As for dangerous, though . . .
“I don’t know,” Buck said softly, as though talking to himself. “I dinna ken what I’d say to the man—to either of them.”
That alarmed Roger, who sat up straight.
“Ye don’t mean ye’d go back to her? To—your mother?”
Buck’s mouth curled up on one side.
“Well, we really didna say much to each other,” he pointed out.
“Neither did I,” Roger said shortly, “to my father.”
Buck made an indeterminate noise in his throat, and they fell silent, listening to the growing drum of rain on the slates of the roof. The tiny fire dwindled under the rain coming down the chimney and went out, leaving no more than the faint smell of warmth, and after a bit Roger wrapped himself in his cloak and curled up on one side of the bed, waiting for his body to warm enough for sleep to come.
The air through the cracked window was sharp with cold and the tingling smell of wet bracken and pine bark. No place smelled like the Highlands, and Roger found his heart eased by its harsh perfume. He was nearly asleep when Buck’s voice came softly to him through the dark.
“I’m glad ye got to say it, though.”
NO A VERY GOOD PERSON
ROGER HAD INSISTED on camping outside the town, thinking it better to get Buck as far away from Geillis Duncan as was feasible. For once, it wasn’t raining, and they’d managed to gather enough in the way of pine twigs for a decent wood fire; pine would usually burn even if damp, because of the resin.
“I’m no a very good person.” The words were quiet and took a moment to register. Roger looked up to see Buck slumped on his rock, a long stick in his hand, poking at the fire in a desultory fashion. Roger rubbed a hand along his jaw. He felt tired, discouraged, and in no mood for more pastoral counseling.
“I’ve met worse,” he said, after a pause. It sounded unconvincing.
Buck looked at him from under the fringe of blond hair. “I wasna looking for contradiction or consolation,” he said dryly. “It was a statement of fact. Call it a preface, if ye like.”
“All right.” Roger stretched, yawning, then settled himself. “A preface to what? An apology?” He saw the question on his ancestor’s face and, irritated, touched his throat. “For this.”
“Ah, that.” Buck rocked back a little and pursed his lips, eyes fixed on the scar.
“Aye, that!” Roger snapped, irritation flaring suddenly into anger. “Do you have any notion what it was ye took from me, you bastard?”
“Maybe a bit.” Buck resumed poking at the fire, waiting ’til the end of his stick caught, then stubbing it out again in the dirt. He fell silent, then, and for a bit there was no sound but the rattle of wind through the dry bracken. A ghost walking by, Roger thought, watching the brown fronds within the circle of firelight stir and then fall still.
“I don’t say it as excuse, mind,” Buck said at last, eyes still fixed on the fire. “But there’s the matter of intent. I didna mean to get ye hanged.”
Roger made a low, vicious noise in response to this. It hurt. He was damned tired of it hurting to speak, or sing, or even grunt.
“Bugger off,” he said abruptly, standing up. “Just—bugger off. I don’t want to look at you.”
Buck gave him a long look, as though debating whether to say something, but then shrugged, got up, and disappeared. He was back within five minutes, though, and sat down with the air of someone who had something to say. Fine, Roger thought. Get on with it.
“Did it not occur to the two of ye, whilst reading those letters, that there’s another way for the past to speak to the future?”
“Well, of course,” Roger said, impatient. He stabbed his dirk into one of the turnips to test it; still hard as a rock. “We thought of all sorts of things—diaries left under stones, newspaper notices”—he grimaced at that one—“and a number of less-useful notions. But most of those options were either too unsure or too risky; that’s why we arranged to use the banks. But . . .”
He trailed off. Buck was looking smugly superior.
“And I suppose you’ve thought of something better?” Roger said.
“Why, man, it’s right under your nose.” With a smirk, Buck bent to test his own turnip and, evidently finding the results acceptable, lifted it out of the ashes on the point of his dirk.
“If ye think I’m going to ask you—”
“Beyond that—” Buck said, blowing on the hot turnip between phrases, “beyond that—it’s the only way for the future to speak to the past.”
He gave Roger a straight, hard look, and Roger felt as though he’d been stabbed with a screwdriver.
“What—you?” he blurted. “You mean you—”
Buck nodded, eyes casually on his smoking turnip.
“Can’t be you, can it?” He looked up suddenly, green eyes catching the firelight. “You won’t go. Ye wouldn’t trust me to keep looking.”
“I—” The words caught in Roger’s throat, but he was well aware that they showed in his face.
Buck’s own face twisted in a lopsided smile. “I would keep looking,” he said. “But I see how ye’d not believe me.”
“It’s not that,” Roger said, clearing his throat. “It’s only—I can’t leave while Jem might be here. Not when I don’t know for sure that I could come back if I left and he . . . wasn’t at the other end.” He made a helpless gesture. “Go, and know I was maybe abandoning him forever?”
Buck nodded, looking down. Roger saw the other man’s throat move, too, and was struck by a pang of realization.
“Your Jem,” Roger said softly. “You do know where he is, at least. When, I mean.” The question was clear: if Buck was willing to risk the stones again, why would he not do it in search of his own family, rather than to carry a message to Bree?
“Ye’re all mine, aren’t ye?” Buck said gruffly. “My blood. My . . . sons.”
Despite everything, Roger was moved by that. A little. He coughed, and it didn’t hurt.
“Even so,” he said. He gave Buck a direct look. “Why? Ye ken it might do for you; it might have done this last time, if McEwan hadn’t been there.”
“Mmphm.” Buck poked his turnip again and put it back into the fire. “Aye. Well, I meant it; I’m no a very good person. No such a waste, I mean, if I didna make it.” His lips twisted a little as he glanced up at Roger. “Ye’ve maybe got a bit more to offer the world.”
“I’m flattered,” Roger said dryly. “I imagine the world can get on well enough without me, if it came to that.”
“Aye, maybe. But maybe your family can’t.”
There was a long silence while Roger digested that, broken only by the pop of a burning twig and the distant hooting of courting owls.
“What about your own family?” he asked at last, quietly. “Ye seem to think your wife would be happier without ye. Why? What did ye do to her?”
Buck made a short, unhappy noise that might have been meant for a wry laugh.
“Fell in love wi’ her.” He took a deep breath, looking down into the fire. “Wanted her.”
He’d met Morag Gunn just after he’d begun reading law with a solicitor in Inverness. The lawyer had been called to go out to a farm near Essich, to draw up a will for an old man, and had taken his junior along to see the way of it.
“It took three days, for the auld man was that ill, he couldna attend more than a few minutes at a time. So we stayed wi’ the family, and I’d go out to help wi’ the pigs and the chickens when I wasna needed inside.” He shrugged. “I was young and no bad-looking, and I had the trick of makin’ women like me. And she did like me—but she was in love wi’ Donald McAllister, a young farmer from Daviot.”
But Buck had been unable to forget the lass, and whenever he had a day free from the law, would ride out to visit. He came for Hogmanay, and there was a cèilidh, and . . .
“And wee Donald had a dram—or two or three or four—too many and was found in a stall wi’ his hand down Mary Finlay’s bodice. God, the stramash there was!” A rueful smile flickered over Buck’s face. “Mary’s twa brothers gave Donald laldy and laid him out like a mackerel, and all the lasses were screamin’ and the lads shoutin’ like it was Judgment Day. And poor wee Morag was off behind the cow byre, greetin’ her heart out.”
“You, um, comforted her,” Roger suggested, not trying to keep the skeptical note out of his voice. Buck shot him a sharp glance, then shrugged.
“Thought it might be my only chance,” he said simply. “Aye. I did. She was the worse for drink herself, and that upset. . . . I didna force her.” His lips pressed together. “But I didna take no for an answer, either, and after a bit, she gave up sayin’ it.”
“Aye. And when she woke up next morning and realized . . . ?”
Buck cocked a brow.
“She didna say anything to anyone then. It was two months later when she realized . . .” Buck had arrived at Mr. Ferguson’s rooms one day in March to find Morag Gunn’s father and three brothers waiting for him, and as soon as the banns could be read, he was a married man.
“So.” Buck took a breath and rubbed a hand over his face. “We . . . got on. I was mad in love wi’ her, and she kent that and tried to be kind to me. But I knew well enough it was Donald she’d wanted and still did. He was still there, ken, and she’d see him now and then at cèilidhean or the cattle sales.”
It was knowing that that had made Buck take the opportunity to sail for North Carolina with his wife and small child.
“Thought she’d forget,” he said, a little bleakly. “Or at least I wouldna have to see the look in her eyes when she saw him.”
But things had gone badly for the MacKenzies in the New World; Buck had failed to establish a practice as a solicitor, they had little money and no land, and they had no one in the way of kinfolk to turn to for help.
“So we came back,” Buck said. He rolled the turnip out of the fire and stabbed it with his stick; the black crust broke and oozed white. He stared at the vegetable for a moment, then stamped on it, mashing it into the ashes.
“And Donald was still there, of course. Was he married?”
Buck shook his head, then knuckled the hair out of his eyes.
“It was no good,” he said softly. “It was true, what I told ye about how I came to pass through the stones. But once I’d come to myself and discovered how things were—I kent Morag would be best served if I never came back. Either she’d give me up for dead after a time and marry Donald, or, at the worst, her father would have her back, wi’ the bairns. They’d live well—her da had inherited the farm, when his auld one died.”
Roger’s throat felt tight but it didn’t matter. He reached out and squeezed Buck’s shoulder, hard. Buck gave a small snort, but didn’t pull away.
After a bit, though, he heaved a sigh and straightened up, turning to Roger.
“So ye see,” he said. “If I go back and tell your wife what’s to do—and, with luck, come back to tell you—it’s maybe the one good thing I could do. For my family—for yours.”
It took some time for Roger to get his voice sufficiently under control as to speak.
“Aye,” he said. “Well. Sleep on it. I mean to go up to Lallybroch. Ye’ll maybe go and see Dougal MacKenzie at Leoch. If ye think ye still . . . mean it, after . . . there’s time enough to decide then.”
A BROTHER OF THE LODGE
Craigh na Dun, the Scottish Highlands
December 21, 1980
ESMERALDA’S HAIR was much too red. Somebody will notice. They’ll ask questions. You idiot, why are you even thinking about it? They’d notice a Barbie in a polka-dot bikini a heck of a lot faster. . . . Brianna shut her eyes for an instant to blot out the sight of Mandy’s rag dolly with her scarlet fright wig, brilliant with a dye much brighter than anything achievable in the eighteenth century. She tripped on a stone, said, “S-word!” under her breath, and, her eyes having flown open, took a firmer hold of Mandy’s free hand, the other being employed to clutch Esmeralda.
She knew bloody well why she was worrying about the doll’s hair. If she didn’t think of something inconsequential, she was going to turn right around and run down the rocky slope like a panicked hare, dragging Jem and Mandy through the dead gorse.
We’re going to do it. We have to. We’ll die, we’ll all die in there, in the black . . . Oh, God, oh, God . . .
“Mam?” Jemmy looked up at her, small brow furrowed. She made a good attempt—she thought—at a reassuring smile, but it must have looked less than convincing, judging from his alarmed expression.
“It’s okay,” she said, abandoning the smile and putting what little conviction she could muster into her voice. “It’s okay, Jem.”
“Uh-huh.” He still looked worried, but he turned his face uphill, and his expression smoothed out, intentness replacing concern. “I can hear them,” he said softly. “Can ye hear them, Mama?”
That “Mama” made her hand tighten, and he winced, though she didn’t think he really noticed. He was listening. She came to a stop, and they all listened. She could hear the rush of the wind and a slight patter as brief rain swept through the brown heather. Mandy was humming to Esmeralda. But Jem’s face was turned upward, serious but not frightened. She could just see the pointed top of one of the stones, barely visible above the crest of the hill.
“I can’t, honey,” she said, letting out just a bit of the huge breath she’d been holding. “Not yet.” What if I can’t hear them at all? What if I’ve lost it? Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us . . . “Let’s . . . get a little closer.”