The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 178

   

There was a silence, filled only with heavy breathing and the clack of spoons on wooden plates. Then Roger, who had not picked up his spoon, spoke.

“I can . . . do that.” It might have been no more than the effort it took to force air through his scarred throat, but there was an emphasis on the last word, that made Brianna wince. Only slightly, but I saw it—and so did Roger. He glanced at her, then looked down at his plate, lashes dark against his cheek. His jaw tightened, and he picked up his spoon.

“Good, then,” Jamie said, even more casually. “I’ll show ye how. Ye can go in a week.”

Last night I dreamed that Roger was leaving. I’ve been dreaming about his going for a week, ever since Da suggested it. Suggested—ha. Like Moses brought down the Ten Suggestions from Mount Sinai.

In the dream, Roger was packing things in a big sack, and I was busy mopping the floor. He kept getting in my way, and I kept pushing the sack aside to get at another part of the floor. It was filthy, with all sorts of stains and sticky glop. There were little bones scattered around, like Adso had eaten some little animal there, and the bones kept getting caught up in my mop.

I don’t want him to go, but I do, too. I hear all the things he isn’t saying; they echo in my head. I keep thinking that when he’s gone, it will be quiet.

SHE PASSED ABRUPTLY from sleep to instant wakefulness. It was just past dawn, and she was alone. There were birds singing in the wood. One was caroling near the cabin, its notes sharp and musical. Was it a thrush? she wondered.

She knew he was gone, but lifted her head to check. The rucksack was gone from beside the door, as was the bundle of food and bottle of cider she had prepared for him the night before. The bodhran still hung in its place on the wall, seeming to float suspended in the unearthly light.

She had tried to get him to play again, after the hanging, feeling that at least he could still have music, if not his voice. He had resisted, though, and finally she could see that she was angering him with her insistence, and had stopped. He would do things his way—or not at all.

She glanced toward the cradle, but all was quiet, Jemmy still sound asleep. She lay back on her pillow, hands lifting to her br**sts. She was nak*d, and they were smooth, round, and full as gourds. She squeezed one nipple gently, and tiny pearls of milk popped out. One swelled bigger, overflowed, and ran in a tiny, tickling droplet down the side of her breast.

They had made love before sleeping, the night before. At first, she hadn’t thought he would, but when she came up to him and put her arms around him, he had clasped her hard against himself, kissed her slowly for a long, long time, and finally carried her to bed.

She had been so anxious for him, wanting to assure him of her love with mouth and hands and body, to give him something of herself to take away, that she had forgotten herself completely, and been surprised when the cli**x overtook her. She slid one hand down, between her legs, remembering the sense of being caught up suddenly by a great wave, swept helplessly toward shore. She hoped that Roger had noticed; he hadn’t said anything, nor opened his eyes.

He had kissed her goodbye in the dark before dawn, still silent. Or had he? She put a hand to her mouth, suddenly unsure, but there was no clue in the smooth, cool flesh of her lips.

Had he kissed her goodbye? Or had she only dreamed it?

81

BEAR-KILLER

August, 1771

THE HORSES NEIGHING from the direction of the paddock announced company. Curious, I abandoned my latest experiment and went to peer out of the window. Neither horse nor man was in evidence in the dooryard, but the horses were still snorting and carrying on as they did when they saw someone new. The company must be afoot, then, and have gone round to the kitchen door—which most people did, this being mannerly.

This supposition was almost instantly borne out by a high-pitched shriek from the back of the house. I poked my head out into the hall just in time to see Mrs. Bug race out of the kitchen as though discharged from a cannon, screaming in panic.

Not noticing me, she shot past and out of the front door, which she left hanging open, thus enabling me to see her cross the dooryard and vanish into the woods, still in full cry. It came as something of an anticli**x, when I glanced the other way and saw an Indian standing in the kitchen doorway, looking surprised.

We eyed each other warily, but as I appeared indisposed to screaming and running, he relaxed slightly. As he appeared unarmed and lacking paint or any other evidence of malevolent intent, I relaxed slightly.

“Osiyo,” I said cautiously, having observed that he was a Cherokee, and dressed for visiting. He wore three calico shirts, one atop the other, homespun breeches, and the odd drooping cap, rather like a half-wound turban, that men favored for formal occasions, plus long silver earrings and a handsome brooch in the shape of the rising sun.

He smiled brilliantly in response to my greeting, and said something I didn’t understand at all. I shrugged helplessly, but smiled in return, and we stood there nodding at one another and smiling back and forth for several moments, until the gentleman, struck by inspiration, reached into the neck of his innermost shirt—a dressy number printed with small yellow diamonds on a blue background—and withdrew a leather thong, on which were strung the curved black claws of one or more bears.

He held these up, rattled them gently, and raised his eyebrows, glancing to and fro as though searching for someone under the table or on the cabinet.

“Oh,” I said, comprehending immediately. “You want my husband.” I mimed someone aiming a rifle. “The Bear-Killer?”

A flash of good teeth in a beaming smile rewarded my intelligence.

“I expect he’ll be along any minute,” I said, waving first at the window, indicating the path taken by the exiting Mrs. Bug—who had undoubtedly gone to inform Himself that there were red savages in the house, bent on murder, mayhem, and the desecration of her clean floor—and then in the direction of the kitchen. “Come back, won’t you, and have a drink of something?”

He followed me willingly, and we were seated at the table, companionably sipping tea and exchanging further nods and smiles, when Jamie came in, accompanied not only by Mrs. Bug, who stuck close to his coattails, casting suspicious looks at our guest, but by Peter Bewlie.

Our guest was promptly introduced as Tsatsa’wi, the brother of Peter’s Indian wife. He lived in a small town some thirty miles past the Treaty Line, but had come to visit his sister, and was staying with the Bewlies for a time.

“We were havin’ a wee pipe after our supper last night,” Peter explained, “and Tsatsa’wi was a-telling of my wife about a difficulty in their village—and she tellin’ it to me, ye see, him havin’ no English and me not speakin’ so verra much of their tongue, no but the names of things and the odd politeness here and there—but as I say, he was telling of a wicked bear, what’s been a-plaguing of them for months past.”

“I should think Tsatsa’wi well-equipped to deal wi’ such a creature, by the looks of it,” Jamie said, nodding at the Indian’s necklace of claws, and touching his own chest in indication. He smiled at Tsatsa’wi, who evidently gathered the meaning of the compliment and smiled broadly back. Both men bowed slightly to each other over the cups of tea, in token of mutual respect.

“Aye,” Peter agreed, licking droplets of liquid from the corners of his mouth, and smacking his lips in approval. “He’s a bonnie hunter, is Tsatsa’wi, and in the usual course o’ things, I expect he and his cousins might manage well enough. But it seems as how this particular bear is just that wee bit above the odds. So I says to him as perhaps we’ll come and tell Mac Dubh about it, and maybe as Himself would spare the time to go and sort the creature for them.”

Peter lifted his chin to his brother-in-law, and nodded toward Jamie, with a proprietorial air of pride. See, said the gesture. I told you. He can do it.

I suppressed a smile at this. Jamie caught my eye, coughed modestly and set down his cup.

“Aye, well. I canna come just yet awhile, but perhaps when the hay is in. D’ye ken what’s the nature of this problematical bear, Peter?”

“Oh, aye,” Peter said cheerfully. “It’s a ghost.”

I choked momentarily on my own tea. Jamie didn’t seem too shocked, but rubbed his chin dubiously.

“Mmphm. Well, what’s it done, then?”

The bear had first made its presence known nearly a year before, though no one had seen it for some time. There had been the usual incidents of depredation—the carrying away of racks of drying fish or strings of corn hung outside houses, the stealing of meat from lean-tos—but at first the townspeople had regarded this merely as the work of a bear slightly more clever than the usual—the usual bear being completely unconcerned as to whether he was observed in the act.

“It would only come at night, ye see,” Peter explained. “And it didna make a great deal o’ noise. Folk would just come out in the morning and find their stores broken into, and not a sound made to rouse them.”

Brianna, who had seen Mrs. Bug’s unceremonious exit and come up to investigate the cause, began humming softly under her breath—a song to which memory promptly supplied the words, “Oh, he’ll sleep ’til noon, but before it’s dark . . . he’ll have every picnic basket that’s in Jellystone Park . . .” I pressed a napkin to my mouth, ostensibly to blot the remains of the tea.

“They kent it was a bear from the first, aye?” Peter explained. “Footprints.”

Tsatsa’wi knew that word; he spread his two hands out on the table, thumb to thumb, demonstrating the span of the footprint, then touched the longest of the claws hung round his neck, nodding significantly.

The townspeople, thoroughly accustomed to bears, had taken the usual precautions, moving supplies into more protected areas, and putting out their dogs in the evening. The result of this was that a number of dogs had disappeared—again without sound.

Evidently the dogs had grown warier, or the bear hungrier. The first victim was a man, killed in the forest. Then, six months ago, a child had been taken. Brianna stopped humming abruptly.

The victim was a baby, snatched cradle-board and all from the bank of the river where its mother was washing clothes toward sunset. There had been no sound, and no clue left save a large clawed footprint in the mud.

Four more of the townspeople had been killed in the months since. Two children, picking wild strawberries by themselves in late afternoon. One body had been found, the neck broken, but otherwise untouched. The other had disappeared; marks showed where it had been dragged into the woods. A woman had been killed in her own cornfield, again toward sunset, and partially eaten where she fell. The last victim, a man, had in fact been hunting the bear.

“They didna find anything of him, save his bow and a few bits o’ bloodied clothes,” Peter said. I heard a small thump behind me, as Mrs. Bug sat down abruptly on the settle.

“So they have hunted it themselves?” I asked. “Or tried to, I should say?”

Peter took his eyes off Jamie and looked at me, nodding seriously.

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