The Fiery Cross(6)By: Diana Gabaldon
“Roger wanted to say something, but I told him to keep quiet.” Bree stuck out her tongue and wiggled it at Jemmy, then fixed a wifely look on Roger’s back. “I knew Da wouldn’t make a stramash about it, if we waited ’til just before the wedding.”
I noted both her astute evaluation of her father’s behavior, and her easy use of Scots. She resembled Jamie in a good deal more than the obvious matter of looks and coloring; she had his talent for human judgment and his glibness with language. Still, there was something niggling at my mind, something to do with Roger and religion . . .
We had come up close enough behind the men to hear their conversation.
“. . . about Hillsborough,” Jamie was saying, leaning toward Roger so as to be heard over the wind. “Calling for information about the rioters.”
“Oh, aye?” Roger sounded both interested and wary. “Duncan Innes will be interested to hear that. He was in Hillsborough during the troubles, did you know?”
“No.” Jamie sounded more than interested. “I’ve barely seen Duncan to speak to this week. I’ll ask him, maybe, after the wedding—if he lives through it.” Duncan was to marry Jamie’s aunt, Jocasta Cameron, in the evening, and was nervous to the point of prostration over the prospect.
Roger turned, shielding Joan from the wind with his body as he spoke to Brianna.
“Your aunt’s told Father Donahue he can hold the weddings in her tent. That’ll be a help.”
“Brrrr!” Bree hunched her shoulders, shivering. “Thank goodness. It’s no day to be getting married under the greenwood tree.”
A huge chestnut overhead sent down a damp shower of yellow leaves, as though in agreement. Roger looked a little uneasy.
“I don’t imagine it’s quite the wedding you maybe thought of,” he said. “When ye were a wee girl.”
Brianna looked up at Roger and a slow, wide smile spread across her face. “Neither was the first one,” she said. “But I liked it fine.”
Roger’s complexion wasn’t given to blushing, and his ears were red with cold in any case. He opened his mouth as though to reply, caught Jamie’s gimlet eye, and shut it again, looking embarrassed but undeniably pleased.
I turned to see one of the soldiers making his way up the hill toward us, his eyes fixed on Jamie.
“Corporal MacNair, your servant, sir,” he said, breathing hard as he reached us. He gave a sharp inclination of the head. “The Lieutenant’s compliments, and would ye be so good as to attend him in his tent?” He caught sight of me, and bowed again, less abruptly. “Mrs. Fraser. My compliments, ma’am.”
“Your servant, sir.” Jamie returned the Corporal’s bow. “My apologies to the Lieutenant, but I have duties that require my attendance elsewhere.” He spoke politely, but the Corporal glanced sharply up at him. MacNair was young, but not callow; a quick look of understanding crossed his lean, dark face. The last thing any man would want was to be seen going into Hayes’s tent by himself, immediately following that Proclamation.
“The Lieutenant bids me request the attendance upon him of Mr. Farquard Campbell, Mr. Andrew MacNeill, Mr. Gerald Forbes, Mr. Duncan Innes, and Mr. Randall Lillywhite, as well as yourself, sir.”
A certain amount of tension left Jamie’s shoulders.
“Does he,” he said dryly. So Hayes meant to consult the powerful men of the area: Farquard Campbell and Andrew MacNeill were large landowners and local magistrates; Gerald Forbes a prominent solicitor from Cross Creek, and a justice of the peace; Lillywhite a magistrate of the circuit court. And Duncan Innes was about to become the largest plantation owner in the western half of the colony, by virtue of his impending marriage to Jamie’s widowed aunt. Jamie himself was neither rich nor an official of the Crown—but he was the proprietor of a large, if still largely vacant, land grant in the backcountry.
He gave a slight shrug and shifted the baby to his other shoulder, settling himself.
“Aye. Well, then. Tell the Lieutenant I shall attend him as soon as may be convenient.”
Nothing daunted, MacNair bowed and went off, presumably in search of the other gentlemen on his list.
“And what’s all that about?” I asked Jamie. “Oops.” I reached up and skimmed a glistening strand of saliva from Jemmy’s chin before it could reach Jamie’s shirt. “Starting a new tooth, are we?”
“I’ve plenty of teeth,” Jamie assured me, “and so have you, so far as I can see. As to what Hayes may want with me, I canna say for sure. And I dinna mean to find out before I must, either.” He cocked one ruddy eyebrow at me, and I laughed.
“Oh, a certain flexibility in that word ‘convenient,’ is there?”
“I didna say it would be convenient for him,” Jamie pointed out. “Now, about your petticoat, Sassenach, and why you’re scampering about the forest bare-arsed—Duncan, a charaid!” The wry look on his face melted into genuine pleasure at sight of Duncan Innes, making his way toward us through a small growth of bare-limbed dogwood.
Duncan clambered over a fallen log, the process made rather awkward by his missing left arm, and arrived on the path beside us, shaking water droplets from his hair. He was already dressed for his wedding, in a clean ruffled shirt and starched linen stock above his kilt, and a coat of scarlet broadcloth trimmed in gold lace, the empty sleeve pinned up with a brooch. I had never seen Duncan look so elegant, and said so.
“Och, well,” he said diffidently. “Miss Jo did wish it.” He shrugged off the compliment along with the rain, carefully brushing away dead needles and bits of bark that had adhered to his coat in the passage through the pines.
“Brrr! A gruesome day, Mac Dubh, and no mistake.” He looked up at the sky and shook his head. “Happy the bride the sun shines on; happy the corpse the rain falls on.”
“I do wonder just how delighted you can expect the average corpse to be,” I said, “whatever the meteorological conditions. But I’m sure Jocasta will be quite happy regardless,” I added hastily, seeing a look of bewilderment spread itself across Duncan’s features. “And you too, of course!”
“Oh . . . aye,” he said, a little uncertainly. “Aye, of course. I thank ye, ma’am.”
“When I saw ye coming through the wood, I thought perhaps Corporal MacNair was nippin’ at your heels,” Jamie said. “You’re no on your way to see Archie Hayes, are you?”
Duncan looked quite startled.
“Hayes? No, what would the Lieutenant want wi’ me?”
“You were in Hillsborough in September, aye? Here, Sassenach, take this wee squirrel away.” Jamie interrupted himself to hand me Jemmy, who had decided to take a more active interest in the proceedings and was attempting to climb his grandfather’s torso, digging in his toes and making loud grunting noises. The sudden activity, however, was not Jamie’s chief motive for relieving himself of the burden, as I discovered when I accepted Jemmy.
“Thanks a lot,” I said, wrinkling my nose. Jamie grinned at me, and turned Duncan up the path, resuming their conversation.
“Hmm,” I said, sniffing cautiously. “Finished, are you? No, I thought not.” Jemmy closed his eyes, went bright red, and emitted a popping noise like muffled machine-gun fire. I undid his wrappings sufficiently to peek down his back.
“Whoops,” I said, and hastily unwound the blanket, just in time. “What has your mother been feeding you?”
Thrilled to have escaped his swaddling bands, Jemmy churned his legs like a windmill, causing a noxious yellowish substance to ooze from the baggy legs of his diaper.
“Pew,” I said succinctly, and holding him at arm’s length, headed off the path toward one of the tiny rivulets that meandered down the mountainside, thinking that while I could perhaps do without such amenities as indoor plumbing and motorcars, there were times when I sincerely missed things like rubber pants with elasticated legs. To say nothing of toilet rolls.
I found a good spot on the edge of the little stream, with a thick coating of dead leaves. I knelt, laid out a fold of my cloak, and parked Jemmy on it on his hands and knees, pulling the soggy clout off without bothering to unpin it.
“Weee!” he said, sounding surprised as the cold air struck him. He clenched his fat little buttocks and hunched like a small pink toad.
“Ha,” I told him. “If you think a cold wind up the bum is bad, just wait.” I scooped up a handful of damp yellow-brown leaves, and cleaned him off briskly. A fairly stoic child, he wiggled and squirmed, but didn’t screech, instead making high-pitched “Eeeeee” noises as I excavated his crevices.
I flipped him over, and with a hand held prophylactically over the danger zone, administered a similar treatment to his private parts, this eliciting a wide, gummy grin.
“Oh, you are a Hieland man, aren’t you?” I said, smiling back.
“And just what d’ye mean by that remark, Sassenach?” I looked up to find Jamie leaning against a tree on the other side of the streamlet. The bold colors of his dress tartan and white linen sark stood out bright against the faded autumn foliage; face and hair, though, made him look like some denizen of the wood, all bronze and auburn, with the wind stirring his hair so the free ends danced like the scarlet maple leaves above.