Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 54

   

Pollyanne remained shy of the men, but she soon gained enough confidence to talk to me, in a polyglot mixture of Gaelic, English, and her own language. I couldn’t have translated it, but both her face and body were so expressive that I could often gather the sense of what she was saying, even though I understood only one word in ten. I could only regret that I was not equally fluent in body language; she didn’t understand most of my questions and remarks, so I had to wait until we made camp, when I could prevail on Jamie or Ian to help me with bits of Gaelic.

Freed—at least temporarily—from the constraint of terror, and becoming cautiously secure in our company, a naturally effervescent personality emerged, and she talked with abandon as we rode side by side, regardless of my comprehension, laughing now and then with a low hooting noise like wind blowing across the mouth of a cave.

She became subdued only once: when we passed through a large clearing where the grass rose in strange undulant mounds, as though a great serpent lay buried underneath. Pollyanne went silent when she saw them, and in an effort to hurry her horse, instead succeeded only in pulling on the reins and stopping it dead. I rode back to help her.

“Droch àite,” she murmured, glancing out of the corner of her eye at the silent mounds. A bad place. “Djudju.” She scowled, and made a small, quick gesture with her hand, some sign against evil, I thought.

“Is it a graveyard?” I asked Myers, who had circled back to see why we had stopped. The mounds were not evenly spaced, but were distributed around the edge of the clearing in a pattern that didn’t look like any natural formation. The mounds seemed too large to be graves, though—unless they were cairns, such as the ancient Scots built, or mass graves, I thought, uneasy at the memory of Culloden.

“Not to say graveyard,” he replied, pushing his hat back on his head. “ ’Twas a village once. Tuscarora, I expect. Those rises there”—he waved a hand—“those are houses, fallen down. The big ’un to the side, that will have been the chief’s longhouse. It be taken no time atall, the grasses come over it. From the looks, though, this ’un will have been buried a time back.”

“What happened to it?” Ian and Jamie had stopped, too, and come back to look over the small clearing.

Myers scratched thoughtfully at his beard.

“I couldn’t be sayin’, not for certain sure. Might be as sickness drove ’em out, might be as they were put to rout by the Cherokee or the Creek, though we be a mite north of the Cherokee land. Most likely as it happened during the war, though.” He dug fiercely into his beard, twisted, and flicked away the remnants of a lingering tick. “Can’t say as it’s a place I’d tarry by choice.”

Pollyanne being plainly of the same mind, we rode on. By evening, we had passed entirely out of the pines and scrubby oakland of the foothills. We were climbing in good earnest now, and the trees began to change; small groves of chestnut trees, large patches of oak and hickory, with scattered dogwood and persimmon, chinkapin and poplar, surrounded us in waves of feathery green.

The smell and feel of the air changed, too, as we rose. The overwhelming hot resins of the pine trees gave way to lighter, more varied scents, tree leaves mingled with whiffs of the shrubs and flowers that grew from every crevice of the craggy rocks. It was still damp and humid, but not so hot; the air no longer seemed a smothering blanket, but something we might breathe—and breathe with pleasure, filled as it was with the perfumes of leaf mold, sun-warmed leaves, and damp moss.

By sunset of the sixth day, we were well into the mountains, and the air was full of the sound of running water. Streams crisscrossed the valleys, spilling off ridges and trickling down the steep rock faces, trailing mist and moss like a delicate green fringe. When we rounded the side of one steep hill, I stopped in amazement; from the side of a distant mountain, a waterfall leapt into the air, arching a good eighty feet in its fall to the gorge far below.

“Will ye look at that, now?” Ian was openmouthed with awe.

“ ’Tis right pretty,” Myers allowed, with the smug complacence of a proprietor. “Ain’t the biggest falls I’ve seen, but it’s nice enough.”

Ian turned his head, eyes wide.

“There are bigger ones?”

Myers laughed, a mountain man’s quiet laugh, no more than a breath of sound.

“Boy, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

We camped for the night in a hollow near a good-sized creek—one big enough for trout. Jamie and Ian waded into this with enthusiasm, harrying the finny denizens with whippy rods cut from black willow. I hoped they would have some luck; our fresh provisions were running low, though we still had plenty of cornmeal left.

Pollyanne came scrambling up the bank, bringing a bucket of water with which to make a new batch of corn dodgers. These were small oblongs of rough cornmeal biscuit made for traveling; tasty when fresh and hot, and at least edible the next day. They became steadily less appetizing with time, resembling nothing so much as small chunks of cement by the fourth day. Still, they were portable, and not prone to mold, and thus were popular traveling fare, along with dried beef and salt pork.

Pollyanne’s natural ebullience seemed a trifle subdued, her round face shadowed. Her eyebrows were so sketchy as to be almost nonexistent, which had the paradoxical effect of increasing the expressiveness of her face in motion, and wiping all expression from it in repose. She could be as impassive as a ball bearing when she wanted to; a useful skill for a slave.

I supposed that her preoccupation was at least in part because this was the last night on which we would all be together. We had reached the backcountry, the limits of the King’s land; tomorrow, Myers would turn to the north, taking her across the spine of the mountains into the Indian lands, to find what safety and what life she might there.

Her round dark head was bent over the wooden bowl, stubby fingers mixing cornmeal with water and lard. I crouched across from her, feeding small sticks to the infant fire, the black iron girdle standing ready-greased beside it. Myers had gone off to smoke a pipe; I could hear Jamie call to Ian somewhere downstream, and a faint answering laugh.

It was deep twilight by now; our hollow was ringed by brooding mountains, and darkness seemed to fill the shallow bowl, creeping up the trunks of the trees around us. I had no notion of the place she had come from, whether it might be forest or jungle, seashore or desert, but I thought it unlikely to be much like this.

What could she be thinking? She had survived the journey from Africa, and slavery; I supposed whatever lay ahead couldn’t be much worse. It was an unknown future, though—going into a wilderness so vast and absolute that I felt every moment as though I might vanish into it, consumed without a trace. Our fire seemed the merest spark against the vastness of the night.

Rollo strolled into the light of the fire and shook himself, spraying water in all directions, making the fire hiss and spit. He had joined in the fishing, I saw.

“Go away, horrible dog,” I said. He didn’t, of course; simply came up and nosed me rudely, to be sure I was still who he thought I was, then turned to give Pollyanne the same treatment.

With no particular expression, she turned her head and spat in his eye. He yelped, backed up, and stood shaking his head, looking thoroughly surprised. She looked up at me and grinned, her teeth very white in her face.

I laughed, and decided not to worry too much; anyone capable of spitting in a wolf’s eye would likely cope with Indians, wilderness, and anything else that came along.

The bowl was nearly empty, a neat row of corn dodgers laid on the girdle. Pollyanne wiped her fingers on a handful of grass, watching the yellow cornmeal begin to sizzle and turn brown as the lard melted. A warm, comforting smell rose from the fire, mingled with the scent of burning wood, and my belly rumbled softly in anticipation. The fire seemed more substantial now, the scent of cooking food spreading its warmth in a wider circle, keeping the night at bay.

Had it been this way where she came from? Had fires and food held back a jungle darkness, kept away leopards instead of bears? Had light and company given comfort, and the illusion of safety? For illusion it had surely been—fire was no protection against men, or the darkness that had overtaken her. I had no words to ask.

“I have never seen such fishing, never,” Jamie repeated for the fourth time, a look of dreamy bliss on his face as he broke open a steaming trout fried in cornmeal. “They were swarming in the water, were they not, Ian?”

Ian nodded, a similar look of reverence on his own homely features.

“My Da would give his other leg to ha’ seen it,” he said. “They jumped on the hook, Auntie, truly!”

“The Indians don’t generally bother with hook and line,” Myers put in, neatly spearing his own share of fish with his knife. “They build snares and fish traps, or sometimes they’ll put some sticks and rubbish crost the creek to prevent the fish, then stand above with a sharp stick, just spearin’ them from the water.”

That was enough for Ian; any mention of Indians and their ways provoked a rash of eager questions. Having exhausted the methods of fish-catching, he asked again about the abandoned village we had seen earlier in our journey.

“Ye said it might have happened in the war,” Ian said, lifting the bones from a steaming trout, then shaking his fingers to cool them. He passed a section of the boneless flesh to Rollo, who swallowed it in a single gulp, temperature notwithstanding. “Will that ha’ been the war wi’ the French, then? I didna ken there was any fighting so far south.”

Myers shook his head, chewing and swallowing before he answered.

“Oh, no. It’ll be the Tuscarora War I was meanin’; that’s how they call it on the white side, at least.”

The Tuscarora War, he explained, had been a short-lived but brutal conflict some forty years before, brought on by an attack upon some backcountry settlers. The then governor of the colony had sent troops into the Tuscarora villages in retaliation, and the upshot was a series of pitched battles that the colonists, much better armed, had won handily—to the devastation of the Tuscarora nation.

Myers nodded toward the darkness.

“Ain’t no more than seven villages o’ the Tuscarora left, now—and not above fifty or a hundred souls in any but the biggest one.” So sadly diminished, the Tuscarora would quickly have fallen prey to surrounding tribes and disappeared altogether, had they not been formally adopted by the Mohawk, and thus become part of the powerful Iroquois League.

Jamie came back to the fire with a bottle from his saddlebag. It was Scotch whisky, a parting present from Jocasta. He poured out a small cupful, then offered the half-full bottle to Myers.

“Is the Mohawk country not a verra great distance to the north?” he asked. “How can they offer protection to their fellows here, and they with hostile tribes all round?”

Myers took a gulp of whisky and washed it pleasurably around his mouth before answering.

“Mmm. That’s fine stuff, friend James. Oh, the Mohawk are a good ways off, aye. But the Nations of the Iroquois are a name to reckon with—and of all the Six Nations, the Mohawk are the fiercest. Ain’t no one—red or white—goin’ to mess with the Mohawk ’thout good cause, nossir.”

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