The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 211

   

Jamie had buried the head, with due respect and a brief prayer, on a hill near the house—the first inhabitant of the small, sun-filled clearing intended as the future cemetery of Fraser’s Ridge. At Claire’s insistence, he had marked the small grave with a rough chunk of granite, unlabeled—for what was there to say?—but marbled with veins of green serpentine.

Was Fraser right? Ye should all go back, if the bairn can pass.

And if they didn’t go back . . . then someday they might all lie there in the sunny clearing together: himself, Brianna, Jemmy, each under a chunk of granite. The only difference was that each would bear a name. What on earth would they carve for dates? he wondered suddenly, and wiped sweat from his jaw. Jemmy’s would be no problem, but for the rest of them . . .

There was the rub, of course—or one of them. If the bairn can pass. If Claire’s theory was right, and the ability to pass through the stones was a genetic trait, like eye color or blood-type—then fifty/fifty, if Jemmy were Bonnet’s child; three chances out of four, or perhaps certainty, if he were Roger’s.

He hacked savagely at a clump of grass, not bothering to grasp it, and grain heads flew like shrapnel. Then he remembered the small pink figure underneath his pillow, and breathed deep. And if it worked, if there were to be another child, one that was his for sure, by blood? Odds three out of four—or perhaps another stone, one day, in the family graveyard.

The bag was almost full, and there was no more hay worth the cutting here. Fetching the hatchet, he slung the bag across his shoulder and made his way downhill, to the edge of the highest cornfield.

It bore no more resemblance to the British cornfields he had been used to than did the high meadows to a hayfield. Once a patch of virgin forest, the trees still stood, black and dead against the pale blue sky. They had been girdled and left to die, the corn planted in the open spaces between them.

It was the quickest way to clear land sufficiently for crops. With the trees dead, enough sunlight came through the leafless branches for the corn below. One or two or three years later, the dead tree roots would have rotted sufficiently to make it possible to push the trunks over, to be gradually cut for wood and hauled away. For now, though, they stood, an eerie band of black scarecrows, spreading empty arms across the corn.

The corn itself had been gathered; flocks of mourning doves foraged for bugs among the litter of dry stalks, and a covey of bobwhite took fright at Roger’s approach, scattering like a handful of marbles thrown across the ground. A ladder-backed woodpecker, secure above his head, uttered a brief shriek of startlement and paused in its hammering to inspect him before returning to its noisy excavations.

“You should be pleased,” he said to the bird, setting down the bag and unlimbering the hatchet from his belt. “More bugs for you, aye?” The dead trees were infested by myriad insects; several woodpeckers could be found in any field of girdled trees, heads cocked to hear the subterranean scratchings of their burrowing prey.

“Sorry,” he murmured under his breath to the tree he had selected. It was ridiculous to feel pity for a tree; the more so in this sprawling wilderness, where saplings sprang out of the thawing earth with such spring vigor as to crack solid rock and the mountains were so thickly blanketed with trees that the air itself was a smoky blue with their exhalations. For that matter, the emotion wouldn’t last longer than it took to begin the job; by the time he reached the third tree, he would be sweating freely and cursing the awkwardness of the work.

Still, he always approached the job with a faint reluctance, disliking the manner of it more than the result. Chopping down a tree for timber was straight-forward; girdling it seemed somehow mean-spirited, if practical, leaving the tree to die slowly, unable to bring water from its roots above the ring of bare, exposed wood. It was not so unpleasant in the fall, at least, when the trees were dormant and leafless already; it must be rather like dying in their sleep, he thought. Or hoped.

Chips of aromatic wood flew past his head, as he chopped his way briskly around the big trunk, and went on without pause to the next victim.

Needless to say, he took care never to let anyone hear him apologize to a tree. Jamie always said a prayer for the animals he killed, but Roger doubted that he would regard a tree as anything other than fuel, building material, or sheer bloody obstruction. The woodpecker screeched suddenly overhead. Roger swung round to see what had caused the alarm, but relaxed at once, seeing the small, wiry figure of Kenny Lindsay approaching through the trees. It appeared that Lindsay had come on the same business; he flourished his own girdling knife in cordial greeting.

“Madain mhath, a Smeòraich!” he shouted. “And what’s this I hear, that we’ve a newcomer?”

No longer even faintly surprised at the speed with which news passed over the mountain, Roger offered his ale-jug to Lindsay, and gave him the details of the new family.

“Christie is their name, is it?” Kenny asked.

“Yes. Thomas Christie, and his son and daughter. You’ll know him—he was at Ardsmuir.”

“Aye? Oh.”

There it was again, that faint tremor of reaction at Christie’s name.

“Christie,” Kenny Lindsay repeated. The tip of his tongue showed briefly, tasting the name. “Mm. Aye, well.”

“What’s the matter with Christie?” Roger demanded, feeling more uneasy by the minute.

“Matter?” Kenny looked startled. “Nothing’s the matter with him—is there?”

“No. I mean—you seemed a bit taken aback to hear his name. I wondered whether perhaps he was a known thief, or a drunkard, or the like.”

Enlightenment spread across Kenny’s stubbled face like sun on a morning meadow.

“Oh, aye, I take your meaning now. No, no, Christie’s a decent enough sort, so far as I ken the man.”

“So far as ye ken? Were ye not at Ardsmuir together, then? He said so.”

“Och, aye, he was there right enough,” Kenny agreed, but seemed still vaguely hesitant. Additional prodding by Roger elicited nothing, though, save a shrug, and after a few moments, they returned to the cutting, pausing only for the occasional swig of ale or water. The weather was cool, thank God, but working like that made the sweat run free, and at the end of the job, Roger took a last drink, and then poured the rest of his water over his head, gasping with the welcome chill on his heated skin.

“You’ll come ben for a bit, a Smeòraich?” Kenny laid down his ax and eased his back with a groan. He jerked his head toward the pines on the far side of the meadow. “My wee house is just there. The wife’s awa’ to sell her pork, but there’s fresh buttermilk in the spring.”

Roger nodded, smiling.

“I will then, Kenny, thanks.”

He went with Kenny to tend his beasts; Lindsay had two milch-goats and a penned sow. Kenny fetched them water from a small nearby creek, while Roger stacked the hay and threw a forkful into the goats’ manger.

“Nice pig,” Roger said politely, waiting while Kenny poured cracked corn into the trough for the sow, a big mottled creature with one ragged ear and a nasty look in her eye.

“Mean as a viper, and nearly as fast,” Kenny said, giving the pig a narrow look. “Near as Godalmighty took my hand off at the wrist yesterday. I meant to take her to Mac Dubh’s boar for breeding, but she wasna inclined to go.”

“Not much ye can do with a female who’s not in the mood,” Roger agreed.

Kenny wobbled his head from one side to the other, considering.

“Och, well, that’s as may be. There are ways to sweeten them, aye? That’s a trick my brother Evan taught me.” He gave Roger a gap-toothed grin, and nodded toward a barrel in the corner of the shed, that gave off the sweet pungency of fermenting corn.

“Aye?” Roger said, laughing. “Well, I hope it works, then.” He had an involuntary vision of Kenny and his imposing wife, Rosamund, in bed together, and wondered in passing whether alcohol played much part in their unlikely marriage.

“Oh, it’ll work,” Kenny said with confidence. “She’s a terror for the sour-mash, is that one. Trouble is, if ye give her enough to improve her disposition, she canna walk just so verra well. We’ll need to bring the boar to her, instead, when Mac Dubh’s on his feet.”

“Is she in season? I’ll bring the boar tomorrow,” Roger said, feeling reckless. Kenny looked startled, but then nodded, pleased.

“Aye, that’s kind, a Smeòraich.” He paused a moment, then added casually, “I hope Mac Dubh is on his feet soon, then. Will he be well enough to have met Tom Christie?”

“He hasn’t met him, no—but I told him.”

“Oh? Oh. Well, that’s fine, isn’t it?”

Roger narrowed his eyes, but Kenny looked away.

His sense of unease about Christie persisted, and seized by a sudden impulse, Roger leaned across the hay and grasped Kenny by the hand, startling the older man considerably. He gave the squeeze, the tap on the knuckle, and then let go.

Kenny gawked at him, blinking in the beam of sunlight from the door. Finally, he set down the empty pail, carefully wiped his hand on his ragged kilt, and offered it formally to Roger.

When he let go, they were still friendly, but the situation between them had altered, very subtly.

“Christie, too,” Roger observed, and Kenny nodded.

“Oh, aye. All of us.”

“All of you at Ardsmuir? And—Jamie?” He felt a sense of astonishment at the thought.

Kenny nodded again, bending to pick up his bucket.

“Oh, aye, it was Mac Dubh started it. Ye didna ken?”

No point in prevarication. He shook his head, dismissing the matter. He’d mention it to Jamie when he saw him—assuming Jamie was in any shape to be questioned then. He fixed Kenny with a direct look.

“So, then. About Christie. Is there anything wrong about the man?”

Lindsay’s earlier constraint had disappeared, now that it was no longer a matter of discussing a Masonic brother with an outsider. He shook his head.

“Och, no. It’s only I was a bit surprised to see him here. He didna quite get on sae well wi’ Mac Dubh, is all. If he had another place to go, I wouldna have thought he’d seek out Fraser’s Ridge.”

Roger was momentarily surprised by the revelation that there was someone from Ardsmuir who didn’t think the sun shone out of Jamie Fraser’s arse, though on consideration, there was no reason why this shouldn’t be so; God knew the man was quite as capable of making enemies as friends.

“Why?”

What he was asking was plain. Kenny looked about the goat-shed, as though seeking escape, but Roger stood between him and the door.

“No great matter,” he said, finally, shoulders slumping in capitulation. “Only Christie’s a Protestant, see?”

“Aye, I see,” Roger said, very dryly. “But he was put in with the Jacobite prisoners. So, was there trouble in Ardsmuir over it, is that what you’re telling me?”

Likely enough, he reflected. In his own time, there was no love lost between the Catholics and the stern Scottish sons of John Knox and his ilk. Nothing Scots liked better than a wee spot of religious warfare—and if you got right down to it, that’s what the entire Jacobite cause had been.

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