Too light to be a finger . . .
“Captain Randall said that Captain Buncombe sent word out wi’ all the patrols, and one of them came across this wee bawbee and sent it back to Fort William. None of them ever saw such a thing before, but because of the name, they were thinking it might have to do wi’ your lad.”
“The name?” Roger untied the cord and the cloth fell open. For an instant, he didn’t know what the hell he was seeing. He picked it up; it was light as a feather, dangling from his fingers.
Two disks, made of something like pressed cardboard, threaded onto a bit of light woven cord. One round, colored red—the other was green and octagonal.
“Oh, Jesus,” he said. “Oh, Christ Jesus.”
J. W. MacKenzie was printed on both disks, along with a number and two letters. He turned the red disk gently over with a shaking fingertip and read what he already knew was stamped there.
He was holding the dog tags of a Royal Air Force flier. Circa World War II.
“YE CANNA BE SURE those things name your father.” Buck nodded at the dog tags, their cord still wrapped round Roger’s hand, the tiny disks themselves folded tight in his palm. “How many MacKenzies are there, for God’s sake?”
“Lots.” Roger sat down on a big lichen-covered boulder. They were at the top of the hill that rose behind Lallybroch; the broch itself stood on the slope just below them, its conical roof a broad black whorl of slates. “But not so bloody many who flew for the Royal Air Force in World War Two. And even fewer who disappeared without a trace. As for those who might be time travelers . . .”
Roger couldn’t remember what he’d said when he saw the dog tags or what Brian Fraser had said to him. When he’d started to notice things again, he was sitting in Brian’s big wheel-backed chair with a stoneware mug of hot tea cupped between his hands and the entire household crammed into the doorway, regarding him with looks ranging from compassion to curiosity. Buck was squatting in front of him, frowning in what might have been concern or simply curiosity.
“Sorry,” Roger had said, cleared his throat, and set the tea undrunk on the desk. His hands throbbed from the heat of the cup. “Rather a shock. I—thank you.”
“Is it something to do wi’ your wee boy, then?” Jenny Fraser had asked, deep-blue eyes dark with concern.
“I think so, yes.” He’d got his wits back now and rose stiffly, nodding to Brian. “Thank ye, sir. I canna thank ye enough for all ye’ve done for me—for us. I . . . need to think a bit what’s to do now. If ye’ll excuse me, Mistress Fraser?”
Jenny nodded, not taking her eyes from his face but shooing the maids and the cook away from the door so he could pass through it. Buck had followed him, murmuring reassuring things to the multitude, and come along with him, not speaking until they reached the solitude of the craggy hilltop. Where Roger had explained just what the dog tags were and to whom they had belonged.
“Why two?” Buck asked, reaching out a tentative finger to touch the tags. “And why are they different colors?”
“Two in case one was destroyed by whatever killed you,” Roger said, taking a deep breath. “The colors—they’re made of pressed cardboard treated with different chemicals—substances, I mean. One resists water and the other resists fire, but I couldn’t tell ye which is which.”
Speaking of technicalities made it just barely possible to speak. Buck, with unaccustomed delicacy, was waiting for Roger to bring up the unspeakable.
How did the tags turn up here? And when—and under what circumstances—had they become detached from J(eremiah) W(alter)MacKenzie, Roman Catholic, serial number 448397651, RAF?
“Claire—my mother-in-law—I told ye about her, did I not?”
“A bit, aye. A seer, was she?”
Roger laughed shortly. “Aye, like I am. Like you are. Easy to be a seer if what you see has already happened.”
What’s already happened . . .
“Oh, God,” he said out loud, and curled over, pressing the fist that held the dog tags hard against his forehead.
“All right, there?” Buck asked after a moment. Roger straightened up with a deep breath.
“Know the expression ‘damned if ye do, damned if ye don’t’?”
“No, though I wouldna think it was one a minister would use.” Buck’s mouth twitched into a half smile. “Are ye not dedicated to the notion that there’s always one sure way out o’ damnation?”
“A minister. Aye.” Roger breathed deep again. There was a lot of oxygen on a Scottish hilltop, but somehow there didn’t seem quite enough just this minute. “I’m not sure that religion was constructed with time travelers in mind.”
Buck’s brows rose at that.
“Constructed?” he echoed, surprised. “Who builds God?”
That actually made Roger laugh, which made him feel a little better, if only momentarily.
“We all do,” he said dryly. “If God makes man in His image, we all return the favor.”
“Mmphm.” Buck thought that one over, then nodded slowly. “Wouldna just say ye’re wrong about that. But God’s there, nonetheless, whether we ken quite what He is or not. Isn’t He?”
“Yeah.” Roger wiped his knuckles under his nose, which had begun to run with the cold wind. “Ever hear of Saint Teresa of Avila?”
“No.” Buck gave him a look. “Nor have I heard of a Protestant minister who has to do wi’ saints.”
“I take advice where I can get it. But St. Teresa once remarked to God, ‘If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.’ God’s got his own ways.”
Buck smiled; it was one of his rare, unwary smiles, and it heartened Roger enough to try to come to grips with the situation.
“Well, Claire—my mother-in-law—she told Brianna and me a good bit. About the things that happened when she went through the stones in 1743, and about things that had happened before that. Things about Captain Randall.” And in sentences as brief and unemotional as he could make them, he told the story: Randall’s raid on Lallybroch while Brian Fraser was away, his attack on Jenny Murray, and how Jamie Fraser—newly returned from Paris and wondering what to do with his life—had fought for his home and his sister’s honor, been arrested and taken to Fort William, where he had been flogged nearly to death.
“Twice,” Roger said, pausing for air. He swallowed. “The second time . . . Brian was there. He thought Jamie was dead, and he had a stroke—an apoplexy—on the spot. He . . . died.” He swallowed again. “Will die.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Bride.” Buck crossed himself. His face had gone pale. “Your man in the house? He’ll be dead in a year or two?”
“Yes.” Roger looked down at Lallybroch, pale and peaceful as the sheep that browsed its pastures. “And . . . there’s more. What happened later, just before the Rising.”
Buck raised a hand.
“I say that’s more than enough. I say we go down to Fort William and do for the wicked bugger now. Preemptive action, ye might say. That’s a legal term,” he explained, with an air of kindly condescension.
“An appealing notion,” Roger said dryly. “But if we did—what would happen four years from now?”
Buck frowned, not comprehending.
“When Claire came through the stones in 1743, she met—will meet—Jamie Fraser, an outlaw with a price on his head, coming home from France. But if what happened with Captain Randall doesn’t happen—Jamie won’t be there. And if he isn’t . . . ?”
“Oh.” The frown grew deeper, comprehension dawning. “Oh, aye. I see. No Jamie, no Brianna . . .”
“No Jem or Mandy,” Roger finished. “Exactly.”
“Oh, God.” Buck bent his head and massaged the flesh between his brows with two fingers. “Damned if ye do, damned if ye don’t, did ye say? Enough to make your head spin like a top.”
“Yes, it is. But I have to do something, nonetheless.” He rubbed a thumb gently over the dog tags’ surfaces. “I’m going down to Fort William to talk to Captain Randall. I have to know where these came from.”
BUCK LOOKED squiggle-eyed at the tags, lips pressed together, then switched the look to Roger.
“D’ye think your lad’s with your father, somehow?”
“No.” That particular thought hadn’t occurred to Roger, and it shook him for a moment. He shrugged it away, though.
“No,” he repeated more firmly. “I’m beginning to think that maybe . . . maybe Jem’s not here at all.” The statement hung there in the air, revolving slowly. He glanced at Buck, who seemed to be glowering at it.
“Why not?” his kinsman asked abruptly.
“A, because we’ve found no hint of him. And B, because now there’s these.” He raised the tags, the light cardboard disks lifting in the breeze.
“Ye sound like your wife,” Buck said, half amused. “She does that, aye? Layin’ things out, A, B, C, and all.”
“That’s how Brianna’s mind works,” Roger said, feeling a brief surge of affection for her. “She’s very logical.”
And if I’m right, and Jem’s not here—where is he? Has he gone to another time—or did he not travel at all? As though the word “logical” had triggered it, a whole array of horrifying possibilities opened out before him.
“What I’m thinking—we were both concentrating on the name ‘Jeremiah’ when we came through, aye?”
“Aye, we were.”
“Well . . .” He twirled the cord between his fingers, making the disks spin slowly. “What if we got the wrong Jeremiah? That was my father’s name, too. And—and if Rob Cameron didn’t take Jem through the stones—”
“Why would he not?” Buck interrupted sharply. He transferred the glower to Roger. “His truck was there at Craigh na Dun. He wasn’t.”
“Plainly he wanted us to think he’d gone through. As to why—” He choked on the thought. Before he could clear his throat, Buck finished it for him.
“To get us away, so he’d have your missus to himself.” His face darkened with anger—part of it aimed at Roger. “I told her yon man had a hot eye for her.”
“Maybe he does,” he said shortly. “But think, aye? Beyond whatever he may have had in mind with regard to Brianna—” The mere words conjured up pictures that made the blood shoot up into his head. “Whatever he had in mind,” he repeated, as calmly as he could, “he likely also wanted to see whether it was true. About the stones. About whether we—or anyone—really could go through. Seeing’s believing, after all.”
Buck blew out his cheeks, considering.
“Ye think he was there, maybe? Watching to see if we disappeared?”
Roger shrugged, momentarily unable to speak for the thoughts clotting his brain.
Buck’s fists were clenched on his knees. He looked down at the house, then behind him at the rising mountains, and Roger knew exactly what he was thinking. He cleared his throat with a hacking growl.
“We’ve been gone for two weeks,” Roger said. “If he meant Brianna harm . . . he’ll have tried.” Jesus. If he—no. “She’ll not have let him harm her or the kids,” he went on, as steadily as he could. “If he tried anything, he’ll either be in jail or buried under the broch.” He lifted his chin toward the tower below, and Buck snorted in reluctant amusement.
“So, then. Aye, I want to rush straight back to Craigh na Dun, too. But think, man. We ken Cameron went to the stones after he took Jem. Would he not make Jem touch them, to see? And if he did . . . what if Cameron can’t travel but Jem did—to get away from him?”
“Mmphm.” Buck thought that one over and gave a reluctant nod. “So ye’re maybe thinkin’ that if the lad was scairt of Cameron and popped through accidental, he maybe wouldn’t try to come straight back?”
“He maybe couldn’t.” Roger was dry-mouthed and swallowed hard to generate enough saliva to speak. “He didn’t have a gemstone. And even with one . . .” He nodded at Buck. “Ken what happened to you, even with one. It does get worse each time. Jemmy might have been too scared to try.” And he might have tried, not made it, and now he’s lost for good . . . NO!
“So. Ye think he’s maybe with your da, after all?” He sounded dubious in the extreme.
Roger couldn’t bear sitting any longer. He stood up abruptly, thrusting the dog tags into the breast pocket of his coat.
“I don’t know. But this is the only solid bit of evidence we have. I have to go and see.”
THE CURE OF SOULS
“YE’RE OUT OF YOUR wee pink mind, ye ken that, aye?” Roger looked at Buck in amazement.
“Where the devil did you get that expression?”
“From your wife,” Buck replied. “Who’s a verra bonnie lass and a well-spoken one, forbye. And if ye mean to get back to her bed one of these days, ye’ll think better of what ye mean to do.”
“I’ve thought,” Roger said briefly. “And I’m doing it.” The entrance to Fort William looked much as it had when he’d come here with Brian Fraser nearly two weeks earlier, but this time with only a few people hastening in, shawls over their heads, and hats pulled down against the rain. The fort itself now seemed to have a sinister aspect, the gray stones bleak and streaked black with wet.
Buck reined up, grimacing as the horse shook its head and sprayed him with drops from its soaking mane.