Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 139

   

He made a noncommittal sound in his throat.

“I thought—” She hesitated, glanced at him, then away. “I thought maybe that was why it’s—why you and Mama…” Her skin was so clear, he could see the blood bloom under it. She took a deep breath, hands braced on the rock.

“She’s like that too. She doesn’t mind being alone.”

He glanced at her, wanting badly to know what made her say so. What had Claire’s life been in their years apart to give her that knowledge? It was so; Claire knew the flavor of solitude. It was cold as spring water, and not all could drink it; for some it was not refreshment, but mortal chill. But she had lived daily with a husband; how had she drunk deep enough of loneliness to know?

Brianna could maybe tell him, but he wouldn’t ask; the last name he wished to hear spoken in this place was Frank Randall’s.

He coughed instead.

“Well, it’s maybe true,” he agreed cautiously. “I’ve seen women—and men too, sometimes—as canna bear the sound of their own thoughts, and they maybe dinna make such good matches with those who can.”

“No,” she said, brooding. “Maybe they don’t.”

The small pang of jealousy eased. So she had doubts about this Wakefield, did she? She’d told him and Claire everything, about her search, the death notice, the journey from Scotland, the visit to Lallybroch—damn Laoghaire!—and about the man Wakefield, who’d come after her. She wasn’t telling everything there, he thought, but that was as well; he didn’t want to hear it. He was less bothered at the prospect of a distant death by fire than by the more imminent interruption of his idyll with his long-lost daughter.

He drew up his knees and sat quiet. Much as he wanted to recapture his sense of tranquility, he could not free his mind from the thought of Randall.

He had won. Claire was his; so was this glorious child—this young woman, he corrected himself, looking at her. But Randall had had the keeping of them for twenty years; there was no doubt he had set his mark on them. But what mark had it been?

“Look.” Brianna’s hand squeezed his arm as she breathed the word.

He followed her gaze and saw them; two does, standing just under the shadow of the trees, not twenty feet away. He didn’t move, but breathed quietly. He could feel Brianna beside him, enchanted into stillness too.

The deer saw them; delicate heads upraised, dark, moist nostrils flaring for scent. After a moment, though, one doe stepped out, dainty, nervous footsteps leaving streaks in the dew-wet grass. The other followed, cautious, and they grazed along the grassy strips between the rocks, turning now and then to lift their head and cast tranquil eyes on the strange but harmless creatures on the ledge.

He couldn’t have come within a mile of a Scottish red deer that had his scent. The red stags kent weel what a man was.

He watched the deer graze, with the innocence of perfect wildness, and felt the sun’s benediction on his head. This was a new place, and he was content to be alone here with his daughter.

“What are we hunting, Da?” He was standing still, eyes squinted as he scanned the horizon, but she was reasonably sure he wasn’t looking at an animal; she could speak without scaring the game.

They’d seen a good many animals in the course of the day; the two deer at dawn, a red fox that sat watching on a rock, licking dainty black paws until they came too close, then vanishing like a blown-out flame. Squirrels—dozens of them—chattering through the treetops, playing hide-and-seek past the tree boles. Even a flock of wild turkey, with two males strutting, chests puffed and tail fans spread for the edification of a gobbling harem.

None of these were the chosen prey, for which she was glad. She had no objection to killing for food, but would have been sorry to have the beauty of the day soiled by blood.

“Bees,” he said.

“Bees? How do you hunt bees?”

He picked up his gun and smiled at her, nodding downhill toward a brilliant patch of yellow.

“Look for flowers.”

There were certainly bees in the flowers; close enough, and she could hear the hum. There were several different kinds: huge black bumblebees, a smaller kind, striped with black and yellow fuzz, and the smooth lethal shapes of wasps, bellies pointed as daggers.

“What ye want to do,” her father told her, slowly circling the patch, “is to watch and see which direction the honeybees go. And not get stung.”

A dozen times, they lost sight of the tiny messengers they followed, lost in the broken light over a stream, disappearing into brush too thick to follow. Each time, Jamie cast to and fro, finding another patch of flowers.

“There’s some!” she cried, pointing to a flash of brilliant red in the distance.

He squinted at them and smiled, shaking his head.

“Nay, not red,” he said. “The wee hummingbirds like the red ones, but bees like yellow and white—yellow’s best.” He plucked a small white daisy from the grass near her feet and handed it to her—the petals were streaked with pollen, fallen from the delicate stamens in the round yellow center of the bloom. Looking closer, she saw a tiny beetle the size of a pinhead crawl out of the center, its shiny black armor dusted with gold.

“The hummingbirds drink from the long-throated flowers,” he explained. “But the bees canna get all the way inside. They like the broad, flat flowers like this, and the ones that grow in heavy bunches. They light on them and wallow, till they’re covered over wi’ the yellow.”

They hunted up and down the mountainside, laughing as they dodged the bomber assaults of enraged bumblebees, hunting telltale patches of yellow and white. The bees liked the mountain laurel, but too many of those patches were too high to see over, too dense to pass through.

It was late afternoon before they found what they were looking for. A snag, the remnants of a good-sized tree, its branches reduced to stumps, bark worn away to show weathered silver wood beneath—and a wide split in the wood, through which the bees were crowding, hanging in a veil around it.

“Oh, good,” Jamie said, with satisfaction at the sight. “Sometimes they hive in the rocks, and then there’s little ye can do.” He unslung the ax at his belt, and his bags, and gestured to Brianna to sit down on a nearby rock.

“It’s best to wait till dark,” he explained. “For then all the swarm will be inside the hive. Meanwhile, will ye have a bite to eat?”

They shared the rest of the food, and talked sporadically, watching the light fade from the nearby mountains. He let her fire the long musket when she asked, showing her how to load a new round: swab the barrel, patch the ball, ram home ball, patch, and wadding with a charge of powder from the cartridge; pour the rest of the powder into the priming pan of the flintlock.

“You’re no a bad shot at all, lass,” he said, surprised. He bent and picked up a small chunk of wood, setting it on top of a large boulder as a target. “Try again.”

She did, and again, and again, growing used to the awkward weight of the weapon, finding the lovely balancing point of its length and its natural seat in the curve of her shoulder. It kicked less than she’d expected; black powder hadn’t the force of modern cartridges. Twice chips flew from the boulder; the third time the chunk of wood disappeared in a shower of fragments.

“Verra nice,” he said, one eyebrow raised. “And where in God’s name did ye learn to shoot?”

“My father was a target shooter.” She lowered the gun, cheeks flushed with pleasure. “He taught me to shoot with a pistol or a rifle. A shotgun, too.” Then her cheeks flushed a deeper hue, remembering. “Um. You wouldn’t have seen a shotgun.”

“No, I dinna suppose I have,” was all he said, his face a careful blank.

“How will you move the hive?” she asked, wanting to cover the awkward moment. He shrugged.

“Oh, once the bees have gone to their rest, I shall blow a bit o’ smoke into the hive, to keep them stunned. Then chop free the part of the trunk that’s got the combs in it, slide a bit of flat wood beneath it, and wrap it in my plaid. Once at the house, I’ll nail a bit of wood top and bottom, to make a bee gum.” He smiled at her. “Come morning, the bees will come out, look around, and venture out for the nearest flowers.”

“Won’t they realize they aren’t in their proper place?”

He shrugged again.

“And what will they do about it, if they do? They’ve no means to find their way back, and they’ll have no home left here to come to. Nay, they’ll be content in the new place.” He reached for the gun. “Here, let me clean it; the light’s too bad for shooting.”

Conversation died, and they sat in silence for half an hour or so, watching darkness fill the hollows below, an invisible tide that crept higher by the minute, engulfing the trunks of the trees so that the green canopies seemed to float on a lake of darkness.

At last she cleared her throat, feeling that she must say something.

“Won’t Mama be worried about us, coming back so late?”

He shook his head, but didn’t answer; only sat, a grass blade drooping idle in his hand. The moon was edging its way above the trees, big and golden, lopsided as a smudged teardrop.

“Your mother did tell me once that men meant to fly to the moon,” he said abruptly. “They hadna done it yet, that she knew, but they meant to. Will ye know about that?”

She nodded, eyes fixed on the rising moon.

“They did. They will, I mean. She smiled faintly. “Apollo, they called it—the rocket ship that took them.”

She could see his smile in answer; the moon was high enough to shed its radiance on the clearing. He tilted his face up, considering.

“Aye? And what did they say of it, the men who went?”

“They didn’t need to say anything—they sent back pictures. I told you about the television?”

He looked a little startled, and she knew that like most things she had told him from her time, he had no real grasp of the reality of moving, talking pictures, let alone the notion that such things could be sent through thin air.

“Aye?” he said, a little unsurely. “You’ve seen these pictures, then?”

“Yes.” She rocked back a little, hands clasped around her knees, looking up at the misshapen globe above them. There was a faint nimbus of light around it, and farther out in the starlit sky, a perfect, hazy ring, as though it were a big yellow stone dropped into a black pond, frozen in place as the first ripple formed.

“Fair weather tomorrow,” he said, looking up at it.

“Will it be?” She could see everything around them, almost as clearly as in the daylight, but the color had fled now; everything was black and gray—like the pictures she described.

“It took hours, waiting. No one could say exactly how long it would take them to land and get out in their space suits—you know there isn’t any air on the moon?” She raised a questioning brow, and he nodded, attentive as a schoolboy.

“Claire told me so,” he murmured.

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