The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 177

   

She left the springhouse, walking slowly, the bucket of buttermilk in one hand balanced by a wedge of cheese in the other. A cheese omelette would be good for lunch; quick to cook, and Jemmy loved it. He preferred to use his spoon to kill his prey, then devour it messily with both hands, but he would feed himself, and that was progress.

She was still smiling when she looked up from the path to see Obadiah Henderson sitting on her bench.

“What are you doing here?” Her voice was sharp, but higher than she’d intended it to be. “The girls said you’d gone to Salem.”

“So I had.” He rose to his feet and stepped forward, that knowing half-smile on his lips. “I came back.”

She suppressed the urge to take a step back. This was her house; damned if he’d make her back away from her own door.

“Well, the girls have gone,” she said, as coolly as she could manage. “They’re at the Camerons’.” Her heart was thumping heavily, but she moved past him, meaning to put the bucket down on the porch.

She bent, and he put his hand on the small of her back. She froze momentarily. He didn’t move his hand, didn’t try to stroke or squeeze—but the weight of it lay on her spine like a dead snake. She jerked upright and whirled around, taking a step back, and to hell with not letting him intimidate her. He’d already done that.

“I brought ye something,” he said. “From Salem.” The smile was still on his lips, but it seemed completely disconnected from the look in his eyes.

“I don’t want it,” she said. “I mean—thank you. But no. It isn’t right for you to—my husband wouldn’t like it.”

“No need for him to know.” He took a step toward her; she took one back, and the smile grew wider.

“I hear your husband’s not home much, these days,” he said softly. “That sounds lonesome.”

He put out a large hand, reaching toward her face. Then there was an odd, small sound, a sort of meaty tnk!, and his face went blank, his eyes shocked wide.

She stared at him for a moment, completely unable to grasp what had happened. Then he turned those staring eyes to his outstretched hand, and she saw the small knife stuck in the flesh of his forearm, and the growing stain of red on the shirt around it.

“Leave this place.” Jamie’s voice was low, but distinct. He stepped out of the trees, eyes fixed on Henderson in a most unfriendly manner. He reached them in three strides, put out his hand, and pulled the knife from Henderson’s arm. Obadiah made a small sound, deep in his throat, like a wounded animal might make, baffled and pitiable.

“Go,” Jamie said. “Never come here again.”

The blood was flowing down Obadiah’s arm, dripping from his fingers. A few drops fell into the buttermilk, floating crimson on the rich yellow surface. In a dazed sort of way, she recognized the horrid beauty of it—like rubies set in gold.

Then the boy was going, free hand clamped to his wounded arm, shambling, then running for the trail. He disappeared into the trees, and the dooryard was very still.

“Did you have to do that?” was the first thing she managed to say. She felt stunned, as though she herself had been struck with something. The blood drops were beginning to blur, their edges dissolving into the buttermilk, and she thought she might throw up.

“Should I have waited?” Her father caught her by the arm, pulled her down to sit on the porch.

“No. But you—couldn’t you just . . . have said something to him?” Her lips felt numb and there were small flashing lights in the periphery of her vision. Remotely, she realized that she was going to faint, and leaned forward, her head between her knees, face buried in the sanctuary of her apron.

“I did. I told him to go.” The porch creaked as Jamie sat down beside her.

“You know what I mean.” Her voice sounded odd to her own ears, muffled in the folds of cloth. She sat up slowly; the red spruce by the big house wavered slightly in her vision, but then steadied. “What were you doing? Showing off? How could you count on sticking somebody with a knife at that distance? And what was that, anyway—a penknife?”

“Aye. It was all I had in my pocket. And in fact, I didna mean to stick him,” Jamie admitted. “I meant to throw into the wall o’ the cabin, and when he looked to see what made the noise, hit him from behind. He moved, though.”

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply through her nose, willing her stomach to settle.

“Ye’re all right, a muirninn?” he asked quietly. He laid a hand gently on her back—somewhat higher than Obadiah had. It felt good; large, warm and comforting.

“I’m fine,” she said, opening her eyes. He looked worried, and she made an effort, smiling at him. “Fine.”

He relaxed a bit, then, and his eyes grew less troubled, though they stayed intent on hers.

“Well, then,” he said. “It’s no the first time, aye? How long has yon gomerel been tryin’ it on wi’ you?”

She took another breath, and forced her fists to uncurl. She wanted to minimize the situation, moved by a sense of guilt—for surely she should have found some way to stop it? Faced with that steady blue gaze, though, she couldn’t lie.

“Since the first week,” she said.

His eyes widened.

“So long? And why did ye not tell your man about it?” he demanded, incredulous.

She was startled, and fumbled for a reply.

“I—well—I didn’t think . . . I mean, it wasn’t his problem.” She heard the sudden intake of his breath, no doubt the precursor to some biting remark about Roger, and hurried to defend him.

“It—he—he didn’t actually do anything. Just looks. And . . . smiles. How could I tell Roger he was looking at me? I didn’t want to look weak, or helpless.” Though she had been both, and knew it. The knowledge burned under her skin like ant bites.

“I didn’t want to . . . to have to ask him to defend me.”

He stared at her, his face blank with incomprehension. He shook his head slowly, not taking his eyes away from her.

“What in God’s name d’ye think a man is for?” he asked at last. He spoke quietly, but in tones of complete bewilderment. “Ye want to keep him as a pet, is it? A lapdog? Or a caged bird?”

“You don’t understand!”

“Oh. Do I not?” He blew out a short breath, in what might have been a sardonic laugh. “I have been marrit near thirty years, and you less than two. What is it that ye think I dinna understand, lass?”

“It isn’t—it isn’t the same for you and Mama as it is for me and Roger!” she burst out.

“No, it’s not,” he agreed, his voice level. “Your mother has regard for my pride, and I for hers. Or do ye maybe think her a coward, who canna fight her own battles?”

“I . . . no.” She swallowed, feeling perilously close to tears, but determined not to let them escape. “But, Da—it is different. We’re from another place, another time.”

“I ken that fine,” he said, and she saw the edge of his mouth curl up in a wry half-smile. His voice grew more gentle. “But I canna think that men and women are so different, then.”

“Maybe not.” She swallowed, forcing her voice to steady. “But maybe Roger’s different. Since Alamance.”

He drew breath as though to speak, but then let it out again slowly, saying nothing. He had taken his hand away; she felt the lack of it. He leaned back a little, looking out over the dooryard, and his fingers tapped lightly on the boards of the porch between them.

“Aye,” he said at last, quietly. “Maybe so.”

She heard a muffled thump in the cabin behind them, then another. Jem was awake, throwing his toys out of his cradle. In a moment, he would start calling for her to come and pick them up. She stood up suddenly, straightening her dress.

“Jem’s up; I have to go in.”

Jamie stood up, too, and picking up the bucket, flung the buttermilk in a thick yellow splash across the grass.

“I’ll fetch ye more,” he said, and was gone before she could tell him not to bother.

Jem was standing up, clinging to the side of his cradle, eager for escape, and launched himself into her arms when she bent to pick him up. He was getting heavy, but she clutched him tightly to her, pressing her cheek against his head, damp with sweaty sleep. Her heart was beating heavily, feeling bruised inside her chest.

“That sounds lonesome,” Obadiah Henderson had said. He was right.

80

CREAMED CRUD

JAMIE LEANED BACK from the table, sighing in repletion. As he started to get up, though, Mrs. Bug popped up from her place, wagging an admonitory finger at him.

“Now, sir, now, sir, ye’ll be going nowhere, and me left wi’ gingerbread and fresh crud to go to waste!”

Brianna clapped a hand to her mouth, with the muffled noise characteristic of one who has just shot milk up one’s nose. Jamie and Mr. Bug, to whom “crud” was the familiar Scottish usage for “curds,” both looked at her curiously, but made no comment.

“Well, I’ll surely burst, Mrs. Bug, but I expect I’ll die a happy man,” Jamie informed her. “Bring it on, then—but I’ve a wee thing to fetch whilst ye serve it out.” With amazing agility for a man who had just consumed a pound or two of spiced sausage with fried apples and potatoes, he slid out of his chair and disappeared down the hall toward his study.

I took a deep breath, pleased that I had smelled the gingerbread cooking earlier in the afternoon, and had had the foresight to remove my stays before sitting down to supper.

“Wan’ crud!” Jemmy crowed, picking up infallibly on the word most calculated to cause maternal consternation. He pounded his hands on the table in ecstasy, chanting, “Crud-crud-crud-crud!” at the top of his lungs.

Roger glanced at Bree with a half-smile, and I was pleased to see that she caught it, smiling back even as she captured Jemmy’s hands and started the job of wiping the remains of dinner off his face.

Jamie returned just as the gingerbread and curds—these being sugared and whipped into creamy blobs—made their appearance. He reached over Roger’s shoulder as he passed, and deposited a cloth-bound ledger on the table in front of him, topped with the small wooden box containing the astrolabe.

“The weather’s good for another two months, maybe,” he said casually, sitting down and sticking a finger into the huge dollop of creamed crud on his plate. He stuck the finger in his mouth, closing his eyes in bliss.

“Aye?” The word came out choked and barely audible, but enough to make Jemmy quit babbling and stare at his father open-mouthed. I wondered whether it was the first time Roger had spoken today.

Jamie had opened his eyes and picked up his spoon, eyeing his dessert with the determination of a man who means to die trying.

“Aye, well, Fergus will be going down to the coast just before snowfall—if he can take the surveying reports to be filed in New Bern then, that will be good, no?” He dug into the gingerbread in a businesslike way, not looking up.

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