Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 8

   

“Stephen Bonnet. Your servant, sir.” He made no move to extend a hand in greeting, nor did Jamie.

“Mr. Bonnet.” Jamie nodded back, face carefully blank. I didn’t know quite how he contrived to look commanding, wearing nothing but a pair of damp and dirt-stained breeks, but he managed it. He looked the visitor over, taking in every detail of his appearance.

Bonnet was what country people called “well set up,” with a tall, powerful frame and a barrel chest, his features heavy-boned but coarsely handsome. A few inches shorter than Jamie, he stood easy, balanced on the balls of his feet, fists half closed in readiness.

No stranger to a fight, judging by the slight crookedness of his nose and a small scar by the corner of his mouth. The small imperfections did nothing to mar the overall impression of animal magnetism; he was the sort of man who attracted women easily. Some women, I amended, as he cast a speculative glance at me.

“For what crime were ye condemned, Mr. Bonnet?” Jamie asked. He himself stood easy, but with a look of watchfulness that reminded me forcibly of Bonnet himself. It was the ears-back look male dogs give each other before deciding whether to fight.

“Smuggling,” Bonnet said.

Jamie didn’t reply, but tilted his head slightly. One brow rose in inquiry.

“And piracy.” A muscle twitched near Bonnet’s mouth; a poor attempt at a smile, or an involuntary quiver of fear?

“And will ye have killed anyone in the commission of your crimes, Mr. Bonnet?” Jamie’s face was blank, save for the watchful eyes. Think twice, his eyes said plainly. Or maybe three times.

“None that were not tryin’ to kill me first,” Bonnet replied. The words were easy, the tone almost flippant, but belied by the hand that closed tight into a fist by his side.

It dawned on me that Bonnet must feel he was facing judge and jury, as surely as he had faced them once before. He had no way of knowing that we were nearly as reluctant to go near the garrison soldiers as he was.

Jamie looked at Bonnet for a long moment, peering closely at him in the flickering torchlight, then nodded and took a half step back.

“Go, then,” he said quietly. “We will not hinder ye.”

Bonnet took an audible breath; I could see the big frame relax, shoulders slumping under the cheap linen shirt.

“Thank you,” he said. He wiped a hand across his face, and took another deep breath. The green eyes darted from me to Fergus to Duncan. “But will ye help me, maybe?”

Duncan, who had relaxed at Jamie’s words, gave a grunt of surprise.

“Help you? A thief?”

Bonnet’s head swiveled in Duncan’s direction. The iron collar was a dark line about his neck, giving the eerie impression that his severed head floated several inches above his shoulders.

“Help me,” he repeated. “There will be soldiers on the roads tonight—huntin’ me.” He gestured toward the wagon. “You could take me safely past them—if ye will.” He turned back to Jamie, and straightened his back, shoulders stiff. “I am begging for your help, sir, in the name of Gavin Hayes, who was my friend as well as yours—and a thief, as I am.”

The men studied him in silence for a moment, digesting this. Fergus glanced inquiringly at Jamie; the decision was his.

But Jamie, after a long, considering look at Bonnet, turned to Duncan.

“What say ye, Duncan?” Duncan gave Bonnet the same kind of look that Jamie himself had used, and finally nodded.

“For Gavin’s sake,” he said, and turned away toward the lych-gate.

“All right, then,” Jamie said. He sighed and pushed a loose lock of hair behind his ear.

“Help us to bury Gavin,” he said to our new guest, “and then we’ll go.”

An hour later, Gavin’s grave was a blank rectangle of fresh-turned earth, stark among the gray hues of the surrounding grass.

“He must have his name to mark him by,” Jamie said. Painstakingly, he scratched the letters of Gavin’s name and his dates upon a piece of smooth beach-stone, using the point of his knife. I rubbed soot from the torch into the incised letters, making a crude but readable grave marker, and Ian set this solidly into a small cairn of gathered pebbles. Atop the tiny monument, Jamie gently set the stub of candle that he had taken from the tavern.

Everyone stood awkwardly about the grave for a moment, not knowing how to take farewell. Jamie and Duncan stood close together, looking down. They would have taken final leave of many such comrades since Culloden, if often with less ceremony.

Finally Jamie nodded to Fergus, who took a dry pine twig, and lighting it from my torch, bent and touched it to the candle’s wick.

“Requiem aeternam dona ei, et lux perpetua luceat ei.…” Jamie said quietly.

“Eternal rest grant unto him, O God—and let perpetual light shine upon him.” Young Ian echoed it softly, his face solemn in the torchlight.

Without a word, we turned and left the churchyard. Behind us, the candle burned without a flicker in the still, heavy air, like the sanctuary lamp in an empty church.

The moon was high in the sky by the time we reached the military checkpoint outside the city walls. It was only a half-moon, but shed enough light for us to see the trampled dirt track of the wagon road that ran before us, wide enough for two wagons to travel abreast.

We had encountered several such points on the road between Savannah and Charleston, mostly manned by bored soldiers who waved us through without bothering to check the passes we had obtained in Georgia. The checkpoints were mostly concerned with the interception of smuggled goods, and with the capture of the odd bondservant or slave, escaped from his master.

Even filthy and unkempt, we passed notice for the most part; few travelers were in better case. Fergus and Duncan could not be indentured men, maimed as they were, and Jamie’s presence transcended his clothes; shabby coat or not, no man would take him for a servant.

Tonight was different, though. There were eight soldiers at the checkpoint, not the usual two, and all were armed and alert. Musket barrels flashed in the moonlight as the shout of “Halt! Your name and your business!” came from the dark. A lantern was hoisted up six inches from my face, blinding me for a moment.

“James Fraser, bound for Wilmington, with my family and servants.” Jamie’s voice was calm, and his hands were steady as he handed me the reins before reaching for the passes in his coat.

I kept my head down, trying to look tired and indifferent. I was tired, all right—I could have lain down in the road and slept—but far from indifferent. What did they do to you for aiding the escape of a fugitive from the gallows? I wondered. A single drop of sweat snaked its way down the back of my neck.

“Have you seen anyone along the road as you passed, sir?” The “sir” came a little reluctantly; the dilapidation of Jamie’s coat and my gown were obvious in the pool of yellow lantern light.

“A carriage that passed us from the town; I suppose you will have seen that yourselves,” Jamie answered. The sergeant replied with a grunt, checking the passes carefully, then squinting into the dark to count and see that the attendant bodies matched.

“What goods do you carry?” He handed back the passes, motioning to one of his subordinates to search the wagon. I twitched the reins inadvertently, and the horses snorted and shook their heads. Jamie’s foot nudged mine, but he didn’t look at me.

“Small household goods,” he answered, still calm. “A half of venison and a bag of salt, for provision. And a body.”

The soldier who had been reaching for the wagon covering stopped abruptly. The sergeant looked up sharply.

“A what?”

Jamie took the reins from me and wrapped them casually about his wrist. From the corner of my eye, I saw Duncan edge toward the darkness of the wood; Fergus, with his pickpocket’s skill, had already faded from view.

“The corpse of the man who was hanged this afternoon. He was known to me; I asked permission of Colonel Franklin to take him to his kinsmen in the north. That is why we travel by night,” he added delicately.

“I see.” The sergeant motioned a lantern bearer closer. He gave Jamie a long thoughtful look, eyes narrowed, and nodded. “I remember you,” he said. “You called out to him at the last. A friend, was he?”

“I knew him once. Some years ago,” he added. The sergeant nodded to his subordinate, not taking his eyes off Jamie.

“Have a look, Griswold.”

Griswold, who was perhaps fourteen, betrayed a notable lack of enthusiasm for the order, but dutifully lifted the canvas cover and raised his lantern to peer into the wagon bed. With an effort, I kept myself from turning to look.

The near horse snorted and tossed its head. If we did have to bolt, it would take several seconds for the horses to get the wagon moving. I heard Ian shift behind me, getting his hand on the club of hickory wood stowed behind the seat.

“Yes, sir, it’s a body,” Griswold reported. “In a shroud.” He dropped the canvas with an air of relief, and exhaled strongly through his nostrils.

“Fix your bayonet and give it a jab,” the sergeant said, eyes still on Jamie. I must have made a small noise, for the sergeant’s glance shifted to me.

“You’ll soil my wagon,” Jamie objected. “The man’s fair ripe, after a day in the sun, aye?”

The sergeant snorted impatiently. “Jab it in the leg, then. Get on, Griswold!”

With a marked air of reluctance, Griswold affixed his bayonet, and standing on tiptoe, began to poke gingerly about in the wagon bed. Behind me, Ian had begun to whistle softly. A Gaelic tune whose title translated to “In the Morn We Die,” which I thought very tasteless of him.

“No, sir, he’s dead all right.” Griswold dropped back on his heels, sounding relieved. “I poked right hard, but not a twitch.”

“All right, then.” Dismissing the young soldier with a jerk of his hand, the sergeant nodded to Jamie. “Drive on then, Mr. Fraser. But I’d advise you to choose your friends more carefully in future.”

I saw Jamie’s knuckles whiten on the reins, but he only drew himself up straight and settled his hat more firmly on his head. He clicked his tongue and the horses set off sharply, leaving puffs of pale dust floating in the lantern light.

The darkness seemed engulfing after the light; despite the moon, I could see almost nothing. The night enfolded us. I felt the relief of a hunted animal that finds safe refuge, and in spite of the oppressive heat, I breathed more freely.

We covered a distance of nearly a quarter mile before anyone spoke.

“Are ye wounded, Mr. Bonnet?” Ian spoke in a loud whisper, just audible over the rattle of the wagon.

“Yes, he’s pinked me in the thigh, damn the puppy.” Bonnet’s voice was low, but calm. “Thank Christ he left off before the blood soaked through the shroud. Dead men don’t bleed.”

“Are you hurt badly? Shall I come back and have a look at it?” I twisted around. Bonnet had pushed back the canvas cover and was sitting up, a vague pale shape in the darkness.

“No, I thank ye, ma’am. I’ve my stocking wound round it and ’twill serve well enough, I expect.” My night vision was returning; I could see the gleam of fair hair as he bent his head to his task.

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