The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 81

   

“I’ll go and have a keek round. If I find the way at once, well and good. If I don’t, we’ll camp for the night,” he said. “It will be a deal easier to look for the trail by daylight. Be careful, Sassenach.”

And with a final sneeze, he vanished into the woods, leaving me in charge of the camp followers and wounded.

The orphaned goat was becoming louder and more anguished in its cries; it hurt my ears, as well as my heart. Mrs. Beardsley, though, had become somewhat more animated in Jamie’s absence; I thought she was rather afraid of him. Now she brought up one of the other nannies, persuading her to stand still for the orphan to suckle. The kid was reluctant for a moment, but hunger and the need for warmth and reassurance were overwhelming, and within a few minutes, it was feeding busily, its small tail wagging in a dark flicker of movement.

I was happy to see it, but conscious of a small feeling of envy; I was all at once aware that I had eaten nothing all day, that I was very cold, desperately tired, sore in a number of places—and that without the complications of Mrs. Beardsley and her companions, I would long since have been safely in Brownsville, fed, warm, and tucked up by some friendly fireside. I put a hand on the kid’s stomach, growing round and firm with milk, and thought rather wistfully that I should like someone simply to take care of me. Still, for the moment, I seemed to be the Good Shepherd, and no help for it.

“Do you think it might come back?” Mrs. Beardsley crouched next to me, shawl pulled tight around her broad shoulders. She spoke in a low tone, as though afraid someone might overhear.

“What, the panther? No, I don’t think so. Why should it?” Nonetheless, a small shiver ran over me, as I thought of Jamie, alone somewhere in the dark. Hiram, his shoulder firmly jammed against my thigh, snorted, then laid his head on my knee with a long sigh.

“Thome folk thay the catth hunt in pairth.”

“Really?” I stifled a yawn—not of boredom, simply fatigue. I blinked into the darkness, a chilled lethargy stealing over me. “Oh. Well, I should think a good-sized goat would do for two. Besides”—I yawned again, a jaw-cracking stretch—“besides, the horses would let us know.”

Gideon and Mrs. Piggy were companionably nose-and-tailing it under the poplar tree, showing no signs now of agitation. This seemed to comfort Mrs. Beardsley, who sat down on the ground quite suddenly, her shoulders sagging as though the air had gone out of her.

“And how are you feeling?” I inquired, more from an urge to maintain conversation than from any real desire to know.

“I am glad to be gone from that place,” she said simply.

I definitely shared that sentiment; our present situation was at least an improvement on the Beardsley homestead, even with the odd panther thrown in. Still, that didn’t mean I was anxious to spend very long here.

“Do you know anyone in Brownsville?” I asked. I wasn’t sure how large a settlement it was, though from the conversation of some of the men we had picked up, it sounded like a fair-sized village.

“No.” She was silent for a moment, and I felt rather than saw her tilt back her head, looking up at the stars and the peaceful moon.

“I . . . have never been to Brownsville,” she added, almost shyly.

Or anywhere else, it seemed. She told the story hesitantly, but almost eagerly, with no more than slight prodding on my part.

Beardsley had—in essence—bought her from her father, and brought her, with other goods acquired in Baltimore, down to his house, where he had essentially kept her prisoner, forbidding her to leave the homestead, or to show herself to anyone who might come to the house. Left to do the work of the homestead while Beardsley traveled into the Cherokee lands with his trade goods, she had had no society but a bond lad—who was little company, being deaf and speechless.

“Really,” I said. In the events of the day, I had quite forgotten Josiah and his twin. I wondered whether she had known both of them, or only Keziah.

“How long is it since you came to North Carolina?” I asked.

“Two yearth,” she said softly. “Two yearth, three month, and five dayth.” I remembered the marks on the doorpost, and wondered when she had begun to keep count. From the very beginning? I stretched my back, disturbing Hiram, who grumbled.

“I see. By the way, what is your Christian name?” I asked, belatedly aware that I had no idea.

“Frantheth,” she said, then tried again, not liking the mumbled sound of it. “Fran-cess,” the end of it a hiss through her broken teeth. She gave a shrug, then, and laughed—a small, shy sound. “Fanny,” she said. “My mother called me Fanny.”

“Fanny,” I said, encouragingly. “That’s a very nice name. May I call you so?”

“I . . . would be pleathed,” she said. She drew breath again, but stopped without speaking, evidently too shy to say whatever she’d had in mind. With her husband dead, she seemed entirely passive, quite deprived of the force that had animated her earlier.

“Oh,” I said, belatedly realizing. “Claire. Do call me Claire, please.”

“Claire—how pretty.”

“Well, it hasn’t any esses, at least,” I said, not thinking. “Oh—I do beg your pardon!”

She made a small pff sound of dismissal. Encouraged by the dark, the faint sense of intimacy engendered by the exchange of names—or simply from a need to talk, after so long—she told me about her mother, who had died when she was twelve, her father, a crabber, and her life in Baltimore, wading out along the shore at low tide to rake oysters and gather mussels, watching the fishing craft and the warships come in past Fort Howard to sail up the Patapsco.

“It wath . . . peatheful,” she said, rather wistfully. “It wath tho open—nothing but the thky and the water.” She tilted back her head again, as though yearning for the small bit of night sky visible through the interlacing branches overhead. I supposed that while the forested mountains of North Carolina were refuge and embrace to a Highlander like Jamie, they might well seem claustrophobic and alien to someone accustomed to the watery Chesapeake shore.

“Will you go back there, do you think?” I asked.

“Back?” She sounded slightly startled. “Oh. I . . . I hadn’t thought . . .”

“No?” I had found a tree trunk to lean against, and stretched slightly, to ease my back. “You must have seen that your—that Mr. Beardsley was dying. Didn’t you have some plan?” Beyond the fun of torturing him slowly to death, that is. It occurred to me that I had been getting altogether too comfortable with this woman, alone in the dark with the goats. She might truly have been Beardsley’s victim—or she might only be saying so now, to enlist our aid. It would behoove me to remember the burned toes on Beardsley’s foot, and the appalling state of that loft. I straightened up a little, and felt for the small knife I carried at my belt—just in case.

“No.” She sounded a little dazed—and no wonder, I supposed. I felt more than a little dazed myself, simply from emotion and fatigue. Enough so that I almost missed what she said next.

“What did you say?”

“I thaid . . . Mary Ann didn’t tell me what I wath to do . . . after.”

“Mary Ann,” I said cautiously. “Yes, and that would be . . . the first Mrs. Beardsley, would it?”

She laughed, and the hair on my neck rippled unpleasantly.

“Oh, no. Mary Ann wath the fourth one.”

“The . . . fourth one,” I said, a little faintly.

“Thye’th the only one he buried under the rowan tree,” she informed me. “That wath a mithtake. The otherth are in the woodth. He got lazy, I think; he did not want to walk tho far.”

“Oh,” I said, for lack of any better response.

“I told you—sshe thtands under the rowan tree at moonrithe. When I thaw her there at firtht, I thought sshe wath a living woman. I wath afraid of what he might do, if he thaw her there alone—tho I sstole from the houthe to warn her.”

“I see.” Something in my voice must have sounded less than credulous, for her head turned sharply toward me. I took a firmer grip on the knife.

“You do not believe me?”

“Of course I do!” I assured her, trying to edge Hiram’s head off my lap. My left leg had gone to sleep from the pressure of his weight, and I had no feeling in my foot.

“I can thow you,” she said, and her voice was calm and certain. “Mary Ann told me where they were—the otherth—and I found them. I can thow you their graveth.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” I said, flexing my toes to restore circulation. If she came toward me, I decided, I would shove the goat into her path, roll to the side, and make off as fast as possible on all fours, shouting for Jamie. And where in bloody hell was Jamie, anyway?

“So . . . um . . . Fanny. You’re saying that Mr. Beardsley”—it occurred to me that I didn’t know his name either, but I thought I would just as soon keep my relations with his memory formal, under the circumstances—“that your husband murdered four wives? And no one knew?” Not that anyone necessarily would know, I realized. The Beardsley homestead was very isolated, and it wasn’t at all unusual for women to die—of accident, childbirth, or simple overwork. Someone might have known that Beardsley had lost four wives—but it was entirely possible that no one cared how.

“Yeth.” She sounded calm, I thought; not incipiently dangerous, at least. “He would have killed me, too—but Mary Ann thtopped him.”

“How did she do that?”

She drew a deep breath and sighed, settling herself on the ground. There was a faint, sleepy bleat from her lap, and I realized that she was holding the kid again. I relaxed my grip on the knife; she could hardly attack me with a lapful of goat.

She had, she said, gone out to speak to Mary Ann whenever the moon was high; the ghostly woman appeared under the rowan tree only between half-moon wax and half-moon wane—not in the dark of the moon, or at crescent.

“Very particular,” I murmured, but she didn’t notice, being too absorbed in the story.

This had gone on for some months. Mary Ann had told Fanny Beardsley who she was, informed her of the fate of her predecessors, and the manner of her own death.

“He choked her,” Fanny confided. “I could see the markth of his handth on her throat. Sshe warned me that he would do the thame to me, one day.”

One night a few weeks later, Fanny was sure that the time had come.

“He wath far gone with the rum, you thee,” she explained. “It wath alwayth worth when he drank, and thith time . . .”

Trembling with nerves, she had dropped the trencher with his supper, splattering food on him. He had sprung to his feet with a roar, lunging for her, and she had turned and fled.

“He wath between me and the door,” she said. “I ran for the loft. I hoped he would be too drunk to manage the ladder, and he wath.”

Beardsley had stumbled, lurching, and dragged the ladder down with a crash. As he struggled, mumbling and cursing, to put it into place again, there came a knock on the door.

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