The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 172

   

“Would he take her to live in Hillsborough?” I asked. That might weigh heavily with Joseph Wemyss. While he would do anything to insure his daughter’s future, he loved Lizzie dearly, and I knew that the loss of her would strike him to the heart.

He shook his head. His hair had dried, and was beginning to rise in its usual fair wisps.

“Robin says not. He says the lad plans to ply his trade in Woolam’s Creek—providing he can manage a wee shop. They’d live at the farm.” He darted a sideways glance at Jamie, then looked away, blood rising under his fair skin.

Jamie bent his head, and I saw the corner of his mouth tuck in. So this was where he entered the negotiation, then. Woolam’s Creek was a small but growing settlement at the base of Fraser’s Ridge. While the Woolams, a local Quaker family, owned the mill there, and the land on the far side of the creek, Jamie owned all of the land on the Ridge side.

He had so far provided land, tools, and supplies to Ronnie Sinclair, Theo Frye, and Bob O’Neill, for the building of a cooper’s shop, a smithy—still under construction—and a small general store, all on terms that provided us with an eventual share of any profit, but no immediate income.

If Jamie and I had plans for the future, so did Ute McGillivray. She knew, of course, that Lizzie and her father held a place of special esteem with Jamie, and that he would in all likelihood be moved to do what he could for her. And that—of course—was what Joseph Wemyss was very delicately asking now; might Jamie provide premises for Manfred at Woolam’s Creek as part of the agreement?

Jamie glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. I lifted one shoulder in the faintest of shrugs, wondering whether Lizzie’s physical delicacy had entered into Ute McGillivray’s calculations. There were a good many girls sturdier than Lizzie, and better prospects for motherhood. Still, if Lizzie should die in childbirth, then the McGillivrays would be the richer both for her dower-land, and the Woolam’s Creek property—and new wives were not so difficult to come by.

“I expect something might be done,” Jamie said cautiously. I saw his gaze drift to the open ledger, with its depressing columns of figures, then speculatively to me. Land was not a problem; with no cash and precious little credit, tools and materials would be. I firmed my lips and returned his stare; no, he was not getting his hands on my honey!

He sighed, and sat back, tapping his red-tinged fingers lightly on the blotter.

“I’ll manage,” he said. “What does the lass say, then? Will she have Manfred?”

Mr. Wemyss looked faintly dubious.

“She says she will. He’s a nice enough lad, though his mother . . . a fine woman,” he added hurriedly, “verra fine. If just a trifle . . . erhm. But . . .” he turned to me, narrow forehead furrowed. “I am not sure Elizabeth knows her mind, ma’am, to say truly. She kens ’twould be a good match, and that it would keep her near me . . .” His expression softened at the thought, then firmed again. “But I wouldna have her make the match only because she thinks I favor it.” He glanced shyly at Jamie, then at me.

“I did love her mother so,” he said, the words coming out in a rush, as though confessing some shameful secret. He blushed bright pink, and looked down at the thin hands he had twisted together in his lap.

“I see,” I said, tactfully averting my own gaze, and brushing a few bits of stray bloodroot off the desk. “Would you like me to talk to her?”

“Oh, I should be most grateful, Mum!” Lightened by relief, he nearly sprang to his feet. He wrang Jamie’s hand fervently, bowed repeatedly to me, and at last made his way out, with much bobbing and murmuring of thanks.

The door closed behind him, and Jamie sighed, shaking his head.

“Christ knows it’s trouble enough to get daughters married when they do ken their own minds,” he said darkly, plainly thinking of Brianna and Marsali. “Maybe it’s easier if they don’t.”

THE SINGLE CANDLE was guttering, casting flickering shadows over the room. I got up and went to the shelf where a few fresh ones lay. To my surprise, Jamie got up and came to join me. He reached past the assortment of half-burned tapers and fresh candles, pulling out the squat clock-candle that sat behind them, hidden in the shadows.

He set it on the desk, and used one of the tapers to light it. The wick was already blackened; the candle had been used before, though it wasn’t burned down very far. He looked at me, and I went quietly to shut the door.

“Do you think it’s time?” I asked softly, moving back to stand beside him.

He shook his head, but didn’t answer. He sat back a little in his chair, hands folded in his lap, watching the flame of the clock-candle take hold and swell into a wavering light.

Jamie sighed and put out a hand to turn his account-book toward me. I could see the state of our affairs laid out there in black and white—dismal, so far as cash went.

Very little business in the Colony was done on a cash basis—virtually none, west of Asheville. The mountain homesteaders all dealt in barter, and so far as that went, we managed fairly well. We had milk, butter, and cheese to trade; potatoes and grain, pork and venison, fresh vegetables and dried fruit, a little wine made from the scuppernong grapes of the autumn past. We had hay and timber—though so did everyone else—and my honey and beeswax. And above everything else, we had Jamie’s whisky.

That was a limited resource, though. We had fifteen acres in new barley, which—bar hailstones, forest fires, and other Acts of God—would eventually be made into nearly a hundred kegs of whisky, which could be sold or traded for quite a lot, even completely raw and unaged. The barley was still green in the field, though, and the whisky no more than a profitable phantom.

In the meantime, we had used or sold almost all the spirit on hand. True, there were fourteen small kegs of spirit remaining—buried in a small cave above the whisky-spring—but that couldn’t be used. From each distilling, Jamie put aside two kegs, to be religiously kept for aging. The eldest barrel in this cache was only two years old; it would stay there for ten more, God willing, to emerge as liquid gold—and almost as valuable as the solid kind.

The immediate financial demands were not going to wait ten years, though. Beyond the possibility of a gunsmith’s shop for Manfred McGillivray and a modest dowry for Lizzie, there were the normal expenses of farming, livestock maintenance, and an ambitious plan to provide ploughshares to every tenant—many of whom were still tilling by hand.

And beyond our own expenses, there was one very burdensome obligation. Bloody Laoghaire MacKenzie damn-her-eyes Fraser.

She wasn’t precisely an ex-wife—but she wasn’t precisely not an ex-wife, either. Thinking me permanently gone, if not actually dead, Jamie had married her, under the prodding of his sister Jenny. The marriage had rather quickly proved to be a mistake, and upon my reappearance, an annulment had been sought, to the relief—more or less—of all parties.

Generous to a fault, though, Jamie had agreed to pay a large sum to her in annual maintenance, plus a dowry to each of her daughters. Marsali’s dowry was being paid gradually, in land and whisky, and there was no news of Joan’s impending marriage. But the money to keep Laoghaire in whatever style she kept in Scotland was falling due—and we didn’t have it.

I glanced at Jamie, who was brooding, eyes half-closed over his long, straight nose. I didn’t bother suggesting that we allow Laoghaire to put in for a gaberlunzie badge and go begging through the parish. No matter what he thought of the woman personally, he considered her his responsibility, and that was that.

I supposed that paying the debt in casks of salt fish and lye-soap was not a suitable option, either. That left us three alternatives: We could sell the whisky from the cache, though that would be a great loss in the long term. We could borrow money from Jocasta; possible, but highly distasteful. Or we could sell something else. Several horses, for instance. A large number of pigs. Or a jewel.

The candle was burning strongly, and the wax around the wick had melted. Looking down into the clear puddle of molten wax, I could see them: three gemstones, dark against the pale gray-gold of the candle, their vivid hues subdued but still visible in the wax. An emerald, a topaz, and a black diamond.

Jamie didn’t touch them, but stared at them, thick ruddy brows drawn together in concentration.

Selling a gemstone in colonial North Carolina would not be easy; it would likely require a trip to Charleston or Richmond. It could be done, though, and would result in enough money to pay Laoghaire her blood-money, as well as to meet the other mounting expenses. The gemstones had a value, though, that went beyond money—they were the currency of travel through the stones; protection for the life of a traveler.

What few things we knew about that perilous journey were based largely on the things that Geillis Duncan had written or had told me; it was her contention that gems gave a traveler not only protection from the chaos in that unspeakable space between the layers of time, but some ability to navigate, as it were—to choose the time in which one might emerge.

Moved by impulse, I went back to the shelf, and standing on tiptoe, groped for the hide-wrapped bundle hidden in the shadows there. It was heavy in my hand, and I unwrapped it carefully, laying the oval stone on the desk beside the candle. It was a large opal, its fiery heart revealed within a matrix of dull stone by the carving that covered the surface—a spiral; a primitive drawing of the snake that eats its tail.

The opal was the property of another traveler—the mysterious Indian called Otter-Tooth. An Indian whose skull showed silver fillings in the teeth; an Indian who seemed at one time to have spoken English. He had called this stone his “ticket back”—so it seemed that Geilie Duncan was not the only one who believed that gemstones had some power in that dreadful place . . . between.

“Five, the witch said,” Jamie said thoughtfully. “She said ye needed five stones?”

“She thought so.” It was a warm evening, but the down hairs on my jaw prickled at the thought of Geilie Duncan, of the stones—and of the Indian I had met on a dark hillside, his face painted black for death, just before I had found the opal, and the skull buried with it. Was it his skull we had buried, silver fillings and all?

“Was it needful for the stones to be polished, or cut?”

“I don’t know. I think she said cut ones were better—but I don’t know why she thought so—or if she was right.” That was always the rub; we knew so little for sure.

He made a little hmf noise, and rubbed the bridge of his nose slowly with one knuckle.

“Well, we’ve these three, and my father’s ruby. Those are cut and polished stones, and that makes four. Then that wee bawbee”—he glanced at the opal—“and the stone in your amulet, which are not.” The point here being that the cut or polished stones would fetch a great deal more in cash than would the rough opal or the raw sapphire in my medicine bag. And yet—could we risk losing a stone that might be needed, that might someday spell the difference between life and death for Bree or Roger?

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