The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 10


“No need to worry more, ma’am,” he assured Mrs. McGillivray. “I knew Jamie Roy would take care of it, and so he has. Your lad’s safe.”

“Ja?” she said. She looked doubtfully toward the sapling grove, but it was true; the attitudes of all the men had relaxed now, and Jamie was handing the thief-taker back his set of manacles. I saw the way he handled them, with brusque distaste. He had worn irons, at Ardsmuir.

“Gott sei dank,” Mrs. McGillivray said, with an explosive sigh. Her massive form seemed suddenly to diminish as the breath went out of her.

The little man was leaving, making his way away from us, toward the creek. The sound of the swinging irons at his belt reached us in a faint chime of metal, heard between the shouts of the crowd behind us. Jamie and Rob McGillivray stood close together, talking, while Fergus watched the thief-taker’s departure, frowning slightly.

“Exactly what did Jamie tell him?” I asked Myers.

“Oh. Well.” The mountain man gave me a broad, gap-toothed grin. “Jamie Roy told him serious-like that it was surely luck for the thief-taker—his name’s Boble, by the way, Harley Boble—that we done come upon y’all when we did. He give him to understand that if we hadn’t, then this lady here”—he bowed toward Ute—“would likely have taken him home in her wagon, and slaughtered him like a hog, safe out of sight.”

Myers rubbed a knuckle under his red-veined nose and chortled softly in his beard.

“Boble said as how he didn’t believe it, he thought she was only a-tryin’ to scare him with that knife. But then Jamie Roy leaned down close, confidential-like, and said he mighta thought the same—only that he’d heard so much about Frau McGillivray’s reputation as a famous sausage-maker, and had had the privilege of bein’ served some of it to his breakfast this morning. Right about then, Boble started to lose the color in his face, and when Jamie Roy pulled out a bit of sausage to show him—”

“Oh, dear,” I said, with a vivid memory of exactly what that sausage smelled like. I had bought it the day before from a vendor on the mountain, only to discover that it had been improperly cured, and once sliced, smelled so strongly of rotting blood that no one had been able to stomach it at supper. Jamie had wrapped the offending remainder in his handkerchief and put it in his sporran, intending either to procure a refund or to shove it down the vendor’s throat. “I see.”

Myers nodded, turning to Ute.

“And your husband, ma’am—bless his soul, Rob McGillivray’s a real born liar—chimes in solemn-like, agreeing to it all, shakin’ his head and sayin’ as how he’s got his work cut out to shoot enough meat for you.”

The girls tittered.

“Da can’t kill anything,” Inga said softly to me. “He willna even wring a chicken’s neck.”

Myers raised his shoulders in a good-humored shrug, as Jamie and Rob made their way toward us through the wet grass.

“So Jamie promised on his word as a gentleman to protect Boble from you, and Boble promised on his word as a . . . well, he said as he’d keep clear of young Manfred.”

“Hmp,” said Ute, looking rather disconcerted. She didn’t mind at all being considered an habitual murderess, and was quite pleased that Manfred was out of danger—but was rather put out at having her reputation as a sausage-maker maligned.

“As though I vould effer make such shite,” she said, wrinkling her nose in disdain at the odorous lump of meat Jamie offered for her inspection. “Pfaugh. Ratzfleisch.” She waved it away with a fastidious gesture, then turned to her husband and said something softly in German.

Then she took a deep breath and expanded once more, gathering all her children like a hen clucking after chicks, urging them to thank Jamie properly for his help. He flushed slightly at the chorus of thanks, bowing to her.

“Gern geschehen,” he said. “Euer ergebener Diener, Frau Ute.”

She beamed at him, composure restored, as he turned to say something in parting to Rob.

“Such a fine, big Mann,” she murmured, shaking her head slightly as she looked him up and down. Then she turned, and caught my glance from Jamie to Rob—for while the gunsmith was a handsome man, with close-clipped, dark curly hair and a chiseled face, he was also fine-boned as a sparrow, and some inches shorter than his wife, reaching approximately to the level of her brawny shoulder. I couldn’t help wondering, given her apparent admiration for large men . . .

“Oh, vell,” she said, and shrugged apologetically. “Luff, you know.” She sounded as though love were an unfortunate but unavoidable condition.

I glanced at Jamie, who was carefully swaddling his sausage before tucking it back into his sporran. “Well, yes,” I said. “I do.”

BY THE TIME we returned to our own campsite, the Chisholms were just departing, having been capably fed by the girls. Fortunately, Jamie had brought plenty of food from Jocasta’s camp, and I sat down at last to a pleasant meal of potato fritters, buttered bannocks, fried ham, and—at last!—coffee, wondering just what else might happen today. There was plenty of time; the sun was barely above the trees, almost invisible behind the drifting rain clouds.

A little later, pleasantly full of breakfast, and with a third cup of coffee to hand, I went and threw back the canvas covering what I thought of as my medical supply dump. It was time to begin the business of organizing for the morning’s surgery; looking at jars of sutures, restocking the herb jars in my chest, refilling the large alcohol bottle, and brewing up the medicines that must be made fresh.

Somewhat depleted of the commoner herbs I had brought with me, my stock had been augmented by the good offices of Myers, who had brought me several rare and useful things from the Indian villages to the north, and by judicious trading with Murray MacLeod, an ambitious young apothecary who had made his way inland and set up shop in Cross Creek.

I bit the inside of my cheek, considering young Murray. He harbored the usual sort of nasty notions that passed for medical wisdom nowadays—and was not shy about asserting the superiority of such scientific methods as bleeding and blistering over the old-fashioned herbcraft that such ignorant crones as myself were prone to practice!

Still, he was a Scot, and thus possessed of a strong streak of pragmatism. He had given Jamie’s powerful frame one look and hastily swallowed the more insulting of his opinions. I had six ounces of wormwood and a jar of wild ginger root, and he wanted them. He was also shrewd enough to have observed that many more of the folk on the mountain who ailed with anything came to me than to him—and that most who accepted my cures were improved. If I had secrets, he wanted those, too—and I was more than happy to oblige.

Good, I had plenty of willow bark still left. I hesitated over the small rank of bottles in the upper right tray of the chest. I had several very strong emmenagogues—blue cohosh, ergot, and pennyroyal—but picked instead the gentler tansy and rue, setting a handful into a bowl and pouring boiling water on them to steep. Beyond its effects in easing menstruation, tansy had a reputation for calming nerves—and a more naturally nervous person than Lizzie Wemyss it would be difficult to imagine.

I glanced back at the fire, where Lizzie was shoveling the last of the strawberry preserves into Private Ogilvie, who appeared to be dividing his attention among Lizzie, Jamie, and his slice of toast—the greater proportion going to the toast.

Rue was quite a good anthelmintic, to boot. I didn’t know that Lizzie suffered from worms, but a good many people in the mountains did, and a dose would certainly do her no harm.

I eyed Abel MacLennan covertly, wondering whether to slip a quick slug of hellbrew into his coffee as well—he had the pinched, anemic look of one with intestinal parasites, in spite of his stocky build. Perhaps, though, the look of pale disquiet on his features was due more to his knowledge of thief-takers in the vicinity.

Baby Joan was wailing with hunger again. Marsali sat down, reached under her arisaid to unfasten her bodice, and set the baby to her breast, her lip clenched between her teeth with trepidation. She winced, gasped in pain, then relaxed a little, as the milk began to flow.

Cracked n**ples. I frowned and returned to a perusal of the medicine chest. Had I brought any sheep’s-wool ointment? Drat, no. I didn’t want to use bear grease, with Joan suckling; perhaps sunflower oil . . .

“A bit of coffee, my dear?” Mr. MacLennan, who had been watching Marsali with troubled sympathy, extended his fresh cup toward her. “My own wife did say as hot coffee eased the pangs of nursing a wean. Whisky in it’s better”—his mournful jowls lifted a bit—“but all the same . . .”

“Taing.” Marsali took the cup with a grateful smile. “I’m chilled right through this morning.” She sipped the steaming liquid cautiously, and a small flush crept into her cheeks.

“Will you be going back to Drunkard’s Creek tomorrow, Mr. MacLennan?” she asked politely, handing back the empty cup. “Or are ye traveling to New Bern wi’ Mr. Hobson?”

Jamie looked up sharply, breaking off his conversation with Private Ogilvie.

“Hobson is going to New Bern? How d’ye ken that?”

“Mrs. Fowles says so,” Marsali replied promptly. “She told me when I went to borrow a dry shirt for Germain—she’s got a lad his size. She’s worrit for Hugh—that’s her husband—because her father—that’s Mr. Hobson—wishes him to go along, but he’s scairt.”

“Why is Joe Hobson going to New Bern?” I asked, peering over the top of my medicine chest.

“To present a petition to the Governor,” Abel MacLennan said. “Much good it will do.” He smiled at Marsali, a little sadly. “No, lassie. I dinna ken where I’m bound, tell ye the truth. ’Twon’t be to New Bern, though.”

“Nor back to your wife at Drunkard’s Creek?” Marsali looked at him in concern.

“My wife’s dead, lass,” MacLennan said softly. He smoothed the red kerchief across his knee, easing out the wrinkles. “Dead two months past.”

“Oh, Mr. Abel.” Marsali leaned forward and clasped his hand, her blue eyes full of pain. “I’m that sorry!”

He patted her hand, not looking up. Tiny drops of rain gleamed in the sparse strands of his hair, and a trickle of moisture ran down behind one large red ear, but he made no move to wipe it away.

Jamie had stood up while questioning Marsali. Now he sat down on the log beside MacLennan, and laid a hand gently on the smaller man’s back.

“I hadna heard, a charaid,” he said quietly.

“No.” MacLennan looked blindly into the transparent flames. “I—well, the truth of it is, I’d not told anyone. Not ’til now.”

Jamie and I exchanged looks across the fire. Drunkard’s Creek couldn’t possibly harbor more than two dozen souls, in a scatter of cabins spread along the banks. Yet neither the Hobsons nor the Fowleses had mentioned Abel’s loss—evidently he really hadn’t told anyone.