The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 23

   

“Well, it might have been,” Roger murmured modestly. The lady’s unbounded admiration—expressed at great length—flattered him, and made him ashamed of his momentary resentment of her husband. After all, he thought, seeing the shabbiness of her much-mended apron, and the lines in her face, the old people had clearly had a hard time of it. Perhaps Jamie had hired them as much from charity as from his own need of help.

That made him feel somewhat better, and he thanked Mrs. Bug very graciously for her assistance.

“Will ye come along to our fire now?” he asked, with an inquiring glance at Mr. Bug. “Ye’ll not have met Mrs. Fraser yet, I suppose, or—”

He was interrupted by a noise like a fire engine’s siren, distant but obviously coming closer. Quite familiar with this particular racket, he was not surprised to see his father-in-law emerge from one of the trails that crisscrossed the mountain, Jem squirming and squalling like a scalded cat in his arms.

Jamie, looking mildly harried, handed the child across to Roger. Roger took him and—for lack of any other inspiration—stuck his thumb in the wide-open mouth. The noise ceased abruptly, and everyone relaxed.

“What a sweet laddie!” Mrs. Bug stood a-tiptoe to coo over Jem, while Jamie, looking highly relieved, turned to greet Mr. Bug and Duncan.

“Sweet” was not the adjective Roger himself would have chosen. “Berserk” seemed more like it. The baby was bright red in the face, the tracks of tears staining his cheeks, and he sucked furiously on the sustaining thumb, eyes squashed shut in an effort to escape a patently unsatisfactory world. What hair he had was sticking up in sweaty spikes and whorls, and he had come out of his wrappings, which hung in disreputable folds and draggles. He also smelled like a neglected privy, for reasons which were all too obvious.

An experienced father, Roger at once instituted emergency measures.

“Where’s Bree?”

“God knows, and He’s no telling,” Jamie said briefly. “I’ve been searchin’ the mountainside for her since the wean woke in my arms and decided he wasna satisfied wi’ my company.” He sniffed suspiciously at the hand which had been holding his grandson, then wiped it on the skirts of his coat.

“He’s not so very pleased with mine, either, seems like.” Jem was champing on the thumb, drool running down his chin and over Roger’s wrist, uttering squeals of frustration. “Have ye seen Marsali, then?” He knew Brianna didn’t like anyone to feed Jemmy but herself, but this was plainly an emergency. He cast an eye about, hoping to spot a nursing mother somewhere nearby who might take pity on the child, if not on him.

“Let me have the poor wee bairnie,” said Mrs. Bug, reaching for the baby and immediately altering her status from chattering busybody to angel of light, so far as Roger was concerned.

“There, now, a leannan, there, there.” Recognizing a higher authority when he saw it, Jemmy promptly shut up, his eyes rounded with awe as he regarded Mrs. Bug. She sat down with the little boy on her lap and began to deal with him in the same firm and efficient manner with which she had just dealt with his father. Roger thought that perhaps Jamie had hired the wrong Bug to be factor.

Arch, though, was exhibiting both intelligence and competence, asking sensible questions of Jamie regarding stock, crops, tenants, and so forth. But I could do that, Roger thought, following the conversation closely. Some of it, he amended honestly, as the talk suddenly veered into a discussion of bag-rot. Perhaps Jamie was right to seek someone more knowledgeable . . . but Roger could learn, after all. . . .

“And who’s the bonnie laddie, noo?” Mrs. Bug had risen to her feet, cooing over Jemmy, now respectably transformed into a tightly swaddled cocoon. She traced the line of a round cheek with one stubby finger, then glanced at Roger. “Aye, aye, he’s eyes just like his father, then, hasn’t he?”

Roger flushed, forgetting about bag-rot.

“Oh? I should say he favors his mother, mostly.”

Mrs. Bug pursed her lips, narrowing her eyes at Roger, then shook her head decidedly, and patted Jem on the top of his head.

“Not the hair, maybe, but the shape of him, aye, that’s yours, lad. Those fine broad shoulders!” She gave Roger a brief nod of approval, and kissed Jem on the brow. “Why, I shouldna be surprised but what his een will turn green as he ages, either. Mark me, lad, he’ll be the spit of you by the time he’s grown! Won’t ye, wee mannie?” She nuzzled Jemmy. “Ye’ll be a big, braw lad like your Da, won’t ye, then?”

It’s the usual thing folk say, he reminded himself, trying to quell the absurd rush of pleasure he felt at her words. The old wifies, they always say how a bairn resembles this one or that one. He discovered suddenly that he was afraid even to admit the possibility that Jemmy could really be his—he wanted it so badly. He told himself firmly that it didn’t matter; whether the boy was his by blood or not, he would love and care for him as his son. He would, of course. But it did matter, he found—oh, it did.

Before he could say anything further to Mrs. Bug, though, Mr. Bug turned toward him, to include him courteously in the men’s conversation.

“MacKenzie, is it?” he asked. “And will ye be one of the MacKenzies of Torridon, then, or maybe from Kilmarnock?”

Roger had been fielding similar questions all through the Gathering; exploring a person’s antecedents was the normal beginning of any Scottish conversation—something that wouldn’t change a bit in the next two hundred years, he thought, wariness tempered by the comfortable familiarity of the process. Before he could answer, though, Jamie’s hand squeezed his shoulder.

“Roger Mac’s kin to me on my mother’s side,” he said casually. “It will be MacKenzie of Leoch, aye?”

“Oh, aye?” Arch Bug looked impressed. “You’re far afield, then, lad!”

“Och, no more than yourself, sir, surely—or anyone here, for that matter.” Roger waved briefly at the mountainside above, from which the sounds of Gaelic shouts and the music of bagpipes drifted on the damp air.

“No, no, lad!” Mrs. Bug, Jemmy propped against her shoulder, rejoined the conversation. “That’s no what Arch is meanin’,” she explained. “It’s that you’re a good long way from the others.”

“Others?” Roger exchanged a look with Jamie, who shrugged, equally puzzled.

“From Leoch,” Arch got in, before his wife seized the thread of talk between her teeth.

“We did hear it on the ship, aye? There were a gaggle of them, all MacKenzies, all from the lands south of the auld castle. They’d stayed on after the laird left, him and the first lot, but now they meant to go and join what was left o’ the clan, and see could they mend their fortunes, because—”

“The laird?” Jamie interrupted her sharply. “That would be Hamish mac Callum?” Hamish, son of Colum, Roger translated to himself, and paused. Or rather, Hamish mac Dougal—but there were only five people in the world who knew that. Perhaps only four, now.

Mrs. Bug was nodding emphatically. “Aye, aye, it is himself they were calling so. Hamish mac Callum MacKenzie, laird of Leoch. The third laird. They said it, just so. And—”

Jamie had evidently caught the knack of dealing with Mrs. Bug; by dint of ruthless interruption, he succeeded in extracting the story in less time than Roger would have thought possible. Castle Leoch had been destroyed by the English, in the purge of the Highlands following Culloden. So much Jamie had known, but, imprisoned himself, had had no word of the fate of those who lived there.

“And no great heart to ask,” he added, with a rueful tilt of the head. The Bugs glanced at each other and sighed in unison, the same hint of melancholy shadowing their eyes that shaded Jamie’s voice. It was a look Roger was well accustomed to by now.

“But if Hamish mac Callum still lives . . .” Jamie had not taken his hand from Roger’s shoulder, and at this it squeezed tight. “That’s news to gladden the heart, no?” He smiled at Roger, with such obvious joy that Roger felt an unexpected grin break out on his own face in answer.

“Aye,” he said, the weight on his heart lightening. “Aye, it is!” The fact that he would not know Hamish mac Callum MacKenzie from a hole in the ground was unimportant; the man was indeed kin to him—blood kin—and that was a glad thought.

“Where have they gone, then?” Jamie demanded, dropping his hand. “Hamish and his followers?”

To Acadia—to Canada, the Bugs agreed. To Nova Scotia? To Maine? No—to an island, they decided, after a convoluted conference. Or was it perhaps—

Jemmy interrupted the proceedings with a yowl indicating imminent starvation, and Mrs. Bug started as though poked with a stick.

“We mun be takin’ this puir lad to his Mam,” she said rebukingly, dividing a glare impartially among the four men, as though accusing them collectively of conspiracy to murder the child. “Where does your camp lie, Mr. Fraser?”

“I’ll guide ye, ma’am,” Duncan said hastily. “Come wi’ me.”

Roger started after the Bugs, but Jamie kept him with a hand on his arm.

“Nay, let Duncan take them,” he said, dismissing the Bugs with a nod. “I’ll speak wi’ Arch later. I’ve a thing I must say to you, a chliamhuinn.”

Roger felt himself tense a bit at the formal term of address. So, was this where Jamie told him just what defects of character and background made him unsuitable to take responsibility for things at Fraser’s Ridge?

But no, Jamie was bringing out a crumpled paper from his sporran. He handed it to Roger with a slight grimace, as though the paper burned his hand. Roger scanned it quickly, then glanced up from the Governor’s brief message.

“Militia. How soon?”

Jamie lifted one shoulder.

“No one can say, but sooner than any of us should like, I think.” He gave Roger a faint, unhappy smile. “Ye’ll have heard the talk round the fires?”

Roger nodded soberly. He had heard the talk in the intervals of the singing, around the edges of the stone-throwing contests, among the men drinking in small groups under the trees the day before. There had been a fistfight at the caber-tossing—quickly stopped, and with no damage done—but anger hung in the air of the Gathering, like a bad smell.

Jamie rubbed a hand over his face and through his hair, and shrugged, sighing.

“’Twas luck I should have come across auld Arch Bug and his wife today. If it comes to the fighting—and it will, I suppose, later, if not now—then Claire will ride with us. I shouldna like to leave Brianna to manage on her own, and it can be helped.”

Roger felt the small nagging weight of doubt drop away, as all became suddenly clear.

“On her own. You mean—ye want me to come? To help raise men for the militia?”

Jamie gave him a puzzled look.

“Aye, who else?”

He pulled the edges of his plaid higher about his shoulders, hunched against the rising wind. “Come along, then, Captain MacKenzie,” he said, a wry note in his voice. “We’ve work to do before you’re wed.”

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