The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 25

   

She turned to two small girls who had materialized behind her, silent as small shawled ghosts.

“Annie, fetch your brothers. Wee Joanie, you stir the pot. Mind ye scrape the bottom well so it doesna burn.” Handing the spoon to the smallest girl, she turned away, beckoning Roger to follow.

It was a poor camp, with no more than a woolen blanket stretched between two bushes to provide a shelter of sorts. Joan Findlay squatted down before the cavelike recess so provided, and Roger followed, bending down to peer over her shoulder.

“A bhràthair, here’s Captain MacKenzie,” she said, reaching out a hand to the man that lay on a pallet of dry grass under the blanket’s shelter. Roger felt a sudden shock at the man’s appearance, but suppressed it.

A spastic, they would have called him in the Scotland of Roger’s own time; what did they call such a condition now? Perhaps nothing in particular; Fraser had said only, He has nay speech.

No, nor proper movement, either. His limbs were bony and wasted, his body twisted into impossible angles. A tattered quilt had been laid over him, but his jerking movements had pulled it awry, so that the cloth was bunched, wrenched hard between his legs, and his upper body was left exposed, the worn shirt also rumpled and pulled half off by his struggles. The pale skin over shoulder and ribs gleamed cold and blue-toned in the shadows.

Joan Findlay cupped a hand about the man’s cheek and turned his head so that he could look at Roger.

“This will be my brother Iain, Mr. MacKenzie,” she said, her voice firm, daring him to react.

The face too was distorted, the mouth pulled askew and drooling, but a pair of beautiful—and intelligent—hazel eyes looked back at Roger from the ruin. He took firm grip of his feelings and his own features, and reached out, taking the man’s clawed hand in his own. It felt terrible, the bones sharp and fragile under skin so cold it might have been a corpse’s.

“Iain Mhor,” he said softly. “I have heard your name. Jamie Fraser sends ye his regards.”

The eyelids lowered in a graceful sweep of acknowledgment, and came up again, regarding Roger with calm brightness.

“The Captain’s come to call for militiamen,” Joan said from behind Roger’s shoulder. “The Governor’s sent orders, aye? Seems he’s had enough o’ riot and disorder, so he says; he’ll put it down by force.” Her voice held a strong tone of irony.

Iain Mhor’s eyes shifted to his sister’s face. His mouth moved, struggling for shape, and his narrow chest strained with effort. A few croaking syllables emerged, thick with spittle, and he fell back, breathing hard, eyes intent on Roger.

“Will there be bounty money paid, he says, Captain?” Joan translated.

Roger hesitated. Jamie had addressed that question, but there was no definite answer. He could feel the subdued eagerness, though, both in the woman behind him and the man who lay before him. The Findlays were grinding poor; that much was plain from the little girls’ ragged frocks and bare feet, from the threadbare clothes and bedding that gave Iain Mhor scant shelter from the cold. But honesty compelled him to answer.

“I don’t know. There is none advertised as yet—but there may be.” The payment of bounty money depended on the response to the Governor’s call; if a simple order produced insufficient troops, the Governor might see fit to provide further inducement for militiamen to answer the summons.

An expression of disappointment flickered in Iain Mhor’s eyes, replaced almost at once by resignation. Any income would have been welcome, but it was not really expected.

“Well, then.” Joan’s voice held the same resignation. Roger felt her draw back and turn aside, but he was still held by the long-lashed hazel eyes. They met his, unflinching and curious. Roger hesitated, unsure whether to simply take his leave. He wanted to offer help—but God, what help was there?

He stretched out a hand toward the gaping shirt, the rumpled quilt. Little enough, but something.

“May I?”

The hazel eyes closed for a moment, opened in acquiescence, and he set about the chore of putting things straight. Iain Mhor’s body was emaciated, but surprisingly heavy, and awkward to lift from such an angle.

Still, it took no more than a few moments, and the man lay decently covered, and warmer at least. Roger met the hazel eyes again, smiled, nodded awkwardly, and backed away from the grass-lined nest, wordless as Iain Mhor himself.

Joan Findlay’s two sons had come; they stood by their mother, sturdy lads of sixteen and seventeen, regarding Roger with cautious curiosity.

“This will be Hugh,” she said, reaching up to put a hand on one shoulder, then the other, “and Iain Og.”

Roger inclined his head courteously.

“Your servant, gentlemen.”

The boys exchanged glances with each other, then looked at their feet, smothering grins.

“So, Captain MacKenzie.” Joan Findlay’s voice came down hard on the word. “If I lend ye my sons, will ye promise me, then, to send them safe home?”

The woman’s hazel eyes were as bright and intelligent as her brother’s—and as unflinching. He braced himself not to look away.

“So far as it lies in my power, ma’am—I will see them safe.”

The edge of her mouth lifted slightly; she knew quite well what was in his power and what was not. She nodded, though, and her hands dropped to her sides.

“They’ll come.”

He took his leave then, and walked away, the weight of her trust heavy on his shoulders.

10

GRANNIE BACON’S GIFTS

THE LAST OF MY PATIENTS seen to, I stood on my toes and stretched luxuriously, feeling a pleasant glow of accomplishment. For all the conditions that I couldn’t really treat, all the illnesses I couldn’t cure . . . still, I had done what I could, and had done it well.

I closed the lid of my medical chest and picked it up in my arms; Murray had graciously volunteered to bring back the rest of my impedimenta—in return for a bag of dried senna leaves and my spare pill-rolling tile. Murray himself was still attending his last patient, frowning as he prodded the abdomen of a little old lady in bonnet and shawl. I waved in farewell at him, and he gave me an abstracted nod, turning to pick up his fleam. At least he did remember to dip it into the boiling water; I saw his lips move as he spoke Brianna’s charm under his breath.

My feet were numb from standing on the cold ground, and my back and shoulders ached, but I wasn’t really tired. There were people who would sleep tonight, their pain relieved. Others who would heal well now, wounds dressed cleanly and limbs set straight. A few whom I could truthfully say I had saved from the possibility of serious infection or even death.

And I had given yet another version of my own Sermon on the Mount, preaching the gospel of nutrition and hygiene to the assembled multitudes.

“Blessed are those who eat greens, for they shall keep their teeth,” I murmured to a red-cedar tree. I paused to pull off a few of the fragrant berries, and crushed one with my thumbnail, enjoying the sharp, clean scent.

“Blessed are those who wash their hands after wiping their arses,” I added, pointing a monitory finger at a blue jay who had settled on a nearby branch. “For they shall not sicken.”

The camp was in sight now, and with it, the delightful prospect of a cup of hot tea.

“Blessed are those who boil water,” I said to the jay, seeing a plume of steam rising from the small kettle hung over our fire. “For they shall be called saviors of mankind.”

“Mrs. Fraser, mum?” A small voice piped up beside me, breaking my reverie, and I looked down to see Eglantine Bacon, aged seven, and her younger sister, Pansy, a pair of round-faced, towheaded little girls, liberally sprinkled with freckles.

“Oh, hallo, dear. And how are you?” I asked, smiling down at them. Quite well, from the looks of them; illness in a child is generally visible at a glance, and both the small Bacons were obviously blooming.

“Very well, mum, thank ye kindly.” Eglantine gave a short bob, then reached over and pushed on Pansy’s head to make her curtsy, too. The courtesies observed—the Bacons were townspeople, from Edenton, and the girls had been raised to have nice manners—Eglantine reached into her pocket and handed me a large wad of fabric.

“Grannie Bacon’s sent ye a present,” she explained proudly, as I unfolded the material, which proved to be an enormous mobcap, liberally embellished with lace and trimmed with lavender ribbons. “She couldna come to the Gathering this year, but she said as we must bring ye this, and give ye her thanks for the medicine ye sent for her . . . roo-mah-tics.” She pronounced the word carefully, her face screwed up in concentration, then relaxed, beaming in pride at having gotten it out properly.

“Why, thank you. How lovely!” I held the cap up to admire, privately thinking a few choice things about Grannie Bacon.

I had encountered that redoubtable lady a few months earlier, at Farquard Campbell’s plantation, where she was visiting Farquard’s aged and obnoxious mother. Mrs. Bacon was almost as old as the ancient Mrs. Campbell, and quite as capable of annoying her descendants, but also possessed of a lively sense of humor.

She had disapproved, audibly, repeatedly, and eventually to my face, of my habit of going about with my head uncovered, it being her opinion that it was unseemly for a woman of my age not to wear either cap or kerch, reprehensible for the wife of a man of my husband’s position—and furthermore, that only “backcountry sluts and women of low character” wore their hair loose upon their shoulders. I had laughed, ignored her, and given her a bottle of Jamie’s second-best whisky, with instructions to have a wee nip with her breakfast and another after supper.

A woman to acknowledge a debt, she had chosen to repay it in characteristic fashion.

“Will ye not put it on?” Eglantine and Pansy were looking trustfully up at me. “Grannie told us to be sure ye put it on, so as we could tell her how it suited ye.”

“Did she, indeed.” No help for it, I supposed. I shook the object out, twisted up my hair with one hand, and pulled the mobcap on. It drooped over my brow, almost reaching the bridge of my nose, and draped my cheeks in ribboned swathes, so that I felt like a chipmunk peering out from its burrow.

Eglantine and Patsy clapped their hands in paroxysms of delight. I thought I heard muffled sounds of amusement from somewhere behind me, but didn’t turn to see.

“Do tell your grannie I said thank you for the lovely present, won’t you?” I patted the girls gravely on their blond heads, offered them each a molasses toffee from my pocket, and sent them off to their mother. I was just reaching up to pull off the excrescence on my head, when I realized that their mother was present—had probably been there all along, in fact, lurking behind a persimmon tree.

“Oh!” I said, converting my reach into an adjustment of the floppy chapeau. I held the overhanging flap up with one finger, the better to peer out. “Mrs. Bacon! I didn’t see you there.”

“Mrs. Fraser.” Polly Bacon’s face was flushed a delicate rose color—no doubt from the chill of the day. She had her lips pressed tight together, but her eyes danced under the ruffle of her own very proper cap.

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