Robbie motioned to the girls, who all stood up together and stepped aside, revealing a small man who lay against the base of the dead log, bound hand and foot with an assortment of what looked like women’s stockings, and gagged with someone’s kerchief. He was wet, muddy, and slightly battered round the edges.
Myers bent and hoisted the man to his feet, holding him by the collar.
“Well, he ain’t much to look at,” the mountain man said critically, squinting at the man as though evaluating a substandard beaver skin. “I guess thief-takin’ don’t pay so well as ye might think.”
The man was in fact skinny and rather ragged, as well as disheveled, furious—and frightened. Ute sniffed contemptuously.
“Saukerl!” she said, and spat neatly on the thief-taker’s boots. Then she turned to Jamie, full of charm.
“So, mein Herr. How we are to kill him best?”
The thief-taker’s eyes bulged, and he writhed in Myers’s grip. He bucked and twisted, making frantic gargling noises behind the gag. Jamie looked him over, rubbing a knuckle across his mouth, then glanced at Robbie, who gave a slight shrug, with an apologetic glance at his wife.
Jamie cleared his throat.
“Mmphm. Ye had something in mind, perhaps, ma’am?”
Ute beamed at this evidence of sympathy with her intentions, and drew a long dagger from her belt.
“I thought maybe to butcher, wie ein Schwein, ja? But see . . .” She poked the thief-taker gingerly between the ribs; he yelped behind the gag, and a small spot of blood bloomed on his ragged shirt.
“Too much Blut,” she explained, with a moue of disappointment. She waved at the screen of trees, behind which the stone-lifting seemed to be proceeding well. “Die Leute will schmell.”
“Schmell?” I glanced at Jamie, thinking this some unfamiliar German expression. He coughed, and brushed a hand under his nose. “Oh, smell!” I said, enlightened. “Er, yes, I think they might.”
“I dinna suppose we’d better shoot him, then,” Jamie said thoughtfully. “If ye’re wanting to avoid attention, I mean.”
“I say we break his neck,” Robbie McGillivray said, squinting judiciously at the trussed thief-taker. “That’s easy enough.”
“You think?” Fergus squinted in concentration. “I say a knife. If you stab in the right spot, the blood is not so much. The kidney, just beneath the ribs in back . . . eh?”
The captive appeared to take exception to these suggestions, judging from the urgent sounds proceeding from behind the gag, and Jamie rubbed his chin dubiously.
“Well, that’s no verra difficult,” he agreed. “Or strangle him. But he will lose his bowels. If it were to be a question of the smell, even crushing his skull . . . but tell me, Robbie, how does the man come to be here?”
“Eh?” Robbie looked blank.
“You’re no camped nearby?” Jamie waved a hand briefly at the tiny clearing, making his meaning clear. There was no trace of hearthfire; in fact, no one had camped on this side of the creek. And yet all the McGillivrays were here.
“Oh, no,” Robbie said, comprehension blossoming on his spare features. “Nay, we’re camped some distance up. Only, we came to have a wee keek at the heavies”—he jerked his head toward the competition field—“and the friggin’ vulture spied our Freddie and took hold of him, so as to drag him off.” He cast an unfriendly look at the thief-taker, and I saw that a coil of rope dangled snakelike from the man’s belt. A pair of iron manacles lay on the ground nearby, the dark metal already laced with orange rust from the damp.
“We saw him grab aholt of Brother,” Hilda put in at this point. “So we grabbed aholt of him and pushed him through here, where nobody could see. When he said he meant to take Brother away to the sheriff, me and my sisters knocked him down and sat on him, and Mama kicked him a few times.”
Ute patted her daughter fondly on one sturdy shoulder.
“They are gut, strong Mädchen, meine lasses,” she told Jamie. “Ve komm see hier die Wettkämpfer, maybe choose husband for Inga or Senga. Hilda hat einen Mann already promised,” she added, with an air of satisfaction.
She looked Jamie over frankly, her eye dwelling approvingly on his height, the breadth of his shoulders, and the general prosperity of his appearance.
“He is fine, big, your Mann,” she said to me. “You haf sons, maybe?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” I said apologetically. “Er . . . Fergus is married to my husband’s daughter,” I added, seeing her gaze shift appraisingly to Fergus.
The thief-taker appeared to feel that the subject was drifting somewhat afield, and summoned attention back to himself with an indignant squeal behind his gag. His face, which had gone pale at the discussion of his theoretical demise, had grown quite red again, and his hair was matted down across his forehead in spikes.
“Oh, aye,” Jamie said, noticing. “Perhaps we should let the gentleman have a word?”
Robbie narrowed his eyes at this, but reluctantly nodded. The competitions had got well under way by now, and there was a considerable racket emanating from the field; no one would notice the odd shout over here.
“Don’t let ’em kill me, sir! You know it ain’t right!” Hoarse from his ordeal, the man fixed his appeal on Jamie as soon as the gag was removed. “I’m only doin’ as I ought, delivering a criminal to justice!”
“Ha!” all the McGillivrays said at once. Unanimous as their sentiment appeared to be, the expression of it immediately disintegrated into a confusion of expletives, opinions, and a random volley of kicks aimed at the gentleman’s shins by Inga and Senga.
“Stop that!” Jamie said, raising his voice enough to be heard over the uproar. As this had no result, he grabbed McGillivray Junior by the scruff of the neck and roared, “Ruhe!” at the top of his lungs, which startled them into momentary silence, with guilty looks over their shoulders in the direction of the competition field.
“Now, then,” Jamie said firmly. “Myers, bring the gentleman, if ye will. Rob, Fergus, come along with ye. Bitte, Madame?” He bowed to Mrs. McGillivray, who blinked at him, but then nodded in slow acquiescence. Jamie rolled an eye at me, then, still holding Manfred by the neck, he marched the male contingent off toward the creek, leaving me in charge of the ladies.
“Your Mann—he will save my son?” Ute turned to me, fair brows knitted in concern.
“He’ll try.” I glanced at the girls, who were huddled together behind their mother. “Do you know whether your brother was at Hillsborough?”
The girls looked at one another, and silently elected Inga to speak.
“Well, ja, he was, then,” she said, a little defiantly. “But he wasna riotin’, not a bit of it. He’d only gone for to have a bit of harness mended, and was caught up in the mob.”
I caught a quick glance exchanged between Hilda and Senga, and deduced that this was perhaps not the entire story. Still, it wasn’t my place to judge, thank goodness.
Mrs. McGillivray’s eyes were fixed on the men, who stood murmuring together some distance away. The thief-taker had been untied, save for his hands, which remained bound. He stood with his back against a tree, looking like a cornered rat, eyeteeth showing in a snarl of defiance. Jamie and Myers were both looming over him, while Fergus stood by, frowning attentively, his chin propped on his hook. Rob McGillivray had taken out a knife, with which he was contemplatively flicking small chips of wood from a pine twig, glancing now and then at the thief-taker with an air of dark intent.
“I’m sure Jamie will be able to . . . er . . . do something,” I said, privately hoping that the something wouldn’t involve too much violence. The unwelcome thought occurred to me that the diminutive thief-taker would probably fit tidily in one of the empty food hampers.
“Gut.” Ute McGillivray nodded slowly, still watching. “Better that I do not kill him.” Her eyes turned suddenly back to me, light blue and very bright. “But I vill do it, if I must.”
I believed her.
“I see,” I said carefully. “But—I do beg your pardon—but even if that man took your son, could you not go to the sheriff too, and explain . . .”
More glances among the girls. This time it was Hilda who spoke.
“Nein, ma’am. See, it wouldna have been sae bad, had the thief-taker come on us at the camp. But down here—” She widened her eyes, nodding toward the competition field, where a muffled thud and a roar of approval marked some successful effort.
The difficulty, apparently, was Hilda’s fiancé, one Davey Morrison, from Hunter’s Point. Mr. Morrison was a farmer of some substance, and a man of worth, as well as an athlete skilled in the arcana of stone-throwing and caber-tossing. He had family, too—parents, uncles, aunts, cousins—all of the most upright character and—I gathered—rather judgmental attitudes.
Had Manfred been taken by a thief-taker in front of such a crowd, filled with Davey Morrison’s relations, word would have spread at the speed of light, and the scandal would result in the prompt rupture of Hilda’s engagement—a prospect that clearly perturbed Ute McGillivray much more than the notion of cutting the thief-taker’s throat.
“Bad, too, I kill him and someone see,” she said frankly, waving at the thin scrim of trees shielding us from the competition field. “Die Morrisons would not like.”
“I suppose they might not,” I murmured, wondering whether Davey Morrison had any idea what he was getting into. “But you—”
“I vill haf meine lassies well wed,” she said firmly, nodding several times in reinforcement. “I find gut men für Sie, fine big men, mit land, mit money.” She put an arm round Senga’s shoulders and hugged her tight. “Nicht wahr, Liebchen?”
“Ja, Mama,” Senga murmured, and laid her neat capped head affectionately on Mrs. McGillivray’s broad bosom.
Something was happening on the men’s side of things; the thief-taker’s hands had been untied, and he stood rubbing his wrists, no longer scowling, but listening to whatever Jamie was saying with an expression of wariness. He glanced at us, then at Robin McGillivray, who said something to him and nodded emphatically. The thief-taker’s jaw worked, as though he were chewing over an idea.
“So you all came down to watch the competitions this morning and look for suitable prospects? Yes, I see.”
Jamie reached into his sporran and drew out something, which he held under the thief-taker’s nose, as though inviting him to smell it. I couldn’t make out what it was at this distance, but the thief-taker’s face suddenly changed, going from wariness to alarmed disgust.
“Ja, only to look.” Mrs. McGillivray was not watching; she patted Senga and let her go. “Ve go now to Salem, where ist meine Familie. Maybe ve find there a good Mann, too.”
Myers had stepped back from the confrontation now, his shoulders drooping in relaxation. He inserted a finger under the edge of his breechclout, scratched his buttocks comfortably, and glanced around, evidently no longer interested in the proceedings. Seeing me looking in his direction, he ambled back through the sapling grove.