Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 94

   

I glanced at the dark oblong of the door, biting my lip. The breaths were shallow and wheezing, with alarmingly long pauses between them. I looked back at Ian.

“What do the Indians do, when someone is dying? Do you know?”

“Sing,” he said promptly. “The shaman puts paint upon her face, and sings the soul away to safety, so the demons dinna take it.”

I hesitated, my instincts to do something at war with my conviction that action would be futile. Had I any right to deprive this man of peace in his dying? Worse, to alarm him into fear that his soul would be lost by my interference?

Ian hadn’t waited for the results of my dithering. He stooped and scraped up a small clot of earth, spat in it and stirred it to mud. Without comment, he dipped his forefinger into the puddle, and drew a line from my forehead down the bridge of my nose.

“Ian!”

“Shh,” he murmured, frowning in concentration. “Like this, I think.” He added two lines across each cheekbone, and a rough zigzag down the left side of my jawbone. “That’s as near as I remember the proper way of it. I’ve only seen it the once, and from a distance.”

“Ian, this isn’t—”

“Shhh,” he said again, laying a hand on my arm to quell protest. “Go to him, Auntie. Ye willna frighten him; he’s accustomed to ye, no?”

I rubbed away a drip from the end of my nose, feeling thoroughly idiotic. There was no time to argue, though. Ian gave me a small push, and I turned to the door. I stepped into the darkness of the corncrib, bent and laid a hand on the man. His skin was hot and dry, his hand limp as worn leather.

“Ian, can you talk to him? Say his name, tell him it’s all right?”

“Ye must not say his name, Auntie; it will call demons.”

Ian cleared his throat, and said a few words in soft clicking gutterals. The hand in mine twitched slightly. My eyes had adjusted now, I could see the man’s face, marked with a faint look of surprise as he saw my mud paint.

“Sing, Auntie,” Ian urged, low-voiced. “Tantum ergo, maybe; it sounded a wee bit like that.”

There was nothing else I could do, after all. Rather helplessly, I began.

“Tantum ergo, sacramentum…”

Within a few seconds, my voice steadied, and I sat back on my bare heels, singing slowly, holding his hand. The heavy brows relaxed, and a look of what I thought might be calm came into the sunken eyes.

I had been present at a good many deaths, from accident, warfare, illness, or natural causes, and had seen men meet death in many ways, from philosophical acceptance to violent protest. But I had never seen one die quite this way.

He simply waited, eyes on mine, until I had come to the end of the song. Then he turned his face toward the door, and as the rising sun struck him, he left his body, without the twitch of a muscle or the drawing of a final breath.

I sat quite still, holding the limp hand, until it occurred to me that I was holding my breath, too.

The air around me seemed queerly still, as though time had stopped for a moment. But of course it had, I thought, and forced myself to draw breath. It had stopped for him, forever.

“What are we to do with him?”

There was nothing further to be done for our guest; the only question at the moment was how we might best deal with his mortal remains.

I had had a quiet word with Lord John, and he had taken Willie to gather late strawberries on the ridge. While the Indian’s death had had nothing even faintly gruesome about it, I could wish Willie hadn’t seen it; it wasn’t a sight for a child who had seen his mother die no more than a few months before. Lord John had seemed upset himself—perhaps a little sunshine and fresh air would help both of them.

Jamie frowned and rubbed a hand over his face. He hadn’t shaved yet, and the stubble made a rasping sound.

“We must give him decent burial, surely?”

“Well, I don’t suppose we can leave him lying about in the corncrib, but would his people mind if we buried him here? Do you know anything about how they treat their dead, Ian?”

Ian was still a little pale, but surprisingly self-possessed. He shook his head, and took a drink of milk.

“I dinna ken a great deal, Auntie. But I have seen one man die, as I told ye. They wrapped him in a deerskin and had a procession round the village, singing, then took the body a ways into the wood and put it up on a platform, above the ground, and left it there to dry.”

Jamie seemed less than enthralled at the prospect of having mummified bodies perched in the trees near the farm. “I should think it best maybe to wrap the body decently and carry it to the village, then, so his own folk can deal with him properly.”

“No, you can’t do that.” I slid the pan of newly baked muffins out of the Dutch oven, plucked a broomtwig and stuck it into one plump brown cake. It came out clean, so I set the pan on the table, then sat down myself. I frowned abstractedly at the jug of honey, glowing gold in the late morning sun.

“The trouble is that the body is almost certainly still infectious. You didn’t touch him at all, did you, Ian?” I glanced at Ian, who shook his head, looking sober.

“No, Auntie. Not after he fell sick here; before that, I dinna recall. We were all together, hunting.”

“And you haven’t had measles. Drat.” I rubbed a hand through my hair. “Have you?” I asked Jamie. To my relief, he nodded.

“Aye, when I was five or so. And you say a person canna have the same sickness twice. So it willna injure me to touch the body?”

“No, nor me either; I’ve had them too. The thing is, we can’t take him to the village. I don’t know at all how long the measles virus—that’s a sort of germ—can live on clothes or in a body, but how could we explain to his people that they mustn’t touch him or go near him? And we can’t risk letting them be infected.”

“What troubles me,” Ian put in unexpectedly, “is that he isna a man from Anna Ooka—he’s from a village further north. If we bury him here in the usual way, his folk may hear of it and think we had done him to death in some fashion, then buried him to hide it.”

That was a sinister possibility that hadn’t occurred to me, and I felt as though a cold hand had been laid on the back of my neck.

“You don’t think they would, surely?”

Ian shrugged, broke open a hot muffin, and drizzled honey over the steaming insides.

“Nacognaweto’s folk trust us, but Myers did say there were plenty who would not. They’ve reason to be suspicious, aye?”

Considering that the bulk of the Tuscarora had been exterminated in a vicious war with the North Carolina settlers no more than fifty years before, I rather thought they had a point. It didn’t help with the present problem, though.

Jamie swallowed the last of his muffin and sat back with a sigh.

“Well, then. I think best we wrap the poor man in a shroud of sorts, and put him in the wee cave in the hill above the house. I’ve set the posts for a stable across the opening already; those will keep the beasts off. Then Ian or I should go to Anna Ooka and explain matters to Nacognaweto. Perhaps he will send someone back who can look at the body and assure the man’s people that he met with no violence from us—and then we can bury him.”

Before I could reply to this suggestion, I heard footsteps, running across the dooryard. I had left the door ajar, to let in light and air. As I turned toward it, Willie’s face appeared in the opening, pale and distraught.

“Mrs. Fraser! Please, will you come? Papa’s ill.”

“Has he got it from the Indian?” Jamie frowned at Lord John, whom we had stripped to his shirt and put to bed. His face was by turns flushed and pale—the symptoms I had put down earlier to emotional distress.

“No, he can’t have. The incubation period is one to two weeks. Where were you—” I turned to Willie, then shrugged, dismissing the question. They had been traveling; there was no conceivable way of telling where or when Grey had encountered the virus. Travelers normally slept several to a bed in inns, and the blankets were seldom changed; it would be easy to lie down in one and get up in the morning with the germs of anything from measles to hepatitis.

“You did say there was an epidemic of measles in Cross Creek?” I put a hand on Grey’s forehead. Adept as I was at reading fevers by touch, I would have put his near a hundred and three; quite high enough.

“Yes,” he said hoarsely, and coughed. “Have I got the measles? You must keep Willie away.”

“Ian—take Willie outside, will you, please?” I wrung out a cloth wetted with elderflower water, and wiped Grey’s face and neck. There was no rash yet on his face, but when I made him open his mouth, the small whitish Koplik’s spots on the lining were clear enough.

“Yes, you have got the measles,” I said. “How long have you been feeling ill?”

“I felt somewhat light-headed when I retired last night,” he said, and coughed again. “I woke with a bad headache, sometime in the night, but I thought it only the result of Jamie’s so-called whisky.” He smiled faintly at Jamie. “Then this morning…” He sneezed, and I hastily groped for a fresh handkerchief.

“Yes, quite. Well, try to rest a bit. I’ve put some willow bark to steep; that will help the headache.” I stood up and raised a brow at Jamie, who followed me outside.

“We can’t let Willie be near him,” I said, low-voiced so as not to be overheard; Willie and Ian were by the penfold, forking hay into the horses’ manger. “Or Ian. He’s very infectious.”

Jamie frowned.

“Aye. What ye said, though, about incubation—”

“Yes. Ian might have been exposed through the dead man, Willie might have been exposed to the same source as Lord John. Either one of them might have it now, but show no sign yet.” I turned to look at the two boys, both of them outwardly as healthy as the horses they were feeding.

“I think,” I said, hesitating as I formed a vague plan, “that perhaps you had better camp outside with the boys tonight—you could sleep in the herb shed, or camp in the grove. Wait a day or so; if Willie’s infected—if he got it from the same source as Lord John—he’ll likely be showing signs by then. If not, then he’s likely all right. If he is all right, then you and he could go to Anna Ooka to tell Nacognaweto about the dead man. That would keep Willie safely out of danger.”

“And Ian could stay here to take care of you?” He frowned, considering, then nodded. “Aye, I expect that will do.”

He turned to glance at Willie. Impassive as he could be when he wanted to, I knew him well enough to detect the flicker of emotion across his face.

There was worry in the tilt of his brows—concern for John Grey, and perhaps for me or Ian. But beyond that was something quite different—interest tinged with apprehension, I thought, at the prospect of spending several days alone with the boy.

“If he hasn’t noticed it yet, he isn’t going to,” I said softly, putting my hand on his arm.

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