Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 99


“I could do with a spot of dullness now and then,” I said, rather wistfully.

Involuntarily, I glanced at the bolted door, where I had propped Ian’s musket, brought back from the storehouse when I had fetched him. Jamie had taken his own gun, but his pistols lay on the sideboard, loaded and primed as he had left them for me, bullet case and powder horn neatly arranged beside them.

It was cozy in the cabin, with the fire flickering gold and red on the rough-barked walls, and the air filled with the warm, lingering scents of squirrel stew and pumpkin bread, spiced with the bitter tang of willow tea. I brushed my fingers over Ian’s jaw. No rash yet, but the skin was tight and hot—very hot still, in spite of the willow bark.

Talking about Jamaica had at least distracted me a bit from my worry over Ian. Headache was not an unusual symptom for someone with measles; severe and prolonged headache was. Meningitis and encephalitis were dangerous—and all too possible—complications of the disease.

“How’s the head?” I asked.

“A bit better,” he said. He coughed, eyes squinching shut as the spasms jarred his head. He stopped and opened them slightly, dark slits that glowed with fever. “I’m awfully hot, Auntie.”

I slid off the trundle and went to wring out a cloth in cool water. Ian stirred slightly as I wiped his face, his eyes closed once more.

“Mrs. Abernathy gave me amethysts to drink for the headache,” he murmured drowsily.

“Amethysts?” I was startled, but kept my voice low and soothing. “You drank amethysts?”

“Ground up in vinegar,” he said. “And pearls in sweet wine, but that was for the bedding, she said.” His face looked red and swollen, and he turned his cheek against the cool pillow, seeking relief. “She was a great one for the stones, yon woman. She burned powdered emeralds in the flame of a black candle, and she rubbed my c*ck wi’ a diamond—to keep it hard, she said.”

There was a faint sound from the bed, and I looked up to see Lord John, raised up on one elbow, eyes wide.

“And did the amethysts work?” I wiped Ian’s face gently with the cloth.

“The diamond did.” He made a feeble attempt at an adolescent’s bawdy laugh, but it faded into a harsh, rasping cough.

“No amethysts here, I’m afraid,” I said. “But there’s wine, if you want it.” He did, and I helped him to drink it—well diluted with water—then eased him back on the pillow, flushed and heavy-eyed.

Lord John had lain down, too, and lay watching, his thick blond hair unbound, spread out on the pillow behind him.

“That’s what she wanted wi’ the lads, ye ken,” Ian said. His eyes were shut tight against the light, but he could clearly see something, if only in the mists of memory. He licked his lips; they were beginning to dry and crack, and his nose was beginning to run.

“She said the stone grew in a lad’s innards—the one she wanted. She said it must be a laddie who’d never gone wi’ a lass, though, that was important. If he had, the stone wouldna be right, somehow. If he h-huh-had one.” He paused to cough, and ended breathless, nose dripping. I held a handkerchief for him to blow.

“What did she want the stone for?” Lord John’s face bore a look of sympathy—he knew only too well what Ian felt like at the moment—but curiosity compelled the question. I didn’t object; I wanted to know too.

Ian started to shake his head, then stopped with a groan.

“Ah! Oh, God, my head will split surely! I dinna ken, man. She didna say. Only that it was needful; she must have it to be s-sure.” He barely got out the last word before dissolving into a coughing attack that was the worst yet; he sounded like a barking dog.

“You’d better stop talk—” I began, but was interrupted by a soft thump at the door.

Instantly I froze, wet cloth still in my hand. Lord John leaned swiftly from the bed and took a pistol from inside one of his high cavalry boots on the floor. A finger to his lips to enjoin silence, he nodded toward Jamie’s pistols. I moved silently to the sideboard and grasped one, reassured by the smooth, solid heft of it in my hand.

“Who is there?” Lord John called, in a surprisingly strong voice.

There was no answer save a sort of scratching, and a faint whine. I sighed and laid the pistol down, torn between irritation, relief and amusement.

“It’s your blasted dog, Ian.”

“Are you sure?” Lord John spoke in a low voice, pistol still aimed unwaveringly at the door. “It might be an Indian trick.”

Ian rolled over with an effort, facing the door.

“Rollo!” he shouted, his voice hoarse and cracking.

Hoarse or not, Rollo knew his master’s voice; there was a deep, joyful “WARF!” from outside, succeeding by frantic scratching, at a height some four feet from the ground.

“Beastly dog,” I said, hurrying to open the door. “Stop that, or I’ll make you into a rug, or a coat, or something!”

Giving this threat the attention it deserved, Rollo bounded past me into the room. Exuberant with joy, he launched his hundred and fifty pounds from the middle of the floor and landed directly on the trundle bed, making it sway dangerously, joints screeching in protest. Ignoring a strangled cry from the bed’s occupant, he proceeded to lick Ian madly about the face and forearms—the latter being flung up as a wholly inadequate defense to the slobbering onslaught.

“Bad dog,” Ian said, making ineffectual efforts to push Rollo off his chest, giggling helplessly in spite of his discomfort. “Bad dog, I say—down, sir!”

“Down, sir!” Lord John echoed sternly. Rollo, interrupted in his demonstrations of affection, rounded on Lord John, his ears laid back. He curled his lip, and gave his lordship a good look at the condition of his back teeth. Lord John started, and raised his pistol convulsively.

“Down, a dhiobhuil!” Ian said, prodding Rollo in the hindquarters. “Take your hairy arse out o’ my face, ye wicked beast!”

Rollo instantly dismissed Lord John from consideration, and padded around on top of the trundle, turning three times and kneading the bedding with his paws before collapsing next to his master’s body. He licked Ian’s ear, and with a deep sigh, laid his nose between his large muddy paws on the pillow.

“Would you like me to get him off, Ian?” I offered, eyeing the paws. I wasn’t quite sure how I might move a dog of Rollo’s size and temperament, bar shooting him with Jamie’s pistol and dragging his carcass off the bed, so was rather relieved when Ian shook his head.

“No, let him stay, Auntie,” he said, croaking slightly. “He’s a good fellow. Are ye no, a charaid?” He laid a hand on the dog’s neck, and turned his head so his cheek lay pillowed against Rollo’s thick ruff.

“All right, then.” Moving slowly, with a wary glance at the unblinking yellow eyes, I approached the bed and smoothed Ian’s hair. His forehead was still hot, but I thought the fever was a bit lower. If it broke in the night, as it well might, it was likely to be succeeded by a fit of violent shivering—when Ian might well find Rollo’s warm hairy bulk a comfort.

“Sleep well.”

“Oidhche mhath.” He was half asleep already, drifting into the vivid dreams of fever, and his “good-night” was barely more than a murmur.

I moved quietly about the room, tidying away the results of the day’s labors; a basket of fresh-gathered peanuts to be washed, dried and stored; a pan of dried reeds laid flat and covered with a layer of bacon grease to make rushlights. A trip to the pantry, where I stirred the beer mash fermenting in its tub, squeezed out the curds of the soft cheese a-making, and punched down the slow-rising salt bread, ready to be made into loaves and baked in the morning, when the small Dutch oven built into the side of the hearth would be heated through by the night’s low fire.

Ian was sound asleep when I came back into the main room; Rollo’s eyes were closed as well, though one yellow slit cracked open at my entrance. I glanced at Lord John; he was awake, but did not look round.

I sat down on the settle by the fire, and brought out the big wool basket with its green and black Indian pattern—Sun-eater, Gabrielle had called the design.

Two days since Jamie and Willie had left. Two days to the Tuscarora village. Two days back. If nothing happened to stop them.

“Nonsense,” I muttered, under my breath. Nothing would stop them. They would be home soon.

The basket was full of dyed skeins of wool and linen thread. Some I had been given by Jocasta, some I had spun myself. The difference was obvious, but even the lumpy, awkward-looking strands I produced could be used for something. Not stockings or jerseys; perhaps I could knit a tea cozy—that seemed sufficiently shapeless to disguise all my deficiencies.

Jamie had been simultaneously shocked and amused to find that I didn’t know how to knit. The question had never arisen at Lallybroch, where Jenny and the female servants kept everyone in knitted goods. I had taken on the chores of stillroom and garden, and never dealt with needlework beyond the simplest mending.

“Ye canna clickit at all?” he said incredulously. “And what did ye do for your winter stockings in Boston, then?”

“Bought them,” I said.

He had looked elaborately around the clearing where we had been sitting, admiring the half-finished cabin.

“Since I dinna see any shops about, I suppose ye’d best learn, aye?”

“I suppose so.” I dubiously eyed the knitting basket Jocasta had given me. It was well equipped, with three long circular wire needles in different sizes, and a sinister-looking set of four double-ended ivory ones, slender as stilettos, which I knew were used in some mysterious fashion to turn the heels of stockings.

“I’ll ask Jocasta to show me, next time we go down to River Run. Next year perhaps.”

Jamie snorted briefly and picked up a needle and a ball of yarn.

“It’s no verra difficult, Sassenach. Look—this is how ye cast up your row.” Drawing the thread out through his closed fist, he made a loop round his thumb, slipped it onto the needle, and with a quick economy of motion, cast on a long row of stitches in a matter of seconds. Then he handed me the other needle and another ball of yarn. “There—you try.”

I looked at him in complete amazement.

“You can knit?”

“Well, of course I can,” he said, staring at me in puzzlement. “I’ve known how to clickit wi’ needles since I was seven years old. Do they not teach bairns anything in your time?”

“Well,” I said, feeling mildly foolish, “they sometimes teach little girls to do needlework, but not boys.”

“They didna teach you, did they? Besides, it’s no fine needlework, Sassenach, it’s only plain knitting. Here, take your thumb and dip it, so…”

And so he and Ian—who, it turned out, could also knit and was prostrated by mirth at my lack of knowledge—had taught me the simple basics of knit and purl, explaining, between snorts of derision over my efforts, that in the Highlands all boys were routinely taught to knit, that being a useful occupation well suited to the long idle hours of herding sheep or cattle on the shielings.