The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 79

   

He had the galling conviction that Jamie Fraser would have known immediately how best to resolve this diplomatic crisis. He personally hadn’t a clue.

He did, at least, have a delaying tactic. Sighing, he lowered the pistol, and reached for the pouch at his waist.

“Henry, fetch in the saddlebag with the whisky, aye? And Mr. Brown, perhaps ye will allow me to purchase some food, and a barrel of your beer, for my men’s refreshment.”

And with luck, by the time it was all drunk, Jamie Fraser would be here.

29

ONE-THIRD OF A GOAT

IT WASN’T QUITE OVER, after all. It was well past dark by the time we had finished everything at the Beardsley farm, tidied up, repacked the bags, and resaddled the horses. I thought of suggesting that we eat before leaving—we had had nothing since breakfast—but the atmosphere of the place was so disturbing that neither Jamie nor I had any appetite.

“We’ll wait,” he said, heaving the saddlebags over the mare’s back. He glanced over his shoulder at the house. “I’m hollow as a gourd, but I couldna stomach a bite within sight o’ this place.”

“I know what you mean.” I glanced back, too, uneasily, though there was nothing to see; the house stood still and empty. “I can’t wait to get away from here.”

The sun had sunk below the trees, and a chill blue shadow spread across the hollow where the farmhouse stood. The raw earth of Beardsley’s grave showed dark with moisture, a humped mound beneath the bare branches of the mountain ash. It was impossible to look at it without thinking of the weight of wet earth and immobility, of corruption and decay.

You will rot and die, Jamie had said to him. I hoped the reversal of those two events had been of some benefit to Beardsley—it had not, to me. I hugged my shawl tight around my shoulders and breathed out hard, then deeply in, hoping the cold, clean scent of the pines would eradicate the phantom reek of dead flesh that seemed to cling to hands and clothes and nose.

The horses were shifting, stamping, and shaking their manes, eager to be off. I didn’t blame them. Unable to stop myself, I looked back once more. A more desolate sight would be hard to imagine. Even harder to imagine was the thought of staying here, alone.

Evidently, Mrs. Beardsley had imagined it, and come to similar conclusions. At this point, she emerged from the barn, the kid in her arms, and announced that she was coming with us. So, evidently, were the goats. She handed me the kid, and disappeared back into the barn.

The kid was heavy and half-asleep, flexible little joints folded up into a cozy bundle. It huffed warm air over my hand, nibbling gently to see what I was made of, then made a small “meh” of contentment and relaxed into peaceful inertness against my ribs. A louder “meh!” and a nudge at my thigh announced the presence of the kid’s mother, keeping a watchful eye on her offspring.

“Well, she can’t very well leave them here,” I muttered to Jamie, who was making disgruntled noises in the dusk behind me. “They have to be milked. Besides, it’s not a terribly long way, is it?”

“D’ye ken how fast a goat walks, Sassenach?”

“I’ve never had occasion to time one,” I said, rather testily, shifting my small hairy burden. “But I shouldn’t think they’d be a lot slower than the horses, in the dark.”

He made a guttural Scottish noise at that, rendered more expressive even than usual by the phlegm in his throat. He coughed.

“You sound awful,” I said. “When we get where we’re going, I’m taking the mentholated goose grease to you, my lad.”

He made no objection to this proposal, which rather alarmed me, as indicating a serious depression of his vitality. Before I could inquire further into his state of health, though, I was interrupted by the emergence from the barn of Mrs. Beardsley, leading six goats, roped together like a gang of jovially inebriate convicts.

Jamie viewed the procession dubiously, sighed in resignation, and turned to a consideration of the logistical problems at hand. There was no question of mounting Mrs. Beardsley on Gideon the Man-Eater. Jamie glanced from me to Mrs. Beardsley’s substantial figure, then at the small form of my mare, little bigger than a pony, and coughed.

After a bit of contemplation, he had Mrs. Beardsley mounted on Mrs. Piggy, the sleepy kid balanced before her. I would ride with him, on Gideon’s withers, theoretically preventing any attempt on that animal’s part to fling me off his hindquarters into the underbrush. He tied a rope round the billy goat’s neck, and affixed this loosely to the mare’s saddle, but left the nannies loose.

“The mother will stay wi’ the kid, and the others will follow the billy here,” he told me. “Goats are sociable creatures; they’ll no be wanting to stray awa by themselves. Especially not at night. Shoo,” he muttered, pushing an inquisitive nose out of his face as he squatted to check the saddle girth. “I suppose pigs would be worse. They will gang their own way.” He stood up, absently patting a hairy head.

“If anything should come amiss, pull it loose at once,” he told Mrs. Beardsley, showing her the half-bow loop tied to the saddle near her hand. “If the horse should run away wi’ ye all, your wee fellow there will be hangit.”

She nodded, a hunched mound atop the horse, then lifted her head and looked toward the house.

“We should go before moonrithe,” she said softly. “She cometh out then.”

An icy ripple ran straight up my spine, and Jamie jerked, head snapping round to look at the darkened house. The fire had gone out, and no one had thought to close the open door; it gaped like an empty eye socket.

“She who?” Jamie asked, a noticeable edge in his voice.

“Mary Ann,” Mrs. Beardsley answered. “She was the latht one.” There was no emphasis whatever in her voice; she sounded like a sleepwalker.

“The last what?” I asked.

The latht wife,” she replied, and picked up her reins. “She thtands under the rowan tree at moonrithe.”

Jamie’s head turned toward me. It was too dark to see his expression, but I didn’t need to. I cleared my throat.

“Ought we . . . to close the door?” I suggested. Mr. Beardsley’s spirit had presumably got the idea by now, and whether or not Mrs. Beardsley had any interest in the house and its contents, it didn’t seem right to leave it at the mercy of marauding raccoons and squirrels, to say nothing of anything larger that might be attracted by the scent of Mr. Beardsley’s final exit. On the other hand, I really had no desire at all to approach the empty house.

“Get on the horse, Sassenach.”

Jamie strode across the yard, slammed the door somewhat harder than necessary, then came back—walking briskly—and swung into the saddle behind me.

“Hup!” he said sharply, and we were off, the glow of a rising half-moon just visible above the trees.

It was perhaps a quarter mile to the head of the trail, the ground rising from the hollow in which the Beardsleys’ farmhouse stood. We were moving slowly, because of the goats, and I watched the grass and shrubs as we brushed through them, wondering whether they seemed more visible only because my eyes were adapting to the dark—or because the moon had risen.

I felt quite safe, with the powerful bulk of the horse under me, the sociable natter of the goats around us, and Jamie’s equally reassuring presence behind me, one arm clasped about my waist. I wasn’t sure that I felt quite safe enough to turn and look back again, though. At the same time, the urge to look was so compelling as almost to counter the sense of dread I felt about the place. Almost.

“It’s no really a rowan tree, is it?” Jamie’s voice came softly from behind me.

“No,” I said, taking heart from the solid arm around me. “It’s a mountain ash. Very like, though.” I’d seen mountain ash many times before; the Highlanders often planted them near cabins or houses because the clusters of deep orange berries and the pinnate leaves did indeed look like the rowan tree of Scotland—a close botanical relative. I gathered that Jamie’s comment stemmed not from taxonomic hairsplitting, though, but rather from doubt as to whether the ash possessed the same repellent qualities, in terms of protection from evil and enchantment. He hadn’t chosen to bury Beardsley under that tree from a sense either of aesthetics or convenience.

I squeezed his blistered hand, and he kissed me gently on top of the head.

At the head of the trail, I did glance back, but I could see nothing but a faint gleam from the weathered shingles of the farmhouse. The mountain ash and whatever might—or might not—be under it were hidden in darkness.

Gideon was unusually well-behaved, having made no more than a token protest at being double-mounted. I rather thought he was happy to leave the farm behind, too. I said as much, but Jamie sneezed and expressed the opinion that the wicked sod was merely biding his time while planning some future outrage.

The goats seemed inclined to view this nocturnal excursion as a lark, and ambled along with the liveliest interest, snatching mouthfuls of dry grass, bumping into one another and the horses, and generally sounding like a herd of elephants in the crackling underbrush.

I felt great relief at leaving the Beardsley place at last. As the pines blotted out the last sight of the hollow, I resolutely turned my mind from the disturbing events of the day, and began to think what might await us in Brownsville.

“I hope Roger’s managed all right,” I said, leaning back against Jamie’s chest with a small sigh.

“Mmphm.” From long experience, I diagnosed this particular catarrhal noise as indicating a polite general agreement with my sentiment, this overlaying complete personal indifference to the actuality. Either he saw no reason for concern, or he thought Roger could sink or swim.

“I hope he’s found an inn of sorts,” I offered, thinking this prospect might meet with a trifle more enthusiasm. “Hot food and a clean bed would be lovely.”

“Mmphm.” That one held a touch of humor, mingled with an inborn skepticism—fostered by long experience—regarding the possible existence of such items as hot food and clean beds in the Carolina backcountry.

“The goats seem to be going along very well,” I offered, and waited in anticipation.

“Mmphm.” Grudging agreement, mingled with a deep suspicion as to the continuance of good behavior on the part of the goats.

I was carefully formulating another observation, in hopes of getting him to do it again—three times was the record so far—when Gideon suddenly bore out Jamie’s original mistrust by flinging up his head with a loud snort and rearing.

I crashed back into Jamie’s chest, hitting my head on his collarbone with a thump that made me see stars. His arm crushed the air out of me as he dragged at the reins one-handed, shouting.

I had no idea what he was saying, or even whether he was shouting in English or Gaelic. The horse was screaming, rearing and pawing with his hooves, and I was scrabbling for a grip on anything at all, mane, saddle, reins. . . . A branch whipped my face and blinded me. Pandemonium reigned; there was screeching and bleating and a noise like tearing fabric and then something hit me hard and sent me flying into the darkness.

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