The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 30

   

I looked at him, one brow raised in question, and his mouth twisted in a wry smile.

“Any man between sixteen and sixty must serve in the militia, Sassenach.”

I felt a small, unpleasant contraction in the pit of my stomach. I hadn’t forgotten the Governor’s unwelcome summons, but what with one thing and another, I hadn’t had the leisure to reflect on exactly what the practical consequences of it were likely to be.

Jamie sighed and stretched out his arms, flexing his knuckles until they cracked.

“So you’ll do it?” I asked. “Form a militia company and go?”

“I must,” he said simply. “Tryon’s got my ballocks in his hand, and I’m no inclined to see whether he’ll squeeze, aye?”

“I was afraid of that.”

Jamie’s picturesque assessment of the situation was unfortunately accurate. Looking for a loyal and competent man willing to undertake the settlement of a large section of wild backcountry, Governor Tryon had offered Jamie a Royal grant of land just east of the Treaty Line, with no requirement of quitrent for a period of ten years. A fair offer, though given the difficulties of settlement in the mountains, not quite so generous as it might have looked.

The catch was that holders of such grants were legally required to be white Protestant males of good character, above the age of thirty. And while Jamie met the other requirements, Tryon was well aware of his Catholicism.

Do as the Governor required, and . . . well, the Governor was a successful politician; he knew how to keep his mouth shut about inconvenient matters. Defy him, though, and it would take no more than a simple letter from New Bern to deprive Fraser’s Ridge of its resident Frasers.

“Hmm. So you’re thinking that if you take the available men from the Ridge—can’t you leave out a few?”

“I havena got so many to start with, Sassenach,” he pointed out. “I can leave Fergus, because of his hand, and Mr. Wemyss to look after our place. He’s a bond servant, so far as anyone knows, and only freemen are obliged to join the militia.”

“And only able-bodied men. That lets out Joanna Grant’s husband; he’s got a wooden foot.”

He nodded.

“Aye, and old Arch Bug, who’s seventy if he’s a day. That’s four men—and maybe eight boys under sixteen—to look after thirty homesteads and more than a hundred and fifty people.”

“The women can probably manage fairly well by themselves,” I said. “It’s winter, after all; no crops to deal with. And there shouldn’t be any difficulties with the Indians, not these days.” My ribbon had come loose when I pulled off the cap. Hair was escaping from its undone plaits in every direction, straggling down my neck in damp, curly strands. I pulled the ribbon off and tried to comb my hair out with my fingers.

“What’s so important about Josiah Beardsley, anyway?” I asked. “Surely one fourteen-year-old boy can’t make so much difference.”

“Beardsley’s a hunter,” Jamie answered, “and a good one. He brought in nearly two hundred weight of wolf, deer, and beaver skins to the Gathering—all taken by himself alone, he said. I couldna do better, myself.”

That was a true encomium, and I pursed my lips in silent appreciation. Hides were the main—in fact, the only—winter crop of any value in the mountains. We had no money now—not even the paper Proclamation money, worth only a fraction of sterling—and without hides to sell in the spring, we were going to have difficulty getting the seed corn and wheat we needed. And if all the men were required to spend a good part of the winter tramping round the colony subduing Regulators instead of hunting . . .

Most women on the Ridge could handle a gun, but almost none could hunt effectively, as they were tethered to their homes by the needs of their children. Even Bree, who was a very good hunter, could venture no more than half a day’s travel away from Jemmy—not nearly far enough for wolf and beaver.

I rubbed a hand through my damp locks, fluffing out the loosened strands.

“All right, I understand that part. Where do the tonsils come in, though?”

Jamie looked up at me and smiled. Without answering at once, he got to his feet and circled behind me. With a firm hand, he gathered in the fugitive strands, captured the flying bits, and braided it into a tight, thick plait at the base of my neck. He bent over my shoulder, plucked the ribbon from my lap, and tied it neatly in a bow.

“There.” He sat down by my feet again. “Now, as to the tonsils. Ye told the lad he must have them out, or his throat would go from bad to worse.”

“It will.”

Josiah Beardsley had believed me. And, having come near death the winter before when an abscess in his throat had nearly suffocated him before bursting, he was not eager to risk another such occurrence.

“You’re the only surgeon north of Cross Creek,” Jamie pointed out. “Who else could do it?”

“Well, yes,” I said uncertainly. “But—”

“So, I’ve made the lad an offer,” Jamie interrupted. “One section of land—wee Roger and myself will help him to put up a cabin on it when the time comes—and he’ll go halves with me in whatever he takes in the way of skins for the next three winters. He’s willing—provided you’ll take out his tonsils as part o’ the bargain.”

“But why today? I can’t take someone’s tonsils out here!” I gestured at the dripping forest.

“Why not?” Jamie raised one eyebrow. “Did ye not say last night it was a small matter—only a few wee cuts wi’ your smallest knife?”

I rubbed a knuckle under my nose, sniffing with exasperation. “Look, just because it isn’t a massive bloody job like amputating a leg doesn’t mean it’s a simple matter!” It was, in fact, a relatively simple operation—surgically speaking. It was the possibility of infection following the procedure, and the need for careful nursing—a poor substitute for antibiotics, but much better than neglect—that raised complications.

“I can’t just whack out his tonsils and turn him loose,” I said. “When we get back to the Ridge, though—”

“He doesna mean to come back with us directly,” Jamie interrupted.

“Why not?” I demanded.

“He didna say; only that he had a bit of business to do, and would come to the Ridge by the first week of December. He can sleep in the loft above the herb shed,” he added.

“So you—and he—expect me just to slash out his tonsils, put in a few stitches, and see him on his merry way?” I asked sardonically.

“Ye did nicely wi’ the dog,” he said, grinning.

“Oh, you heard about that.”

“Oh, aye. And the lad who chopped his foot with an ax, and the bairns wi’ milk rash, and Mrs. Buchanan’s toothache, and your battle wi’ Murray MacLeod over the gentleman’s bile ducts . . .”

“It was rather a busy morning.” I shuddered briefly in remembrance, and took another sip of whisky.

“The whole Gathering is talking of ye, Sassenach. I did think of the Bible, in fact, seeing all the crowd clamoring round ye this morning.”

“The Bible?” I must have looked blank at the reference, because the grin got wider.

“And the whole multitude sought to touch him,” Jamie quoted. “For there went virtue out of him, and healed them all.”

I laughed ruefully, interrupting myself with a small hiccup. “Fresh out of virtue at the moment, I’m afraid.”

“Dinna fash. There’s plenty in the flask.”

Thus reminded, I offered him the whisky, but he waved it away, brows drawn down in thought. Melting hail had left wet streaks in his hair, and it lay like ribbons of melted bronze across his shoulders—like the statue of some military hero, weathered and glistening in a public park.

“So ye’ll do the lad’s tonsils, once he comes to the Ridge?”

I thought a moment, then nodded, swallowing. There would still be dangers in it, and normally I wouldn’t do purely elective surgery. But Josiah’s condition was truly dreadful, and the continued infections might well kill him eventually, if I didn’t take some steps to remedy it.

Jamie nodded, satisfied.

“I’ll see to it, then.”

My feet had thawed, even wet as they were, and I was beginning to feel warm and pliable. My belly still felt as though I’d swallowed a large volcanic rock, but I wasn’t minding all that much.

“I was wondering something, Sassenach,” he said.

“Yes?”

“Speakin’ of the Bible, ye ken.”

“Got Scripture on the brain today, have you?”

One corner of his mouth curled up as he glanced at me.

“Aye, well. It’s only I was thinking. When the Angel of the Lord comes along to Sarah and tells her she’ll have a bairn the next year, she laughs and says that’s a rare jest, as it’s ceased to be wi’ her after the manner of women.”

“Most women in that situation likely wouldn’t think it at all a funny idea,” I assured him. “I often think God’s got a very peculiar sense of humor, though.”

He looked down at the large maple leaf he was shredding between thumb and forefinger, but I caught the faint twitch of his mouth.

“I’ve thought that now and again myself, Sassenach,” he said, rather dryly. “Be that as it may, she did have the bairn, aye?”

“The Bible says she did. I’m not going to call the book of Genesis a liar.” I debated the wisdom of drinking more, but decided to save it for a rainy—well, a rainier—day, and put the stopper back in the flask. I could hear a certain amount of stirring in the direction of the campsite, and my ears caught a word of inquiry, borne on the chilly breeze.

“Someone’s looking for Himself,” I said. “Again.”

Himself glanced over his shoulder and grimaced slightly, but made no immediate move to answer the call. He cleared his throat, and I saw a faint flush move up the side of his neck.

“Well, the point is,” he said, carefully not looking at me, “that so far as I ken, if your name’s not Mary and the Holy Ghost isna involved in the matter, there’s only the one way of getting wi’ child. Am I right?”

“So far as I know, yes.” I put a hand over my mouth to stifle a rising hiccup.

“Aye. And if so . . . well, that must mean that Sarah was still bedding wi’ Abraham at the time, no?”

He still wasn’t looking at me, but his ears had gone pink, and I belatedly realized the point of this religious discussion. I reached out a toe and prodded him gently in the side.

“You were thinking perhaps I wouldn’t want you anymore?”

“Ye dinna want me now,” he pointed out logically, eyes on the crumbled remains of his leaf.

“I feel as though my belly is full of broken glass, I’m half-soaked and mud to the knees, and whoever’s looking for you is about to burst through the shrubbery with a pack of bloodhounds at any moment,” I said, with a certain amount of asperity. “Are you actually inviting me to participate in carnal revelry with you in that mound of soggy leaves? Because if you are—”

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