The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 89

   

She shook her head, disconsolate.

“Does he—does his wife have children, do you know?”

“I’ve no idea.” I turned my head, listening. I could hear men’s voices in the distance, carried on the wind. So could she; she gripped my arm with surprising strength, wet brown eyes spike-lashed and urgent.

“I heard Mr. MacKenzie and the men talking last night. They said you were a healer, Mrs. Fraser—one said you were a conjure woman. About babies. Do you know how—”

“Someone’s coming.” I pulled away from her, interrupting before she could finish. “Here, take care of the baby. I need to—to stir the stew.”

I thrust the child unceremoniously into her arms and rose. When the door opened to admit a blast of wind and snow along with a large number of men, I was standing at the hearth, spoon in hand, eyes fixed on the pot and my mind bubbling as vigorously as the stew.

She hadn’t had time to ask explicitly, but I knew what she’d been about to say. Conjure woman, she’d called me. She wanted my help to get rid of the child, almost certainly. How? I wondered. How could a woman think of such a thing, with a living child in her arms, less than a day out of the womb?

But she was very young. Very young, and suffering from the shock of hearing that her lover was untrue. Not yet far enough advanced in pregnancy to show, either; if she hadn’t yet felt her own child move, no doubt it seemed quite unreal to her. She’d seen it only as a means of forcing her father’s consent; now it likely seemed a trap that had closed suddenly upon her.

No wonder if she was distraught, looking frantically for escape. Give her a little time to recover, I thought, glancing at the settle, where the shadows hid her. I should talk to her mother, to her aunt. . . .

Jamie appeared suddenly beside me, rubbing reddened hands over the fire, snow melting from the folds of his clothes. He looked extremely cheerful, in spite of his cold, the complications of Isaiah Morton’s love life, and the storm going on outside.

“How is it, Sassenach?” he asked hoarsely, and without waiting for me to reply, took the spoon from my hand, put one hard, cold arm around me, and pulled me off my feet and up into a hearty kiss, made the more startling by the fact that his half-sprouted beard was thickly encrusted with snow.

Emerging slightly dazed from this stimulating embrace, I realized that the general attitude of the men in the room was similarly jolly. Backs were being slapped, boots stamped, and coats shaken to the accompaniment of the sort of hoots and roaring noises men make when feeling particularly exuberant.

“What is it?” I asked, looking round in surprise. To my astonishment, Joseph Wemyss stood in the center of the crowd. The tip of his nose was red with cold, and he was being knocked half off his feet by men smacking him on the back in congratulations. “What’s happened?”

Jamie gave me a brilliant smile, teeth gleaming in the frozen wilderness of his face, and thrust a limp crumple of wet paper into my hand, fragments of red wax still clinging to it.

The ink had run with the wet, but I could make out the relevant words. Hearing of General Waddell’s intended approach, the Regulators had decided that discretion was the better part of valor. They had dispersed. And as per this order from Governor Tryon—the militia was stood down.

“Oh, good!” I said. And flinging my arms round Jamie, kissed him back, snow and ice notwithstanding.

THRILLED WITH THE NEWS of the stand-down, the militia took advantage of the bad weather to celebrate. Equally thrilled not to be obliged to join the militia, the Browns instead joined heartily in the celebration, contributing three large kegs of Thomasina Brown’s best home-brewed beer and six gallons of hard cider to the cause—at half-cost.

By the time supper was over, I sat in the corner of a settle with the Beardsley baby in my arms, half-dissolved with weariness, and kept vertical only by the fact that there was no place as yet to lie down. The air shimmered with smoke and conversation, I had drunk strong cider with my supper, and both faces and voices tended to swim in and out of focus, in a way that was not at all disagreeable, though mildly disconcerting.

Alicia Brown had had no further chance to speak with me—but I had had no chance to speak with her mother or her aunt. The girl had taken up a seat by Hiram’s pen, and was methodically feeding the goat crusts of corn bread left from supper, her face set in lines of sullen misery.

Roger was singing French ballads, by popular request, in a soft, true voice. A young woman’s face floated into view in front of me, eyebrows raised in question. She said something, lost in the babble of voices, then reached gently to take the baby from me.

Of course. Jemima, that was her name. The young mother who had offered to nurse the child. I stood up to give her room on the settle, and she put the baby at once to her breast.

I leaned against the chimney piece, watching with dim approval as she cupped the child’s head, guiding it and murmuring. She was both tender and businesslike; a good combination. Her own baby—little Christopher, that was his name—snored peaceably in his grandmother’s arms, as the old lady bent to light her clay pipe from the fire.

I glanced back at Jemima, and had the oddest sense of déjà vu. I blinked, trying to catch the fleeting vision, and succeeded in capturing a sense of overwhelming closeness, of warmth and utter peace. For an instant, I thought it was the sense of nursing a child, and then, odder still, realized that it was not the mother’s sense I felt . . . but the child’s. I had the very distinct memory—if that’s what it was—of being held against a warm body, mindless and replete in the sure conviction of absolute love.

I closed my eyes, and took a firmer grip on the chimney breast, feeling the room begin a slow and lazy spin about me.

“Beauchamp,” I murmured, “you are quite drunk.”

If so, I wasn’t the only one. Delighted at the prospect of imminent return to their homes, the militiamen had absorbed most of the drinkables in Brownsville, and were working assiduously on the remainder. The party was beginning to break up now, though, with men stumbling off to cold beds in barns and sheds, others thankfully rolling up in blankets by the fire.

I opened my eyes to see Jamie throw back his head and yawn enormously, gape-jawed as a baboon. He blinked and stood up, shaking off the stupor of food and beer, then glanced toward the hearth and saw me standing there. He was plainly as tired as I was, if not quite as giddy, but he had a sense of deep content about him, apparent in the long-limbed ease with which he stretched and settled himself.

“I’m going to see to the horses,” he said to me, voice husky from grippe and much talking. “Fancy a walk in the moonlight, Sassenach?”

THE SNOW HAD STOPPED, and there was moonlight, glowing through a haze of vanishing cloud. The air was lung-chillingly cold, still fresh and restless with the ghost of the passing storm, and did much to clear my spinning head.

I felt a childish delight in being the first to mark the virgin snow, and stepped high and carefully, making neat bootprints and looking back to admire them. The line of footprints wasn’t very straight, but fortunately no one was testing my sobriety.

“Can you recite the alphabet backward?” I asked Jamie, whose footsteps were wavering companionably along with my own.

“I expect so,” he replied. “Which one? English, Greek, or Hebrew?”

“Never mind.” I took a firmer grip of his arm. “If you remember all three forward, you’re in better condition than I am.”

He laughed softly, then coughed.

“You’re never drunk, Sassenach. Not on three cups of cider.”

“Must be fatigue, then,” I said dreamily. “I feel as though my head’s bobbing about on a string like a balloon. How do you know how much I drank? Do you notice everything?”

He laughed again, and folded a hand round mine where it clutched his arm.

“I like to watch ye, Sassenach. Especially in company. You’ve the loveliest shine to your teeth when ye laugh.”

“Flatterer,” I said, feeling nonetheless flattered. Given that I hadn’t so much as washed my face in several days, let alone bathed or changed my clothes, my teeth were likely the only things about me that could be honestly admired. Still, the knowledge of his attention was singularly warming.

It was a dry snow, and the white crust compressed beneath our feet with a low crunching noise. I could hear Jamie’s breathing, hoarse and labored still, but the rattle in his chest had gone, and his skin was cool.

“It will be fair by morning,” he said, looking up at the hazy moon. “D’ye see the ring?”

It was hard to miss; an immense circle of diffuse light that ringed the moon, covering the whole of the eastern sky. Faint stars were showing through the haze; it would be bright and clear within the hour.

“Yes. We can go home tomorrow, then?”

“Aye. It will be muddy going, I expect. Ye can feel the air changing; it’s cold enough now, but the snow will melt as soon as the sun’s full on it.”

Perhaps it would, but it was cold enough now. The horses’ brushy shelter had been reinforced with more cut branches of pine and hemlock, and it looked like a small, lumpy hillock rising from the ground, thickly covered over with snow. Dark patches had melted clear, though, warmed by the horses’ breath, and wisps of steam rose from them, scarcely visible. Everything was quiet, with a palpable sense of drowsy content.

“Morton will be cozy, if he’s in there,” I observed.

“I shouldna think so. I sent Fergus out to tell him the militia was disbanded, so soon as Wemyss came wi’ the note.”

“Yes, but if I were Isaiah Morton, I don’t know that I would have set straight out on the road home in a blinding snowstorm,” I said dubiously.

“Likely ye would, if ye had all the Browns in Brownsville after ye wi’ guns,” he said. Nonetheless, he paused in his step, raised his voice a little, and called “Isaiah!” in a croaking rasp.

There was no answer from the makeshift stable, and taking my arm again, he turned back toward the house. The snow was virgin no longer, trampled and muddied by the prints of many feet, as the militia dispersed to their beds. Roger had stopped singing, but there were still voices from inside the house; not everyone was ready to retire.

Reluctant to go back at once to the atmosphere of smoke and noise, we walked by unspoken mutual consent round the house and barn, enjoying the silence of the snowy wood and the nearness of each other. Coming back, I saw that the door of the lean-to at the rear of the house stood ajar, creaking in the wind, and pointed it out to Jamie.

He poked his head inside, to see that all was in order, but then, instead of closing the door, he reached back and took my arm, pulling me into the lean-to after him.

“I’d a question to ask ye, Sassenach, before we go in,” he said. He set the door open, so the moonlight streamed in, shining dimly on the hanging hams, the hogsheads and burlap bags that inhabited the lean-to with us.

It was cold inside, but out of the wind I at once felt warmer, and put back the hood of my cloak.

“What is it?” I said, mildly curious. The fresh air had cleared my head, at least, and while I knew I would be as good as dead the instant I lay down, for the moment I had that sense of pleasant lightness that comes with the feeling of effort completed, honor satisfied. It had been a terrible day and night, and a long day after, but now it was done, and we were free.

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