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Authors: Gil Adamson

Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000

The Outlander (19 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
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The Reverend was dark of complexion and deeply tanned. His eyes and hair
were almost black, and he wore a full black suit with a long coat over it. She noticed
he wore no collar and seemed not to own a cassock. Her father, by contrast, had often
worn a cassock with thirty-six buttons, one for each year of Christ's life. But
the widow could see how trousers might be more appropriate here. The Reverend's
hair was roughly cut, probably with shears, to one blunt length, and he sported a
totally unchecked chin beard, something that had not been fashionable during either of
their lifetimes. The index finger of his left hand was missing completely, the knuckle
like a burl under the skin.

He was exceedingly formal with her, almost prudish, even on the first day
as he had cleaned and dressed her wound. He had worked carefully, with no more of her
leg exposed than was necessary, just the bloody and swollen calf muscle. He coaxed
dozens of splinters from the skin, pressed a whisky-soaked rag to the wound, and held
her hand as she huffed and wept in pain.

“What's your name?” he had said, peering minutely at his
work, as if speaking to the arrow hole.

“Mrs. Boulton,” she hissed. “Mary Boulton.”

“You can call me Bonny,” he said.

She had looked down at their clasped hands, and she slumped, leaning her
clammy forehead against her knee. In her pain, her weakened state, she'd told the
truth. Her married name. What hell would come of it?

the nights were cold — late
summer snow fell from the stars and blew among the trees. On her first night, she had
hung a heavy sack across her window for warmth and tucked the edges in. The Reverend
talked in his sleep, his prattle coming and going, the dry shift of the straw in his
tick. The widow lay under her blankets and listened as the cedars outside her window
waved in the night wind. She did not sleep but lay listening to her mind's
ramblings. Given enough distance from their crimes, even the wicked may eventually sleep
as others do. Or so she hoped. Memories, gestures, her husband's indifferent
voice. She suffered the echo of her baby's fussing, his shallow breathing. She
wrapped her hands round herself, rolled to her side, and closed her welling eyes. Wait,
wait, and they will pass, and perhaps nothing will rise in you.

Long before dawn, a muffled cough outside her window startled her. She sat
up, woozy, and saw men, a dozen of them, bent and silent shapes walking along in twos
and threes under the moon. Miners on their way to the mine. They went along slouching,
coughing, the occasional voice mumbling, but they fell silent as they passed the
Reverend's house. Here and there among them a lit carbide headlamp bobbed or the
ember of a cigarette swung at the end of an unseen arm. They carried tools over their
shoulders, picks and drills, their silhouettes tottered past, monstrous in the wan
moonlight, looking to the addled widow like trolls in a children's shadow play.
And when the players had passed she saw only the dark road, the empty stage, waiting for
the next scene, where soon a devil or perhaps a witch would bolt up before the
lamp's hokey flare and dance away after them.

two days slipping birdlike in and out of
naps. Pulling back the covers to bend double and pick at the gluey cloth wrappings on
her calf, peel back the thin wool to see the ghastly hole, a pucker of skin round a
black and glassy bung. She washed her leg, wincing, and laundered the wrappings. And she
limped around the house while the Reverend was out working on his church.

His kitchen was tidy and marvellously full of implements, efficiently
feminine, as if the woman of the house had recently stepped out for an overnight trip. A
bread board stood upright by the large tin soup kettle. The widow applied her thumbnail
and scratched up a flaky dust. A rolling pin, pans of varying size, a cigar box full of
knives and spoons and ladles, galvanized canisters of flour, cream of tartar, salt,

Cinnamon! She opened the little glass jar of powder, held it to her nose,
and breathed in the deep, almost ecclesiastical perfume. She was suddenly in her
father's house, in the kitchen, following the old cook around while she worked,
sitting on the counter by the sink licking a spatula thinly covered in gingerbread
batter. She remembered flour sifted into a wide ceramic bowl in perfect peaks, salt and
sugar denting the summit, and finally a tiny spoonful of cinnamon dropped in, a small
thrill among the whiteness. She put the package back on its shelf and went on, full of
admiration. By the back door were four pairs of scissors, one a heavy set of shears hung
by their thumbs, and next to these was a new rabbit gun. There were several oil lamps,
one elderly storm lantern full of cracks.

In a trunk by the Reverend's bed she found a silk bag full of
treasures: thread in many colours, embroidery silk, three
combs of varying fineness, thimbles, a little paper strip of hooks and eyes, and cloth
in many colours. She stared — several blond hairs twinkled amid the jumble.
Digging deeper, she found a dress, almost fashionable and made for a tall woman. The
widow reached in and fingered the baby's breath lace at the collar, saw expertise
in the work, a wealthy past. She tugged at this curiosity a little and lay the bodice
across the box's rough lip. An ink stain at the right wrist, dust condensed in the
fabric, the dress so well used that the body of the departed woman was present in its
wear. A paleness was impressed on the dark nap, and round the breastbone the sagged
impression of a heavy necklace. A cross, no doubt.

In the mid-morning Mary would stop and listen, hearing a faint soprano
wail she could not identify. She would cock her head, thinking it came from the north .
. . no, perhaps from the east. Sometimes she would go to the foot of the stairs and look
up. Eventually she thought to ask him about it, and he told her it was the train coming
along the pass, far downhill by the river, coming to pick up the coal.

Before the light failed completely there was always a gust of wind through
the trees. She remembered this from the cabin too, as if the world blew itself out
before settling into the dead stillness of night. Unnerving and falsely portentous. Or
perhaps it
portentous, for that had often been when her husband came home,
a dim shape in the half-light. A shadow, slouching, reluctant to be home. By contrast,
the Reverend came home early, lit the lamps, talked happily, yawned and yawned and
yawned, and fought sleep. And when they were both in their separate beds, he would call
goodnight several times, forgetting each time that he had already done so, his voice
slurred with sleep.

“Goodnight, Mrs. Boulton.”

And she would call “Goodnight, Bonny” and lie for a long time
watching the shadows.

, the widow woke to the sound of a scuffle
outside on the dusty path that ran through the trees outside the house. The air was dry
and cool. Her leg panged terribly. She probed it gently with her fingers and found the
swollen hardness of it had subsided a little, although it was no less painful. She
fought her way up through the blankets weakly, walking her arms crabwise behind her, and
finally peered through the window. Out on the road stood the Reverend Bonnycastle in
shirt sleeves looking down on a young man who sat on the ground beside his hat.

“Come on,” said the Reverend, hand extended, “get

“You'll just hit me again.”

“Come on.” He extended an arm down to the boy, who took it
cautiously, and together they levered the boy up so he stood. Then they both stepped
away and assumed a boxing pose. The widow blinked in amazement. The two figures circled
each other on a soft path. The Reverend came at the boy, and they swung and ducked and
feinted, they wrestled standing up, like bears, grunting, their boots fetching up pale
dust from the road. The younger man pushed his opponent away and offered up a haymaker,
which missed, nearly throwing him off his feet.

“Good boy!” the Reverend said heartily and knocked him down
again. With that, it was over, and the Reverend turned and went back to the house. The
widow struggled from the bed and hurried down the rickety staircase. Every inch of her
body ached, and her swollen leg was unbearable. Still, she
made the
bottom of the stairs just as the Reverend strode through the open front door. He was
rolling down his sleeves.

“Bible lesson,” he grinned and went on into the kitchen.

Through the open door she saw the boy. He was standing now, knocking the
dust from his hat. He levered it onto his head and gave the house, and perhaps the widow
too, if he could see that far, a repenting look, and went on down the road.

for the widow. They had no fresh
beef because a carcass would attract bears, even if you buried it. Chickens
wouldn't last long before martins or foxes or the cold killed them. And so it was
game meat they ate — deer or squirrel stewed for hours with mealy potatoes and
wild onions, hares baked or cooked over a spit, the occasional mountain goat that
required tireless chawing. Any beef tended to be clammy, salted, or smoked, always
barrelled, with a watery swill in the bottom. Biscuits and porridge with salt.
Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, all wizened and made potent by altitude. The
only true comfort was baked bread, emerging perfect from the wood oven, golden streaks
on each fragrant loaf. But no butter.

She cooked lunch for the Reverend every day and brought it to the church
in a bowl, tucked steaming inside her coats.

“Mrs. Boulton!” he would call in joy when he saw her

One bright day, she came hobbling slowly over fallen rock, went round
massive cedar stumps and branchfall and mounds of long-rotted sawdust and needles in her
trousered getup and his buffalo coat, looking like a shambling, pinheaded troll. He
perched on the skeleton of his bizarre
church and waved wildly, as
if she might be about to give the lunch to someone else, then clambered down the outmost
corner beam with his logging spurs on, nimble as a monkey. He greeted each meal like a
prize at a fair.

“All the steam's gone,” she said, flapping the lapels of
the buffalo coat.

“Not a bit of it!” he said and set upon the stew with
theatrical greed. They sat together on the promontory that soon would hold the

“Where are the pews?” she said.

“I'll attend to the inside when I've done the roof and

The widow sat demurely, her wrists between her knees, and looked about her
at the uneven flooring, the handmade mallet at her foot. She listened to the
Reverend's chewing. She could smell him, the scent of wood and sweat and something
else, something more complex in her nostrils. She looked quickly at his face, at the
muscle working in his cheek. He smiled, without looking at her. Above them, clouds
roamed along to the west, the tall cedars bent after them.

“People might come to services,” she said, “if you only
had some pews.”

He stopped chewing. Looked about him. The two of them sat mapping out
imaginary pews in rows. He craned his head round to where the altar would go. A service
open to the air, nothing above but rafters and the heavens.

“I believe you're right,” he said, then went back to
eating. Dry leaves chased across the church floor. Later that afternoon, he set about
making pews, rough unsanded benches for the men to sit on.

When she got back to the cabin, the stove had gone out. It was cold, and
it would take ages to get going again. She
was not expert at
dealing with stoves. In her father's house there had always been girls to do the
work — a cook, maids, and then later, when her mother was at her worst, nurses.
Later still, John had tried to teach her to tend a fire. He'd had his method, his
preferences regarding kindling, a guaranteed approach. Everyone had their own method.
The widow could keep a fire going while she cooked, but later she would forget. Turning
her mind to another task, she would ignore the sound of wood collapsing inside the
stove, the heat fading away, and before too long, the stove was cold again. Her husband
had been deeply annoyed at the waste of good kindling.

“You are a wretched housewife, Mary,” he had told her. It was
one of his many criticisms but patently true. She stood in this new kitchen,
delicious-smelling but growing clammy with the cold, and she booted the stove's
hollow side and swore at it like a man would.

, amid the trembling of mountain
aspen, three horsemen came. They crested a rise one by one, the horses blowing, for they
were heavily packed, and their riders were large. One man was some distance ahead, and
he was the tracker, an old coot in a crisp hat and long oil-skin, who stopped often to
look down, or dismounted with arthritic languor to stand over some invisible clue or
sign and kick at it with his toe. Then he would struggle back up and go on. For two days
they had traced a drunken path over the mountain's flank, following the
widow's peculiar trajectory into the wild. The route like a skittering mouse,
light-footed and almost aimless, and in this the old man silently read the
signs of her dissolution: exhaustion, confusion, the rest stops in
exposed or wet places, the stupid choices.

And now here was a body imprint scuffed into the needles beneath a pine
bough, like a snow angel, proof she had slept here. A few feet away her horse had stood,
a band of worn-away bark where the reins had been tied too high, and the horse had
tugged and tugged to reach the grass at its feet. All this the old tracker took in,
moustache twitching thoughtfully.

The two redheads arrived beside him, their horses nudging his
affectionately, for all three animals belonged to the tracker. Only these two men were
strangers here. They looked down for signs of their quarry but saw nothing; looked about
them at the forest and saw nothing. The old man adjusted his hat.

BOOK: The Outlander
2.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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