Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 58

   

“Now I really am going to puke,” Jamie murmured, wincing under the ungentle ministrations. “What is that stuff?”

“At a guess, it’s dried trillium mixed with very rancid bear grease,” I said, trying not to inhale the pungent fumes. “I don’t suppose it will kill you; at least I hope not.”

“That’s two of us, then,” he said under his breath. “No, I’ll do now, thank ye kindly.” He waved away further ministrations, smiling politely at his would-be doctor.

Joking or not, his lips were white, even in the dimness of the firelight. I put a hand on his good shoulder, and felt the muscles clenched tight with strain.

“Get the whisky, Sassenach. I need it badly.”

One of the Indians made a grab at the bottle as I pulled it from the bag, but I pushed him rudely away. He grunted with surprise, but didn’t follow me. Instead, he picked up the bag and began rooting through it like a hog hunting truffles. I didn’t try to stop him, but hurried back to Jamie with the whisky.

He took a small sip, then a larger one, shuddered once, and opened his eyes. He breathed deeply once or twice, drank again, then wiped his mouth and held out the bottle in invitation to the older man.

“Do you think that’s wise?” I muttered, recalling Myers’s lurid stories about massacres, and the effects of firewater on Indians.

“I can give it to them or let them take it, Sassenach,” he said, a little testily. “There are three of them, aye?”

The older man passed the mouth of the bottle under his nose, nostrils flaring as though in appreciation of a rare bouquet. I could smell the liquor from where I stood, and was surprised that it didn’t sear the lining of his nose.

A smile of beatific content spread across the man’s craggy face. He said something to his sons that sounded like “Haroo!” and the one who had been rifling our bag came at once to join his brother, a couple of corn dodgers clutched in his fist.

The older man stood up with the bottle in his hand, but instead of drinking, took it over to where the bear’s carcass lay, black as an inkblot on the ground. With great deliberation, he poured a small amount of whisky into the palm of his hand, bent, and dribbled the liquid into the bear’s half-open mouth. Then he turned slowly in a circle, shaking drops of whisky ceremoniously from his fingers. The drops flew gold and amber where they caught the light, hitting the fire with tiny, sizzling pops.

Jamie sat up straight, dizziness forgotten in his interest.

“Will ye look at that, now?” he said.

“At what?” I said, but he didn’t answer, absorbed by the Indians’ behavior.

One of the younger men had taken out a small beaded pouch that held tobacco. Carefully packing the bowl of a small stone pipe, he lit it with a dry twig dipped into the flames of our fire, and drew strongly on the barrel. The tobacco leaf sparked and fumed, spreading its rich aroma over the clearing.

Jamie was leaning against me, his back against my thighs. I had my hand on his unwounded shoulder again, and could feel the shiver in his flesh start to ease as the warmth of the whisky began to spread in his belly. He wasn’t badly hurt, but the strain of the fight and the continued effort to stay alert were taking their toll on him.

The older man took the pipe and drew several deep, leisurely mouthfuls, which he exhaled with evident pleasure. Then he knelt, and taking another deep lungful of smoke, carefully blew it up the nostrils of the dead bear. He repeated this process several times, muttering something under his breath as he exhaled.

Then he rose, with no sign of stiffness, and extended the pipe to Jamie.

Jamie smoked as the Indians had done—one or two long, ceremonious mouthfuls—and then lifted the pipe, turning to hand it to me.

I lifted the pipe and drew cautiously. Burning smoke filled my eyes and nose at once, and my throat constricted with an overwhelming urge to cough. I choked it back, and hastily gave Jamie the pipe, feeling my face turn red as the smoke curled lazily through my chest, tickling and burning as it searched its way through the channels of my lungs.

“Ye dinna breathe it, Sassenach,” he murmured. “Just let it rise up the back of your nose.”

“Now…you…tell me,” I said, trying not to strangle.

The Indians watched me in round-eyed interest. The older man put his head on one side, frowning as though trying to puzzle something out. He popped up onto his feet and came round the fire, crouching to peer curiously at me, close enough for me to catch the odd, smoky scent of his skin. He wore nothing but a breechclout and a sort of short leather apron, though his chest was covered by a large, ornate necklace featuring seashells, stones, and the teeth of some large animal.

With no warning, he suddenly reached out and squeezed my breast. There was nothing even faintly lascivious about the gesture, but I jumped. So did Jamie, hand darting for his knife.

The Indian sat back calmly on his heels, waving his hand in dismissal. He clapped his hand flat on his breast, then made a cupping motion and pointed at me. He had meant nothing; he had only wanted to assure himself that I was indeed female. He pointed from me to Jamie, and raised one brow.

“Aye, she’s mine.” Jamie nodded and lowered his dirk, but kept a hold on it, frowning at the Indian. “Mind your manners, eh?”

Uninterested in this byplay, one of the younger Indians said something, and gestured impatiently at the carcass on the ground. The older man, who had paid no attention to Jamie’s annoyance, replied, drawing his skinning knife from his belt as he turned.

“Here—that’s mine to do.”

The Indians turned in surprise as Jamie rose to his feet. He gestured with his dirk to the bear, and then pointed the tip firmly at his own chest.

Not waiting for any response, he knelt on the ground beside the carcass, crossed himself, and said something in Gaelic, knife raised above the still body. I didn’t know all the words, but I had seen him do it once before, when he had killed a deer on the road from Georgia.

It was the gralloch prayer he had been taught as a boy, learning to hunt in the Highlands of Scotland. It was old, he had told me; so old that some of the words were no longer in common use, so it sounded unfamiliar. But it must be said for any animal slain that was larger than a hare, before the throat was cut or the bellyskin split.

Without hesitation, he made a shallow slash across the chest—no need to bleed the carcass; the heart was long since still—and ripped the skin between the legs, so the pale swell of the intestines bulged up from the narrow, black-furred slit, gleaming in the light.

It took both strength and considerable skill to split and peel back the heavy skin without penetrating the mesenteric membrane that held the visceral sac enclosed. I, who had opened softer human bodies, recognized surgical competence when I saw it. So did the Indians, who were watching the proceedings with critical interest.

Jamie’s skill at skinning wasn’t what had fixed their attention, though—that was surely a common enough ability here. No, it was the gralloch prayer—I had seen the older man’s eyes widen, and his glance at his sons as Jamie knelt over the carcass. They might not know what he was saying, but it was plain from their expressions that they knew exactly what he was doing—and were both surprised, and favorably impressed.

A small trickle of sweat ran down behind Jamie’s ear, clear red in the firelight. Skinning a large animal is heavy work, and small spots of fresh blood were showing through the grimy cloth of his shirt.

Before I could offer to take the knife, though, he sat back on his heels and offered the dirk hilt-first to one of the younger Indians.

“Go ahead,” he said, gesturing at the bear’s half-butchered bulk in invitation. “Ye dinna think I’m going to eat it all myself, I hope.”

The man took the knife without hesitation, and kneeling, took over the skinning. The two others glanced at Jamie, and seeing his nod, joined in the work.

He let me sit him on the log once more and covertly clean and dress his shoulder, while he watched the Indians make quick work of the skinning and butchering.

“What was it he did with the whisky?” I asked quietly. “Do you know?”

He nodded, eyes fixed absently on the bloody work by the fire.

“It’s a charm. Ye scatter holy water to the four airs of the earth, to preserve yourself from evil. And I suppose whisky is a verra reasonable substitute for holy water, in the circumstances.”

I glanced at the Indians, stained to the elbows with the bear’s blood, talking casually among themselves. One of them was building a small platform near the fire, a crude layer of sticks laid across rocks set in a square. Another was cutting chunks of meat and stringing them on a peeled green stick for cooking.

“From evil? Do you mean they’re afraid of us?”

He smiled.

“I shouldna think we’re so fearsome, Sassenach; no, from spirits.”

Frightened as I had been by the Indians’ appearance, it would never have occurred to me that they might have been similarly unnerved by ours. But glancing up at Jamie now, I thought they might pardonably have been excused for nervousness.

Used to him as I was, I was seldom aware anymore of how he appeared to others. But even tired and wounded, he was formidable; straight-backed and wide-shouldered, with slanted eyes that caught the fire in a glitter as blue as the flame’s heart.

He sat easily now, relaxed, big hands loose between his thighs. But it was the stillness of a great cat, eyes always watchful behind the calm. Beyond size and quickness, there was undeniably an air of savagery about him; he was as much at home in these woods as the bear had been.

The English had always thought the Scottish Highlanders barbarians; I had never before considered the possibility that others might feel likewise. But these men had seen a ferocious savage, and approached him with due caution, arms at the ready. And Jamie, horrified beforehand at the thought of savage Red Indians, had seen their rituals—so like his own—and known them at once for fellow hunters; civilized men.

Even now, he was speaking to them quite naturally, explaining with broad gestures how the bear had come upon us and how he had killed it. They followed him with avid attention, exclaiming in appreciation in all the right places. When he picked up the remains of the mangled fish and demonstrated my role in the proceedings, they all looked at me and giggled hilariously.

I glared at all four of them.

“Dinner,” I said loudly, “is served.”

We shared a meal of half-roasted meat, corn dodgers, and whisky, watched throughout by the head of the bear, which perched ceremonially on its platform, dead eyes gone dull and gummy.

Feeling mildly glazed, I leaned against the fallen log, listening with half an ear to the conversation. Not that I understood much that was actually said. One of the sons, an accomplished mimic, was giving a spirited rendition of Great Hunts of the Past, alternately playing the parts of hunter and prey, and doing it well enough that even I had no difficulty in telling a deer from a panther.

We had got so far in our acquaintance as an exchange of names. Mine came out in their tongue as “Klah,” which they seemed to find very funny. “Klah,” they said, pointing at me, “Klah-Klah-Klah-Klah-Klah!” Then they all laughed uproariously, their humor fueled by whisky. I might have been tempted to reply in kind, save that I wasn’t sure I could pronounce “Nacognaweto” once, let alone repeatedly.

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