The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 88

   

“What are you going to do about the Browns?” I asked.

“Christ,” Jamie said, more to himself than to me. “How in hell should I know?” And coughed again.

32

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

OUR ARRIVAL with the baby created a sufficient sensation to distract everyone in Brownsville from their private concerns, be these practical or homicidal. A look of intense relief crossed Roger’s face at sight of Jamie, though this was instantly suppressed, replaced by a bland attitude of square-shouldered self-assurance. I ducked my head to hide a smile, and glanced at Jamie, wondering if he had noted this rapid transformation. He sedulously avoided my eye, indicating that he had.

“Ye’ve done well,” he said in a casual undertone, clapping Roger’s shoulder in greeting before turning to receive the salutations of the other men and introductions to our involuntary hosts.

Roger merely nodded in an offhand sort of way, but his face took on a muted glow, as though someone had lit a candle inside him.

Young Miss Beardsley caused a great stir; one of the nursing mothers was fetched and at once put the screeching baby to her breast, hastily handing me her own child in exchange. A three-month-old boy of placid temperament, he looked up at me with mild bewilderment, but seemed not to object to the substitution, merely blowing a few thoughtful spit bubbles in my direction.

A certain amount of confusion ensued, with everyone asking questions and offering speculations at once, but Jamie’s story—edited to terseness—of events at the Beardsley farm put a stop to the hubbub. Even the red-eyed young woman whom I recognized from Fergus’s story as Isaiah Morton’s inamorata forgot her grief, listening openmouthed.

“Poor little creature,” she said, peering at the baby as it suckled fiercely at her cousin’s breast. “So you have no parents at all, it seems.” Miss Brown cast a dark look at her own father, apparently thinking orphanhood had its advantages.

“What will become of her?” Mrs. Brown asked, with more practicality.

“Oh, we’ll see she’s taken good care of, my dear. She’ll find a secure place with us.” Her husband put a reassuring hand on her arm, at the same time exchanging a glance with his brother. Jamie saw it, too; I saw his mouth twitch as though he might say something, but he shrugged slightly and turned instead to confer with Henry Gallegher and Fergus, his two stiff fingers tapping gently on his leg.

The elder Miss Brown leaned toward me, preparing to ask another question, but was prevented by a sudden blast of arctic wind that blew through the big room, lifting the loose hides over the windows and peppering the room with a spray of snow like frozen bird shot. Miss Brown gave a small whoop, abandoned her curiosity, and ran to fasten down the window coverings; everyone else stopped discussing the Beardsleys and began hastily to batten down hatches.

I caught a quick glimpse outside, as Miss Brown struggled with the unwieldy hides. The storm had arrived now in good earnest. Snow was coming down thick and fast; the black ruts of the road had all but disappeared under a coating of white, and it was obvious that Fraser’s Company was going nowhere for the time being. Mr. Richard Brown, looking mildly disgruntled, nonetheless graciously offered us a second night’s shelter, and the militiamen settled in for supper among the houses and barns of the village.

Jamie went out to bring in our bedding and provisions from the horses, and see them fed and sheltered. Presumably he would also take the opportunity to speak privately with Isaiah Morton, if the latter was still lurking out there in the blizzard.

I did wonder what Jamie meant to do with his mountain Romeo, but I hadn’t time for much speculation. It was getting on now for twilight, and I was sucked into the swirl of activity around the hearth, as the women rose to the fresh challenge of providing supper for forty unexpected guests.

Juliet—that is, the younger Miss Brown—moped sullenly in the corner, refusing to help. She did, though, take over care of the Beardsley baby, rocking the little girl and crooning to her long after it was plain that the child was asleep.

Fergus and Gallegher had been sent off to retrieve the goats, and returned with them just before suppertime, wet and muddy to the knees, their beards and eyebrows frosted with snow. The nannies were wet and snow-caked, too, their chilled udders red with cold, milk-swollen and swinging painfully against their legs. They were enchanted to be back in the bosom of civilization, though, and nattered to each other in cheerful excitement.

Mrs. Brown and her sister-in-law took the goats off to the tiny barn to be milked, leaving me in charge of the stewpot and Hiram, who was installed in solitary majesty near the hearth, contained in a makeshift pen composed of an overturned table, two stools, and a blanket chest.

The cabin was essentially one large, drafty room, with a walled loft above and a small lean-to at the back for storage. Crowded as it was with tables, benches, stools, kegs of beer, bundles of hides, a small handloom in one corner, a chiffonier—with a most incongruous chiming clock, adorned with cupids—in another, a bed against the wall, two settles by the hearth, a musket and two fowling pieces hung above the chimney breast, and various aprons and cloaks on pegs by the door, the presence of a sick goat was surprisingly inconsequential.

I had a look at my erstwhile patient, who mehed ungratefully at me, long blue tongue protruding in derision. Snow was melting from the deep spirals of his horns, leaving them black and shiny, and his coat was soaked into brindled spikes round his shoulders.

“There’s gratitude for you,” I said rebukingly. “If it weren’t for Jamie, you’d be cooking over that fire, instead of beside it, and good enough for you, too, you wicked old sod.”

“Meh!” he said shortly.

Still, he was cold, tired, and hungry, and his harem wasn’t there to be impressed, so he suffered me to rub his head and scratch his ears, feed him wisps of hay, and—eventually—to step into his pen and run a light hand down his injured leg to check the splinting. I was more than a little tired and hungry, too, having had nothing to eat since a little goat’s milk at dawn. Between the smell of the simmering stew and the flickering light and shadows in the room, I felt light-headed, and very slightly disembodied, as though I were floating a foot or two above the floor.

“You’re a nice old lad, aren’t you?” I murmured. After an afternoon spent in close contact with babies, all in varying stages of moistness and shrieking, the company of the irascible old goat was rather soothing.

“Is he going to die?”

I looked up in surprise, having quite forgotten the younger Miss Brown, who had been overlooked in the shadows of the settle. She was standing by the hearth now, still holding the Beardsley baby and frowning down at Hiram, who was trying to nibble the edge of my apron.

“No,” I said, twitching the cloth out of his mouth. “I shouldn’t think so.” What was her name? I groped blearily through my memory, matching up faces and names from the earlier flurry of introductions. Alicia, that was it, though I couldn’t help still thinking of her as Juliet.

She wasn’t much older than Juliet; barely fifteen, if that. She was a plain child, though, round-jawed and pasty. Narrow in the shoulder and broad through the hip; not much of the jewel in the Ethiop’s ear about her. She said nothing more, and to keep the conversation going, I nodded at the baby, still in her arms. “How’s the little one?”

“All right,” she said listlessly. She stood staring at the goat a moment longer. Then tears suddenly welled in her eyes.

“I wish I was dead,” she said.

“Oh, really?” I said, taken aback. “Er . . . well . . .” I rubbed a hand over my face, trying to summon enough presence of mind to deal with this. Where was the beastly girl’s mother? I cast a quick look at the door, but heard no one coming. We were momentarily alone, the women milking or minding supper, the men all caring for the stock.

I stepped out of Hiram’s pen and laid a hand on her arm.

“Look,” I said in a low voice. “Isaiah Morton’s not worth it. He’s married; did you know that?”

Her eyes went wide, then squinted nearly shut, spurting sudden tears. No, evidently she hadn’t known.

Tears were pouring down her cheeks and dripping on the baby’s oblivious head. I reached out and took the swaddled child gently from her, steering her toward the settle with my free hand.

“H-how did you . . . ? Wh-who . . . ?” She was gurgling and sniffling, trying to ask questions and get control of herself at the same time. A man’s voice shouted something outside, and she scrubbed frantically at her cheeks with her sleeve.

The gesture reminded me that while the situation seemed rather melodramatic—not to say slightly comic—in my currently muzzy frame of mind, it was a matter of great seriousness to the principals involved in it. After all, her male relations had tried to kill Morton, and would certainly try again, if they found him. I tensed at the sound of approaching feet, and the baby stirred and whined a little in my arms. But the footsteps crunched past in the road, and the sound vanished in the wind.

I sat down beside Alicia Brown, sighing with the sheer pleasure of taking weight off my feet. Every muscle and joint in my body ached from the aftereffects of the previous day and night, though I hadn’t had time until now to think about it much. Jamie and I would undoubtedly spend the night wrapped in blankets on someone’s floor; I eyed the grimy, firelit boards with an emotion approaching lust.

It was incongruously peaceful in the large room, with the snow whispering down outside, and the stewpot burbling away in the hearth, filling the air with the enticing scents of onion, venison, and turnips. The baby slept on my breast, emanating peaceful trust. I would have liked just to sit and hold her, thinking of nothing, but duty called.

“How do I know? Morton told one of my husband’s men,” I said. “I don’t know who his wife is, though; only that she lives in Granite Falls.” I patted the tiny back, and the baby burped faintly and relaxed again, her breath warm beneath my ear. The women had washed and oiled her, and she smelled rather like a fresh pancake. I kept one eye on the door, and the other warily on Alicia Brown, in case of further hysterics.

She sniffed and sobbed, hiccuped once, and then relapsed into silence, staring at the floor.

“I wish I was dead,” she whispered again, in tones of such fierce despair that I set both eyes on her, startled. She sat hunched, hair hanging limply beneath her cap, her hands fisted and crossed protectively over her belly.

“Oh, dear,” I said. Given her pallor, the circumstances, and her behavior toward the Beardsley baby, that particular gesture made it no great leap to the obvious conclusion. “Do your parents know?”

She gave me a quick look, but didn’t bother asking how I knew.

“Mama and Aunt do.”

She was breathing through her mouth, with intermittent wet snuffles.

“I thought—I thought Papa would have to let me wed him, if—”

I never had thought blackmail a very successful basis for marriage, but this seemed the wrong time to say so.

“Mmm,” I said instead. “And does Mr. Morton know about it?”

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