Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 95

   

“No,” he muttered, turning his back on the boy. “I suppose it’s safe enough.”

“They do say it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” I said. “You’ll be able to talk to him without it seeming odd.” I paused. “There’s just the one thing, before you go.”

He put his hand over mine where it lay on his arm, and smiled down at me.

“Aye, and what’s that?”

“Do get that pig out of the pantry, please.”

27

TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA

The journey began inauspiciously. It was raining, for one thing. For another, he disliked leaving Claire, especially in such difficult circumstances. For a third, he was badly worried for John; he hadn’t liked the look of the man at all when he took leave of him, barely half conscious and wheezing like a grampus, his features so blotched with rash as to be unrecognizable.

And for a fourth, the ninth Earl of Ellesmere had just punched him in the jaw. He took a firm hold on the youngster’s scruff and shook him, hard enough to make his teeth clack painfully together.

“Now, then,” he said, letting go. The boy staggered, and sat down suddenly as he lost his balance. He glared down at the lad, sitting in the mud by the penfold. They had been having this argument, on and off, for the last twenty-four hours, and he had had enough of it.

“I ken well enough what ye said. But what I said is that ye’re coming with me. I’ve told ye why, and that’s all about it.”

The boy’s face drew down in a ferocious scowl. He wasn’t easily cowed, but then Jamie supposed that earls weren’t used to folk trying, either.

“I am not leaving!” the boy repeated. “You can’t make me!” He got to his feet, jaw clenched, and turned back toward the cabin.

Jamie snaked out an arm, grabbed the lad’s collar, and hauled him back. Seeing the boy draw back his foot for a kick, he closed his fist and punched the boy neatly in the pit of the stomach. William’s eyes bulged and he doubled over, holding his middle.

“Don’t kick,” Jamie said mildly. “It’s ill-mannered. And as for makin’ you, of course I can.”

The Earl’s face was bright red and his mouth was opening and closing like a startled goldfish’s. His hat had fallen off, and the rain was pasting strands of dark hair to his head.

“It’s verra loyal of ye to want to stay by your stepfather,” Jamie went on, wiping the water out of his own face, “but ye canna help him, and you may do yourself damage by staying. So ye’re not.” From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of movement as the oiled hide over the cabin’s window moved aside, then fell. Claire, no doubt wondering why they were not already long gone.

Jamie took the Earl by an unresisting arm, and led him to one of the saddled horses.

“Up,” he said, and had the satisfaction of seeing the boy stick a reluctant foot in the stirrup and swing aboard. Jamie tossed the boy’s hat up to him, donned his own, and mounted himself. As a precaution, though, he kept hold of both sets of reins as they set off.

“You, sir,” said a breathless, enraged voice behind him, “are a lout!”

He was torn between irritation and an urge to laugh, but gave way to neither. He cast a look back over his shoulder, to see William also turned, and leaning perilously to the side, half off his saddle.

“Don’t try it,” he advised the boy, who straightened up abruptly and glared at him. “I wouldna like to tie your feet in your stirrups, but I’ll do it, make no mistake.”

The boy’s eyes narrowed into bright blue triangles, but he evidently took Jamie at his word. His jaw stayed clenched, but his shoulders slumped a little in temporary defeat.

They rode in silence for most of the morning, rain drizzling down their necks and weighting the shoulders of their cloaks. Willie might have accepted defeat, but not graciously. He was still sullen when they dismounted to eat, but did at least fetch water without protest, and pack up the remains of their meal while Jamie watered the horses.

Jamie eyed him covertly, but there was no sign of measles. The Earl’s face was frowning but rashless, and while the tip of his nose was dripping, this appeared to be due solely to the effects of the weather.

“How far is it?” It was midafternoon before William’s curiosity overcame his stubbornness. Jamie had long since relinquished the boy’s reins to him—there was no danger of the lad’s trying to make his way back alone now.

“Two days, perhaps.” In such mountainous terrain as lay between the Ridge and Anna Ooka, they would make little better speed on horseback than on foot. Having horses, though, allowed them to bring a few small conveniences, such as a kettle, extra food, and a pair of carved fishing rods. And a number of small gifts for the Indians, including a keg of home-brewed whisky to help cushion the bad news they bore.

There was no reason to hurry, and some to delay—Claire had told him firmly not to bring Willie back for at least six days. By then, John would no longer be infectious. He would be well on the way to recovery—or dead.

Claire had been outwardly confident, assuring Willie that his stepfather would be quite all right, but he’d seen the mist of worry in her eyes. It gave him a feeling of hollowness just below the ribs. It was perhaps as well that he was leaving; he could be of no help, and sickness always left him with a helpless feeling that made him at once afraid and angry.

“These Indians—they are friendly?” He could hear the tone of doubt in Willie’s voice.

“Yes.” He felt Willie waiting for him to add “my lord,” and took a small, perverse satisfaction in not doing it. He guided his horse’s head to the side and slowed his pace, an invitation for Willie to ride up next to him. He smiled at the boy as he did so.

“We have known them more than a year, and been guests in their long-houses—aye, the people of Anna Ooka are more courteous and hospitable than most folk I’ve met in England.”

“You have lived in England?” The boy shot him a surprised look, and he cursed his carelessness, but luckily the lad was a great deal more interested in Red Indians than in the personal history of James Fraser, and the question passed with no more than a vague reply.

He was glad to see the boy abandon his sullen preoccupation and begin to take some interest in their surroundings. He did his best to encourage it, telling stories of the Indians and pointing out animal sign as they went, and he was glad to see the boy thaw into civility, if nothing more, as they rode.

He welcomed the distraction of conversation himself; his mind was a good deal too busy to make silence comfortable. If the worst should happen—if John should die—what then became of Willie? He would doubtless return to England and his grandmother—and Jamie would hear no more of him.

John was the only other person, besides Claire, who knew the truth of Willie’s paternity without doubt. It was possible that Willie’s grandmother at least suspected the truth, but she would never, under any circumstances, admit that her grandson might be the bastard of a Jacobite traitor rather than the legitimate issue of the late Earl.

He said a small prayer to Saint Bride for the welfare of John Grey, and tried to dismiss the nagging worry from his mind. In spite of his apprehensions, he was beginning to enjoy the trip. The rain had lessened to no more than a light spattering, and the forest was fragrant with the scents of wet, fresh leaves and fecund dark leaf mold.

“D’ye see those scratches down the trunk of that tree?” He pointed with his chin at a large hickory whose bark hung in shreds, showing a number of long, parallel white slashes, some six feet from the ground.

“Yes.” Willie took off his hat and slapped it against his thigh to knock the water off, then leaned forward to look more closely. “An animal did that?”

“A bear,” Jamie said. “Fresh, too—see the sap’s not dried yet in the cuts.”

“Is it nearby?” Willie glanced around, seeming more curious than alarmed.

“Not close,” Jamie said, “or the horses would be carryin’ on. But near enough, aye. Keep an eye out; we’ll likely see its dung or its prints.”

No, if John died, his tenuous link with William would be broken. He had long since resigned himself to the situation, and accepted the necessity without complaint—but he would feel bereft indeed if the measles robbed him not only of his closest friend but of all connection with his son.

It had stopped raining. As they rounded the flank of a mountain and came out above a valley, Willie gave a small exclamation of surprised delight, and sat up straight in his saddle. Against a backdrop of rain-dark clouds, a rainbow arced from the slope of a distant mountain, falling in a perfect shimmer of light to the floor of the valley far below.

“Oh, it’s glorious!” Willie said. He turned a wide smile on Jamie, their differences forgotten. “Have you ever seen such a thing before, sir?”

“Never,” said Jamie, smiling back. It occurred to him, with a small shock, that these few days in the wilderness might conceivably be the last he would see or hear of William. He hoped that he wouldn’t have to hit the boy again.

He always slept lightly in the wood, and the sound woke him at once. He lay quite still for a moment, unsure what it was. Then he heard the small, choked noise, and recognized the sound of stifled weeping.

He checked his instant urge to turn and lay a hand on the boy in comfort. The lad was making every effort not to be heard; he deserved to keep his pride. He lay still, looking up into the sweep of the vast night sky above, and listening.

Not fright; William had shown no fear of sleeping in dark woods, and had there been a large animal nearby, the boy would not be keeping quiet about it. Was the lad unwell? The sounds were little more than thickened breathing, caught in the throat—perhaps the boy was in pain and too proud to say. It was that fear that decided him to speak; if the measles had caught them up, there was no time to waste; he must carry the boy back to Claire at once.

“My lord?” he said softly.

The sobbing ceased abruptly. He heard the audible sound of a swallow and the rasp of cloth on skin as the lad wiped a sleeve across his face.

“Yes?” the Earl said, with a creditable attempt at coolness, marred only by the thickness in his voice.

“Are ye unwell, my lord?” He could tell already that it wasn’t that, but it would do for a pretext. “Have ye maybe taken a touch of the cramp? Sometimes dried apples take a man amiss.”

A deep breath came from the far side of the fire, and a snuffle as an attempt was made to clear a running nose unobtrusively. The fire had burned down to nothing more than embers; still, he could see the dark shape that squirmed into a sitting position, crouched on the far side of the fire.

“I—ah—yes, I think perhaps I have got…something of the sort.”

Jamie sat up himself, the plaid falling away from his shoulders.

“It’s no great matter,” he said, soothingly. “I’ve a potion that will cure all manner of ills of the stomach. Do ye rest easy for a moment, my lord; I’ll fetch water.”

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