Gideon shoved an impatient nose under his arm and bumped his elbow.
“Oh, aye,” he said, recalled to his chores. “Come along, then, ye prickly wee bastard.”
By the time he had the big horse and Claire’s mare unsaddled, wiped down, and turned out to their feed, Claire had escaped from Mrs. Bug; coming back from the paddock, he saw the door of the house swing open and Claire slip out, looking guiltily over her shoulder as though fearing pursuit.
Where was she bound? She didn’t see him; she turned and hurried toward the far corner of the house, disappearing in a swish of homespun. He followed, curious.
Ah. She had seen to her surgery; now she was going to her garden before it got completely dark; he caught a glimpse of her against the sky on the upward path behind the house, the last of the daylight caught like cobwebs in her hair. There would be little growing now, only a few sturdy herbs and the overwintering things like carrots and onions and turnips, but it made no difference; she always went to see how things were, no matter how short a time she had been gone.
He understood the urge; he would not feel entirely home himself until he had checked all the stock and buildings, and made sure of matters up at the still.
The evening breeze brought him an acrid hint from the distant privy, suggesting that matters there were shortly going to require his attention, speaking of buildings. Then he bethought him of the new tenants coming, and relaxed; digging a new privy would be just the thing for Chisholm’s eldest two boys.
He and Ian had dug this one, when they first came to the Ridge. God, he missed the lad.
“A Mhicheal bheanaichte,” he murmured. Blessed Michael, protect him. He liked MacKenzie well enough, but had it been his choice, he would not have exchanged Ian for the man. It had been Ian’s choice, though, not his, and no more to be said about it.
Pushing away the ache of Ian’s loss, he stepped behind a tree, loosened his breeks, and relieved himself. If she saw him, Claire would doubtless make what she considered witty remarks about dogs and wolves marking their home ground as they returned to it. Nothing of the sort, he replied to her mentally; why walk up the hill, only to make matters worse in the privy? Still, if you came down to it, it was his place, and if he chose to piss on it . . . He tidied his clothes, feeling more settled.
He raised his head and saw her coming down the path from the garden, her apron bulging with carrots and turnips. A gust of wind sent the last of the leaves from the chestnut grove swirling round her in a yellow dance, sparked with light.
Moved by sudden impulse, he stepped deeper into the trees and began to look about.
Normally, he paid attention only to such vegetation as was immediately comestible by horse or man, sufficiently straight-grained to serve for planks and timbers, or so obstructive as to pose difficulty in passage. Once he began looking with an eye to aesthetics, though, he found himself surprised at the variety to hand.
Stalks of half-ripe barley, the seeds laid in rows like a woman’s plait. A dry, fragile weed that looked like the lace edging on a fine handkerchief. A branch of spruce, unearthly green and cool among the dry bits, leaving its fragrant sap on his hand as he tore it from the tree. A twig of glossy dried oak leaves that reminded him of her hair, in shades of gold and brown and gray. And a bit of scarlet creeper, snatched for color.
Just in time; she was coming round the corner of the house. Lost in thought, she passed within a foot or two of him, not seeing him.
“Sorcha,” he called softly, and she turned, eyes narrowed against the rays of the sinking sun, then wide and gold with surprise at the sight of him.
“Welcome home,” he said, and held out the small bouquet of leaves and twigs.
“Oh,” she said. She looked at the bits of leaf and stick again, and then at him, and the corners of her mouth trembled, as though she might laugh or cry, but wasn’t sure which. She reached then, and took the plants from him, her fingers small and cold as they brushed his hand.
“Oh, Jamie—they’re wonderful.” She came up on her toes and kissed him, warm and salty, and he wanted more, but she was hurrying away into the house, the silly wee things clasped to her breast as though they were gold.
He felt pleasantly foolish, and foolishly pleased with himself. The taste of her was still on his mouth.
“Sorcha,” he whispered, and realized that he had called her so a moment before. Now, that was odd; no wonder she had been surprised. It was her name in the Gaelic, but he never called her by it. He liked the strangeness of her, the Englishness. She was his Claire, his Sassenach.
And yet in the moment when she passed him, she was Sorcha. Not only “Claire,” it meant—but light.
He breathed deep, contented.
He was suddenly ravenous, both for food and for her, but he made no move to hasten inside. Some kinds of hunger were sweet in themselves, the anticipation of satisfaction as keen a pleasure as the slaking.
Hoofsteps and voices; the others were finally here. He had a sudden urge to keep his peaceful solitude a moment longer, but too late—in seconds, he was surrounded by confusion, the shrill cries of excited children and calls of distracted mothers, the welcoming of the newcomers, the bustle and rush of unloading, turning out the horses and mules, fetching feed and water . . . and yet in the midst of this Babel, he moved as though he were still alone, peaceful and quiet in the setting sun. He had come home.
IT WAS FULL DARK before everything was sorted, the smallest of the wild Chisholm bairns rounded up and sent inside for his supper, all the stock cared for and settled for the night. He followed Geoff Chisholm toward the house, but then held back, lingering for a moment in the dark dooryard.
He stood for a moment, idly chafing his hands against the chill as he admired the look of the place. Snug barn and sound sheds, a penfold and paddock in good repair, a tidy fence of palisades around Claire’s scraggly garden, to keep out the deer. The house loomed white in the early dark, a benevolent spirit guarding the ridge. Light spilled from every door and window, and the sound of laughter came from inside.
He sensed a movement in the darkness, and turned to see his daughter coming from the spring house, a pail of fresh milk in her hand. She stopped by him, looking at the house.
“Nice to be home, isn’t it?” she said softly.
“Aye,” he said. “It is.” They looked at each other, smiling. Then she leaned forward, peering closely at him. She turned him, so the light from the window fell on him, and a small frown puckered the skin between her brows.
“What’s that?” she said, and flicked at his coat. A glossy scarlet leaf fell free and floated to the ground. Her brows went up at sight of it. “You’d better go and wash, Da,” she said. “You’ve been in the poison ivy.”
“YE MIGHT HAVE TOLD ME, Sassenach.” Jamie glowered at the table near the bedroom window, where I’d set his bouquet in a cup of water. The bright, blotchy red of the poison ivy glowed, even in the dimness of the firelight. “And ye might get rid of it, too. D’ye mean to mock me?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, smiling as I hung my apron from the peg and reached for the laces of my gown. “But if I’d told you when you gave it to me, you’d have snatched it back. That’s the only posy you’ve ever given me, and I don’t imagine I’ll get another; I mean to keep it.”
He snorted, and sat down on the bed to take off his stockings. He’d already stripped off coat, stock, and shirt, and the firelight gleamed on the slope of his shoulders. He scratched at the underside of one wrist, though I’d told him it was psychosomatic; he hadn’t any signs of rash.
“You’ve never come home with poison ivy rash,” I remarked. “And you’re bound to have run into it now and again, so much time as you spend in the woods and the fields. I think you must be immune to it. Some people are, you know.”
“Oh, aye?” He looked interested at that, though he went on scratching. “Is that like you and Brianna not catching illness?”
“Something like, but for different reasons.” I peeled off the gown of pale green homespun—more than a little grubby, after a week’s travel—and stripped off my stays with a sigh of relief.
I got up to check the pan of water I had set to heat in the embers. Some of the newcomers had been sent off to spend the night with Fergus and Marsali, or with Roger and Bree, but the kitchen, the surgery, and Jamie’s study below were full of guests, all sleeping on the floor. I wasn’t going to bed without washing off the stains of travel, but I didn’t care to provide a public spectacle while doing it, either.
The water shimmered with heat, tiny bubbles clinging to the sides of the pot. I put a finger in, just to check—lovely and hot. I poured some into the basin and put the rest back to keep warm.
“We aren’t completely immune, you know,” I warned him. “Some things—like smallpox—we can’t ever catch, Roger and Bree and I, because we’ve been vaccinated against them, and it’s permanent. Other things, like cholera and typhoid, we aren’t likely to catch, but the injections don’t give permanent immunity; it wears off after a time.”
I bent to rummage in the saddlebags he had brought up and dumped by the door. Someone at the Gathering had given me a sponge—a real one, imported from the Indies—in payment for my extracting an abscessed tooth. Just the thing for a quick bath.
“Things like malaria—what Lizzie has—”
“I thought ye’d cured her of that,” Jamie interrupted, frowning.
I shook my head, regretful.
“No, she’ll always have it, poor thing. All I can do is try to lessen the severity of the attacks, and keep them from coming too often. It’s in her blood, you see.”
He pulled off the thong that bound back his hair, and shook out the ruddy locks, leaving them ruffled round his head like a mane.
“That doesna make any sense,” he objected, rising to unfasten his breeks. “Ye told me that when a person had the measles, if he lived, he’d not get it again, because it stayed in the blood. And so I couldna catch pox or measles now, because I’d had them both as a child—they’re in my blood.”
“Well, it’s not quite the same thing,” I said, rather lamely. The thought of trying to explain the differences among active immunity, passive immunity, acquired immunity, antibodies, and parasitic infection was more of a challenge than I felt up to, after a long day’s ride.
I dipped the sponge into the basin, let it take up water, then squeezed it out, enjoying the oddly silky, fibrous texture. A fine mist of sand floated out of the pores and settled to the bottom of the china basin. The sponge was softening as it took up water, but I could still feel a hard spot at one edge.
“Speaking of riding—”
Jamie looked mildly startled.
“Were we speaking of riding?”
“Well, no, but I was thinking of it.” I waved a hand, dismissing the inconsequent distinction. “In any case, what do you mean to do about Gideon?”
“Oh.” Jamie dropped his breeks in a puddle on the floor and stretched himself, considering. “Well, I canna afford just to shoot him, I suppose. And he’s a braw enough fellow. I’ll cut him, to start. That may settle his mind a bit.”