An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 122

   

“God knows. I hope it’s no one of the whores.” Jamie sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “Though maybe better that than someone else’s wife.”

“Oh, he wouldn’t—” I began, but then saw the wry look on his face. “Oh, he didn’t?”

“No, he didn’t,” Jamie said, “but a near thing—and no credit to the lady involved.”

“Who?”

“Colonel Miller’s lady.”

“Dear me.” Abigail Miller was a sprightly young blonde of twenty or so, and twenty or so years younger than her rather stout—and distinctly humorless—husband. “Just… how near a thing?”

“Near enough,” Jamie said grimly. “She had him up against a tree, rubbing up to him like a wee cat in heat. Though I imagine her husband will ha’ put a stop to her antics by now.”

“He saw them?”

“Aye. He and I were walking together, came round a bush, and there they were. It was clear enough to me that it wasna the lad’s idea—but he wasna resisting all that much, either.”

Colonel Miller had frozen for an instant, then strode forward, gripped his startled wife by the arm, and with a murmured “Good day, sir” to Jamie, had dragged her off, squealing, in the direction of his camp.

“Jesus H…. when did this happen?” I demanded.

Jamie glanced at the rising moon, estimating.

“Oh, maybe five or six hours ago.”

“And he’s already managed to fall in love with someone else?”

He smiled at me.

“Ever heard of coup de foudre, Sassenach? It didna take me more than one good look at you.”

“Hmm,” I said, pleased.

WITH SOME EFFORT, I heaved the heavy buffalo robe over the stack of cut fir branches that formed the foundation of our bed, spread our two blankets over the robe, then folded the whole thing over like a dumpling, creating a large, weatherproof, cozy pocket into which I inserted myself, shivering in my shift.

I left the tent flap open, watching Jamie as he drank coffee and talked with two militiamen who had come by to gossip.

As my feet thawed for the first time in a month, I relaxed into untrammeled bliss. Like most people obliged to live outdoors in the autumn, I normally slept in everything I owned. Women moving with the army would occasionally remove their stays—if it wasn’t raining, you saw them hung to air from tree branches in the mornings sometimes, like huge, malodorous birds poised for flight—but most simply loosened the ties and lay down regardless. Stays are quite comfortable to wear while standing up, but leave a lot to be desired in terms of nightwear.

Tonight, with the prospect of warm, waterproof shelter at hand, I had actually gone so far as to take off not only my stays—rolled up under my head as a pillow—but also skirt, blouse, jacket, and kerchief, crawling into bed in nothing save my shift and stockings. I felt absolutely depraved.

I stretched luxuriously and ran my hands down the length of my body, then thoughtfully cupped my br**sts, contemplating Jamie’s proposed plan of action.

The warmth of the buffalo robe was making me deliciously drowsy. I thought I needn’t struggle to stay awake; I could tell that Jamie wasn’t in any mood to forbear waking me out of chivalrous regard for my rest.

Had the fortuitous acquisition of the buffalo robe inspired him? I wondered, thumb dreamily circling one nipple. Or had sexual desperation inspired him to bet on the thing? What with his injured hand, it had been … how many days? I was absently totting up the total in my mind when I heard the low murmur of a new voice by the fire, and sighed.

Ian. Not that I wasn’t pleased to see him, but… oh, well. At least he hadn’t turned up just as we were…

He was sitting on one of the stones near the fire, head bent. He took something from his sporran and rubbed it thoughtfully between his fingers as he talked. His long, homely face was worried—but bore an odd sort of glow.

How peculiar, I thought. I’d seen it before, that look. A sort of intent concentration on something wonderful, a marvelous secret held to himself.

It was a girl, I thought, both amused and touched. He’d looked just that way at Mary, the young prostitute who had been his first. And Emily?

Well, yes… I thought so, though in that instance his joy in her had been terribly shadowed by the knowledge of his impending separation from everyone and everything else he loved.

Cruimnich, Jamie had said to him, laying his own plaid over Ian’s shoulders in farewell. “Remember.” I had thought my heart would break, to leave him—I knew Jamie’s had.

He was still wearing the same ragged plaid, pinned to the shoulder of his buckskins.

“Rachel Hunter?” Jamie said, loud enough for me to hear, and I jerked upright, startled.

“Rachel Hunter?” I echoed. “You’re in love with Rachel?”

Ian looked at me, startled by my jack-in-the-box appearance.

“Oh, there ye are, Auntie. I wondered where ye’d got to,” he said mildly.

“Rachel Hunter?” I repeated, not intending to let him elude the question.

“Well… aye. At least, I… well, aye. I am.” The admission made the blood rise in his cheeks; I could see it even by firelight.

“The lad is thinking we’d maybe have a word wi’ Denzell, Sassenach,” Jamie explained. He looked amused, but slightly worried, as well.

“A word? What for?”

Ian looked up and glanced from one to the other of us. “It’s only… Denny Hunter’s no going to like it. But he thinks the world of Auntie Claire, and he respects you, of course, Uncle Jamie.”

“Why would he not like it?” I asked. I had by now extracted myself from the robe and, wrapping my shawl round my shoulders, sat down on a rock beside him. My mind was racing. I liked Rachel Hunter very much. And I was very pleased—to say nothing of relieved—if Ian had at last found a decent woman to love. But…

Ian gave me a look.

“Surely ye’ve noticed that they’re Quaker, Auntie?”

“I did, yes,” I said, giving him back the look. “But—”

“And I’m not.”

“Yes, I’d noticed that, too. But—”

“She’d be put out of meeting, if she weds me. Most likely they both would. They’ve been put out once already for Denny’s going wi’ the army, and that was hard for her.”

“Oh,” said Jamie, pausing in the act of tearing off a bit of bread. He held it for a moment, frowning. “Aye, I suppose they would.” He put the bread into his mouth and chewed slowly, considering.

“Do you think she loves you, too, Ian?” I asked, as gently as possible.

Ian’s face was a study, torn between worry, alarm, and that inner glow that kept breaking through the clouds of distress.

“I—well… I think so. I hope so.”

“You haven’t asked her?”

“I… not exactly. I mean—we didna really talk, ken?”

Jamie swallowed his bread and coughed.

“Ian,” he said. “Tell me ye havena bedded Rachel Hunter.”

Ian gave him a look of affront. Jamie stared at him, brows raised. Ian dropped his gaze back to the object in his hands, rolling it between his palms like a ball of dough.

“No,” he muttered. “I wish I had, though.”

“What?”

“Well… if I had, then she’d have to wed me, no? I wish I’d thought of that—but no, I couldna; she said stop, and I did.” He swallowed, hard.

“Very gentlemanly of you,” I murmured, though in fact I rather saw his point. “And very intelligent of her.”

He sighed. “What am I to do, Uncle Jamie?”

“I don’t suppose you could become a Quaker yourself?” I asked hesitantly.

Both Jamie and Ian looked at me. They didn’t resemble each other in the slightest, but the look of ironic amusement on both faces was identical.

“I dinna ken very much about myself, Auntie,” Ian said, with a painful half smile, “but I think I wasna born to be a Quaker.”

“And I suppose you couldn’t—no, of course not.” The thought of professing a conversion that he didn’t mean had plainly never entered his mind.

It struck me quite suddenly that, of all people, Ian would understand exactly what the cost to Rachel would be if her love for him severed her from her people. No wonder he hesitated at the thought of her paying such a price.

Always assuming, I reminded myself, that she did love him. I had better have a talk with Rachel first.

Ian was still turning something over in his hands. Looking closer, I saw that it was a small, darkened, leathery-looking object. Surely it wasn’t—

“That isn’t Neil Forbes’s ear, is it?” I blurted.

“Mr. Fraser?”

The voice brought me up standing, hairs prickling at the back of my neck. Bloody hell, not him again? Sure enough, it was the Continental soldier, the despoiler of my soup. He came slowly into the circle of firelight, deep-set eyes fixed on Jamie.

“I am James Fraser, aye,” Jamie said, setting down his cup and gesturing politely toward a vacant rock. “Will ye take a cup of coffee, sir? Or what passes for it?”

The man shook his head, not speaking. He was looking Jamie over appraisingly, like one about to buy a horse and not sure of its temper.

“Perhaps ye’d prefer a warm cup o’ spittle?” Ian said, in an unfriendly tone. Jamie glanced at him, startled.

“Seo mac na muice a thàinig na bu thràithe gad shiubhal,” Ian added. He didn’t take his eyes off the stranger. “Chan eil e ag iarraidh math dhut idir ‘uncle.’This is the misbegotten son of a pig who came earlier in search of you. He means you no good, Uncle.”

“Tapadh leat Iain. Cha robh fios air a bhith agam,” Jamie answered in the same language, keeping his voice pleasantly relaxed. “Thank you, Ian. I should never have guessed. Have ye business with me, sir?” he asked, changing to English.

“I would speak with you, yes. In privacy,” the man added, with a dismissive glance at Ian. Apparently I didn’t count.

“This is my nephew,” Jamie said, still courteous but wary. “Ye may speak in front of him.”

“I fear ye may think differently, Mr. Fraser, when you hear what I’ve to say. And once said, such things cannot be unsaid. Leave, young man,” he said, not bothering to look at Ian. “Or you will both regret it.”

Both Jamie and Ian stiffened visibly. Then they moved, at nearly the same instant, bodies shifting subtly, their feet coming under them, shoulders squaring. Jamie gazed thoughtfully at the man for a moment, then inclined his head an inch toward Ian. Ian rose without a word and disappeared into the darkness.

The man stood waiting, until the sound of Ian’s footsteps had faded and the night settled into silence around the tiny fire. Then he moved round the fire and sat down slowly, opposite Jamie, still maintaining that unnerving air of scrutiny. Well, it unnerved me; Jamie merely picked up his cup and drained it, calm as though he were sitting at his own kitchen table.

“If ye’ve aught to say to me, sir, say it. It’s late, and I’m for my bed.”

“A bed with your lovely wife in it, I daresay. Lucky man.” I was beginning to dislike this gentleman intensely. Jamie ignored both the comment and the mocking tone in which it was spoken, leaning forward to pour the last of the coffee into his cup. I could smell the bitter tang of it, even over the scent the buffalo robe had left on my shift.

“Does the name of Willie Coulter recall itself to you?” the man asked abruptly.

“I’ve kent several men of that name and that ilk,” Jamie replied. “Mostly in Scotland.”

“Aye, it was in Scotland. On the day before the great slaughter at Culloden. But you had your own wee slaughter on that day, no?”

I had been racking my memory for any notion of a Willie Coulter. The mention of Culloden struck me like a fist in the stomach.

Jamie had been obliged to kill his uncle Dougal MacKenzie on that day. And there had been one witness to the deed besides me: a MacKenzie clansman named Willie Coulter. I had assumed him long dead, either at Culloden or in the difficulties that followed—and I was sure Jamie had thought likewise.

Our visitor rocked back a little on his rock, smiling sardonically.

“I was once overseer on a sugar plantation of some size, you see, on the island of Jamaica. We’d a dozen black slaves from Africa, but blacks of decent quality grow ever more expensive. And so the master sent me to market one day with a purse of silver, to look over a new crop of indentures—transported criminals, the most of them. From Scotland.”

And among the two dozen men the overseer had culled from the ragged, scrawny, lice-ridden ranks was Willie Coulter. Captured after the battle, tried and condemned in quick order, and loaded onto a ship for the Indies within a month, never to see Scotland again.

I could just see the side of Jamie’s face and saw a muscle jump in his jaw. Most of his Ardsmuir men had been similarly transported; only the interest of John Grey had saved him from the same fate, and he had distinctly mixed feelings about it, even so many years after the fact. He merely nodded, though, vaguely interested, as though listening to some traveler’s tale in an inn.

“They all died within two weeks,” the stranger said, his mouth twisting. “And so did the blacks. Bloody pricks brought some filthy fever with them from the ship. Lost me my position. But I did get one thing of value to take away with me. Willie Coulter’s last words.”

JAMIE HADN’T MOVED appreciably since Mr. X had sat down, but I could sense the tension thrumming through him; he was strung like a bow with the arrow nocked.

“What is it ye want?” he asked calmly, and leaned forward to pick up the tin mug of coffee, wrapped in rags.

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