I put out a finger and delicately flicked the tiny drop away, before it further dampened his shirt.
“You’ve been telling him for two months that he has to go home to Scotland; he doesn’t want to hear that, I don’t think.”
Jamie opened one eye and surveyed me cynically.
“Is he in Scotland?”
“Mmphm,” he said, and closed the eye again.
I sat quietly for a bit, blotting the perspiration off my face with a fold of my skirt. The river had narrowed here; the near bank was no more than ten feet away. I caught a rustle of movement among the shrubs, and a pair of eyes gleamed briefly red with reflected light from our lantern.
Rollo lifted his head with a sudden low Woof, ears pricked to attention. Jamie opened his eyes and glanced at the bank, then sat up abruptly.
“Christ! That’s the biggest rat I’ve ever seen!”
“It’s not a rat; it’s a possum. See the babies on her back?”
Jamie and Rollo regarded the possum with identical looks of calculation, assessing its plumpness and possible speed. Four small possums stared solemnly back, pointed noses twitching over their mother’s humped, indifferent back. Obviously thinking the boat no threat, the mother possum finished lapping water, turned, and trundled slowly into the brush, the tip of her nak*d thick pink tail disappearing as the lantern light faded.
The two hunters let out identical sighs, and relaxed again.
“Myers did say as they’re fine eating,” Jamie remarked wistfully. With a small sigh of my own, I groped in the pocket of my gown and handed him a cloth bag.
“What’s this?” He peered interestedly into the bag, then poured the small, lumpy brown objects out into the palm of his hand.
“Roasted peanuts,” I said. “They grow underground hereabouts. I found a farmer selling them for hogfood, and had the inn-wife roast some for me. You take off the shells before you eat them.” I grinned at him, enjoying the novel sensation of for once knowing more about our surroundings than he did.
He gave me a mildly dirty look, and crushed a shell between thumb and forefinger, yielding three nuts.
“I’m ignorant, Sassenach,” he said. “Not a fool. There’s a difference, aye?” He put a peanut in his mouth and bit down gingerly. His skeptical look changed to one of pleased surprise, and he chewed with increasing enthusiasm, tossing the other nuts into his mouth.
“Like them?” I smiled, enjoying his pleasure. “I’ll make you peanut butter for your bread, once we’re settled and I have my new mortar unpacked.”
He smiled back and swallowed before cracking another nut.
“I will say that if it’s a swampish place, at least it’s fine soil. I’ve never seen so many things grow so easily.”
He tossed another nut into his mouth.
“I have been thinking, Sassenach,” he said, looking down into the palm of his hand. “What would ye think of maybe settling here?”
The question wasn’t entirely unexpected. I had seen him eyeing the black fields and lush crops with a farmer’s glittering eye, and caught his wistful expression when he admired the Governor’s horses.
We couldn’t go back to Scotland immediately, in any case. Young Ian, yes, but not Jamie or me, owing to certain complications—not the least of these being a complication by the name of Laoghaire MacKenzie.
“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “Indians and wild animals quite aside—”
“Och, well,” he interrupted, mildly embarrassed. “Myers told me they were no difficulty at all, and ye keep clear of the mountains.”
I forbore from pointing out that the Governor’s offer would take us into the precincts of precisely those mountains.
“Yes, but you do remember what I told you, don’t you? About the Revolution? This is 1767, and you heard the conversation at the Governor’s table. Nine years, Jamie, and all hell breaks loose.” We had both lived through war, and neither of us took the thought lightly. I laid a hand on his arm, forcing him to look at me.
“I was right, you know—before.” I had known what would happen at Culloden; had told him the fate of Charles Stuart and his men. And neither my knowing nor his had been enough to save us. Twenty aching years of separation, and the ghost of a daughter he would never see lay behind that knowing.
He nodded slowly, and lifted a hand to touch my cheek. The soft glow of the small lantern overhead attracted clouds of tiny gnats; they swirled suddenly, disturbed by his movement.
“Aye, ye were,” he said softly. “But then—we thought we must change things. Or try, at the least. But here—” He turned, waving an arm at the vast land that lay unseen beyond the trees. “I shouldna think it my business,” he said simply. “Either to help or to hinder much.”
I waved the gnats away from my face.
“It might be our business, if we lived here.”
He rubbed a finger below his lower lip, thinking. His beard was sprouting, a glimmer of red stubble sparked with silver in the lantern light. He was a big man, handsome and strong in the prime of his life, but no longer a young one, and I realized that with sudden gratitude.
Highland men were bred to fight; Highland boys became men when they could lift their swords and go to battle. Jamie had never been reckless, but he had been a warrior and a soldier most of his life. As a young man in his twenties, nothing could have kept him from a fight, whether it was his own or not. Now, in his forties, sense might temper passion—or at least I hoped so.
And it was true; beyond this aunt whom he didn’t know, he had no family here, no ties that might compel involvement. Perhaps, knowing what was coming, we might contrive to stay clear of the worst?
“It’s a verra big place, Sassenach.” He looked out over the prow of the boat, into the vast black sweep of invisible land. “Only since we left Georgia, we have traveled farther than the whole length of Scotland and England both.”
“That’s true,” I admitted. In Scotland, even among the high crags of the Highlands, there had been no way to escape the ravages of war. Not so here; should we seek our place carefully, we might indeed escape the roving eye of Mars.
He tilted his head to one side, smiling up at me.
“I could see ye as a planter’s lady, Sassenach. If the Governor will find me a buyer for the other stones, then I shall have enough, I think, to send Laoghaire all the money I promised her, and still have enough over to buy a good place—one where we might prosper.”
He took my right hand in his, his thumb gently stroking my silver wedding ring.
“Perhaps one day I shall deck ye in laces and jewels,” he said softly. “I havena been able to give ye much, ever, save a wee silver ring, and my mother’s pearls.”
“You’ve given me a lot more than that,” I said. I wrapped my fingers around his thumb and squeezed. “Brianna, for one.”
He smiled faintly, looking down at the deck.
“Aye, that’s true. She’s maybe the real reason—for staying, I mean.”
I pulled him toward me, and he rested his head against my knee.
“This is her place, no?” he said quietly. He lifted a hand, gesturing toward the river, the trees and the sky. “She will be born here, she’ll live here.”
“That’s right,” I said softly. I stroked his hair, smoothing the thick strands that were so much like Brianna’s. “This will be her country.” Hers, in a way it could never be mine or his, no matter how long we might live here.
He nodded, beard rasping gently against my skirt.
“I dinna wish to fight, or have ye ever in danger, Sassenach, but if there is a bit I can do…to build, maybe, to make it safe, and a good land for her…” He shrugged. “It would please me,” he finished softly.
We sat silently for a bit, close together, watching the dull shine of the water and the slow progress of the sunken lantern.
“I left the pearls for her,” I said at last. “That seemed right; they were an heirloom, after all.” I drew my ringed hand, curved, across his lips. “And the ring is all I need.”
He took both my hands in his, then, and kissed them—the left, which still bore the gold ring of my marriage to Frank, and then the right, with his own silver ring.
“Da mi basia mille,” he whispered, smiling. Give me a thousand kisses. It was the inscription inside my ring, a brief quotation from a love song by Catullus. I bent and gave him one back.
“Dein mille altera,” I said. Then a thousand more.
It was near midnight when we tied up near a brushy grove to rest. The weather had changed; still hot and muggy, now the air held the hint of thunder, and the undergrowth stirred with small movements—random air currents, or the scurryings of tiny night things hastening for home before the storm.
We were nearly at the end of the tidal surge; from here it would be a matter of sail and pole, and Captain Freeman had hopes of catching a good breeze on the wings of a storm. It would pay us to rest while we could. I curled into our nest on the stern, but was unable to fall asleep at once, late as it was.
By the Captain’s estimation, we might make Cross Creek by evening tomorrow—certainly by the day after. I was surprised to realize how eagerly I was looking forward to our arrival; two months of living hand-to-mouth on the road had given me an urgent longing for some haven, no matter how temporary.
Familiar as I was with Highland notions of hospitality and kinship, I had no fears regarding our welcome. Jamie plainly did not consider the fact that he hadn’t met this particular aunt in forty-odd years to be any bar to our cordial reception, and I was quite sure he was right. At the same time, I couldn’t help entertaining considerable curiosity about Jocasta Cameron.
There had been five MacKenzie siblings, the children of old Red Jacob, who had built Castle Leoch. Jamie’s mother, Ellen, had been the eldest, Jocasta the youngest. Janet, the other sister, had died, like Ellen, well before I met Jamie, but I had known the two brothers, Colum and Dougal, quite well indeed, and from that knowledge, couldn’t help speculating as to what this last MacKenzie of Leoch might be like.
Tall, I thought, with a glance at Jamie, curled up peacefully on the deck beside me. Tall, and maybe red-haired. They were all tall—even Colum, victim of a crippling degenerative disease, had been tall to begin with—fair skinned Vikings, the lot of them, with a ruddy blaze to their coloring that shimmered from Jamie’s fiery red through his uncle Dougal’s deep russet. Only Colum had been truly dark.
Remembering Colum and Dougal, I felt a sudden stir of unease. Colum had died before Culloden, killed by his disease. Dougal had died on the eve of the battle—killed by Jamie. It had been a matter of self-defense—my self, in fact—and only one of so many deaths in that bloody April. Still, I did wonder whether Jamie had given any thought as to what he might say, when the greetings were past at River Run, and the casual family chat got round to “Oh, and when did you last see So-and-so?”
Jamie sighed and stretched in his sleep. He could—and did—sleep well on any surface, accustomed as he had been to sleeping in conditions that ranged from wet heather to musty caves to the cold stone floors of prison cells. I supposed the wooden decking under us must be thoroughly comfortable by contrast.