“It’s okay,” he told her, squeezing the stuffing out of her in relief. “It’s okay, Man. I gotcha. I gotcha.”
His heart started to slow down a little, and he saw that Mrs. Buchan was sitting on the sofa, holding a towel full of ice cubes to her face. Some of the ice had fallen out and was lying on the rug at her feet. Tisha and Sheena were holding on to their mother and crying, and Ginger was trying to pat her mam’s hair and comfort her sisters at the same time, but her face was dead white and tears were running silently down it.
“Mrs. Buchan . . . are ye all right?” Jem asked timidly. He had an awful feeling in the bottom of his stomach. Somehow, he was sure this was his fault.
Mrs. Buchan looked up at him. One side of her face was puffy and the eye on that side was swollen half shut, but the other one had fire in it, and that made him feel a little better.
“Aye, fine, Jem,” she said. “Dinna fash, girls! It’s well enough; no but a black eye. Quit your caterwauling, will ye? I canna hear myself think.” She gave a small, good-natured shake to detach the clinging girls, pushing and patting at them with her free hand. Then there was a knock on the doorjamb, and a man’s voice from the front hall.
“Police, here! Anyone to home?”
Jem could have told Mrs. Buchan what happened once you called the police. Questions, and questions, and more questions. And if there were things you couldn’t tell the police . . . At least Mrs. Buchan wouldn’t let them take Jem or her to the police station to answer questions, insisting that she couldn’t leave the girls on their own. By the time the police gave up, Mandy and Sheena were both asleep on the couch, curled up together like a pair of kittens, and Ginger and Tisha had made everyone tea, then sat yawning in the corner together, blinking now and then to keep awake.
A few minutes after the police left, Mr. Buchan came home for his supper, and all the explaining was to do all over again. There really wasn’t much to it: Mrs. Buchan had sat Mr. Cameron down in the kitchen and told him a bit about the dancing—it wasn’t secret, most folk who’d lived in Inverness for a long time knew about it—but she’d left the radio playing while they were talking, and all of a sudden the newscaster was saying the name “Robert Cameron” and how Robert Cameron was wanted for questioning in the kidnapping of a local boy, and—
“And then the wee bastard jumps up, and so do I, and he must have thought I meant to stop him—I was betwixt him and the door, anyroad—and he belts me one in the eye, pushes me into the wall, and he’s away off!”
Mr. Buchan was giving Jem a hard look now and then and seemed like he wanted to start asking questions, but instead he said they’d all go into the town and have a fish supper as it was so late, and everyone started feeling better at once. Jem could see the looks going back and forth between the Buchans, though, and he kind of wondered whether Mr. Buchan maybe meant to drop him and Mandy off at the police station on the way back. Or maybe just leave them by the side of the road.
THE GHOST OF A HANGIT MAN
THE HEAVENS OPENED, and Roger was soaked to the skin by the time he got back to the MacLarens’ cottage. Amid cries of dismay from Mrs. MacLaren and her ancient mother, he was hastily stripped, wrapped up snug in a ragged quilt, and stood to steam before the fire, where his presence greatly impeded the preparations for supper. Buck, propped up on pillows with the two smallest MacLarens curled up in sleep on the bed beside him, lifted a brow at Roger in inquiry.
Roger moved his hand slightly, in a tell-you-later gesture. He thought Buck looked better; there was color in his face, and he was sitting upright, not slumped into the bedding. For a brief instant, Roger wondered what would happen if he were to lay his own hand on Buck. Would it glow blue?
The thought sent a shiver through him, and Allie, one of the MacLaren daughters, pushed the trailing edge of his quilt away from the fire with a squeak of alarm.
“Take care, sir, do!”
“Aye, do,” said Grannie Wallace, pulling the blackened iron spider—this spitting hot grease—well away from his bare legs and making shooing motions. “Take a spark, and ye’ll go up like tinder.” She was blind in one eye, but the other was sharp as a needle and gave him a piercing look. “Tall as ye are, ye’d likely set the rooftree afire, and then where should we all be, I’d like tae know!”
There was a general titter at that, but he thought the laughter had an uneasy note to it and wondered why.
“Moran taing,” Roger said in polite thanks for the advice. He moved a foot or so farther from the hearth, fetching up against the settle on which Mr. Angus MacLaren was sitting, mending his pipe stem. “Since ye speak of rooftrees—there’s a wee croft just over the hill that’s been burnt out. Cooking accident, was it?”
The room went silent, and people froze for an instant, all looking at him.
“Evidently not,” he said, with an apologetic cough. “I’m sorry to make light—were folk killed, then?”
Mr. MacLaren gave him a brooding sort of look, quite at odds with his earlier geniality, and set the pipe on his knee.
“No by the fire,” he said. “What led ye up there, man?”
Roger met MacLaren’s eye directly.
“Searching for my lad,” he said simply. “I dinna ken where to look—so I look everywhere. Thinkin’ what if he’s got away, what if he’s wandering about by himself . . . maybe taking shelter where he can find it . . .”
MacLaren took a deep breath and sat back, nodding a little.
“Aye, well. Ye’ll want to keep well away from that croft.”
“Haunted, is it?” Buck asked, and all heads swung round to look at him—then swung back to Mr. MacLaren, waiting for him to give the answer.
“It might be,” he said, after a reluctant pause.
“It’s cursed,” Allie whispered to Roger under her breath.
“Ye didna go in, sir, did ye?” said Mrs. MacLaren, the permanent worry crease deepening between her brows.
“Och, no,” he assured her. “What was it happened there?” McEwan hadn’t had any hesitation about going into the croft; did he not know whatever they were concerned about?
Mrs. MacLaren made a small “Mmp!” noise and, with a shake of her head, swung the cauldron out on its bracket and began to scoop out boiled neeps with a wooden spoon. Not her place to speak of such goings-on, said her primly sealed mouth.
Mr. MacLaren made a somewhat louder noise and, leaning forward, got ponderously to his feet.
“I’ll just be going to check the beasts before supper, ken,” he said, and gave Roger an eye. “Perhaps ye’d like to come along and be oot the way o’ the lasses and their doings.”
“Oh, aye,” Roger said, and, with a small bow to Mrs. MacLaren, hitched the quilt up higher over his shoulders and followed his host into the byre. He caught Buck’s eye in passing and gave him a brief shrug.
In the usual way, the cattle’s quarters were separated from the people’s by no more than a stone wall with a large space at the top, allowing the considerable heat—along with floating bits of straw and a strong scent of piss and manure—generated by several large cows to percolate into the ben. The MacLarens’ was a snug byre, well kept and piled with clean straw at one end, with three fat, shaggy red cows and a diminutive black bull who snorted fiercely at Roger, nostrils red-black in the dim light and the brass ring in his nose agleam.
The ben of the croft was far from cold—what with nine people crammed into it and a good peat fire on the hearth—but the byre was filled with an encompassing warmth and a sense of peace that made Roger sigh and drop his shoulders, only then realizing that they’d been up round his ears for what seemed hours.
MacLaren made no more than a cursory check of his beasts, scratching the bull between the ears and administering a comforting slap to a cow’s flank. Then he led Roger to the far end of the byre with a jerk of his head.
Ever since his conversation with Hector McEwan, Roger had had an uneasy feeling, caused by something he felt he had heard and not understood. And now, as MacLaren turned to speak to him, it was there suddenly, clear in his head. Cranesmuir.
“Twa strangers built the croft up there,” MacLaren said. “They came from nowhere seemingly; just one day they were there. A man and a woman, but we couldna tell were they man and wife, or maybe a man and his daughter, for he seemed a good bit older than she did. They said they came from the isles—and I think he maybe did, but her speech wasna like any islander I’ve heard.”
“Was she Scots?”
MacLaren looked surprised.
“Oh, aye, she was. She had the Gàidhlig. I’d have said she came from somewhere up northwest of Inverness—maybe Thurso—but there again . . . it wasna quite . . . right.”
Not quite right. Like someone out of their proper place, pretending.
“What did she look like?” Roger said. His voice was thick; he had to clear his throat and repeat himself.
MacLaren’s lips pursed but not in condemnation; it was the sort of soundless whistle of appreciation one gives at sight of something remarkable.
“Bonny,” he said. “Verra bonny, indeed. Tall and straight, but . . . er . . . not so straight in places, if ye take my meaning.” He ducked his head, half embarrassed, and Roger realized that his reluctance to talk in front of the womenfolk perhaps wasn’t due entirely to the scandalous nature of his story.
“I do,” Roger said, lowering his own voice to MacLaren’s confidential level. “Did they keep to themselves, then?” If they hadn’t, surely the whole district would have known about them and quickly discovered whether they were man and wife.
“Aye, they did . . . though he was friendly enough; I met him now and again, out on the moor, and we’d have a word, and I’d always come away thinkin’ as how he was a good wee fellow, and yet when I came to tell my Maggie about it, I couldna just charge my memory wi’ anything he’d said.”
MacLaren said somehow word got round that the woman was something that wee bit odd—a root doctor, but maybe would give you a bit more than a grass cure, if you found her alone in the house. . . .
There was no light in the byre save the dull glow from the hearth fire next door, but, even so, Roger could see that MacLaren had grown flushed and discomfited. Roger was beginning to feel uncomfortable himself, but not for the same reason.
Cranesmuir. He knew the name, had known it when McEwan said it. The MacLarens had said the healer came from Draighhearnach. Cranesmuir was in the opposite direction—and two miles farther on. Why was he going there tonight?
“There were stories. Always are, about a woman like that.” MacLaren cleared his own throat. “But she was good wi’ the grass cures—and wi’ charms, as well. Or so folk said.”
But then the man had gone, MacLaren said. No one knew where; they just didn’t see him anymore, and the woman went on as before, but now more of her visitors were men. And the women stopped taking their bairns up there, though they’d go sometimes themselves, quietly, in secret.
And then on the day before Samhain, as the sun was sinking and the great fires being built up for the evening, a woman from nearby had gone up to the lonely croft and run down again, screaming.
“She’d found the door o’ the croft standing wide, the woman and her things all gone—and a man hanging from the rooftree, stone dead wi’ a rope around his neck.”
The shock tightened Roger’s own throat. He couldn’t speak.
MacLaren sighed, head bent. A cow had come up behind him, nudging gently, and he laid one hand on her back as though seeking support from the animal, who went on placidly chewing her cud.
“It was the priest who said we should cleanse the place with fire, for it had the smell of evil about it, and no one kent the man. We couldna tell was it just a poor fellow as took his life by despair—or was it murder.”
“I . . . see.” Roger forced the words through the burn in his throat, and MacLaren looked up suddenly at him. He saw the man’s mouth drop open, his eyes bulging, and realized that in the warmth he’d let the quilt slide back on his shoulders. MacLaren was looking straight at his throat, where the livid and unmistakable scar of hanging must show plain in the dim red light.
MacLaren backed away, or tried to, but there was nowhere to go. He plastered himself against one beast’s shaggy flank, making a low gobbling noise. The cow seemed annoyed by this and brought her hoof down solidly on MacLaren’s foot. The consequent anguish and fury at least brought MacLaren out of his fright, and when he had extricated himself—by means of thumps and curses—he turned bravely on Roger, jaw thrust out.
“Why come ye here, a thaibse?” he said, fists clenched but his voice low. “Whatever sin I might have done, I did naught to you. I’d nay part in your death—and I said they must bury your body beneath the hearthstone before they fired the place. The priest wouldna have ye in the kirkyard, aye?” he added, evidently fearing that the ghost of the hangit man had come to complain about the unsancitifed disposal of his mortal remains.
Roger sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, the stubble rasping against his palm. He could see several curious faces, attracted by MacLaren’s cries, peering into the shadows of the byre from the glow of the room beyond.
“Have ye got a rosary in the house, sir?” he said.
IT WAS A long and restless night. Grannie Wallace had snatched the children off Buck’s bed, as though fearing he might devour them the moment her back was turned, and put them to bed with her in the trundle, while the older children slept either with their parents or rolled up in quilts by the hearth. Roger shared the pariah’s bed with Buck, for while his ability to hold the rosary in his hand, kiss the crucifix, and then lead the family in saying the rosary had—barely—kept Angus MacLaren from throwing him out into the night and pissing on the gateposts to keep him from coming back in, it hadn’t made him much more popular.