Authors: Diana Gabaldon
“A Naoimh Micheal Àirdaingeal, dìon sinn anns an àm a’ chatha,”
he said under his breath. He didn’t know the man, but there was something about him beyond his size that made the hairs rise on Jamie’s neck.
He glanced at his helpers for the day—seven men: Bobby Higgins, three of his Ardsmuir men, the others tenants he didn’t yet know well. And Fanny, who had brought them lunch.
None of the men had noticed the man making his way across the clearing—but Fanny had; she frowned and then looked quickly toward Jamie. He nodded to her, reassuring, and her face relaxed, though she kept glancing back down the hill, even as she answered something one of the men said to her.
Jamie stepped over the foundation. He had a feeling that he’d have liked to meet the fellow whilst standing in his own house with men at his back, but he had a stronger feeling that he wanted to get between the man and Claire.
She was smiling politely at the man as he talked, but he could see the wariness plain in her face. She looked up, though, and saw him coming. Relief bloomed in her, and he felt an answering thrum in his chest. He walked toward them, not smiling, but looking pleasant, at least.
“General Fraser?” said the man, looking him up and down with interest. Aye, well, that explained Claire’s wariness.
“Not anymore,” he said, still pleasant, and put out a hand. “Jamie Fraser, your servant, sir.”
“Yours, sir. Benjamin Cleveland.” A sweaty hand substantially bigger than his own grasped him and squeezed in a manner indicating that the owner thought he could have hurt him, had he wanted to.
Jamie let go without response and smiled.
Aye, try it, ye wee bastard.
“I ken your name, sir. I’ve heard ye spoken of, now and then.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Claire’s brows rise.
“Mr. Cleveland is a famous Indian fighter,
” he said, not taking his eyes off the man. “He’s killed a good many Cree and Cherokee, by his own report.”
“Caughnawaga, too. I don’t keep a count,” Cleveland said, chuckling in a way that said he remembered every man he’d killed, and enjoyed his memories. “I suppose your relations with the Indians are a mite more amiable?”
“I have friends in the Cherokee villages.” Not all of his friends in the villages were Indians, but Scotchee Cameron was no business of Cleveland’s.
“Splendid!” Cleveland’s ruddy face grew redder. “I hoped that might be the case.”
Jamie tilted his head with a noncommittal noise in his throat.
Claire evidently caught some note of what he was actually thinking, for she cleared her own throat and stepped up beside him, touching his arm.
“Mr. Cleveland’s wagon broke down, a mile or so down the trace—a sprung tyre. Perhaps you should go look at it?”
He smiled at her; she was transparent as a bottle of gin.
“Surely,” he said, and, turning to Cleveland, added, “I hope your cargo didna gang agley when the wheel broke. If ye’ve anything fragile, perhaps…”
“Oh, no,” Cleveland said casually. “It’s just a handful of guns and a bit of powder; everything’s sound enough.” He grinned at Jamie, exposing a row of stout, good teeth, though there was a shred of wet dark-brown tobacco caught between two of them.
“Speaking of guns, though,” he went on. “That’s one thing I had in mind to talk to you about. But yes, let’s do as your good lady suggests.” He made Claire a creditable bow then turned and took hold of Jamie’s arm, compelling him toward the trace.
Jamie disengaged himself without comment and, turning back to Claire, said, “Send Bobby and Aaron along wi’ some tools, will ye, Sassenach? And maybe a bit of beer, if there’s any left.”
Cleveland was waiting, and turned at once toward the wagon trace, leaving Jamie to come as he would. He followed, eyes on the broad back and tree-trunk legs. A very worn leather belt, showing the marks of cartridge box and powder horn, and presently supporting a large knife in an equally worn sheath—one decorated with dyed porcupine quills in an Indian pattern.
The man had maybe twenty years’ advantage on him—and at least a hundred pounds, though Cleveland was an inch or two shorter.
He’s likely always been the biggest in any company he finds himself in. So he’s likely never had to care whether folk like him or not.
THE WAGON STOOD
in a hollow of dark-green shade, where the wagon trace ran deep between two hillocks, both covered with a dense growth of balsam fir, hemlock, and pine. Jamie felt the coolness touch his face like a hand and drew a deep, clean breath of turpentine and cypress berries.
He was glad to see that the wagon wheel itself wasn’t damaged; the iron tyre that surrounded it had sprung loose, but none of the wood was broken. He could maybe get this man—and his guns; he spared a glance at the contents of the wagon—back on his way before hospitality required the Frasers to provide dinner and a bed.
“Ye came looking for me,” he said bluntly, looking up from the wheel. They hadn’t spoken on the walk save for brief courtesies. With the guns in plain sight, though, it was clearly time for business.
Cleveland nodded and took off his hat, openly appraising. His stomach strained the fabric of his hunting shirt, but it looked like hard fat, of the sort that would armor a man’s vitals.
“I did. Heard a good bit about you these two years past, one way and another.”
“Folk who listen to gossip will hear nae good of themselves,” Jamie said, in the
“What?” Cleveland was startled. “What’s that? Ain’t French, I heard a-plenty of
” Jamie said with a shrug, and repeated the sentiment in English. Cleveland smiled in response.
“You’d be right about that, Mr. Fraser,” he said. Bending, he picked up the heavy iron strip as though it were made of dandelion fluff and stood meditatively turning it in his hands. “There’s a good bit of talk abroad about how you came to lose your army commission.”
Despite himself, Jamie felt warmth rise up his neck.
“I resigned my commission, Mr. Cleveland, following the Battle of Monmouth. I had been temporarily appointed as field general in order to take command of a number of independent militia companies. These disbanded following the battle. There was no further need of my services.”
“I’d heard that you quit without notice, leaving half your men alone on the battlefield, in order to tend your ailing wife.” Cleveland’s bushy brows rose inquiringly. “Though having met Mrs. Fraser, I can certainly understand your feelin’s as a man.”
Jamie turned to face him over the wagonload of muskets and powder.
“I’ve no need to defend myself to you, sir. If ye’ve something to say to me, say it and have done. I’ve a privy to dig.”
Cleveland raised one hand, palm out, and bent his head, conciliating.
“No offense intended, Mr. Fraser. I only want to know whether you’re planning to rejoin the army. In whatever capacity.”
“No,” Jamie said shortly. “Why?”
“Because if not,” Cleveland said, and fixed him with a calculating eye, “you might be interested to know that a-many of your Whiggish neighbors over the mountains”—he jerked his chin in the rough direction of Tennessee County—“landowners, I mean, men who have something to lose—are raising private militias to protect their families and their property. I thought you might be considering something of the sort.”
Jamie felt his dislike of the man alter slightly, sliding reluctantly toward curiosity.
“And if I were?” he said.
“It would be good to keep in touch with other groups. There’s no tellin’ where the British might pop up, but when they do—mark me, Mr. Fraser,
they do—I for one would like to know about it in time to take action.”
Jamie looked down into the wagon: muskets, and old ones, for the most part, with dry, cracked stocks and scratched muzzles—but a few regular British Brown Besses in better condition. Bought, traded, or stolen? he wondered.
“Action,” he repeated carefully. “And who are some of these men you speak of?”
“Oh, they exist,” Cleveland said, answering the thought rather than the question. “John Sevier. Isaac Shelby. William Campbell and Frederick Hambright. A good many others thinking on it, I can tell you.”
Jamie nodded but didn’t say more.
“One other thing I heard about you, Mr. Fraser,” said Cleveland, picking up one of the muskets from the wagon bed, idly checking the flint, “is that you were an Indian agent. That true?”
“And a good one, by report.” Cleveland smiled, suddenly clumsily playful. “I hear tell there’s quite a few redheaded children down in the Cherokee villages, hey?”
Jamie felt as though Cleveland had struck him across the face with the musket. Was that really being said, or was this some piece of foolery by which Cleveland hoped to involve him in something shabby?
“I’ll wish ye good day, sir,” he said stiffly. “My men will be down with tools to mend your wheel directly.”
He started walking back up the trace, but Cleveland, who moved quickly despite his bulk, was right beside him.
“If we’re to have militia, we need guns,” Cleveland said. “That stands to reason, don’t it?” Seeing that Jamie wasn’t disposed to answer rhetorical questions, he tried another tack.
“The Indians have guns,” he said. “The British government gives the Cherokee a good-sized allotment of shot and powder every year, for hunting. Was that the case when you were an agent?”
“Good day, Mr. Cleveland.” He walked faster, though the exercise was making his wounded leg throb. Cleveland grabbed his arm and jerked him to a stop.
“We can talk about guns later,” Cleveland said. “There’s just the one other thing I had in mind to speak to you about.”
“Take your hand off me.” The tone of his voice made Cleveland let go, but he didn’t back away.
“A man named Cunningham,” he said, his small brown eyes steady on Jamie’s. “Ex-navy captain. A Tory. Loyalist.”
made a small, cold hole in Jamie’s middle. Captain Cunningham was indeed a Loyalist—so were a dozen others of his tenants.
“I hate a Tory,” Cleveland said, reflectively. He shook his head, but Jamie could see the gleam of his eyes beneath his hat brim. “Hung a few of ’em, down home. Put a scare into the others, and they left.” He cleared his throat and spat, landing a gob of yellowish phlegm near Jamie’s foot.
“Now. This Captain Cunningham writes letters. Essays in the papers. Someone with the captain’s welfare in mind might want to have a word with him about that. Don’t you think?”
WHEN JAMIE CAME
back to the house site, he found the fire made up and a good smell of something cooking in the cauldron. Roger and Ian were there, talking to Claire while the shouts of children playing echoed among the trees near the creek. That’s right; Jenny would be coming to dinner tonight. He’d nearly forgot, in his annoyance with the blether of yon Cleveland.
“Someone with the captain’s welfare in mind might want to have a word with him about that. Don’t you think?”
This was not, in fact, bad advice, but knowing that didn’t help his mood any. He disliked being threatened, he disliked being condescended to, and he very much disliked being loomed at by a man larger than himself. He didn’t like Cleveland’s news, either, but he didn’t hold the man responsible for that.
The air of peaceful domesticity reached out for him, soothing, tempting him to join his family, drink the cold beer Fanny had pulled out of the well, sit down, and rest his aching leg. But the conversation with Cleveland was still boiling under his breastbone and he didn’t want to talk to anyone about it until he’d parsed it for himself.
He waved briefly to Claire as he passed through the site to where his shovel was waiting, thrust into the ground by the half-dug privy; the effort of digging would calm him as he thought things through. He hoped.