Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn

Page 3

“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.

“Oh, do let’s go north, Uncle!” Ian said quickly, before Jamie could reply to this. He wiped away a small mustache of ale foam with his sleeve. “The journey might be dangerous; you’ll need an extra man along for protection, aye?”

Jamie buried his expression in his own cup, but I was seated close enough to feel a subterranean quiver go through him. Jamie was indeed very fond of his nephew. The fact remained that Ian was the sort of person to whom things happened. Usually through no fault of his own, but still, they happened.

The boy had been kidnapped by pirates the year before, and it was the necessity of rescuing him that had brought us by circuitous and often dangerous means to America. Nothing had happened recently, but I knew Jamie was anxious to get his fifteen-year-old nephew back to Scotland and his mother before something did.

“Ah…to be sure, Ian,” Jamie said, lowering his cup. He carefully avoided meeting my gaze, but I could see the corner of his mouth twitching. “Ye’d be a great help, I’m sure, but…”

“We might meet with Red Indians!” Ian said, eyes wide. His face, already a rosy brown from the sun, glowed with a flush of pleasurable anticipation. “Or wild beasts! Dr. Stern told me that the wilderness of Carolina is alive wi’ fierce creatures—bears and wildcats and wicked panthers—and a great foul thing the Indians call a skunk!”

I choked on my ale.

“Are ye all right, Auntie?” Ian leaned anxiously across the table.

“Fine,” I wheezed, wiping my streaming face with my kerchief. I blotted the drops of spilled ale off my bosom, pulling the fabric of my bodice discreetly away from my flesh in hopes of admitting a little air.

Then I caught a glimpse of Jamie’s face, on which the expression of suppressed amusement had given way to a small frown of concern.

“Skunks aren’t dangerous,” I murmured, laying a hand on his knee. A skilled and fearless hunter in his native Highlands, Jamie was inclined to regard the unfamiliar fauna of the New World with caution.

“Mmphm.” The frown eased, but a narrow line remained between his brows. “Maybe so, but what of the other things? I canna say I wish to be meeting a bear or a pack o’ savages, wi’ only this to hand.” He touched the large sheathed knife that hung from his belt.

Our lack of weapons had worried Jamie considerably on the trip from Georgia, and Ian’s remarks about Indians and wild animals had brought the concern to the forefront of his mind once more. Besides Jamie’s knife, Fergus bore a smaller blade, suitable for cutting rope and trimming twigs for kindling. That was the full extent of our armory—the Oliviers had had neither guns nor swords to spare.

On the journey from Georgia to Charleston, we had had the company of a group of rice and indigo farmers—all bristling with knives, pistols, and muskets—bringing their produce to the port to be shipped north to Pennsylvania and New York. If we left for Cape Fear now, we would be alone, unarmed, and essentially defenseless against anything that might emerge from the thick forests.

At the same time, there were pressing reasons to travel north, our lack of available capital being one. Cape Fear was the largest settlement of Scottish Highlanders in the American Colonies, boasting several towns whose inhabitants had emigrated from Scotland during the last twenty years, following the upheaval after Culloden. And among these emigrants were Jamie’s kin, who I knew would willingly offer us refuge: a roof, a bed, and time to establish ourselves in this new world.

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