The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 180


“Well, I suppose I best say, sir.”

“I suppose ye had.” Jamie gave him a quizzical look.

Josiah drew a deep breath, resigning himself.

“’Twasn’t a bear, always. Sometimes it was me.”

Jamie stared at him for a moment. Then the corners of his mouth began to twitch.

“Oh, aye?”

“Not all the time,” Josiah explained. But when his wanderings through the wilderness brought him within reach of one of the Indian villages—“Only if I was hungry, though, sir”—he hastened to add—he would lurk cautiously in the forest nearby, stealing into the place after dark and absconding with any easily-reached edibles. He would remain in the area for a few days, eating from the village stores until his strength and his pack were replenished, then move on to hunt, eventually returning with his hides to the cave where he had made a cache.

Kezzie’s expression throughout this recital hadn’t changed; I wasn’t sure how much of it he had heard, but he didn’t appear surprised. His hand rested on his twin’s arm for a moment, then slid off, reaching for a skewer of meat.

Brianna’s laughter had subsided, and she had been listening to Josiah’s confession with a furrowed brow.

“But you didn’t—I mean, I’m sure you didn’t take the baby in its cradleboard. And you didn’t kill the woman who was partly eaten . . . did you?”

Josiah blinked, though he seemed more baffled than shocked by the question.

“Oh, no. Why’d I do that? You don’t think I ate ’em, do ye?” He smiled at that, an incongruous dimple appearing in one cheek. “Mind, I been hungry enough now and then as I might consider it, if I happened on somebody dead—providin’ it was fairly recent,” he added judiciously. “But not hungry enough as I’d kill someone a-purpose.”

Brianna cleared her throat, with something startlingly like one of Jamie’s Scottish noises.

“No, I didn’t think you ate them,” she said dryly. “I just thought that if someone happened to have killed them—for some other reason—the bear could have come along and gnawed on the bodies.”

Peter nodded thoughtfully, seeming interested but unfazed by the assorted confessions.

“Aye, a bear’ll do that,” he said. “They’re no picky eaters, bears. Carrion is fine by them.”

Jamie nodded in response, but his attention was still fixed on Josiah.

“Aye, I’ve heard that, forbye. But Tsatsa’wi said he did see the bear take his friend—so it does kill people, no?”

“Well, it killed that one,” Josiah agreed. There was an odd tone to his voice, though, and Jamie’s look sharpened. He lifted a brow at Josiah, who worked his lips slowly in and out, deciding something. He glanced at Kezzie, who smiled at him. Kezzie, I saw, had a dimple in his left cheek, while Josiah’s was in the right.

Josiah sighed and turned back to face Jamie.

“I wasn’t a-goin’ to say about this part,” he said frankly. “But you been straight with us, sir, and I see it ain’t right I let you go after that bear not knowin’ what else might be there.”

I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck, and resisted the sudden impulse to turn round and look into the shadows behind me. The urge to laugh had left me.

“What else?” Jamie slowly lowered the chunk of bread he had been about to bite into. “And just . . . what else might be there, then?”

“Well, ’twas only the once I saw for sure, mind,” Josiah warned him. “And ’twas a moonless night, too. But I’d been out all the night, and my eyes was well-accustomed to the starlight—you’ll know the way of it, sir.”

Jamie nodded, looking bemused.

“Aye, well enough. And ye were where, at the time?”

Near the village we were headed toward. Josiah had been there before, and was familiar with the layout of the place. A house at the end of the village was his goal; there were strings of corn hung to dry beneath the eaves, and he thought he could get away with one easily enough, provided he didn’t rouse the village dogs.

“Rouse one, ye’ve got ’em all a-yowling on your tail,” he said, shaking his head. “And it wasn’t but a couple of hours before the dawn. So I crept along slow-like, looking to see was one of the rascals curled up asleep by the house I had my eye on.” Lurking in the wood, he had seen a figure come out of the house. As no dogs took exception to this, it was a reasonable conclusion that the person belonged to the house. The man had paused to make water, and then, to Josiah’s alarm, had shouldered a bow and quiver, and marched directly toward the woods where he lay hidden.

“I didn’t think as he could be after me, but I went up a tree quick as a bob-tail cat, and not makin’ no more noise than one, neither,” he said, not bragging.

The man had most likely been a hunter, making an early start for a distant stream where raccoon and deer would come to drink at dawn. Not seeing any need of caution so near his own village, the man had not displayed any, walking through the forest quietly, but with no attempt at concealment.

Josiah had crouched in his tree, no more than a few feet above the man’s head, holding his breath. The man had gone on, disappearing at once into the heavy undergrowth. Josiah had been just about to descend from his perch when he had heard a sudden exclamation of surprise, followed by the sounds of a brief scuffle that concluded with a sickening thunk!

“Just like a ripe squash when you chunk it with a rock to break it open,” he assured Jamie. “Made my arse-hole draw up like a purse-string, hearin’ that noise, there in the dark.”

Alarm was no bar to curiosity, though, and he had eased through the wood in the direction of the sound. He could hear a rustling noise, and as he peered cautiously through a screen of cedar branches, he made out a human form stretched upon the ground, and another bending over it, evidently struggling to pull some kind of garment off the prone man’s body.

“He was dead,” Josiah explained, matter-of-factly. “I could smell the blood, and a shit-smell, too. Reckon the little fella caved in his head with a rock or maybe a club.”

“Little fella?” Peter had been following the story with close attention. “How little d’ye mean? Did ye see his face?”

Josiah shook his head.

“No, I saw naught but the shadow of him, movin’ about. It was full dark, still; the sky hadn’t started to go light yet.” He squinted, making a mental estimate. “Reckon he’d be shorter than me; maybe so high.” He held out a hand in illustration, measuring a distance some four and a half feet from the ground.

The murderer had been interrupted in his work of plundering the body, though. Josiah, intent on watching, had noticed nothing, until there came a sudden crack from a breaking stick, and the inquiring whuff of a questing bear.

“You best believe the little fella run when he heard that,” he assured Jamie. “He dashed right past, no further from me than you are now. That was when I got the only good look I had at him.”

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense,” I said, as he paused to take a gulp of his beer. “What did he look like?”

He wiped a line of foam from the sparse whiskers on his upper lip, looking thoughtful.

“Well, ma’am, I was pretty near sure he was the devil. Only I did think the devil would be bigger,” he added, taking another drink.

This statement naturally caused some confusion. Upon further elucidation, it appeared that Josiah merely meant that the mysterious “little fella” had been black.

“Wasn’t ’til I went along to that Gathering of yours that it come to me that some regular folks just are black,” he explained. “I hadn’t never seen anybody who was, nor heard tell of it, neither.”

Kezzie nodded soberly at this.

“Devil in the Book,” he said, in his odd, gruff voice.

“The Book,” it seemed, was an old Bible that Aaron Beardsley had taken somewhere in trade and never found a buyer for. Neither of the boys had ever been taught to read, but they were most entertained by the pictures in the Book, which included several drawings of the devil, depicted as a crouching black creature, going about his sly business of tempting and seduction.

“I didn’t see no forked tail,” Josiah said, shaking his head, “but then, he went by so fast, stood to reason I might have missed it in the dark and all.”

Not wanting to draw the attention of such a person to himself, Josiah had stood still, and thus been in a position to hear the bear giving its attention to the unfortunate inhabitant of the village.

“It’s like Mr. Peter says,” he said, nodding at Peter Bewlie in acknowledgment. “Bears ain’t particular. I never did see this ’un, so I can’t say was it the white one or no—but it surely did eat on that Indian. I heard it, chawin’ and slobberin’ like anything.” He seemed untroubled by this recollection, but I saw Brianna’s nostrils pinch at the thought.

Jamie exchanged looks with Peter, then glanced back at Josiah. He rubbed a forefinger slowly down the bridge of his nose, thinking.

“Well, then,” he said at last. “It seems that not all the evil doings in your brother-in-law’s village can be laid at the ghost-bear’s door, aye? What wi’ Josiah stealin’ food, and wee black devils killing folk. What d’ye ken, Peter? Might a bear take a taste for human flesh, once he’d had it, and then maybe go to hunting humans on his own?”

Peter nodded slowly, face creased in concentration.

“That might be, Mac Dubh,” he allowed. “And if there’s a wee black bastard hangin’ about in the wood—who’s to say how many the bear’s killed, and how many the wee black devil’s done for, and the bear takin’ the blame?”

“But who is this wee black devil?” Bree asked. The men looked from one to another, and shrugged, more or less in unison.

“It must be an escaped slave, surely?” I said, lifting my brows at Jamie. “I can’t see why a free black in his right mind would off go into the wilderness alone like that.”

“Maybe he isn’t in his right mind,” Bree suggested. “Slave or free. If he’s going around killing people, I mean.” She cast an uneasy look at the wood around us, and put a hand on Jemmy, who was curled in a blanket on the ground beside her, sound asleep.

The men looked automatically to their weapons, and even I reached under my apron to touch the knife I wore at my belt for digging and chopping.

The forest seemed suddenly both sinister and claustrophobic. It was much too easy to imagine lurking eyes in the shadows, ascribe the constant soft rustle of leaves to stealthy footsteps or the brush of passing fur.

Jamie cleared his throat.

“Your wife’s not mentioned black devils, I suppose, Peter?”

Bewlie shook his head. The concern with which he had greeted Josiah’s tale was still stamped upon his grizzled face, but a small touch of amusement gleamed in his eyes.

“No. I can’t say as she has, Mac Dubh. The only thing I recall in that regard is the Black Man o’ the West.”