Author: P Hana

Page 189


I could see nothing; no hint of Jamie’s shirt in front of my face, snowy white as I knew it to be, not even a flicker of the movement of my own light-colored skirts, though I heard them swish about my feet as I walked, the sound blending with that of the wind.

The thin rush of air rose and fell in pitch, whispering and wailing. I tried to force my mind away from the memory of what lay behind us, away from the morbid fancy that the wind held sighing voices, whispering secrets just past hearing.

“I can hear her,” Ian said suddenly behind me. His voice rose, cracking with panic. “I can hear her! God, oh God, she’s coming!”

I froze in my tracks, a scream wedged in my throat. The cool observer in my head knew quite well it was not so—only the wind and Ian’s fright—but that made no difference to the spurt of sheer terror that rose from the pit of my stomach and turned my bowels to water. I knew she was coming, too, and screamed out loud.

Then Jamie had me, and Ian too, gripped tight against him, one in each arm, our ears muffled against his chest. He smelled of pine smoke and sweat and brandy, and I nearly sobbed in relief at the closeness of him.

“Hush!” he said fiercely. “Hush, the both of ye! I willna let her touch ye. Never!” He pressed us to him, hard; I felt his heart beating fast beneath my cheek and Ian’s bony shoulder, squeezed against mine, and then the pressure relaxed.

“Come along now,” Jamie said, more quietly. “It’s but wind. Caves blow through their cracks when the weather changes aboveground. I’ve heard it before. There is a storm coming, outside. Come, now.”

The storm was a brief one. By the time we had stumbled to the surface, blinking against the shock of sunlight, the rain had passed, leaving the world reborn in its wake.

Lawrence was sheltering under a dripping palm near the cave’s entrance. When he saw us, he sprang to his feet, a look of relief relaxing the creases of his face.

“It is all right?” he said, looking from me to a blood-stained Jamie.

Jamie gave him half a smile, nodding.

“It is all right,” he said. He turned and motioned to Ian. “May I present my nephew, Ian Murray? Ian, this is Dr. Stern, who’s been of great assistance to us in looking for ye.”

“I’m much obliged to ye, Doctor,” Ian said, with a bob of his head. He wiped a sleeve across his streaked face, and glanced at Jamie.

“I knew ye’d come, Uncle Jamie,” he said, with a tremulous smile, “but ye left it a bit late, aye?” The smile widened, then broke, and he began to tremble. He blinked hard, fighting back tears.

“I did then, and I’m sorry, Ian. Come here, a bhalaich.” Jamie reached out and took him in a close embrace, patting his back and murmuring to him in Gaelic.

I watched for a moment, before I realized that Lawrence was speaking to me.

“Are you quite well, Mrs. Fraser?” he was asking. Without waiting for an answer, he took my arm.

“I don’t quite know.” I felt completely empty. Exhausted as though by childbirth, but without the exultation of spirit. Nothing seemed quite real; Jamie, Ian, Lawrence, all seemed like toy figures that moved and talked at a distance, making noises that I had to strain to understand.

“I think perhaps we should leave this place,” Lawrence said, with a glance at the cave mouth from which we had just emerged. He looked slightly uneasy. He didn’t ask about Mrs. Abernathy.

“I think you are right.” The picture of the cave we had left was vivid in my mind—but just as unreal as the vivid green jungle and gray stones around us. Not waiting for the men to follow, I turned and walked away.

The feeling of remoteness increased as we walked. I felt like an automaton, built around an iron core, walking by clockwork. I followed Jamie’s broad back through branches and clearings, shadow and sun, not noticing where we were going. Sweat ran down my sides and into my eyes, but I barely stirred to wipe it away. At length, toward sunset, we stopped in a small clearing near a stream, and made our primitive camp.

I had already discovered that Lawrence was a most useful person to have along on a camping trip. He was not only as good at finding or building shelter as was Jamie, but was sufficiently familiar with the flora and fauna of the area to be able to plunge into the jungle and return within half an hour bearing handfuls of edible roots, fungi, and fruit with which to augment the Spartan rations in our packs.

Ian was set to gather firewood while Lawrence foraged, and I sat Jamie down with a pan of water, to tend the damage to his head. I washed away the blood from face and hair, to find to my surprise that the ball had in fact not plowed a furrow through his scalp as I had thought. Instead, it had pierced the skin just above his hairline and—evidently—vanished into his head. There was no sign of an exit wound. Unnerved by this, I prodded his scalp with increasing agitation, until a sudden cry from the patient announced that I had discovered the bullet.

There was a large, tender lump on the back of his head. The pistol ball had traveled under the skin, skimming the curve of his skull, and come to rest just over his occiput.

“Jesus H. Christ!” I exclaimed. I felt it again, unbelieving, but there it was. “You always said your head was solid bone, and I’ll be damned if you weren’t right. She shot you point-blank, and the bloody ball bounced off your skull!”

Jamie, supporting his head in his hands as I examined him, made a sound somewhere between a snort and a groan.

“Aye, well,” he said, his voice somewhat muffled in his hands, “I’ll no say I’m not thick-heided, but if Mistress Abernathy had used a full charge of powder, it wouldna have been nearly thick enough.”

“Does it hurt a lot?”

“Not the wound, no, though it’s sore. I’ve a terrible headache, though.”

“I shouldn’t wonder. Hold on a bit; I’m going to take the ball out.”

Not knowing in what condition we might find Ian, I had brought the smallest of my medical boxes, which fortunately contained a bottle of alcohol and a small scalpel. I shaved away a little of Jamie’s abundant mane, just below the swelling, and soused the area with alcohol for disinfection. My fingers were chilled from the alcohol, but his head was warm and comfortingly live to the touch.

“Three deep breaths and hold on tight,” I murmured. “I’m going to cut you, but it will be fast.”

“All right.” The back of his neck looked a little pale, but the pulse was steady. He obligingly drew in his breath deeply, and exhaled, sighing. I held the area of scalp taut between the index and third fingers of my left hand. On the third breath, I said, “Right now,” and drew the blade hard and quick across the scalp. He grunted slightly, but didn’t cry out. I pressed gently with my right thumb against the swelling, slightly harder—and the ball popped out of the incision I had made, falling into my left hand like a grape.

“Got it,” I said, and only then realized that I had been holding my breath. I dropped the little pellet—somewhat flattened by its contact with his skull—into his hand, and smiled, a little shakily. “Souvenir,” I said. I pressed a pad of cloth against the small wound, wound a strip of cloth round his head to hold it, and then quite suddenly, with no warning whatever, began to cry.

I could feel the tears rolling down my face, and my shoulders shaking, but I felt still detached; somehow outside my body. I was conscious mostly of a mild amazement.

“Sassenach? Are ye all right?” Jamie was peering up at me, eyes worried under the rakish bandage.

“Yes,” I said, stuttering from the force of my crying. “I d-don’t k-know why I’m c-crying. I d-don’t know!”

“Come here.” He took my hand and drew me down onto his knee. He wrapped his arms around me and held me tight, resting his cheek on the top of my head.

“It will be all right,” he whispered. “It’s fine now, mo chridhe, it’s fine.” He rocked me gently, one hand stroking my hair and neck, and murmured small unimportant things in my ear. Just as suddenly as I had been detached, I was back inside my body, warm and shaking, feeling the iron core dissolve in my tears.

Gradually I stopped weeping, and lay still against his chest, hiccuping now and then, feeling nothing but peace and the comfort of his presence.

I was dimly aware that Lawrence and Ian had returned, but paid no attention to them. At one point, I heard Ian say, with more curiosity than alarm, “You’re bleeding all down the back of your neck, Uncle Jamie.”

“Perhaps you’ll fix me a new bandage, then, Ian,” Jamie said. His voice was soft and unconcerned. “I must just hold your auntie now.” And sometime later I went to sleep, still held tight in the circle of his arms.

I woke up later, curled on a blanket next to Jamie. He was leaning against a tree, one hand resting on my shoulder. He felt me wake, and squeezed gently. It was dark, and I could hear a rhythmic snoring somewhere close at hand. It must be Lawrence, I thought drowsily, for I could hear Young Ian’s voice, on the other side of Jamie.

“No,” he was saying slowly, “it wasna really so bad, on the ship. We were all kept together, so there was company from the other lads, and they fed us decently, and let us out two at a time to walk about the deck. Of course, we were all scairt, for we’d no notion why we’d been taken—and none of the sailors would tell us anything—but we were not mistreated.”

The Bruja had sailed up the Yallahs River, and delivered her human cargo directly to Rose Hall. Here the bewildered boys had been warmly welcomed by Mrs. Abernathy, and promptly popped into a new prison.

The basement beneath the sugar mill had been fitted up comfortably enough, with beds and chamber pots, and aside from the noise of the sugar-making above during the days, it was comfortable enough. Still, none of the boys could think why they were there, though any number of suggestions were made, each more improbable than the last.

“And every now and then, a great black fellow would come down into the place with Mrs. Abernathy. We always begged to know what it was we were there for, and would she not be letting us go, for mercy’s sake? but she only smiled and patted us and said we would see, in good time. Then she would choose a lad, and the black fellow would clamp onto the lad’s arm and take him awa’ wi’ them.” Ian’s voice sounded distressed, and little wonder.

“Did the lads come back again?” Jamie asked. His hand patted me softly, and I reached up and pressed it.

“No—or not usually. And that scairt us all something dreadful.”

Ian’s turn had come eight weeks after his arrival. Three lads had gone and not returned by then, and when Mistress Abernathy’s bright green eyes rested on him, he was not disposed to cooperate.

“I kicked the black fellow, and hit him—I even bit his hand,” Ian said ruefully, “and verra nasty he tasted, too—all over some kind of grease, he was. But it made nay difference; he only clouted me over the head, hard enough to make my ears ring, then picked me up and carried me off in his arms, as though I was no more than a wee bairn.”