The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 92

   

It was in kindness that the thought came to me now, whether it was truly spoken, or only called forth from my exhausted memory for what comfort the words might hold. Everyone makes choices, and no one knows what may be the end of any of them. If my own was to blame for many things, it was not to blame for everything. Nor was harm all that had come of it.

’Til death us do part. There were a great many people who had spoken those vows, only to abandon or betray them. And yet it came to me that neither death nor conscious choice dissolved some bonds. For better or for worse, I had loved two men, and some part of them both would be always with me.

The dreadful thing, I supposed, was that while I had often felt a deep and searing regret for what I had done, I had never felt guilt. With the choice so far behind me, now, perhaps, I did.

I had apologized to Frank a thousand times, and never once had I asked him for forgiveness. It occurred to me suddenly that he had given it, nonetheless—to the best of his ability. The loft was dark, save for faint lines of light that seeped through the chinks of the floor, but it no longer seemed empty.

I stirred abruptly, pulled from my abstraction by sudden movement below. Silent as flying reindeer, two dark figures darted hand-in-hand across the field of snow, cloaks like clouds around them. They hesitated for a moment outside the horses’ shelter, then disappeared inside.

I leaned on the sill, heedless of the snow crystals under my palms. I could hear the noise of the horses rousing; whickers and stamping came clearly to me across the clear air. The sounds in the house below had grown fainter; now a clear, loud “Meh-eh-eh!” came up through the floorboards, as Hiram sensed the horses’ uneasiness.

There was renewed laughter from below, temporarily drowning the sounds across the road. Where was Jamie? I leaned out, the wind billowing the hood of my cloak, brushing a spray of ice across my cheek.

There he was. A tall dark figure, walking across the snow toward the shelter, but going slowly, kicking up white clouds of dusty ice. What . . . but then I realized that he was following in the lovers’ tracks, stamping and floundering deliberately to obliterate a trail that must tell its story clearly to any of the trackers in the house below.

A hole appeared suddenly in the brushy shelter, as a section of the branched wall fell away. Clouds of steam roiled out into the air, and then a horse emerged, carrying two riders, and set off to the west, urged from a walk to a trot and then a canter. The snow was not deep; no more than three or four inches. The horse’s hooves left a clear dark trail, leading down the road.

A piercing whinny rose from the shelter, followed by another. Sounds of alarm came from below, scuffling and thuds as men rolled from their blankets or lunged for their weapons. Jamie had disappeared.

All at once, horses burst from the shelter, knocking down the wall and trampling the fallen branches. Snorting, whinnying, kicking, and jostling, they spilled out over the road in a chaos of flying manes and rolling eyes. The last of them sprang from the shelter and joined the runaway, tail whisking away from the switch that landed on its rump.

Jamie flung away the switch and ducked back into the shelter, just as the door below flung open, spilling pale gold light over the scene.

I seized the opportunity of the commotion to run downstairs without being seen. Everyone was outside; even Mrs. Brown had rushed out, nightcap and all, leaving the quilts pulled half off the bed. Hiram, smelling strongly of beer, swayed and mehed tipsily at me as I passed, yellow eyes moist and protuberant with conviviality.

Outside, the roadway was full of half-dressed men, surging to and fro and waving their arms in agitation. I caught sight of Jamie in the midst of the crowd, gesticulating with the best of them. Among the excited bits of question and comment, I heard scraps of speech—“spooked” . . . “panther?” . . . “goddamn!” and the like.

After a bit of milling around and incoherent argument, it was unanimously decided that the horses would likely come back by themselves. Snow was blowing off the trees in veils of whirling ice; the wind stuck freezing fingers through every crevice of clothing.

“Would you stay out on a night like this?” Roger demanded, reasonably enough. It being generally decided that no sane man would—and horses being, if not quite sane, certainly sensible creatures—the party began to trickle back into the house, shivering and grumbling as the heat of excitement began to die down.

Among the last stragglers, Jamie turned toward the house and saw me, still standing on the porch. His hair was loose and the light from the open door lit him like a torch. He caught my eye, rolled his own toward heaven, and raised his shoulders in the faintest of shrugs.

I put cold fingers to my lips and blew him a small frozen kiss.

PART FOUR

I Hear No Music

But the Sound of Drums

33

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?” Brianna asked. She turned over, moving carefully in the narrow confines of Mr. Wemyss’s bed, and parked her chin comfortably in the hollow of Roger’s shoulder.

“What would I have done about what?” Warm through for the first time in weeks, filled to bursting with one of Mrs. Bug’s dinners, and having finally achieved the nirvana of an hour’s privacy with his wife, Roger felt pleasantly drowsy and detached.

“About Isaiah Morton and Alicia Brown.”

Roger gave a jaw-cracking yawn and settled himself deeper, the corn-shuck mattress rustling loudly under them. He supposed the whole house had heard them at it earlier, and he didn’t really care. She’d washed her hair in honor of his homecoming; waves of it spread over his chest, a silky rich gleam in the dim glow of the hearth. It was only late afternoon, but the shutters were closed, giving the pleasant illusion that they were inside a small private cave.

“I don’t know. What your Da did, I suppose; what else? Your hair smells great.” He smoothed a lock of it around his finger, admiring the shimmer.

“Thanks. I used some of that stuff Mama makes with walnut oil and marigolds. What about Isaiah’s poor wife in Granite Falls, though?”

“What about her? Jamie couldn’t force Morton to go home to her—assuming that she wants him back,” he added logically. “And the girl—Alicia—was evidently more than willing; your father couldn’t very well have made a kerfuffle about Morton leaving with her, unless he wanted the man dead. If the Browns had found Morton there, they would have killed him on the spot and nailed his hide to their barn door.”

He spoke with conviction, remembering the pointed guns that had greeted him in Brownsville. He smoothed the hair behind her ear, and lifted his head far enough to kiss her between the eyebrows. He’d been imagining that for days, that smooth pale space between the heavy brows. It seemed like a tiny oasis among the vivid danger of her features; the flash of eyes and blade of nose were more than attractive, to say nothing of a mobile brow and a wide mouth that spoke its mind as much by its shape as by its words—but not peaceful. After the last three weeks, he was in a mood for peace.

He sank back on the pillow, tracing the stern arch of one ruddy brow with a finger.

“I think the best he could do under the circumstances was to give the young lovers a bit of room to get safe away,” he said. “And they did. By the morning, the snow was already melting to mud, and with all the trampling, you couldn’t have told whether a regiment of bears had marched through, let alone which way they were going.”

He spoke with feeling; the weather had turned suddenly to a warm thaw, and the militia had returned to their homes in good spirits, but muddy to the eyebrows.

Brianna sighed, her breath raising a pleasant gooseflesh across his chest. She lifted her own head a little, peering in interest.

“What? Have I got filth stuck to me still?” He had washed, but in haste, eager to eat, more eager to get to bed.

“No. I just like it when you get goose bumps. All the hairs on your chest stand up, and so do your n**ples.” She flicked one of the objects in question lightly with a fingernail, and a fresh wave of gooseflesh raced across his chest for her entertainment. He arched his back a little, then relaxed. No, he’d have to go downstairs soon, to deal with the evening chores; he’d heard Jamie go out already.

Time for a change of subject. He breathed deep, then lifted his head from the pillow, sniffing with interest at the rich aroma seeping through the floor from the kitchen below.

“What’s that cooking?”

“A goose. Or geese—a dozen of them.” He thought he caught an odd undertone in her voice, a faint tinge of regret.

“Well, that’s a treat,” he said, running a lingering hand down the length of her back. A pale gold down covered her back and shoulders, invisible save when there was candlelight behind her, as there was now. “What’s the occasion? For our homecoming?”

She lifted her head from his chest and gave him what he privately classified as A Look.

“For Christmas,” she said.

“What?” He groped blankly, trying to count the days, but the events of the last three weeks had completely erased his mental calendar. “When?”

“Tomorrow, idiot,” she said with exaggerated patience. She leaned over and did something unspeakably erotic to his nipple, then heaved herself up in a rustle of bedclothes, leaving him bereft of blissful warmth and exposed to chilly drafts.

“Didn’t you see all the greenery downstairs when you came in? Lizzie and I made the little Chisholm monsters go out with us to cut evergreens; we’ve been making wreaths and garlands for the last three days.” The words were somewhat muffled, as she wormed her way into her shift, but he thought she sounded only incredulous, rather than angry. He could hope.

He sat up and swung his feet down, toes curling as they came in contact with the cold boards of the floor. His own cabin had a braided rug by the bed—but his cabin was full of Chisholms at the moment, or so he was informed. He rubbed a hand through his hair, groping for inspiration, and found it.

“I didn’t see anything when I came in but you.”

That was the simple truth, and evidently honesty was the best policy. Her head popped through the neckhole of her shift and she gave him a narrow look, which faded into a slow smile as she saw the evident sincerity stamped on his features.

She came over to the bed and put her arms around him, enveloping his head in a smother of marigolds, butter-soft linen, and . . . milk. Oh, aye. The kid would be needing to eat again soon. Resigned, he put his arms round the swell of her h*ps and rested his head between her br**sts for the few moments that were his own meager share of that abundance.

“Sorry,” he said, words muffled in her warmth. “I’d forgotten it entirely. I’d have brought you and Jem something, if I’d thought.”

“Like what? A piece of Isaiah Morton’s hide?” She laughed and let go, straightening up to smooth her hair. She was wearing the bracelet he’d given her on an earlier Christmas Eve; the hearthlight glinted off the silver as she lifted her arm.

“Aye, ye could cover a book in it, I suppose. Or make a pair of wee boots for Jem.” It had been a long ride, men and horses pushing past tiredness, eager for home. He felt boneless, and would have asked no better present himself than to go back to bed with her, pressed tight together in warmth, to drift toward the inviting depths of deep black sleep and amorous dreams. Duty called, though; he yawned, blinked, and heaved himself up.

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