The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 85

   

Bonnet did not accept of this Surrender, though, but instead performed an Act of such Cruelty as made the deepest Impression upon all who saw it. Remarking with great coolness that it was not his own Eyes that would be damned, he drew the Tip of his Weapon across Marsden’s Eyes, twisting it in such Fashion as not only to blind the Captain, but to inflict such Mutilation as would make him an Object of the greatest Horror and Pity to all who might behold him.

Leaving his Foe thus mangled and fainting upon the bloody Sand of the Innyard, Bonnet cleansed his Blade by wiping it upon Marsden’s Shirtfront, sheathed it, and left—though not before removing Marsden’s Purse, which he claimed in payment of his original Wager. None present had any Stomach to prevent him, having so cogent an Example of his Skill before them.

I recount this History both to acquaint you with Bonnet’s last known whereabouts, and as warning to his Nature and Abilities. I know you are already well acquainted with the Former, but I draw your Attention to the Latter, out of due Regard for your Well-being. Not that I expect a word of my well-meant Advice will find lodging in your Breast, so filled must it be with animadverse Sentiment toward the Man, but I would beg that you take Notice at least of Liston’s Mention of Bonnet’s Connexions.

Upon the occasion of my own Meeting with the man, he was a Condemned Felon, and I cannot think he has since performed such Service toward the Crown as would gain him official Pardon. If he is content to flaunt himself thus openly in Charleston—where scant Years ago he escaped the Hangman’s Noose—it would seem he is in no great Fears for his Safety—and this can only mean that he now enjoys the Protection and Patronage of powerful Friends. You must discover and beware of these, if you seek to destroy Bonnet.

I will continue my Inquiries in this regard, and notify you at once of any further Particulars. In the meantime, keep you well, and spare a thought now and again to your drenched and shivering Acquaintance in Virginia. I remain, sir, with all good Wishes toward your Wife, Daughter, and Family,

Your ob’t. servant,

John William Grey, Esq.

Mount Josiah Plantation

Virginia

Postscriptum: I have been in search of an Astrolabe, per your Request, but so far have heard of nothing that would suit your Purpose. I am sending to London this month for assorted Furnishings, though, and will be pleased to order one from Halliburton’s in Green Street, their Instruments are of the highest Quality.

Very slowly, Brianna sat back down on the chair. She placed her hands gently but firmly over her son’s ears, and said a very bad word.

31

ORPHAN OF THE STORM

I FELL ASLEEP, leaning against the bank, with Jamie’s head on my lap. I dreamed luridly, as one does when cold and uncomfortable. I dreamed of trees; endless, monotonous forests of them, with each trunk and leaf and needle etched like scrimshaw on the inside of my eyelids, each one crystal-sharp, all just alike. Yellow goat-eyes floated in the air between the tree trunks, and the wood of my mind rang with the screams of she-panthers and the crying of motherless children.

I woke suddenly, with the echoes of their cries still ringing in my ears. I was lying in a tangle of cloaks and blankets, Jamie’s limbs heavily entwined with my own, and a fine, cold snow was falling through the pines.

Granules of ice crusted my brows and lashes, and my face was cold and wet with melted snow. Momentarily disoriented, I reached out by reflex to touch Jamie; he stirred and coughed thickly, his shoulder shaking under my hand. The sound of it brought back the events of the day before—Josiah and his twin, the Beardsley farm, Fanny’s ghosts; the smell of ordure and gangrene and the cleaner reek of gunpowder and wet earth. The bleating of goats, still echoing from my dreams.

A thin cry came through the whisper of snow, and I sat up abruptly, flinging back the blankets in a spray of icy powder. Not a goat. Not at all.

Startled awake, Jamie jerked and rolled instinctively away from the mess of cloaks and blankets, coming up in a crouch, hair in a wild tangle and eyes darting round in search of threat.

“What?” he whispered hoarsely. He reached for his knife, lying nearby in its sheath on the ground, but I lifted a hand to stop him moving.

“I don’t know. A noise. Listen!”

He lifted his head, listening, and I saw his throat move painfully as he swallowed. I could hear nothing but the chisping of the snow, and saw nothing but dripping pines. Jamie heard something, though—or saw it; his face changed suddenly.

“There,” he said softly, nodding at something behind me. I scrambled round on my knees, to see what looked like a small heap of rags, lying some ten feet away, next to the ashes of the burned-out fire. The cry came again, unmistakable this time.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.” I was scarcely aware of having spoken, as I scrambled toward the bundle. I snatched it up and began to root through the layers of swaddling cloth. It was plainly alive—I had heard it cry—and yet it lay inert, almost weightless in the curve of my arm.

The tiny face and hairless skull were blue-white, the features closed and sere as the husk of a winter fruit. I laid my palm over nose and mouth and felt a faint, moist warmth against my skin. Startled by my touch, the mouth opened in a mewling cry, and the slanted eyes crimped tighter shut, sealing out the threatening world.

“Holy God.” Jamie crossed himself briefly. His voice was little more than a phlegmy crackle; he cleared his throat and tried again, glancing around. “Where’s the woman?”

Shocked by the child’s appearance, I had not paused to consider its origin, nor was there time to do so now. The baby twitched a little in its wrappings, but the tiny hands were cold as ice, the skin mottled blue and purple with chill.

“Never mind her now—get my shawl, will you, Jamie? The poor thing’s nearly frozen.” I fumbled one-handed with the lacing of my bodice; it was an old one that opened down the front, worn for ease of dressing on the trail. I pulled loose my stays and the drawstring of my shift and pressed the small icy creature against my bare br**sts, my skin still warm from sleep. A blast of wind drove stinging snow across the exposed skin of my neck and shoulders. I pulled my shift hastily up over the child and hunched myself, shivering. Jamie flung the shawl round my shoulders, then wrapped his arms round us both, hugging fiercely as though to force the heat of his own body into the child.

The heat of him was considerable; he was burning with fever.

“My God, are you all right?” I spared a glance up at him; white-faced and red-eyed, but steady enough.

“Aye, fine. Where is she?” he asked again, hoarsely. “The woman.”

Gone, evidently. The goats were huddled close together under the shelter of the bank; I saw Hiram’s horns bobbing among the nannies’ brindled backs. Half a dozen pairs of yellow eyes watched us with interest, reminding me of my dreams.

The place where Mrs. Beardsley had lain was empty, with no more than a patch of flattened grass to testify that she had ever been there. She must have gone some distance away in order to give birth; there was no trace of it near the fire.

“It is hers?” Jamie asked. I could still hear the congestion in his voice, but the small wheezing sound in his chest had eased; that was a relief.

“I suppose it must be. Where else could it have come from?”

My attention was divided between Jamie and the child—it had begun to stir, with little crablike movements against my belly—but I spared a glance around our makeshift camp. The pines stood black and silent under the whispering snow; if Fanny Beardsley had gone into the forest, no trace remained on the matted needles to mark her passage. Snow crystals rimed the trunks of the trees, but not enough had fallen to stick to the ground; no chance of footprints.

“She can’t have gone far,” I said, craning to peer round Jamie’s shoulder. “She hasn’t taken either of the horses.” Gideon and Mrs. Piggy stood close together under a spruce tree, ears morosely flattened by the weather, their breath making clouds of steam around them. Seeing us up and moving, Gideon stamped and whinnied, big yellow teeth showing in an impatient demand for sustenance.

“Aye, ye auld bugger, I’m coming.” Jamie dropped his arms and stepped back, wiping his knuckles beneath his nose.

“She couldna have taken a horse, if she meant to be secret. If she had, the other would have made a fuss and roused me.” He laid a gentle hand on the bulge under my shawl. “I’ll need to go and feed them. Is he all right, Sassenach?”

“He’s thawing out,” I assured him. “But he—or she, for that matter—will be hungry, too.” The baby was beginning to move more, squirming sluggishly, like a chilled worm, its mouth blindly groping. The feeling was shocking in its familiarity; my nipple sprang up by reflex, the flesh of my breast tingling with electricity as the tiny mouth groped, rooted, found the nipple, and clamped on.

I gave a small yelp of surprise, and Jamie raised one eyebrow.

“It . . . um . . . is hungry,” I said, readjusting my burden.

“I see that, Sassenach,” he said. He glanced at the goats, still snug in their sheltered spot by the bank, but beginning to shift and stir with drowsy grumbles. “He’s no the only one starving. A moment, aye?”

We had brought large forage nets of dry hay from the Beardsley farm; he opened one of these and scattered feed for the horses and goats, then returned to me. He stooped to disentangle one of the cloaks from the damp heap of coverings, and put it round my shoulders, then rootled through the pack for a wooden cup, with which he purposefully approached the grazing goats.

The baby was suckling strongly, my nipple pulled deep into its mouth. I found this reassuring so far as the health of the child was concerned, but the sensation was rather unsettling.

“It’s not that I mind at all, really,” I said to the child, trying to distract both of us. “But I’m afraid I’m not your mother, you see? Sorry.”

And where in bloody hell was its mother, anyway? I turned slowly round in a circle, searching the landscape more carefully, but still discerned no trace of Fanny Beardsley, let alone any reason for her disappearance—or her silence.

What on earth could have happened? Mrs. Beardsley could have—and quite obviously had—hidden an advanced pregnancy under that mound of fat and wrappings—but why should she have done so?

“Why not tell us? I wonder,” I murmured to the top of the baby’s head. It was growing restless, and I rocked from foot to foot to soothe it. Well, perhaps she had feared that Jamie wouldn’t take her with us, if he knew she was so far gone with child. I didn’t blame her for not wanting to remain in that farmhouse, whatever the circumstance.

But still, why had she now abandoned the child? Had she abandoned it? I considered for a moment the possibility that someone, or something—my spine prickled momentarily at the thought of panthers—had come and stolen the woman from the fireside, but my common sense dismissed the notion.

A cat or bear might conceivably have entered the camp without waking Jamie or me, exhausted as we were, but there wasn’t a chance that it could have come near without raising alarms from the goats and horses, who had all had quite enough to do with wild beasts by this time. And a wild animal looking for prey would clearly prefer a tender tidbit like this child, to a tough item like Mrs. Beardsley.

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