We couldn’t possibly spare time away from the homestead for long enough to make the week-long journey to Mount Helicon, but if Duncan could take the whisky down and sell it…I was already making lists in my head. Everyone brought things to sell, at a Gathering. Wool, cloth, tools, food, animals…I urgently needed a small copper kettle, and six lengths of fresh muslin for shifts, and…
“Do you think you should give alcohol to the Indians?” Brianna’s question pulled me from my greedy reverie.
“Why not?” Lindsey asked, a little disapproving of her intrusion. “After all, we’re no going to give it to them, lass. They’ve little silver, but they pay in hides—and they pay well.”
Brianna glanced at me for support, then at Jamie.
“But Indians don’t—I mean I’ve heard that they can’t handle alcohol.”
All three men looked at her uncomprehendingly, and Duncan looked at his cup, turning it round in his hand.
The corner of her mouth quirked inward.
“They get drunk easily, I mean.”
Lindsey peered into his cup, then looked at her, rubbing a hand over the balding crown of his head.
“Ye’ve a point, lass?” he said, more or less politely.
Brianna’s full mouth compressed itself, then relaxed.
“I mean,” she said, “it seems wrong to encourage people to drink, who can’t stop drinking if they start.” She looked at me, a little helplessly. I shook my head.
“ ‘Alcoholic’ isn’t a noun yet,” I said. “It’s not a disease now—just weak character.”
Jamie glanced up at her quizzically.
“Well, I’ll tell ye, lass,” he said, “I’ve seen many a drunkard in my day, but I’ve yet to see a bottle leap off a table and pour itself down anyone’s throat.”
There were general grunts of agreement with this, and another small round to accompany the change of subject.
“Hodgepile? No, I’ve not seen the man, though I do believe I’ve heard the name.” Duncan swilled the rest of his drink and set down his cup, wheezing gently. “You’ll want me to ask at the Gathering?”
Jamie nodded, and took another bannock. “Aye, if ye will, Duncan.”
Lizzie was bent over the fire, stirring the stew for supper. I saw her shoulders tighten, but she was too shy to speak before so many men. Brianna suffered no such inhibitions.
“I have someone to ask after, too, Mr. Innes.” She leaned over the table toward him, eyes fixed on him in earnest entreaty. “Will you ask for a man named Roger Wakefield? Please?”
“Och, indeed. Indeed I will.” Duncan went pink at the proximity of Brianna’s bosom, and in confusion drank down the rest of Kenny’s whisky. “Is there aught else I can do?”
“Yes,” I said, putting down a fresh cup in front of the disgruntled Lindsey. “While you’re asking after Hodgepile and Bree’s young man, would you also ask for a man named Joseph Wemyss? He’ll be a bondsman.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Lizzie’s thin shoulders slump in relief.
Duncan nodded, his composure restored as Brianna disappeared into the pantry to fetch butter. Kenny Lindsey looked after her, interested.
“Bree? Is that the name ye call your daughter?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
A smile showed briefly on Lindsey’s face. Then he glanced at Jamie, coughed, and buried the smile in his cup.
“It’s a Scots word, Sassenach,” Jamie said, a rather wry smile appearing on his own face. “A bree is a great disturbance.”
The shock of impact juddered through his arms. With a rhythm born of long practice, Jamie jerked the axhead free, swung it back and brought it down in a tchunk! of splintered bark and yellow wood chips. He shifted his foot on the log and struck again, the ax blow judged to a nicety, sharp metal embedded in the wood a scant two inches from his toes.
He could have told Ian off to do the chopping, and gone himself to fetch the flour from the tiny mill at Woolam’s Point, but the lad deserved the treat of a visit with the three unmarried Woolam daughters who worked with their father in the mill. They were Quaker girls, dressed drab as sparrows, but lively of wit and fair of face, and they made a pet of Ian, vying with each other to offer him small beer and meat pies when he came.
A good deal better the lad should spend his time flirting with virtuous Quakers than with the bold-eyed Indian lassies over the ridge, he thought, with a little grimness. He hadn’t forgotten what Myers had said about Indian women taking men to their beds as they liked.
He had sent the wee bondmaid with Ian as well, thinking the brisk fall air might bring a bit of color to the lassie’s face. The wean was white-skinned as Claire, but with the sickly blue-white cast of skimmed milk, not Claire’s pale glow, rich and grainless as the silk-white heartwood of a poplar tree.
The log was nearly split; one more blow, and a twist of the ax, and two good chunks lay ready for the hearth, smelling clean and sharp with resin. He stacked them neatly on the growing woodpile next to the pantry, and rolled another half log into place beneath his foot.
The truth of it was that he liked chopping wood. Quite different from the damp, backbreaking, foot-freezing job of cutting peats, but with that same feeling of soul-deep satisfaction at seeing a good stock of fuel laid by, which only those who have spent winters shivering in thin clothes can know. The woodpile reached nearly to the eaves of the house by now, dry split chunks of pine and oak, hickory and maple, the sight of them warming his heart as much as the wood itself would warm his flesh.
Speak of warmth; it was a warm day for late October, and his shirt was clinging to his shoulders already. He wiped a sleeve across his face and examined the damp patch critically.
If he got wringing, Brianna would insist on washing it again, protest as he might that sweat was clean enough. “Phew,” she would say, with a disapproving nostril-flare, wrinkling her long nose up like a possum. He had laughed out loud when he first saw her do it; as much from surprise as from amusement.
His mother had died long ago, in his childhood, and while the odd memory of her came now and then in dreams, he had mostly replaced her presence with static pictures, frozen images in his mind. But she had said “Phew!” to him when he came in mucky, and wrinkled up her long nose in just that way—it had come back with a flash when he saw Brianna do it.
What a mystery blood was—how did a tiny gesture, a tone of voice, endure through generations like the harder verities of flesh? He had seen it again and again, watching his nieces and nephews grow, and accepted without thought the echoes of parent and grandparent that appeared for brief moments, the shadow of a face looking back through the years—that vanished again into the face that was now.
Yet now that he saw it in Brianna…he could watch her for hours, he thought, and was reminded of his sister, bending close over each of her newborn bairns in fascination. Perhaps that was why parents watched their weans in such enchantment, he thought; finding out all the tiny links between them, that bound the chains of life, one generation to the next.
He shrugged, and pulled the shirt off. It was his own place, after all; there was no one to see the marks on his back, and no one whose business it would be to care if they did. The air was chill and sudden on his damp skin, but a few swings of the ax brought the warm blood pulsing back again.
He loved all Jenny’s children deeply—especially Ian, the wee gowk whose mixture of foolishness and pigheaded courage reminded him so much of himself at that age. They were his blood, after all. But Brianna…
Brianna was his blood, and his flesh as well. An unspoken promise kept to his own parents; his gift to Claire, and hers to him.
Not for the first time, he found himself wondering about Frank Randall. And what had Randall thought, holding the child of another man—and a man he had no cause to love?
Perhaps Randall had been the better man, come to that—to harbor a child for her mother’s sake, and not his own; to search her face with joy only in its beauty, and not because he saw himself reflected there. He felt vaguely ashamed, and struck down with greater force to exorcise the feeling.
His mind was concerned entirely with its thoughts, and not at all with his actions. While he used it, though, the ax was as much a part of his body as the arms that swung it. Just as a twinge in wrist or elbow would have warned him instantly of damage, some faint vibration, some subtle shift in weight arrested him in midswing, so that the loosened axhead flew harmlessly across the clearing, rather than slamming into his vulnerable foot.
“Deo gratias,” he muttered, with rather less thankfulness than the words indicated. He crossed himself perfunctorily and went to pick up the slab of metal. Damn the dry weather; it hadn’t rained in nearly a month, and the shrunken haft of his ax was less worrying than the drooping heads of the plants in Claire’s garden near the house.
He cast a glance at the half-dug well, shrugging in irritation. Another thing that must be done, which there wasn’t time to do. It would have to wait a bit; they could haul water from the creek or melt snow, but without wood to burn they would starve or freeze, or both.
The door opened and Claire came out, cloak on against the chill of autumn shadows, her basket over her arm. Brianna was behind her, and at sight of them he forgot his annoyance.
“What have you done?” Claire said at once, seeing him with the axhead in one hand. Her eyes flicked over him quickly, looking for blood.
“Nay, I’m whole,” he assured her. “It’s only I’ve got to mend the handle. You’ll be foraging?” He nodded at Claire’s basket.
“I thought we’d try up the stream, for wood ears.”
“Ah? Dinna go too far, aye? There are Indians hunting the far mountain. I smelt them on the ridge this morning.”
“You smelled them?” Brianna asked.
One red brow went up in inquiry. He saw Claire glance from Brianna to him and smile slightly, to herself; it was one of his own gestures, then. He lifted one brow, looking at Claire, and saw her smile grow wider.
“It’s autumn, and they’re dryin’ venison,” he explained to Brianna. “Ye can smell the smoking fires a great ways away, if the wind sets right.”
“We won’t go far,” Claire assured him. “Just above the trout pool.”
“Aye, well. I daresay it’s safe enough.” He felt some reluctance at letting the women go, but he could scarcely keep them mewed up in the house only because there were savages nearby—the Indians were no doubt peacefully employed as he was himself, in making winter preparations.
If he knew for sure it was Nacognaweto’s folk, he wouldn’t worry, but as it was, the hunting parties often roamed far afield and it could as easily be Cherokee, or the odd small tribe that called themselves the Dog People. There was only one village of them left, and they were deeply suspicious of white strangers—not without reason.
Brianna’s eyes rested on his bare chest for a moment, at the tiny knot of puckered scar tissue, but she showed no sign of disgust or curiosity—nor did she when she laid her hand briefly on his shoulder, kissing his cheek in goodbye, though he knew she must feel the healed welts beneath her fingers.