The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 171

   

Roger reached across the fire and snatched him up; the little boy screamed, kicking and squirming to get away from this terrifying stranger. Bree hastily took him, clutching him to her bosom and burying his face in her shoulder. Her own face had gone pale with shock.

Roger looked shocked, too. He put a hand to his throat, gingerly, as though unsure he was really touching his own flesh. The ridge of the rope-scar was still dark under his jaw; I could see it, even in the flicker of the firelight, along with the smaller, neater line of my own incision.

The initial shock of his shout had worn off, and the men came scrambling out from under the tree, the Findlays rushing in from the road, to gather round Roger, exclaiming in astonishment and congratulation. Roger nodded, submitting to having his hand shaken and his back pounded, all the while looking as though he would strongly prefer to be elsewhere.

“Say somethin’ else,” Hugh Findlay coaxed him.

“Yes, sir, you can do it,” Iain joined in, round face beaming. “Say . . . say ‘She sells sea shells, by the sea-shore’!”

This suggestion was howled down, to be replaced by a rain of other excited proposals. Roger was beginning to look rather desperate, his jaw set tight. Jamie and I had got to our feet; I could feel Jamie setting himself to intervene in some way.

Then Brianna pushed her way through the excited throng, with Jemmy perched on one hip, regarding the proceedings with intense distrust. She took Roger’s hand with her free one, and smiled at him, the smile trembling only a little round the edges.

“Can you say my name?” she asked.

Roger’s smile matched hers. I could hear the air rasp in his throat as he took a breath.

This time he spoke softly; very softly, but everyone held silence, leaning forward to listen. It was a ragged whisper, thick and painful, the first syllable punched hard to force it through his scarred vocal cords, the last of it barely audible. But,

“BRREEah . . . nah,” he said, and she burst into tears.

76

BLOOD MONEY

Fraser’s Ridge

June, 1771

I SAT IN THE VISITOR’S CHAIR in Jamie’s study, companionably grating bloodroots while he wrestled with the quarterly accounts. Both were slow and tedious businesses, but we could share the light of a single candle and enjoy each other’s company—and I found enjoyable distraction in listening to the highly inventive remarks he addressed to the paper under his quill.

“Egg-sucking son of a porcupine!” he muttered. “Look at this, Sassenach—the man’s nay more than a common thief! Two shillings, threepence for two loaves of sugar and a brick of indigo!”

I clicked my tongue sympathetically, forbearing to note that two shillings seemed a modest enough price for substances produced in the West Indies, transported by ship to Charleston, and thence carried by wagon, pirogue, horseback, and foot another several hundred miles overland, to be finally brought to our door by an itinerant peddler who did not expect payment for the three or four months until his next visit—and who would in any case likely not get cash, but rather six pots of gooseberry jam or a haunch of smoked venison.

“Look at that!” Jamie said rhetorically, scratching his way down a column of figures and arriving with a vicious stab at the bottom. “A cask of brandywine at twelve shillings, two bolts of muslin at three and ten each, ironmongery—what in the name of buggery is wee Roger wanting wi’ an ironmonger, has he thought of a way to play tunes on a hoe?—ironmongery, ten and six!”

“I believe that was a ploughshare,” I said pacifically. “It’s not ours; Roger brought it for Geordie Chisholm.” Ploughshares were in fact rather expensive. Having to be imported from England, they were rare amongst colonial small farmers, many of whom made do with nothing more than wooden dibbles and spades, with an ax and perhaps an iron hoe for ground-clearing.

Jamie squinted balefully at his figures, rumpling a hand through his hair.

“Aye,” he said. “Only Geordie hasna got a spare penny to bless himself with, not until next year’s crops are sold. So it’s me that’s paying the ten and six now, isn’t it?” Without waiting for an answer, he plunged back into his calculations, muttering “Turd-eating son of a flying tortoise” under his breath, with no indication whether this applied to Roger, Geordie, or the ploughshare.

I finished grating a root and dropped the stub into a jar on the desk. Bloodroot is aptly named; the scientific name is Sanguinaria, and the juice is red, acrid, and sticky. The bowl in my lap was full of oozy, moist shavings, and my hands looked as though I had been disemboweling small animals.

“I have six dozen bottles of cherry cordial made,” I offered, picking up another root. As though he didn’t know that; the whole house had smelled like cough syrup for a week. “Fergus can take those over to Salem and sell them.”

Jamie nodded absently.

“Aye, I’m counting on that to buy seedcorn. Have we anything else that can go to Salem? Candles? Honey?”

I gave him a sharp glance, but encountered only the whorled cowlicks on top of his head, bent studiously over his figures. The candles and honey were a sensitive subject.

“I think I can spare ten gallons of honey,” I said guardedly. “Perhaps ten—well, all right, twelve dozen candles.”

He scratched the tip of his nose with the end of the quill, leaving a blot of ink.

“I thought ye’d had a good year wi’ the hives,” he said mildly.

I had; my original single hive had expanded, and I now had nine bee-gums bordering my garden. I had taken nearly fifty gallons of honey from them, and enough beeswax for a good thirty dozen candles. On the other hand, I had uses in mind for those things.

“I need some of the honey for the surgery,” I said. “It makes a good antibacterial dressing over wounds.”

One eyebrow went up, though he kept his eyes on the hen-scratches he was making.

“I should think it would draw flies,” he said, “if not bears.” He flicked the end of his quill, dismissing the thought. “How much d’ye need then? I shouldna think you’ve so many wounded coming through your surgery as to require forty gallons of honey—unless you’re plastering them with it, head to toe.”

I laughed, despite my wariness.

“No, two or three gallons should be enough for dressings—say five, allowing extra to make up electrolytic fluids.”

He glanced up at me, both brows raised.

“Electric?” He looked at the candle, its flame wavering in the draft from the window, then back at me. “Did Brianna not say that was something to do wi’ lights? Or lightning, at least?”

“No, electrolyte,” I amplified. “Sugar-water. You know, when a person is feeling shocked, or is too ill to eat, or has the flux—an electrolytic fluid is one that supports the body by putting back the essential ions they’ve lost from bleeding or diarrhea—the bits of salt and sugar and other things—which in turn draws water into the blood and restores blood pressure. You’ve seen me use it before.”

“Oh, is that how it works?” His face lighted with interest, and he seemed about to ask for an explanation. Then he caught sight of the stack of receipts and correspondence still waiting on his desk, sighed, and picked up his quill again.

“Verra well, then,” he conceded. “Keep the honey. Can I sell the soap?”

I nodded, pleased. I had, with a good deal of cautious experimentation, succeeded at last in producing a soap that did not smell like a dead pig soaked in lye, and that did not remove the upper layer of the epidermis. It required sunflower oil or olive oil in lieu of suet, though; both very expensive.

I had it in mind to trade my spare honey to the Cherokee ladies for sunflower oil with which to make both more soap and shampoo. Those, in turn, would fetch excellent prices almost anywhere—Cross Creek, Wilmington, New Bern—even Charleston, should we ever venture that far. Or so I thought. I was unsure whether Jamie would agree to gamble on that enterprise, though; it would take months to come to fruition, while he could dispose of the honey at an immediate profit. If he saw for sure that the soap would bring much more than the raw honey, though, there would be no difficulty in getting my way.

Before I could expound on the prospects, we heard the sound of light footsteps in the hall, and a soft rap at the door.

“Come,” Jamie called, pulling himself up straight. Mr. Wemyss poked his head into the room, but hesitated, looking mildly alarmed at the sight of the sanguinary splotches on my hands. Jamie beckoned him companionably in with a flick of his quill.

“Aye, Joseph?”

“If I might speak a word in your ear, sir?” Mr. Wemyss was dressed casually, in shirt and breeks, but had slicked down his fine, pale hair with water, indicating some formality about the situation.

I pushed back my chair, reaching to gather up my leavings, but Mr. Wemyss stopped me with a brief gesture.

“Oh, no, Ma’am. If ye wouldna mind, I should like ye to stay. It’s about Lizzie, and I should value a woman’s opinion on the matter.”

“Of course.” I sat back, brows raised in curiosity.

“Lizzie? Have ye found our wee lass a husband, then, Joseph?” Jamie dropped his quill into the jar on his desk and sat forward, interested, gesturing toward an empty stool.

Mr. Wemyss nodded, the candlelight throwing the bones of his thin face into prominence. He took the proffered seat with a certain air of dignity, quite at odds with his usual attitude of mild discombobulation.

“I am thinking so, Mr. Fraser. Robin McGillivray came to call upon me this morning, to speir for my Elizabeth, to be pledged to his lad, Manfred.”

My eyebrows went a little higher. To the best of my knowledge, Manfred McGillivray had seen Lizzie less than half a dozen times, and had not spoken more than the briefest of courtesies to her. It wasn’t impossible that he should have been attracted; Lizzie had grown into a delicately pretty girl, and if still very shy, was possessed of nice manners. It scarcely seemed the basis for a proposal of marriage, though.

As Mr. Wemyss laid out the matter, it became a little clearer. Jamie had promised Lizzie a dowry, consisting of a section of prime land, and Mr. Wemyss, freed from his indenture, had a freeman’s homestead claim of fifty acres as well—to which Lizzie was heir. The Wemyss land adjoined the McGillivrays’ section, and the two together would make a very respectable farm. Evidently, with her three girls now married or suitably engaged, Manfred’s marriage was the next step in Ute McGillivray’s master plan. Reviewing all of the available girls within a twenty-mile radius of the Ridge, she had settled upon Lizzie as the best prospect, and sent Robin round to open negotiations.

“Well, the McGillivrays are a decent family,” Jamie said judiciously. He dipped a finger into my bowl of bloodroot shavings and dotted it thoughtfully on his blotter, leaving a chain of red fingerprints. “They’ve not much land, but Robin does well enough for himself, and wee Manfred’s a hard worker, from all I hear.” Robin was a gunsmith, with a small shop in Cross Creek. Manfred had been apprenticed to another gun-maker in Hillsborough, but was now a journeyman himself.

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