“An excellent thought,” I whispered back. “Care to tell him that yourself?”
My eye had caught the flash of a green-and-black tartan on the other side of the clearing, but when Jamie straightened up and whirled round, I saw that the visitor was in fact not Lieutenant Hayes but rather John Quincy Myers, who was sporting a soldier’s plaid wrapped round his waist, the ends fluttering gaily in the breeze.
This added a further touch of color to Myers’s already striking sartorial splendor. Extremely tall, and decorated from the top down with a slouch hat stuck through with several needles and a turkey quill, two ragged pheasant feathers knotted into his long black hair, a vest of dyed porcupine quills worn over a beaded shirt, his usual breechclout, and leggings wrapped with strings of small bells, the mountain man was hard to miss.
“Friend James!” John Quincy smiled broadly at sight of Jamie, and hastened forward, hand extended and bells chiming. “Thought I should find you at your breakfast!”
Jamie blinked slightly at this vision, but gamely returned the mountain man’s encompassing handshake.
“Aye, John. Will ye join us?”
“Er . . . yes,” I chimed in, with a surreptitious look into the food hamper. “Please do!”
John Quincy bowed ceremoniously to me, sweeping off his hat.
“Your servant, ma’am, and I’m much obliged. Maybe later. Right now, I come to fetch away Mr. Fraser, though. He’s wanted, urgent-like.”
“By whom?” Jamie asked warily.
“Robbie McGillivray, he says his name is. You know the man?”
“Aye, I do.” Whatever Jamie knew about McGillivray, it was causing him to delve into the small chest where he kept his pistols. “What’s the trouble?”
“Well.” John Quincy scratched meditatively at his bushy black beard. “’Twas his wife as asked me to come find you, and she don’t speak what you’d call right good English, so may be as I’ve muddled the account of it a bit. But what I think she said to me was as how there was a thief-taker who’d grabbed holt of her son, sayin’ as how the boy was one o’ the ruffians who broke up Hillsborough, and meanin’ to take him to the gaol in New Bern. Only Robbie, he says no one’s takin’ a son of his anywhere, and—well, after that, the poor woman got right flustered and I couldn’t make out but one word to the dozen. But I do believe Robbie would ’preciate it if you’d come by and lend a hand with the proceedings.”
Jamie grabbed Roger’s bloodstained green coat, which was hung on a bush waiting to be cleaned. Shrugging into it, he thrust the newly loaded pistol through his belt.
“Where?” he said.
Myers gestured economically with one large thumb, and pushed off into the holly bushes, Jamie at his heels.
Fergus, who had been listening to this exchange, Germain in his arms, set the boy down at Marsali’s feet.
“I must go help Grand-père,” he told Germain. He picked up a stick of firewood and put it into the little boy’s hands. “You stay; protect Maman and little Joan from bad people.”
“Oui, Papa.” Germain scowled fiercely under his blond fringe and took a firm grip on his stick, settling himself to defend the camp.
Marsali, MacLennan, Lizzie, and Private Ogilvie had been watching the byplay with rather glazed looks. As Fergus picked up another length of firewood and plunged purposefully into the holly bushes, Private Ogilvie came to life, stirring uneasily.
“Er . . .” he said. “Perhaps I . . . should I go for my sergeant, do ye think, ma’am? If there’s like to be any trouble . . .”
“No, no,” I said hurriedly. The last thing we needed was for Archie Hayes and his regiment to show up en masse. This struck me as the sort of situation which would benefit strongly from being kept unofficial.
“I’m sure everything will be quite all right. It’s sure to be nothing but a misunderstanding. Mr. Fraser will sort it directly, never fear.” Even as I spoke, I was sidling round the fire toward the spot where my medical supplies lay, sheltered from the drizzle under a sheet of canvas. Reaching under the edge, I grabbed my small emergency kit.
“Lizzie, why don’t you give Private Ogilvie some of the strawberry preserves for his toast? And Mr. MacLennan would like a bit of honey in his coffee, I’m sure. Do excuse me, won’t you, Mr. MacLennan, I must just go and . . . er . . .” Smiling inanely, I sidled through the holly leaves. As the branches swished and crackled behind me, I paused to take my bearings. A faint chime of bells reached me on the rainy wind; I turned toward the sound, and broke into a run.
IT WAS SOME WAY; I was out of breath and sweating from the exercise by the time I caught them up near the competition field. Things were just getting under way; I could hear the buzz of talk from the crowd of men gathering, but no shouts of encouragement or howls of disappointment as yet. A few brawny specimens stamped to and fro, stripped to the waist and swinging their arms to limber up; the local “strongmen” of various settlements.
The drizzle had started up again; the wetness gleamed on curving shoulders and plastered swirls of dark body hair flat against the pale skins of chests and forearms. I had no time to appreciate the spectacle, though; John Quincy threaded his way adroitly through the knots of spectators and competitors, waving cordially to this and that acquaintance as we passed. On the far side of the crowd, a small man detached himself from the mass and came hurrying to meet us.
“Mac Dubh! Ye’ve come, then—that’s good.”
“Nay bother, Robbie,” Jamie assured him. “What’s to do, then?”
McGillivray, who looked distinctly harried, glanced at the strongmen and their supporters, then jerked his head toward the nearby trees. We followed him, unnoticed by the crowd gathering round two large stones wrapped with rope, which I assumed some of the strongmen present were about to prove their prowess by lifting.
“It’s your son, is it, Rob?” Jamie asked, dodging a water-filled pine branch.
“Aye,” Robbie answered, “or it was.”
That sounded sinister. I saw Jamie’s hand brush the butt of his pistol; mine went to my medical kit.
“What’s happened?” I asked. “Is he hurt?”
“Not him,” McGillivray replied cryptically, and ducked ahead, beneath a drooping chestnut bough hung with scarlet creeper.
Just beyond was a small open space, not really big enough to be called a clearing, tufted with dead grass and studded with pine saplings. As Fergus and I ducked under the creeper after Jamie, a large woman in homespun whirled toward us, shoulders hunching as she raised the broken tree limb she clutched in one hand. She saw McGillivray, though, and relaxed fractionally.
“Wer ist das?” she asked suspiciously, eyeing us. Then John Quincy appeared from under the creeper, and she lowered the club, her solidly handsome features relaxing further.
“Ha, Myers! You brung me den Jamie, oder?” She cast me a curious look, but was too busy glancing between Fergus and Jamie to inspect me closely.
“Aye, love, this is Jamie Roy—Sheumais Mac Dubh.” McGillivray hastened to take credit for Jamie’s appearance, putting a respectful hand on his sleeve. “My wife, Ute, Mac Dubh. And Mac Dubh’s son,” he added, waving vaguely at Fergus.
Ute McGillivray looked like a Valkyrie on a starchy diet; tall, very blond, and broadly powerful.
“Your servant, ma’am,” Jamie said, bowing.
“Madame,” Fergus echoed, making her a courtly leg.
Mrs. McGillivray dropped them a low curtsy in return, eyes fixed on the prominent bloodstains streaking the front of Jamie’s—or rather, Roger’s—coat.
“Mein Herr,” she murmured, looking impressed. She turned and beckoned to a young man of seventeen or eighteen, who had been lurking in the background. He bore such a marked resemblance to his small, wiry, dark-haired father that his identity could scarcely be in doubt.
“Manfred,” his mother announced proudly. “Mein laddie.”
Jamie inclined his head in grave acknowledgment.
“Ah . . . your s-servant, sir?” The boy sounded rather dubious about it, but put out his hand to be shaken.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir,” Jamie assured him, shaking it. The courtesies duly observed, he looked briefly round at the quiet surroundings, raising one eyebrow.
“I had heard that you were suffering some inconvenience wi’ regard to a thief-taker. Do I take it that the matter has been resolved?” He glanced in question from McGillivray Junior to McGillivray Senior.
The three McGillivrays exchanged assorted glances among themselves. Robin McGillivray gave an apologetic cough.
“Well, not to say resolved, quite, Mac Dubh. That is to say . . .” He trailed off, the harried look returning to his eyes.
Mrs. McGillivray gave him a stern look, then turned to Jamie.
“Ist kein bother,” she told him. “Ich haf den wee ball of shite safe put. But only we want to know, how we best den Korpus hide?”
“The . . . body?” I said, rather faintly.
Even Jamie looked a bit disturbed at that.
“Ye’ve killed him, Rob?”
“Me?” McGillivray looked shocked. “Christ’s sake, Mac Dubh, what d’ye take me for?”
Jamie raised the eyebrow again; evidently the thought of McGillivray committing violence was scarcely far-fetched. McGillivray had the grace to look abashed.
“Aye, well. I suppose I might have—and I did—well, but, Mac Dubh! That business at Ardsmuir was all long ago and done wi’, aye?”
“Aye,” Jamie said. “It was. What about this business wi’ the thief-taker, though? Where is he?”
I heard a muffled giggle behind me, and swung round to see that the rest of the family McGillivray, silent ’til now, was nonetheless present. Three teenaged girls sat in a row on a dead log behind a screen of saplings, all immaculately attired in clean white caps and aprons, only slightly wilted with the rain.
“Meine lassies,” Mrs. McGillivray announced, with a wave in their direction—unnecessarily, since all three of the girls looked like smaller versions of herself. “Hilda, Inga, und Senga.”
Fergus bowed elegantly to the three.
“Enchanté, mes demoiselles.”
The girls giggled and bobbed their heads in response, but without rising, which struck me as odd. Then I noticed some disturbance taking place under the skirt of the oldest girl; a sort of heaving flutter, accompanied by a muffled grunt. Hilda swung her heel sharply into whatever it was, all the time smiling brightly at me.
There was another grunt—much louder this time—from under the skirt, which caused Jamie to start and turn in her direction.
Still smiling brightly, Hilda bent and delicately picked up the edge of her skirt, under which I could see a frantic face, bisected by a dark strip of cloth tied round his mouth.
“That’s him,” said Robbie, sharing his wife’s talent for stating the obvious.
“I see.” Jamie’s fingers twitched slightly against the side of his kilt. “Ah . . . perhaps we could have him out, then?”