Authors: Diana Gabaldon
“Ian,” he said, in measured tones, but in a voice loud enough to be easily heard above the forest sounds. “Mac Ian…mac Ian…!”
“We’ll be back to help carry the meat!” Ian called back. He waved cheerily and, grabbing the fowling piece, caught Bree’s eye and jerked his chin upward. She glanced down, but her father had disappeared, leaving the bushes swaying in agitation.
She’d lost much of her eye for the wilderness, she found; the cliff looked impassable to her, but Ian scrambled up as easily as a baboon, and after a moment’s hesitation, she followed, much more slowly, slipping now and then in small showers of dirt as she groped for the holds her cousin had used.
“Ian mac Ian mac Ian?” she asked, reaching the top and pausing to empty the dirt out of her shoes. Her heart was beating unpleasantly hard. “Is that like me calling Jem Jeremiah Alexander Ian Fraser MacKenzie when I’m annoyed with him?”
“Something like,” Ian said, shrugging. “Ian, son of Ian, son of Ian…the notion is to point out ye’re a disgrace to your forefathers, aye?” He was wearing a ragged, filthy calico shirt, but the sleeves had been torn off, and she saw a large white scar in the shape of a four-pointed star on the curve of his bare brown shoulder.
“What did that?” she said, nodding at it. He glanced at it and made a dismissive gesture, turning to lead her across the small ridge.
“Ach, no much,” he said. “An Abenaki bastard shot me wi’ an arrow, at Monmouth. Denny cut it out for me a few days after—that’s Denzell Hunter,” he added, seeing her blank look. “Rachel’s brother. He’s a doctor, like your mam.”
“Rachel!” she exclaimed. “Your wife?”
A huge grin spread across his face.
“She is,” he said simply.
“Taing do Dhia.”
Then looked quickly at her to see if she’d understood.
“I remember ‘thanks be to God,’ ” she assured him. “And quite a bit more. Roger spent most of the voyage from Scotland refreshing our
Da also told me Rachel’s a Quaker?” She made it a question, stretching to step across the stones in a tiny brook.
“Aye, she is.” Ian’s eyes were fixed on the stones, but she thought he spoke with a bit less joy and pride than he’d had a moment before. She left it alone, though; if there was a conflict—and she couldn’t quite see how there
be, given what she knew about her cousin and what she thought she knew about Quakers—this wasn’t the time to ask questions.
Not that such considerations stopped Ian.
“From Scotland?” he said, turning his head to look back at her over his shoulder. “When?” Then his face changed suddenly, as he realized the ambiguity of “when,” and he made an apologetic gesture, dismissing the question.
“We left Edinburgh in March,” she said, taking the simplest answer for now. “I’ll tell you the rest later.”
He nodded, and for a time they walked, sometimes together, sometimes with Ian leading, finding deer trails or cutting upward to go around a thick growth of bush. She was happy to follow him, so she could look at him without embarrassing him with her scrutiny.
He’d changed—no great wonder there—still tall and very lean, but hardened, a man grown fully into himself, the long muscles of his arms clear-cut under his skin. His brown hair was darker, plaited and tied with a leather thong, and adorned with what looked like very fresh turkey feathers bound into the braid.
For good luck?
she wondered. He’d picked up the bow and quiver he’d left at the top of the cliff, and the quiver swung gently now against his back.
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
she thought, entertained.
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists / It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him.
The poem had always summoned Roger for her, but now it encompassed Ian and her father as well, different as the three of them were.
As they rose higher and the timber opened out, the breeze rose and freshened, and Ian halted, beckoning her with a small movement of his fingers.
“D’ye hear them?” he breathed in her ear.
She did, and the hairs rippled pleasantly down her backbone. Small, harsh yelps, almost like a barking dog. And farther off, a sort of intermittent purr, something between a large cat and a small motor.
“Best take off your stockings and rub your legs wi’ dirt,” Ian whispered, motioning toward her woolen stockings. “Your hands and face as well.”
She nodded, set the gun against a tree, and scratched dry leaves away from a patch of soil, moist enough to rub on her skin. Ian, his own skin nearly the color of his buckskins, needed no such camouflage. He moved silently away while she was anointing her hands and face, and when she looked up, she couldn’t see him for a moment.
Then there was a series of sounds like a rusty door hinge swinging to and fro, and suddenly she saw Ian, standing stock-still behind a sweet gum some fifty feet away.
The forest seemed to go dead for an instant, the soft scratchings and leaf-murmurs ceasing. Then there was an angry gobble and she turned her head as slowly as she could, to see a tom turkey poke his pale-blue head out of the grass and look sharp from side to side, wattles bright red and swinging, looking for the challenger.
She cut her eyes at Ian, his hands cupped at his mouth, but he didn’t move or make a sound. She held her breath and looked back at the turkey, who emitted another loud gobble—this one echoed by another tom at a distance. The turkey she was watching glanced back toward that sound, lifted his head and yelped, listened for a moment, and then ducked back into the grass. She glanced at Ian; he caught her movement and shook his head, very slightly.
They waited for the space of sixteen slow breaths—she counted—and then Ian gobbled again. The tom popped out of the grass and strode across a patch of open, leaf-packed ground, blood in his eye, breast feathers puffed, and tail fanned and vibrating. He paused for a moment to allow the woods to admire his magnificence, then commenced strutting slowly to and fro, uttering harsh, aggressive cries.
Moving only her eyeballs, she glanced back and forth between the strutting tom and Ian, who timed his movements to those of the turkey, sliding the bow from his shoulder, freezing, bringing an arrow to hand, freezing, and finally nocking the arrow as the bird made its final turn.
Or what should have been its final turn. Ian bent his bow and, in the same movement, released his arrow and uttered a startled, all-too-human yelp as a large, dark object dropped from the tree above him. He jerked back and the turkey barely missed landing on his head. She could see it now, a hen, feathers fluffed in fright, running with neck outstretched across the open ground toward the equally startled tom, who had deflated in shock.
By reflex, she seized her shotgun, brought it to bear, and fired. She missed, and both turkeys disappeared into a patch of ferns, making noises that sounded like a small hammer striking a wood block.
The echoes died away and the leaves of the trees settled back into their murmur. She looked at her cousin, who glanced at his bow, then across the open ground to where his arrow was sticking absurdly out from between two rocks. He looked at her, and they both burst into laughter.
“Aye, well,” he said philosophically. “That’s what we get for leavin’ Uncle Jamie to pick roses by himself.”
BRIANNA SWABBED THE
barrel and rammed a wad of tow on a fresh round of buckshot. Hard, to stop her hand shaking.
“Sorry I missed,” she said.
“Why?” Ian looked at her, surprised. “When ye’re hunting, ye’re lucky to get one shot in ten. Ye ken that fine. Besides, I missed, too.”
“Only because a turkey fell on your
” she said, but laughed. “Is your arrow ruined?”
“Aye,” he said, showing her the broken shaft he’d retrieved from the rocks. “The head’ll do, though.” He stripped the sharp iron head and put it in his sporran, tossed the shaft away, then stood up. “We’ll no get another shot at that lot, but—what’s amiss, lass?”
She’d tried to shove her ramrod into its pipe, but missed and sent it flying.
“What do they call it when you’re too excited to hit a deer—buck fever?” she said, making light of it as she went to fetch the rod. “Turkey fever, I suppose.”
“Oh, aye,” he said, and smiled, but his eyes were intent on her hands. “How long since ye’ve fired a gun, cousin?”
“Not that long,” she said tersely. She hadn’t expected it to come back. “Maybe six, seven months.”
“What were ye hunting then?” he asked, head on one side.
She glanced at him, made the decision, and, pushing the ramrod carefully home, turned to face him.
“A gang of men who were hiding in my house, waiting to kill me and take my kids,” she said. The words, bald as they were, sounded ridiculous, melodramatic.
Both his feathery brows went up.
“Did ye get them?” His tone was so interested that she laughed, in spite of the memories. He might have been asking if she’d caught a large fish.
“No, alas. I shot out the tire on their truck, and one of the windows in my own house. I didn’t get them. But then,” she added, with affected casualness, “they didn’t get me or the kids, either.”
Her knees felt suddenly weak, and she sat down carefully on a fallen log.
He nodded, accepting what she’d said with a matter-of-factness that would have astonished her—had it been any other man.
“That would be why ye’re here, aye?” He glanced around, quite unconsciously, as though scanning the forest for possible enemies, and she wondered suddenly what it would be like to live with Ian, never knowing whether you were talking to the Scot or the Mohawk—and now she was
curious about Rachel.
“Mostly, yes,” she answered. He picked up her tone and glanced sharply at her but nodded again.
“Will ye go back, then, to kill them?” This was said seriously, and it was with an effort that she tamped down the rage that seared through her when she thought of Rob Cameron and his bloody accomplices. It wasn’t fear or flashback that had made her hands shake now; it was the memory of the overwhelming urge to kill that had possessed her when she touched the trigger.
“I wish,” she said shortly. “We can’t. Physically, I mean.” She flapped a hand, pushing it all away. “I’ll tell it to you later; we haven’t even talked to Da and Mama about it yet. We only came last night.” As though reminded of the long, hard push upward through the mountain passes, she yawned suddenly, hugely.
Ian laughed, and she shook her head, blinking.
“Do I remember Da saying you have a baby?” she asked, firmly changing the subject.
The huge grin came back.
“I have,” he said, his face shining with such joy that she smiled, too. “I’ve got a wee son. He hasna got his real name yet, but we call him Oggy. For Oglethorpe,” he explained, seeing her smile widen at the name. “We were in Savannah when he started to show. I canna wait for ye to see him!”
“Neither can I,” she said, though the connection between Savannah and the name Oglethorpe escaped her. “Should we—”
A distant noise cut her short, and Ian was on his feet instantly, looking.
“Was that Da?” she asked.
“I think so.” Ian gave her a hand and hauled her to her feet, snatching up his bow almost in the same motion. “Come!”
She grabbed the newly loaded gun and ran, careless of brush, stones, tree branches, creeks, or anything else. Ian slithered through the wood like a fast-moving snake; she bulled her way through behind him, breaking branches and dashing her sleeve across her face to clear her eyes.
Twice Ian came to a sudden halt, grasping her arm as she hurtled toward him. Together they stood listening, trying to still pounding hearts and gasping breaths long enough to hear anything above the sough of the forest.
The first time, after what seemed like agonized minutes, they caught a sort of squalling noise above the wind, tailing off into grunts.
“Pig?” she asked, between gulps of air. Wild hogs could be big, and very dangerous.
Ian shook his head, swallowing.
“Bear,” he said, and, drawing a huge breath, seized her hand and pulled her into a run.
The second time they stopped for bearings, they heard nothing.
“Uncle Jamie!” Ian shouted, as soon as he had enough breath to do so. Nothing, and Brianna screamed, “Da!” as loud as she could—a pitifully small, futile sound in the immensity of the mountain. They waited, shouted, waited again—and after the final shout and silence, ran on again, Ian leading the way back toward the rose briers and the dead deer.
They came to a stumbling halt on the high ground above the hollow, chests heaving for air. Brianna seized Ian’s arm.
“There’s something down there!” The bushes were shaking. Not as they had during the deer’s death struggles, but definitely shaking, disturbed by the intermittent movements of something clearly bigger than Jamie Fraser. From here, she could clearly hear grunting, and the slobber of rending tendons, breaking bones…and chewing.
“Oh, Christ,” Ian said under his breath, but not far enough under, and terror sent a bolt of black dizziness through her chest. In spite of that, she gulped as much air as she could and screamed,