The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 179


“Oh, aye, Mrs. Claire. That’s how they kent what it was, finally.”

A small party of hunters had gone out loaded—literally—for bear, armed with bows, spears, and the two muskets the village boasted. They had circled the village in a widening gyre, convinced that since the bear’s attentions focused on the town, it would not wander far away. They had searched for four days, now and then finding old spoor, but no trace of the bear itself.

“Tsatsa’wi was wi’ them,” Peter said, lifting a finger toward his brother-in-law. “He and one of his friends were sittin’ up at night, keepin’ watch whilst the others slept. ’Twas just past moonrise, he said, when he got up to make water. He turned back to the fire—just in time to see his friend bein’ dragged off, stone-dead, wi’ his neck crushed in the jaws of the thing itself!”

Tsatsa’wi had been following the tale intently. At this juncture, he nodded, and made a gesture that appeared to be the Cherokee equivalent of the Sign of the Cross—some quick and formal gesture to repel evil. He began to talk himself, then, hands flying as he pantomimed the subsequent events.

He had of course shouted, rousing his remaining comrades, and had rushed at the bear, hoping to frighten it into dropping his friend—though he could see that the man was already dead. He tilted his head sharply to indicate a broken neck, letting his tongue loll in an expression that would have been quite funny under different circumstances.

The hunters were accompanied by two dogs, which had also flown at the bear, barking. The bear had in fact dropped its prey, but instead of fleeing, had charged toward him. He had thrown himself to one side, and the bear had paused long enough to swipe one of the dogs off its feet, and then disappeared into the darkness of the wood, pursued by the other dog, a hail of arrows, and a couple of musket balls—none of which had touched it.

They had chased the bear into the wood with torches, but been unable to discover it. The second dog had returned, looking ashamed of itself—Brianna made a small fizzing noise at Tsatsa’wi’s pantomime of the dog—and the hunters, thoroughly unnerved, had gone back to their fire, and spent the rest of the night awake, before returning to their village in the morning. From whence, Tsatsa’wi indicated with a graceful gesture, he had now come to solicit the assistance of the Bear-Killer.

“But why do they think it’s a ghost?” Brianna leaned forward, interest displacing her initial horror at the tale.

Peter glanced at her, one eyebrow raised.

“Oh, aye, he didna say—or rather I expect he did, but not so as ye’d understand it. The thing was much bigger than the usual bear, he says—and pure white. He says when it turned to look at him, the beast’s eyes glowed red as flame. They kent at once it must be a ghost, and so they werena really surprised that their arrows didna touch it.”

Tsatsa’wi broke in again, pointing first at Jamie, then tapping his bear-claw necklace, and then—to my surprise—pointing at me.

“Me?” I said. “What have I got to do with it?”

The Cherokee heard my tone of surprise, for he leaned across the table, took my hand in his own, and stroked it—not in any affectionate manner, but merely as an indication of my skin. Jamie made a small sound of amusement.

“You’re verra white, Sassenach. Perhaps the bear will think ye’re a kindred spirit.” He grinned at me, but Tsatsa’wi evidently gathered the sense of this, for he nodded seriously. He dropped my hand, and made a brief cawing noise—a raven’s call.

“Oh,” I said, distinctly uneasy. I didn’t know the words in Cherokee, but evidently the people of Tsatsa’wi’s town had heard of White Raven as well as the Bear-Killer. Any white animal was regarded as being significant—and often sinister. I didn’t know whether the implication here was that I might exert some power over the ghost-bear—or merely serve as bait—but evidently I was indeed included in the invitation.

And so it was that a week later, the hay safely in and four sides of venison peacefully hanging in the smokehouse, we set off toward the Treaty Line, bent on exorcism.

BESIDES JAMIE AND MYSELF, the party consisted of Brianna and Jemmy, the two Beardsley twins, and Peter Bewlie, who was to guide us to the village, his wife having gone ahead with Tsatsa’wi. Brianna had not wanted to come, more for fear of taking Jemmy into the wilderness than from disinclination to join the hunt, I thought. Jamie had insisted that she come, though, claiming that her marksmanship would be invaluable. Unwilling to wean Jemmy yet, she had been obliged to bring him—though he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the trip, hunched bright-eyed on the saddle in front of his mother, alternately gabbling happily to himself about everything he saw, or sucking his thumb in dreamy content.

As for the Beardsleys, it was Josiah that Jamie wanted.

“The lad’s killed two bears, at least,” he told me. “I saw the skins, at the Gathering. And if his brother likes to come along, I canna see the harm in it.”

“Neither do I,” I agreed. “But why are you making Bree come? Can’t you and Josiah handle the bear between you?”

“Perhaps,” he said, running an oily rag over the barrel of his gun. “But if two heids are better than one, then a third should be better still, no? Especially if it shoots like yon lass can.”

“Yes?” I said skeptically. “And what else?”

He glanced up at me and grinned.

“What, ye dinna think I have ulterior motives, do ye, Sassenach?”

“No, I don’t think so—I know so.”

He laughed and bent his head over his gun. After a few moments’ swabbing and cleaning, though, he said, not looking up, “Aye, well. I thought it no bad idea for the lass to have friends among the Cherokee. In case she should need a place to go, sometime.”

The casual tone of voice didn’t fool me.

“Sometime. When the Revolution comes, you mean?”

“Aye. Or . . . when we die. Whenever that might be,” he added precisely, picking the gun up and squinting down the barrel to check the sight.

It was bright Indian summer still, but I felt shards of ice crackle down my back. Most days, I managed to forget that newspaper clipping—the one that reported the death by fire of one James Fraser and his wife, on Fraser’s Ridge. Other days, I remembered it, but shoved the possibility to the back of my mind, refusing to dwell on it. But every now and then, I would wake up at night, with bright flames leaping in the corners of my mind, shivering and terrified.

“The clipping said, ‘no living children,’” I said, determined to face down the fear. “Do you suppose that means that Bree and Roger will have gone . . . somewhere . . . before then?” To the Cherokee, perhaps. Or to the stones.

“It might.” His face was sober, eyes on his work. Neither one of us was willing to admit the other possibility—no need, in any case.

Reluctant though she had been to come, Brianna too seemed to be enjoying the trip. Without Roger, and relieved of the chores of cabin housekeeping, she seemed much more relaxed, laughing and joking with the Beardsley twins, teasing Jamie, and nursing Jemmy by the fire at night, before curling herself around him and falling peacefully asleep.

The Beardsleys were having a good time, too. The removal of his infected adenoids and tonsils had not cured Keziah’s deafness, but had improved it markedly. He could understand fairly loud speech now, particularly if you faced him and spoke clearly, though he seemed to make out anything his twin said with ease, no matter how softly voiced. Seeing him look round wide-eyed as we rode through the thick, insect-buzzing forest, fording streams and finding faint deer paths through the thickets, I realized that he had never been anywhere in his life, save the area near the Beardsley farm, and Fraser’s Ridge.

I wondered what he would make of the Cherokee—and they of him and his brother. Peter had told Jamie that the Cherokee regarded twins as particularly blessed and lucky; the news that the Beardsleys would be joining the hunt had delighted Tsatsa’wi.

Josiah seemed to be having fun, too—insofar as I could tell, he being a very contained sort of person. As we drew closer to the village, though, I thought that he was becoming slightly nervous.

I could see that Jamie was a trifle uneasy, too, though in his case, I suspected the reason for it. He didn’t mind at all going to help with a hunt, and was pleased to have the opportunity to visit the Cherokee. But I rather thought that having his reputation as the Bear-Killer trumpeted before him, so to speak, was making him uncomfortable.

This supposition was borne out when we camped on the third night of our journey. We were no more than ten miles from the village, and would easily make it by mid-day next day.

I could see him making up his mind to something as we rode, and as we all sat down to supper round a roaring fire, I saw him suddenly set his shoulders and stand up. He walked up to Peter Bewlie, who sat staring dreamily into the fire, and faced him with decision.

“There’s a wee thing I have to be sayin’, Peter. About this ghost-bear we’re off to find.”

Peter looked up, startled out of his trance. He smiled, though, and slid over to make room for Jamie to sit down.

“Oh, aye, Mac Dubh?”

Jamie did so, and cleared his throat.

“Well, ye see—the fact is that I dinna actually ken a great deal about bears, as there havena been any in Scotland for quite some years now.”

Peter’s eyebrows went up.

“But they say ye killed a great bear wi’ naught but a dirk!”

Jamie rubbed his nose with something approaching annoyance.

“Aye, well . . . so I did, then. But I didna hunt the creature down. It came after me, so I hadna got a choice about it, after all. I’m none so sure that I shall be of any great help in discovering this ghost-bear. It must be a particularly clever bear, no? To have been walking in and out of their village for months, I mean, and no one with more than a single glimpse of it?”

“Smarter than the average bear,” Brianna agreed, her mouth twitching slightly. Jamie gave her a narrow look, which he switched to me as I choked on a swallow of beer.

“What?” he demanded testily.

“Nothing,” I gasped. “Nothing at all.”

Turning his back on us in disgust, Jamie suddenly caught sight of Josiah Beardsley, who, while not guffawing, was doing a little mouth-twitching of his own.

“What?” Jamie barked at him. “They’re no but loons”—he jerked a thumb over his finger at Brianna and me—“but what’s to do wi’ you, eh?”

Josiah immediately erased the grin from his face and tried to look grave, but the corner of his mouth kept on twitching, and a hot flush was rising in his narrow cheeks, visible even by firelight. Jamie narrowed his eyes and a stifled noise that might have been a giggle escaped Josiah. He clapped a hand across his mouth, staring up at Jamie.

“What, then?” Jamie inquired politely.

Keziah, obviously gathering that something was up, hunched closer to his twin, squaring up beside him in support. Josiah made a brief, unconscious movement toward Kezzie, but didn’t look away from Jamie. His face was still red, but he seemed to have got himself under control.