The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 6

   

Was it simply worry over the Proclamation? I couldn’t see why that should be, given that none of our folk had been involved in the Hillsborough riots.

“. . . a Presbyterian,” he was saying. He glanced over at me with a wry smile. “Like wee Roger.”

The memory that had niggled at me earlier dropped suddenly into place.

“You knew that,” I said. “You knew Roger wasn’t a Catholic. You saw him baptize that child in Snaketown, when we . . . took him from the Indians.” Too late, I saw the shadow cross his face, and bit my tongue. When we took Roger—and left in his place Jamie’s dearly loved nephew Ian.

A shadow crossed his face momentarily, but he smiled, pushing away the thought of Ian.

“Aye, I did,” he said.

“But Bree—”

“She’d marry the lad if he were a Hottentot,” Jamie interrupted. “Anyone can see that. And I canna say I’d object overmuch to wee Roger if he were a Hottentot,” he added, rather to my surprise.

“You wouldn’t?”

Jamie shrugged, and stepped over the tiny creek to my side, wiping wet hands on the end of his plaid.

“He’s a braw lad, and he’s kind. He’s taken the wean as his own and said no word to the lass about it. It’s no more than a man should do—but not every man would.”

I glanced down involuntarily at Jemmy, curled up cozily in my arms. I tried not to think of it myself, but could not help now and then searching his bluntly amiable features for any trace that might reveal his true paternity.

Brianna had been handfast with Roger, lain with him for one night—and then been raped two days later, by Stephen Bonnet. There was no way to tell for sure who the father had been, and so far Jemmy gave no indication of resembling either man in the slightest. He was gnawing his fist at the moment, with a ferocious scowl of concentration, and with his soft fuzz of red-gold plush, he looked like no one so much as Jamie himself.

“Mm. So why all the insistence on having Roger vetted by a priest?”

“Well, they’ll be married in any case,” he said logically. “I want the wee lad baptized a Catholic, though.” He laid a large hand gently on Jemmy’s head, thumb smoothing the tiny red brows. “So if I made a bit of a fuss about MacKenzie, I thought they’d be pleased to agree about an gille ruaidh here, aye?”

I laughed, and pulled a fold of blanket up around Jemmy’s ears.

“And I thought Brianna had you figured out!”

“So does she,” he said, with a grin. He bent suddenly and kissed me.

His mouth was soft and very warm. He tasted of bread and butter, and he smelled strongly of fresh leaves and unwashed male, with just the faintest trace of effluvium of diaper.

“Oh, that’s nice,” I said with approval. “Do it again.”

The wood around us was still, in the way of woods. No bird, no beast, just the sough of leaves above and the rush of water underfoot. Constant movement, constant sound—and at the center of it all, a perfect peace. There were a good many people on the mountain, and most of them not that far away—yet just here, just now, we might have been alone on Jupiter.

I opened my eyes and sighed, tasting honey. Jamie smiled at me, and brushed a fallen yellow leaf from my hair. The baby lay in my arms, a heavy, warm weight, the center of the universe.

Neither of us spoke, not wishing to disturb the stillness. It was like being at the tip of a spinning top, I thought—a whirl of events and people going on all round, and a step in one direction or another would plunge us back into that spinning frenzy, but here at the very center—there was peace.

I reached up and brushed a scatter of maple seeds from his shoulder. He seized my hand, and brought it to his mouth with a sudden fierceness that startled me. And yet his lips were tender, the tip of his tongue warm on the fleshy mound at the base of my thumb—the mount of Venus, it’s called, love’s seat.

He raised his head, and I felt the sudden chill on my hand, where the ancient scar showed white as bone. A letter “J,” cut in the skin, his mark on me.

He laid his hand against my face, and I pressed it there with my own, as though I could feel the faded “C” he bore on his own palm, against the cold skin of my cheek. Neither of us spoke, but the pledge was made, as we had made it once before, in a place of sanctuary, our feet on a scrap of bedrock in the shifting sands of threatened war.

It was not near; not yet. But I heard it coming, in the sound of drums and proclamation, saw it in the glint of steel, knew the fear of it in heart and bone when I looked in Jamie’s eyes.

The chill had gone, and hot blood throbbed in my hand as though to split the ancient scar and spill my heart’s blood for him once again. It would come, and I could not stop it.

But this time, I wouldn’t leave him.

I FOLLOWED JAMIE out of the trees, across a scrabble of rocks and sand and tufted grass, to the well-trampled trail that led upward to our campsite. I was counting in my head, readjusting the breakfast requirements yet again, in light of Jamie’s revelation that he had invited two more families to join us for the meal.

“Robin McGillivray and Geordie Chisholm,” he said, holding back a branch for me to pass. “I thought we should make them welcome; they mean to come and settle on the Ridge.”

“Do they,” I said, ducking as the branch slapped back behind me. “When? And how many of them are there?”

These were loaded questions. It was close to winter—much too close to count on building even the crudest cabin for shelter. Anyone who came to the mountains now would likely have to live in the big house with us, or crowd into one of the small settlers’ cabins that dotted the Ridge. Highlanders could, did, and would live ten to a room when necessary. With my less strongly developed sense of English hospitality, I rather hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

“Six McGillivrays and eight Chisholms,” Jamie said, smiling. “The McGillivrays will come in the spring, though. Robin’s a gunsmith—he’ll have work in Cross Creek for the winter—and his family will bide with kin in Salem—his wife’s German—until the weather warms.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Fourteen more for breakfast, then, plus me and Jamie, Roger and Bree, Marsali and Fergus, Lizzie and her father—Abel MacLennan, mustn’t forget him—oh, and the soldier lad who’d rescued Germain, that made twenty-four . . .

“I’ll go and borrow some coffee and rice from my aunt, shall I?” Jamie had been reading the growing look of dismay on my features. He grinned, and held out his arms for the baby. “Give me the laddie; we’ll go visiting, and leave your hands free for the cooking.”

I watched them go with a small sense of relief. Alone, if only for a few moments. I drew a long, deep breath of damp air, becoming aware of the soft patter of the rain on my hood.

I loved Gatherings and social occasions, but was obliged to admit to myself that the strain of unrelieved company for days on end rather got on my nerves. After a week of visiting, gossip, daily medical clinics, and the small but constant crises that attend living rough with a large family group, I was ready to dig a small hole under a log and climb in, just for the sake of a quarter hour’s solitude.

Just at the moment, though, it looked as though I might be saved the effort. There were shouts, calls, and snatches of pipe music from higher up the mountain; disturbed by the Governor’s Proclamation, the Gathering was reestablishing its normal rhythm, and everyone was going back to their family hearths, to the clearing where the competitions were held, to the livestock pens beyond the creek, or to the wagons set up to sell everything from ribbons and churns to powdered mortar and fresh—well, relatively fresh—lemons. No one needed me for the moment.

It was going to be a very busy day, and this might be my only chance of solitude for a week or more—the trip back would take at least that long, moving slowly with a large party, including babies and wagons. Most of the new tenants had neither horses nor mules, and would make the journey on foot.

I needed a moment to myself, to gather my strength and focus my mind. What focus I had, though, was not on the logistics of breakfast or weddings, nor even on the impending surgery I was contemplating. I was looking farther forward, past the journey, longing for home.

Fraser’s Ridge was high in the western mountains, far beyond any town—or even any established roads. Remote and isolated, we had few visitors. Few inhabitants, too, though the population of the Ridge was growing; more than thirty families had come to take up homesteads on Jamie’s granted land, under his sponsorship. Most of these were men he had known in prison, at Ardsmuir. I thought Chisholm and McGillivray must be ex-prisoners, too; Jamie had put out a standing invitation for such men, and would hold to it, no matter the expense involved in helping them—or whether we could afford it.

A raven flew silently past, slow and heavy, its feathers burdened by the rain. Ravens were birds of omen; I wondered whether this one meant us good or ill. Rare for any bird to fly in such weather—that must mean it was a special omen.

I knocked the heel of my hand against my head, trying to smack the superstition out of it. Live with Highlanders long enough, and every damn rock and tree meant something!

Perhaps it did, though. There were people all round me on the mountain—I knew that—and yet I felt quite alone, shielded by the rain and fog. The weather was still cold, but I was not. The blood thrummed near the surface of my skin, and I felt heat rise in my palms. I reached a hand out to the pine that stood by me, drops of water trembling on each needle, its bark black with wet. I breathed its scent and let the water touch my skin, cool as vapor. The rain fell in shushing stillness all around me, dampening my clothes ’til they clung to me softly, like clouds upon the mountain.

Jamie had told me once that he must live on a mountain, and I knew now why this was so—though I could in no wise have put the notion into words. All my scattered thoughts receded, as I listened for the voice of rocks and trees—and heard the bell of the mountain strike once, somewhere deep beneath my feet.

I might have stood thus enchanted for some time, all thought of breakfast forgotten, but the voices of rocks and trees hushed and vanished with the clatter of feet on the nearby path.

“Mrs. Fraser.”

It was Archie Hayes himself, resplendent in bonnet and sword despite the wet. If he was surprised to see me standing by the path alone, he didn’t show it, but inclined his head in courteous greeting.

“Lieutenant.” I bowed back, feeling my cheeks flush as though he had caught me in the midst of bathing.

“Will your husband be about, ma’am?” he asked, voice casual. Despite my discomfiture, I felt a stab of wariness. Young Corporal MacNair had come to fetch Jamie, and failed. If the mountain had come to Mohammed now, the matter wasn’t casual. Was Hayes intending to drag Jamie into some sort of witch-hunt for Regulators?

“I suppose so. I don’t really know where he is,” I said, consciously not looking up the hill to the spot where Jocasta’s big tent showed its canvas peak among a stand of chestnut trees.

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