The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 33

   

“He arrested Mr. MacLennan? And you let him?” Bree was staring at Roger in consternation. Neither she nor Roger had been present when Abel MacLennan had told his story over breakfast, but both of them knew him.

“I couldna very well prevent him,” Roger pointed out mildly. “I did call out to MacLennan to ask if he wanted help—I thought I’d fetch your Da or Farquard Campbell, if he did. But he just looked through me, as though I might have been a ghost, and then when I called again, he gave me an odd sort of smile and shook his head. I didna think I ought to go and beat up a sheriff, just on general principle. But if you—”

“Not a sheriff,” Jamie said hoarsely. His eyes were watering, and he paused to cough explosively again.

“A thief-taker,” I told Roger. “Something like a bounty hunter, I gather.” The tea wasn’t nearly brewed yet; I found a half-full stone bottle of ale and handed that to Jamie.

“Where will he be taking Abel?” I asked. “You said Hayes didn’t want prisoners.”

Jamie shook his head, swallowed, and lowered the bottle, breathing a little easier.

“He doesna. No, Mr. Boble—it must be him, aye?—will take Abel to the nearest magistrate. And if wee Roger saw him just the now . . .” He turned, thinking, brows furrowed as he surveyed the mountainside around us.

“It will be Farquard, most likely,” he concluded, his shoulders relaxing a little. “I ken four justices of the peace and three magistrates here at the Gathering, and of the lot, Campbell’s the only one camped on this side.”

“Oh, that’s good.” I sighed in relief. Farquard Campbell was a fair man; a stickler for the law, but not without compassion—and more importantly, perhaps, a very old friend of Jocasta Cameron.

“Aye, we’ll ask my aunt to have a word—perhaps we’d best do it before the weddings.” He turned to Roger. “Will ye go, MacKenzie? I must be finding Father Kenneth, if there are to be any weddings.”

Roger looked as though he, too, had just choked on a bit of fruitcake.

“Er . . . well,” he said, awkwardly. “Perhaps I’m no the best man to be saying anything to Mrs. Cameron just now.”

Jamie was staring at him in mingled interest and exasperation.

“Why not?”

Blushing fiercely, Roger recounted the substance of his conversation with Jocasta—lowering his voice nearly to the point of inaudibility at the conclusion.

We heard it clearly enough, nonetheless. Jamie looked at me. His mouth twitched. Then his shoulders began to shake. I felt the laughter bubble up under my ribs, but it was nothing to Jamie’s hilarity. He laughed almost silently, but so hard that tears came to his eyes.

“Oh, Christ!” he gasped at last. He clutched his side, still wheezing faintly. “God, I’ve sprung a rib, I think.” He reached out and took one of the half-dried clean clouts from a bush, carelessly wiping his face with it.

“All right,” he said, recovering himself somewhat. “Go and see Farquard, then. If Abel’s there, tell Campbell I’ll stand surety for him. Bring him back with ye.” He made a brief shooing gesture, and Roger—puce with mortification but stiff with dignity—departed at once. Bree followed him, casting a glance of reproof at her father, which merely had the effect of causing him to wheeze some more.

I drowned my own mirth with a gulp of steaming tea, blissfully fragrant. I offered the cup to Jamie, but he waved it away, content with the rest of the ale.

“My aunt,” he observed, lowering the bottle at last, “kens verra well indeed what money will buy and what it will not.”

“And she’s just bought herself—and everyone else in the county—a good opinion of poor Roger, hasn’t she?” I replied, rather dryly.

Jocasta Cameron was a MacKenzie of Leoch; a family Jamie had once described as “charming as the larks in the field—and sly as foxes, with it.” Whether Jocasta had truly had any doubt herself of Roger’s motives in marrying Bree, or merely thought to forestall idle gossip along the Cape Fear, her methods had been undeniably successful. She was probably up in her tent chortling over her cleverness, looking forward to spreading the story of her offer and Roger’s response to it.

“Poor Roger,” Jamie agreed, his mouth still twitching. “Poor but virtuous.” He tipped up the bottle of ale, drained it, and set it down with a brief sigh of satisfaction. “Though come to that,” he added, glancing at me, “she’s bought the lad something of value as well, hasn’t she?”

“My son,” I quoted softly, nodding. “Do you think he realized it himself before he said it? That he really feels Jemmy is his son?”

Jamie made an indeterminate movement with his shoulders, not quite a shrug.

“I canna say. It’s as well he should have that fixed in his mind, though, before the next bairn comes along—one he kens for sure is his.”

I thought of my conversation that morning with Brianna, but decided it was wiser to say nothing—at least for now. It was, after all, a matter between Roger and Bree. I only nodded, and turned to tidy away the tea things.

I felt a small glow in the pit of my stomach that was only partly the result of the tea. Roger had sworn an oath to take Jemmy as his own, no matter what the little boy’s true paternity might be; he was an honorable man, Roger, and he meant it. But the speech of the heart is louder than the words of any oath spoken by lips alone.

When I had gone back, pregnant, through the stones, Frank had sworn to me that he would keep me as his wife, would treat the coming child as his own—would love me as he had before. All three of those vows his lips and mind had done his best to keep, but his heart, in the end, had sworn only one. From the moment that he took Brianna in his arms, she was his daughter.

But what if there had been another child? I wondered suddenly. It had never been a possibility—but if it had? Slowly, I wiped the teapot dry and wrapped it in a towel, contemplating the vision of that mythical child; the one Frank and I might have had, but never did, and never would. I laid the wrapped teapot in the chest, gently, as though it were a sleeping baby.

When I turned back, Jamie was still standing there, looking at me with a rather odd expression—tender, yet somehow rueful.

“Did I ever think to thank ye, Sassenach?” he said, his voice a little husky.

“For what?” I said, puzzled. He took my hand, and drew me gently toward him. He smelled of ale and damp wool, and very faintly of the brandied sweetness of fruitcake.

“For my bairns,” he said softly. “For the children that ye bore me.”

“Oh,” I said. I leaned slowly forward, and rested my forehead against the solid warmth of his chest. I cupped my hands at the small of his back beneath his coat, and sighed. “It was . . . my pleasure.”

“MR. FRASER, MR. FRASER!” I lifted my head and turned to see a small boy churning down the steep slope behind us, arms waving to keep his balance and face bright red with cold and exertion.

“Oof!” Jamie got his hands up just in time to catch the boy as he hurtled down the last few feet, quite out of control. He boosted the little boy, whom I recognized as Farquard Campbell’s youngest, up in his arms and smiled at him. “Aye, Rabbie, what is it? Does your Da want me to come for Mr. MacLennan?”

Rabbie shook his head, shaggy hair flying like a sheepdog’s coat.

“No, sir,” he panted, gasping for breath. He gulped air and the small throat swelled like a frog’s with the effort to breathe and speak at once. “No, sir. My Da says he’s heard where the priest is and I should show ye the way, sir. Will ye come?”

Jamie’s brows flicked up in momentary surprise. He glanced at me, then smiled at Rabbie, and nodded, bending down to set him on his feet.

“Aye, lad, I will. Lead on, then!”

“Delicate of Farquard,” I said to Jamie under my breath, with a nod at Rabbie, who scampered ahead, looking back over his shoulder now and then, to be sure we were managing to keep up with him. No one would notice a small boy, among the swarms of children on the mountain. Everyone would most assuredly have noticed had Farquard Campbell come himself or sent one of his adult sons.

Jamie huffed a little, the mist of his breath a wisp of steam in the gathering chill.

“Well, it’s no Farquard’s concern, after all, even if he has got a great regard for my aunt. And I expect if he’s sent the lad to tell me, it means he kens the man who’s responsible, and doesna mean to choose up sides wi’ me against him.” He glanced at the setting sun, and gave me a rueful look.

“I did say I should find Father Kenneth by sunset, but still—I dinna think we shall see a wedding tonight, Sassenach.”

Rabbie led us onward and upward, tracing the maze of footpaths and trampled dead grass without hesitation. The sun had finally broken through the clouds; it had sunk deep in the notch of the mountains, but was still high enough to wash the slope with a warm, ruddy light that momentarily belied the chill of the day. People were gathering to their family fires now, hungry for their suppers, and no one spared a glance for us among the bustle.

At last, Rabbie came to a stop, at the foot of a well-marked path that led up and to the right. I had crisscrossed the mountain’s face several times during the week of the Gathering, but had never ventured up this high. Who was in custody of Father Kenneth, I wondered—and what did Jamie propose to do about it?

“Up there,” Rabbie said unnecessarily, pointing to the peak of a large tent, just visible through a screen of longleaf pine.

Jamie made a Scottish noise in the back of his throat at sight of the tent.

“Oh,” he said softly, “so that’s how it is?”

“Is it? Never mind how it is; whose is it?” I looked dubiously at the tent, which was a large affair of waxed brown canvas, pale in the gloaming. It obviously belonged to someone fairly wealthy, but wasn’t one I was familiar with myself.

“Mr. Lillywhite, of Hillsborough,” Jamie said, and his brows drew down in thought. He patted Rabbie Campbell on the head, and handed him a penny from his sporran. “Thank ye, laddie. Run away to your Mam now; it’ll be time for your supper.” Rabbie took the coin and vanished without comment, pleased to be finished with his errand.

“Oh, really.” I cocked a wary eye at the tent. That explained a few things, I supposed—though not everything. Mr. Lillywhite was a magistrate from Hillsborough, though I knew nothing else about him, save what he looked like. I had glimpsed him once or twice during the Gathering, a tall, rather drooping man, his figure made distinctive by a bottle-green coat with silver buttons, but had never formally met him.

Magistrates were responsible for appointing sheriffs, which explained the connection with the “nasty fat man” Marsali had described, and why Father Kenneth was incarcerated here—but that left open the question of whether it was the sheriff or Mr. Lillywhite who had wanted the priest removed from circulation in the first place.

Jamie put a hand on my arm, and drew me off the path, into the shelter of a small pine tree.

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