Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 74


I barred the door, ate some supper without tasting it, smoored the fire with damp hickory, and lay down to sleep. He might have met some men from Anna Ooka and be camped with them.

The scent of hickory smoke floated in the air, wisps of white curling up over the hearth. The beams above were already black with soot, though fires had burned here for no more than two months now. Fresh resin still oozed from the timber by my head, in small gold droplets that glowed like honey and smelled of turpentine, sharp and clean. The ax strokes in the wood showed in the firelight, and I had a sudden, vivid memory of Jamie’s broad back, sheened with sweat as he swung the ax, over and over in strokes like clockwork, the ax blade coming down in a flash of metal inches from his foot as he worked his way along the squared rough timber.

It was awfully easy to misjudge the stroke of an ax or hatchet. He might have cut wood for his fire and missed his stroke, caught an arm or leg. My imagination, always eager to help out, promptly supplied a crystal-clear vision of arterial blood spurting onto white snow in a crimson spray.

I flounced over onto my side. He knew how to live outdoors. He’d spent seven years in a cave, for heaven’s sake!

In Scotland, said my imagination, cynically. Where the biggest carnivore is a wildcat the size of a house cat. Where the biggest human threat was English soldiers.

“Fiddlesticks!” I said, and rolled onto my back. “He’s a grown man and he’s armed to the teeth and he certainly knows what to do if it’s snowing!”

What would he do? I wondered. Find or make shelter, I supposed. I recalled the crude lean-to he’d built for us when we first camped on the ridge, and felt a little reassured. If he hadn’t hurt himself, he probably wouldn’t freeze to death.

If he hadn’t hurt himself. If something else hadn’t hurt him. The bears were presumably fat and fast asleep, but the wolves still hunted in winter, and the catamounts; I recalled the one I had met by the stream, and shivered in spite of the feather bed.

I rolled onto my stomach, the quilts drawn up around my shoulders. It was warm in the cabin, warmer in the bed, but my hands and feet were still icy. I longed for Jamie, in a visceral way that had nothing to do with thought or reason. To be alone with Jamie was bliss, adventure, and absorption. To be alone without him was…to be alone.

I could hear the whisper of snow against the oiled hide that covered the window near my head. If it kept up, his tracks would be covered by morning. And if anything had happened to him…

I flung back the quilts and got up. I dressed quickly, without thinking too much about what I was doing; I’d thought too much already. I put on my woolen cutty sark for insulation beneath my buckskins, and two pairs of stockings. I thanked God that my boots were freshly greased with otter fat; they smelt very fishy, but would keep the damp out for a good while.

He had taken the hatchet; I had to split another piece of fat pine with a mallet and wedge, cursing my slowness as I did so. Having now decided on action, every small delay seemed an unbearable irritation. The long-grained wood split easily, though; I had five decent faggots, four of which I bound with a leather strap. I thrust the end of the fifth deep into the smoky embers of the fire, and waited till the end was well caught.

Then I tied a small medicine bag about my waist, checked to be sure I had the pouch of flints and kindling, put on my cloak, took up my bundle and my torch, and set out into the falling snow.

It was not as cold as I had feared; once I began moving, I was quite warm inside my wrappings. It was very quiet; there was no wind, and the whisper of the snowfall drowned all the usual noises of the night.

He had meant to walk his trapline, that much I knew. If he came across promising sign en route, though, he would have followed it. The previous snow lay thin and patchy on the ground, but the earth was soaked, and Jamie was a big man; I was fairly sure I could follow his track, if I came across it. And if I came across him, denned up for the night near his kill, so much the better. Two slept much better than one in the cold.

Past the bare chestnuts that ringed our clearing to the west, I turned uphill. I had no great sense of direction, but could certainly tell up from down. Jamie had also carefully taught me to navigate using large, immutable landmarks. I glanced toward the falls, their white cascade no more than a blur in the distance. I couldn’t hear them; what wind there was must be away from me.

“When you’re hunting, ye want the wind toward ye,” Jamie had explained. “So the stag or the hare wilna scent ye.”

I wondered uncomfortably what might be out in the dark, scenting me on the snowborne air. I wasn’t armed, save for my torch. The light glittered red on the crust of packed snow, and shattered from the ice that coated every twig. If I got within a quarter-mile of him, he’d see me.

The first snare was set in a small dell no more than two hundred yards uphill from the cabin, amid a grove of spruce and hemlock. I had been with him when he set it, but that had been in daylight; even with the torch, everything looked strange and unfamiliar by night.

I cast to and fro, bending close to bring my light near the ground. It took several journeys back and forth across the little dell before I finally spotted what I was looking for—the dark indentation of a foot in a patch of snow between two spruce trees. A little more looking and I found the snare, still set. Either it had caught nothing, or he had removed the catch and reset it.

The footprints led out of the clearing and upward again, then disappeared in a bare patch of matted dead leaves. A moment’s panic as I crisscrossed the patch, looking for a scuffled place that might be a footprint. Nothing showed; the leaves must be a foot thick here, spongy and resilient. But there! Yes, there was a log overturned; I could see the dark, wet furrow where it had lain, and the scuffed moss on its side. Ian had told me that squirrels and chipmunks sometimes hibernated in the cavities under logs.

Very slowly, constantly losing the trail and having to circle and backtrack to find it again, I followed him from one snare to another. The snow was falling thicker and faster, and I felt some uneasiness. If it covered his tracks before I found him, how would I find my way back to the cabin?

I looked back, but could see nothing behind me but a long, treacherous slope of unbroken snow that fell to the dark line of an unfamiliar brook below, its rocks poking up like teeth. No sign of the cheerful plume of smoke and sparks from our chimney. I turned slowly round in a circle, but I could no longer see the falls, either.

“Fine,” I muttered to myself. “You’re lost. Now what?” I sternly quelled an incipient attack of panic, and stood still to think. I wasn’t totally lost. I didn’t know where I was, but that wasn’t quite the same thing. I still had Jamie’s trail to guide me—or would have, until the snow covered it. And if I could find him, he presumably could find the cabin.

My torch was burning dangerously low; I could feel the heat of it, blistering on my hand. I extracted another of the dry faggots from under my cloak, and lit it from the stub of the first, dropping the ember just before it burned my fingers.

Was I going farther from the cabin, I wondered, or walking parallel to it? I knew that the trapline described a rough circle, but had no idea precisely how many snares there were. I had found three so far, all empty and waiting.

The fourth one wasn’t empty. My torch caught the glitter of ice crystals, fringing the fur of a large hare, stretched out under a frozen bush. I touched it, picked it up and disentangled the noose from its neck. It was stiff, whether from cold or rigor mortis. Been dead a while, then—and what did that tell me about Jamie’s whereabouts?

I tried to think logically, ignoring the increasing cold seeping through my boots and the growing numbness of face and fingers. The hare lay in snow; I could see the indentations of its pawprints, and the flurry of its death struggle. I couldn’t see any of Jamie’s footprints, though. All right; he hadn’t visited this snare, then.

I stood still, my breath forming small white clouds around my head. I could feel ice forming inside my nostrils; it was getting colder. Somewhere between the last snare and this one, he had left his path, then. Where? And where had he gone?

Urgently, I backtracked, looking for the last footprint I was sure of. It took a long time to find; the snow had nearly covered all the bare ground with a thin dusting of glitter. My second torch was half burned through before I found it again. There it was, a featureless blur in the mud on the edge of a stream. I had found the snare with the rabbit only by going in the direction I thought this footprint pointed—but evidently it didn’t. He had stepped out of the mud, and gone…where?

“Jamie!” I shouted. I called several times, but the snow seemed to swallow my voice. I listened, but heard nothing save the gurgle of the ice-rimmed water by my feet.

He wasn’t behind me, he wasn’t in front of me. Left, then, or right?

“Eeny, meeny, miney, mo,” I muttered, and turned downhill because the walking was easier, shouting now and then.

I stopped to listen. Was there an answering shout? I called again, but couldn’t make out a reply. The wind was coming up, rattling the tree limbs overhead.

I took another step, landed on an icy rock, and my foot slid out from under me. I slipped and skidded, floundering down a short, muddy slope, hit a screen of dog-hobble, burst through and clutched a handful of icy twigs, heart pounding.

At my feet was the edge of a rocky outcrop, ending in thin air. Clinging to the bush to keep from slipping, I edged my way closer, and looked over.

It was not a cliff, as I’d thought; the drop was no more than five feet. It was not this that made my heart leap into my throat, though, but rather the sight that met my eyes in the leaf-filled hollow below.

There was a flurry of tossed and scuffled leaves, reminding me unpleasantly of the death marks left by the limp rabbit that hung at my belt. Something large had struggled on the ground here—and then been dragged away. A wide furrow plowed through the leaves, disappearing into the darkness beyond.

Heedless of my footing, I scrabbled my way down the side of the outcrop and rushed toward the furrow, following it under the overhanging low branches of hemlock and balsam. In the uncertain light of my flickering torch, I followed its path around a pile of rocks, through a clump of wintergreen, and…

He was lying near the foot of a large split boulder, half covered in leaves, as though something had tried to bury him. He wasn’t curled for warmth, but lay flat on his face, and deathly still. The snow lay thick on the folds of his cloak, dusted the heels of his muddy boots.

I dropped my torch and flung myself on his body with a cry of horror.

He let out a bloodcurdling groan and convulsed under me. I jerked back, torn between relief and terror. He wasn’t dead, but he was hurt. Where, how badly?

“Where?” I demanded, wrenching at his cloak, which was tangled round his body. “Where are you hurt? Are you bleeding, have you broken something?”

I couldn’t see any large patches of blood, but I had dropped my torch, which had promptly extinguished itself in the wet leaves that covered him. The pink sky and falling snow shed a luminous glow over everything, but the light was much too dim to make out details.