The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 77

   

“I see,” I said, a little faintly.

Jamie dug steadily for a bit, the shovel biting deep into the dirt. It was loamy soil and leaf mold here; the digging was easy. At last, without breaking the swing of the blade, he said, “Brianna told me a story she’d read once. I dinna recall all about it, quite, but there was a murder done, only the person killed was a wicked man, who had driven someone to it. And at the end, when the teller of the tale was asked what should be done, he said, ‘Let pass the justice of God.’ ”

I nodded. I was in agreement, though it seemed a trifle hard on the person who found himself required to be the instrument of such justice.

“Do you suppose that’s what it was, in this case? Justice?”

He shook his head; not in negation, but in puzzlement, and went on digging. I watched him for a bit, soothed by his nearness and by the hypnotic rhythm of his movements. After a bit, though, I stirred, steeling myself to face the task awaiting me.

“I suppose I’d best go and lay out the body and clear up the loft,” I said reluctantly, drawing my feet under me to rise. “We can’t leave that poor woman alone with such a mess, no matter what she did.”

“No, wait, Sassenach,” Jamie said, pausing in his digging. He glanced at the house, a little warily. “I’ll go in with ye, in a bit. For now”—he nodded toward the edge of the wood—“d’ye think ye could fetch a few stones for the cairn?”

A cairn? I was more than slightly surprised at this; it seemed an unnecessary elaboration for the late Mr. Beardsley. Still, there were undoubtedly wolves in the wood; I’d seen scats on the trail two days before. It also occurred to me that Jamie might be contriving an honorable excuse for me to postpone entering the house again—in which case, hauling rocks seemed a thoroughly desirable alternative.

Fortunately, there was no shortage of suitable rocks. I fetched the heavy canvas apron that I wore for surgery from my saddlebag, and began to trundle to and fro, an ant collecting laborious crumbs. After half an hour or so of this, the thought of entering the house had begun to seem much less objectionable. Jamie was still hard at it, though, so I kept on.

I stopped finally, gasping, and dumped yet another load out of my apron onto the ground by the deepening grave. The shadows were falling long across the dooryard, and the air was cold enough that my fingers had gone numb—a good thing, in view of the various scrapes and nicks on them.

“You look a right mess,” I observed, shoving a disheveled mass of hair off my own face. “Has Mrs. Beardsley come out yet?”

He shook his head, but took a moment to get his breath back before replying.

“No,” he said, in a voice so hoarse I could scarcely hear him. “She’s still wi’ the goats. I daresay it’s warm in there.”

I eyed him uneasily. Grave-digging is hard work; his shirt was clinging to his body, soaked through in spite of the coldness of the day, and his face was flushed—with labor, I hoped, rather than fever. His fingers were white and as stiff as mine, though; it took a visible effort for him to uncurl them from the handle of the shovel.

“Surely that’s deep enough,” I said, surveying his work. I would myself have settled for the shallowest of gouges in the soft earth, but slipshod work was never Jamie’s way. “Do stop, Jamie, and change your shirt at once. You’re wringing wet; you’ll catch a terrible chill.”

He didn’t bother arguing, but took up the spade and carefully neatened the corners of the hole, shaping the sides to keep them from crumbling inward.

The shadows under the pine trees were growing thick, and the chickens had all gone to roost, feathery blobs perched in the trees like bunches of brown mistletoe. The forest birds had fallen silent, too, and the shadow of the house fell long and cold across the new grave. I hugged my elbows, and shivered at the quiet.

Jamie tossed the shovel onto the ground with a clunk, startling me. He climbed up out of the hole, and stood still for a minute, eyes closed, swaying with weariness. Then he opened his eyes and smiled tiredly at me.

“Let’s finish, then,” he said.

WHETHER THE OPEN DOOR had indeed allowed the deceased’s spirit to flee, or whether it was only that Jamie was with me, I felt no hesitation in entering the house now. The fire had gone out, and the kitchen was cold and dim, yet there was no sense of anything evil within. It was simply . . . empty.

Mr. Beardsley’s mortal remains rested peacefully under one of his own trade blankets, mute and still. Empty, too.

Mrs. Beardsley had declined to assist with the formalities—or even to enter the house, so long as her husband’s body remained inside—so I swept the hearth, kindled a new fire, and coaxed it into reluctant life, while Jamie took care of the mess in the loft. By the time he came down again, I had turned to the main business at hand.

Dead, Beardsley seemed much less grotesque than he had in life; the twisted limbs were relaxed, the air of frantic struggle gone. Jamie had placed a linen towel over the head, though when I peeked beneath it, I could see that there was no gory mess to deal with; Jamie had shot him cleanly through the blind eye, and the ball had not burst the skull. The good eye was closed now, the blackened wound left staring. I laid the towel gently back over the face, its symmetry restored in death.

Jamie climbed down the ladder, and came quietly to stand behind me, touching my shoulder briefly.

“Go and wash,” I said, gesturing behind me to the small kettle of water I had hung over the fire to heat. “I’ll manage here.”

He nodded, stripped off his sodden, filthy shirt, and dropped it on the hearth. I listened to the small, homely noises he made as he washed. He coughed now and then, but his breathing sounded somewhat easier than it had outside in the cold.

“I didna ken it might be that way,” he said from behind me. “I thought an apoplexy would kill a man outright.”

“Sometimes that’s so,” I said, a little absently, frowning as I concentrated on the job at hand. “Most often that’s the way of it, in fact.”

“Aye? I never thought to ask Dougal, or Rupert. Or Jenny. Whether my father—” The sentence stopped abruptly, as though he had swallowed it.

Ah. I felt a small jolt of realization in my solar plexus. So that was it. I hadn’t remembered, but he had told me of it, years before, soon after we were married. His father had seen Jamie flogged at Fort William, and under the shock of it, had suffered an apoplexy and died. Jamie, wounded and ill, had been spirited away from the Fort and gone into exile. He had not been told of his father’s death until weeks later—had no chance of farewell, had been able neither to bury his father nor honor his grave.

“Jenny would have known,” I said gently. “She would have told you, if . . .” If Brian Fraser had suffered a death of such lingering ignominy as this, dwindled and shrunken, powerless before the eyes of the family he had striven to protect.

Would she? If she had nursed her father through incontinence and helplessness? If she had waited days or weeks, suddenly bereft of both father and brother, left alone to stare death in the face as it approached, moment by slow moment . . . and yet Jenny Fraser was a very strong woman, who had loved her brother dearly. Perhaps she would have sought to shield him, both from guilt and from knowledge.

I turned to face him. He was half-naked, but clean now, with a fresh shirt from his saddlebag in his hands. He was looking at me, but I saw his eyes slip beyond me, to fasten on the corpse with a troubled fascination.

“She would have told you,” I repeated, striving to infuse my voice with certainty.

Jamie drew a deep, painful breath.

“Perhaps.”

“She would,” I said more firmly.

He nodded, drew another deep breath, and let it out, more easily. I realized that the house was not the only thing haunted by Beardsley’s death. Jenny held the key of the only door that could be opened for Jamie, though.

I understood now why he had wept, and had taken such care with the digging of the grave. Not from either shock or charity, let alone from regard for the dead man—but for the sake of Brian Fraser; the father he had neither buried nor mourned.

I turned back and drew the edges of the blanket up, folded them snugly over the cleaned and decent remains, and tied it with twine at head and feet, making a tidy, anonymous package. Jamie was forty-nine; the same age at which his father had died. I stole a quick glance at him, as he finished dressing. If his father had been such a one as he was . . . I felt a sudden pang of sorrow, for the loss of so much. For strength cut off and love snuffed out, for the loss of a man I knew had been great, only from the reflection I saw of him in his son.

Dressed, Jamie circled round the table to help me lift the body. Instead of putting his hands under it, though, he reached across and took my hands in both of his.

“Swear to me, Claire,” he said. His voice was nearly gone with hoarseness; I had to lean close to hear it. “If it should one day fall to my lot as it did to my father . . . then swear ye will give me the same mercy I gave this wretched bugger here.”

There were fresh blisters on his palms from the digging; I felt the strange softness of them, fluid-filled and shifting as he gripped my hands.

“I’ll do what must be done,” I whispered back, at last. “Just as you did.” I squeezed his hands and let them go. “Come now and help me bury him. It’s over.”

28

BROWNSVILLE

IT WAS MID-AFTERNOON before Roger, Fergus, and the militia reached Brownsville, having missed their road and wandered in the hills for several hours before meeting two Cherokee who pointed the way.

Brownsville was half a dozen ramshackle huts, strewn among the dying brush of a hillside like a handful of rubbish tossed into the weeds. Near the road—if the narrow rut of churned black mud could be dignified by such a word—two cabins leaned tipsily on either side of a slightly larger and more solid-looking building, like drunkards leaning cozily on a sober companion. Rather ironically, this larger building seemed to operate as Brownsville’s general store and taproom, judging from the barrels of beer and powder and the stacks of drenched hides that stood in the muddy yard beside it—though to apply either term to it was granting that more dignity than it deserved, too, Roger thought.

Still, it was plainly the place to start—if only for the sake of the men with him, who had begun to vibrate like iron filings near a magnet at sight of the barrels; the yeasty scent of beer floated out like a welcome. He wouldn’t say no to a pint, either, he thought, waving a hand to signal a halt. It was a numbingly cold day, and a long time since this morning’s breakfast. They weren’t likely to get anything beyond bread or stew here, but as long as it was hot and washed down with some sort of alcohol, no one would complain.

He slid off his horse, and had just turned to call to the others when a hand clutched his arm.

“Attendez.” Fergus spoke softly, barely moving his lips. He was standing beside Roger, looking at something beyond him. “Do not move.”

Roger didn’t, nor did any of the men still on their horses. Whatever Fergus saw, so did they.

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