The Low Road
By Kenneth Frank Doig
An austere wind drove a heavy mist down from the Scottish Highlands. The air sighed as it settled on sheep huddled against green hedge rows. It arose in gusts and sent rain flying across the River Teith. Colored banners streamed taut atop the cold stone of Doune Castle.
John McDoog stared up at the black-streaked tower for long minutes, sensing it pull at him. He felt a powerful spirit of homecoming, like a wanderer returned. For years he had anticipated this visit. No, pilgrimage.
The car door slammed behind him as he ran across the gravel lot, the crunch echoing through the pointed-arch gateway. Out of the rain, he stopped to catch his breath.
"Tis a sharp spring day, Sir. Have ye no umbrella?" came the playful voice of a young woman.
The musical quality of her taunt brought a smile to his lips. He turned to the lass sitting at the reception table. His breathing stopped when he looked into her deep green eyes.
Long moments passed until he realized he was staring. She gazed back, mouth slightly open. He blinked several times until he broke what seemed a trance.
Golden-red hair flowed over her shoulders, tied loosely in back. His fingers ached to touch her skin, like the porcelain figures he had seen in the museum in Edinburgh. The lace collar on her stark white blouse circled a delicate neck and disappeared between her breasts into a plaid weskit with matching skirt. She smelled faintly of heather.
He watched her look all over him. "Have we met before?" she asked, her voice cracking slightly.
The words echoed his thoughts. "I don't know. I want to say yes."
Her sheep dog arose and padded toward him. He was struck by its one blue eye and one black. Well-brushed fur reflected care by its mistress. The dog pushed its cold nose into his hand and seemed to insist he scratch. The dog's ears felt good as he rubbed.
"It's magic," she said, eyes wide. "Blue never approaches men."
"Blue thinks we've met before, too."
She seemed embarrassed. "The entry fee is two pounds."
He placed the coins in her hand. Their fingers touched and some warmth seemed to flow between them. He noted the lack of jewelry on her hands. He saw her glance at his bare ring finger. She pulled back, smiling, and handed him a ticket and pamphlet. He followed her motion to the guest register and signed his name.
"Down that way, Sir. Be mindful of the damp stone and use the handrails. We'll be closing soon." She sat and quickly began reading a thick book about the Celts.
He wandered in a daze into the courtyard and stared down the octagonal well. Her name badge had read: National Trust, Mary Paterson, Historian. He knew her name, he realized, and sensed he had always known her.
The mist penetrated his clothes, and he ran back to the entry. He saw her read his name in the register. Her smile faded to a frown, then disappointment. What was wrong?
John turned slowly and then ran. He had come to see the castle, his gritty soles scraping the stone steps. In the great hall, the voices of other visitors echoed dully over the hard-plastered floor, some sixty feet across. Below the vaulted ceiling heraldry flags hung along both sides, the bright colors half lit by deep-set windows. He strained to make sense of the designs, but none appeared familiar.
He had hoped to find a McDoog flag, with its crossed knives. In earlier centuries his ancestors had served as officers to the kings and queens of Scotland at Doune, their summer palace. John wandered through dark halls and chambers in search of some small bit of evidence of his family. He emerged atop the wind-blown tower.
Flinty peaks of the Trossachs touched the cloud cover, and they merged in deep purple. He leaned from the parapet to watch the last glow reflect from the River Teith. A fly fisherman cast upstream near the old stone bridge. The roof of Castle Keep, his bed and breakfast, lay just to the right. Beautiful, he thought, but nothing compared to that golden-haired lass. Something wonderful happened between them.
He felt drawn against the cold stone, its touch somehow warm. Mary Paterson. That was the name of his great-great-great grandmother, who had married John McDoog. They had the same names. A peculiar, heated feeling possessed him, as if two-hundred years suddenly vanished. Terror arose and disappeared so fast he wasn't quite sure what he felt. Then he heard bagpipes playing and many voices, laughing as if at a party.
The cowbell startled him, an unexpected echo through the empty corridors. He had seen it on her table to announce closing time. He ran down the steps to find the pipers.
He met Mary coming into the great hall. "I heard bagpipes and voices," she said. "Do you have a radio?"
"No. I heard it too. It sounded like a party from here." They stood and listened to the silence inside and the wind beyond the walls. He grinned. "Maybe they're ghosts?"
"Nay. Doune has no reputation for ghosts." She looked at him, head cocked. "Ye nay believe in ghosts, do ye?"
John shook his head. They slowly descended to the gate chamber.
"Your the last one," she said, as if to hurry him.
"Miss Paterson," he said, "I'll have to come back and finish my tour. Will you be here tomorrow?"
"Tis me day off. But, the castle will be open at eight. Have a pleasant evening."
She seemed cool, like a hot poker quenched in water. John roused his courage. "Can you recommend a restaurant for dinner? Will you join me?"
She stared at him, her green eyes seeming to go dark and light with her moods. "But you are a McDoog!"
The name somehow sliced into his soul, the way she said it. "What... What do you mean?"
"Surely ye know of the feud between the Patersons and McDoogs?"
"No," he said, breathing out in relief at some old feud. "Please tell me about it over dinner. I can't think of any reason to raise my arms at you except to embrace."
Her cheeks flared red as she spun away from him. He did not miss
the beginnings of a smile. Still facing the stone wall she whispered, "I
will meet you at the Perth Tavern at seven. They have the hottest victuals
and coldest beer in Doune. Tis owned by my Grandad. He will want to meet
a McDoog who still breathes."
* * *
John stepped into the Perth Tavern at exactly seven. He grinned excitedly at the bustle and clinking of glasses. Here was the place to be in Doune on Friday night. He whistled a tune as his eyes searched the crowd for the lovely Mary.
"She'll be found awaiting," a withered voice cracked.
John looked at the ancient man sitting next to the door, as if he were the gate keeper. His green eyes shined under fuzzy white eyebrows. He must be a hundred, John thought.
"John McDoog, know ye the words to that tune you be humming?"
So the old man knew his name? It seemed a test to allow entry, a sort of cover charge. Of course he knew the words:
"And you'll take the high road, And I'll take the low road, And I'll be in Scotland afore ye..."
"Aye, Lad. The Celts believed that when a man met death in a foreign land, his spirit returned to his homeland by the low road. Those alive had to take the slower high road." He sipped at a large whisky and then pointed.
Mary waved, and he maneuvered between busy tables. She sat in a back booth, her green eyes drawing him like beacons. He slid in across from her and immediately felt warm. She wore a snug wool jersey, with curled hair loose over her shoulders. Lips glistened as they rolled slightly open with a smile. "I see you met me Great-grandad."
"Ah. Beauty and long life. Thank you for joining me this evening."
"I wouldn't miss it. Some refreshment?" She nodded as if signaling the start of some military maneuver.
A gigantic man stepped from behind the bar with two large ales. His gray-streaked red beard did not hide a clenched jaw. Green eyes gazed icy as he stared at McDoog.
"Me Grandad," she whispered, with the hint of a mischievous smile.
The large man gently slid a tankard in front of Mary and slammed the other drink next to John. "McDoog, I'll no be haven' you touch Mary, or I'll be tossen you like a caber so you'll be landen on your skull."
John retreated slightly and then extended his hand. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Paterson."
Grandad stared at the offered palm. "I'll be shaken your hand when ye leave Doune. The special is roast beef. For you it's no charge. I won't be having you buy Mary dinner." He moved quickly to clear glasses at an empty table.
She grinned at his discomfort. "He must like you. I've never seen him give away a free meal."
"He's all warmth." They picked up their ales and toasted. After a few cool sips he said, "Tell me about Mary Paterson."
"I'll be knowing first what brings John McDoog to Doune."
"I visited our law offices in London for the first time. I took a week's vacation to visit here."
"You took holiday to visit our little village? There must be more." She sipped at her beer, warm eyes watching over the rim.
"I've been researching my genealogy. My family came from around Doune. It's sort of like coming home. I really enjoyed the castle today."
She nodded and said in a low voice, "I attended Glasgow University and earned a degree in history. My job pays enough to keep a small apartment here. Doune has always been my home."
"What do you do in your spare time?"
"I love to read. I've been writing a history of Perthshire. And dancing. The reels and strathspeys excite me."
"I must see you kicking and spinning on your toes. Is there somewhere we can go dancing?"
"I won't be leaving with you tonight, John McDoog, or Grandad will be splitting you endwise with a claymore."
He hardly noticed the dinner set before him. His only memory was hot, brown gravy over everything. The sounds of the tavern dimmed, and his world became only the two of them. They shared bits of themselves, never touching on the feud. His excitement at finding her continued to grow. Somewhere during desert their feet found each other.
The mood dissolved when he felt the thin body of the old man move in next to him. A wrinkled hand extended in welcome. "I'm James Paterson. I'll keep my son, Jamie, behind the bar. I don't think he ever met a McDoog. You're the first one I've seen here in eighty, maybe ninety years."
John shook his hand. It felt cool, like not enough blood made it that far from his heart. "Will you please tell me about this feud? Mary seems to avoid it."
"Well, John, that's probably because she's smitten with you. I can see it in her eyes the way she watches you. Can't you feel it, Lad?"
Mary turned her head, her face bright red. "James Paterson, ye've no right to say such things."
"Mary, my dear child, don't you sense history coming in like a neap tide. The waves are crashing, Lass. John McDoog has washed ashore, and no one knows who will die this time."
"You're serious," John said in dismay. "What's this all about?"
Mary frowned. "Your relation that was born here, his name would also be John McDoog?"
"The John McDoog who married Mary Paterson?"
"Yes, of course. That's why you seemed familiar. We're distant cousins."
"That would be the same John McDoog who in the Spring of 1798 murdered in cold blood James Paterson, the brother of his bride-to-be. Wouldn't it then?"
John sat stunned, as if Jamie had just tossed him on his skull. He mumbled, "Murder? That's the year John and Mary were married in Glasgow. They took a ship to America from there. But, why are you still upset with something that happened so long ago?"
The old man leaned forward. "Many more Patersons and McDoogs were found with their throats slit or drowned in a bog. The last McDoog wandered into the path of a stray bullet. Constable said my father did it a purpose, but no witness came forth. You coming back makes the locals restless."
"You think I'm in danger?"
"Of a certainty. The Patersons are very protective of their women. Tis expected they'll come to the altar in a state of purity."
John gazed deep into Mary's eyes, his expression a question. Mary nodded slightly in affirmation, a look of pride clear in her countenance.
"There's danger about when a Paterson and a McDoog smile at each other the way you two do," James said. "They'll be those on the low road just awaiting, if someone walking the high road doesn't get you first." He pulled at his eyebrows, as if to fluff them.
"It's a wonderful story, Sir, but I don't believe in ghosts. I'll give no cause for anyone to harm me."
"Grandad, have ye heard of ghosts at the castle? John and I heard bagpipes playing and people having a grand time. No one was about."
The old man turned his head and stared at a dark knot in the pine floor. The background noise of the tavern seemed louder. He began in a low voice, "I heard them when I was a wee lad. Played hooky one day to play in the dark passages. Twas an olden reel."
"Yes," she cried.
"I could hear the feet shuffle with the dance. Glasses clinking. Loud voices. Then the scream." He looked back and forth between the two. "There was no one there."
They sat awhile in silence. John asked, "You can't think there is some connection? We might have heard a loud radio in a passing car."
Mary laid her hand on his arm, and they seemed to fuse for an instant. "I don't like it, ghosts and all. I would feel better if ye left Doune. And, my older brother, James, is coming home for the weekend. He really gets worked up about the feud."
"How can anyone care about an old feud?"
"John," she said, "I felt anger when I saw your name today. It's part of the family tradition, part of what makes me a Paterson. Hating a non-existent McDoog has been fun. But, I don't know how to dislike ye now."
The old man smiled and showed most of his original teeth. "John McDoog,
you'll be wanting to visit the Old Kilmadock Graveyard on the morrow. That's
where all our sins are buried."
* * *
Sunrise exploded over heavy dew and brilliant skies. John returned from his stroll along the river, shoes soaked, his spirits high with thoughts of Mary. They had just met, but he would marry her in an instant. Did she feel the same way, too?
Inside Castle Keep he took a table with a view of the river. He stared dreamily out the leaded-glass window. Would they live here, or would she return with him?
The hostess approached with several pots and a warm smile. "Morning, Mr. McDoog. Will you be having coffee or tea?"
"Breakfast is three eggs, bacon, and bangers. With fried tomato and plenty of toast it should fill you proper. Juice and cereal you'll find on the sideboard if ye be needing more."
"Sounds delicious. Eggs poached, please." He poured his second coffee, still lost in thoughts of Mary.
The expert cast of a fisherman distracted him. Another stood next to him, also casting with accuracy. That's odd, he thought, fly fishing so close together with all that river. He worked his way through the giant breakfast, and still the fishermen stayed, glancing over their shoulders with each cast. Watching him? Was he getting paranoid?
John wandered into the lobby to wait for Mary. He looked forward to her guided tour of the old graveyard.
"Mr. McDoog," the hostess said, "I hear you're leaving today. Will you be settling your bill just now?"
He stared at the woman. "Who told you that?"
"It's all over the village," she said, somewhat startled. "Does that mean you'll be staying?"
John nodded in irritation. He strode out to wait in the fresh air. Twinkling dew dripped from yellow flowers. He searched for the birds making that funny twittering. An unfamiliar insect captured his attention, and he leaned in to examine it up close.
"A bright good morning to you, John," came Mary's cheery voice.
John spun in her direction. They stood staring at each other, both with silly grins. He felt high, slightly dizzy, absolutely alive. "You feel it, too?" he whispered.
She nodded, so slight that only he could have seen it. "Don't touch me," she whispered. "They're watching."
"Have ye no been chaperoned before? Are you ready to leave?"
"Our chariot awaits."
She poked him playfully in the ribs with her umbrella. "Are ye ready for the rain this time?" He held the car door for her.
"The sun is shining. Besides, I don't have an umbrella."
"Woe is me for being attracted to a man with no sense to keep dry. Ye don't know how the clouds can come roaring down out of the Highlands. Sometimes the gale blows the tips off the Trossachs and they fly through here like giant hailstones."
He smiled. "Nothing can dampen my spirits when I'm with you."
He wove the rental car through the narrow streets of the village and out on the Callander road. She pointed to an unmarked dirt tract off to the left. After a mile of deep ruts and water-filled potholes they arrived at an old stone farmhouse.
"Hello, Mary," the farmer greeted. "They said ye'd be acoming. Mind to close the gates behind you."
She nodded to the man and stepped out. "We have to walk from here. It's down the hill and another mile up river."
"No wonder I didn't find this place. I asked directions yesterday and got three different answers. I wasted several hours looking for McDoogs in the new cemetery out the Thornhill road."
She closed the first gate behind them and started down toward the river. "Tis a strange pastime wandering among tombstones. I'd mark ye daft, except I do it myself."
"I hope to find some interesting inscriptions to copy," he said, as he held up his notebook.
A large ewe blocked their path, positioned carefully between them and a shaky-legged lamb. Mary poked at it with her umbrella. "Move you woolly beast." The creature bleated in defiance. They walked around.
"Why didn't you bring Blue?" he asked.
"He's forgotten his training, sleeping at the foot of my bed. He might frighten the newborns."
Past another gate, they reached the Teith. Ripples gleamed across the broad expanse to the village of Deanston. They turned up river. "Be mindful of where you step," she said. "Sheep have been birthing all through the fields."
John looked up from the beaten path at two fishermen ahead. As they approached he recognized them as the ones fishing outside his breakfast window. Their faces were grim.
"Uncle Malcolm and Uncle William," she called, her manner friendly. "Have ye caught us supper, yet?"
"You'll nay go hungry tonight, Lass," one said. He turned to John, his eyes cold. "McDoog. I pray ye don't touch Mary, or we'll be comin' down on you with our hob-nail boots. It'll be hard, Lad. Very hard."
"Stop that nonsense," Mary cried. "John has been a perfect gentleman. And, you'll be scaring away the trout for sure."
John started to take her hand to lead her away. He pulled back from their hard stares. She took off at a trot, and he ran after.
"Silly family can't see this is only a coincidence," she mumbled. "My father kept talking about destiny and history repeating itself."
They came to a low rock wall and moved into the center of a large rectangle. "This is the ruin of the old church. It was established by St. Cadoc in the seventh century. The Old Kilmadock Graveyard is in that circle of stone, just on the hillside, there."
The abandoned cemetery ran down sloping ground to a high riverbank, as if poised to plunge into the icy waters. Morning mist slid down the hill and fell as a waterfall in slow motion. Sheep moved through the haze like woolly ghosts. Monument stones rose behind the rock wall like the spines of an ancient hedgehog. It seemed surreal under a brilliant sun. The burying ground just sat there like nothing he had ever quite imagined, something from a fantasy.
His camera clicked. "It's magnificent," he said, "with its backdrop of trees. The river winding round it." He hurried through the fallen gate and in amongst the standing stones, mist swirling around his legs.
The ground ran red. John turned his head and closed his eyes. He grabbed his stomach to stop the nausea. Eyes cracked open, the ground looked a sea of blood with bluish entrails strewn about. He closed his eyes tight and took deep breaths.
"Ye nay be a farm boy, John. The sheep come here to lamb out of the cold wind. Tis only the afterbirth."
John opened his eyes and perspective slowly returned. He felt embarrassed she had seen his reaction and determined not to let it happen again. "It just surprised me," he mumbled. "A disarming symbol of new life among the dead."
"Over here," she cried. "It's a William McDoog. Died 11 April 1808. And his family."
"He would be an uncle of John's." All the details he carefully copied into his notebook. He looked up and saw her move in a jig-saw pattern, hair glowing like an angel in the bright sun.
John stepped toward her and stopped cold. His blood seemed to freeze. It was as if he had moved into an invisible sheet of ice. Time breached. His ears vibrated from the agonized groan. Hot blood covered his fingers and the sharp-bladed dirk in his hand. He took another step, and the image vanished. His feet were unable to step further.
He didn't know how much time had passed when he heard Mary's cries. The green blur slowly separated into trees as he stared across the shining river. He became aware of peewees crying and earth smells. What was she saying?
"John, John. Speak to me." He sat where he had stood and mumbled, "It's impossible. I've had some sort of dream while wide awake."
"You've been walking on the graves, haven't ye, John?"
"There's no grave there. Just grass."
"Nay. Many of the stones lie flat. They're long and shaped like coffin lids. They're waiting all around, grown over with grass."
His breathing slowed as he tried to dismiss the experience to his over-active imagination. "I've longed for this so much, and then that story about the feud has been unsettling."
"Pay heed to the spirits," she warned. "Can ye tell me what happened?"
He sat silent, staring at his shoelace. He looked up into her caring face. "A man groaned. I had a bloody knife in my hand. Then it was over."
"Oh, John. I think we should be leaving this place."
"No," he said, his voice now determined. "I'm not going to run from some quirk of the imagination."
"Tis a bad sign. I nay think we're safe here."
"I really want to copy the McDoog inscriptions."
She shook her head. "Many will be under turf. Did ye bring a map?"
"Of this graveyard? Where would I find such a thing?"
"We have books on the local graveyards back at Doune Castle. There is a small library in the guard's quarters."
"We can be back here with the layout this afternoon. Do you mind?"
"I nay think it wise to return. But if you must, I'll certainly be with you."
He grinned in joy, a polar sensation to the terror that had just passed. His body hesitated to move. "Will you please lead the way out?"
Minutes later John looked back at the hillside of broken stone and spires. It's just an old graveyard, he assured himself. Nothing dangerous there except his imagination.
He took the lead, his pace strong. They reached a thicket along the mostly open-banked river. The air screamed in front of his face, leaves disintegrated to his right, a cannon roared to his left. He dove to the ground in terror, well aware a shotgun blast had passed inches in front of his nose. Heavy boots approached.
"Damn you, James," Mary yelled. "Ye've no sense at all."
John looked up into a double-barreled 12-gage. A huge red-haired man with green eyes held the stock in a solid grip. He said, "There was a pheasant in the bush. This McDoog has frightened it away."
John pushed the barrel aside and stood stiff. He clenched his fists in rage, wishing he held something lethal. "This must be you're idiot brother."
The massive man narrowed his eyes in defiance, his finger rubbing the trigger.
The three stood as John saw himself from high above, the world in silence. He sensed they were the same three that met two-hundred years before, and the great red-haired man had fallen in death.
"Listen with great care, McDoog," James Paterson said. "History will
not repeat itself. You will leave Doune today, alone, or this time you
will surely die."
* * *
The warm stones of Doune Castle welcomed the many weekend visitors. The mood seemed festive, with happy voices and children peeking from secret passages. A small cloud dropped a shadow across the tower and then moved on.
In the guard's quarters John oriented the map of Old Kilmadock Graveyard. His finger moved to the spot where he had his daylight vision. "That's the place," he said. His other hand scratched Blue's ears.
"Aye," Mary agreed. "Reference number 247. Hurry."
He flipped pages and read aloud, "`James Paterson; died 22.5.1798; age 27 years, 4 months, 28 days; flat coffin stone inscribed: Loving husband, kind father, foully murdered in defence of family honour.' His wife and two sons are buried in the adjoining graves. Look, it gives dates on his family, too."
"May 22," Mary cried, anguish in her voice. "That's today. It happened exactly two-hundred years ago this day."
John stared at the English dating. "Surely it's just a coincidence."
"You woke him up, John. He'll be waiting if ye return."
He didn't believe her, but somehow he sensed she spoke the truth. Slowly he said, "We don't have to go back. All the inscriptions are recorded in this book. Is there a copy machine about?"
She smiled in relief. "Aye. There are several in the village."
"We can come back for this. First, how about a guided tour of the castle?"
"Yes, yes. It'll take my mind off this silly coincidence."
John loosened his collar. The room seemed warmer, as if the stone radiated some inner power. He felt slightly dizzy, and then it passed.
"John, are you OK?"
He shook his head no and then nodded. "Yes, of course."
Blue led the way up an enclosed stone staircase to the lord's hall. He ran across the checkered floor to more stairs and looked back as if to see if his mistress wanted to go up another flight. The dog waited by the steps.
Mary pointed with her umbrella to the crest over the fireplace. "It's the Earl of Moray's. The fourteenth Earl restored the castle in 1883. It was originally built in the late thirteen-hundreds." She attracted a small crowd of tourists listening to her commentary as they wandered through the rooms.
John followed the small group, entranced by her voice, like music to his soul. She stopped at a stone bench and sat silently, slowly running her fingers into Blue's soft fur. "Let's rest awhile." He nodded and sat beside her.
Several visitors asked her questions, and then they drifted away. "I wanted to be alone with you," she whispered. "It started to feel like a work day."
"Just being with you fells good," he said in a low voice. Blue nuzzled between them.
The room dimmed and then brightened as a cloud passed. It darkened again, and light continued to fade. The air cooled. John sat mesmerized by the transition.
"Just good Scottish weather," Mary said. "Let's go up to the tower and watch the storm come in."
Blue ran ahead to the tower steps. After one leap he stumbled in his tracts and stopped. He growled and then whined, as if unsure of his adversary.
"What is it, Boy?," she asked.
"There's nothing there," John said.
"Hello," she called. "Anyone there?"
"Just the wind. Come on, Blue." The dog ran up the stone steps, his tail between his legs.
"Oh, good," Mary said, "we have the whole tower to ourselves. See what I mean about storms blowing down from the Highlands?"
Black clouds dropped rain to the north. The last patches of blue disappeared to the south. The wind blew the first gusts of water across the tower. "I love it," he cried, arms wide-stretched.
Thunder rolled in as muffled drums. Wind caught the trees like two wavering high-notes from a chorus of pipers. The tempest descended in a deluge. Blue howled and ran back through the tower entry. The door slammed shut.
John grabbed the handle and turned. "I can't budge it. It's stuck."
Mary opened her umbrella. "Get under here with me."
He moved next to her and slipped his arms around her waist. "We're touching," he whispered, his lips against her ear.
She trembled, mouth open, unable to speak. Their lips pressed tight. Euphoria numbed his awareness of any universe beyond the two of them. He sensed himself melting into her.
The umbrella blew across the tower and sailed away. Rain pelted them. They rolled together across the stone, as if driven by the fury.
The burning in his spine brought a new awareness, like another soul had entered his body. He felt possessed, as if by himself. Like two of him in one body.
"John," she screamed, "what has happened?"
They pulled apart and stared at the setting sun through a clear sky. The dry, warm stone seemed non-sequitur. "Mary," he said, his voice shaking, "you're wearing a party dress and your hair has turned dark red."
"John, how did you change to kilts and grow that beard? Ye look bonny, Love, but I think we're in trouble."
"Listen. Bagpipes playing. There's a party down below. But, where did the storm go?"
They embraced and held each other in restrained terror. "My heart remembers," she cried.
The tower door burst open and banged the wall. A huge man strode out, his eyes flaming above a great red beard. He appeared to hover like an angel of destruction. "Ye've disgraced the family," he yelled. "You'll pay dearly for this, John McDoog."
Mary jumped between the two men. "Brother, ye've imbibed too much of the Earl's whisky. Go home with your dear Margaret and sleep well. Take your sons a plate of sweets."
"Nay. And leave you two in disgrace. The Church may rebuke and absolve ye for prenuptial fornication, but the family cannot." He flexed his hands like massive vises.
John searched his mind. They had only hugged and kissed this once. No, he seemed to remember, he had caught her in the meadow that morning. They had loved and laughed until they couldn't move. That dolt herdsboy had found them and run crying with the news. No, they had hardly touched.
"I'll crack your neck like tinder and throw ye down in front of the gate for all to see." He rushed at the two of them, sweeping his sister aside. His finger's closed on John's neck in a death grip.
John flexed his neck against the crushing pain. He pried desperately at the top thumb. If he died, would he really die? Would it change history and he cease to exist? The lack of oxygen drove him to respond.
He always carried a dirk in his right sock. Freed from its sheath, the knife felt hot in his grip. One blow under the breast bone and it would be over. He hung between extinction and what might appear as murder. Death breathed foul on them.
"Slowly push the tip of your blade against his throat," came Mary's voice as in a dream.
He understood. They had discussed this many times before. John pushed the knife to the red-bearded neck and drove the tip just under his skin. The huge man backed away from the offending blade. John stretched his weapon out until the big man loosed his grip. He sucked air into aching lungs.
Paterson swung at the knife and drove it across into his left arm. John pulled the knife bloody from himself. Aiming it forward, he threatened the red-bearded man. "Hold your ground, you hypocrite."
"Ye dare call me names. Drop your toy and let me at your neck."
John remembered the dates in the cemetery book about his assailant's tombstone. "Tell me your eldest son, James, was not premature at seven months."
"Lies. We lived in Glasgow at the time."
"Is it not a common custom to ensure a woman can become pregnant before marrying her? Would you have married Margaret if she could not bear you children?"
"What man would wed a barren woman?"
"What did your father say when your son was born? Did he rebuke and absolve you? Or did he just rebuke you?"
The huge man shuddered and dropped his head. His hands relaxed. He slumped to the stone floor. "I've judged harshly," he mumbled.
John began to take measured breaths. His body shook as he released the pent up tension. He looked at Mary with soft eyes. They hugged tenderly, and shame departed into the darkness. The sounds of the party drifted up the stairwell, promising a night of joy.
Dizziness passed. He had the strange sense of remembering who he was, as if he had forgotten.
They clung in the driving rain, afraid to let go. John began to notice the cold. Blue barked at the man sitting in the puddle. He held his hand against a bloody neck.
"Your brother seems to have found us," he whispered in her ear.
"My God," she cried, "it was like being in two dreams at the same time. Harshly real."
"It can't have been real," John protested. He pulled his hand back from the stinging pain in his left arm. His palm dripped red.
"Hear me, James. John and I are to be wed. I want your blessing."
The large man looked up at them, water running through his eyes. He nodded consent.
Blue stopped barking and ran between the couple.
John hugged her tighter and whispered, "Did I ask you to marry me?" He kissed at her wet neck.
She trembled and clung to him, her tears mingled with the rain. "Aye, Love. Two-hundred years ago by the low road."