I’d known from what he said to me that his wife was dead. From his appearance and the way he was boring everyone he talked to, I thought he hadn’t found another. He was plainly poor; that wasn’t unusual in the back-country. But he was also grubby and frayed, unshaven, and unkempt in a way that no man who lives with a woman normally is.
He passed within a yard of me as he went toward the door, his paper twist of tobacco and his bag of nails in one hand, a stick of barley sugar in the other. He was licking this with a large, wet tongue, his face showing a dim, vacant sort of pleasure in the taste. There was a small port-wine stain, a birth-mark, on the side of his jaw. He was crude, I thought. Lumpish. And the word came to me: feckless.
Christ, I thought, with a mild disgust, this mingled with an unwilling pity that made me even more disgusted. I had had some vague thought—and realized it only now—of confronting him, of walking up to him and demanding to know whether he knew me. But he had looked right at me as he passed me, without a sign of recognition on his face. Perhaps there was enough difference between what I looked like now—clean and combed, decently dressed—and what I had looked like the last time he had seen me: filthy, wild-haired, half naked, and beaten.
Perhaps he hadn’t really seen me at all at the time. It had been full dark when he came to me, tied and struggling for breath, trying to breathe through a broken nose. I hadn’t seen him.
Are you sure it’s really him? Yes, I bloody was. I was sure when I heard his voice and, even more so, having seen him, felt the rhythm of his bulky, shambling body.
No, I didn’t want to speak to him. What would be the point? And what would I say? Demand an apology? More than likely, he wouldn’t even remember having done it.
That thought made me snort with a bitter amusement.
“What’s funny, Grand-mère?” Germain had popped up by my elbow, holding two sticks of barley sugar.
“Just a thought,” I said. “Nothing important. Is Grannie Janet ready to go?”
“Aye, she sent me to look for ye. D’ye want one of these?” He generously extended a stick of candy toward me. My stomach flipped, thinking of the man’s large pink tongue lapping his treat.
“No, thank you,” I said. “Why don’t you take it home for Fanny? It would be wonderful exercise for her.” Clipping her frenulum hadn’t miraculously freed her speech, or even her ability to manipulate food; it just made such things possible, with work. Germain spent hours with her, the two of them sticking out their tongues at each other, wiggling them in all directions and giggling.
“Oh, I got a dozen sticks for Fanny,” Germain assured me. “And one each for Aidan, Orrie, and wee Rob, too.”
“That’s very generous, Germain,” I said, slightly surprised. “Er . . . what did you buy them with?”
“A beaver skin,” he replied, looking pleased with himself. “Mr. Kezzie Beardsley gave it to me for taking his young’uns down to the creek and minding ’em whilst he and Mrs. Beardsley had a lie-down.”
“A lie-down,” I repeated, my mouth twitching with the urge to laugh. “I see. All right. Let’s find Grannie Janet, then.”
IT TOOK NO little time to get organized for the journey back to the Ridge. It was a two-day ride; on foot, with goats, it would likely take four. But we had food and blankets, and the weather was fine. No one was in a hurry—certainly not the goats, who were inclined to pause for a quick mouthful of anything in reach.
The peace of the road and the company of my companions did a great deal to settle my disturbed feelings. Rachel’s imitation over supper of Ian’s expressions on suddenly meeting Mrs. Sylvie and the Wurms did even more, and I fell asleep by the fire within moments of lying down, and slept without dreaming.
WOMAN, WILT THOU LIE WITH ME?
IAN COULDN’T TELL whether Rachel was amused, appalled, angry, or all three. This discomfited him. He usually did know what she thought of things, because she told him; she wasn’t the sort of woman—he’d known a few—who expected a man to read her mind and got fashed when he didn’t.
She’d kept her own counsel on the matter of Mrs. Sylvie and the Wurms, though. They’d done their wee bit of business, trading two bottles of whisky for salt, sugar, nails, needles, thread, a hoe blade, and a bolt of pink gingham, and he’d bought her a dilled cucumber that was as long as the span of his outstretched fingers. She’d thanked him for this but hadn’t said much else on the way home. She was presently licking the vegetable in a meditative sort of way as she rocked along on Clarence.
It fascinated him to watch her do that, and he nearly walked straight off a steep rocky outcrop doing so. She turned round at his exclamation as he scrabbled for footing, though, and smiled at him, so she maybe wasn’t that bothered about Sylvie.
“D’ye no mean to eat that?” he inquired, coming up beside her stirrup.
“I do,” she said calmly, “but all in good time.” She licked the substantial length of the warty green thing with a long, slow swipe of her tongue and then—holding his eyes—sucked deliberately on the end of it. He walked straight into a springy pine branch, which swiped him across the face with its needles.
He swore, rubbing at his watering eyes. She was laughing!
“Ye did that on purpose, Rachel Murray!”
“Is thee accusing me of propelling thee into a tree?” she inquired, arching one brow. “Thee is an experienced Indian scout, or so I was led to believe. Surely one of those should look where he’s going.”
She had pulled Clarence to a stop—Clarence was always agreeable to stopping, particularly if there was anything edible in sight—and sat there smiling at Ian, cheeky as a monkey.
“Give me that, aye?” She handed him the pickle willingly, wiping her damp hand on her thigh. He took a large bite, his mouth flooded with garlic and dill and vinegar. Then he jammed the cucumber into one of the saddlebags and extended a hand to her. “Come down here.”
“Why?” she asked. She was still smiling, but her body had shifted, leaning toward him but making no effort to get off. He understood that sort of conversation and reached up, took her by what was left of her waist, and pulled her off in a flurry of skirts. He paused for an instant to swallow the bite of pickle, then kissed her thoroughly, a hand on her bottom. Her hair smelled of pinecones, chicken feathers, and the soft soap Auntie Claire called shampoo, and he could taste the German sausage they’d had for lunch, under the veil of pickling spice.
Her arms were round his neck, her belly pressed against him, and quite suddenly he felt a small hard shove in his own belly. He looked down in astonishment, and Rachel giggled. He hadn’t realized that she wasn’t wearing stays; her br**sts were bound with a simple band under her shift, but her belly was just there, round and firm as a pumpkin under her gown.
“He—or she—is wakeful,” she said, putting a hand on her bulge, which was moving slightly as tiny limbs poked experimentally here and there inside her. This was always fascinating in its own way, but Ian was still under the influence of her pickle-sucking.
“I’ll rock him back to sleep for ye,” he whispered in her ear, and, bending, lifted her in his arms. Nearly eight months gone, she was noticeably heavy, but he managed with no more than a slight grunt and, with a care to low-hanging branches and loose stones, carried her off into the forest, leaving Clarence to graze on a succulent clump of muhly grass.
“I RATHER HOPE that it wasn’t the meeting with thy former paramour that caused this outbreak of passion,” Rachel remarked a short time later, flicking a wandering wood louse off her husband’s forearm, which was just by her face. They were lying on their sides on Ian’s plaid, naked and cupped together like spoons in a box. It was cool under the trees, but she seemed never to grow cold these days; the child was like a small furnace—doubtless taking after its father, she thought. Ian’s skin was usually warm, but for him the heat of passion was no mere metaphor; he blazed when they lay together.
“She’s no my paramour,” Ian murmured into her hair, and kissed the back of her ear. “It was only a commercial transaction.”
She didn’t like hearing that and stiffened a little.
“I did tell ye I’d gone wi’ whores.” Ian’s voice was quiet, but she could hear the slight reproach in it. “Would ye rather I had discarded lovers strewn about the countryside?”
She took a breath, relaxed, and stretched her neck to kiss the back of his long, sun-browned hand.
“No, it’s true—thee did tell me,” she admitted. “And while there is some small part of me that could wish thee came to me virgin, chaste and untouched . . . honesty obliges me to acknowledge some gratitude for the lessons learned from the likes of Mrs. Sylvie.” She wanted to ask whether he’d learned the things he’d just been doing to her from Mrs. Sylvie or perhaps from his Indian wife—but she had no wish to bring any thought of Works With Her Hands between them.
His hand lifted and cupped her breast, playing very gently with her nipple, and she squirmed involuntarily—a slow, insinuating squirm that thrust her bu**ocks back against him. Her ni**les were very large these days and so sensitive that they couldn’t bear the rubbing of stays. She squirmed again, and he laughed under his breath and rolled her over to face him so he could take her nipple in his mouth.
“Dinna make noises like that,” he murmured against her skin. “The others will be comin’ along the trail any time now.”
“What—will they think when they see Clarence alone?”
“If anyone asks later, we’ll say we were gatherin’ mushrooms.”
THEY MUSTN’T STAY much longer, she knew that. But she longed to stay like this forever—or at least for five minutes more. Ian lay once more behind her, warm and strong. But his hand was now on her stomach, tenderly stroking the rounded mystery of the child within.
He might have thought she was asleep. Perhaps he didn’t mind if she heard him. He spoke in the Gàidhlig, though, and while she didn’t yet know enough of the tongue to make out all he said, she knew it was a prayer. “A Dhia” meant “O God.” And of course she knew what it was he prayed for.
“It’s all right,” she said to him softly, when he had stopped, and put her hand over his.
“That thee should think of thy first child—children. I know thee does. And I know how much thee fears for this one,” she added, still more softly.
He sighed deeply, his breath, still scented with dill and garlic, warm on her neck.
“Ye turn my heart to water, lass—and should anything happen to you or to wee Oggy, it would punch a hole in me that would let my life run out.”
She wanted to tell him that nothing would happen to them, that she wouldn’t let it. But that was taking things upon herself that weren’t hers to promise.
“Our lives are in God’s hand,” she said, squeezing his. “And whatever happens, we will be with thee forever.”
DRESSED AGAIN, and as seemly as fingers combed through hair could make them, they reached the trail just as Claire and Jenny made their way around the bend, carrying packs and each leading two milch goats, friendly creatures who set up a loud mehh of greeting as they spotted the two strangers.
Rachel saw Ian’s mother glance sharply at her son, and then her dark-blue gaze lifted at once to Rachel, perched on Clarence’s back. She gave Rachel a smile that said, as plain as words, that she knew exactly what they’d been doing and found it funny. Warm blood rose in Rachel’s cheeks, but she kept her composure and inclined her head graciously to Jenny—in spite of the fact that Friends did not bow their heads save in worship.
Still blushing, she’d paid no attention to Claire, but after they had gone far enough ahead of the older women and the goats so as not to be overheard, Ian lifted his chin and gestured over his shoulder with it.
“Does aught seem amiss wi’ Auntie Claire, d’ye think?”
“I didn’t notice. What does thee mean?”
Ian lifted a shoulder, frowning slightly.
“I canna say, quite. She was herself on the way to the trading post and when we first got there, but when she came back from hagglin’ for the goats, she looked . . . different.” He struggled to find words to explain what he meant.
“No quite what ye’d say someone looks like if they’ve seen a ghost—not scairt, I mean. But . . . stunned, maybe? Surprised, or maybe shocked. But then when she saw me, she tried to act as though it was all as usual, and I was busy takin’ the bundles out and forgot about it.”
He turned his head again, looking over his shoulder, but the trail behind was empty. A faint mehhhh filtered down through the trees behind them, and he smiled—but his eyes were troubled.
“Ken—Auntie Claire canna hide things verra well. Uncle Jamie always says she’s got a glass face, and it’s true. Whatever it is she saw back there . . . I think it’s with her, still.”
THE DEEPEST FEELING ALWAYS SHOWS ITSELF IN SILENCE
IT WAS SOMETIME in the midafternoon of the third day that Jenny cleared her throat in a significant manner. We had paused by a creek where the wild grass grew long and thick and were dabbling our tired feet in the water, watching the hobbled goats disport themselves. One seldom goes to the trouble of hobbling a goat, since they can, if they want to, chew their way free in a matter of seconds. In the present instance, though, there was too much food available for them to want to waste time in eating rope, and the hobbles would keep them within our sight.
“Got something caught in your throat?” I inquired pleasantly. “Luckily there’s plenty of water.”
She made a Scottish noise indicating polite appreciation of this feeble attempt at wit and, reaching into her pocket, withdrew a very battered silver flask and uncorked it. I could smell the liquor from where I sat—a local forerunner of bourbon, I thought.