The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 139

   

“Is he right, though? About it being a capital crime to tamper with a body?”

“I dinna ken,” Jamie said, rather shortly. Stripped to the waist, stained with blood and vomit, and with his red hair wild in the lantern light, he looked a far cry from the polished gentleman who had gone off to play whist.

“It scarcely matters,” he added, “as he isna going to tell anyone about it. Because if he does, I shall cut him like a stirk and feed both his ballocks and his lying tongue to the pigs.” He touched the hilt of his dirk, as though assuring himself that it was handy if wanted.

“But I am sure ye dinna mean to make any such unfounded accusations regarding my wife, do ye . . . sir?” he said to Wylie, with excessive politeness.

I was not surprised to see Phillip Wylie shake his head, evidently still incapable of speech. Jamie made a noise of grim satisfaction and stooped to pick up the cloak he had dropped earlier.

Feeling rather weak-kneed after this latest exhibition of the male sense of honor, I sat down on the bucket.

“All right,” I said, and pushed back a strand of hair. “Fine. If we’ve got all that settled, then . . . where were we?”

“Betty’s murder,” Roger prompted. “We don’t know who, we don’t know when, and we don’t know why—though for the sake of argument, might I suggest we assume that no one amongst the present company had anything to do with it?”

“Verra well.” Jamie dismissed murder with a brusque gesture and sat down. “What about Stephen Bonnet?”

Roger’s expression, hitherto one of interest, darkened at that.

“Aye, what about him? Is he involved in this business?”

“Not in the murder, perhaps—but my aunt and her husband were assaulted in their chamber last evening by two villains. One of whom was an Irishman.” Jamie wrapped his cloak about his bare shoulders, bending a sinister glance on Phillip Wylie, who had recovered sufficiently to sit up.

“I repeat,” he said coldly, hands still pressed against his stomach, “that I have no acquaintance with a gentleman of that name, whether Irishman or Hottentot.”

“Stephen Bonnet is not a gentleman,” Roger said. The words were mild enough, but carried an undertone that made Wylie glance up at him.

“I do not know the fellow,” he said firmly. He took a shallow breath by way of experiment, and finding it bearable, breathed deeper. “Why do you suppose that the Irishman who committed the outrage upon Mr. and Mrs. Innes should be this Bonnet? Did he leave his card, perchance?”

I laughed, surprising myself. In spite of everything, I had to admit to a certain amount of respect for Phillip Wylie. Held captive, battered, threatened, doused with coffee, and deprived of his wig, he retained a good deal more dignity than would most men in his situation.

Jamie glanced at me, then back at Wylie. I thought the corner of his mouth twitched, but it was impossible to tell in the dim light.

“No,” he said. “I do claim some acquaintance with Stephen Bonnet, who is a felon, a degenerate, and a thief. And I saw the man with ye, sir, when ye happened upon my wife and myself at the shed.”

“Yes,” I said. “I saw him, too—standing right behind you. And what were you doing there, anyway?” I asked, this question suddenly occurring to me.

Wylie’s eyes had widened at Jamie’s accusation. At my statement, he blinked. He took another deep breath and looked down, rubbing his knuckles beneath his nose. Then he looked up at Jamie, the bluster gone.

“I do not know him,” he said quietly. “I had some thought that I was followed, but, glancing behind me, I saw no one, and so paid it no great mind. When I . . . saw what lay within the shed”—his eyes flicked toward me, but would not quite meet my own—“I was too much shocked to give heed to aught but what lay before my eyes.”

That, I could believe.

Wylie lifted his shoulders, and let them fall.

“If this Bonnet was indeed behind me, then I must take your word for it, sir. And yet I assure you that he was not there by my doing, nor with my recognition.”

Jamie and Roger exchanged glances, but they could hear the ring of truth in Wylie’s words, just as I could. There was a brief silence, in which I could hear the horses moving in their stalls. They were no longer agitated, but were getting restive, anticipating food. Dawn light was filtering through the cracks beneath the eaves, a soft, smoky radiance that leached the air inside the stable of all color, and yet revealed the dim outlines of harness hanging on the wall, pitchforks and shovels standing in the corner.

“The grooms will be coming soon.” Jamie stirred and drew breath, drawing up his shoulders in a half-shrug. He glanced back at Wylie.

“Verra well, sir. I accept your word as a gentleman.”

“Do you? I am flattered.”

“Still,” Jamie went on, pointedly ignoring the sarcasm, “I should like to know what it was that brought ye to the shed last night.”

Wylie had half-risen from his seat. At this, he hesitated, then slowly sat again. He blinked once or twice, as though thinking, then sighed, giving up.

“Lucas,” he said simply. He didn’t look up, but kept his eyes fixed on his hands, hanging limp between his thighs. “I was there, the night he was foaled. I raised him, broke him to the saddle, trained him.” He swallowed once; I saw the tremor move beneath the frill at his neck. “I came to the stable to have a few moments alone with him . . . to bid him farewell.”

For the first time, Jamie’s face lost the shadow of dislike that it bore whenever he looked at Wylie. He breathed deep, and nodded slightly.

“Aye, I see,” he said quietly. “And then?”

Wylie straightened a little.

“When I left the stable, I thought I heard voices near the wall of the kitchen garden. And when I came nearer to see what might be afoot, I saw light shining through the cracks of the shed.” He shrugged. “I opened the door. And you know better than I what happened then, Mr. Fraser.”

Jamie rubbed a hand hard over his face, then shook his head hard.

“Aye,” he said. “I do. I went for Bonnet, and ye got in my way.”

“You attacked me,” Wylie said coldly. He hitched the ruined coat higher up on his shoulders. “I defended myself, as I had every right to do. And then you and your son-in-law seized me between you, frog-marched me in there”—he jerked his chin at the box stall behind him—“and held me captive half the night!”

Roger cleared his throat. So did Jamie, though with more dour intent.

“Aye, well,” he said. “We willna argue about it.” He sighed and stood back, gesturing to Wylie that he might go. “I suppose ye didna see in which direction Bonnet fled?”

“Oh, yes. Though I did not know his name, of course. I expect he is well beyond reach by now,” Wylie said. There was an odd note in his voice; something like satisfaction. Jamie turned sharply.

“What d’ye mean?”

“Lucas.” Wylie nodded down the dim aisle of the stable, toward the shadows at the farther end. “His stall is at the far end. I know his voice well, the sound of his movement. And I have not heard him this morning. Bonnet—if that was who it was—fled toward the stable.”

Before Wylie had finished talking, Jamie had seized the lantern and was striding down the stable. Horses thrust inquiring noses over their stall doors as he passed, snorting and whuffling in curiosity—but no black nose appeared at the end of the row, no black mane floated out in joyous greeting. The rest of us hastened after him, leaning to see past him as he held the lantern high.

The yellow light shone on empty straw.

We stood silent for a long moment, looking. Then Phillip Wylie sighed and drew himself up.

“If I no longer have him, Mr. Fraser—neither do you.” His eyes rested on me, then, darkly ironic. “But I wish you joy of your wife.”

He turned and walked away, stockings sagging, the red heels of his shoes winking in the growing light.

OUTSIDE, dawn was breaking, still and lovely. Only the river seemed to move, the spreading light flashing silver on its current beyond the trees.

Roger had gone off to the house, yawning, but Jamie and I lingered by the paddock. People would be stirring within minutes; there would be more questions, speculations, talk. Neither one of us wanted any more talk; not now.

At last, Jamie put his arm about my shoulders, and with an air of decision, turned away from the house. I didn’t know where he was going, and didn’t much care, though I did hope I could lie down when we got there.

We passed the smithy, where a small, sleepy-looking boy was blowing up the forge with a pair of bellows, making red sparks float and flash like fireflies in the shadows. Past the outbuildings, around a corner, and then we were in front of a nondescript shed with a large double door. Jamie lifted the latch and swung one door open a bit, beckoning me inside.

“I canna think why I never thought of this place,” he said, “when I was looking for a spot to be private.”

We were in the carriage shed. A wagon and a small buggy stood in the shadows, as did Jocasta’s phaeton. An open carriage like a large sleigh on two wheels, it had a bench seat with blue velvet squabs, and a scroll-like singletree like the prow of a ship. Jamie picked me up by the waist and swung me in, then clambered up after me. There was a buffalo robe lying across the squabs; he pulled this off and spread it on the floor of the phaeton. There was just room for two people to curl up there, if they didn’t mind lying close together.

“Come on, Sassenach,” he said, sinking to his knees. “Whatever comes next . . . it can wait.”

I quite agreed. Though on the verge of unconsciousness, I couldn’t help drowsily asking, “Your aunt . . . do you trust her? What she said, about the gold and all?”

“Oh, aye, of course I do,” he mumbled in my ear. His arm was heavy where it lay over my waist. “At least as far as I could throw her.”

55

DEDUCTIONS

AT LAST FORCED FROM OUR REFUGE by thirst and hunger, we made our way out of the carriage shed and past the tactfully averted eyes of the yard slaves, still busy clearing up the debris from the wedding feast. At the edge of the lawn, I saw Phaedre, coming up from the mausoleum with her arms full of plates and cups that had been left in the shrubbery. Her face was swollen and blotched with grief, and her eyes were red, but she was not crying.

She saw us, and stopped.

“Oh,” she said. “Miss Jo be lookin’ for you, Master Jamie.”

She spoke dully, as though the words had little meaning for her, and appeared to find nothing odd in our sudden appearance or disheveled dress.

“Oh? Aye.” Jamie rubbed a hand over his face, nodding. “Aye, I’ll go up to her.”

She nodded, and was turning to go when Jamie reached out and touched her shoulder.

“I’m sorry for your trouble, lass,” he said quietly.

Sudden tears welled in her eyes and spilled over, but she didn’t speak. She dropped a brief curtsy, turned, and hurried away, moving so fast that a knife fell from the stack of crockery, bouncing on the grass behind her.

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