Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn

Page 24

“I should be surprised to hear I am the only gentleman he’s so approached,” Jamie said. “And it’s no great risk, now, is it? Ye overheard me telling him I am a Catholic? It was no surprise to him to hear it.”

“Yes. He didn’t seem to think that was a problem, though.”

“Oh, I daresay it wouldna be—unless the Governor chose to make it one.”

“My goodness.” My evaluation of Governor Tryon was rapidly changing, though I wasn’t sure whether for the better or not. “So if things didn’t work out as he liked, all he would have to do is let it be known that you’re a Catholic, and a court would take back the land on those grounds. Whereas if he chooses to keep quiet—”

“And if I choose to do as he likes, aye.”

“He’s much sneakier than I thought,” I said, not without admiration. “Practically Scottish.”

He laughed at that, and brushed the loose hair out of his face.

The long curtains at the window, hitherto hanging limp, suddenly puffed inward, letting in a breath of air that smelt of sandy mud, river water, and the far-off hint of fresh pines. Dawn was coming, borne on the wind.

As though this had been a signal, Jamie’s hand cupped itself, and a slight shiver communicated itself from him to me, as the coolness struck his bare back.

“I didna really do myself credit earlier,” he said softly. “But if you’re sure there’s nothing troubling your mind just now…”

“Nothing,” I said, watching the glow from the window touch the line of his head and neck with gold. His mouth was still wide and gentle, but he didn’t look fourteen any longer.

“Not a thing, just now.”



God, I hate boats!”

With this heart-felt valediction ringing in my ears, we swung slowly out into the waters of Wilmington harbor.

Two days of purchases and preparations found us now bound for Cross Creek. With money from the sale of the ruby in hand, there had been no need to sell the horses; Duncan had been sent with the wagon and the heavier goods, with Myers aboard to guide him, the rest of us to take a quicker, more comfortable passage with Captain Freeman, aboard the Sally Ann.

A craft of singular and indescribable type, the Sally Ann was square-beamed, long, low-sided, and blunt-prowed. She boasted a tiny cabin that measured roughly six feet square, leaving a scant two feet on either side for passage, and a somewhat greater area of deck fore and aft, this now partially obscured by bundles, bags, and barrels.

With a single sail mounted on a mast and boom above the cabin, the Sally Ann looked from a distance like a crab on a shingle, waving a flag of truce. The peaty brown waters of the Cape Fear lapped a scant four inches below the rail, and the boards of the bottom were perpetually damp with slow leakage.

Still, I was happy. Cramped conditions or no, it was good to be on the water, away—if only temporarily—from the Governor’s siren song.

Jamie wasn’t happy. He did indeed hate boats, with a profound and undying passion, and suffered from a seasickness so acute that watching the swirl of water in a glass could turn him green.

“It’s dead calm,” I observed. “Maybe you won’t be sick.”

Jamie squinted suspiciously at the chocolate-brown water around us, then clamped his eyes shut as the wake from another boat struck the Sally Ann broadside, rocking her violently.

“Maybe not,” he said, in tones indicating that while the suggestion was a hopeful one, he also thought the possibility remote.

“Do you want the needles? It’s better if I put them in before you vomit.” Resigned, I groped in the pocket of my skirt, where I had placed the small box containing the Chinese acupuncture needles that had saved his life on our Atlantic crossing.

He shuddered briefly and opened his eyes.

“No,” he said. “I’ll maybe do. Talk to me, Sassenach—take my mind off my stomach, aye?”

“All right,” I said obligingly. “What is your Aunt Jocasta like?”

“I havena seen her since I was two years old, so my impressions are a bit lacking,” he replied absently, eyes fixed on a large raft coming down the river, set on an apparent collision course with us. “D’ye think that Negro can manage? Perhaps I ought to give him a bit of help.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t,” I said, eyeing the oncoming raft warily. “He seems to know what he’s doing.” Besides the captain—a disreputable old wreck who reeked of tobacco—theSally Ann had a single hand, an elderly black freedman who was dealing alone with the steerage of our craft, by means of a large pole.

The man’s lean muscles flexed and bulged in easy rhythm. Grizzled head bowed in effort, he took no apparent notice of the oncoming barge, but plunged and lifted in a liquid motion that made the long pole seem like a third limb.

“Let him alone. I suppose you don’t know much about your aunt, then?” I added, in hopes of distracting him. The raft was moving ponderously and inexorably toward us.

Some forty feet from end to end, it rode low in the water, weighed down with barrels and stacks of hides, tied down under netting. A pungent wave of odor preceded it, of musk and blood and rancid fat, strong enough to overpower temporarily all the other smells of the river.

“No; she wed the Cameron of Erracht and left Leoch the year before my mother married my father.” He spoke abstractedly, not looking at me; his attention was all on the oncoming barge. His knuckles whitened; I could feel his urge to leap forward, snatch the pole away from the deckhand, and stave off the raft. I laid a restraining hand on his arm.

“And she never came to visit at Lallybroch?”

I could see the gleam of sun on dull iron, where it struck cleats along the edge of the raft, and the half-naked forms of the three deckhands, sweating even in the early morning. One of them waved his hat and grinned, shouting something that sounded like, “Hah, you!” as they came on.

“Well, John Cameron died of a flux, and she wed his cousin, Black Hugh Cameron of Aberfeldy, and then—” He shut his eyes reflexively as the raft shot past, its hull no more than six inches from our own, amid a hail of good-natured jeers and shouts from its crew. Rollo, front paws perched on the low cabin roof, barked madly, until Ian cuffed him and told him to stop.

Jamie opened one eye, then seeing that the danger was past, opened the other and relaxed, letting go his grip on the roof.

“Aye, well, Black Hugh—they called him so for a great black wen on his knee—he was killed hunting, and so then she wed Hector Mor Cameron, of Loch Eilean—”

“She seems to have had quite a taste for Camerons,” I said, fascinated. “Is there something special about them as a clan—beyond being accident-prone, I mean?”

“They’ve a way wi’ words, I suppose,” he said, with a sudden wry grin. “The Camerons are poets—and jesters. Sometimes both. Ye’ll remember Lochiel, aye?”

I smiled, sharing his bittersweet recollection of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, one of the chiefs of clan Cameron at the time of the Rising. A handsome man with a soulful gaze, Lochiel’s gentle-eyed demeanor and elegant manners hid a truly great talent for the creation of vulgar doggerel, with which, sotto voce, he had not infrequently entertained me at balls in Edinburgh, during the brief heyday of Charles Stuart’s coup.

Jamie was leaning on the roof of the boat’s tiny cabin, watching the river traffic with a wary eye. We had not yet cleared Wilmington’s harbor, and small pirettas and sculls darted past like water bugs, whipping in and out between the larger, slower-moving craft. He was pale, but not green yet.

I leaned my elbows on the cabin roof as well, and stretched my back. Hot as it was, the heavy sunshine was comforting to the sore muscles caused by impromptu sleeping arrangements; I had spent the last night curled up on a hard oak settle in the taproom of a riverside tavern, sleeping with my head on Jamie’s knee as he completed the arrangements for our passage.

I groaned and stretched.

“Was Hector Cameron a poet, or a joker?”

“Neither one at the moment,” Jamie replied, automatically gripping the back of my neck and massaging it with one hand. “He’s dead, aye?”

“That’s wonderful,” I said, groaning with ecstasy as his thumb sank into a particularly tender spot. “What you’re doing, I mean, not that your uncle’s dead. Ooh, don’t stop. How did he get to North Carolina?”

Jamie snorted with amusement, and moved behind me so he could use both hands on my neck and shoulders. I nestled my bottom against him and sighed in bliss.

“You’re a verra noisy woman, Sassenach,” he said, leaning forward to whisper in my ear. “Ye make the same kind of sounds when I rub your neck as ye do when I—” He thrust his pelvis against me in a discreet but explicit motion that made it quite clear what he meant. “Mm?”

“Mmmm,” I replied, and kicked him—discreetly—in the shin. “Fine. If anyone hears me behind closed doors, they’ll assume you’re rubbing my neck—which is about all you’re likely to do until we get off this floating plank. Now, what about your late uncle?”

“Oh, him.” His fingers dug in on either side of my backbone, rubbing slowly up and down as he unraveled yet another strand in the tangled web of his family history. At least it was keeping his mind off his stomach.

Luckier—and either more perceptive or more cynical—than his famous kinsman, Hector Mor Cameron had cannily prepared himself against the eventuality of a Stuart disaster. He had escaped Culloden unwounded and made for home, where he had promptly loaded wife, servant, and portable assets into a coach, in which they fled to Edinburgh and thence by ship to North Carolina, narrowly escaping the Crown’s pursuit.

Once arrived in the New World, Hector had purchased a large tract of land, cleared the forest, built a house and a sawmill, bought slaves to work the place, planted his land in tobacco and indigo, and—no doubt worn out by so much industry—succumbed to the morbid sore throat at the ripe old age of seventy-three.

Having evidently decided that three times was enough, Jocasta MacKenzie Cameron Cameron Cameron had—so far as Myers knew—declined to wed again, but stayed on alone as mistress of River Run.

“Do you think the messenger with your letter will get there before we do?”

“He’d get there before we do if he crawled on his hands and knees,” Young Ian said, appearing suddenly beside us. He glanced in mild disgust at the patient deckhand, plunging and lifting his dripping pole. “It will be weeks before we get there, at this rate. I told ye it would have been best to ride, Uncle Jamie.”

“Dinna fret yourself, Ian,” his uncle assured him, letting go of my neck. He grinned at his nephew. “You’ll have a turn at the pole yourself before long—and I expect ye’ll have us in Cross Creek before nightfall, aye?”

Ian gave his uncle a dirty look and wandered off to pester Captain Freeman with questions about Red Indians and wild animals.

“I hope the Captain doesn’t put Ian overboard,” I said, observing Freeman’s scrawny shoulders draw defensively toward his ears as Ian approached. My own neck and shoulders glowed from the attention; so did portions further south. “Thanks for the rub,” I said, lifting one eyebrow at him.

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