mean to ride sidesaddle through the mountains wearing a dress, and if I’m not wearing stays, I don’t mean my br**sts to be joggling all the way, either. Most uncomfortable, joggling.”

“I daresay.” He edged into the room and circled me at a cautious distance, eyeing my nether limbs with interest. “And what are those?”

“Like them?” I put my hands on my hips, modeling the drawstring leather trousers that Phaedre had constructed for me—laughing hysterically as she did so—from soft buckskin provided by one of Myers’s friends in Cross Creek.

“No,” he said bluntly. “Ye canna be going about in—in—” He waved at them, speechless.

“Trousers,” I said. “And of course I can. I wore trousers all the time, back in Boston. They’re very practical.”

He looked at me in silence for a moment. Then, very slowly, he walked around me. At last, his voice came from behind me.

“Ye wore them outside?” he said, in tones of incredulity. “Where folk could see ye?”

“I did,” I said crossly. “So did most other women. Why not?”

“Why not?” he said, scandalized. “I can see the whole shape of your buttocks, for God’s sake, and the cleft between!”

“I can see yours, too,” I pointed out, turning around to face him. “I’ve been looking at your backside in breeks every day for months, but only occasionally does the sight move me to make indecent advances on your person.”

His mouth twitched, undecided whether to laugh or not. Taking advantage of the indecision, I took a step forward and put my arms around his waist, firmly cupping his backside.

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