The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 5

   

He gave a slight shrug and shifted the baby to his other shoulder, settling himself.

“Aye. Well, then. Tell the Lieutenant I shall attend him as soon as may be convenient.”

Nothing daunted, MacNair bowed and went off, presumably in search of the other gentlemen on his list.

“And what’s all that about?” I asked Jamie. “Oops.” I reached up and skimmed a glistening strand of saliva from Jemmy’s chin before it could reach Jamie’s shirt. “Starting a new tooth, are we?”

“I’ve plenty of teeth,” Jamie assured me, “and so have you, so far as I can see. As to what Hayes may want with me, I canna say for sure. And I dinna mean to find out before I must, either.” He cocked one ruddy eyebrow at me, and I laughed.

“Oh, a certain flexibility in that word ‘convenient,’ is there?”

“I didna say it would be convenient for him,” Jamie pointed out. “Now, about your petticoat, Sassenach, and why you’re scampering about the forest bare-arsed—Duncan, a charaid!” The wry look on his face melted into genuine pleasure at sight of Duncan Innes, making his way toward us through a small growth of bare-limbed dogwood.

Duncan clambered over a fallen log, the process made rather awkward by his missing left arm, and arrived on the path beside us, shaking water droplets from his hair. He was already dressed for his wedding, in a clean ruffled shirt and starched linen stock above his kilt, and a coat of scarlet broadcloth trimmed in gold lace, the empty sleeve pinned up with a brooch. I had never seen Duncan look so elegant, and said so.

“Och, well,” he said diffidently. “Miss Jo did wish it.” He shrugged off the compliment along with the rain, carefully brushing away dead needles and bits of bark that had adhered to his coat in the passage through the pines.

“Brrr! A gruesome day, Mac Dubh, and no mistake.” He looked up at the sky and shook his head. “Happy the bride the sun shines on; happy the corpse the rain falls on.”

“I do wonder just how delighted you can expect the average corpse to be,” I said, “whatever the meteorological conditions. But I’m sure Jocasta will be quite happy regardless,” I added hastily, seeing a look of bewilderment spread itself across Duncan’s features. “And you too, of course!”

“Oh . . . aye,” he said, a little uncertainly. “Aye, of course. I thank ye, ma’am.”

“When I saw ye coming through the wood, I thought perhaps Corporal MacNair was nippin’ at your heels,” Jamie said. “You’re no on your way to see Archie Hayes, are you?”

Duncan looked quite startled.

“Hayes? No, what would the Lieutenant want wi’ me?”

“You were in Hillsborough in September, aye? Here, Sassenach, take this wee squirrel away.” Jamie interrupted himself to hand me Jemmy, who had decided to take a more active interest in the proceedings and was attempting to climb his grandfather’s torso, digging in his toes and making loud grunting noises. The sudden activity, however, was not Jamie’s chief motive for relieving himself of the burden, as I discovered when I accepted Jemmy.

“Thanks a lot,” I said, wrinkling my nose. Jamie grinned at me, and turned Duncan up the path, resuming their conversation.

“Hmm,” I said, sniffing cautiously. “Finished, are you? No, I thought not.” Jemmy closed his eyes, went bright red, and emitted a popping noise like muffled machine-gun fire. I undid his wrappings sufficiently to peek down his back.

“Whoops,” I said, and hastily unwound the blanket, just in time. “What has your mother been feeding you?”

Thrilled to have escaped his swaddling bands, Jemmy churned his legs like a windmill, causing a noxious yellowish substance to ooze from the baggy legs of his diaper.

“Pew,” I said succinctly, and holding him at arm’s length, headed off the path toward one of the tiny rivulets that meandered down the mountainside, thinking that while I could perhaps do without such amenities as indoor plumbing and motorcars, there were times when I sincerely missed things like rubber pants with elasticated legs. To say nothing of toilet rolls.

I found a good spot on the edge of the little stream, with a thick coating of dead leaves. I knelt, laid out a fold of my cloak, and parked Jemmy on it on his hands and knees, pulling the soggy clout off without bothering to unpin it.

“Weee!” he said, sounding surprised as the cold air struck him. He clenched his fat little buttocks and hunched like a small pink toad.

“Ha,” I told him. “If you think a cold wind up the bum is bad, just wait.” I scooped up a handful of damp yellow-brown leaves, and cleaned him off briskly. A fairly stoic child, he wiggled and squirmed, but didn’t screech, instead making high-pitched “Eeeeee” noises as I excavated his crevices.

I flipped him over, and with a hand held prophylactically over the danger zone, administered a similar treatment to his private parts, this eliciting a wide, gummy grin.

“Oh, you are a Hieland man, aren’t you?” I said, smiling back.

“And just what d’ye mean by that remark, Sassenach?” I looked up to find Jamie leaning against a tree on the other side of the streamlet. The bold colors of his dress tartan and white linen sark stood out bright against the faded autumn foliage; face and hair, though, made him look like some denizen of the wood, all bronze and auburn, with the wind stirring his hair so the free ends danced like the scarlet maple leaves above.

“Well, he’s apparently impervious to cold and damp,” I said, concluding my labors and discarding the final handful of soiled leaves. “Beyond that . . . well, I’ve not had much to do with male infants before, but isn’t this rather precocious?”

One corner of Jamie’s mouth curled up, as he peered at the prospect revealed under my hand. The tiny appendage stood up stiff as my thumb, and roughly the same size.

“Ah, no,” he said. “I’ve seen a many wee lads in the raw. They all do that now and again.” He shrugged, and the smile grew wider. “Now, whether it’s only Scottish lads, I couldna be saying . . .”

“A talent that improves with age, I daresay,” I said dryly. I tossed the dirty clout across the streamlet, where it landed at his feet with a splat. “Get the pins and rinse that out, will you?”

His long, straight nose wrinkled slightly, but he knelt without demur and picked the filthy thing up gingerly between two fingers.

“Oh, so that’s what ye’ve done wi’ your petticoat,” he said. I had opened the large pocket I wore slung at my waist and extracted a clean, folded rectangle of cloth. Not the unbleached linen of the clout he held, but a thick, soft, often-washed wool flannel, dyed a pale red with the juice of currants.

I shrugged, checked Jemmy for the prospect of fresh explosions, and popped him onto the new diaper.

“With three babies all in clouts, and the weather too damp to dry anything properly, we were rather short of clean bits.” The bushes around the clearing where we had made our family camp were all festooned with flapping laundry, most of it still wet, owing to the inopportune weather.

“Here.” Jamie stretched across the foot-wide span of rock-strewn water to hand me the pins extracted from the old diaper. I took them, careful not to drop them in the stream. My fingers were stiff and chilly, but the pins were valuable; Bree had made them of heated wire, and Roger had carved the capped heads from wood, in accordance with her drawings. Honest-to-goodness safety pins, if a bit larger and cruder than the modern version. The only real defect was the glue used to hold the wooden heads to the wire; made from boiled milk and hoof parings, it was not entirely waterproof, and the heads had to be reglued periodically.

I folded the diaper snugly about Jemmy’s loins and thrust a pin through the cloth, smiling at sight of the wooden cap. Bree had taken one set and carved a small, comical frog—each with a wide, toothless grin—onto each one.

“All right, Froggie, here you go, then.” Diaper securely fastened, I sat down and boosted him into my lap, smoothing down his smock and attempting to rewrap his blanket.

“Where did Duncan go?” I asked. “Down to see the Lieutenant?”

Jamie shook his head, bent over his task.

“I told him not to go yet. He was in Hillsborough during the troubles there. Best he should wait a bit; then if Hayes should ask, he can swear honestly there’s no man here who took part in the riots.” He looked up and smiled, without humor. “There won’t be, come nightfall.”

I watched his hands, large and capable, wringing out the rinsed clout. The scars on his right hand were usually almost invisible, but they stood out now, ragged white lines against his cold-reddened skin. The whole business made me mildly uneasy, though there seemed no direct connection with us.

For the most part, I could think of Governor Tryon with no more than a faint sense of edginess; he was, after all, safely tucked away in his nice new palace in New Bern, separated from our tiny settlement on Fraser’s Ridge by three hundred miles of coastal towns, inland plantations, pine forest, piedmont, trackless mountains, and sheer howling wilderness. With all the other things he had to worry about, such as the self-styled “Regulators” who had terrorized Hillsborough, and the corrupt sheriffs and judges who had provoked the terror, I hardly thought he would have time to spare a thought for us. I hoped not.

The uncomfortable fact remained that Jamie held title to a large grant of land in the North Carolina mountains as the gift of Governor Tryon—and Tryon in turn held one small but important fact tucked away in his vest pocket: Jamie was a Catholic. And Royal grants of land could be made only to Protestants, by law.

Given the tiny number of Catholics in the colony, and the lack of organization among them, the question of religion was rarely an issue. There were no Catholic churches, no resident Catholic priests; Father Donahue had made the arduous journey down from Baltimore, at Jocasta’s request. Jamie’s aunt Jocasta and her late husband, Hector Cameron, had been influential among the Scottish community here for so long that no one would have thought of questioning their religious background, and I thought it likely that few of the Scots with whom we had been celebrating all week knew that we were Papists.

They were, however, likely to notice quite soon. Bree and Roger, who had been handfasted for a year, were to be married by the priest this evening, along with two other Catholic couples from Bremerton—and with Jocasta and Duncan Innes.

“Archie Hayes,” I said suddenly. “Is he a Catholic?”

Jamie hung the wet clout from a nearby branch and shook water from his hands.

“I havena asked him,” he said, “but I shouldna think so. That is, his father was not; I should be surprised if he was—and him an officer.”

“True.” The disadvantages of Scottish birth, poverty, and being an ex-Jacobite were sufficiently staggering; amazing enough that Hayes had overcome these to rise to his present position, without the additional burden of the taint of Papistry.

What was troubling me, though, was not the thought of Lieutenant Hayes and his men; it was Jamie. Outwardly, he was calm and assured as ever, with that faint smile always hiding in the corner of his mouth. But I knew him very well; I had seen the two stiff fingers of his right hand—maimed in an English prison—twitch against the side of his leg as he traded jokes and stories with Hayes the night before. Even now, I could see the thin line that formed between his brows when he was troubled, and it wasn’t concern over what he was doing.

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