Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 78

   

“Gracious,” I said. “And here I thought the cold…”

“It’ll be warm enough soon,” he assured me. “Get them off, aye?”

It was rather awkward, given the cramped quarters, the difficulty of staying covered in order not to suffer frostbite in any exposed portions, and the fact that Jamie was able to lend only the most basic assistance, but we managed quite satisfactorily nonetheless.

What with one thing and another, I was rather preoccupied, though, and it was only during a temporary lull in the activities that I became aware of an uneasy sensation, as though I was being watched. I lifted myself on my hands and glanced out through the screen of hemlock, but saw nothing beyond the grove and the snow-covered slope below.

Jamie gave a low groan.

“Don’t stop,” he murmured, eyes half closed. “What is it?”

“I thought I heard something,” I said, lowering myself onto his chest again.

At this, I did hear something; a laugh, low but distinct, directly above my head.

I rolled off in a tangle of cloaks and discarded buckskins, while Jamie cursed and snatched for his pistol.

He flung aside the branches with a swoosh, pointing the pistol upward.

From the top of the rock above, several heads peered over, all grinning. Ian, and four companions from Anna Ooka. The Indians murmured and snickered among themselves, seeming to find something immoderately funny.

Jamie laid the pistol down, scowling up at his nephew.

“And what the devil are you doin’ here, Ian?”

“Why, I was on my way home to keep Christmas with ye, Uncle,” Ian said, grinning hugely.

Jamie eyed his nephew with marked disfavor.

“Christmas,” he said. “Bah, humbug.”

The elk carcass had frozen in the night. The sight of ice crystals frosting its blank eyes made me shudder—not at the sight of death; that was quite beautiful, with the great dark body so still, crusted with snow—but at the thought that had I not yielded to my sense of uneasiness and gone out into the night searching for Jamie, the stark still life before my eyes might well have been entitled “Dead Scotsman in Snow” rather than “Frozen Elk with Arguing Indians.”

The discussion at last concluded to their satisfaction, Ian informed me that they had decided to return to Anna Ooka, but would see us safely home, in return for a share of the elk meat.

The carcass had not frozen solidly through; they eviscerated it, leaving the cooling entrails in a heap of blue-gray coils, splotched with black blood. After chopping off the head to further lessen the weight, two of the men slung the body upside down from a pole, its legs tied together. Jamie eyed them darkly, obviously suspecting that they meant to give him the same treatment, but Ian assured him that they could manage a travois; the men were afoot, but they had brought one sturdy pack mule to carry any skins they took.

The weather had improved; the snow had melted altogether from the exposed ground, and while the air was still crisp and cold, the sky was a blinding blue, and the forest coldly pungent with the scents of spruce and balsam fir.

It was the smell of hemlock, as we passed through one grove, that reminded me of the beginning of this hegira, and the mysterious band of Indians we had seen.

“Ian,” I said, catching up to him. “Just before you and your friends found us on the mountainside, we saw a band of Indians, with a Jesuit priest. They weren’t from Anna Ooka, I don’t think—do you have any idea who they might have been?”

“Oh, aye, Auntie. I ken all about them.” He wiped a mittened hand under his red-tipped nose. “We were following them, when we found you.”

The strange Indians, he said, were Mohawk, come from far north. The Tuscarora had been adopted by the Iroquois League some fifty years before, and there was a close association with the Mohawk, with frequent exchanges of visits between the two, both formal and informal.

The present visit held elements of both—it was a party of young Mohawk men, in search of wives. Their own village having a shortage of marriageable young women, they had determined to come south, to see if suitable mates might be found among the Tuscarora.

“See, a woman must belong to the proper clan,” Ian explained. “If she is the wrong clan, they canna be marrit.”

“Like MacDonalds and Campbells, aye?” Jamie chimed in, interested.

“Aye, a bit,” Ian said, grinning. “But that’s why they brought the priest wi’ them—if they found women, they could be married at once, and not have to sleep in a cold bed all the way home.”

“They’re Christians, then?”

Ian shrugged.

“Some of them. The Jesuits have been among them for some time, and a good many of the Huron are converts. Not so many among the Mohawk, though.”

“So they’d been to Anna Ooka?” I asked, curious. “Why were you and your friends following them?”

Ian snorted, and tightened the muffler of squirrel skins around his neck.

“They may be allies, Auntie, but it doesna mean Nacognaweto and his braves trust them. Even the other Nations of the Iroquois League are afraid of the Mohawk—Christian or no.”

It was near sunset when we came in sight of the cabin. I was cold and tired, but my heart lifted inexpressibly at the sight of the tiny homestead. One of the mules in the penfold, a light gray creature named Clarence, saw us and brayed enthusiastically in welcome, making the rest of the horses crowd up next to the rails, eager for food.

“The horses look fine.” Jamie, with a stockman’s eye, looked first to the animals’ welfare. I was rather more concerned with our own; getting inside, getting warm, and getting fed, as soon as possible.

We invited Ian’s friends to stay, but they declined, unloading Jamie in the dooryard and vanishing quickly to resume their vigilance over the departing Mohawk.

“They dinna like to stay in a white person’s house, Auntie,” Ian explained. “They think we smell bad.”

“Oh, really?” I said in pique, thinking of a certain elderly gentleman I had met in Anna Ooka, who appeared to have smeared himself with bear grease and then had himself sewn into his clothes for the winter. The pot calling the kettle black, if you asked me.

Much later, Christmas properly kept with a dram—or two—of whisky all round, we lay at last in our own bed, watching the flames of the newly kindled fire, and listening to Ian’s peaceful snores.

“It’s good to be home again,” I said softly.

“It is.” Jamie sighed and pulled me closer, my head tucked into the curve of his shoulder. “I did have the strangest dreams, sleeping in the cold.”

“You did?” I stretched, luxuriating in the soft yielding of the feather-stuffed mattress. “What did you dream about?”

“All kinds of things.” He sounded a bit shy. “I dreamt of Brianna, now and again.”

“Really?” That was a little startling; I too had dreamt of Brianna in our icy shelter—something I seldom did.

“I did wonder…” Jamie hesitated for a moment. “Has she a birthmark, Sassenach? And if so, did ye tell me of it?”

“She does,” I said slowly, thinking. “I don’t think I ever told you about it, though; it isn’t visible most of the time, so it’s been years since I noticed it, myself. It’s a—”

His hand tightening on my shoulder stopped me.

“It’s a wee brown mark, shaped like a diamond,” he said. “Just behind her left ear. Isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” It was warm and cozy in bed, but a small coolness on the back of my neck made me shiver suddenly. “Did you see that in your dream?”

“I kissed her there,” he said softly.

22

SPARK OF AN ANCIENT FLAME

Oxford, September 1970

Oh, Jesus.” Roger stared at the page in front of him until the letters lost their meaning and became no more than curlicues. No such trick would erase the meaning of the words themselves; those were already carved into his mind.

“Oh, God, no!” he said out loud. The girl in the next carrel jerked in irritation at the noise, scraping the legs of her chair against the floor.

He leaned over the book, covering it with his forearms, eyes closed. He felt sick, and the palms of his hands were cold and sweaty.

He sat that way for several minutes, fighting the truth. It wasn’t going to go away, though. Christ, it had already happened, hadn’t it? A long time ago. And you couldn’t change the past.

Finally he swallowed the taste of bile in the back of his throat and looked again. It was still there. A small notice from a newspaper, printed on February 13, 1776, in the American Colony of North Carolina, in the town of Wilmington.

It is with grief that the news is received of the deaths by fire of James MacKenzie Fraser and his wife, Claire Fraser, in a conflagration that destroyed their house in the settlement of Fraser’s Ridge, on the night of January 21 last. Mr. Fraser, a nephew of the late Hector Cameron of River Run plantation, was born at Broch Tuarach in Scotland. He was widely known in the colony and deeply respected; he leaves no surviving children.

Except that he did.

Roger grasped for a moment at the dim hope that it wasn’t them; there were, after all, any number of James Frasers, it was a fairly common name. But not James MacKenzie Fraser, not with a wife named Claire. Not born in Broch Tuarach, Scotland.

No, it was them; the sick certainty filled his chest and squeezed his throat with grief. His eyes stung and the ornate eighteenth-century typeface blurred again.

So she had found him, Claire. Found her gallant Highlander, and enjoyed at least a few years with him. He hoped they had been good years. He had liked Claire Randall very much—no, that was to damn her with faint praise. If he were truthful, he had loved her, and for her own sake as well as her daughter’s.

More than that. He had wanted badly for her to find her Jamie Fraser, to live happily ever after with him. The knowledge—or more accurately, the hope—that she had done so had been a small talisman to him; a witness that enduring love was possible, a love strong enough to withstand separation and hardship, strong enough to outlast time. And yet all flesh was mortal; no love could outlast that fact.

He gripped the edge of the table, trying to get himself under control. Foolish, he told himself. Thoroughly foolish. And yet he felt as bereft as he had when the Reverend had died; as though he were himself newly orphaned.

Realization came as a fresh blow. He couldn’t show this to Bree, he couldn’t. She’d known the risk, of course, but—no. She wouldn’t have imagined anything like this.

It was the purest chance that had led him to find it. He had been looking for the lyrics of old ballads to add to his repertoire, thumbing through a book of country songs. An illustration had shown the original newspaper page on which one ballad had first been published, and Roger, idly browsing, had glanced at the archaic notices posted on the same newspaper page, his eye caught by the name “Fraser.”

The shock was beginning to wear off a little, though grief had settled in the pit of his stomach, nagging as the pain of an ulcer. He was a scholar and the son of a scholar; he had grown up surrounded by books, imbued since childhood with the sanctity of the printed word. He felt like a murderer as he groped for his penknife and stealthily opened it, glancing around to be sure he was unobserved.

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