The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 34

   

“Ye dinna ken Mr. Lillywhite, do you, Sassenach?”

“Only by sight. What do you want me to do?”

He smiled at me, a hint of mischief in his eyes, despite his worry for Father Kenneth.

“Game for it, are ye?”

“Unless you’re proposing that I bat Mr. Lillywhite over the head and liberate Father Kenneth by force, I suppose so. That sort of thing is much more your line of country than mine.”

He laughed at that, and gave the tent what appeared to be a wistful look.

“I should like nothing better,” he said, confirming this impression. “It wouldna be difficult in the least,” he went on, eyeing the tan canvas sides of the tent appraisingly as they flexed in the wind. “Look at the size of it; there canna be more than two or three men in there, besides the priest. I could wait until the full dark, and then take a lad or two and—”

“Yes, but what do you want me to do now?” I interrupted, thinking I had best put a stop to what sounded a distinctly criminal train of thought.

“Ah.” He abandoned his machinations—for the moment—and squinted at me, appraising my appearance. I had taken off the bloodstained canvas apron I wore for surgery, had put up my hair neatly with pins, and was reasonably respectable in appearance, if a trifle mud-draggled round the hems.

“Ye dinna have any of your physician’s kit about ye?” he asked, frowning dubiously. “A bottle of swill, a bittie knife?”

“Bottle of swill, indeed. No, I—oh, wait a moment. Yes, there are these; will they do?” Digging about in the pocket tied at my waist, I had come up with the small ivory box in which I kept my gold-tipped acupuncture needles.

Evidently satisfied, Jamie nodded, and pulled out the silver whisky flask from his sporran.

“Aye, they’ll do,” he said, handing me the flask. “Take this too, though, for looks. Go up to the tent, Sassenach, and tell whoever’s guarding the priest that he’s ailing.”

“The guard?”

“The priest,” he said, giving me a look of mild exasperation. “I daresay everyone will ken ye as a healer by now, and know ye on sight. Say that Father Kenneth has an illness that you’ve been treating, and he must have a dose of his medicine at once, lest he sicken and die on them. I dinna suppose they want that—and they’ll not be afraid of you.”

“I shouldn’t imagine they need be,” I agreed, a trifle caustically. “You don’t mean me to stab the sheriff through the heart with my needles, then?”

He grinned at the thought, but shook his head.

“Nay, I only want ye to learn why they’ve taken the priest and what they mean to do with him. If I were to go and demand answers myself, it might put them on guard.”

Meaning that he had not completely abandoned the notion of a later commando raid on Mr. Lillywhite’s stronghold, should the answers prove unsatisfactory. I glanced at the tent and took a deep breath, settling my shawl about my shoulders.

“All right,” I said. “And what are you intending to do while I’m about it?”

“I’m going to go and fetch the bairns,” he said, and with a quick squeeze of my hand for luck, he was off down the trail.

I WAS STILL WONDERING exactly what he meant by that cryptic statement—which “bairns”? Why?—as I came within sight of the open tent flap, but all speculation was driven from my mind by the appearance of a gentleman therein who met Marsali’s description of “a nasty, fat man” so exactly that I had no doubt of his identity. He was short and toadlike, with a receding hairline, a belly that strained the buttons of a food-stained linen vest, and small, beady eyes that watched me as though assessing my immediate prospects as a food item.

“Good day to you, ma’am,” he said. He viewed me without enthusiasm, no doubt finding me less than toothsome, but inclined his head with formal respect.

“Good day,” I replied cheerily, dropping him a brief curtsy. Never hurt to be polite—at least not to start with. “You’ll be the sheriff, won’t you? I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure of a formal introduction. I’m Mrs. Fraser—Mrs. James Fraser, of Fraser’s Ridge.”

“David Anstruther, Sheriff of Orange County—your servant, ma’am,” he said, bowing again, though with no real evidence of delight. He didn’t show any surprise at hearing Jamie’s name, either. Either he simply wasn’t familiar with it—rather unlikely—or he had been expecting such an ambassage.

That being so, I saw no point in beating round the bush.

“I understand that you’re entertaining Father Donahue,” I said pleasantly. “I’ve come to see him; I’m his physician.”

Whatever he’d been expecting, it wasn’t that; his jaw dropped slightly, exposing a severe case of malocclusion, well-advanced gingivitis, and a missing bicuspid. Before he could close it, a tall gentleman in a bottle-green coat stepped out of the tent behind him.

“Mrs. Fraser?” he said, one eyebrow raised. He bowed punctiliously. “You say you wish to speak with the clerical gentleman under arrest?”

“Under arrest?” I affected great surprise at that. “A priest? Why, whatever can he have done?”

The Sheriff and the magistrate exchanged glances. Then the magistrate coughed.

“Perhaps you are unaware, madam, that it is illegal for anyone other than the clergy of the established Church—the Church of England, that is—to undertake his office within the colony of North Carolina?”

I was not unaware of that, though I also knew that the law was seldom put into effect, there being relatively few of any kind of clergy in the colony to start with, and no one bothering to take any official notice of the itinerant preachers—many of them free lances in the most basic sense of the word—who did appear from time to time.

“Gracious!” I said, affecting shocked surprise to the best of my ability. “No, I had no idea. Goodness me! How very strange!” Mr. Lillywhite blinked slightly, which I took as an indication that that would just about do, in terms of my creating an impression of well-bred shock. I cleared my throat, and brought out the silver flask and case of needles.

“Well. I do hope any difficulties will be soon resolved. However, I should very much like to see Father Donahue for a moment. As I said, I am his physician. He has an . . . indisposition”—I slid back the cover of the case, and delicately displayed the needles, letting them imagine something suitably virulent—“that requires regular treatment. Might I see him for a moment, to administer his medicine? I . . . ah . . . should not like to see any mischief result from a lack of care on my part, you know.” I smiled, as charmingly as possible.

The Sheriff pulled his neck down into the collar of his coat and looked malevolently amphibious, but Mr. Lillywhite seemed better affected by the smile. He hesitated, looking me over.

“Well, I am not sure that . . .” he began, when the sound of footsteps came squelching up the path behind me. I turned, half-expecting to see Jamie, but instead beheld my recent patient, Mr. Goodwin, one cheek still puffed from my attentions, but sling intact.

He was quite as surprised to see me, but greeted me with great cordiality, and a cloud of alcoholic fumes. Evidently Mr. Goodwin had been taking my advice regarding disinfection very seriously.

“Mrs. Fraser! You have not come to minister to my friend Lillywhite, I trust? I expect Mr. Anstruther would benefit from a good purge, though—clear the bilious humors, eh, David? Haha!” He clapped the Sheriff on the back in affectionate camaraderie; a gesture Anstruther suffered with no more than a small grimace, giving me some idea of Mr. Goodwin’s importance in the social scheme of Orange County.

“George, my dear,” Mr. Lillywhite greeted him warmly. “You are acquainted with this charming lady, then?”

“Oh, indeed, indeed I am, sir!” Mr. Goodwin turned a beaming countenance upon me. “Why, Mrs. Fraser did me great service this morning, great service indeed! See here!” He brandished his bound and splinted arm, which, I was pleased to see, was evidently giving him no pain whatever at the moment, though that probably had more to do with his self-administered anesthesia than with my workmanship.

“She quite cured my arm, with no more than a touch here, a touch there—and drew a broken tooth so clean that I scarce felt a thing! ’Ook!” He stuck a finger into the side of his mouth and pulled back his cheek, exposing a tuft of bloodstained wadding protruding from the tooth socket and a neat line of black stitching on the gum.

“Really, I am most impressed, Mrs. Fraser.” Lillywhite sniffed at the waft of cloves and whisky from Mr. Goodwin’s mouth, looking interested, and I saw the bulge of his cheek as his own tongue tenderly probed a back tooth.

“But what brings you up here, Mrs. Fraser?” Mr. Goodwin turned the beam of his joviality on me. “So late in the day—perhaps you will do me the honor of taking a bit of supper at my fire?”

“Oh, thank you, but I can’t, really,” I said, smiling as charmingly as possible. “I’ve just come to see another patient—that is—”

“She wants to see the priest,” Anstruther interrupted.

Goodwin blinked at that, taken only slightly aback.

“Priest. There is a priest here?”

“A Papist,” Mr. Lillywhite amplified, lips curling back a bit from the unclean word. “It came to my attention that there was a Catholic priest concealed in the assembly, who proposed to celebrate a Mass during the festivities this evening. I sent Mr. Anstruther to arrest him, of course.”

“Father Donahue is a friend of mine,” I put in, as forcefully as possible. “And he was not concealed; he was invited quite openly, as the guest of Mrs. Cameron. He is also a patient, and requires treatment. I’ve come to see that he gets it.”

“A friend of yours? Are you Catholic, Mrs. Fraser?” Mr. Goodwin looked startled; it obviously hadn’t occurred to him that he was being treated by a Popish dentist, and his hand went to his swollen cheek in bemusement.

“I am,” I said, hoping that merely being a Catholic wasn’t also against Mr. Lillywhite’s conception of the law.

Evidently not. Mr. Goodwin gave Mr. Lillywhite a nudge.

“Oh, come, Randall. Let Mrs. Fraser see the fellow, what harm can it do? And if he’s truly Jocasta Cameron’s guest . . .”

Mr. Lillywhite pursed his lips in thought for a moment, then stood aside, holding back the flap of canvas for me.

“I suppose there can be no harm in your seeing your . . . friend,” he said slowly. “Come in, then, madam.”

Sundown was at hand, and the tent was dark inside, though one canvas wall still glowed brightly with the sinking sun behind it. I shut my eyes for a moment, to accustom them to the change of light, then blinked and looked about to get my bearings.

The tent seemed cluttered but relatively luxurious, being equipped with a camp bed and other furniture, the air within scented not only by damp canvas and wool but with the perfume of Ceylon tea, expensive wine, and almond biscuits.

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