Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 59

   

They were—or so Jamie informed me—Tuscarora. With his gift of tongues, he was already pointing at objects and essaying the Indian names for them. No doubt by dawn he would be exchanging improper stories with them, I thought blearily; they were already telling him jokes.

“Here,” I said, tugging on the edge of Jamie’s plaid. “Are you all right? Because I can’t stay awake to look after you. Are you going to faint and fall headfirst into the fire?”

Jamie patted me absently on the head.

“I’ll be fine now, Sassenach,” he said. Restored by food and whisky, he seemed to be suffering no lingering ill effects from his battle with the bear. What he’d feel like in the morning was another question, I thought.

I was beyond worrying about that, or anything else, though; my head was spinning from the effects of adrenaline, whisky and tobacco, and I crawled off to fetch my blanket. Curled up by Jamie’s feet, I drifted drowsily off to sleep, surrounded by the sacred fumes of smoke and liquor, and watched by the dull, sticky eyes of the bear.

“Know just how you feel,” I told it, and then was gone.

16

THE FIRST LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS

I was awakened abruptly just after dawn by a tiny stinging sensation on top of my head. I blinked and put up a hand to investigate. The movement startled a large gray jay who had been pulling hairs out of my head, and he shot up into a nearby pine tree, screeching hysterically.

“Serve you right, mate,” I muttered, rubbing the top of my head, but couldn’t help smiling. I had been told often enough that my hair looked like a bird’s nest first thing in the morning; perhaps there was something to it, after all.

The Indians were gone. Luckily, the bear’s head had gone with them. I felt my own head with ginger fingers, but aside from the small sting of the jay’s depredations, it seemed intact. Either it had been remarkably good whisky, or my sense of intoxication had been due more to the effects of adrenaline and tobacco than to alcohol.

My comb was in the small deerskin pouch where I kept personal necessities and those few medicines I thought might be useful on the trail. I sat up carefully, so as not to wake Jamie. He lay a short distance away on his back, hands crossed, peaceful as the carved effigy on a sarcophagus.

A lot more colorful, though. He lay in the shade, a creeping patch of sunshine sneaking up on him, barely touching the ends of his hair. In the fresh, cool light, he looked like Adam, newly touched by his Creator’s hand.

Rather a battered Adam, though; on closer inspection, this was a snap taken well after the Fall. Not the fragile perfection of a child born of clay, nor yet the unused beauty of the youth God loved. No, this one was a man full-formed and powerful; each line of face and body marked with strength and struggle, made to take hold of the world he would wake to, and subdue it.

I moved very quietly, reaching for my pouch. I didn’t want to wake him; the opportunity to watch him sleep came rarely. He slept like a cat, ready to spring up at any intimation of threat, and he normally rose from his bed at first light, while I was still floating on the surface of my dreams. Either he had drunk more than I thought last night, or he was in the deep sleep of healing, letting his body mend itself as he lay still.

The horn comb slid soothingly through my hair. For once, I wasn’t in a hurry. There was no baby to feed, no child to rouse and dress for school, no work waiting. No patients to see, no paperwork to do.

Nothing could be farther from the sterile confines of a hospital than this place, I thought. Early birds in search of worms were making a cheerful racket in the forest, and a cool, soft breeze blew through the clearing. I smelt a faint whiff of dried blood, and the stale ashes from last night’s fire.

Perhaps it was the scent of blood that had made me remember the hospital. From the moment I first walked into one, I had known it to be my sphere, my natural place. And yet I was not out of place, here in the wild-wood. I thought that odd.

The ends of my hair brushed my nak*d shoulder blades with a pleasant, tickling feel, and the air was cool enough that the small breeze made my skin ripple with gooseflesh, my n**ples standing up in tiny puckers. So I hadn’t imagined it, I thought, with an inward smile. I certainly hadn’t taken my own clothes off before retiring.

I pushed back the thick linen blanket, and saw the flecks of dried blood, smears on my thighs and belly. I felt dampness ooze between my legs, and drew a finger between them. Milky, with a musky scent not my own.

That was enough to bring back the shadow of the dream—or what I had thought must be one; the great bulk of the bear looming over me, darker than the night and reeking of blood, a rush of terror that kept my dream—heavy limbs from moving. My lying limp, pretending death, as he nudged and nuzzled, breath hot on my skin, fur soft on my br**sts, gentleness amazing for a beast.

Then that one sharp moment of consciousness; of cold, then hot, as bare skin, not bearskin, touched my own, and then the dizzy slide back into drunken dreaming, the slow and forceful coupling, cli**x fading into sleep…with a soft Scottish growling in my ear.

I looked down and saw the strawberry crescent of a bite mark on my shoulder.

“No wonder you’re still asleep,” I said in accusation. The sun had touched the curve of his cheek, lighting the eyebrow on that side like a match touched to kindling. He didn’t open his eyes, but a slow, sweet smile spread across his face in answer.

The Indians had left us a portion of the bear meat, tidily wrapped in oiled skin and hung from the branches of a nearby tree to discourage the attentions of skunks and raccoons. After breakfast and a hasty bath in the creek, Jamie took his bearings by sun and mountain.

“That way,” he said, nodding toward a distant blue peak. “See where it makes a notch wi’ the shorter one? On the other side, it’s the Indians’ land; the new Treaty Line follows that ridge.”

“Someone actually surveyed through there?” I peered unbelievingly at the vista of saw-toothed mountain ranges rising from valleys filled with morning mist. The mountains rose ahead of us like an endless series of floating mirages, fading from black-green to blue to purple, the farthest peaks etched black and needle-sharp against a crystal sky.

“Oh, aye.” He swung up into his saddle, turning his horse’s head so the sun fell over his shoulder. “They had to, to say for sure which land could be taken for settling. I made sure of the boundary before we left Wilmington, and Myers said the same—this side of the highest ridge. I did think to ask the fellows who dined with us last night, though, only to be sure they thought so, too.” He grinned down at me. “Ready, Sassenach?”

“As I’ll ever be,” I assured him, and turned my horse to follow.

He had rinsed out his shirt—or what was left of it—in the stream. The stained rag of linen was spread out to dry behind his saddle, leaving him half-naked in leather riding breeks, his plaid wrapped carelessly round his waist. The long scratches left by the bear’s attack were black across his fair skin, but there was no visible inflammation, and from the ease with which he moved in the saddle, the wounds seemed not to trouble him.

Neither did anything else, so far as I could see. The tinge of wariness he always bore was still with him; it had been part of him since boyhood—but some weight had lifted in the night. I thought perhaps it was our meeting with the three hunters; this first encounter with savages had been vastly reassuring to us both, and seemed substantially to have eased Jamie’s visions of tomahawk-wielding cannibals behind every tree.

Or it might be the trees themselves—or the mountains. His spirits had grown lighter with every foot upward from the coastal plain. I couldn’t help sharing his apparent joy—but at the same time, felt a growing dread of what that joy might lead to.

By midmorning the slopes had grown too thickly forested to ride any farther. Looking up a nearly vertical rock face into a dizzying tangle of dark branches, sparked with gold and green and brown, I was inclined to think the horses were lucky to be stopping at the bottom. We hobbled them near a stream, thick with grass along its edge, and plunged in on foot, onward and upward, ever deeper into the bloody Forest Primeval.

Towering pines and hemlocks, was it? I thought, clambering over the burled knots of a fallen tree. The monstrous trunks rose so high that the lowest limbs started twenty feet above my head. Longfellow had no idea.

The air was damp, cool but fecund, and my moccasins sank soundlessly into centuries-thick black leaf mold. My own footprint in the soft mud of a stream bank seemed strange and sudden as a dinosaur’s track.

We reached the top of a ridge, only to find another before us, and another beyond. I did not know what we might be looking for, or how we would know if we found it. Jamie covered miles with his tireless hill-walker’s stride, taking in everything. I tagged behind, enjoying the scenery, pausing now and then to gather some fascinating plant or root, stowing my treasures in the bag at my belt.

We made our way along the back of one ridge, only to find our way blocked by a great heath bald: a patch of mountain laurel that looked from a distance like a shiny bare patch among the dark conifers, but closer to, proved to be an impenetrable thicket, its springy branches interwoven like a basket.

We backtracked, and turned downward, out from under the huge fragrant firs, across slopes of wild timothy and muhly grass that had gone bright yellow in the sun, and at last back into the soothing green of oak and hickory, on a wooded bluff that overlooked a small and nameless river.

It was cool under the trees’ sudden shade, and I sighed in relief, lifting the hair off my neck to admit a breath of air. Jamie heard me and turned, smiling, holding back a limber branch so that I could follow him.

We didn’t talk much; aside from the breath required for climbing, the mountain itself seemed to inhibit speech; full of secret green places, it was a vivid offspring of the ancient Scottish mountains, thick with forest, and twice the height of those barren black parental crags. Still, its air held the same injunction to silence, the same promise of enchantment.

The ground here was covered in a foot-deep layer of fallen leaves, soft and spongy underfoot, and the spaces between the trees seemed illusionary, as though to pass between those huge, lichened trunks might transport one suddenly to another dimension of reality.

Jamie’s hair sparked in the occasional shafts of sunlight, a torch to follow through the shadows of the wood. It had darkened somewhat over the years, to a deep, rich auburn, but the long days of riding and walking in the sun had bleached his crown to copper fire. He had lost the thong that bound his hair; he paused, and brushed the thick damp locks back from his face, so that I saw the startling streak of white just above one temple. Normally hidden among the darker red, it showed rarely—a legacy of the bullet wound received in the cave of Abandawe.

Despite the warmth of the day, I shivered slightly in recollection. I would greatly have preferred to forget Haiti and its savage mysteries altogether, but there was little hope of that. Sometimes, on the verge of sleep, I would hear the voice of the cave-wind, and the nagging echo of the thought that came in its wake: Where else?

We climbed a granite ledge, thick with moss and lichen, wet with the omnipresent flow of water, then followed the path of a descending freshet, brushing aside long grass that pulled at our legs, dodging the drooping branches of mountain laurel and the thick-leaved rhododendrons.

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