The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 31

   

“No, no,” he said hastily. “I didna mean now. I only meant—I was only wondering if—” The tips of his ears had gone a dull red. He stood up abruptly, brushing dead leaves from his kilt with exaggerated force.

“If,” I said in measured tones, “you were to get me with child at this point in the proceedings, Jamie Fraser, I would have your balls en brochette.” I rocked back, looking up at him. “As for bedding with you, though . . .”

He stopped what he was doing and looked at me. I smiled at him, letting what I thought show plainly on my face.

“Once you have a bed again,” I said, “I promise I won’t refuse it.”

“Oh,” he said. He drew a deep breath, looking suddenly quite happy. “Well, that’s all right, then. It’s only—I wondered, ye ken.”

A sudden loud rustling in the shrubbery was followed by the appearance of Mr. Wemyss, whose thin, anxious face poked out of a nannyberry bush.

“Oh, it’s yourself, sir,” he said, in evident relief.

“I suppose it must be,” Jamie said, in resignation. “Is there a difficulty, Mr. Wemyss?”

Mr. Wemyss was delayed in answering, having become inextricably entangled with the nannyberry bush, and I was obliged to go and help release him. A onetime bookkeeper who had been obliged to sell himself as an indentured servant, Mr. Wemyss was highly unsuited to life in the wilderness.

“I do apologize for troubling ye, sir,” he said, rather red in the face. He picked nervously at a spiny twig that had caught in his fair, flyaway hair.

“It’s only—well, she did say as she meant to cleave him from crown to crutch wi’ her ax if he didna leave off, and he said no woman would speak to him in that manner, and she does have an ax . . .”

Accustomed to Mr. Wemyss’s methods of communication, Jamie sighed, reached out for the whisky flask, uncorked it, and took a deep, sustaining swig. He lowered the flask and fixed Mr. Wemyss with a gimlet eye.

“Who?” he demanded.

“Oh! Er . . . did I not say? Rosamund Lindsay and Ronnie Sinclair.”

“Mmphm.”

Not good news; Rosamund Lindsay did have an ax; she was roasting several pigs in a pit near the creek, over hickory embers. She also weighed nearly two hundred pounds and, while normally good-humored, was possessed of a notable temper when roused. For his part, Ronnie Sinclair was entirely capable of irritating the Angel Gabriel, let alone a woman trying to cook in the rain.

Jamie sighed and handed the flask back to me. He squared his shoulders, shaking droplets from his plaid as he settled it.

“Go and tell them I’m coming, Mr. Wemyss,” he said.

Mr. Wemyss’s thin face expressed the liveliest apprehension at the thought of coming within speaking range of Rosamund Lindsay’s ax, but his awe of Jamie was even greater. He bobbed a quick, neat bow, turned, and blundered straight into the nannyberry bush again.

A wail like an approaching ambulance betokened the appearance of Marsali, Joan in her arms. She plucked a clinging branch from Mr. Wemyss’s coat sleeve, nodding to him as she stepped carefully round him.

“Da,” she said, without preamble. “Ye’ve got to come. Father Kenneth’s been arrested.”

Jamie’s eyebrows shot up.

“Arrested? Just now? By whom?”

“Aye, this minute! A nasty fat man who said he was sheriff o’ the county. He came up wi’ two men and they asked who was the priest, and when Father Kenneth said it was him, they seized him by the arms and marched him straight off, with none so much as a by your leave!”

The blood was rising in Jamie’s face, and his two stiff fingers tapped briefly against his thigh.

“They’ve taken him from my hearth?” he said. “A Dhia!”

This was plainly a rhetorical question, and before Marsali could answer it, a crunching of footsteps came from the other direction, and Brianna popped into sight from behind a pine tree.

“What?” he barked at her. She blinked, taken aback.

“Ah . . . Geordie Chisholm says one of the soldiers stole a ham from his fire, and will you go and see Lieutenant Hayes about it?”

“Yes,” he said promptly. “Later. Meanwhile, do you go back wi’ Marsali and find out where they’ve taken Father Kenneth. And Mr. Wemyss—” But Mr. Wemyss had at last escaped the clinging embrace of the nannyberry bush. A distant crashing signaled his rush to fulfill his orders.

A quick look at Jamie’s face convinced both girls that a swift retreat was the order of the day, and within seconds, we were alone again. He took a deep breath, and let it slowly out through his teeth.

I wanted to laugh, but didn’t. Instead I moved closer; cold and damp as it was, I could feel the heat of his skin through his plaid.

“At least it’s only the sick ones who want to touch me,” I said. I held out the flask to him. “What do you do when all the virtue’s gone out of you?”

He glanced down at me, and a slow smile spread across his face. Ignoring the flask, he stooped, cupped my face in his hands, and kissed me, very gently.

“That,” he said.

Then he turned and strode downhill, presumably full of virtue once more.

13

BEANS AND BARBECUE

I TOOK THE KETTLE BACK to our camp, only to find the place momentarily deserted. Voices and laughter in the distance indicated that Lizzie, Marsali, and Mrs. Bug—presumably with children in tow—were on their way to the women’s privy, a latrine trench dug behind a convenient screen of juniper, some way from the campsites. I hung the full kettle over the fire to boil, then stood still for a moment, wondering in which direction my efforts might be best directed.

While Father Kenneth’s situation might be the most serious in the long run, it wasn’t one where my presence would be likely to make a difference. But I was a doctor—and Rosamund Lindsay did have an ax. I patted my damp hair and garments into some sort of order, and started downhill toward the creek, abandoning the mobcap to its fate.

Jamie had evidently been of the same mind regarding the relative importance of the emergencies in progress. When I fought my way through the thicket of willow saplings edging the creek, I found him standing by the barbecue pit, in peaceful conversation with Ronnie Sinclair—meanwhile leaning casually on the handle of the ax, of which he had somehow managed to possess himself.

I relaxed a bit when I saw that, and took my time in joining the party. Unless Rosamund decided to strangle Ronnie with her bare hands or beat him to death with a ham—neither of these contingencies being at all unthinkable—my medical services might not be needed after all.

The pit was a broad one, a natural declivity bored out of the clay creekbank by some distant flood and then deepened by judicious spadework in the years succeeding. Judging by the blackened rocks and drifts of scattered charcoal, it had been in use for some time. In fact, several different people were using it now; the mingled scents of fowl, pork, mutton, and possum rose up in a cloud of apple-wood and hickory smoke, a savory incense that made my mouth water.

The sight of the pit was somewhat less appetizing. Clouds of white smoke billowed up from the damp wood, half-obscuring a number of shapes that lay upon their smoldering pyres—many of these looking faintly and hair-raisingly human through the haze. It reminded me all too vividly of the charnel pits on Jamaica, where the bodies of slaves who had not survived the rigors of the Middle Passage were burned, and I swallowed heavily, trying not to recall the macabre roasting-meat smell of those funeral fires.

Rosamund was working down in the pit at the moment, her skirt kirtled well above plump knees and sleeves rolled back to bare her massive arms as she ladled a reddish sauce onto the exposed ribs of a huge hog’s carcass. Around her lay five more gigantic shapes, shrouded in damp burlap, with the wisps of fragrant smoke curling up around them, vanishing into the soft drizzle.

“It’s poison, is what it is!” Ronnie Sinclair was saying hotly, as I came up behind him. “She’ll ruin it—it’ll no be fit for pigs when she’s done!”

“It is pigs, Ronnie,” Jamie said, with considerable patience. He rolled an eye at me, then glanced at the pit, where sizzling fat dripped onto the biers of hickory coals below. “Myself, I shouldna think ye could do anything to a pig—in the way of cooking, that is—that would make it not worth the eating.”

“Quite true,” I put in helpfully, smiling at Ronnie. “Smoked bacon, grilled chops, roasted loin, baked ham, headcheese, sausage, sweetbreads, black pudding . . . somebody once said you could make use of everything in a pig but the squeal.”

“Aye, well, but this is the barbecue, isn’t it?” Ronnie said stubbornly, ignoring my feeble attempt at humor. “Anyone kens that ye sass a barbecued hog wi’ vinegar—that’s the proper way of it! After all, ye wouldna put gravel into your sausage meat, would ye? Or boil your bacon wi’ sweepings from the henhouse? Tcha!” He jerked his chin toward the white pottery basin under Rosamund’s arm, making it clear that its contents fell into the same class of inedible adulterants, in his opinion.

I caught a savory whiff as the wind changed. So far as I could tell from smell alone, Rosamund’s sauce seemed to include tomatoes, onions, red pepper, and enough sugar to leave a thick blackish crust on the meat and a tantalizing caramel aroma in the air.

“I expect the meat will be very juicy, cooked like that,” I said, feeling my stomach begin to knot and growl beneath my laced bodice.

“Aye, a wonderful fat lot of pigs they are, too,” Jamie said ingratiatingly, as Rosamund glanced up, glowering. She was black to the knees and her square-jowled face was streaked with rain, sweat, and soot. “Will they have been wild hogs, ma’am, or gently reared?”

“Wild,” she said, with a certain amount of pride, straightening up and wiping a strand of wet, graying hair off her brow. “Fattened on chestnut mast—nothin’ like it to give a flavor to the meat!”

Ronnie Sinclair made a Scottish noise indicative of derision and contempt.

“Aye, the flavor’s so good ye must hide it under a larding o’ yon grisly sauce that makes it look as though the meat’s no even cooked yet, but bleeding raw!”

Rosamund made a rather earthy comment regarding the supposed manhood of persons who felt themselves squeamish at the thought of blood, which Ronnie seemed disposed to take personally. Jamie skillfully maneuvered himself between the two, keeping the ax well out of reach.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s verra well cooked indeed,” he replied soothingly. “Why, Mistress Lindsay has been hard at work since dawn, at least.”

“Long before that, Mr. Fraser,” the lady replied, with a certain grim satisfaction. “You want decent barbecue, you start at least a day before, and tend it all through the night. I been a-minding of these hogs since yesterday afternoon.” She drew in a great sniff of the rising smoke, wearing a beatific expression.

“Ah, that’s the stuff! Not but what a savory sass like this ’un is wasted on you bastardly Scots,” Rosamund said, replacing the burlap and patting it tenderly into place. “You’ve pickled your tongues with that everlastin’ vinegar you slop on your victuals. It’s all I can do to stop Kenny a-puttin’ it on his corn bread and porridge of a mornin’.”

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