“How long does it all take?” Brianna poked her nose over the edge of the mash tub, where Marsali was stirring the fermenting grain of the last smoking. The mash had only begun to work; there was no more than a faint whiff of alcohol in the air.
“Oh, it will depend on the weather, a bit.” Marsali cast an experienced eye skyward. It was late afternoon, and the sky had begun to darken into a clear deep blue, with no more than streaks of white cloud floating over the horizon. “Clear as it is, I should say—Germaine!” Germaine’s bottom was the only part of him visible, the top half having disappeared under a log.
“I’ll get him.” Brianna took three quick strides across the clearing, and scooped him up. Germaine made a deep sound of protest at this unwarranted interference, and began to kick, hammering his sturdy heels against her legs.
“Ow!” Brianna set him on the ground, rubbing her thigh with one hand.
Marsali made a sound of exasperation and dropped her ladle. “Now what have ye got, ye wicked thing?” Germaine, having learned from experience, popped his latest acquisition into his mouth and swallowed convulsively. He immediately turned purple and began to choke.
With a cry of alarm, Marsali dropped to her knees and tried to pry his mouth open. Germaine gagged, wheezed, and staggered backward, shaking his head. His blue eyes bulged, and a thin line of drool snaked down his chin.
“Here!” Brianna grabbed the little boy by the arm, pulled his back against her, and with both hands fisted into his stomach, jerked them sharply back.
Germaine made a loud whooping noise, and something small and round shot out of his mouth. He gurgled, gasped for air, got a good lungful and started to howl, his face going from dusky purple to a healthy red within seconds.
“Is he all right?” Jamie peered anxiously at the little boy, who was crying in his mother’s arms, then, satisfied, glanced at Brianna. “That was verra quick, lass. A good job.”
“Thanks. I—thanks. I’m glad it worked.”
Brianna felt a little shaky. Seconds. It hadn’t taken more than a few seconds. Life to death and back again, in nothing flat. Jamie touched her arm, giving her a brief squeeze, and she felt a little better.
“Best take the laddie down to the house,” he told Marsali. “Give him his supper and put him to bed. We’ll finish here.”
Marsali nodded, looking shaken herself. She brushed a strand of pale hair out of her eyes, and gave Brianna a poor attempt at a smile.
“I thank ye, good-sister.”
Brianna felt a surprising small glow of pleasure at the title. She gave Marsali back the smile.
“I’m glad he’s all right.”
Marsali picked up her bag from the ground, and with a nod to Jamie, turned and made her way carefully down the steep path, toddler in her arms, Germaine’s chubby fists twined tightly in her hair.
“That was pretty work, Coz.” Ian had finished the spreading, and jumped down from the platform to congratulate her. “Where did ye learn a thing like that?”
“From my mother.”
Ian nodded, looking impressed. Jamie bent over, searching the ground nearby.
“What is it the laddie swallowed, I wonder?”
“This.” Brianna spotted the object, half buried under fallen leaves, and plucked it out. “It looks like a button.” The object was a lopsided circle, crudely carved from wood, but indisputably a button, with a long shank and holes bored for thread.
“Let me see.” Jamie held out a hand, and she dropped the button into it.
“You’ll no be missing any buttons, will ye, Ian?” he asked, frowning at the small object in his palm.
Ian peered over Jamie’s shoulder, and shook his head. “Maybe Fergus?” he suggested.
“Maybe, but I dinna think so. Our Fergus is too much the dandy to be wearin’ something like this. All the buttons on his coat are made of polished horn.” He shook his head slowly, still frowning, then shrugged. Picking up his sporran, he put the button into it before fastening it about his waist.
“Ah, well. I’ll ask about. Will ye finish here, Ian? There’s no much left to do.” He smiled at Brianna and cocked his head toward the path. “Come then, lass; we’ll ask at Lindseys’, on our way home.”
In the event, Kenny Lindsey was not at home.
“Duncan Innes came to fetch him, not an hour since,” Mrs. Lindsey said, shading her eyes against the late sun as she stood in the doorway of her house. “I make nay doubt they’ll be to your house the noo. Will ye and your lassie no step in, Mac Dubh, and have a taste of something?”
“Ah, no, I thank ye, Mrs. Kenny. My wife will be having the supper ready for us. But perhaps ye could be tellin’ me whether this wee bawbee is from Kenny’s coat?”
Mrs. Lindsey peered at the button in his hand, then shook her head.
“No, indeed. Have I not just finished sewing on a whole fresh set of buttons for him, that’s he’s carved from the bone of a deer? The bonniest things ye ever saw, too,” she declared, with pride in her husband’s craftsmanship. “Each one has got a wee face on it, grinnin’ like an imp, and each one different!”
Her eye ran speculatively over Brianna.
“There’s Kenny’s brother, now,” she said. “With a fine wee place near Cross Creek—twenty acres in tobacco, and a good creek through it. He’ll be at the Gathering at Mount Helicon; perhaps you’ll be going, Mac Dubh?”
Jamie shook his head, smiling at the bald hint. There were few available women in the colony, and even though Jamie had given it out that Brianna was promised elsewhere, this had not by any means put a stop to the matchmaking attempts.
“I fear not this year, Mrs. Kenny. Perhaps the next, but I canna spare the time just now.”
They took their leave politely, and turned toward home, the sinking sun at their backs casting long shadows on the path ahead of them.
“Do you think the button’s important?” Brianna asked curiously.
Jamie shrugged slightly. A light breeze lifted the hair on the crown of his head, and tugged at the leather thong that held it back.
“I canna say. It could be nothing—but it could be something, too. Your mother told me what Ronnie Sinclair said, about the man in Cross Creek, asking about the whisky.”
“Hodgepile?” Brianna couldn’t help smiling at the name. Jamie returned the smile briefly, then became serious again.
“Aye. If the button belongs to someone on the Ridge—they ken well enough where the still is, and they might stop to look and no harm done. But if it was to be a stranger…” He glanced at her and shrugged again.
“It’s none so easy for a man to pass unnoticed here—unless he should be hiding a-purpose. A man come for any innocent reason would stop at a house for a bit of food and drink, and I’d hear of it the same day. But there’s been nothing of the sort. Nor would it be an Indian; they dinna use such things in their clothing.”
A gust of wind whirred across the path in a swirl of brown and yellow leaves, and they turned uphill, toward the cabin. They walked in near silence, affected by the growing quiet of the woods; the birds were still singing twilight songs, but the shadows were lengthening under the trees. The northern slope of the mountain across the valley had already gone dark and silent, as the sun edged behind it.
The cabin’s clearing was still filled with sunlight, though, filtered through a yellow blaze of chestnut trees. Claire was in the palisaded garden, a basin on one hip, snapping beans from poled vines. Her slender figure was silhouetted dark against the sun, her hair a great aureole of curly gold.
“Innisfree,” Brianna said involuntarily, stopping dead at the sight.
“Innisfree?” Jamie glanced at her, bewildered.
She hesitated, but there was no way out of explaining.
“It’s a poem, or part of one. Daddy always used to say it, when he’d come home and find Mama puttering in her garden—he said she’d live out there if she could. He used to joke that she—that she’d leave us someday, and go find a place where she could live by herself, with nothing but her plants.”
“Ah.” Jamie’s face was calm, its broad planes ruddy in the dying light. “How does the poem go, then?”
She was conscious of a small tightness round her heart as she said it.
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee.
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
The thick red brows drew together slightly, sparking in the sun.
“A poem, is it? And where is Innisfree?”
“Ireland, maybe. He was Irish,” Brianna said in explanation. “The poet.” The row of bee gums stood squat on their stones at the edge of the wood.
Tiny motes of gold and black drifted past them through honeyed air—bees homing from the fields. Her father made no move to go forward, but stood silent by her side, watching her mother pick beans, black and gold among the leaves.
Not alone, after all, she thought. But the small tightness stayed in her chest, not quite an ache.
Kenny Lindsey took a sip of whisky, closed his eyes, and rolled the liquor round his tongue like a professional wine taster. He paused, frowning in concentration, then swallowed with a convulsive gulp.
“Hoo!” He drew breath, shuddering all over.
“Christ,” he said hoarsely. “That’ll strip your tripes!”
Jamie grinned at the compliment, and poured another small measure, shoving it toward Duncan.
“Aye, it’s better than the last,” he agreed, with a cautious sniff before essaying his own drink. “This one doesna take the hide off your tongue—quite.”
Lindsay wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, nodding in agreement.
“Weel, it’ll find a good home. Woolam wants a cask—that’ll last him a year, the way yon Quakers dole it out.”
“Ye’ve agreed a price?”
Lindsay nodded, sniffing appreciatively at the platter of bannocks and savories that Lizzie set in front of him.
“A hundredweight of barley for the cask; another, if ye’ll go halves wi’ him in the whisky from it.”
“That’s fair.” Jamie took a bannock and chewed absently for a moment. Then he raised one brow at Duncan, seated across the table.
“Will ye ask MacLeod on Naylor’s Creek will he make us the same bargain? You’ll pass that way going home, aye?”
Duncan nodded, chewing, and Jamie lifted his cup to me in a silent toast of celebration—Woolam’s offer made a total of eight hundred pounds of barley, scraped together by barter and promise. More than the surplus output of every field on the Ridge; the raw material for next year’s whisky.
“A cask each to the houses on the Ridge, two to Fergus—” Jamie pulled absently at his earlobe, calculating. “Two, maybe, to Nacognaweto, one kept back to age—aye, we can spare maybe a dozen casks for the Gathering, Duncan.”
Duncan’s coming was opportune. While Jamie had managed to barter the first year’s crop of raw whisky to the Moravians in Salem for the tools, cloth, and other things we so urgently needed, there was no doubt that the wealthy Scottish planters of the Cape Fear would make a better market.