There were also really excellent reasons for staying the hell away from the vicinity of Sergeant Murchison, who seemed definitely the type to bear a grudge. And then there was Farquard Campbell and the whole waiting web of planters and Regulators, slaves and politics…No, I could see quite well why Jamie mightn’t want to go back to such entanglement and complication, to say nothing of the looming fact of the coming war. At the same time, I was fairly sure that none of those reasons accounted for his decision.
“It’s not just that you don’t want to go back to River Run, is it?” I leaned back against him, feeling his warmth as a contrast to the coolness of the evening breeze. The season had not yet turned; it was still late summer, and the air was rich with the sun-roused scents of leaf and berry, but so high in the mountains, the nights turned cold.
I felt the small rumble of a laugh in his chest, and warm breath brushed my ear.
“Is it so plain, then?”
“Plain enough.” I turned in his arms, and rested my forehead against his, so our eyes were inches apart. His were a very deep blue, the same color as the evening sky in the notch of the mountains.
“Owl,” I said.
He laughed, startled, and blinked as he pulled back, long auburn lashes sweeping briefly down.
“You lose,” I explained. “It’s a game called ‘owl.’ First person to blink loses.”
“Oh.” He took hold of my ears by the lobes and drew me gently back, forehead to forehead. “Owl, then. Ye do have eyes like an owl, have ye noticed?”
“No,” I said. “Can’t say I have.”
“All clear and gold—and verra wise.”
I didn’t blink.
“Tell me then—why we’re staying.”
He didn’t blink either, but I felt his chest rise under my hand, as he took a deep breath.
“How shall I tell ye what it is, to feel the need of a place?” he said softly. “The need of snow beneath my shoon. The breath of the mountains, breathing their own breath in my nostrils as God gave breath to Adam. The scrape of rock under my hand, climbing, and the sight of the lichens on it, enduring in the sun and the wind.”
His breath was gone and he breathed again, taking mine. His hands were linked behind my head, holding me, face-to-face.
“If I am to live as a man, I must have a mountain,” he said simply. His eyes were open wide, searching mine for understanding.
“Will ye trust me, Sassenach?” he said. His nose pressed against mine, but his eyes didn’t blink. Neither did mine.
“With my life,” I said.
I felt his lips smile, an inch from mine.
“And with your heart?”
“Always,” I whispered, closed my eyes, and kissed him.
And so it was arranged. Myers would go back to Cross Creek, deliver Jamie’s instructions to Duncan, assure Jocasta of our welfare, and procure as much in the way of stores as the remnants of our money would finance. If there was time before the first snowfall, he would return with supplies; if not, in the spring. Ian would stay; his help would be needed to build the cabin, and to help with the hunting.
Give us this day our daily bread, I thought, pushing through the wet bushes that edged the creek, and deliver us not into temptation.
We were reasonably safe from temptation, though; for good or ill, we wouldn’t see River Run again for at least a year. As for the daily bread, that had been coming through as dependably as manna, so far; at this time of year, there was an abundance of ripe nuts, fruits and berries, which I collected as industriously as any squirrel. In two months, though, when the trees grew bare and the streams froze, I hoped God might still hear us, above the howl of the winter wind.
The stream was noticeably swelled by the rain, the water maybe a foot higher than it had been yesterday. I knelt, groaning slightly as my back unkinked; sleeping on the ground exaggerated all the normal small morning stiffnesses. I splashed cold water on my face, swished it through my mouth, drank from cupped hands, and splashed again, blood tingling through my cheeks and fingers.
When I looked up, face dripping, I saw two deer drinking from a pool on the other side, a little way upstream from me. I stayed very still, not to disturb them, but they showed no alarm at my presence. In the shadow of the birches, they were the same soft blue as the rocks and trees, little more than shadows themselves, but each line of their bodies etched in perfect delicacy, like a Japanese painting done in ink.
Then all of a sudden, they were gone. I blinked, and blinked again. I hadn’t seen them turn or run—and in spite of their ethereal beauty, I was sure I hadn’t been imagining them; I could see the dark imprints of their hooves in the mud of the far bank. But they were gone.
I didn’t see or hear a thing, but the hair rose suddenly on my body, instinct rippling up arms and neck like electric current. I froze, nothing moving but my eyes. Where was it, what was it?
The sun was up; the tops of the trees were visibly green, and the rocks began to glow as their colors warmed to life. But the birds were silent; nothing moved, save the water.
It was no more than six feet away from me, half visible behind a bush. The sound of its lapping was lost in the noise of the stream. Then the broad head lifted, and a tufted ear swiveled toward me, though I had made no noise. Could it hear me breathing?
The sun had reached it, lit it into tawny life, glowed in gold eyes that stared into mine with a preternatural calm. The breeze had shifted; I could smell it now; a faint acrid cat-tang, and the stronger scent of blood. Ignoring me, it lifted a dark-blotched paw and licked fastidiously, eyes slitted in hygienic preoccupation.
It rubbed the paw several times over its ear, then stretched luxuriously in the patch of new sun—my God, it must be six feet long!—and sauntered off, full belly swaying.
I hadn’t consciously been afraid; pure instinct had frozen me in place, and sheer amazement—at the cat’s beauty, as well as its nearness—had kept me that way. With its going, though, my central nervous system thawed out at once, and promptly went to pieces. I didn’t gibber, but did shake considerably; it was several minutes before I managed to get off my knees and stand up.
My hands shook so that I dropped the kettle three times in filling it. Trust him, he’d said, did I trust him? Yes, I did—and a fat lot of good that would do, unless he happened to be standing directly in front of me next time.
But for this time—I was alive. I stood still, eyes closed, breathing in the pure morning air. I could feel every single atom of my body, blood racing to carry round the sweet fresh stuff to every cell and muscle fiber. The sun touched my face, and warmed the cold skin to a lovely glow.
I opened my eyes to a dazzle of green and yellow and blue; day had broken. All the birds were singing now.
I went up the path toward the clearing, resisting the impulse to look behind me.
Jamie and Ian had felled several tall, slender pines the day before, cut them into twelve-foot lengths, and rolled and wrestled and tumbled the logs downhill. Now they lay stacked at the edge of the small clearing, rough bark glistening black with wet.
Jamie was pacing out a line, stamping down the wet grass, when I came back with the kettle filled with water. Ian had a fire started on the top of a large flat stone—he having learned from Jamie the canny trick of keeping a handful of dry kindling always in one’s sporran, along with flint and steel.
“This will be a wee shed,” Jamie was saying, frowning at the ground in concentration. “We’ll build this first, for we can sleep in it, if it should rain again, but it needna be so well built as the cabin—it’ll give us something to practice on, eh, Ian?”
“What is it for—beyond practice?” I asked. He looked up and smiled at me.
“Good morning, Sassenach. Did ye sleep well?”
“Of course not,” I said. “What’s the shed for?”
“Meat,” he said. “We’ll dig a shallow pit at the back, and fill it wi’ embers, to smoke what we can for keeping. And make a rack for drying—Ian’s seen the Indians do it, to make what they call jerky. We must have a safe place where beasts canna get at our food.”
This seemed a sound idea; particularly in view of the sort of beasts in the area. My only doubts were regarding the smoking. I’d seen it done in Scotland, and knew that smoking meat required a certain amount of attention; someone had to be at hand to keep the fire from burning too high or going out altogether, had to turn the meat regularly, and baste it with fat to avoid scorching and drying.
I had no difficulty in seeing who was going to be nominated for this task. The only trouble was that if I didn’t manage to do it right, we’d all die of ptomaine poisoning.
“Right,” I said, without enthusiasm. Jamie caught my tone and grinned at me.
“That’s the first shed, Sassenach,” he said. “The second one’s yours.”
“Mine?” I perked up a bit at that.
“For your wee herbs and bits of plants. They do take up a bit of room, as I recall.” He pointed across the clearing, the light of builder’s mania in his eye. “And just there—that’s where the cabin will be; where we’ll live through the winter.”
Rather to my surprise, they had the walls of the first shed erected by the end of the second day, crudely roofed with cut branches until time should permit the cutting of shingles for a proper roof. The walls were made of slender notched logs, still with the bark on, and with noticeable chinks and gaps between them. Still, it was large enough to sleep the three of us and Rollo comfortably, and with a fire burning in a stone-lined pit at one end, it was quite cozy inside.
Enough branches had been removed from the roof to leave a smoke hole; I could see the evening stars, as I cuddled against Jamie and listened to him criticize his workmanship.
“Look at that,” he said crossly, lifting his chin at the far corner. “I’ve gone and laid in a crooked pole, and it’s put the whole of that line off the straight.”
“I don’t imagine the deer carcasses will care,” I murmured. “Here, let’s see that hand.”
“And the rooftree’s a good six inches lower at the one end than the other,” he went on, ignoring me, but letting me have his left hand. Both hands were smoothly callused, but I could feel the new roughnesses of scrapes and cuts, and so many small splinters that his palm was prickly to the touch.
“You feel like a porcupine,” I said, brushing my hand over his fingers. “Here, move closer to the fire, so I can see to pull them out.”
He moved obligingly, crawling around Ian, who—freshly de-splintered himself—had fallen asleep with his head pillowed on Rollo’s furry side. Unfortunately, the change of position exposed new weaknesses of construction to Jamie’s critical eye.
“You’ve never built a shed out of logs before, have you?” I interrupted his denunciation of the doorway, neatly tweaking a large splinter out of his thumb with my tweezers.
“Ow! No, but—”
“And you built the bloody thing in two days, with nothing but a felling ax and a knife, for God’s sake! There’s not a nail in it! Why ought you to expect it to look like Buckingham Palace?”