Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 69


“I’ve never seen Buckingham Palace,” he said, rather mildly. He paused. “I do take your point, though, Sassenach.”

“Good.” I bent closely over his palm, squinting to make out the small dark streaks of splinters, trapped beneath the skin.

“I suppose it willna fall down, at least,” he said, after a longer pause.

“Shouldn’t think so.” I dabbed a cloth to the neck of the brandy bottle, swabbed his hand with it, then turned my attention to his right hand.

He didn’t speak for a time. The fire crackled softly to itself, flaring up now and then as a draft reached in between the logs to tickle it.

“The house is going to be on the high ridge,” he said suddenly. “Where the strawberries grow.”

“Will it?” I murmured. “The cabin, you mean? I thought that was going to be at the side of the clearing.” I’d taken out as many splinters as I could; those that were left were so deeply embedded that I would have to wait for them to work their way nearer the surface.

“No, not the cabin. A fine house,” he said softly. He leaned back against the rough logs, looking across the fire, out through the chinks to the darkness beyond. “Wi’ a staircase, and glass windows.”

“That will be grand.” I laid the tweezers back in their slot, and closed the box.

“Wi’ high ceilings, and a doorway high enough I shall never bump my heid going in.”

“That will be lovely.” I leaned back beside him, and rested my head on his shoulder. Somewhere in the far distance, a wolf howled. Rollo lifted his head with a soft wuff!, listened for a moment, then lay down again with a sigh.

“With a stillroom for you, and a study for me, lined with shelves for my books.”

“Mmmm.” At the moment, he possessed one book—The Natural History of North Carolina, published 1733, brought along as guide and reference.

The fire was burning low again, but neither of us moved to add more wood. The embers would warm us through the night, to be rekindled with the dawn.

Jamie put an arm around my shoulders, and tilting sideways, took me with him to lie curled together on the thick layer of fallen leaves that was our couch.

“And a bed,” I said. “You could build a bed, I expect?”

“As fine as any in Buckingham Palace,” he said.

Myers, bless his kindly heart and faithful nature, did return within the month—bringing not only three pack-mules laden with tools, small furnishings, and necessities such as salt, but also Duncan Innes.

“Here?” Innes looked interestedly over the tiny homestead that had begun to take shape on the strawberry-covered ridge. We had two sturdy sheds now, plus a split-railed penfold in which to keep the horses and any other stock we might acquire.

At the moment, our total stock consisted of a small white piglet, which Jamie had obtained from a Moravian settlement thirty miles away, exchanging for it a bag of sweet yams I had gathered and a bundle of willow-twig brooms I had made. Rather too small for the penfold, it had so far been living in the shed with us, where it had become fast friends with Rollo. I wasn’t quite so fond of it myself.

“Aye. It’s decent land, with plenty of water; there are springs in the wood, and the creek all through.”

Jamie guided Duncan to a spot from which the western slopes below the ridge were visible; there were natural breaks, or “coves” in the forest, now overgrown with tangles of wild grass, but ultimately suitable for cultivation.

“D’ye see?” He gestured over the slope, which ran down gently from the ridge to a small bluff, where a line of sycamores marked the distant river’s edge. “There’s room there for at least thirty homesteads, to start. We’d need to clear a deal of forest, but there’s space enough to begin. Any crofter worth his salt could feed his family from a garden plot, the soil’s so rich.”

Duncan had been a fisherman, not a farmer, but he nodded obediently, eyes fixed on the vista as Jamie peopled it with future houses.

“I’ve paced it out,” Jamie was saying, “though it will have to be surveyed properly as soon as may be. But I’ve the description of it in my head—did ye by chance bring ink and paper?”

“Aye, we did. And a few other things, as well.” Duncan smiled at me, his long, rather melancholy face transformed by the expression. “Miss Jo’s sent a feather bed, which she thought might not come amiss.”

“A feather bed? Really? How wonderful!” I immediately dismissed any ungenerous thoughts I had ever harbored about Jocasta Cameron. While Jamie had built us an excellent, sturdy bedstead framed in oakwood, with the bottom ingeniously made of laced rope, I had had nothing to lay on it save cedar branches, which were fragrant but unpleasantly lumpy.

My thoughts of luxuriant wallowing were interrupted by the emergence from the woods of Ian and Myers, the latter with a brace of squirrels hung from his belt. Ian proudly presented me with an enormous black object, which on closer inspection proved to be a turkey, fat from gorging on the autumn grains.

“Boy’s got a nice eye, Mrs. Claire,” said Myers, nodding approvingly. “Those be wily birds, turkeys. Even the Indians don’t take ’em easy.”

It was early for Thanksgiving, but I was delighted with the bird, which would be the first substantial item in our larder. So was Jamie, though his pleasure lay more in the thing’s tail feathers, which would provide him with a good supply of quills.

“I must write to the Governor,” he explained over dinner, “to say that I shall be taking up his offer, and to give the particulars of the land.” He picked up a chunk of cake and bit into it absently.

“Do watch out for nutshells,” I said, a little nervously. “You don’t want to break a tooth.”

Dinner consisted of trout grilled over the fire, yams baked in it, wild plums, and a very crude cake made of flour from hickory nuts, ground up in my mortar. We had been living mostly on fish and what edible vegetation I could scrounge, Ian and Jamie having been too busy with the building to take time to hunt. I rather hoped that Myers would see fit to stay for a bit—long enough to bag a deer or some other nice large source of protein. A winter of dried fish seemed a little daunting.

“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” Jamie murmured through a mouthful of cake, and smiled at me. “It’s good.” He turned his attention to Duncan.

“When we’ve done with eating, Duncan, you’ll maybe walk wi’ me to the river, and choose your place?”

Innes’s face went blank, then flushed with a mixture of pleasure and dismay.

“My place? Land, ye mean, Mac Dubh?” Involuntarily, he hunched the shoulder on the side with the missing arm.

“Aye, land.” Jamie speared a hot yam with a sharpened stick, and began to peel it carefully with his fingers, not looking at Innes. “I shall be needing you to act as my agent, Duncan—if ye will. It’s only right ye should be paid. Now, what I am thinking—if ye should find it fair, mind—is that I shall make the claim for a homestead in your name, but as ye willna be here to work it, Ian and I will see to putting a bit of your land to corn, and to building a wee croft there. Then come time, you shall have a place to settle, if ye like, and a bit of corn put by. Will that suit ye, do ye think?”

Duncan’s face had been going through an array of emotions as Jamie spoke, from dismay to amazement to a cautious sort of excitement. The last thing that would ever have occurred to him was that he might own land. Penniless, and unable to work with his hands, in Scotland he would have lived as a beggar—if he had lived at all.

“Why—” he began, then stopped and swallowed, knobbly Adam’s apple bobbing. “Aye, Mac Dubh. That will suit fine.” A small, incredulous smile had formed on his face as Jamie spoke, and stayed there, as though Duncan were unaware of it.

“Agent.” He swallowed again, and reached for one of the bottles of ale he had brought. “What will ye have me to do for ye, Mac Dubh?”

“The two things, Duncan, and ye will. First is to find me settlers.” Jamie waved a hand at the beginnings of our new cabin, which so far consisted entirely of a fieldstone foundation, the framing of the floor, and a wide slab of dark slate selected for the hearthstone, presently leaning against the foundation.

“I canna be leaving here just at present, myself. What I want ye to do is to find as many as ye can of the men who were transported from Ardsmuir. They’ll have been scattered, but they came through Wilmington; a many of them will be in North or South Carolina. Find as many as ye can, tell them what I’m about here—and bring as many as are willing here in the spring.”

Duncan was nodding slowly, lips pursed beneath his drooping mustache. Few men wore such facial adornment, but it suited him, making him look like a thin but benevolent walrus.

“Verra well,” he said. “And the second?”

Jamie glanced at me, then at Duncan.

“My aunt,” he said. “Will ye undertake to help her, Duncan? She’s great need of an honest man, who can deal wi’ the naval bastards and speak for her in business.”

Duncan had showed no hesitation in agreeing to comb several hundred miles of colony in search of settlers for our enterprise, but the notion of dealing with naval bastards struck him with profound uneasiness.

“Business? But I dinna ken aught of—”

“Dinna fash,” Jamie said, smiling at his friend, and the adjuration worked on Duncan as well as it did on me; I could see the mounting uneasiness in Duncan’s eyes begin to recede. For roughly the ten-thousandth time, I wondered how he did it.

“It’ll be little trouble to ye,” Jamie said soothingly. “My aunt kens well enough what’s to be done; she can tell ye what to say and what to do—it’s only she needs a man for the saying and doing of it. I shall write a letter to her, for ye to take back, explaining that ye’ll be pleased to act for her.”

During the latter part of this conversation, Ian had been digging about in the packs that had been unloaded from the mules. Now he withdrew a flat piece of metal, and squinted at it curiously.

“What’s this?” he asked, of no one in particular. He held it out for us to see; a flat piece of dark metal, pointed at one end like a knife, with rudimentary crosspieces. It looked like a small dirk that had been run over by a steamroller.

“Iron for your hearth.” Duncan reached for the piece, and handed it, handle-first, to Jamie. “It was Miss Jo’s thought.”

“Was it? That was kind.” Jamie’s face was weathered to deep bronze by long days in the open, but I saw the faint flush of pink on the side of his neck. His thumb stroked the smooth surface of the iron, and then he handed it to me.

“Keep it safe, Sassenach,” he said. “We’ll bless our hearth before Duncan leaves.”

I could see that he was deeply touched by the gift, but didn’t understand entirely why, until Ian had explained to me that one buries iron beneath a new hearth, to ensure blessing and prosperity on the house.