Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 98

   

He took a deep breath, and began to take out the small cloth bundles that contained his fly-tying materials. They had used all his made flies, and if he meant to fish for their breakfast, a few more should be got ready.

“Can I help?” Willie didn’t wait for permission, but scooted around the fire, to sit beside him. Without comment, he pushed the small wooden box of birds’ feathers toward the boy, and picked a fishhook from the piece of cork that held them.

They worked in silence for a time, stopping only to admire a completed Silver Doctor or Broom-eye, or for Jamie to lend a word of advice or help in tying. Willie soon tired of the exacting work, though, and laid down his half-done Green Whisker, asking numerous questions about fishing, hunting, the forest, the Red Indians they were going to see.

“No,” Jamie said in answer to one such. “I’ve never seen a scalp in the village. They’re verra kindly folk, for the most part. Do one some injury, mind, and they’ll not be slow to take revenge for it.” He smiled wryly. “They do remind me a bit of Highlanders in that regard.”

“Grandmamma says the Scots breed I—” The casually begun statement choked off abruptly. Jamie looked up to see Willie concentrating fiercely on the half-made fly between his fingers, his face redder than the firelight accounted for.

“Like rabbits?” Jamie let both irony and smile show in his voice. Willie flicked a cautious sideways glance in his direction.

“Scottish families are sometimes large, aye.” Jamie plucked a wren’s down feather from the small box and laid it delicately against the shank of his hook. “We think children a blessing.”

The bright color was fading from Willie’s cheeks. He sat up a little straighter.

“I see. Have you got a lot of children yourself, Mr. Fraser?”

Jamie dropped the down feather.

“No, not a great many,” he said, eyes fixed on the mottled leaves.

“I’m sorry—I didn’t think—that is…” Jamie glanced up to see Willie gone red again, one hand crushing the half-tied fly.

“Think what?” he said, puzzled.

Willie took a deep breath.

“Well—the…the…sickness; the measles. I didn’t see any children, but I didn’t think when I said that…I mean…that maybe you had some, but they…”

“Och, no.” Jamie smiled at him reassuringly. “My daughter’s grown; she’ll be living far away in Boston this long while.”

“Oh.” Willie let out his breath, tremendously relieved. “That’s all?”

The fallen down-feather moved in a breath of wind, betraying its presence in the shadows. Jamie pinched it between thumb and forefinger and lifted it gently from the ground.

“No, I’ve a son, too,” he said, eyes on the hook that had somehow embedded its barb in his thumb. A tiny drop of blood welled up around the shining metal. “A bonny lad, and I love him weel, though he’s away from home just now.”

28

HEATED CONVERSATION

By evening, Ian was glassy-eyed and hot to the touch. He sat up on his pallet to greet me, but swayed alarmingly, his eyes unfocused. I didn’t have the slightest doubt, but looked in his mouth for confirmation; sure enough, the small diagnostic Koplik’s spots showed white against the dark pink mucous membrane. Though the skin of his neck was still fair and childlike under his hair, it showed a harmless-looking stipple of small pink spots.

“Right,” I said, resigned. “You’ve got it. You’d best come up to the house so I can take care of you more easily.”

“I’ve got the measle? Am I going to die, then?” he asked. He seemed only mildly interested, his attention concentrated on some interior vision.

“No,” I said matter-of-factly, trusting that I was right. “Feeling pretty bad, though, are you?”

“My head hurts a bit,” he said. I could see that it did; his brows were drawn together, and he squinted at even so dim a light as that provided by my candle.

Still, he could walk, and a good thing, too, I thought as I watched him make his unsteady way down the ladder from the loft. Scrawny and storklike as he looked, he was a good eight inches taller than I, and outweighed me by at least thirty pounds.

It was no more than twenty yards to the cabin, but Ian was trembling from exertion by the time I got him inside. Lord John sat up as we came in, and made to get out of bed, but I waved him back.

“Stay there,” I said, depositing Ian heavily on a stool. “I can manage.”

I had been sleeping on the trundle bed; it was already made up with sheets, quilt, and pillow. I peeled Ian out of his breeks and stockings, and tucked him up at once. He was flushed and clammy-cheeked, and looked much sicker than he had done in the dimness of his loft.

The willow-bark brew I had left steeping was dark and aromatic; ready to drink. I poured it off carefully into a cup, glancing as I did so at Lord John.

“I’d meant this for you,” I said. “But if you could stand to wait…”

“By all means give it to the lad,” he said, with a dismissive wave. “I can wait easily. Can I not assist you, though?”

I thought of suggesting that if he really wanted to be helpful, he could walk to the privy rather than use the chamber pot—which I would have to empty—but I could see that he wasn’t yet in any condition to be wandering round outside at night by himself. I didn’t want to be explaining to young William that I had allowed his remaining parent—or what he thought was his remaining parent—to be eaten by bears, let alone take pneumonia.

So I merely shook my head politely, and knelt by the trundle to administer the brew to Ian. He felt well enough to make faces and complain about the taste, which I found reassuring. Still, the headache was obviously very bad; the line between his brows was fixed and sharp as though it had been carved there with a knife.

I sat on the trundle and took his head onto my lap, gently rubbing his temples. Then I put my thumbs just into the sockets of his eyes, pressing firmly upward on the ridge of his brows. He made a low sound of discomfort, but then relaxed, his head heavy on my thigh.

“Just breathe,” I said. “Don’t worry if it’s a bit tender at first, it means I’ve got the right spot.”

“ ’S all right,” he murmured, his words a little slurred. His hand drifted up and closed on my wrist, big and very warm. “That’s the Chinaman’s way, no?”

“That’s right. He means Yi Tien Cho—Mr. Willoughby,” I explained to Lord John, who was watching the proceedings with a puzzled frown. “It’s a way of relieving pain by putting pressure on some points of the body. This one is good for headache. The Chinaman taught me to do it.”

I felt some reluctance to mention the little Chinese to Lord John, seeing that the last time we had met, on Jamaica, Lord John had had some four hundred soldiers and sailors combing the island in pursuit of Mr. Willoughby, then suspected of a particularly atrocious murder.

“He didn’t do it, you know,” I felt compelled to add. Lord John raised one eyebrow at me.

“That’s as well,” he said dryly, “since we never caught him.”

“Oh, I’m glad.” I looked down at Ian, and moved my thumbs a quarter of an inch outward, pressing again. His face was still tight with pain, but I thought the whiteness at the corners of his mouth was lessening a bit.

“I…ah…don’t suppose you know who did kill Mrs. Alcott?” Lord John’s voice was casual. I glanced up at him, but his face betrayed nothing beyond simple curiosity and a large number of spots.

“I do, yes,” I said hesitantly, “but—”

“You do? A murder? Who was it? What happened, Auntie? Ooch!” Ian’s eyelids popped open under my fingers, wide with interest, then snapped shut in a grimace of pain as the firelight struck them.

“You be still,” I said, and dug my thumbs into the muscles in front of his ears. “You’re ill.”

“Argk!” he said, but subsided obediently into limpness, the corn-shuck mattress rustling loudly under his thin body. “All right, Auntie, but who? Ye canna be telling wee bits o’ things like that, and expect me to sleep without knowing the rest of it. Can she, then?” He opened one eye in a slitted appeal toward Lord John, who smiled in reply.

“I bear no further responsibility in the matter,” Lord John assured me. “However”— he spoke more firmly to Ian—“you might stop to think that perhaps the story incriminates someone your aunt prefers to shield. It would be discourteous to insist upon details, in that case.”

“Och, no, it’s never that,” Ian assured him, eyes tight closed. “Uncle Jamie wouldna murder anybody, save he had good reason.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Lord John jerk, slightly startled. Plainly, it had never occurred to him that it could have been Jamie.

“No,” I assured him, seeing the fair brows draw together. “It wasn’t.”

“Well, and it wasna me, either,” Ian said smugly. “And who else would Auntie be protecting?”

“You flatter yourself, Ian,” I said dryly. “But since you insist…”

My hesitancy had in fact been in the interests of protecting Young Ian. No one else could be harmed by the story—the murderer was dead and, for all I knew, Mr. Willoughby, too, perished in the hidden jungles of the Jamaican hills, though I sincerely hoped not.

But the story involved someone else, as well; the woman I had first known as Geillis Duncan and known later as Geillis Abernathy, at whose behest Ian had been kidnapped from Scotland, imprisoned on Jamaica, and had suffered things that he had only lately begun to tell us.

Still, there seemed no way out of it now—Ian was fractious as a child insisting on a bedtime story, and Lord John was sitting up in bed like a chipmunk waiting for nuts, eyes bright with interest.

And so, with the macabre urge to begin with “Once upon a time…” I leaned back against the wall, and with Ian’s head still in my lap, began the story of Rose Hall and its mistress, the witch Geillis Duncan; of the Reverend Archibald Campbell and his strange sister, Margaret, of the Edinburgh Fiend and the Fraser prophecy; and of a night of fire and crocodile’s blood, when the slaves of six plantations along the Yallahs River had risen and slain their masters, roused by the houngan Ishmael.

Of later events in the cave of Abandawe on Haiti, I said nothing. Ian, after all, had been there. And those happenings had nothing to do with the murder of Mina Alcott.

“A crocodile,” Ian murmured. His eyes were closed, and his face had grown more relaxed under my fingers, despite the gruesome nature of my story. “Ye really saw it, Auntie?”

“I not only saw it, I stepped on it,” I assured him. “Or rather, I stepped on it, and then I saw it. If I’d seen it first, I’d have bloody run the other way.”

There was a low laugh from the bed. Lord John scratched at his arm, smiling.

“You must find life here rather dull, Mrs. Fraser, after your adventures in the Indies.”

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