Read Drums of Autumn Online

Authors: Diana Gabaldon

Drums of Autumn (3 page)

He laughed and took my arm as we emerged into a small clear space.

“Ian!” he shouted, catching sight of his nephew over the heads of the crowd. A moment later, a tall, stringy gawk of a boy popped out of the crowd, pushing a thatch of brown hair out of his eyes and grinning widely.

“I thought I should never find ye, Uncle!” he exclaimed. “Christ, there are more folk here than at the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh!” He wiped a coat sleeve across his long, half-homely face, leaving a streak of grime down one cheek.

Jamie eyed his nephew askance.

“Ye’re lookin’ indecently cheerful, Ian, for having just seen a man go to his death.”

Ian hastily altered his expression into an attempt at decent solemnity.

“Oh, no, Uncle Jamie,” he said. “I didna see the hanging.” Duncan raised one brow and Ian blushed slightly. “I—I wasna afraid to see; it was only I had…something else I wanted to do.”

Jamie smiled slightly and patted his nephew on the back.

“Don’t trouble yourself, Ian; I’d as soon not have seen it myself, only that Gavin was a friend.”

“I know, Uncle. I’m sorry for it.” A flash of sympathy showed in the boy’s large brown eyes, the only feature of his face with any claim to beauty. He glanced at me. “Was it awful, Auntie?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s over, though.” I pulled the damp handkerchief out of my bosom and stood on tiptoe to rub away the smudge on his cheek.

Duncan Innes shook his head sorrowfully. “Aye, poor Gavin. Still, it’s a quicker death than starving, and there was little left for him but that.”

“Let’s go,” Jamie interrupted, unwilling to spend time in useless lamenting. “The
Bonnie Mary
should be near the far end of the quay.” I saw Ian glance at Jamie and draw himself up as though about to speak, but Jamie had already turned toward the harbor and was shoving his way through the crowd. Ian glanced at me, shrugged, and offered me an arm.

We followed Jamie behind the warehouses that lined the docks, side-stepping sailors, loaders, slaves, passengers, customers and merchants of all sorts. Charleston was a major shipping port, and business was booming, with as many as a hundred ships a month coming and going from Europe in the season.

The
Bonnie Mary
belonged to a friend of Jamie’s cousin Jared Fraser, who had gone to France to make his fortune in the wine business and succeeded brilliantly. With luck, the
Bonnie Mary
’s captain might be persuaded for Jared’s sake to take Ian with him back to Edinburgh, allowing the boy to work his passage as a cabin lad.

Ian was not enthused at the prospect, but Jamie was determined to ship his errant nephew back to Scotland at the earliest opportunity. It was—among other concerns—news of the
Bonnie Mary
’s presence in Charleston that had brought us here from Georgia, where we had first set foot in America—by accident—two months before.

As we passed a tavern, a slatternly barmaid came out with a bowl of slops. She caught sight of Jamie and stood, bowl braced against her hip, giving him a slanted brow and a pouting smile. He passed without a glance, intent on his goal. She tossed her head, flung the slops to the pig who slept by the step, and flounced back inside.

He paused, shading his eyes to look down the row of towering ships’ masts, and I came up beside him. He twitched unconsciously at the front of his breeches, easing the fit, and I took his arm.

“Family jewels still safe, are they?” I murmured.

“Uncomfortable, but safe,” he assured me. He plucked at the lacing of his flies, grimacing. “I would ha’ done better to hide them up my bum, I think.”

“Better you than me, mate,” I said, smiling. “I’d rather risk robbery, myself.”

The family jewels were just that. We had been driven ashore on the coast of Georgia by a hurricane, arriving soaked, ragged, and destitute—save for a handful of large and valuable gemstones.

I hoped the captain of the
Bonnie Mary
thought highly enough of Jared Fraser to accept Ian as a cabin boy, because if not, we were going to have a spot of difficulty about the passage.

In theory, Jamie’s pouch and my pocket contained a sizable fortune. In practice, the stones might have been beach pebbles so far as the good they were to us. While gems were an easy, compact way of transporting wealth, the problem was changing them back into money.

Most trade in the southern colonies was conducted by means of barter—what wasn’t, was handled by the exchange of scrip or bills written on a wealthy merchant or banker. And wealthy bankers were thin on the ground in Georgia; those willing to tie up their available capital in gemstones rarer still. The prosperous rice farmer with whom we had stayed in Savannah had assured us that he himself could scarcely lay his hand on two pounds sterling in cash—indeed, there was likely not ten pounds in gold and silver to be had in the whole colony.

Nor was there any chance of selling one of the stones in the endless stretches of salt marsh and pine forest through which we had passed on our journey north. Charleston was the first city we had reached of sufficient size to harbor merchants and bankers who might help to liquidate a portion of our frozen assets.

Not that anything was likely to stay frozen long in Charleston in summer, I reflected. Rivulets of sweat were running down my neck and the linen shift under my bodice was soaked and crumpled against my skin. Even so close to the harbor, there was no wind at this time of day, and the smells of hot tar, dead fish, and sweating laborers were nearly overwhelming.

Despite their protestations, Jamie had insisted on giving one of our gemstones to Mr. and Mrs. Olivier, the kindly people who had taken us in when we were shipwrecked virtually on their doorstep, as some token of thanks for their hospitality. In return, they had provided us with a wagon, two horses, fresh clothes for traveling, food for the journey north, and a small amount of money.

Of this, six shillings and threepence remained in my pocket, constituting the entirety of our disposable fortune.

“This way, Uncle Jamie,” Ian said, turning and beckoning his uncle eagerly. “I’ve got something to show ye.”

“What is it?” Jamie asked, threading his way through a throng of sweating slaves, who were loading dusty bricks of dried indigo into an anchored cargo ship. “And how did ye get whatever it is? Ye havena got any money, have you?”

“No, I won it, dicing.” Ian’s voice floated back, his body invisible as he skipped around a cartload of corn.

“Dicing! Ian, for God’s sake, ye canna be gambling when ye’ve not a penny to bless yourself with!” Holding my arm, Jamie shoved a way through the crowd to catch up to his nephew.

“You do it all the time, Uncle Jamie,” the boy pointed out, pausing to wait for us. “Ye’ve been doing it in every tavern and inn where we’ve stayed.”

“My God, Ian, that’s cards, not dice! And I know what I’m doing!”

“So do I,” said Ian, looking smug. “I won, no?”

Jamie rolled his eyes toward heaven, imploring patience.

“Jesus, Ian, but I’m glad you’re going home before ye get your head beaten in. Promise me ye willna be gambling wi’ the sailors, aye? Ye canna get away from them on a ship.”

Ian was paying no attention; he had come to a half-crumbled piling, around which was tied a stout rope. Here he stopped and turned to face us, gesturing at an object by his feet.

“See? It’s a dog,” Ian said proudly.

I took a quick half-step behind Jamie, grabbing his arm.

“Ian,” I said, “that is not a dog. It’s a wolf. It’s a bloody
big
wolf, and I think you ought to get away from it before it takes a bite out of your arse.”

The wolf twitched one ear negligently in my direction, dismissed me, and twitched it back. It continued to sit, panting with the heat, its big yellow eyes fixed on Ian with an intensity that might have been taken for devotion by someone who hadn’t met a wolf before. I had.

“Those things are dangerous,” I said. “They’d bite you as soon as look at you.”

Disregarding this, Jamie stooped to inspect the beast.

“It’s not quite a wolf, is it?” Sounding interested, he held out a loose fist to the so-called dog, inviting it to smell his knuckles. I closed my eyes, expecting the imminent amputation of his hand. Hearing no shrieks, I opened them again to find him squatting on the ground, peering up the animal’s nostrils.

“He’s a handsome creature, Ian,” he said, scratching the thing familiarly under the chin. The yellow eyes narrowed slightly, either in pleasure at the attention or—more likely, I thought—in anticipation of biting off Jamie’s nose. “Bigger than a wolf, though; it’s broader through the head and chest, and a deal longer in the leg.”

“His mother was an Irish wolfhound,” Ian was hunkered down by Jamie, eagerly explaining as he stroked the enormous gray-brown back. “She got out in heat, into the woods, and when she came back in whelp—”

“Oh, aye, I see.” Now Jamie was crooning in Gaelic to the monster while he picked up its huge foot and fondled its hairy toes. The curved black claws were a good two inches long. The thing half closed its eyes, the faint breeze ruffling the thick fur at its neck.

I glanced at Duncan, who arched his eyebrows at me, shrugged slightly, and sighed. Duncan didn’t care for dogs.

“Jamie—” I said.

“Balach Boidheach,”
Jamie said to the wolf. “Are ye no the bonny laddie, then?”

“What would he eat?” I asked, somewhat more loudly than necessary.

Jamie stopped caressing the beast.

“Oh,” he said. He looked at the yellow-eyed thing with some regret. “Well.” He rose to his feet, shaking his head reluctantly.

“I’m afraid your auntie’s right, Ian. How are we to feed him?”

“Oh, that’s no trouble, Uncle Jamie,” Ian assured him. “He hunts for himself.”

“Here?” I glanced around at the warehouses, and the stuccoed row of shops beyond. “What does he hunt, small children?”

Ian looked mildly hurt.

“Of course not, Auntie. Fish.”

Seeing three skeptical faces surrounding him, Ian dropped to his knees and grabbed the beast’s muzzle in both hands, prying his mouth open.

“He does! I swear, Uncle Jamie! Here, just smell his breath!”

Jamie cast a dubious glance at the double row of impressively gleaming fangs on display, and rubbed his chin.

“I—ah, I shall take your word for it, Ian. But even so—for Christ’s sake, be careful of your fingers, lad!” Ian’s grip had loosened, and the massive jaws clashed shut, spraying droplets of saliva over the stone quay.

“I’m all right, Uncle,” Ian said cheerfully, wiping his hand on his breeks. “He wouldn’t bite me, I’m sure. His name is Rollo.”

Jamie rubbed his knuckles across his upper lip.

“Mmphm. Well, whatever his name is, and whatever he eats, I dinna think the captain of the
Bonnie Mary
will take kindly to his presence in the crew’s quarters.”

Ian didn’t say anything, but the look of happiness on his face didn’t diminish. In fact, it grew. Jamie glanced at him, caught sight of his glowing face, and stiffened.

“No,” he said, in horror. “Oh, no.”

“Yes,” said Ian. A wide smile of delight split his bony face. “She sailed three days ago, Uncle. We’re too late.”

Jamie said something in Gaelic that I didn’t understand. Duncan looked scandalized.

“Damn!” Jamie said, reverting to English. “Bloody damn!” Jamie took off his hat and rubbed a hand over his face, hard. He looked hot, disheveled, and thoroughly disgruntled. He opened his mouth, thought better of whatever he had been going to say, closed it, and ran his fingers roughly through his hair, jerking loose the ribbon that tied it back.

Ian looked abashed.

“I’m sorry, Uncle. I’ll try not to be a worry to ye, truly I will. And I can work; I’ll earn enough for my food.”

Jamie’s face softened as he looked at his nephew. He sighed deeply, and patted Ian’s shoulder.

“It’s not that I dinna want ye, Ian. You know I should like nothing better than to keep ye with me. But what in hell will your mother say?”

The glow returned to Ian’s face.

“I dinna ken, Uncle,” he said, “but she’ll be saying it in Scotland, won’t she? And we’re here.” He put his arms around Rollo and hugged him. The wolf seemed mildly taken aback by the gesture, but after a moment, put out a long pink tongue and daintily licked Ian’s ear. Testing him for flavor, I thought cynically.

“Besides,” the boy added, “she kens well enough that I’m safe; you wrote from Georgia to say I was with you.”

Jamie summoned a wry smile.

“I canna say that that particular bit of knowledge will be ower-comforting to her, Ian. She’s known me a long time, aye?”

He sighed and clapped the hat back on his head, and turned to me.

“I badly need a drink, Sassenach,” he said. “Let’s find that tavern.”

The Willow Tree was dark, and might have been cool, had there been fewer people in it. As it was, the benches and tables were crowded with sightseers from the hanging and sailors from the docks, and the atmosphere was like a sweatbath. I inhaled as I stepped into the taproom, then let my breath out, fast. It was like breathing through a wad of soiled laundry, soaked in beer.

Rollo at once proved his worth, parting the crowd like the Red Sea as he stalked through the taproom, lips drawn back from his teeth in a constant, inaudible growl. He was evidently no stranger to taverns. Having satisfactorily cleared out a corner bench, he curled up under the table and appeared to go to sleep.

Out of the sun, with a large pewter mug of dark ale foaming gently in front of him, Jamie quickly regained his normal self-possession.

“We’ve the two choices,” he said, brushing back the sweat-soaked hair from his temples. “We can stay in Charleston long enough to maybe find a buyer for one of the stones, and perhaps book passage for Ian to Scotland on another ship. Or we can make our way north to Cape Fear, and maybe find a ship for him out of Wilmington or New Bern.”

“I say north,” Duncan said, without hesitation. “Ye’ve kin in Cape Fear, no? I mislike the thought of staying ower-long among strangers. And your kinsman would see we were not cheated nor robbed. Here—” He lifted one shoulder in eloquent indication of the un-Scottish—and thus patently dishonest—persons surrounding us.

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