The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 183

   

I had brought twenty-five gallons of honey with me, as well as some of the imported European herbs and seeds from Wilmington. Trade was brisk, and by the evening, I had exchanged my stocks for quantities of wild ginseng, cohosh, and—a real rarity—a chaga. This item, a huge warty fungus that grows from ancient birch trees, had a reputation—or so I was told—for the cure of cancer, tuberculosis, and ulcers. A useful item for any physician to have on hand, I thought.

As for the honey, I had traded that straight across, for twenty-five gallons of sunflower oil. This was provided in bulging skin bags, which were piled up under the eaves of the house where we were staying, like a small heap of cannon balls. I paused to look at them with satisfaction whenever I went outside, envisioning the soft, fragrant soap to be made from the oil—no more hands reeking of dead pig fat! And with luck, I could sell the bulk of it for a high enough price to make up the next chunk of Laoghaire’s blood money, damn her eyes.

The next day was spent in the orchards with my hostess, another of Tsatsa’wi’s sisters, named Sungi. A tall, sweet-faced woman of thirty or so, she had a few words of English, but some of her friends had slightly more—and a good thing, my own Cherokee being so far limited to “Hello,” “Good,” and “More.”

In spite of the Indian ladies’ increased fluency, I had some difficulty in making out exactly what “Sungi” meant—depending upon whom I was talking to, it seemed to mean either “onion,” “mint,” or—confusingly—“mink.” After a certain amount of cross talk and sorting out, I got it established that the word seemed to mean none of these things precisely, but rather to indicate a strong scent of some kind.

The apple trees in the orchard were young, still slender, but bearing decently, providing a small yellowish-green fruit that wouldn’t have impressed Luther Burbank, but which did have a nice crunchy texture and a tart flavor—an excellent antidote to the greasy taste of pigeon livers. It was a dry year, Sungi said, frowning critically at the trees; not so much fruit as the year before, and the corn was not so good, either.

Sungi put her two young daughters in charge of Jemmy, obviously warning them to be careful, with much pointing toward the wood.

“Is good the Bear-Killer come,” she said, turning back to me, apple basket on her hip. “This bear not-bear; is not speak us.”

“Oh, ah,” I said, nodding intelligently. One of the other ladies helpfully amplified this idea, explaining that a reasonable bear would pay attention to the shaman’s invocation, which called upon the bear-spirit, so that hunters and bears would meet appropriately. Given the color of this bear, as well as its stubborn and malicious behavior, it was apparent that it was not a real bear, but rather some malign spirit that had decided to manifest itself as a bear.

“Ah,” I said, somewhat more intelligently. “Jackson mentioned ‘the Ancient White’—was it the bear he meant?” Surely Peter had said that white was one of the favorable colors, though.

Another lady—who had given me her English name of Anna, rather than try to explain what her Cherokee name meant—laughed in shock at that.

“No, no! Ancient White, he the fire.” Other ladies chipping in here, I finally gathered that the fire, while obviously powerful and to be treated with deep respect, was a beneficial entity. Thus the atrociousness of the bear’s conduct; white animals normally were accorded respect and considered to be carriers of messages from the otherworld—here one or two of the ladies glanced sideways at me—but this bear was not behaving in any manner they understood.

Knowing what I did about the bear’s assistance from Josiah Beardsley and the “wee black devil,” I could well understand this. I didn’t want to implicate Josiah, but I mentioned that I had heard stories—carefully not saying where I had heard them—of a black man in the forest, who did evil things. Had they heard of this?

Oh, yes, they assured me—but I should not be troubled. There was a small group of the black men, who lived “over there”—nodding toward the far side of the village, and the invisible canebrake and bottomlands beyond the river. It was possible that these persons were demons, particularly since they came from the west.

It was possible that they were not. Some of the village hunters had found them, and followed them carefully for several days, watching to see what they did. The hunters reported that the black men lived wretchedly, having barely scraps of clothing and without decent houses. This seemed not how self-respecting demons should live.

However, they were too few and too poor to be worth raiding—and the hunters said there were only three women, and those very ugly—and they might be demons, after all. So the villagers were content to leave them alone for now. The black men never came near the village, one lady added, wrinkling her nose; the dogs would smell them. Conversation lapsed then, as we spread out through the orchard, gathering ripe fruit from the trees, while the younger girls gathered the windfalls from the ground.

We went home in mid-afternoon, tired, sunburnt, and smelling of apples, to find that the hunters had come back.

“Four possums, eighteen rabbits, and nine squirrels,” Jamie reported, sponging his face and hands with a damp cloth. “We found a great many birds, too, but what wi’ the pigeons, we didna bother, save for a nice hawk that George Gist wanted for the feathers.” He was windblown, the bridge of his nose burned red, but very cheerful. “And Brianna, bless her, killed a fine elk, just the other side of the river. A chest shot, but she brought it down—and cut the throat herself, though that’s a dicey thing to do, and the beast’s still thrashing.”

“Oh, good,” I said, rather faintly, envisioning a flurry of sharp hooves and lethal antlers in the close vicinity of my daughter.

“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach,” he said, seeing my expression. “I taught her the proper way of it. She came from behind.”

“Oh, good,” I said, a little more tartly. “I imagine the hunters were impressed?”

“Verra much,” he said cheerfully. “Did ye ken, Sassenach, that the Cherokee let their women make war, as well as hunt? Not that they do it so often,” he added, “but now and again, one will take it into her head, and go out as what they call a War Woman. The men will follow her, in fact.”

“Very interesting,” I said, trying to ignore the vision this summoned up, of Brianna being invited to head up a Cherokee raiding party. “Blood will out, I suppose.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Did you happen to see any bears, or were you too busy exchanging interesting tidbits of anthropological lore?”

He narrowed one eye at me over the towel with which he was wiping his face, but answered equably enough.

“We found a deal of bear-sign. Josiah’s an eye for it. Not only the droppings; he spotted a scratching-tree—one wi’ bits of hair caught in the bark. He says that a bear has a favorite tree or two, and will come back to the same one again and again, so if ye’re set to kill a particular bear, ye could do worse than camp nearby and wait.”

“I gather that strategy didn’t answer at present?”

“I daresay it would,” he answered, grinning, “save it was the wrong bear. The hair on the tree was dark brown, not white.”

The expedition had not, however, been a failure. The hunters had completed a great semi-circle round the village, casting far out into the wood, then ranging down as far as the river. And in the soft earth of the bottomland near the canebrake, they had found footprints.

“Josiah said they were different than the prints of the bear whose hair we found—and Tsatsa’wi thought they were the same as the prints he’d seen when the white bear killed his friend.”

The logical conclusion, agreed upon by all the bear-experts present, was that the ghost-bear had in all probability made its den in the canebrake. Such places were dense, dark, and cool in the heat of summer, and teeming with birds and small game. Even deer would hide there in hot weather.

“You can’t get into such a place on horseback, can you?” I asked. He shook his head, combing leaves out of his hair with his fingers.

“No, nor can ye make much headway on foot, either, dense as it is. But we dinna mean to go in after the bear.”

Instead, the plan was to set fire to the canebrake, driving the bear—and any other game present—out onto the flat bottomland on the other side, where it could be easily killed. Evidently, this was common practice in hunting, particularly in the fall, when the canebrakes grew dry and flammable. However, the burning would likely drive out a good deal more game than only the bear. That being so, an invitation had been sent to another village, some twenty miles distant, for their hunters to come and join with those of Ravenstown. With luck, enough game would be taken to supply both villages for the winter, and the extra hunters would insure that the evil ghost-bear did not escape.

“Very efficient,” I said, amused. “I hope they don’t smoke out the slaves, too.”

“What?” He paused in his tidying.

“Black devils,” I said, “or something along those lines.” I told him what I had learned about the settlement—if that’s what it was—of escaped slaves—if that’s what they were.

“Well, I dinna suppose they’re demons,” he said dryly, sitting down in front of me so that I could braid his hair up neatly into a queue. “But I shouldna think they’ll be in danger. They must live on the far side of the canebrake, on the opposite bank o’ the river. I’ll ask, though. There’s time; it will be three or four days before the hunters come from Kanu’gala’yi.”

“Oh, good,” I said, tying the thong neatly in a bow. “That will give you just about time enough to eat all the leftover pigeon livers.”

THE NEXT FEW DAYS passed pleasantly, though with a sense of rising anticipation that culminated with the arrival of the hunters from Kanu’gala’yi—Briertown, or so I was told. I wondered whether they had been invited because of a particular expertise in dealing with thorny territory, but forbore asking. Jamie, with his usual spongelike facility, was picking up Cherokee words like headlice, but I didn’t want to tax his ability with trying to translate puns, just yet.

Jemmy appeared to have inherited his grandfather’s touch with languages, and in the week since our arrival, had roughly doubled his vocabulary, with half his words being now in English and the other half in Cherokee, which rendered him unintelligible to everyone except his mother. My own vocabulary had expanded by the addition of the words for “water,” “fire,” “food,” and “Help!”—for the rest, I depended on the kindness of the English-speaking Cherokee.

After the proper ceremonies and a large welcoming feast—featuring smoked pigeon livers with fried apples—the large party of hunters set off at dawn, equipped with pine torches and firepots, in addition to bows, muskets, and rifles. Having seen them off with a suitable breakfast—cornmeal mush mixed with pigeon livers and fresh apples—those of us not in the hunting party repaired to the houses, to pass the time in basketry, sewing, and talk.

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