Gideon, picking up his rider’s mood with alacrity, stretched out his neck and nipped the mare’s rump. The mare bucked, squealed, and shot off up the trail, loose reins dangling. Gideon made a deep rumbling noise of satisfaction and started off after her, only to be jerked unceremoniously to a halt.
Claire had whirled round at the noise, eyes wide. She looked up at Jamie, up the trail after her vanished horse, then back at him. She shrugged apologetically, hands full of tattered leaves and mangy roots.
“Sorry,” she said, but he saw the corner of her mouth tuck in and the flush rise in her skin, the smile glimmering in her eyes like morning light on trout water. Quite against his will, he felt the tension in his shoulders ease. He had had it in mind to rebuke her; in fact, he still did, but the words wouldn’t quite come to his tongue.
“Get up, then, woman,” he said instead, gruffly, with a nod behind him. “I want my supper.”
She laughed at him and scrambled up, kilting her skirts out of the way. Gideon, irascible at this additional burden, whipped round to take a nip of anything he could reach. Jamie was ready for that; he snapped the end of the rein sharply off the stallion’s nose, making him jerk back and snort in surprise.
“That’ll teach ye, ye wee bastard.” He pulled his hat over his brow and settled his errant wife securely, fluttering skirts tucked in beneath her thighs, arms round his waist. She rode without shoes or stockings, and her long calves were white and bare against the dark bay hide. He gathered up the reins and kicked the horse, a trifle harder than strictly necessary.
Gideon promptly reared, backed, twisted, and tried to scrape them both off under a hanging poplar bough. The kitten, rudely roused from its nap, sank all its claws into Jamie’s midsection and yowled in alarm, though its noise was quite lost in Jamie’s much louder screech. He yanked the horse’s head halfway round, swearing, and shoved at the hindquarters with his left leg.
No easy conquest, Gideon executed a hop like a corkscrew. There was a small “eek!” and a sudden feeling of emptiness behind him, as Claire was slung off into the brush like a bag of flour. The horse suddenly yielded to the pull on his mouth, and shot down the path in the wrong direction, hurtling through a screen of brambles and skidding to a halt that nearly threw him onto his hindquarters in a shower of mud and dead leaves. Then he straightened out like a snake, shook his head, and trotted nonchalantly over to exchange nuzzles with Roger’s horse, which was standing at the edge of the spring clearing, watching them with the same bemusement exhibited by its dismounted rider.
“All right there?” asked Roger, raising one eyebrow.
“Certainly,” Jamie replied, trying to gasp for breath while keeping his dignity. “And you?”
“Good.” He was already swinging down from the saddle as he spoke. He flung the reins toward MacKenzie, not waiting to see whether he caught them, and ran back toward the trail, shouting, “Claire! Where are ye?”
“Just here!” she called cheerfully. She emerged from the shadow of the poplars, with leaves in her hair and limping slightly, but looking otherwise undamaged. “Are you all right?” she asked, cocking one eyebrow at him.
“Aye, fine. I’m going to shoot that horse.” He gathered her in briefly, wanting to assure himself that she was in fact whole. She was breathing heavily, but felt reassuringly solid, and kissed him on the nose.
“Well, don’t shoot him until we get home. I don’t want to walk the last mile or so in my bare feet.”
“Hey! Let that alone, ye bugger!”
He let go of Claire and turned to find Roger snatching a fistful of ragged-looking plants away from Gideon’s questing Roman nose. More plants—what was this mania for gathering? Claire was still panting from the accident, but leaned forward to see them, looking interested.
“What’s that you’ve got, Roger?”
“For Bree,” he said, holding them up for her inspection. “Are they the right kind?” To Jamie’s jaundiced eye, they looked like the yellowed tops of carrots gone to seed and left too long in the ground, but Claire fingered the mangy foliage, and nodded approval.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Very romantic!”
Jamie made a small tactful noise, indicating that they ought perhaps to be making their way, since Bree and the slower-moving tribe of Chisholms would be catching them up soon.
“Yes, all right,” Claire said, patting his shoulder in what he assumed she meant to be a soothing gesture. “Don’t snort; we’re going.”
“Mmphm,” he said, and bent to put a hand under her foot. Tossing her up into the saddle, he gave Gideon a “Don’t try it on, you bastard” look and swung up behind her.
“You’ll wait for the others, then, and bring them up?” Without waiting for Roger’s nod, Jamie reined around and set Gideon upon the trail again.
Mollified at being far in the lead, Gideon settled down to the job at hand, climbing steadily through the thickets of hornbeam and poplar, chestnut and spruce. Even so late in the year, some leaves still clung to the trees, and small bits of brown and yellow floated down upon them like a gentle rain, catching in the horse’s mane, resting in the loose, thick waves of Claire’s hair. It had come down in her precipitous descent, and she hadn’t bothered to put it up again.
Jamie’s own equanimity returned with the sense of progress, and was quite restored by the fortuitous finding of the hat he had lost, hanging from a white oak by the trail, as though placed there by some kindly hand. Still, he remained uneasy in his mind, and could not quite grasp tranquillity, though the mountain lay at peace all round him, the air hazed with blue and smelling of wood-damp and evergreens.
Then he realized, with a sudden jolt in the pit of his stomach, that the kitten was gone. There were itching furrows in the skin of his chest and abdomen, where it had climbed him in a frantic effort to escape, but it must have popped out the neck of his shirt and been flung off his shoulder in the mad career down the slope. He glanced from side to side, searching in the shadows under bushes and trees, but it was a vain hope. The shadows were lengthening, and they were on the main trail now, where he and Gideon had torn through the wood.
“Go with God,” he murmured, and crossed himself briefly.
“What’s that?” Claire asked, half-turning in the saddle.
“Nothing,” he said. After all, it was a wild cat, though a small one. Doubtless it would manage.
Gideon worked the bit, pecking and bobbing. Jamie realized that the tension in his hands was running through the reins once more, and consciously slackened his grip. He loosened his grip on Claire, too, and she took a sudden deep breath.
His heart was beating fast.
It was impossible for him ever to come home after an absence without a certain sense of apprehension. For years after the Rising, he had lived in a cave, approaching his own house only rarely, after dark and with great caution, never knowing what he might find there. More than one Highland man had come home to his place to find it burned and black, his family gone. Or worse, still there.
Well enough to tell himself not to imagine horrors; the difficulty was that he had no need of imagination—memory sufficed.
The horse dug with his haunches, pushing hard. No use to tell himself this was a new place; it was, with its own dangers. If there were no English soldiers in these mountains, there were still marauders. Those too shiftless to take root and fend for themselves, but who wandered the backcountry, robbing and plundering. Raiding Indians. Wild animals. And fire. Always fire.
He had sent the Bugs on ahead, with Fergus to guide them, to save Claire dealing with the simultaneous chores of arrival and hospitality. The Chisholms, the MacLeods, and Billy Aberfeldy, with his wife and wee daughter, would all bide with them at the big house for a time; he had told Mrs. Bug to begin cooking at once. Decently mounted and not hindered by children or livestock, the Bugs should have reached the Ridge two days before. No one had come back to say aught was amiss, so perhaps all was well. But still . . .
He hadn’t realized that Claire was tensed, too, until she suddenly relaxed against him, a hand on his leg.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I smell chimney smoke.”
He lifted his head to catch the air. She was right; the tang of burning hickory floated on the breeze. Not the stink of remembered conflagration, but a homely whiff redolent with the promise of warmth and food. Mrs. Bug had presumably taken him at his word.
They rounded the last turn of the trail and saw it, then, the high fieldstone chimney rising above the trees on the ridge, its fat plume of smoke curling over the rooftree.
The house stood.
He breathed deep in relief, noticing now the other smells of home; the faint rich scent of manure from the stable, of meat smoked and hanging in the shed, and the breath of the forest nearby—damp wood and leaf-rot, rock and rushing water, the touch of it cold and loving on his cheek.
They came out of the chestnut grove and into the large clearing where the house stood, solid and neat, its windows glazed gold with the last of the sun.
It was a modest frame house, whitewashed and shingle-roofed, clean in its lines and soundly built, but impressive only by comparison with the crude cabins of most settlers. His own first cabin still stood, dark and sturdy, a little way down the hill. Smoke was curling from that chimney, too.
“Someone’s made a fire for Bree and Roger,” Claire said, nodding at it.
“That’s good,” he said. He tightened his arm about her waist, and she made a small, contented noise in her throat, wriggling her bottom into his lap.
Gideon was happy, too; he stretched out his neck and whinnied to the two horses in the penfold, who trotted to and fro in the enclosure, calling greetings. Claire’s mare was standing by the fence, reins dangling; she curled her lip in what looked like derision, the wee besom. From somewhere far down the trail behind them came a deep, joyous bray; Clarence the mule, hearing the racket and delighted to be coming home.
The door flew open, and Mrs. Bug popped out, round and flustered as a tumble-turd. Jamie smiled at sight of her, and gave Claire an arm to slide down before dismounting himself.
“All’s well, all’s well, and how’s yourself, sir?” Mrs. Bug was reassuring him before his boots struck ground. She had a pewter cup in one hand, a polishing cloth in the other, and didn’t cease her polishing for an instant, even as she turned up her face to accept his kiss on her withered round cheek.
She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned at once and stood a-tiptoe to kiss Claire, beaming.
“Oh, it’s grand that you’re home, ma’am, you and Himself, and I’ve the supper all made, so you’ll not be worrit a bit with it, ma’am, but come inside, come inside, and be takin’ off those dusty cloots, and I’ll send old Arch along to the mash-hoose for a bit of the lively, and we’ll . . .” She had Claire by one hand, towing her into the house, talking and talking, the other hand still polishing briskly away, her stubby fingers dexterously rubbing the cloth inside the cup. Claire gave him a helpless glance over one shoulder, and he grinned at her as she disappeared inside the house.