The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 57

   

“No, indeed.” She shook her head, neat white in its kerch. “I didna ken a thing about it. I heard my auld lad up and stirring before dawn, but I thought it was only him out to the privy, he not liking to trouble me with the noise

o’ the pot. He didna come back, though, and by the time I waked myself, they’d all gone off. Ah! None of that, now!”

Catching a movement from the corner of her eye, she dotted a six-year-old MacLeod smartly on the head with her sausage, causing him to snatch his fingers back from the jam jar.

“Perhaps they’ve gone hunting,” Mrs. Aberfeldy suggested timidly, spooning porridge into the little girl she held on her knee. Barely nineteen, she seldom said much, shy of the older women.

“Better they be hunting homesteads, and timber for houses,” Mrs. MacLeod said, hoisting a baby onto her shoulder and patting its back. She pushed a strand of graying hair out of her face and gave me a wry smile. “It’s nay reflection upon your hospitality, Mrs. Fraser, but I’d as soon not spend the winter under your feet. Geordie! Leave your sister’s plaits alone, or ye’ll wish ye had!”

Not at my best so early in the day, I smiled and murmured something politely incomprehensible. I would as soon not have five or ten extra people in my house for the winter, either, but I wasn’t sure it could be avoided.

The Governor’s letter had been quite specific; all able-bodied men in the backcountry were to be mustered as militia troops and to report to Salisbury by mid-December. That left very little time for house-building. Still, I hoped Jamie had some plan for relieving the congestion; Adso the kitten had taken up semipermanent residence in a cupboard in my surgery, and the scene in the kitchen was quickly assuming its usual daily resemblance to one of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

At least the kitchen had lost its early morning chill with so many bodies crowded into it, and was now comfortably warm and noisy. What with the mob scene, though, it was several moments before I noticed that there were four young mothers present, rather than three.

“Where did you come from?” I asked, startled at sight of my daughter, huddled frowsily under a rug in a corner of the settle.

Bree blinked sleepily and shifted Jemmy, who was nursing with single-minded concentration, oblivious of the crowd.

“The Muellers showed up in the middle of the night and pounded on our door,” she said, yawning. “Eight of them. They didn’t speak much English, but I think they said Da sent for them.”

“Really?” I reached for a slice of raisin cake, narrowly beating a young Chisholm to it. “Are they still there?”

“Uh-huh. Thanks, Mama.” She stretched out a hand for the bit of cake I offered her. “Yes. Da came and hauled Roger out of bed while it was still dark, but he didn’t seem to think he needed the Muellers yet. When Roger left, a big old Mueller got up off the floor, said, ‘Bitte, Maedle,’ and lay down next to me.” A delicate pink flushed her cheeks. “So I thought maybe I’d get up and come up here.”

“Oh,” I said, suppressing a smile. “That would be Gerhard.” Eminently practical, the old farmer would see no reason why he should lay his old bones on a hard plank floor, if there was bed space available.

“I suppose so,” she said indistinctly, through a mouthful of cake. “I guess he’s harmless, but even so . . .”

“Well, he’d be no danger to you,” I agreed. Gerhard Mueller was the patriarch of a large German family who lived between the Ridge and the Moravian settlement at Salem. He was somewhere in his late seventies, but by no means harmless.

I chewed slowly, remembering how Jamie had described to me the scalps nailed to the door of Gerhard’s barn. Women’s scalps, long hair dark and silken, ends lifting in the wind. Like live things, he’d said, his face troubled at the memory, like birds, pinned to the wood. And the white one Gerhard had brought to me, wrapped in linen and flecked with blood. No, not harmless. I swallowed, the cake feeling dry in my throat.

“Harmless or not, they’ll be hungry,” said Mrs. Chisholm practically. She bent and gathered up a corn-dolly, a soggy diaper, and a squirming toddler, contriving somehow to leave a hand free for her coffee. “Best we clear this lot awa, before the Germans smell food and come hammering at the door.”

“Is there anything left to feed them?” I said, uneasily trying to remember how many hams were left in the smokeshed. After two weeks of hospitality, our stores were dwindling at an alarming rate.

“Of course there is,” Mrs. Bug said briskly, slicing sausage and flipping the slices onto the sizzling griddle. “Let me just ha’ done with this lot, and ye can send them along for their breakfasts. You, a muirninn—” She tapped a girl of eight or so on the head with her spatula. “Run ye doon the root cellar and fetch me up an apronful of potatoes. Germans like potatoes.”

By the time I had finished my porridge and begun to collect up bowls to wash, Mrs. Bug, broom in hand, was sweeping children and debris out of the back door with ruthless efficiency, while issuing a stream of orders to Lizzie and Mrs. Aberfeldy—Ruth, that was her name—who seemed to have been dragooned as assistant cooks.

“Shall I help . . .” I began, rather feebly, but Mrs. Bug shook her head and made small shooing motions with the broom.

“Dinna think of it, Mrs. Fraser!” she said. “You’ll have enough to do, I’m sure, and—here now, ye’ll no be comin’ intae my nice, clean kitchen wi’ those mucky boots! Out, out and wipe them off before ye think of setting foot in here!”

Gerhard Mueller, followed by his sons and nephews, stood in the doorway, nonplussed. Mrs. Bug, undeterred either by the fact that he towered over her by more than a foot, or that he spoke no English, screwed up her face and poked fiercely at his boots with her broom.

I waved welcomingly to the Muellers, then seized the chance of escape, and fled.

SEEKING TO AVOID the crowd in the house, I washed at the well outside, then went to the sheds and occupied myself in taking inventory. The situation was not as bad as I’d feared; we had enough, with careful management, to last out the winter, though I could see that Mrs. Bug’s lavish hand might have to be constrained a bit.

Besides six hams in the smokeshed, there were four sides of bacon and half another, plus a rack of dried venison and half of a relatively recent carcass. Looking up, I could see the low roof beams, black with soot and thick with clusters of smoked, dried fish, split and bound stiffly in bunches, like the petals of large ugly flowers. There were ten casks of salt fish, as well, and four of salt pork. A stone crock of lard, a smaller one of the fine leaf lard, another of headcheese . . . I had my doubts about that.

I had made it according to the instructions of one of the Mueller women, as translated by Jamie, but I had never seen headcheese myself, and was not quite sure it was meant to look like that. I lifted the lid and sniffed cautiously, but it smelled all right; mildly spiced with garlic and peppercorn, and no scent at all of putrefaction. Perhaps we wouldn’t die of ptomaine poisoning, though I had it in mind to invite Gerhard Mueller to try it first.

“How can ye bide the auld fiend in your house?” Marsali had demanded, when Gerhard and one of his sons had ridden up to the Ridge a few months earlier. She had heard the story of the Indian women from Fergus, and viewed the Germans with horrified revulsion.

“And what would ye have me do?” Jamie had demanded in return, spoon lifted halfway from his bowl. “Kill the Muellers—all of them, for if I did for Gerhard, I’d have to do for the lot—and nail their hair to my barn?” His mouth quirked slightly. “I should think it would put the cow off her milk. It would put me off the milkin’, to be sure.”

Marsali’s brow puckered, but she wasn’t one to be joked out of an argument.

“Not that, maybe,” she said. “But ye let them into your house, and treat them as friends!” She glanced from Jamie to me, frowning. “The women he killed—they were your friends, no?”

I exchanged a look with Jamie, and gave a slight shrug. He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts, as he slowly stirred his soup. Then he laid down the spoon and looked at her.

“It was a fearful thing that Gerhard did,” he said simply. “But it was a matter of vengeance to him; thinking as he did, he couldna have done otherwise. Would it make matters better for me to take vengeance on him?”

“Non,” Fergus said positively. He laid a hand on Marsali’s arm, putting a stop to whatever she might have said next. He grinned up at her. “Of course, Frenchmen do not believe in vengeance.”

“Well, perhaps some Frenchmen,” I murmured, thinking of the Comte St. Germain.

Marsali wasn’t to be put off so easily, though.

“Hmph,” she said. “What ye mean is, they weren’t yours, isn’t it?” Seeing Jamie’s brow flick up in startlement, she pressed the point. “The women who were murdered. But if it were your family? If it had been me and Lizzie and Brianna, say?”

“That,” said Jamie evenly, “is my point. It was Gerhard’s family.” He pushed back from the table and stood up, leaving half his soup unfinished. “Are ye done, Fergus?”

Fergus cocked a sleek brow at him, picked up his bowl, and drank it down, Adam’s apple bobbing in his long brown throat.

“Oui,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He stood and patted Marsali on the head, then plucked a strand of her straw-pale hair free of her kerch. “Do not worry yourself, chéri—even though I do not believe in vengeance, if anyone should hunt your hair, I promise I will make a tobacco pouch of his scrotum. And your papa will tie up his stockings with the malefactor’s entrails, surely.”

Marsali gave a small pfft! of irritated amusement and slapped at his hand, and no more was said about Gerhard Mueller.

I lifted the heavy crock of headcheese and set it down by the door of the smokeshed, so as not to forget it when I went back to the house. I wondered whether Gerhard’s son Frederick had come with him—likely so; the boy was less than twenty, not an age willing to be left out of anything that promised excitement. It was Frederick’s young wife Petronella and her baby who had died—of measles, though Gerhard had thought the infection a deliberate curse put on his family by the Tuscarora.

Had Frederick found a new wife yet? I wondered. Very likely. Though if not . . . there were two teenaged girls among the new tenants. Perhaps Jamie’s plans involved finding them fast husbands? And then there was Lizzie . . .

The corncrib was more than three-quarters full, though there were worrying quantities of mouse droppings on the ground outside. Adso was growing rapidly, but perhaps not fast enough; he was just about the size of an average rat. Flour—that was a little low, only eight sacks. There might be more at the mill, though; I must ask Jamie.

Sacks of rice and dried beans, bushels of hickory nuts, butternuts, and black walnuts. Heaps of dried squash, burlap bag of oatmeal and cornmeal, and gallon upon gallon of apple cider and cider vinegar. A crock of salted butter, another of fresh, and a basket of spherical goat cheeses, for which I had traded a bushel of blackberries and another of wild currants. The rest of the berries had been carefully dried, along with the wild grapes, or made up into jam or preserve, and were presently hidden in the pantry, safe—I hoped—from childish depredations.

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