He doubted Buck had slept much better than himself, for his ancestor had rolled out of bed at first light, declaring an urgent necessity to visit the privy. Roger had as hastily arisen, saying, “I’ll help ye,” and pulled on a still-damp shirt and breeks.
He was pleased to see that Buck didn’t actually appear to need help. He walked stiffly and limped a little, but his shoulders were square and he wasn’t gasping or turning blue.
“If they think ye’re a vengeful ghost, what the devil do they think I am?” Buck inquired, the instant they were clear of the cottage. “And surely to goodness ye could ha’ just said the Lord’s Prayer once and not dragged everyone through five decades o’ the rosary and ruined the supper!”
“Mmphm.” Buck had a point there, but Roger had been too much upset at the time to think of that. Besides, he’d wanted to give them time to recover from the shock. “It wasn’t ruined,” he said crossly. “Only the neeps a bit scorched.”
“Only!” Buck echoed. “The place still reeks. And the women hate ye. They’ll put too much salt in your porridge, see if they don’t. Where d’ye think we’re going? It’s that way.”
He pointed at a path on the left that did indeed lead to the privy, this sitting in plain sight.
Roger made another testy sound but followed. He was off-kilter this morning, distracted. No wonder about why, either.
Now? He wondered, watching the door of the privy close behind Buck. It was a two-seater, but he wasn’t minded to broach what he had to say under conditions of that much intimacy, no matter how private the subject matter was.
“The healer,” he said instead through the door, choosing the simplest place to start. “McEwan. He said he’d come back today to see to ye.”
“I don’t need seeing to,” Buck snapped. “I’m fine!” Roger had known the man long enough to recognize bravado covering fear, and replied accordingly.
“Aye, right. What did it feel like?” he asked curiously. “When he put his hand on you?”
Silence from the privy.
“Did ye feel anything?” he asked, after the silence had lengthened well past any time required for natural functions.
“Maybe,” said Buck’s voice, gruff and reluctant. “Maybe no. I fell asleep whilst he was tapping on my chest like a yaffle after tree grubs. Why?”
“Did you understand what it was he said to ye? When he touched you?” Buck had been a lawyer in his own time; he must have studied Latin.
“Did you?” A slight creak of wood and a rustling of cloth.
“I did. And I said it back to him, just before he left.”
“I was asleep,” Buck repeated doggedly. Clearly he didn’t want to talk about the healer, but he wasn’t going to have a choice about that, Roger thought grimly.
“Come out of there, will ye? The MacLarens are all out in the dooryard, crossing their legs.” He glanced over his shoulder and was surprised to see that in fact the MacLarens were out in the dooryard.
Not all of them—it was only Angus and a tall boy, plainly a MacLaren, too, from the shape of him. He seemed familiar—had he been at the house the evening before? They were bent close together, talking in evident excitement, and the boy was pointing off toward the distant road.
“Come out,” Roger repeated, sudden urgency in his voice. “Someone’s coming. I hear horses.”
The privy door flew open and Buck sprang out like a jack-in-the-box, stuffing his shirt into his breeks. His hair was matted and dirty, but his eyes were alert, and he looked entirely capable; that was reassuring.
The horses had come up over the brow of the hill now—six of them: four of the shaggy Highland ponies called garrons, one indifferent rangy bay, and a startlingly fine chestnut with a black mane. Buck seized Roger’s arm with a grip like a horse’s bite.
“A Dhia,” Buck said, half under his breath. “Who’s that?”
ROGER HAD NO IDEA who the tall man with the good horse was, but it was crystal clear what he was, both from the deferential manner of the MacLarens and from the way in which his companions fell naturally into place a step behind him. The man in charge.
A tacksman of the MacKenzies? he wondered. Most of the men wore a hunting tartan with a sett in green, brown, and white, but Roger wasn’t yet familiar enough with the local patterns as to tell whether they came from somewhere close by or not.
The tall man glanced over his shoulder at MacLaren’s nod, and his eyes rested on Roger and Buck with an air of casual interest. There was nothing threatening in his manner, but Roger felt himself draw up to his own full height and wished for an instant that he wasn’t barefoot and unshaven, breeks flapping unbuckled at his knees.
At least he did have someone at his own back: Buck had fallen a step behind him. He hadn’t time to be surprised at that before he came within the stranger’s ken.
The man was an inch or two shorter than himself and close to his own age, dark and good-looking in a faintly familiar sort of . . .
“Good morn to ye, sir,” the dark man said, with a courteous inclination of the head. “My name is Dougal MacKenzie, of Castle Leoch. And . . . who might you be?”
Dear Jesus bloody hell, he thought. The shock rippled through him, and he hoped it didn’t show on his face. He shook hands firmly.
“I am Roger Jeremiah MacKenzie, of Kyle of Lochalsh,” he said, keeping his voice mild and—he hoped—assured, as some compensation for his shabby appearance. His voice sounded nearly normal this morning; if he didn’t force it, with luck it wouldn’t crack or gurgle.
“Your servant, sir,” MacKenzie said with a slight bow, surprising Roger with his elegant manners. He had deep-set hazel eyes, which looked Roger over with frank interest—and a faint touch of what appeared to be amusement—before shifting to Buck.
“My kinsman,” Roger said hastily. “William Bu—William MacKenzie.” When? he thought in agitation. Was Buck born yet? Would Dougal recognize the name William Buccleigh MacKenzie? But, no, he can’t be born yet; you can’t exist twice in the same time—can you?!?
A question from Dougal MacKenzie interrupted this stream of confusion, though Roger missed hearing it. Buck answered, though.
“My kinsman’s son was taken,” he said, looking Dougal over with exactly—oh, Jesus, exactly—the same attitude of insouciant confidence that the other MacKenzie carried. “About a week past, abducted by a man named Cameron. Robert Cameron. Will ye maybe ken such a man?”
Dougal of course did not—not surprising, as Cameron hadn’t existed here until a week ago. But he conferred with his men, asked intelligent questions, and expressed an open sympathy and concern that at once comforted Roger and made him feel as though he was about to vomit.
To this point, Dougal MacKenzie had been no more than a name on the historical page, momentarily, if vividly, illustrated by Claire’s disjunct memories. Now he sat solid in the early-morning sun beside Roger on the bench outside the MacLarens’ cottage, his plaid rough and smelling faintly of piss and heather, two days’ stubble rasping as he scratched his jaw in thought.
I like him, God help me. And, God help me, I know what’s going to happen to him. . . .
His eyes fixed in helpless fascination on the hollow of Dougal’s throat, sun-brown and strong, framed in the open collar of his crumpled shirt. Roger jerked his eyes away, glancing instead at the russet hairs on Dougal’s wrist, these catching the sunlight as he motioned toward the east, talking of his brother, chieftain of the clan MacKenzie.
“Colum doesna travel, himself, but he’d be glad to welcome the two of ye, should you find yourselves near Leoch in your search.” He smiled at Roger, who smiled back, warmed by it. “Where d’ye mean to go now?”
Roger took a deep breath. Where, indeed?
“South, I think. William found no trace of Cameron in Inverness, so I’m thinking that he might be headed toward Edinburgh, meaning to take ship there.”
Dougal pursed his lips, nodding in thought.
“Well, then.” He turned to his men, who had sat down on the rocks that lined the path, and called to them. “Geordie, Thomas—we’ll lend your beasts to these men; get your bags. Ye’d have little chance of catching up to the villain on foot,” he said, turning back to Roger. “He must be mounted himself, and moving fast, or ye’d have found some trace of him.”
“I—thank you,” Roger managed. He felt a deep chill, in spite of the sun on his face. “You must—I mean—that’s very kind. We’ll bring them back as soon as we can—or send them, if—if we should be detained anywhere.”
“Moran taing,” Buck murmured, nodding to Geordie and Thomas, who nodded back, looking dour but philosophical at the prospect of walking back to wherever they’d come from.
Where have they come from? Apparently, Angus MacLaren had sent his son off last night before supper, to summon Dougal to come and have a look at his alarming guests. But Dougal and his men had to have been somewhere close at hand . . .
The chink of metal as Jock dumped an obviously heavy bag on the ground beside Dougal gave him a clue. Quarter Day. Dougal was collecting the rents for his brother—and likely on his way back to Leoch. A lot of the rents would have been paid in kind—hams, chickens, wool, salt fish—probably Dougal’s party was accompanied by one or more wagons, which they’d left behind wherever they’d stayed last night.
Angus MacLaren and his oldest son stood a little to the side, eyes fixed suspiciously on Roger as though he might sprout wings and fly away. Dougal turned to Angus with a smile and said in Gàidhlig, “Don’t trouble, friend; they’re nay more ghosts than the lads and I are.”
“Do not forget to entertain strangers,” Buck said in the same language, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
There was a startled pause at that, everyone staring at him. Then Dougal laughed, and his men followed him. Angus merely made a polite noise in his throat but shifted his weight and visibly relaxed. As though this had been a signal—and perhaps it was—the door opened, and Mrs. MacLaren and Allie came out, with a stack of wooden bowls and a steaming pot of parritch. One of the smaller MacLarens came after, carefully bearing a saltcellar in both hands.
In the general hubbub of serving and eating—the women had oversalted his porridge, though not badly—Roger said quietly to Dougal, “Did MacLaren actually send to have you come and see whether I was a ghost?”
Dougal looked surprised but then smiled, one side of his mouth turning up. It was the way Brianna smiled when she wanted to acknowledge a joke she didn’t think was funny—or when she saw something funny that she didn’t mean to share with the company. A searing pang followed the jolt of recognition, and Roger was obliged to look down for a moment and clear his throat in order to get control of his voice.
“No, man,” Dougal said casually, also looking down as he wiped his bowl with a bit of hard journeycake taken from his saddlebag. “He thought I might be of help to ye in your search.” He looked up then, straight at Roger’s neck, and raised one dark, heavy brow. “Not that the presence of a half-hangit man at your door doesna raise questions, ken?”
“At least a half-hangit man can answer the questions,” Buck put in. “Not like him from the croft above, aye?”
That startled Dougal, who put down his spoon and stared at Buck. Who stared back, one fair brow raised.
Holy Lord . . . do they see it? Either of them? It wasn’t warm, despite the sun, but Roger felt sweat begin to trickle down his spine. It was more a matter of posture and expression than of feature—and yet the echo of similarity between the two faces was plain as the . . . well, as the long, straight nose on both faces.
Roger could see the thoughts flickering across Dougal’s face: surprise, curiosity, suspicion.
“And what have ye to do with him above?” he asked, with a slight lift of his chin in the direction of the burnt-out croft.
“Not a thing, so far as I ken,” Buck answered, with a brief shrug. “Only meaning as how if ye want to know what happened to my kinsman, ye can ask him. We’ve nothing to hide.”
Thanks a lot, Roger thought, with a sideways look at his ancestor, who smiled blandly back at him and resumed gingerly eating his salty parritch. Why the bloody hell did you say that, of all things?
“I was hanged in mistake for another man,” he said, as casually as possible, but he heard the voice grate in his throat, tightening, and had to stop to clear it. “In America.”
“America,” Dougal repeated, in open astonishment. All of them were staring at him now, men-at-arms and MacLarens both. “What took ye to America—and what brought ye back, come to that?”
“My wife has kin there,” Roger replied, wondering what the devil Buck was up to. “In North Carolina, on the Cape Fear River.” He very nearly named Hector and Jocasta Cameron, before remembering that Jocasta was Dougal’s sister. Also that it was Culloden that had sent them to America—and Culloden hadn’t happened yet.
And he won’t live to see it, he thought, watching Dougal’s face as he spoke, feeling a state of bemused horror. Dougal would die, hours before the battle, in the attics of Culloden House near Inverness, with Jamie Fraser’s dirk sunk in the hollow of his throat.
He told the story of his hanging and rescue briefly, leaving out the context of the War of the Regulation—and leaving out Buck’s role in getting him hanged, too. He could feel Buck there beside him, leaning forward, intent, but didn’t look at him. Couldn’t look at him without wanting to strangle him. Wanted to strangle him anyway.
He could barely speak by the time he finished, and his heart was thumping in his ears with suppressed rage. Everyone was looking at him, with a range of emotions from awe to sympathy. Allie MacLaren was openly sniffing, her apron hem at her nose, and even her mother looked as though she somewhat regretted the salt. Angus coughed and handed him a stone bottle of what turned out to be beer, and a very grateful beverage it was, too. He muttered thanks and gulped it, avoiding all eyes.