Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 9

   

“Can ye walk, do ye think?” Jamie slowed the horses to a walk, and twisted round to inspect our guest. While his tone was not inhospitable, it was clear that he would prefer to be rid of our dangerous cargo as soon as possible.

“Not easily, no. I’m that sorry, sir.” Bonnet was aware of Jamie’s eagerness to be rid of him, too. With some difficulty, he hoisted himself up in the wagon bed, rising onto his good knee behind the seat. His lower half was invisible in darkness, but I could smell the blood on him, a sharper scent than the lingering faint reek of Gavin’s shroud.

“A suggestion, Mr. Fraser. In three miles, we’ll come to the Ferry Trail road. A mile past the crossroads, another road leads toward the coast. It’s little more than a pair of ruts, but passable. That will take us to the edge of a creek with an outlet to the sea. Some associates of mine will be puttin’ in to anchor there within the week; if ye would grant me some small stock of provisions, I can await them in reasonable safety, and you can be on your way, free o’ the taint of my company.”

“Associates? Ye mean pirates?” Ian’s voice held a certain amount of wariness. Having been abducted from Scotland by pirates, he invested such persons with none of the romanticism normal to a fifteen-year-old.

“That would depend upon your perspective, lad.” Bonnet sounded amused. “Certainly the governors of the Carolinas would call them so; the merchants of Wilmington and Charleston perhaps regard them otherwise.”

Jamie gave a brief snort. “Smugglers, aye? And what might these associates of yours be dealing in, then?”

“Whatever will fetch a price to make it worth the risk of carrying.” The amusement had not left Bonnet’s voice, but was now tinged with cynicism. “Will you be wanting some reward for your assistance? That can be managed.”

“I do not.” Jamie’s voice was cold. “I saved you for Gavin Hayes’ sake, and for my own. I wouldna seek reward for such service.”

“I meant no offense to ye, sir.” Bonnet’s head inclined slightly toward us.

“None taken,” Jamie answered shortly. He shook out the reins and wrapped them afresh, changing hands.

Conversation lapsed after this small clash, though Bonnet continued to ride kneeling behind us, peering over my shoulder at the dark road ahead. There were no more soldiers, though; nothing moved, not even a breath of wind in the leaves. Nothing disturbed the silence of the summer night save the occasional thin zeek of a passing night bird, or the hooting of an owl.

The soft rhythmic thump of the horses’ hooves in the dust and the squeak and rattle of the wagon began to lull me to sleep. I tried to keep upright, watching the black shadows of the trees along the road, but found myself gradually inclining toward Jamie, my eyes falling shut despite my best efforts.

Jamie transferred the reins to his left hand, and putting his right arm around me, drew me down to rest against his shoulder. As always, I felt safe when I touched him. I went limp, cheek pressed against the dusty serge of his coat, and fell at once into that uneasy doze that is the consequence of a combination of utter exhaustion and the inability to lie down.

I opened my eyes once to see the tall, lean figure of Duncan Innes, pacing alongside the wagon with his tireless hillman’s stride, head bowed as though in deep thought. Then I closed them again, and drifted into a doze in which memories of the day mingled with inchoate fragments of dreams. I dreamt of a giant skunk sleeping under a tavern’s table, waking to join in a chorus of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then of a swinging corpse that raised its lolling head and grinned with empty eyes…I came awake to find Jamie gently shaking me.

“Ye’d best crawl into the back and lie down, Sassenach,” he said. “You’re craicklin’ in your sleep. You’ll be slippin’ into the road, next thing.”

Blearily assenting, I clambered awkwardly over the seat back, changing places with Bonnet, and found a place in the wagonbed next to the slumbering form of Young Ian.

It smelt musty—and worse—in the wagon bed. Ian had his head pillowed on a packet of roughly butchered venison, wrapped in the untanned skin of the deer. Rollo had done somewhat better, his hairy muzzle resting comfortably on Ian’s stomach. For myself, I took the leathern bag of salt. The smooth leather was hard under my cheek, but odorless.

The jolting boards of the wagon bed couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be called comfortable, but the relief of being able to stretch out at full length was so overwhelming that I scarcely noticed the bumps and jolts. I rolled onto my back and looked up into the hazy immensity of the southern sky, studded thick with blazing stars. Lumen Christi, I thought, and comforted by the thought of Gavin Hayes finding his way safe home by the lights of heaven, fell once more fast asleep.

I could not tell how long I slept, wrapped in a drugged blanket of heat and exhaustion. I woke when the pace of the wagon changed, swimming toward the surface of consciousness, drenched with sweat.

Bonnet and Jamie were talking, in the low, easy tones of men who had found their way past the early awkwardness of first acquaintance.

“You said that ye saved me for Gavin Hayes’ sake—and for your own,” Bonnet was saying. His voice was soft, barely audible above the rumble of the wheels. “What did ye mean by that, sir, and ye’ll pardon my asking—?”

Jamie didn’t answer at once; I nearly fell asleep again before he spoke, but at last his answer came, floating disembodied in the warm, dark air.

“Ye wilna have slept much last night, I think? Knowing what was to come to ye with the day?”

There was a low laugh from Bonnet, not entirely amused.

“Too right,” he said. “I doubt I shall forget it in a hurry.”

“Nor will I.” Jamie said something soft in Gaelic to the horses, and they slowed in response. “I once lived through such a night, knowing I would hang, come morning. And yet I lived, through the grace of one who risked much to save me.”

“I see,” Bonnet said softly. “So you are an asgina ageli, are you?”

“Aye? And what will that be?”

There was a sound of scraping and brushing leaves against the side of the wagon, and the spicy sap-scent of the trees grew suddenly stronger. Something light touched my face—leaves, falling from above. The horses slowed, and the rhythm of the wagon changed markedly, the wheels finding an uneven surface. We had turned into the small road that led to Bonnet’s creek.

“Asgina ageli is a term that the red savages employ—the Cherokee of the mountains; I heard it from one I had as guide one time. It means ‘half-ghost,’ one who should have died by right, but yet remains on the earth; a woman who survives a mortal illness, a man fallen into his enemies’ hands who escapes. They say an asgina ageli has one foot on the earth and the other in the spirit world. He can talk to the spirits, and see the Nunnahee—the Little People.”

“Little People? Will that be like the faeries?” Jamie sounded surprised.

“Something of the kind.” Bonnet shifted his weight and the seat creaked as he stretched. “The Indians do say that the Nunnahee live inside the rocks of the mountains, and come out to help their people in time of war or other evil.”

“Is that so? It will be something like the tales they tell in the Highlands of Scotland, then—of the Auld Folk.”

“Indeed.” Bonnet sounded amused. “Well, from what I have heard of the Scotch Highlanders, there is little to choose between them and the red men for barbarous conduct.”

“Nonsense,” said Jamie, sounding not the least offended. “The red savages eat the hearts of their enemies, or so I have heard. I prefer a good dish of oatmeal parritch, myself.”

Bonnet made a noise, hastily stifled.

“You are a Highlander? Well, I will say that for a barbarian, I have found ye passing civil, sir,” he assured Jamie, the laughter quivering in his voice.

“I am exceedingly obliged for your kind opinion, sir,” Jamie replied, with equal politeness.

Their voices faded into the rhythmic squeaking of the wheels, and I was asleep again before I could hear more.

The moon hung low over the trees by the time we came to a halt. I was roused by the movements of Young Ian, clambering sleepily over the wagon’s edge to help Jamie tend to the horses. I poked my head up to see a broad stretch of water flowing past shelving banks of clay and silt, the stream a shiny black glittering with silver where riffles purled on the rocks near shore. Bonnet, with customary New World understatement, might call it a creek, but it would pass for a decent river among most boatmen, I thought.

The men moved to and fro in the shadows, carrying out their tasks with no more than an occasional muttered word. They moved with unaccustomed slowness, seeming to fade into the night, made insubstantial by fatigue.

“Do ye go and find a place to sleep, Sassenach,” Jamie said, pausing to steady me as I dropped down from the wagon. “I must just see our guest provisioned and set on his way, and the beasts wiped down and put to grass.”

The temperature had dropped scarcely at all since nightfall, but the air seemed fresher here near the water, and I found myself reviving somewhat.

“I can’t sleep until I’ve bathed,” I said, pulling the soaked bodice of my gown away from my br**sts. “I feel terrible.” My hair was pasted to my temples with sweat, and my flesh felt grimed and itchy. The dark water looked cool and inviting. Jamie cast a longing look at it, plucking at his crumpled stock.

“I canna say I blame ye. Go careful, though; Bonnet says the channel in midstream is deep enough to float a ketch, and it’s a tide-creek; there’ll be a strong current.”

“I’ll stay near the shore.” I pointed downstream, where a small point of land marked a bend in the river, its willows shining dusky silver in the moonlight. “See that little point? There should be an eddy pool there.”

“Aye. Go careful, then,” he said again, and squeezed my elbow in farewell. As I turned to go, a large pale shape loomed up before me; our erstwhile guest, one leg of his breeches stained dark with dried blood.

“Your servant, ma’am,” he said, making me a creditable bow, despite the injured leg. “Do I bid you now adieu?” He was standing a bit closer to me than I quite liked, and I repressed the urge to step backward.

“You do,” I said, and nodded to him, brushing back a dangling lock of hair. “Good luck, Mr. Bonnet.”

“I thank ye for your kind wishes, ma’am,” he answered softly. “But I have found that a man most often makes his own luck. Good night to ye, ma’am.” He bowed once more and turned away, limping heavily, like the ghost of a crippled bear.

The creek’s rushing masked most of the ordinary night sounds. I saw a bat blink through a patch of moonlight over the water, in pursuit of insects too small to see, and vanish into the night. If anything else lurked in the dark, it was quiet.

Jamie grunted softly to himself.

“Well, I’ve my doubts of the man,” he said, as though answering a question I hadn’t asked. “I must hope I’ve only been softhearted, and not softheaded, by helpin’ him.”

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