An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 126

   

“I know,” Roger said. “It was me you asked to save them, on the ship. The night the captain put the sick ones over the rail.”

Buccleigh looked up, startled, green eyes wide.

“Was it, then? I didna see ye at all, in the dark and me desperate. If I’d kent that…” He trailed off, then shook his head. “Well, what’s done is done.”

“It is,” Roger said. “I couldn’t see you in the dark, either. I only kent ye later, because of your wife and son, when I met them again at Alaman-k.” To his intense annoyance, the last sound caught in his throat with a glottal click. He cleared it and repeated evenly, “At Alamance.”

Buccleigh nodded slowly, eyes fastened with interest on Roger’s throat. Was that regret in his eyes? Probably not, Roger thought. He hadn’t thanked him for saving his wife and child, either.

“Aye. Well, I’d thought to take land and farm it, but… well, the long and the short of it was, I wasna much of a farmer. Nor a builder. Didna ken the first thing about the wilderness, not much more about crops. Not a hunter, either. We would ha’ starved, surely, had I not taken Morag and Jem—that’s my son’s name, too, is that not strange?—back down to the piedmont and scraped a little work on a wee turpentine plantation there.”

“Stranger than you know,” Bree said, half under her breath. And a little louder, “So?”

“So the fellow I worked for turned out for the Regulation, and those of us on the place went, too. I should have left Morag behind, but there was a fellow on the place who had a hot eye for her—he was the blacksmith and had but one leg, so he’d not be coming with us to the fight. I couldna leave her to him, so she and the wean came with me. Where the next fellow she meets is you,” he said pointedly.

“Did she not tell ye who I was?” Roger asked testily.

“Well, she did, then,” Buccleigh admitted. “She’d said about the ship and all, and said that was you. Even so,” he added, giving Roger a hard eye, “d’ye go about makin’ love to other men’s wives regular, or was it just Morag took your fancy?”

“Morag is my five—or maybe only four—times great-grandmother,” Roger said evenly. He fixed Buccleigh with a stare equal to the other man’s. “And since you asked me who ye are—you’re my grandda. Five or six times back. My son’s named Jeremiah after my da, who was named for his grandda—who was named for your son. I think,” he added. “I might be missing one or two Jeremiahs along the way.”

Buccleigh stared at him, stubbled face gone quite blank. He blinked once or twice, glanced at Brianna, who nodded, then returned his stare to Roger, carefully scrutinizing his face.

“Look at his eyes,” Brianna said helpfully. “Shall I bring you a mirror?”

Buccleigh’s mouth opened as though to answer, but he found no words and shook his head as though dislodging flies. He picked up his cup, stared into it for a moment as though astonished to find it empty, and set it down. Then looked at Brianna.

“Ye wouldna have anything in the house stronger than coffee, would ye, a bhana-mhaighstir?”

IT TOOK ROGER a little rummaging in his study to find the genealogical table the Reverend had drawn up years before. While he was gone, Bree found the bottle of Oban and poured William Buccleigh a generous glass. With no hesitation, she poured for herself and Roger, as well, and put a jug of water on the table.

“Do you take a little water?” she asked politely. “Or do you like it neat?”

Rather to her surprise, he reached at once for the water and splashed a little into the whisky. He saw her expression and smiled.

“If it was the rotgut, I’d throw it down. Whisky worth drinking, a little water opens the flavor. But ye ken that, don’t ye? Ye’re no Scots, though.”

“Yes, I am,” she said. “On my father’s side. His name is—was—James Fraser, of Lallybroch. They called him the Dunbonnet.”

He blinked, looked round the kitchen, then back at her.

“Are you… another, then?” he said. “Like your husband and me. Another of—whatever it is?”

“Whatever it is,” she agreed. “And yes. You knew my father?”

He shook his head, closing his eyes as he sipped, and took a moment to reply while the whisky made its way down.

“Dear Lord, that’s good,” he breathed, and opened his eyes. “Nay, I was born only a year or so before Culloden. I heard of the Dunbonnet, though, when I was a lad.”

“You said you weren’t much of a farmer,” Bree said curiously. “What did you do in Scotland, before you left?”

He took a deep breath and let it out through his nose, in just the way her father did. A MacKenzie thing, she thought, entertained.

“I was a lawyer,” he said abruptly, and picked up his glass.

“Well, there’s a useful profession,” Roger said, coming in in time to hear this. He eyed Buccleigh contemplatively, then shook his head and spread out the MacKenzie family tree on the tabletop.

“There you are,” he said, putting a finger on the relevant entry, then moved a finger down the page. “And there I am.” Buccleigh blinked at it, then bent closer to study it in silence. Brianna saw his throat move as he swallowed once or twice. His face was pale beneath the stubble when he looked up.

“Aye, those are my parents, my grandparents. And there’s wee Jem—my Jem—where he should be, right enough. I’ve another child, though,” he said suddenly, turning to Bree. “Or I think I have. Morag was breeding when I—when I—went.”

Roger sat down. His face had lost a little of the angry wariness, and he regarded William Buccleigh with what might be sympathy.

“Tell us that bit,” he suggested. “How you went.”

Buccleigh pushed across his empty whisky glass but didn’t wait for it to be refilled.

The owner of the plantation he’d worked on had been ruined in the wake of Alamance, gaoled for taking part in the Regulation and his property confiscated. The MacKenzies had drifted for a time, having no money and no home, no close kin who might help them.

Brianna exchanged a quick glance with Roger. Had Buccleigh known it, he was within a short distance of close kin—and wealthy kin, at that. Jocasta Cameron was Dougal MacKenzie’s sister—this man’s aunt. If he knew it.

She raised her brows in silent question to Roger, but he shook his head slightly. Let that wait.

At last, Buccleigh said, they’d made the decision to go back to Scotland. Morag had family there, a brother in Inverness who’d done well for himself, was a prosperous corn chandler. Morag had written to him, and he had urged them to come back, saying he would find a place for William in his business.

“At that point, I should ha’ been glad of a place shoveling dung out of the holds of cattle ships,” Buccleigh admitted with a sigh. “Ephraim—that’s Morag’s brother, Ephraim Gunn—said he thought he might have use for a clerk, though. And I can write a fair hand and do sums.”

The lure of work—work that he was well equipped to do—and a place to live was strong enough to make the little family willing to embark once more on the perilous Atlantic voyage. Ephraim had sent a draft on his bank for their passage, and so they had come back, landing in Edinburgh, and from there had made their slow way north.

“By wagon, for the most part.” Buccleigh was on his third glass of whisky, Brianna and Roger not so far behind. He poured a little water into his empty glass and swished it round his mouth before swallowing, to clear his throat, then coughed and went on.

“The wagon broke down—again—near the place they call Craigh na Dun. I’m thinking the two of ye will know it?” He glanced back and forth between them, and they nodded. “Aye. Well, Morag wasna feeling all that peart, and the bairn was peely-wally, too, so they lay down in the grass to sleep a bit whilst the wheel was mending. The drover had a mate and didna need my help, so I set off to stretch my legs.”

“And you climbed the hill, to the stones,” Brianna said, her own chest feeling tight at the thought.

“Do you know what date it was?” Roger broke in.

“Summer,” William Buccleigh said slowly. “Near Midsummer Day, but I couldna swear to the day exactly. Why?”

“The summer solstice,” Brianna said, and hiccuped slightly. “It’s—we think it’s open. The—whatever it is—on the sun feasts and the fire feasts.”

The sound of a car coming down the drive came faintly to them, and all three looked up as though surprised in some furtive business.

“Annie and the kids. What are we going to do with him?” she asked Roger.

He glanced with narrowed eyes at Buccleigh for an instant, then made up his mind. “We’ll need a bit of thought to explain ye,” Roger said, rising. “Just for the moment, though—come with me, aye?”

Buccleigh stood at once and followed Roger into the scullery. She heard Buccleigh’s voice rise in momentary astonishment, a brief mutter of explanation from Roger, then the grating noise as they moved the bench that hid the access panel covering the priest’s hole.

Moving as if in a trance, Brianna rose hastily to clear and wash the three glasses, to put away the whisky and water. Hearing the knocker go against the front door, she jumped a little. Not the kids, after all. Who could that be?

She swept the family tree off the table and hurried down the hall, pausing to toss it onto Roger’s desk as she made her way to the door.

How old is he? she thought abruptly, as she reached for the handle. He looks to be in his late thirties, maybe, but—

“Hi,” said Rob Cameron, looking faintly alarmed at the look on her face. “Have I come at a bad time, then?”

ROB HAD COME to bring back a book Roger had lent him and to deliver an invitation: would Jem like to come to the pictures with Bobby on the Friday, then have a nice fish supper and spend the night?

“I’m sure he would,” Brianna said. “But he’s not—oh, there he is.” Annie had just driven up, with a clashing of gears that made the engine die in the driveway. Brianna shuddered slightly, pleased that Annie hadn’t taken her car.

By the time the kids had been extracted from the car, wiped off, and made to shake hands politely with Mr. Cameron, Roger had come out from the back of the house and was at once drawn into a conversation about his efforts on the chapel, which went on to such an extent that it became obvious that it was supper-time, and it would have been rude not to ask him to stay…

And so Brianna found herself scrambling eggs and heating beans and frying potatoes in a sort of daze, thinking of their uninvited guest under the scullery floor, who must be smelling the cooking and dying of hunger—and what on earth were they going to do with him?

All the time they ate, making pleasant conversation, herding the kids off to bed while Roger and Rob talked Pictish stones and archaeological excavations in the Orkneys, she found her mind dwelling on William Buccleigh MacKenzie.

The Orkneys, she thought. Roger said the Nuckelavee is an Orkney ghoulie. Has he been in the Orkneys? When? And why the bloody hell was he hanging round our broch all this time? When he found what had happened, why didn’t he just go right back? What is he doing here?

By the time Rob took his leave—and another book—with profuse thanks for the food and a reminder of the movie date on Friday, she was prepared to haul William Buccleigh out of the priest’s hole by the scruff of the neck, drive him straight to Craigh na Dun herself, and stuff him bodily into a stone.

But when he finally clambered out, moving slowly, white-faced and clearly hungry, she found her agitation lessening. Just a little. She made fresh eggs for him, quickly, and sat with him while Roger went round the house, checking doors and windows.

“Though I suppose we needn’t worry so much about that,” she observed caustically, “since you’re inside now.”

He looked up, tired but wary.

“I did say I was sorry,” he said softly. “D’ye want me to go?”

“And where would you go, if I said yes?” she asked unkindly.

He turned his face toward the window over the kitchen sink. In the daylight, it looked out on peace, on the kailyard with its worn wooden gate and the pasture beyond. Now there was nothing out there but the black of a moonless Highland night. The sort of night when Christians stayed indoors and put holy water on the doorposts, because the things that walked the moors and the high places were not always holy.

He didn’t say anything but swallowed, and she saw the fair hairs on his forearms rise.

“You don’t have to go,” she said, gruff. “We’ll find you a bed. But tomorrow…”

He bobbed his head, not looking at her, and made to rise. She stopped him with a hand on his arm and he looked at her, startled, his eyes dark in the quiet light.

“Just tell me one thing now,” she said. “Do you want to go back?”

“Oh, God, yes,” he said, and turned his head away, but his voice was thick. “I want Morag. I want my wee lad.”

She let go of his wrist and stood up, but another thought had occurred to her.

“How old are you?” she asked abruptly, and he shrugged, brushing the back of his wrist across his eyes.

“Eight and thirty,” he said. “Why?”

“Just… curious,” she said, and moved to turn the Aga’s heat down to its nighttime setting. “Come with me; I’ll make you a bed in the parlor. Tomorrow we’ll—we’ll see.”

She led him down the hall past Roger’s study, and in her stomach was a ball of ice. The light was on, and the family tree Roger had taken out to show William Buccleigh was still where she’d tossed it, on the desk. Had he seen the date? She thought not—or if he had, he hadn’t noticed. The dates of birth and death weren’t listed for everyone on that table—but they were for him. William Buccleigh MacKenzie had died, according to that table, at age thirty-eight.

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