“And who is that?” Josiah asked, interested.
Peter shrugged and scratched at his beard.
“Aye, well, I shouldna say it’s anyone, so to speak. Only that the shamans say there is a spirit who lives in each o’ the four directions, and each spirit has a color to him—so when they go to singin’ their prayers and the like, they’ll maybe call the Red Man o’ the East to help the person they’re singing for, because Red is the color of triumph and success. North, that’s blue—the Blue Man, to give the spirit of the North his right name—that’s defeat and trouble. So ye’d call on him to come and give your enemy a bit of grief, aye? To the South, that’s the White Man, and he’s peace and happiness; they sing to him for the women with child, and the like.”
Jamie looked both startled and interested to hear this.
“That’s verra like the four airts, Peter, is it no?”
“Well, it is, then,” Peter agreed, nodding. “Odd, no? That the Cherokee should get hold of the same notions as we Hielanders have?”
“Oh, not so much.” Jamie gestured to the dark wood, beyond the small circle of our fire. “They live as we do, aye? Hunters, and dwellers in the mountains. Why should they not see what we have seen?”
Peter nodded slowly, but Josiah was impatient with this philosophizing.
“Well, what’s the Black Man o’ the West, then?” he demanded. Both Jamie and Peter turned their heads as one to look at him. The two men looked nothing alike—Peter was short, squat, and genially bearded, Jamie tall and elegant, even in his hunting clothes—and yet there was something identical in their eyes, that made little mouse-feet run skittering down my spine. “What we have seen,” indeed! I thought.
“The West is the home of the dead,” Jamie said softly, and Peter nodded, soberly.
“And the Black Man o’ the West is death himself,” he added. “Or so say the Cherokee.”
Josiah was heard to mutter that he didn’t think so very much of that idea, but Brianna thought even less of it.
“I do not believe that the spirit of the West was out in the woods conking people on the head,” she declared firmly. “It was a person Josiah saw. And it was a black person. Ergo, it was either a free black or an escaped slave. And given the odds, I vote for escaped slave.”
I wasn’t sure it was a matter for democratic process, but I was inclined to agree with her.
“Here’s another thought,” she said, looking round. “What if it’s this little black man who’s responsible for some of the half-eaten people? Aren’t some of the African slaves cannibals?”
Peter Bewlie’s eyes popped at that; so did the Beardsleys’. Kezzie cast an uneasy look over his shoulder and edged closer to Josiah.
Jamie appeared amused at this suggestion, though.
“Well, I suppose ye might get the odd cannibal here and there in Africa,” he agreed. “Though I canna say I’ve heard of one amongst the slaves. I shouldna think they’d be verra desirable as house-servants, aye? Ye’d be afraid to turn your back, for fear of being bitten in the backside.”
This remark made everyone laugh, and relieved the tension somewhat. People began to stir and make preparations for going to bed.
We took especial care in putting the food into two of the saddlebags, which Jamie hung up in a tree, a good distance from the camp. Even if the ghost-bear had been revealed to be less powerful than previously supposed, there was an unspoken agreement that there was no sense taking chances.
For the most part, I managed to put aside the knowledge that we lived in a wilderness. Now and then some tangible evidence would shove the fact under my nose: nocturnal visits by foxes, possums, and raccoons, or the occasional unnerving screams of panthers, with their uncanny resemblance to the crying of women or the shrieks of small children. It was quiet now, where we were. But there was no way of standing in the center of those mountains at night, submerged in the absolute black at their feet, listening to the secret murmurs of the great trees overhead, and pretending that one was anywhere but in the grip of the forest primeval—or of doubting that the wilderness could swallow us in one gulp, if it cared to, leaving not a clue behind of our existence.
For all her logic, Brianna was by no means immune to the whispers of the forest—not with a small and tender child to guard. She didn’t help with the readying of camp for the night, but instead sat close to Jemmy, loading her rifle.
Jamie, after a quick look at Brianna, announced that he and she would take the first watch; Josiah and I the next, and Peter and Kezzie the last watch of the night. Heretofore, we hadn’t kept a watch, but no one complained at this suggestion.
A long day in the saddle is one of the best soporifics, and I lay down beside Jamie with that utter gratitude for being horizontal that compensates for the hardest of beds. Jamie’s hand rested gently on my head; I turned my face and kissed his palm, feeling safe and protected.
Peter and the Beardsley twins fell asleep within seconds; I could hear them snoring on the other side of the fire. I was nearly asleep myself, lulled by the quiet, half-heard talk between Jamie and Bree, when I became aware that the tenor of their conversation had changed.
“Are ye worrit for your man, a nighean?” he asked softly.
She gave a small, unhappy laugh.
“I’ve been worrit since they hanged him,” she said. “Now I’m scared, too—or should that be ‘scairt’?” she asked, trying to make a joke of it.
Jamie made a low noise in his throat, which I think he meant to be soothing.
“He’s in no more danger tonight than he was last night, lass—nor any night since he set out.”
“True,” she answered dryly. “But just because I didn’t know about ghost-bears and black murderers last week doesn’t mean they weren’t out there.”
“My point precisely,” he replied. “He’ll be no safer for your fear, will he?”
“No. You think that’s going to stop me worrying?”
There was a low, rueful chuckle in reply.
“I shouldna think so, no.”
There was a brief silence, before Brianna spoke again.
“I just—keep thinking. What will I do, if something does happen—if he . . . doesn’t come back? I’m all right during the day, but at night, I can’t help thinking . . .”
“Och, well,” he said softly. I saw him tilt up his head to the stars, blazing overhead. “How many nights in twenty years, a nighean? How many hours? For I spent that long in wondering whether my wife still lived, and how she fared. She and my child.”
His hand ran smoothly over my head, gently stroking my hair. Brianna said nothing in reply, but made a small, inarticulate sound in her throat.
“That is what God is for. Worry doesna help—prayer does. Sometimes,” he added honestly.
“Yes,” she said, sounding uncertain. “But if—”
“And if she had not come back to me”—he interrupted firmly—“if you had not come—if I had never known—or if I had known for sure that both of you were dead . . .” He turned his head to look at her, and I felt the shift of his body as he lifted his hand from my hair and reached out his other hand to touch her. “Then I would still have lived, a nighean, and done what must be done. So will you.”
A DARKENING SKY
ROGER PUSHED HIS WAY through a thick growth of sweet gum and pin oak, sweating. He was close to water; he couldn’t hear it yet, but could smell the sweet, resinous scent of some plant that grew on streambanks. He didn’t know what it was called, or even for sure which plant it was, but he recognized the scent.
The strap of his pack caught on a twig, and he jerked it free, setting loose a flutter of yellow leaves like a small flight of butterflies. He would be glad to reach the stream, and not only for the sake of water, though he needed that. The nights were growing cold, but the days were still warm, and he had emptied his canteen before noon.
More urgently than water, though, he needed open air. Down here in the bottomland, the stands of dogwood and sweet bay grew so thickly that he could barely see the sky, and where the sun poked through, thick grass sprang up knee-high and the prickly leaves of dahoon caught at him as he passed.
He had brought Clarence the mule, as being better suited than the horses to the rough going in the wilderness, but some places were too rough even for a mule. He had left Clarence hobbled on the higher ground, with his bedroll and saddlebags, while he thrashed his way through the brush to reach the next point for a survey reading.
A wood-duck burst from the brush at his feet, nearly stopping his heart with the drumming of its wings. He stood still, heart thumping in his ears, and a horde of vivid little parakeets came chattering through the trees, swooping down to look at him, friendly and curious. Then something unseen gave them alarm and they rose up in a bright shriek of flight, arrowing away through the trees.
It was hot; he took off his coat and tied the sleeves round his waist, then wiped his face with a shirtsleeve and resumed his shoving, the weight of the astrolabe swinging on a thong round his neck. From the top of a mountain, he could look down on the misty hollows and wooded ridges, and take a certain awed pleasure in the thought that he owned such a place. Down here, come to grips with wild vines, burrowing fox-tails, and thickets of bamboolike cane higher than his head, the thought of ownership was ridiculous—how could something like this—this f**king swamp primeval—possibly be owned?
Ownership aside, he wanted to finish with this jungle and get back to higher ground. Even dwarfed by the gigantic trees of the virgin forest, a man could breathe in the space beneath. The limbs of the giant tulip trees and chestnuts stretched in a canopy overhead that shaded the ground beneath, so that only small things grew beneath—mats of delicate wildflowers, lady’s slippers, trilliums—and the trees’ dead leaves rained down in such profusion that one’s feet sank inches into the springy mat.
Incomprehensible that such a place should ever alter—and yet it did, it would. He knew that fine; knew it—better than knew it, he’d bloody seen it! He’d driven a car down a paved highway, straight through the heart of a place once like this. He knew it could be changed. And yet as he struggled through the growth of sumac and partridgeberry, he knew even better that this place could swallow him without a second’s hesitation.
Still, there was something about the sheer awful scale of the wilderness that soothed him. Among the gigantic trees and teeming wildlife, he found some peace; peace from the dammed-up words inside his head, from the unspoken worry in Brianna’s eyes, the judgment in Jamie’s—judgment withheld, but hanging there like the sword of Damocles. Peace from the glances of pity or curiosity, from the constant slow, aching effort of speech—peace from the memory of singing.
He missed them all, especially Bree and Jem. He seldom dreamed with any coherence; not like Bree—what was she writing now in her book?—but he had wakened this morning from a vivid impression of Jem, crawling over him as he liked to do, poking and prodding inquisitively, then softly patting Roger’s face, exploring eyes and ears, nose and mouth, as though searching for the missing words.