An excerpt from the novel, A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES, the sixth major OUTLANDER novel:
"James Fraser, Indian Agent," I said, closing one eye as though reading it off a screen. "It sounds like a Wild West television show."
Jamie paused in the act of pulling off his stockings, and eyed me warily.
"It does? Is that good?"
"Insofar as the hero of a television show never dies, yes."
"In that case, I’m in favor of it," he said, examining the stocking he’d just pulled off. He sniffed it suspiciously, rubbed a thumb over a thin patch on the heel, shook his head and tossed it into the laundry basket. "Must I sing?"
"Si—oh," I said, recollecting that the last time I had tried to explain television to him, my descriptions had focused largely on the Ed Sullivan show. "No, I don’t think so. Nor yet swing from a trapeze."
"Well, that’s a comfort. I’m none sae young as I was, ken." He stood up and stretched himself, groaning. The house had been built with eight-foot ceilings, to accommodate him, but his fists brushed the pine beams, even so. "Christ, but it’s been a long day!"
"Well, it’s nearly over," I said, sniffing in turn at the bodice of the gown I’d just shed. It smelled strongly, though not disagreeably, of horse and woodsmoke. Air it a bit, I decided, and see whether it could go another little while without washing. "I couldn’t have swung on a trapeze even when I was young."
"I’d pay money to see ye try," he said, grinning.
"What is an Indian Agent?" I inquired. "MacDonald seemed to think he was doing you a signal favor by suggesting you for the job."
He shrugged, unbuckling his kilt.
"Nay doubt he thinks he is." He shook the garment experimentally, and a fine sifting of dust and horse hair bloomed on the floor beneath it. He went to the window, opened the shutters, and thrusting the kilt outside, shook it harder.
"He would be—" his voice came faintly from the night outside, then more strongly, as he turned round again, "—were it not for this war of yours."
"Of mine?" I said, indignant. "You sound as though you think I’m proposing to start it, single-handed."
He made a small gesture of dismissal.
"Ye ken what I mean. An Indian agent, Sassenach, is what it sounds like—a fellow who goes out and parleys wi’ the local Indians, giving them gifts and talking them round, in hopes that they’ll be inclined to ally themselves with the Crown’s interests, whatever those might happen to be."
"Oh? And what’s this Southern Department that MacDonald mentioned?" I glanced involuntarily toward the closed door of our room, but muffled snoring from across the hall indicated that our guest had already collapsed into the arms of Morpheus.
"Mmphm. There’s a Southern Department, and a Northern Department, that deal wi’ Indian affairs in the Colonies. The Southern Department is everything south of Mason’s and Dixon’s line—and that’s under John Stuart, who’s an Inverness man. Turn round, I’ll do it."
I turned my back gratefully to him. With expertise born of long experience, he had the lacing of my stays undone in seconds. I sighed deeply as they loosened, and he reached inside the garment, massaging my ribs where the boning had pressed the damp fabric of my shift into my skin.
"Thank you." I sighed in bliss and leaned back against him. "And being an Inverness man, MacDonald thinks this Stuart will have a natural predisposition to employ other Highlanders?"
"That might depend upon whether Stuart’s ever met any of my kin," Jamie said dryly. "But MacDonald thinks so, aye." He kissed the top of my head in absent affection, then withdrew his hands and began untying the lace that bound his hair.
"Sit," I said, stepping out of my stays. "I’ll do it."
He sat on the stool in his shirt, closing his eyes in momentary relaxation as I unbraided his hair. He’d worn it clubbed in a tight queue for riding, bound up for the last three days; I ran my hands up into the warm fiery mass as it unraveled from its plait, and the loosened waves of it spilled cinnamon and gold and silver in the firelight as I rubbed the pads of my fingers gently into his scalp.
"Gifts, you said. Does the Crown supply these gifts?" The Crown, I had noticed, had a bad habit of "honoring" men of substance with offices that required them to come up with large amounts of their own money.
"Theoretically." He yawned hugely, broad shoulders slumping comfortably as I took up my hair brush and set about tidying him. "Oh, that’s nice. That’s why MacDonald thinks it a favor; there’s the possibility of doing well in trade."
"Besides generally excellent opportunities for corruption. Yes, I see." I worked for a few minutes before asking, "Will you do it?"
"I dinna ken. I must think a bit. Ye were mentioning Wild West—Brianna’s said such a thing, telling me about cowherds—"
He waved off the correction. "And the Indians. That’s true, is it—what she says about the Indians?"
"If what she says is that they’ll be largely exterminated over the next century or so—yes, she’s right." I smoothed his hair, then sat down on the bed facing him and set about brushing my own. "Does that trouble you?"
His brows drew together a little as he considered it, and he scratched absently at his chest, where the curly red-gold hairs showed at the open neck of his shirt.
"No," he said slowly. "Not precisely. It’s not as though I should be doing them to death wi’ my own hands. But…we’re coming to it, are we not? The time when I must tread wi’ some care, if I’m to walk betwixt the fires."
"I’m afraid we are," I said, an uneasy tightness hovering between my shoulderblades. I saw what he meant, all too clearly. The battle-lines were not clear yet—but they were being drawn. To become an Indian agent for the Crown was to appear to be a Loyalist—all very well for the moment, when the Rebel movement was no more than a radical fringe, with pockets of disaffection. But very, very dangerous, as we grew closer to the point where the disaffected seized power, and independence was declared.
Knowing the eventual outcome, Jamie dare not wait too long to ally himself to the Rebel side—but to do so too early was to risk arrest for treason. Not a good prospect for a man who was already a pardoned traitor.
"Of course," I said diffidently, "if you were to be an Indian agent…I suppose you might actually persuade some of the Indian tribes into supporting the American side—or staying neutral, at least."
"I might," he agreed, with a certain note of bleakness in his voice. "But putting aside any question as to the honor of such a course—that would help condemn them, no? Would the same thing happen to them in the end, d’ye think, if the English were to win?"
"They won’t," I said, with a slight edge.
He glanced sharply at me.
"I do believe ye," he said, with a similar edge. "I’ve reason to, aye?"
I nodded, my lips pressed together. I didn’t want to talk about the earlier Rising. I didn’t want to talk about the oncoming Revolution, either, but there was little choice about that.
"I don’t know," I said, and took a deep breath. "No one can say—since it didn’t happen—but if I were to guess…then I think the Indians might quite possibly do better under British rule." I smiled at him, a little ruefully.
"Believe it or not, the British Empire did—or will, I should say—generally manage to run its colonies without entirely exterminating the native people in them."
"Bar the Hieland folk," he said, very dryly. "Aye, I’ll take your word for it, Sassenach."
He stood up, running a hand back through his hair, and I caught a glimpse of the tiny streak of white that ran through it on the left side, legacy of a bullet wound.
"You should talk to Roger about it," I said. "He knows a great deal more than I do."
He nodded, but didn’t reply, beyond a faint grimace.
"Where do you suppose Roger and Bree went, speaking of Roger?"
"To the MacGillivrays’, I suppose," he replied, surprised. "To fetch wee Jem."
"How do you know that?" I asked, equally surprised.
"When there’s mischief abroad, a man wants his family safe under his eye, ken?" He raised one brow at me, and reaching to the top of the wardrobe, took down his sword. He drew it halfway from its scabbard, then put it back and set the scabbard gently back in place, the sword loosened, hilt ready to hand.
He’d brought a loaded pistol upstairs with him; that was placed on the wash-stand by the window. The rifle and fowling piece too had been left loaded and primed, hanging from their hooks above the hearth downstairs. And, with a small ironic flourish, he drew the dirk from its belt-sheath and slid it neatly under our pillow.
"Sometimes I forget," I said, a little wistfully, watching this. There had been a dirk under the pillow of our wedding-couch—and under many a one since then.
"Do ye?" He smiled at that; a little lopsidedly, but he smiled.
"Don’t you? Ever?"
He shook his head, still smiling, though it had a rueful tinge.
"Sometimes I wish I did."
This colloquy was interrupted by a spluttering snort across the hall, followed at once by a thrashing of bedclothes, violent oaths, and a sharp thump! as something—likely a shoe—struck the wall.
"Fucking cat!" bellowed Major MacDonald. I sat, hand pressed across my mouth, as the stomp of bare feet vibrated through the floorboards, succeeded briefly by the crash of the Major’s door, which flung open, then shut with a bang.
Jamie too had stood frozen for an instant. Now he moved, very delicately, and soundlessly eased our own door open. Adso, tail arrogantly S-shaped, strolled in. Magnificently ignoring us, he crossed the room, leapt lightly onto the wash-stand and sat in the basin, where he stuck a back leg into the air and began calmly licking his testicles.
"I saw a man once in Paris who could do that," Jamie remarked, observing this performance with interest.
"Are there people willing to pay to watch such things?" I assumed that no one was likely to engage in a public exhibition of that sort merely for the fun of it. Not in Paris, anyway.
"Well, it wasna the man, so much. More his female companion, who was likewise flexible." He grinned at me, his eyes glinting blue in the candlelight. "Like watching worms mate, aye?"
"How fascinating," I murmured. I glanced at the wash-stand, where Adso was now doing something even more indelicate. "You’re lucky the Major doesn’t sleep armed, cat. He might have potted you like a jugged hare."
"Oh, I doubt that. Our Donald likely sleeps with a blade—but he kens well enough which side his bread’s buttered. Ye wouldna be likely to give him breakfast, and he’d skewered your cat."
I glanced toward the door. The mattress-heaving and muttered curses across the hall had died down; the Major, with the practiced ease of a professional soldier, was already well on his way back to dreamland.
"I suppose not. You were right about his worming his way into a position with the new governor. Which is the real reason for his desire for your political advancement, I imagine?"
Jamie nodded, but had plainly lost interest in discussing MacDonald’s machinations.
"I was right, no? That means ye owe me a forfeit, Sassenach."
He eyed me with an air of dawning speculation, which I hoped had not been too much inspired by his memories of the wormlike Parisians.
"Oh?" I regarded him warily. "And, um, what, precisely…?"
"Well, I havena quite worked out all the details as yet, but I think ye should maybe lie on the bed, to begin with."
That sounded like a reasonable start to the matter. I piled up the pillows at the head of the bed—pausing to remove the dirk—then began to climb onto it. I paused again, though, and instead bent to wind the bed-key, tightening the ropes that supported the mattress until the bedstead groaned and the ropes gave a creaking twang.
"Verra canny, Sassenach," Jamie said behind me, sounding amused.
"Experience," I informed him, clambering over the newly tautened bed on hands and knees. "I’ve waked up often enough after a night with you, with the mattress folded up round my ears and my arse no more than an inch off the ground."
"Oh, I expect your arse will end up somewhat higher than that," he assured me.
"Oh, you’re going to let me be on top?" I had mixed feelings about that. I was desperately tired, and while I enjoyed riding Jamie, all right, I’d been riding a beastly horse for more than ten hours, and the thigh muscles required for both activities were trembling spasmodically.
"Perhaps later," he said, eyes narrowed in thought. "Lie back, Sassenach, and ruckle up your shift. Then open your legs for me, there’s a good lass…no, a bit wider, aye?" He began—with deliberate slowness— to remove his shirt.
I sighed and shifted my buttocks a little, looking for a position that wouldn’t give me cramp if I had to hold it for long.
"If you have in mind what I think you have in mind, you’ll regret it. I haven’t even bathed properly," I said reproachfully. "I’m desperately filthy and I smell like a horse."
Naked, he raised one arm and sniffed appraisingly.
"Oh? Well, so do I. That’s no matter; I’m fond of horses." He’d abandoned any pretense of delay, but paused to survey his arrangements, looking me over with approval.
"Aye, verra good. Now then, if ye’ll just put your hands above your head and seize the bedstead…"
"You wouldn’t!" I said, and then lowered my voice, with an involuntary glance toward the door. "Not with MacDonald just across the hall!"
"Oh, I would," he assured me, "and the devil wi’ MacDonald and a dozen more like him." He paused, though, studying me thoughtfully, and after a moment, sighed and shook his head.
"No," he said quietly. "Not tonight. Ye’re still thinking of that poor Dutch bastard and his family, no?"
"Yes. Aren’t you?"
He sat down beside me on the bed with a sigh.
"I’ve been trying verra hard not to," he said frankly. "But the new dead dinna lie easy in their graves, do they?"
I laid a hand on his arm, relieved that he felt the same. The night air seemed restless with the passage of spirits, and I had felt the dragging melancholy of that desolate garden, that row of graves, all through the events and alarums of the evening.
It was a night to be securely locked inside, with a good fire on the hearth, and people nearby. The house stirred, shutters creaking in the wind.
"I do want ye, Claire," Jamie said softly. "I need…if ye will?"
And had they spent the night before their deaths like this, I wondered? Peaceful and snug betwixt their walls, husband and wife whispering together, lying close in their bed, having no notion what the future held. I saw in memory her long white thighs as the wind blew over her, and the glimpse I’d had of the small curly mat between them, the pudenda beneath its nimbus of brown hair pale as carved marble, the seam of it sealed like a virgin’s statue.
"I need, too," I said, just as softly. "Come here."
He leaned close, and pulled the drawstring neatly from the neck of my shift, so the worn linen wilted off my shoulders. I made a grab for the fabric, but he caught my hand, and held it down by my side. One-fingered, he brushed the shift lower, then put out the candle, and in a dark that smelled of wax and honey and the sweat of horses, kissed my forehead, eyes, the corners of my cheeks, my lips and chin, and so continued, slow and soft-lipped, to the arches of my feet.
He raised himself then, and suckled my breasts for a long time, and I ran my hand up his back and cupped his buttocks, naked and vulnerable in the dark.
Afterward, we lay in a pleasantly vermiform tangle, the only light in the room a faint glow from the banked hearth. I was so tired that I could feel my body sinking into the mattress, and desired nothing more than to keep going down, down, into the welcoming dark of oblivion.
A moment’s hesitation, then his hand found mine, curling round it.
"Ye wouldna do what she did, would ye?"
"Her. The Dutchwoman."
Snatched back from the edge of sleep, I was muzzy and confused, sufficiently so that even the image of the dead woman, shrouded in her apron, seemed unreal, no more disturbing than the random fragments of reality my brain tossed overboard in a vain effort to keep afloat as I sank down into the depths of sleep.
"What? Fall into the fire? I’ll try not," I assured him, yawning. "Goodnight."
"No. Wake up." He shook my arm gently. "Talk to me, Sassenach."
"Ng." It was a considerable effort, but I pushed away the enticing arms of Morpheus, and flounced over onto my side, facing him. "Mm. Talk to you. About—?"
"The Dutchwoman," he repeated patiently. "If I were to be killed, ye wouldna go and kill your whole family, would ye?"
"What?" I rubbed my free hand over my face, trying to make some sense of this, amid the drifting shreds of sleep. "Whose whole…oh. You think she did it on purpose? Poisoned them."
"I think maybe so."
His words were no more than a whisper, but they brought me back to full consciousness. I lay silent for a moment, then reached out, wanting to be sure he was really there.
He was; a large, solid object, the smooth bone of his hip warm and live under my hand.
"It might as well have been an accident," I said, voice pitched low. "You can’t know for sure."
"No," he admitted. "But I canna keep from seeing it." He turned restlessly onto his back.
"The men came," he said softly, to the beams overhead. "He fought them, and they killed him there, on his own threshold. And when she saw her man was gone…I think she told the men she must feed the weans first, before…and then she put toadstools into the stew, and fed it to the bairns and her mother. She took the two men with them, but I think it was that that was the accident. She only meant to follow him. She wouldna leave him there, alone."
I wanted to tell him that this was a rather dramatic interpretation of what we had seen. But I couldn’t very well tell him he was wrong. Hearing him describe what he saw in thought, I saw it too, all too clearly.
"You don’t know," I said at last, softly. "You can’t know." Unless you find the other men, I thought suddenly, and ask them. I didn’t say that, though.
Neither of us spoke for a bit. I could tell that he was still thinking, but the quicksand of sleep was once more pulling me down, clinging and seductive.
"What if I canna keep ye safe?" he whispered at last. His head moved suddenly on the pillow, turning toward me. "You and the rest of them? I shall try wi’ all my strength, Sassenach, and I dinna mind if I die doing it—but what if I should die too soon—and fail?"
And what answer was there to that?
"You won’t," I whispered back. He sighed, and bent his head, so his forehead rested against mine. I could smell eggs and whisky, warm on his breath.
"I’ll try not," he said, and I put my mouth on his, soft against mine, acknowledgement and comfort in the dark.
I laid my head against the curve of his shoulder, wrapped a hand round his arm, and breathed in the smell of his skin, smoke and salt, as though he had been cured in the fire.
"You smell like a smoked ham," I murmured, and he made a low sound of amusement and wedged his hand into its accustomed spot, clasped between my thighs.
I let go then, at last, and let the heavy sands of sleep engulf me. Perhaps he said it, as I fell into darkness, or perhaps I only dreamed it.
"If I die," he whispered in the dark, "dinna follow me. The bairns will need ye. Stay for them. I can wait."
Copyright © 2005 Diana Gabaldon.
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