Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 155

   

“Here, sweetheart,” I said, handing her the half-filled cup. “Finish that, if you can—just sip it slowly and let it go onto the wound if you can; I know it burns a bit.”

She did this, rather quickly, and blinked. If it had been possible to stagger sitting down, she would have.

“I’d best put the lassie to bed, aye?” Jamie stood up, gently holding her against his shoulder.

“Yes. I’ll come and see to it that her head stays upright—just in case it should bleed again and run down her throat.” I turned to thank the assistants and spectators, but Fanny beat me to it.

“Missus . . . Fraser?” she said drowsily. “I—d-t-dth—” The tip of her tongue was sticking out of her mouth, and she looked cross-eyed toward it, astounded. She’d never been able to stick her tongue out before and now wiggled it to and fro, like a very tentative snake testing the air. “T-th—” She stopped, then, contorting her brow in a fearsome expression of concentration, said, “Th-ank y-y-YOU!”

Tears came to my eyes, but I managed to pat her head and say, “You’re very welcome, Frances.” She smiled at me then, a small, sleepy smile, and the next instant was asleep, her head on Jamie’s shoulder and a tiny drooling line of blood trickling from the corner of her mouth onto his shirt.

A VISIT TO THE TRADING POST

BEARDSLEY’S TRADING POST was perhaps no great establishment by comparison to the shops of Edinburgh or Paris—but in the backcountry of the Carolinas, it was a rare outpost of civilization. Originally nothing but a run-down house and small barn, the place had expanded over the years, the owners—or rather, her managers—adding additional structures, some attached to the original buildings, other sheds standing free. Tools, hides, live animals, feed corn, tobacco, and hogsheads of everything from salt fish to molasses were to be found in the outbuildings, while comestibles and dry goods were in the main building.

People came to Beardsley’s from a hundred miles—literally—in every direction. Cherokee from the Snowbird villages, Moravians from Salem, the multifarious inhabitants of Brownsville, and—of course—the inhabitants of Fraser’s Ridge.

The trading post had grown amazingly in the eight years since I had last set foot in the place. I saw campsites in the forest nearby, and a sort of free-lance flea market had sprung up alongside the trading post proper—people who brought small things to trade directly with their neighbors.

The manager of the trading post, a lean, pleasant man of middle years named Herman Stoelers, had wisely welcomed this activity, understanding that the more people who came, the greater the variety of what was available, and the more attractive Beardsley’s became overall.

And the wealthier became the owner of Beardsley’s trading post—an eight-year-old mulatto girl named Alicia. I wondered whether anyone besides Jamie and myself knew the secret of her birth, but if anyone did, they had wisely decided to keep it to themselves.

It was a two-day trek to the trading post, particularly as we had only Clarence, Jamie having taken Miranda and the pack mule—a jenny named Annabelle—to Salem. But the weather was good, and Jenny and I could walk, accompanied by Germain and Ian, leaving Clarence to carry Rachel and our trade goods. I’d left Fanny with Amy Higgins. She was still shy of talking in front of people; it would take a good deal of practice before she could speak normally.

Even Jenny, sophisticate as she now was after Brest, Philadelphia, and Savannah, was impressed by the trading post.

“I’ve never seen sae many outlandish-looking people in all my born days,” she said, making no effort not to stare as a pair of Cherokee braves in full regalia rode up to the trading post, followed by several women on foot in a mixture of doeskins and European shifts, skirts, breeches, and jackets, these dragging bundles of hides on a travois or carrying huge cloth bundles full of squash, beans, corn, dried fish, or other salables on their heads or backs.

I came to attention, seeing the knobbly bulges of ginseng root protruding from one lady’s pack.

“Keep an eye on Germain,” I said, shoving him hastily at Jenny, and dived into the throng.

I emerged ten minutes later with a pound of ginseng, having driven a good bargain for a bag of raisins. They were Amy Higgins’s raisins, but I would get her the calico cloth she wanted.

Jenny suddenly raised her head, listening.

“Did ye hear a goat just now?”

“I hear several. Do we want a goat?” But she was already making her way toward a distant shed. Evidently we did want a goat.

I shoved my ginseng into the canvas bag I’d brought and followed hastily.

“WE DON’T NEED that,” a scornful voice said. “Piece o’ worthless trash, that is.”

Ian looked up from the mirror he was inspecting and squinted at a pair of young men on the other side of the store, engaged in haggling with a clerk over a pistol. They seemed somehow familiar to him, but he was sure he’d never met them. Small and wiry, with yellowish hair cropped short to their narrow skulls and darting eyes, they had the air of stoats: alert and deadly.

Then one of them straightened from the counter and, turning his head, caught sight of Ian. The youth stiffened and poked his brother, who looked up, irritated, and in turn caught sight of Ian.

“What the devil . . . ? Cheese and rice!” the second youth said.

Plainly they knew him; they were advancing on him, shoulder to shoulder, eyes gleaming with interest. And seeing them side by side, suddenly he recognized them.

“A Dhia,” he said under his breath, and Rachel glanced up.

“Friends of thine?” she said mildly.

“Ye might say so.” He stepped out in front of his wife, smiling at the . . . well, he wasn’t sure what they were just now, but they weren’t wee lassies any longer.

He’d thought they were boys when he’d met them: a pair of feral Dutch orphans named—they said—Herman and Vermin, and they thought their last name was Kuykendall. In the event, they’d turned out to be in actuality Hermione and Ermintrude. He’d found them a temporary refuge with . . . oh, Christ.

“God, please, no!” he said in Gaelic, causing Rachel to look at him in alarm.

Surely they weren’t still with . . . but they were. He saw the back of a very familiar head—and a still more familiar arse—over by the pickle barrel.

He glanced round quickly, but there was no way out. The Kuykendalls were approaching fast. He took a deep breath, commended his soul to God, and turned to his wife.

“Do ye by chance recall once tellin’ me that ye didna want to hear about every woman I’d bedded?”

“I do,” she said, giving him a deeply quizzical look. “Why?”

“Ah. Well . . .” He breathed deep and got it out just in time. “Ye said ye did want me to tell ye if we should ever meet anyone that I . . . er—”

“Ian Murray?” said Mrs. Sylvie, turning round. She came toward him, a look of pleasure on her rather plain, bespectacled face.

“Her,” Ian said hastily to Rachel, jerking his thumb in Mrs. Sylvie’s direction before turning to the lady.

“Mrs. Sylvie!” he said heartily, seizing her by both hands in case she might try to kiss him, as she had occasionally been wont to do upon their meeting. “I’m that pleased to see ye! And even more pleased to present ye to my . . . er . . . wife.” The word emerged in a slight croak, and he cleared his throat hard. “Rachel. Rachel, this is—”

“Friend Sylvie,” Rachel said. “Yes, I gathered as much. I’m pleased to know thee, Sylvie.” Her cheeks were somewhat flushed, but she spoke demurely, offering a hand in the Friends’ manner rather than bowing.

Mrs. Sylvie took in Rachel—and Oglethorpe—at a glance and smiled warmly through her steel-rimmed spectacles, shaking the offered hand.

“My pleasure entirely, I assure you, Mrs. Murray.” She gave Ian a sidelong look and a quivering twitch of the mouth that said as clearly as words, “You? You married a Quaker?”

“It is him! Toldja so!” The Kuykendalls surrounded him—he didn’t know how they managed it, there being only two of them, but he felt surrounded. Rather to his surprise, one of them seized him by the hand and wrung it fiercely.

“Herman Wurm,” he—he?—told Ian proudly. “Pleased to meetcha again, sir!”

“Worm?” Rachel murmured, watching them in fascination.

“Aye, Herman, I’m that fettled to see ye doing so . . . er . . . well. And you, too . . .” Ian extended a cautious hand toward what used to be Ermintrude, who responded in a high-pitched but noticeably gruff voice.

“Trask Wurm,” the youth said, repeating the vigorous handshake. “It’s German.”

“ ‘Wurm,’ they mean,” Mrs. Sylvie put in, pronouncing it “Vehrm.” She was pink with amusement. “They couldn’t ever get the hang of spelling ‘Kuykendall,’ so we gave it up and settled for something simpler. And as you’d made it quite clear that you didn’t want them to become prostitutes, we’ve reached a useful understanding. Herman and Trask provide protection for my . . . establishment.” She looked directly at Rachel, who went a shade pinker but smiled.

“Anybody messes with the girls, we’ll take care of him right smart,” the elder Wurm assured Ian.

“It’s not that hard,” the other said honestly. “Break just one of them bastards’ noses with a hoe handle and the rest of ’em settle right down.”

THERE WERE A dozen or so milch goats to choose from in the shed, in varying states of pregnancy. The Higginses had a good billy, though, so I needn’t trouble about that. I chose two friendly young unbred nannies, one all brown, the other brown and white, with an odd marking on her side that looked like the rounded fit of two jigsaw-puzzle pieces, one brown and one white.

I pointed out my choices to the young man in charge of the livestock and, as Jenny was still deliberating over her own choice, stepped outside to look over the chickens.

I had some hopes of spotting a Scots Dumpy but found only the usual run of Dominiques and Nankins. Well enough of their kind, but I thought I must wait until Jamie had time to build a chicken coop. And while we could lead the goats home easily enough, I wasn’t going to carry chickens for days.

I came out of the chicken yard and looked about, slightly disoriented. That’s when I saw him.

At first, I had no idea who he was. None. But the sight of the big, slow-moving man froze me in my tracks and my stomach curled up in instant panic.

No, I thought. No. He’s dead; they’re all dead.

He was a sloppily built man, with sloping shoulders and a protruding stomach that strained his threadbare waistcoat, but big. Big. I felt again the sense of sudden dread, of a big shadow coming out of the night beside me, nudging me, then rolling over me like a thundercloud, crushing me into the dirt and pine needles.

Martha.

A cold swept over me, in spite of the warm sunshine I stood in.

“Martha,” he’d said. He’d called me by his dead wife’s name and wept into my hair when he’d finished.

Martha. I had to be mistaken. That was my first conscious thought, stubbornly articulated, each word spoken aloud inside my mind, each word set in place like a little pile of stones, the first foundation of a bulwark. You. Are. Mistaken.

But I wasn’t. My skin knew that. It rippled, a live thing, hairs rising in recoil, in vain defense, for what could skin do to keep such things out?

You. Are. Mistaken!

But I wasn’t. My br**sts knew that, tingling in outrage, engorged against their will by rough hands that squeezed and pinched.

My thighs knew it, too; the burn and weakness of muscles strained past bearing, the knots where punches and brutal thumbs left bruises that went to the bone, left a soreness that lingered when the bruises faded.

“You are mistaken,” I said, whispering but aloud. “Mistaken.”

But I wasn’t. The deep soft flesh between my legs knew it, slippery with the sudden helpless horror of recollection—and so did I.

I STOOD THERE hyperventilating for several moments before I realized that I was doing it, and stopped with a conscious effort. The man was making his way through the cluster of livestock sheds; he stopped by a pen of hogs and leaned on the fence, watching the gently heaving backs with an air of meditation. Another man employed in the same recreation spoke to him, and he replied. I was too far away to hear what was said, but I caught the timbre of his voice.

“Martha. I know you don’t want to, Martha, but you got to. I got to give it to you.”

I was not going to be bloody sick. I wasn’t. With that decision made, I calmed a little. I hadn’t let him or his companions kill my spirit at the time; whyever would I let him harm me now?

He moved away from the pigs, and I followed him. I wasn’t sure why I was following him but felt a strong compulsion to do so. I wasn’t afraid of him; logically, there was no reason to be. At the same time, my unreasoning body still felt the echoes of that night, of his flesh and fingers, and would have liked to run away. I wasn’t having that.

I followed him from pigs to chickens, back again to the pigs—he seemed interested in a young black-and-white sow; he pointed her out to the swineherd and seemed to be asking questions, but then shook his head in a dejected fashion and walked away. Too expensive?

I could find out who he is. The thought occurred to me, but I rejected it with a surprising sense of violence. I didn’t bloody want to know his name.

And yet . . . I followed him. He went into the main building and bought some tobacco. I realized that I knew he used tobacco; I’d smelled the sour ash of it on his breath. He was talking to the clerk who measured out his purchase, a slow, heavy voice. Whatever he was saying went on too long; the clerk began to look strained, his expression saying all too clearly, “We’re done here; go away. Please go away . . .” And a full five minutes later, relief was just as clearly marked on the clerk’s face as the man turned away to look at barrels full of nails.

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