If this were the case, however, I find myself at a loss to account for Fraser’s subsequent actions. He was recaptured within three days of his escape, at a point no more than a mile from the coast. The country-side beyond the prison is deserted for a great many miles beyond the village of Ardsmuir, and there is little likelihood of his meeting with a confederate to whom he might pass word of the treasure. Every house in the village has been searched, as was Fraser himself, with no trace discovered of any gold. It is a remote district, and I am reasonably sure that he communicated with no one outside the prison prior to his escape—I am positive that he has not done so since, for he is closely watched.
Grey stopped, seeing once more the windswept figure of James Fraser, wild as the red stags and as much at home on the moor as one of them.
He had not the slightest doubt that Fraser could have eluded the dragoons easily, had he so chosen, but he had not. He had deliberately allowed himself to be recaptured. Why? He resumed writing, more slowly.
It may be, of course, that Fraser failed to find the treasure, or that such a treasure does not exist. I find myself somewhat inclined to this belief, for if he were in possession of a great sum, surely he would have departed from the district at once? He is a strong man, well-accustomed to rough living, and entirely capable, I believe, of making his way overland to some point on the coast from which he might make an escape by sea.
Grey bit the end of the quill gently, tasting ink. He made a face at the bitterness, rose, and spat out the window. He stood there for a minute, looking out into the cold spring night, absently wiping his mouth.
It had finally occurred to him to ask; not the question he had been asking all along, but the more important one. He had done it at the conclusion of a game of chess, which Fraser had won. The guard was standing at the door, ready to escort Fraser back to his cell; as the prisoner had risen from his seat, Grey had stood up, too.
“I shall not ask you again why you left the prison,” he had said, calmly conversational. “But I will ask you—why did you come back?”
Fraser had frozen briefly, startled. He turned back and met Grey’s eyes directly. For a moment he said nothing. Then his mouth curled up in a smile.
“I suppose I must value the company, Major; I can tell ye, it’s not the food.”
Grey snorted slightly, remembering. Unable to think of a suitable response, he had allowed Fraser to leave. It was only later that night that he had laboriously arrived at an answer, at last having had the wit to ask questions of himself, rather than of Fraser. What would he, Grey, have done, had Fraser not returned?
The answer was that his next step would have been an inquiry into Fraser’s family connections, in case the man had sought refuge or help from them.
And that, he was fairly sure, was the answer. Grey had not taken part in the subjugation of the Highlands—he had been posted to Italy and France—but he had heard more than enough of that particular campaign. He had seen the blackened stones of too many charred cottages, rising like cairns amid the ruined fields, as he traveled north to Ardsmuir.
The fierce loyalties of the Scottish Highlanders were legendary. A Highlander who had seen those cots in flames might well choose to suffer prison, irons, or even flogging, to save his family a visitation from English soldiers.
Grey sat and took up his quill, dipping it afresh.
You will know, I think, the mettle of the Scots, he wrote. That one in particular, he thought wryly.
It is unlikely that any force or threat I can exert will induce Fraser to reveal the whereabouts of the gold—should it exist, and if it does not, I can still less expect any threat to be effective! I have instead chosen to begin a formal acquaintance with Fraser, in his capacity as chief of the Scottish prisoners, in hopes of surprising some clue from his conversation. So far, I have gained nothing from this process. One further avenue of approach suggests itself, however.
For obvious reasons, he went on, writing slowly as he formed the thought, I do not wish to make this matter known officially. To call attention to a hoard that might well prove to be chimerical was dangerous; the chance of disappointment was too great. Time enough, if the gold were found, to inform his superiors and collect his deserved reward—escape from Ardsmuir; a posting back to civilization.
Therefore I approach you, dear brother, and ask for your help in discovering what particulars may obtain regarding the family of James Fraser. I pray you, do not let anyone be alarmed by your inquiries; if such family connections exist, I would have them ignorant of my interest for the present. My deepest thanks for any efforts you may be able to exert on my behalf, and believe me always,
He dipped the pen once more and signed with a small flourish,
Your humble servant and most affectionate brother,
John William Grey.
May 15, 1755
“The men sick of la grippe,” Grey inquired, “how do they fare?” Dinner was over, and with it their conversation of books. Now it was time for business.
Fraser frowned over the single glass of sherry that was all he would accept in the way of drink. He still had not tasted it, though dinner had been over for some time.
“None so well. I have more than sixty men ill, fifteen of them verra badly off.” He hesitated. “Might I ask…”
“I can promise nothing, Mr. Fraser, but you may ask,” Grey answered formally. He had barely sipped his own sherry, nor more than tasted his dinner; his stomach had been knotted with anticipation all day.
Jamie paused a moment longer, calculating his chances. He wouldn’t get everything; he must try for what was most important, but leave Grey room to reject some requests.
“We have need of more blankets, Major, more fires, and more food. And medicines.”
Grey swirled the sherry in his cup, watching the light from the fire play in the vortex. Ordinary business first, he reminded himself. Time enough for the other, later.
“We have no more than twenty spare blankets in store,” he answered, “but you may have those for the use of the very sick. I fear I cannot augment the ration of food; the rat-spoilage has been considerable, and we lost a great quantity of meal in the collapse of the storeroom two months ago. We have limited resources, and—”
“It is not so much a question of more,” Fraser put in quickly. “But rather of the type of food. Those who are most ill cannot readily digest the bread and parritch. Perhaps a substitution of some sort might be arranged?” Each man was given, by law, a quart of oatmeal parritch and a small wheaten loaf each day. Thin barley brose supplemented this twice each week, with a quart of meat stew added on Sunday, to sustain the needs of men working at manual labor for twelve to sixteen hours per day.
Grey raised one eyebrow. “What are you suggesting, Mr. Fraser?”
“I assume that the prison does have some allowance for the purchase of salt beef, turnips and onions, for the Sunday stew?”
“Yes, but that allowance must provide for the next quarter’s supplies.”
“Then what I suggest, Major, is that you might use that money now to provide broth and stew for those who are sick. Those of us who are hale will willingly forgo our share of meat for the quarter.”
Grey frowned. “But will the prisoners not be weakened, with no meat at all? Will they not be unable to work?”
“Those who die of the grippe will assuredly not work,” Fraser pointed out acerbically.
Grey snorted briefly. “True. But those of you who remain healthy will not be healthy long, if you give up your rations for so long a time.” He shook his head. “No, Mr. Fraser, I think not. It is better to let the sick take their chances than to risk many more falling ill.”
Fraser was a stubborn man. He lowered his head for a moment, then looked up to try again.
“Then I would ask your leave to hunt for ourselves, Major, if the Crown cannot supply us with adequate food.”
“Hunt?” Grey’s fair brows rose in astonishment. “Give you weapons and allow you to wander the moors? God’s teeth, Mr. Fraser!”
“I think God doesna suffer much from the scurvy, Major,” Jamie said dryly. “His teeth are in no danger.” He saw the twitch of Grey’s mouth and relaxed slightly. Grey always tried to suppress his sense of humor, no doubt feeling that put him at a disadvantage. In his dealings with Jamie Fraser, it did.
Emboldened by that telltale twitch, Jamie pressed on.
“Not weapons, Major. And not wandering. Will ye give us leave to set snares upon the moor when we cut peats, though? And to keep such meat as we take?” A prisoner would now and then contrive a snare as it was, but as often as not, the catch would be taken from him by the guards.
Grey drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly, considering.
“Snares? Would you not require materials for the construction of these snares, Mr. Fraser?”
“Only a bit of string, Major,” Jamie assured him. “A dozen balls, no more, of any sort of twine or string, and ye may leave the rest to us.”
Grey rubbed slowly at his cheek in contemplation, then nodded.
“Very well.” The Major turned to the small secretary, plucked the quill out of its inkwell and made a note. “I shall give orders to that effect tomorrow. Now, as to the rest of your requests…”
A quarter-hour later, it was settled. Jamie sat back at last, sighing, and finally took a sip of his sherry. He considered that he had earned it.
He had permission not only for the snares, but for the peat-cutters to work an extra half-hour per day, the extra peats to provide for an additional small fire in each cell. No medicines were to be had, but he had leave for Sutherland to send a message to a cousin in Ullapool, whose husband was an apothecary. If the cousin’s husband were willing to send medicines, the prisoners could have them.
A decent evening’s work, Jamie thought. He took another sip of sherry and closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the fire against his cheek.
Grey watched his guest beneath lowered lids, seeing the broad shoulders slump a little, tension eased now that their business was finished. Or so Fraser thought. Very good, Grey thought to himself. Yes, drink your sherry and relax. I want you thoroughly off guard.
He leaned forward to pick up the decanter, and felt the crackle of Hal’s letter in his breast pocket. His heart began to beat faster.
“Will you not take a drop more, Mr. Fraser? And tell me—how does your sister fare these days?”
He saw Fraser’s eyes spring open, and his face whiten with shock.
“How are matters there at—Lallybroch, they call it, do they not?” Grey pushed aside the decanter, keeping his eyes fixed on his guest.
“I could not say, Major.” Fraser’s voice was even, but his eyes were narrowed to slits.
“No? But I daresay they do very well these days, what with the gold you have provided them.”
The broad shoulders tightened suddenly, bunched under the shabby coat. Grey carelessly picked up one of the chessmen from the nearby board, tossing it casually from one hand to the other.
“I suppose Ian—your brother-in-law is named Ian, I think?—will know how to make good use of it.”
Fraser had himself under control again. The dark blue eyes met Grey’s directly.