Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 53

   

“Actually, it’s your kilt that makes me want to fling you to the floor and commit ravishment,” I told him. “But you don’t look at all bad in your breeks.”

He did laugh then, and bending, kissed me thoroughly, his hands carefully exploring the outlines of my rear, snugly confined in buckskin. He squeezed gently, making me squirm against him.

“Take them off,” he said, pausing for air.

“But I—”

“Take them off,” he repeated firmly. He stepped back and tugged loose the lacing of his flies. “Ye can put them back on again after, Sassenach, but if there’s flinging and ravishing to be done, it’ll be me that does it, aye?”

PART FIVE

Strawberry Fields Forever

14

FLEE FROM WRATH TO COME

August 1767

They had hidden the woman in a tobacco shed on the edge of Farquard Campbell’s furthest fields. There was little chance of anyone noticing—other than Campbell’s slaves, who already knew—but we took care to arrive just after dark, when the lavender sky had faded nearly to gray, barely outlining the dark bulk of the drying shed.

The woman slid out like a ghost, cloaked and hooded, and was hoisted onto the extra horse, bundled hastily aboard like the package of contraband she was. She drew up her legs and clung to the saddle with both hands, doubled up in a ball of panic; evidently she’d never been on a horse before.

Myers tried to hand her the reins, but she paid no attention, only clung tight and moaned in a sort of melodic agony of terror. The men were becoming restive, glancing over their shoulders into the empty fields, as though expecting the imminent arrival of Sergeant Murchison and his minions.

“Let her ride with me,” I suggested. “Maybe she’ll feel safer that way.”

The woman was detached from her mount with some difficulty and set down on the horse’s rump behind my saddle. She smelt strongly of fresh tobacco leaves, pungently narcotic, and something else, a little muskier. She at once flung her arms around my waist, holding on for dear life. I patted one of the hands clutched about my middle, and she squeezed tighter, but made no other move or sound.

Little wonder if she was terrified, I thought, turning my horse’s head to follow Myers’s. She might not know about the hullabaloo Murchison was raising in the district, but she could have no illusions about what might happen if she was caught; she had certainly been among the crowd at the sawmill two weeks earlier.

As an alternative to certain death, flight into the arms of red savages might be slightly preferable, but not by much, to judge from her trembling; the weather was far from cold, but she shook as though with chill.

She nearly squeezed the stuffings out of me when Rollo appeared, stalking out of the bushes like some demon of the forest. My horse didn’t like the look of him, either, and backed up, snorting and stamping, trying to jerk the reins away from me.

I had to admit that Rollo was reasonably fearsome, even when he was in an amiable mood, which he was, at the moment—Rollo loved expeditions. Still, he undoubtedly presented a sinister aspect; all his teeth were showing in a grin of delight, his slitted eyes half closed as he whiffed the air. Add to that the way the grays and blacks of his coat faded into the shadows, and one was left with the queer and unsettling illusion that he had materialized out of the substance of the night, Appetite incarnate.

He trotted directly past us, no more than a foot away, and the woman gasped, her breath hot on my neck. I patted her hand again, and spoke to her, but she made no answer. Duncan had said she was Africa-born and spoke little English, but surely she must understand a few words.

“It will be all right,” I said again. “Don’t be afraid.”

Occupied with horse and passenger, I hadn’t noticed Jamie, until he appeared suddenly by my stirrup, light-footed as Rollo.

“All right, Sassenach?” he asked softly, putting a hand on my thigh.

“I think so,” I said. I nodded at the death-grip round my middle. “If I don’t die of suffocation.”

He looked, and smiled.

“Well, she’s in no danger of fallin’ off, at least.”

“I wish I knew something to say to her; poor thing, she’s so afraid. Do you suppose she even knows where we’re taking her?”

“I shouldna think so—I dinna ken where we’re going.” He wore breeks for riding, but had his plaid belted over them, the free end slung across the shoulder of his coat. The dark tartan blended into the shadows of the forest as well as it had the shades of the Scottish heather; all I could see of him was a white blotch of shirt-front and the pale oval of his face.

“Do you know any useful taki-taki to say to her?” I asked. “Of course, she might not know that, either, if she wasn’t brought through the Indies.”

He turned his head and looked up at my passenger, considering.

“Ah,” he said. “Well, there’s the one thing they’ll all know, no matter where they’ve come.” He reached out and squeezed the woman’s foot firmly.

“Freedom,” he said, and paused. “Saorasa. D’yke ken what I say?”

She didn’t loosen her grip, but her breath went out in a shuddering sigh, and I thought I felt her nod.

The horses followed each other in single file, Myers in the lead. The rough track was not even a wagon trail, only a sort of flattening of under-growth, but it did at least provide clear passage through the trees.

I doubted that Sergeant Murchison’s vengeance would pursue us so far—if he pursued us at all—but the sense of escape was too strong to ignore. We shared an unspoken but pervasive sense of urgency, and with no particular discussion, agreed to ride on as far as possible.

My passenger was either losing her fear or simply becoming too tired to care anymore; after a midnight stop for refreshment she allowed Ian and Myers to boost her back on the horse without protest, and while she never released her hold on my waist, she did seem to doze now and then, her forehead pressed against my shoulder.

The fatigue of long riding crept over me, too, aided by the hypnotic soft thudding of the horses’ feet, and the unending susurrus of the pines overhead. We were still in the longleaf forest, and the tall, straight trunks surrounded us like the masts of long-sunk ships.

Lines of an ancient Scottish song drifted through my mind—“How many strawberries grow in the salt sea; how many ships sail in the forest?”—and I wondered muzzily whether the composer had walked through a place like this, unearthly in half-moon and starlight, so dreamlike that the borders between the elements were lost; we might as well be afloat as earthbound, the heave and fall beneath me the rise of planking, and the sound of the pines the wind in our sails.

We stopped at dawn, unsaddled the horses, hobbled them, and left them to feed in the long grass of a small meadow. I found Jamie, and curled up at once into a nest of grass beside him, the horses’ peaceful champing the last thing I heard.

We slept heavily through the heat of the day, and awoke near sunset, stiff, thirsty, and covered with ticks. I was profoundly thankful that the ticks seemed to share the mosquitoes’ general distaste for my flesh, but I had learned on our trip north to check Jamie and the others every time we slept; there were always outriders.

“Ick,” I said, examining a particularly juicy specimen, the size of a grape, nestling amid the soft cinnamon hair of Jamie’s underarm. “Damn, I’m afraid to pull that one; it’s so full it’ll likely burst.”

He shrugged, busy exploring his scalp with the other hand, in search of further intruders.

“Leave it while ye deal with the rest,” he suggested. “Perhaps it will fall of its own accord.”

“I suppose I’d better,” I agreed reluctantly. I hadn’t any objection to the tick’s bursting, but not while its jaws were still embedded in Jamie’s flesh. I’d seen infections caused by forcibly interrupted ticks, and they weren’t anything I wanted to deal with in the middle of a forest. I had only a rudimentary medical kit with me—though this luckily included a very fine pair of small tweezer-pointed forceps from Dr. Rawlings’s box.

Myers and Ian seemed to be managing all right; both stripped to the waist, Myers was crouched over the boy like a huge black baboon, fingers busy in Ian’s hair.

“Here’s a wee one,” Jamie said, bending over and pushing his own hair aside so I could reach the small dark bleb behind his ear. I was engaged in gently maneuvering the creature out, when I became aware of a presence near my elbow.

I had been too tired to take much notice of our fugitive when we made camp, rightly assuming that she wasn’t going to wander off into the wilderness by herself. She had wandered as far as a nearby stream, though, returning with a bucket of water.

She set this on the ground, dipped up a handful of water and funneled it into her mouth. She chewed vigorously for a moment, cheeks puffed out. Then she motioned me aside and, lifting a surprised Jamie’s arm, spat forcefully and profusely into his armpit.

She reached into the dripping hollow, and with delicate fingers appeared to tickle the parasite. She certainly tickled Jamie, who was very sensitive in that particular region. He turned pink in the face and flinched at her touch, all the muscles in his torso quivering.

She held tight to his wrist, though, and within seconds, the bulging tick dropped off into the palm of her hand. She flicked it disdainfully away, and turned to me, with a small air of satisfaction.

I had thought she resembled a ball, muffled in her cloak. Seen without it, she still did. She was very short, no more than four feet, and nearly as wide, with a close-cropped head like a cannonball, her cheeks so round that her eyes were slanted above them.

She looked like nothing so much as one of the carved African fertility images I had seen in the Indies; massive of bosom, heavy of haunch, and the rich, burnt-coffee color of a Congolese, with skin so flawless that it looked like polished stone under its thin layer of sweat. She held out her hand to me, showing me a few small objects in her palm, the general size and shape of dried lima beans.

“Paw-paw,” she said, in a voice so deep that even Myers turned his head toward her, startled. It was a huge, rich voice, reverberant as a drum. Seeing my reaction to it, she smiled a little shyly, and said something I didn’t quite understand, though I knew it was Gaelic.

“She says ye must not swallow the seeds, for they’re poison,” Jamie translated, eyeing her rather warily as he wiped his armpit with the end of his plaid.

“Hau,” Pollyanne agreed, nodding vigorously. “Poi-zin.” She stooped over the bucket for another handful of water, washed it round her mouth, and spat it at a rock with a noise like a gunshot.

“You could be dangerous with that,” I told her. I didn’t know whether she understood me, but she gathered from my smile that I meant to be cordial; she smiled back, popped two more of the paw-paw seeds into her mouth, and beckoned to Myers, already chewing, the seeds making little crunching pops as she pulverized them between her teeth.

By the time we had eaten supper and were ready to leave, she was nervously willing to try riding alone. Jamie coaxed her to the horse, and showed her how to let the beast smell her. She trembled as the big nose nudged her, but then the horse snorted; she jumped, giggled in a voice like honey poured out of a jug, and allowed Jamie and Ian between them to boost her aboard.

Loading...