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Authors: Diana Gabaldon

Drums of Autumn (6 page)

BOOK: Drums of Autumn
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The spade chunked softly into the earth at Ian’s feet, and he straightened up, slicking sweat off his face with a palm swipe that left black smears along his jaw. He blew out a deep breath and glanced up at Jamie, miming exhaustion, tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth.

“Aye, I expect it’s deep enough.” Jamie answered the wordless plea with a nod. “I’ll fetch Gavin along, then.”

Fergus frowned uneasily, his features sharp in the torchlight.

“Will you not need help to carry the corpse?” His reluctance was evident; still, he had offered. Jamie gave him a faint, wry smile.

“I’ll manage well enough,” he said. “Gavin was a wee man. Still, ye might bring the torch to see by.”

“I’ll come too, Uncle!” Young Ian scrambled hastily out of the pit, skinny shoulders gleaming with sweat. “Just in case you need help,” he added breathlessly.

“Afraid to be left in the dark?” Fergus asked sarcastically. I thought that the surroundings must be making him uneasy; though he occasionally teased Ian, whom he regarded as a younger brother, he was seldom cruel about it.

“Aye, I am,” Ian said simply. “Aren’t you?”

Fergus opened his mouth, brows arched skyward, then shut it again and turned without a word toward the black opening of the lych-gate, whence Jamie had disappeared.

“D’ye not think this is a terrible place, Auntie?” Ian murmured uneasily at my elbow, sticking close as we made our way through the looming stones, following the flicker of Fergus’s torch. “I keep thinking of that story Uncle Jamie told. And thinking now Gavin’s dead, maybe the cold thing…I mean, do you think would it maybe…come for him?” There was an audible swallow punctuating this question, and I felt an icy finger touch me, just at the base of my spine.

“No,” I said, a little too loudly. I grabbed Ian’s arm, less for support than for the reassurance of his solidity. “Certainly not.”

His skin was clammy with evaporating sweat, but the skinny muscularity of the arm under my hand was comforting. His half-visible presence reminded me faintly of Jamie; he was nearly as tall as his uncle, and very nearly as strong, though still lean and gangling with adolescence.

We emerged with gratitude into the little pool of light thrown by Fergus’s torch. The flickering light shone through the wagon wheels, throwing shadows that lay like spiderwebs in the dust. It was as hot in the road as it was in the churchyard, but the air seemed somehow freer, easier to breathe, out from under the suffocating trees.

Rather to my surprise, Duncan was still awake, perched drooping on the wagon’s seat like a sleepy owl, shoulders hunched about his ears. He was crooning under his breath, but stopped when he saw us. The long wait seemed to have sobered him a bit; he got down from the seat steadily enough and came round to the rear of the wagon to help Jamie.

I smothered a yawn. I would be glad to be done with this melancholy duty and on our way to rest, even if the only bed to look forward to was one of piled leaves.

“Ifrinn an Diabhuil! A Dhia, thoir cobhair!”

“Sacrée Vierge!”

My head snapped up. Everyone was shouting, and the horses, startled, were neighing and jerking frantically against their hobbles, making the wagon hop and lurch like a drunken beetle.

“Wuff!”
Rollo said next to me.

“Jesus!” said Ian, goggling at the wagon. “Jesus
Christ
!”

I swung in the direction he was looking, and screamed. A pale figure loomed out of the wagon bed, swaying with the wagon’s jerking. I had no time to see more before all hell broke loose.

Rollo bunched his hindquarters and launched himself through the dark with a roar, to the accompaniment of shouts from Jamie and Ian, and a terrible scream from the ghost. Behind me, I could hear the sound of French cursing as Fergus ran back into the churchyard, stumbling and crashing over tombstones in the dark.

Jamie had dropped the torch; it flickered and hissed on the dusty road, threatening to go out. I fell to my knees and grabbed it, blowing on it, desperate to keep it alight.

The chorus of shouts and growling grew to a crescendo, and I rose up, torch in hand, to find Ian struggling with Rollo, trying to keep him away from the dim figures wrestling together in a cloud of dust.

“Arrêtes espèce de cochon!”
Fergus galloped out of the dark, brandishing the spade he had gone to fetch. Finding his injunction disregarded, he stepped forward and brought it down one-handed on the intruder’s head with a dull
clong
! Then he swung toward Ian and Rollo.

“You be quiet, too!” Fergus said to the dog, threatening him with the shovel. “Shut up this minute, foul beast, or I brain you!”

Rollo snarled, with a show of impressive teeth that I interpreted roughly to mean “You and who else?” but was prevented from mayhem by Ian, who wrapped his arm about the dog’s throat and choked off any further remarks.

“Where did
he
come from?” Ian asked in amazement. He craned his neck, trying to get a look at the fallen figure without letting go of Rollo.

“From hell,” Fergus said briefly. “And I invite him to go back there at once.” He was trembling with shock and exertion; the light gleamed dully from his hook as he brushed a thick lock of black hair out of his eyes.

“Not from hell; from the gallows. Do ye not know him?”

Jamie rose slowly to his feet, dusting his breeches. He was breathing heavily, and smeared with dirt, but seemed unhurt. He picked up his fallen kerchief and glanced about, wiping his face. “Where’s Duncan?”

“Here,
Mac Dubh,
” said a gruff voice from the front of the wagon. “The beasts werena likin’ Gavin much to start with, and they’re proper upset to think he was a-resurrectin’. Not,” he added fairly, “but what I was a wee bit startled myself.” He eyed the figure on the ground with disfavor, and patted one skittish horse firmly on the neck. “Ah, it’s no but a silly bugger,
luaidh,
hush your noise now, aye?”

I had handed Ian the torch and knelt to inspect the damage to our visitor. This seemed to be slight; the man was already stirring. Jamie was right; it was the man who had escaped hanging earlier in the day. He was young, about thirty, muscular and powerfully built, his fair hair matted with sweat and stiff with filth. He reeked of prison, and the musky-sharp smell of prolonged fear. Little wonder.

I got a hand under his arm and helped him to sit up. He grunted and put his hand to his head, squinting in the torchlight.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“Thankin’ ye kindly, ma’am, I will have been better.” He had a faint Irish accent and a soft, deep voice.

Rollo, upper lip lifted just enough to show a menacing eyetooth, shoved his nose into the visitor’s armpit, sniffed, then jerked back his head and sneezed explosively. A small tremor of laughter ran round the circle, and the tension relaxed momentarily.

“How long have ye been in the wagon?” Duncan demanded.

“Since midafternoon.” The man rose awkwardly onto his knees, swaying a bit from the effects of the blow. He touched his head again and winced. “Oh, Jaysus! I crawled in there just after the Frenchie loaded up poor old Gavin.”

“Where were you before that?” Ian asked.

“Hidin’ under the gallows cart. It was the only place I thought they wouldn’t be looking.” He rose laboriously to his feet, closed his eyes to get his balance, then opened them. They were a pale green in the torchlight, the color of shallow seas. I saw them flick from face to face, then settle on Jamie. The man bowed, careful of his head.

“Stephen Bonnet. Your servant, sir.” He made no move to extend a hand in greeting, nor did Jamie.

“Mr. Bonnet.” Jamie nodded back, face carefully blank. I didn’t know quite how he contrived to look commanding, wearing nothing but a pair of damp and dirt-stained breeks, but he managed it. He looked the visitor over, taking in every detail of his appearance.

Bonnet was what country people called “well set up,” with a tall, powerful frame and a barrel chest, his features heavy-boned but coarsely handsome. A few inches shorter than Jamie, he stood easy, balanced on the balls of his feet, fists half closed in readiness.

No stranger to a fight, judging by the slight crookedness of his nose and a small scar by the corner of his mouth. The small imperfections did nothing to mar the overall impression of animal magnetism; he was the sort of man who attracted women easily. Some women, I amended, as he cast a speculative glance at me.

“For what crime were ye condemned, Mr. Bonnet?” Jamie asked. He himself stood easy, but with a look of watchfulness that reminded me forcibly of Bonnet himself. It was the ears-back look male dogs give each other before deciding whether to fight.

“Smuggling,” Bonnet said.

Jamie didn’t reply, but tilted his head slightly. One brow rose in inquiry.

“And piracy.” A muscle twitched near Bonnet’s mouth; a poor attempt at a smile, or an involuntary quiver of fear?

“And will ye have killed anyone in the commission of your crimes, Mr. Bonnet?” Jamie’s face was blank, save for the watchful eyes.
Think twice,
his eyes said plainly.
Or maybe three times
.

“None that were not tryin’ to kill me first,” Bonnet replied. The words were easy, the tone almost flippant, but belied by the hand that closed tight into a fist by his side.

It dawned on me that Bonnet must feel he was facing judge and jury, as surely as he had faced them once before. He had no way of knowing that we were nearly as reluctant to go near the garrison soldiers as he was.

Jamie looked at Bonnet for a long moment, peering closely at him in the flickering torchlight, then nodded and took a half step back.

“Go, then,” he said quietly. “We will not hinder ye.”

Bonnet took an audible breath; I could see the big frame relax, shoulders slumping under the cheap linen shirt.

“Thank you,” he said. He wiped a hand across his face, and took another deep breath. The green eyes darted from me to Fergus to Duncan. “But will ye help me, maybe?”

Duncan, who had relaxed at Jamie’s words, gave a grunt of surprise.

“Help you? A thief?”

Bonnet’s head swiveled in Duncan’s direction. The iron collar was a dark line about his neck, giving the eerie impression that his severed head floated several inches above his shoulders.

“Help me,” he repeated. “There will be soldiers on the roads tonight—huntin’ me.” He gestured toward the wagon. “You could take me safely past them—if ye will.” He turned back to Jamie, and straightened his back, shoulders stiff. “I am begging for your help, sir, in the name of Gavin Hayes, who was my friend as well as yours—and a thief, as I am.”

The men studied him in silence for a moment, digesting this. Fergus glanced inquiringly at Jamie; the decision was his.

But Jamie, after a long, considering look at Bonnet, turned to Duncan.

“What say ye, Duncan?” Duncan gave Bonnet the same kind of look that Jamie himself had used, and finally nodded.

“For Gavin’s sake,” he said, and turned away toward the lych-gate.

“All right, then,” Jamie said. He sighed and pushed a loose lock of hair behind his ear.

“Help us to bury Gavin,” he said to our new guest, “and then we’ll go.”

An hour later, Gavin’s grave was a blank rectangle of fresh-turned earth, stark among the gray hues of the surrounding grass.

“He must have his name to mark him by,” Jamie said. Painstakingly, he scratched the letters of Gavin’s name and his dates upon a piece of smooth beach-stone, using the point of his knife. I rubbed soot from the torch into the incised letters, making a crude but readable grave marker, and Ian set this solidly into a small cairn of gathered pebbles. Atop the tiny monument, Jamie gently set the stub of candle that he had taken from the tavern.

Everyone stood awkwardly about the grave for a moment, not knowing how to take farewell. Jamie and Duncan stood close together, looking down. They would have taken final leave of many such comrades since Culloden, if often with less ceremony.

Finally Jamie nodded to Fergus, who took a dry pine twig, and lighting it from my torch, bent and touched it to the candle’s wick.

“Requiem aeternam dona ei, et lux perpetua luceat ei.…”
Jamie said quietly.

“Eternal rest grant unto him, O God—and let perpetual light shine upon him.” Young Ian echoed it softly, his face solemn in the torchlight.

Without a word, we turned and left the churchyard. Behind us, the candle burned without a flicker in the still, heavy air, like the sanctuary lamp in an empty church.

The moon was high in the sky by the time we reached the military checkpoint outside the city walls. It was only a half-moon, but shed enough light for us to see the trampled dirt track of the wagon road that ran before us, wide enough for two wagons to travel abreast.

We had encountered several such points on the road between Savannah and Charleston, mostly manned by bored soldiers who waved us through without bothering to check the passes we had obtained in Georgia. The checkpoints were mostly concerned with the interception of smuggled goods, and with the capture of the odd bondservant or slave, escaped from his master.

Even filthy and unkempt, we passed notice for the most part; few travelers were in better case. Fergus and Duncan could not be indentured men, maimed as they were, and Jamie’s presence transcended his clothes; shabby coat or not, no man would take him for a servant.

Tonight was different, though. There were eight soldiers at the checkpoint, not the usual two, and all were armed and alert. Musket barrels flashed in the moonlight as the shout of “Halt! Your name and your business!” came from the dark. A lantern was hoisted up six inches from my face, blinding me for a moment.

“James Fraser, bound for Wilmington, with my family and servants.” Jamie’s voice was calm, and his hands were steady as he handed me the reins before reaching for the passes in his coat.

I kept my head down, trying to look tired and indifferent. I was tired, all right—I could have lain down in the road and slept—but far from indifferent. What did they do to you for aiding the escape of a fugitive from the gallows? I wondered. A single drop of sweat snaked its way down the back of my neck.

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