A Wee Wager – L. L. Muir

A C H A P T E R O N E ll of Scotland enjoyed the mild summer afternoon. Men, women and children alike soaked the warmth into their bones as if they might store some up for the winter. And throughout Inverness-shire, folks were kissed on their cheeks by a light breeze coming off Beauly Firth. On Wickham Muir’s ranch, however, three sets of fists were kissing cheeks as well, though none of it done lightly. Blood and sweat mixed and mingled on the knuckles of Shug Buchanan, Houser Duncan, and Grey Strachan. The rest of their fellows were only vaguely interested in the cause of the stramash. They simply appreciated a good old-fashioned brawl, and for the duration, they could pretend they were home again, in the 18 th century, where such contests were allowed to finish as they should. There was little to be found on a television that could compete with the excitement of standing in the circle of raw combat. Oh, they listened closely, no mistake, to see if there might be a reason to join in the fray. But as yet, the three were stingy with the particulars, merely adding a personal insult, now and again, to keep their opponents engaged. “Ye’d make a piss-poor farmer, Buchanan,” said Strachan. “Ye’d eat all yer profits.” The bigger man bent to one side and swung his leg out and in a wide circle, catching Strachan’s legs out from under him at the end. Strachan yelped and bit his bottom lip. He put a hand to his mouth and pulled away a nice show of blood.

“Oy, Grey, let me wash that off ye.” Duncan hiked up the front of his kilt, ready to piss. “Do it,” Strachan growled, “And ye’ll lose that wee finger in the night.” “Ho!” Wallace hollered from the corner of the barn and waved an arm. “Soncerae is comin’ up the drive!” “Right, then,” Shug muttered. “Time to end it.” He leaned over Strachan as if to help him up, but then pushed his tight fist into the man’s forehead. The latter’s noggin fell back to the grass, his eyes closed. Shug turned to Duncan, who had dropped his kilt back to his knees and raised his hands as he retreated. “Truce, Buchanan. Until the lass is gone, aye?” Shug decided he would rather Soni be upset about them fighting than have her discovering the reason for it. So he took three quick steps, and with one powerful blow, he sent Houser Duncan to nap in the shade with the other man. He then turned to the rest and warned them, “Wake them and ye shall bleed.” Like the rest of the men, Shug hurried around the barn to greet their wee witch—or rather, their former witch, since she’d given up her powers to ensure all of Culloden’s 79 souls had a second taste of life. They owed her dearly for that.

But had she simply visited them on the moor from time to time, they couldn’t have loved her any less. She belonged to them, as they belonged to her. Some higher power had sewn their 80 souls together into a patchwork that would never come undone, with the wee lass as its center piece. And whenever the lass drew near, they all felt the tug. Soni popped out of her wee car as she usually did, all smiles and dimples. But the twinkle in her eyes changed when Number 79 reached her. The tall blond to whom she was betrothed got to her first, so the rest of them held back and gave them a moment. Shug ignored the wave of jealousy that always came when Simon McLaren swept the lass up into his arms and twirled her in a circle. The unbridled adoration that poured back and forth between them was something to behold… and something any mortal would envy. But lately, the envy was beginning to gnaw at him, like a teething dragon. He wanted what they had. There was no more use denying it. Leif Lindsay put his life at risk by insinuating himself between the sweethearts and playfully pushing them apart. “How long must this Sugar Festival go on, Soncerae? When will those parents of yers allow ye to marry?” Soni’s eyes glistened while she glanced at all the eager faces in the yard. “Next summer.

Fall at the latest.” Number 79 showed no surprise, but he shook himself and stepped back when he remembered that many others were waiting to greet the lass properly. His jealous glower had eased over the months, as he’d realized the lass would never love anyone as she loved him. Number 79 on the moor, but number 1 in her heart. Lucky bastard. Though the memories of haunting Culloden were beginning to fade for Shug and some of the others, he suspected they would never forget their numbers. As for himself, he’d been the 73rd to rise from his grave the day after the battle, and for those centuries afterward, he’d answered to number rather than name. His mortal memory was imperfect, however, and the numbers of his comrades were beginning to fade, especially those whom Soni had freed from the moor in the early days. But he would always remember their faces. And one day, when God gathered the 79 together again, he would greet them as true brothers. It was his turn to greet the lass, and unconsciously, he winced when his lips touched her brow. “Shug!” She gripped his shirt and pulled on him for a close look at his lip. “Ye’ve been fighting!” She sucked air through her teeth in sympathy for his wound, then scanned the other men’s faces looking for fresh injuries. But she wouldn’t find any. “Kicked by a horse,” he lied.

And though his fellows never tattled, a few wayward glances toward the corner of the barn told Soni all she needed to know, and she set off to solve the mystery. Resigned to face her displeasure, Shug sighed and followed. Strachan and Duncan were alert once more and sat with their backs to the broad side of the barn. Facing south, their bloodied and swollen parts were highlighted by the sun. Since Shug boasted only a split lip, he expected to be cast as the villain. But the lass surprised him. “A fine Saturday afternoon wasted with fighting?” She shook her head and ignored Duncan’s play for sympathy. “Find something better to do, can’t ye? Go down to the river. Go find ye a lass. Ye cannae hide on the ranch forever, aye? Go find yer places in the world.” “I have found my place in the world,” Duncan protested, “but these two haggises want that place as well.” He glanced around at all the suddenly interested parties and bit his lips together. Shug rolled his eyes and glared at the blabbermouth. The last thing he wanted was to fight every last ghost left on the ranch—or, at the very least, he did not wish to fight them all in one day. But it was no use.

The cat was out of the proverbial bag, so he attempted to mitigate the damage done with a warning to the rest. “The three of us agreed to fight for the right to buy the house at the east end of the plateau. I won.” Strachan and Duncan jumped to their feet. “We were interrupted,” the former complained, “not finished.” Shug scoffed. “Interrupted by my right fist, ye mean?” Duncan’s chest puffed up. “We never surrendered. The agreement was to fight until two surrendered—” “Which house?” Leif Lindsay demanded. The Jacobite had enjoyed having his hearing back since The Reckoning, but sometimes he forgot, and cupped a hand to his newlyrestored ear. Shug leaned forward to make certain every man heard him and understood. “Not that it matters to anyone else, but the widow down the road has decided to sell, and I’ve decided to buy it.” “As have I,” Duncan reminded. “This is between the three of us,” Strachan announced, putting a point on it. Soni shrugged her wee shoulders and made a dubious face.

“I dinnae ken, lads. The Widow McCaskill is an ornery old pucker. If she doesn’t take a shine to ye, she’ll chase ye off her stoop with her gun, no matter what yer offer.” She shook her head. “Nay. Any man who wishes to do business with that woman will have to win her over first. And I can’t imagine anything that would turn that woman’s head.” “It was fine seein’ ye, Soni.” Shug strolled closer and kissed her once more on the brow. “I’ve Saturday chores to see to. I’ll not waste any more of the day fighting.” He lied to his two competitors, hoping they might cease viewing him as a threat. “There are other properties to be had in Scotland, with or without Wickham’s help with the papers. I’ll not bow and scrape to an old woman who can’t be reasoned with.” Soni laid a hand on his arm to stay him.

“Have ye not heard? Wickham is gone.” “Gone?” Shug’s heart dropped. Not much could be obtained in the current day and age without a man’s history being known. And property cost so dearly, a body had to purchase it by means of monthly payments. Without a history and the necessary documents, he would be powerless. After explaining this to the lot of them, Wickham had promised he would help them with such documentation, and put up a bit of coin if necessary. “Gone for how long?” Shug asked. Time was of the essence, for surely, someone else would come along and make an offer to the widow’s liking. There was no time to waste. Soni grimaced. “He’s gone away, to train, Ivy said. She has no ken how long—perhaps as long as a year. Though I hope he can come home to see the laddies often, Ivy made it sound unlikely. She’s quite heartbroken.” “Aye, she is,” Simon said, and he slipped an arm around Soni’s shoulders for comfort.

“It is our duty to care for the ranch and Wickham’s family while he is away. Of course, it will not take the entire army, but every man will be expected to lend a hand where it is needed. As for papers and such, Ivy and the Muir sisters promised to fill in for Wickham. Any man who is ready to strike out on his own is welcome to do so. As I said, it will not take the lot of us to see after the place.” “Ye spoke with Wickham before he left?” Lindsay was back to hearing fine again.


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Updated: 12 September 2021 — 05:14

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