The night was quiet around us, with little sound but the lapping of water, and the occasional scrape of submerged tree branches against the hull. At last he reached out and touched my chin.
“Your face is my heart, Sassenach,” he said softly, “and love of you is my soul. But you’re right; ye canna be my conscience.”
In spite of everything, I felt a lightening of spirit, as though some indefinable burden had dropped away.
“Oh, I’m glad,” I said, adding impulsively, “it would be a terrible strain.”
“Oh, aye?” He looked mildly startled. “Ye think me verra wicked, then?”
“You’re the best man I’ve ever met,” I said. “I only meant…it’s such a strain, to try to live for two people. To try to make them fit your ideas of what’s right…you do it for a child, of course, you have to, but even then, it’s dreadfully hard work. I couldn’t do it for you—it would be wrong even to try.”
I’d taken him back more than a little. He sat for some moments, his face half turned away.
“Do ye really think me a good man?” he said at last. There was a queer note in his voice, that I couldn’t quite decipher.
“Yes,” I said, with no hesitation. Then added, half jokingly, “Don’t you?”
After a long pause, he said, quite seriously, “No, I shouldna think so.”
I looked at him, speechless, no doubt with my mouth hanging open.
“I am a violent man, and I ken it well,” he said quietly. He spread his hands out on his knees; big hands, which could wield sword and dagger with ease, or choke the life from a man. “So do you—or ye should.”
“You’ve never done anything you weren’t forced to do!”
“I don’t think so,” I said, but even as I spoke, a shadow of doubt clouded my words. Even when done from the most urgent necessity, did such things not leave a mark on the soul?
“Ye wouldna hold me in the same estimation as, say, a man like Stephen Bonnet? He might well say he acted from necessity.”
“If you think you have the slightest thing in common with Stephen Bonnet, you’re dead wrong,” I said firmly.
He shrugged, half impatient, and shifted restlessly on the narrow bench.
“There’s nay much to choose between Bonnet and me, save that I have a sense of honor that he lacks. What else keeps me from turning thief?” he demanded. “From plundering those whom I might? It is in me to do it—my one grandsire built Leoch on the gold of those he robbed in the Highland passes; the other built his fortune on the bodies of women whom he forced for their wealth and titles.”
He stretched himself, powerful shoulders rising dark against the shimmer of the water behind him. Then he suddenly took hold of the oars across his knees and flung them into the bottom of the boat, with a crash that made me jump.
“I am more than five-and-forty!” he said. “A man should be settled at that age, no? He should have a house, and some land to grow his food, and a bit of money put away to see him through his auld age, at the least.”
He took a deep breath; I could see the white bosom of his shirt rise with his swelling chest.
“Well, I dinna have a house. Or land. Or money. Not a croft, not a tattie-plot, not a cow or a sheep or a pig or a goat! I havena got a rooftree or a bedstead, or a pot to piss in!”
He slammed his fist down on the thwart, making the wooden seat vibrate under me.
“I dinna own the clothes I stand up in!”
There was a long silence, broken only by the thin song of crickets.
“You have me,” I said, in a small voice. It didn’t seem a lot.
He made a small sound in his throat that might have been either a laugh or a sob.
“Aye, I have,” he said. His voice was quivering a bit, though whether with passion or amusement, I couldn’t tell. “That’s the hell of it, aye?”
He threw up his hand in a gesture of profound impatience.
“If it was only me, what would it matter? I could live like Myers; go to the woods, hunt and fish for my living, and when I was too old, lie down under a peaceful tree and die, and let the foxes gnaw my bones. Who would care?”
He shrugged his shoulders with irritable violence, as though his shirt was too tight.
“But it’s not only me,” he said. “It’s you, and it’s Ian and it’s Duncan and it’s Fergus and it’s Marsali—God help me, there’s even Laoghaire to think of!”
“Oh, let’s don’t,” I said.
“Do ye not understand?” he said, in near desperation. “I would lay the world at your feet, Claire—and I have nothing to give ye!”
He honestly thought it mattered.
I sat looking at him, searching for words. He was half turned away, shoulders slumped in despair.
Within an hour, I had gone from anguish at the thought of losing him in Scotland, to a strong desire to bed him in the herbaceous borders, and from that to a pronounced urge to hit him on the head with an oar. Now I was back to tenderness.
At last I took one big, callused hand and slid forward so I knelt on the boards between his knees. I laid my head against his chest, and felt his breath stir my hair. I had no words, but I had made my choice.
“ ‘Whither thou goest,’ ” I said, “ ‘I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.’ ” Be it Scottish hill or southern forest. “You do what you have to; I’ll be there.”
The water ran fast and shallow near the middle of the creek; I could see the boulders black just beneath the glinting surface. Jamie saw them, too, and pulled strongly for the far side, bringing us to rest against a shelving gravel bank, in a pool formed by the roots of a weeping willow. I leaned out and caught a branch of the willow, and wrapped the painter round it.
I had thought we would return to River Run, but evidently this expedition had some point beyond respite. We had continued upriver instead, Jamie pulling strongly against the slow current.
Left alone with my thoughts, I could only listen to the faint hiss of his breath, and wonder what he would do. If he chose to stay…well, it might not be as difficult as he thought. I didn’t underrate Jocasta Cameron, but neither did I underestimate Jamie Fraser. Both Colum and Dougal MacKenzie had tried to bend him to their will—and both had failed.
I had a moment’s qualm at the memory of my last sight of Dougal MacKenzie, mouthing soundless curses as he drowned in his own blood, Jamie’s dirk socketed at the base of his throat. I am a violent man, he’d said, you know it.
But he was still wrong; there was a difference between this man and Stephen Bonnet, I thought, watching the flex of his body on the oars, the grace and power of the sweep of his arms. He had several things beyond the honor that he claimed: kindness, courage…and a conscience.
I realized where we were going, as he backed with one oar, steering across the current toward the mouth of a wide creek, overhung with aspens. I had never approached by water before, but Jocasta had said it was not far.
I should not have been surprised; if he had come out tonight to confront his demons, it was a most appropriate place.
A little way above the creek mouth, the mill loomed dark and silent. There was a dim glow behind its bulk; light from the slave shanties near the woods. We were surrounded by the usual night noises, but the place seemed strangely quiet, in spite of the racket made by trees and frogs and water. Though it was night, the huge building seemed to cast a shadow—though this was plainly no more than my imagination.
“Places that are very busy in the daytime always seem particularly spooky at night,” I said, in an effort to break the mill’s silence.
“Do they?” Jamie sounded abstracted. “I didna much like that one in the daylight.”
I shuddered at the memory.
“Neither did I. I only meant—”
“Byrnes is dead.” He didn’t look at me; his face was turned toward the mill, half-hidden by the willow’s shadow.
I dropped the end of the tie rope.
“The overseer? When?” I said, shocked more by the abruptness than the revelation. “And how?”
“This afternoon. Campbell’s youngest lad brought the news just before sunset.”
“How?” I asked again. I gripped my knees, a double handful of ivory silk twisted in my fingers.
“It was the lockjaw.” His voice was casual, unemphatic. “A verra nasty way to die.”
He was right about that. I had never actually seen anyone die of tetanus myself, but I knew the symptoms well enough: restlessness and difficulty swallowing, developing into a progressive stiffening as the muscles of arms and legs and neck began to spasm. The spasms increased in severity and duration until the patient’s body was hard as wood, arched in an agony that came on and receded, came on again, went off, and at last came on in an endless tetany that could not be relaxed by anything save death.
“He died grinnin’, Ronnie Campbell said. But I shouldna think it was a happy death, forbye.” It was a grim joke, but there was little humor in his voice.
I sat up quite straight, feeling cold all down my spine in spite of the warmth of the night.
“It isn’t a quick death, either,” I said. Suspicion spread cold tentacles through my mind. “It takes days to die of tetanus.”
“It took Davie Byrnes five days, first to last.” If there had been any trace of humor in his voice to start with, it was gone now.
“You saw him,” I said, a small flicker of anger beginning to thaw the internal chill. “You saw him! And you didn’t tell me?”
I had dressed Byrnes’s injury—hideous, but not life-threatening—and had been told that he would be kept somewhere “safe” until the disturbance over the lynching had died down. Heartsick as I was over the matter, I had made no effort to inquire further after the overseer’s whereabouts or welfare; it was my own guilt at this neglect that made me angry, and I knew it—but the knowledge didn’t help.
“Could ye have done anything? I thought ye told me that the lockjaw was one of the things that couldna be helped, even in your time.” He wasn’t looking at me; I could see his profile turned toward the mill, head stamped in darker black against the lighter shadow of pale leaves.
I forced myself to let go of my skirt. I smoothed the crumpled patches over my knee, thinking dimly that Phaedre would have a terrible time ironing it.
“No,” I said, with a little effort. “No, I couldn’t have saved him. But I should have seen him; I might have eased him a little.”
Now he did look at me; I saw his head turn, and felt the shifting of his weight in the boat.
“You might,” he said evenly.
“And you wouldn’t let me—” I stopped, remembering his absences this past week, and his evasive replies when I had asked him where he’d been. I could imagine the scene all too well; the tiny, stifling attic room in Farquard Campbell’s house where I had dressed Byrnes’s injury. The racked figure on the bed, dying by inches under the cold eyes of those the law had made his unwilling allies, knowing that he died despised. The sense of cold came back, raising gooseflesh on my arms.