The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 87


“Perhaps. But she didn’t. Who do you suppose the father can have been?” Isolated as the Beardsleys’ farm had been, I couldn’t imagine Fanny having the opportunity to meet very many men, other than the Indians who came to trade. Did Indian babies perhaps have Mongol spots? I wondered.

Jamie glanced bleakly around at the desolate surroundings, and scooped the child up into his arms.

“I dinna ken, but I shouldna think he’ll be hard to spot, once we’ve reached Brownsville. Let’s go, Sassenach.”

JAMIE RELUCTANTLY DECIDED to leave the goats behind, in the interest of reaching shelter and sustenance for the child as quickly as possible.

“They’ll be fine here for a bit,” he said, scattering the rest of the hay for them. “The nannies wilna leave the auld fellow—and ye’re no going anywhere for the present, are ye, a bhalaich?” He scratched Hiram between the horns in farewell, and we left to a chorus of protesting mehs, the goats having grown used to our company.

The weather was worsening by the moment; as the temperature rose, the snow changed from dry powder to large, wet flakes that stuck to everything, dusting ground and trees with icing sugar, and melting down through the horses’ manes.

Well-muffled in my thick hooded cloak, with multiple shawls beneath and the child snuggled in a makeshift sling against my stomach, I was quite warm, in spite of the flakes that brushed my face and stuck in my lashes. Jamie coughed now and then, but on the whole, looked much healthier than he had; the need to take charge of an emergency had energized him.

He rode just behind me, keeping an eye out in case of marauding panthers or other menaces. I thought myself that any self-respecting cat—particularly one with a bellyful of goat—would spend a day like this curled up in some cozy den, not out tramping through the snow. Still, it was very reassuring to have him there; I was vulnerable, riding with one hand on the reins, the other wrapped protectively over the bulge under my cloak.

The child was sleeping, I thought, but not quiet; it stretched and squirmed with the slow, languid movements of the water world, not yet accustomed to the freedom of life outside the womb.

“Ye look as though you’re wi’ child, Sassenach.” I glanced back over my shoulder, to see Jamie looking amused under the brim of his slouch hat, though I thought there was something else in his expression; perhaps a slight wistfulness.

“Probably because I am with child,” I replied, shifting slightly in the saddle to accommodate the movements of my companion. “It’s just somebody else’s child I’m with.” The pressure of small knees and head and elbows shifting against my belly were in fact unsettlingly like the sensations of pregnancy; the fact that they were outside rather than inside made remarkably little difference.

As though drawn to the swelling under my cloak, Jamie nudged Gideon up beside me. The horse snorted and tossed his head, wanting to push ahead, but Jamie held him back with a soft “Seas!” of rebuke, and he subsided, huffing steam.

“Ye’re troubled for her?” Jamie asked, with a nod toward the surrounding forest.

No need to ask whom he meant. I nodded, my hand on the curled tiny backbone, arched still to fit the curve of the vanished womb. Where was she, Fanny Beardsley, alone in the wood? Crawled off to die like a wounded beast—or making, perhaps, for some imagined haven, floundering blindly through frozen leaf mold and deepening snow, heading back, maybe, toward the Chesapeake Bay and some memory of open sky, of broad waters and happiness?

Jamie leaned over and laid a hand on mine where it curled over the sleeping child; I could feel the chill of his ungloved fingers through the layer of cloth between us.

“She’s made her choice, Sassenach,” he said. “And she’s trusted us wi’ the bairn. We’ll see the wee lass safe; that’s all we can do for the woman.”

I couldn’t turn my hand to take his, but nodded. He let my hand go with a squeeze and dropped back, and I turned my face toward our destination, my lashes wet and spiky as I blinked away the melting drops.

By the time we came in sight of Brownsville, though, most of my concern for Fanny Beardsley had been subsumed by anxiety for her daughter. The child was awake and bawling, pummeling my liver with tiny fists in search of food.

I lifted myself in the saddle, peering through the curtain of falling snow. How big a place was Brownsville? I could see no more than the roofline of a single cabin peeping through the evergreen of pine and laurel. One of the men from Granite Falls had said it was sizable, though—what was “sizable,” here in the backcountry? What were the odds that at least one of the residents of Brownsville might be a woman with a nursing child?

Jamie had emptied out the canteen and filled it with goat’s milk, but it was better, I thought, to reach shelter before trying to feed the baby again. If there was a mother who might offer her milk to the child, that would be best—but if not, the goat’s milk would need to be heated; cold as it was outside, to give the baby cold milk might lower her body temperature dangerously.

Mrs. Piggy snorted out a great gout of steam, and suddenly picked up her pace. She knew civilization when she smelled it—and other horses. She threw up her head and whinnied piercingly. Gideon joined her, and when the racket stopped, I could hear the encouraging replies of a number of horses in the distance.

“They’re here!” I exhaled in a steamy burst of relief. “The militia—they made it!”

“Well, I should hope so, Sassenach,” Jamie replied, taking a firm grip to prevent Gideon’s bolting. “If wee Roger couldna find a village at the end of a straight trail, I’d have my doubts of his wits as well as his eyesight.” But he was smiling, too.

As we came round a curve in the trail, I could see that Brownsville really was a village. Chimney smoke drifted up in soft gray plumes from a dozen cabins, scattered over the hillside that rose to our right, and a cluster of buildings stood together by the road, clearly placed for custom, judging from the rubble of discarded kegs, bottles, and other rubbish strewn in the dead weeds of the roadside.

Across the road from this pothouse, the men had erected a crude shelter for the horses, roofed with pine boughs and walled on one side with more branches to break the wind. The militiamen’s horses were gathered under this in a cozy knot, hobbled and snorting, wreathed in clouds of their mingled breath.

Spotting this refuge, our own horses were moving at a good clip; I had to pull heavily on the reins one-handed in order to keep Mrs. Piggy from breaking into a trot, which would have seriously jostled my passenger. As I hauled her back to a reluctant walk, a slight figure detached itself from the shelter of a pine tree and stepped into the road before us, waving.

“Milord,” Fergus greeted Jamie, as Gideon slewed to a reluctant halt. He peered up at Jamie from beneath the band of an indigo-dyed knitted cap, which he wore pulled down over his brows. It made his head look rather like the top of a torpedo, dark and dangerous. “You are well? I thought perhaps you had encountered some difficulty.”

“Och.” Jamie waved vaguely at me, indicating the bulge beneath my cloak. “No really a difficulty; it’s only—”

Fergus was staring over Gideon’s shoulder at the bulge with some bemusement.

“Quelle virilité, monsieur,” he said to Jamie, in tones of deep respect. “My congratulations.”

Jamie gave him a scathing look and a Scottish noise that sounded like boulders rolling underwater. The baby began to cry again.

“First things first,” I said. “Are there any women here with babies? This child needs milk, and she needs it now.”

Fergus nodded, eyes wide with curiosity.

“Oui, milady. Two, at least, that I have seen.”

“Good. Lead me to them.”

He nodded again, and taking hold of Piggy’s halter, turned toward the settlement.

“What’s amiss, then?” Jamie inquired, and cleared his throat. In my anxiety for the baby, I hadn’t paused to consider what Fergus’s presence meant. Jamie was right, though; simple concern for our well-being wouldn’t have brought him out on the road in this weather.

“Ah. We appear to have a small difficulty, milord.” He described the events of the previous afternoon, concluding with a Gallic shrug and a huff of breath. “. . . and so Monsieur Morton has taken refuge with the horses”—he nodded ahead, toward the makeshift shelter—“while the rest of us enjoy the hospitalité of Brownsville.”

Jamie looked a trifle grim at this; no doubt from a contemplation of what the hospitalité for forty-odd men might cost.

“Mmphm. I take it that the Browns dinna ken Morton is there?”

Fergus shook his head.

“Why is Morton there?” I asked, having temporarily stifled the baby by putting it to my own breast. “I should have thought he’d be off away, back to Granite Falls, and pleased to be alive.”

“He will not go, milady. He says he cannot forgo the bounty.” Word had come just before our departure from the Ridge; the Governor was offering forty shillings per man as an inducement to serve in the militia; a substantial sum, particularly to a new homesteader such as Morton, facing a bleak winter.

Jamie rubbed a hand slowly over his face. This was a dilemma, all right; the militia company needed the men and supplies from Brownsville, but Jamie could scarcely conscript several Browns who would immediately attempt to assassinate Morton. Nor could he afford to pay Morton’s bounty himself. Jamie looked as though he were tempted to assassinate Morton personally, but I supposed this wasn’t a reasonable alternative.

“Perhaps Morton could be induced to marry the girl?” I suggested delicately.

“I thought of that,” Fergus said. “Regretfully, Monsieur Morton is already possessed of a wife in Granite Falls.” He shook his head, which was beginning to look like a small snowcapped hillock in his cap.

“Why did the Browns not follow yon Morton?” Jamie asked, apparently following his own train of thought. “If an enemy comes upon your land, and you wi’ your kin, ye dinna just let him flee; ye hunt him down and kill him.”

Fergus nodded, clearly familiar with this brand of Highland logic.

“I believe that was the intent,” he said. “They were distracted, however, by le petit Roger.”

I could hear a distinct note of amusement in his voice; so could Jamie.

“What did he do?” he asked warily.

“Sang to them,” Fergus said, the amusement becoming more pronounced. “He has been singing most of the night, and playing upon his drum. The entire village came to hear—there are six men of suitable age for the militia, and,” he added practically, “the two women avec lait, as I said, milady.”

Jamie coughed, wiped a hand under his nose, and nodded to Fergus, with a wave at me.

“Aye. Well, the wee lass must eat, and I canna stay back or the Browns will tumble to it that Morton’s here. Go and say to him that I shall come and speak to him as soon as may be.”

He reined his horse’s head toward the tavern, and I nudged Mrs. Piggy to follow.