“The girls wanted to give ye the cap,” she said, tactfully averting her gaze from it, “but my mother-in-law did send ye another wee gift. I thought perhaps I’d best bring that myself, though.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with any more of Grannie Bacon’s gifts, but took the proffered parcel with as much grace as I could manage. It was a small bag of oiled silk, plumply stuffed with something, with a faintly sweet, slightly oily botanical scent about it. A crude picture of a plant had been drawn on the front in brownish ink; something with an upright stalk and what looked like umbels. It looked faintly familiar, but I could put no name to it. I undid the string, and poured a small quantity of tiny dark-brown seeds out into my palm.
“What are these?” I asked, looking up at Polly in puzzlement.
“I don’t know what they’re called in English,” she said. “The Indians call them dauco. Grannie Bacon’s own grannie was a Catawba medicine woman, aye? That’s where she learnt the use of them.”
“Was she really?” I was more than interested now. No wonder the drawing seemed familiar; this must be the plant that Nayawenne had once shown me—the women’s plant. To be sure of it, though, I asked.
“What is the use of them?”
The color rose higher in Polly’s cheeks, and she glanced round the clearing to be sure no one was close enough to hear before leaning forward to whisper to me.
“They stop a woman from getting wi’ child. Ye take a teaspoonful each day, in a glass of water. Each day, mind, and a man’s seed canna take hold in the womb.” Her eyes met mine, and while the light of amusement still lingered at the backs of them, something more serious was there as well.
“Grannie said ye were a conjure-woman, she could tell. And that bein’ so, ye’d have cause often to help women. And when it is a matter of miscarriage, stillbirth, or childbed fever, let alone the misery of losing a live babe—she said I must tell ye that an ounce o’ prevention is worth a pound o’ cure.”
“Tell your mother-in-law thank you,” I said sincerely. The average woman of Polly’s age might have five or six children; she had the two girls, and lacked the drained look of a woman worn with ill-timed bearing. Evidently, the seeds worked.
Polly nodded, the smile breaking out on her face.
“Aye, I’ll tell her. Oh—she said as how her grannie told her it was women’s magic; ye dinna mention it to men.”
I glanced thoughtfully across the clearing, to where Jamie stood in conversation with Archie Hayes, Jemmy blinking sleepily in the crook of his arm. Yes, I could well see that some men might take exception to old Grannie Bacon’s medicine. Was Roger one of them?
Bidding farewell to Polly Bacon, I took my chest across to our lean-to, and tucked the bag of seeds carefully away in it. A very useful addition to my pharmacopeia, if Nayawenne and Mrs. Bacon’s grannie were correct. It was also a singularly well-timed gift, considering my earlier conversation with Bree.
Even more valuable than the small heap of rabbit skins I had accumulated, though those were more than welcome. Where had I put them? I looked round the scattered rubble of the campsite, half-listening to the men’s conversation behind me. There they were, just under the edge of the canvas. I lifted the lid of one of the empty food hampers to put them away for the journey home.
“. . . Stephen Bonnet.”
The name stung my ear like a spider’s bite, and I dropped the lid with a bang. I glanced quickly round the campsite, but neither Brianna nor Roger was within hearing distance. Jamie’s back was turned to me, but it was he who had spoken.
I pulled the mobcap off my head, hung it carefully from a dogwood branch, and went purposefully to join him.
WHATEVER THE MEN had been talking about, they stopped when they saw me. Lieutenant Hayes thanked me gracefully once more for my surgical assistance, and took his leave, his bland round face revealing nothing.
“What about Stephen Bonnet?” I said, as soon as the Lieutenant was out of earshot.
“That’s what I was inquiring about, Sassenach. Is the tea brewed yet?” Jamie made a move toward the fire, but I stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“Why?” I demanded. I didn’t let go my grip, and he reluctantly turned to face me.
“Because I wish to know where he is,” he said evenly. He made no pretense of not understanding me, and a small, cold feeling flickered through my chest.
“Did Hayes know where he is? Has he heard anything of Bonnet?”
He shook his head, silent. He was telling me the truth. My fingers loosened with relief, and he moved his arm out of my grasp—not angrily, but with a sense of quiet and definite detachment.
“It is my business!” I said, answering the gesture. I kept my voice low, glancing round to be sure that neither Bree nor Roger was within hearing. I didn’t see Roger; Bree was standing by the fire, absorbed in conversation with the Bugs, the elderly couple Jamie had engaged to help care for the farm. I turned back to Jamie.
“Why are you looking for that man?”
“Is it not sense to know where danger may lie?” He wasn’t looking at me but over my shoulder, smiling and nodding at someone. I glanced back to see Fergus heading for the fire, rubbing a cold-reddened hand beneath his arm. He waved cheerfully with his hook, and Jamie lifted a hand halfway in acknowledgment, but turned away a little, still facing me, effectively preventing Fergus from coming to join us.
The cold feeling returned, sharp as though someone had pierced my lung with a sliver of ice.
“Oh, of course,” I said, as coolly as I could. “You want to know where he is, so that you can take pains not to go there, is that it?”
Something that might have been a smile flickered across his face.
“Oh, aye,” he said. “To be sure.” Given the scarcity of population in North Carolina in general, and the remoteness of Fraser’s Ridge in particular, the chances of our stumbling over Stephen Bonnet by accident were roughly equivalent to walking out of the front door and stepping on a jellyfish—and Jamie bloody knew it.
I narrowed my eyes at him. The corner of his wide mouth drew in for a moment, then relaxed, his eyes gone back to seriousness. There was precisely one good reason for his wanting to locate Stephen Bonnet—and I bloody knew that.
“Jamie,” I said, and put a hand on his arm again. “Leave him alone. Please.”
He put his own hand over mine, squeezing, but I felt no reassurance from the gesture.
“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach. I’ve asked throughout the Gathering, all through the week, inquiring of men from Halifax to Charleston. There’s nay report of the man anywhere in the colony.”
“Good,” I said. It was, but the fact did not escape me that he had been hunting Bonnet with assiduity—and had told me nothing of it. Nor did it escape me that he had not promised to stop looking.
“Leave him alone,” I repeated softly, my eyes holding his. “There’s enough trouble coming; we don’t need more.” He had drawn close to me, the better to forestall interruption, and I could feel the power of him where he touched me, his arm beneath my hand, his thigh brushing mine. Strength of bone and fire of mind, all wrapped round a core of steel-hard purpose that would make him a deadly projectile, once set on any course.
“Ye say it is your business.” His eyes were steady, the blue of them bleached pale with autumn light. “I know it is mine. Are ye with me, then?”
The ice blossomed in my blood, spicules of cold panic. Damn him! He meant it. There was one reason to seek out Stephen Bonnet, and one reason only.
I swung round on my heel, pulling him with me, so we stood pressed close together, arms linked, looking toward the fire. Brianna, Marsali, and the Bugs were now listening raptly to Fergus, who was recounting something, his face alight with cold and laughter. Jemmy’s face was turned toward us over his mother’s shoulder, round-eyed and curious.
“They are your business,” I said, my voice pitched low and trembling with intensity. “And mine. Hasn’t Stephen Bonnet done enough damage to them, to us?”
“Aye, more than enough.”
He pulled me closer to him; I could feel the heat of him through his clothes, but his voice was cold as the rain. Fergus’s glance flicked toward us; he smiled warmly at me and went on with his story. To him, no doubt we looked like a couple sharing a brief moment of affection, heads bent together in closeness.
“I let him go,” Jamie said quietly. “And evil came of it. Can I let him wander free, knowing what he is, and that I have loosed him to spread ruin? It is like loosing a rabid dog, Sassenach—ye wouldna have me do that, surely.”
His hand was hard, his fingers cold on mine.
“You let him go once; the Crown caught him again—if he’s free now, it’s not your fault!”
“Perhaps not my fault that he is free,” he agreed, “but surely it is my duty to see he doesna stay so—if I can.”
“You have a duty to your family!”
He took my chin in his hand and bent his head, his eyes boring into mine.
“Ye think I would risk them? Ever?”
I held myself stiff, resisting for a long moment, then let my shoulders slump, my eyelids drop in capitulation. I took a long, trembling breath. I wasn’t giving in altogether.
“There’s risk in hunting, Jamie,” I said softly. “You know it.”
His grip relaxed, but his hand still cupped my face, his thumb tracing the outline of my lips.
“I know it,” he whispered. The mist of his breath touched my cheek. “But I have been a hunter for a verra long time, Claire. I willna bring danger to them—I swear it.”
“Only to yourself? And just what do you think will happen to us, if you—”
I caught a glimpse of Brianna from the corner of my eye. She had half-turned, seeing us, and was now beaming tender approval on this scene of what she supposed to be parental fondness. Jamie saw her, too; I heard a faint snort of amusement.
“Nothing will happen to me,” he said definitely, and gathering me firmly to him, stifled further argument with an encompassing kiss. A faint spatter of applause rose from the direction of the fire.
“Encore!” shouted Fergus.
“No,” I said to him as he released me. I whispered, but spoke vehemently for all that. “Not encore. I don’t want to hear the name of Stephen Bonnet ever bloody again!”
“It will be all right,” he whispered back, and squeezed my hand. “Trust me, Sassenach.”
ROGER DIDN’T LOOK BACK, but thoughts of the Findlays went with him as he made his way downhill from their camp, through clumps of brush and trodden grass.
The two boys were sandy-haired and fair, short—though taller than their mother—but broad-shouldered. The two younger children were dark, tall, and slender, with their mother’s hazel eyes. Given the gap of years between the older boys and their younger siblings, Roger concluded from the evidence that Mrs. Findlay had likely had two husbands. And from the look of things now was a widow again.