The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 197

   

Fraser saw him, and gestured downward with a twist of the head, pointing with his chin.

“By the stream; d’ye see?” he said.

At first, Roger saw nothing. The stream itself wasn’t visible, but he could chart its course by the growth of bare-limbed sycamore and willows. Then he saw it; a bush far down the slope moved, in a way that wasn’t like the wind-blown tossings of the branches near it. A sudden jerk that shook the bush as something pulled at it, feeding.

“Jesus, what’s that?”

His glimpse of a sudden dark bulk had been enough only to tell him that the thing was big—very big.

“I dinna ken. Bigger than a deer. Wapiti, maybe.” Fraser’s eyes were intent, narrowed against the wind. He stood easy, musket in one hand, but Roger could see his excitement.

“A moose, perhaps?” Fergus frowned under his shading hand. “I have not seen one, but they are very large, no?”

“No.” Roger shook his head. “I mean yes, but that’s not what it is. I’ve hunted moose—with the Mohawk. They don’t move like that at all.” Too late, he saw Fraser’s mouth tighten briefly, then relax; by unspoken consent, they avoided mention of Roger’s captivity among the Mohawk. Fraser said nothing, though, only nodded at the tangle of woodland below.

“Aye, it’s not deer or moose, either—but there’s more than one. D’ye see?”

Roger squinted harder, then saw what Fraser was doing, and did likewise—swaying from foot to foot, deliberately letting his eyes drift casually across the landscape.

With no attempt to focus on a single spot in the panorama below, he could instead see the whole slope as a blurred patchwork of color and motion—like a Van Gogh painting, he thought, and smiled at the thought. Then he saw what Jamie had seen, and stiffened, all thought of modern art forgotten.

Here and there among the faded grays and browns and the patches of evergreen was a disjunction, a knot in the pattern of nature’s weft—strange movements, not caused by the rushing wind. Each beast was invisible itself, but made its presence known, nonetheless, by the twitchings of the bushes nearby. God, how big must they be? There . . . and there . . . he let his eyes drift to and fro, and felt a tightening of excitement through chest and belly. Christ, there were half a dozen, at least!

“I was right! I was right, was I no, Mac Dubh?” MacLeod exulted. His round face beamed from one to another, flushed with triumph. “I did say as I’d seen beasts, aye?”

“Jesus, there’s a whole herd of them,” Evan Lindsay breathed, echoing his thought. The Highlander’s face was bright, fierce with anticipation. He glanced at Jamie.

“How will it be, Mac Dubh?”

Jamie lifted one shoulder slightly, still peering into the valley. “Hard to say; they’re in the open. We canna corner them anywhere.” He licked a finger and held it to the breeze, then pointed.

“The wind’s from the west; let us come down the runnel there to the foot of the slope. Then wee Roger and I will pass to the side, near that great outcrop; ye see the one?”

Lindsay nodded slowly, a crooked front tooth worrying the thin flesh of his lip.

“They’re near the stream. Do you circle about—keep well clear until ye’re near to the big cedar tree; ye see it? Aye, then spread yourselves, two to each bank of the stream. Evan’s the best marksman; have him stand ready. Roger Mac and I will come behind the herd, to drive them toward ye.”

Fergus nodded, surveying the land below.

“I see. And if they shall see us, they will turn into that small defile, and so be trapped. Very good. Allonsy!”

He gestured imperiously to the others, his hook gleaming in the sun. Then he grimaced slightly, hand to his belly, as a long, rumbling fart despoiled the silence of the wood. Jamie gave him a thoughtful look.

“Keep downwind, aye?” he said.

IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to walk silently through the drifts of dry leaves, but Roger stepped as lightly as possible. Seeing Jamie load and prime his own gun, Roger had done likewise, feeling mingled excitement and misgiving at the acrid scent of powder. From his impressions of the size of the beasts they followed, even he might have a chance at hitting one.

Putting aside his doubts, he paused for a moment, turning his head from side to side to listen. Nothing but the faint rush of wind through the bare branches overhead, and the far-off murmur of water. A small crack sounded in the underbrush ahead, and he caught a glimpse of red hair. He cupped the gunstock in his hand, the wood warm and solid in his palm, barrel aimed upward over his shoulder, and followed.

Stealing carefully round a sumac bush, Roger felt something give suddenly under his foot, and jerked back to keep his balance. He looked at what he’d stepped on, and in spite of his instant disappointment, felt a strong urge to laugh.

“Jamie!” he called, not bothering any longer about stealth or silence.

Fraser’s bright hair appeared through a screen of laurel, followed by the man himself. He didn’t speak, but lifted one thick brow in inquiry.

“I’m no great tracker,” Roger said, nodding downward, “but I’ve stepped in enough of these to know one when I see one.” He scraped the side of his shoe on a fallen log, and pointed with his toe. “What d’ye think we’ve been creeping up on, all this time?”

Jamie stopped short, squinting, then walked forward and squatted next to the corrugated brown splotch. He prodded it with a forefinger, then looked up at Roger with an expression of mingled amusement and dismay.

“I will be damned,” he said. Still squatting, he turned his head, frowning as he surveyed the wilderness around them. “But what are they doing here?” he murmured.

He stood up, shading his eyes as he looked toward the creek, where the lowering sun dazzled through the branches.

“It doesna make a bit of sense,” he said, squinting into the shadows. “There are only three kine on the Ridge, and I saw two of them bein’ milked this morning. The third belongs to Bobby MacLeod, and I should think he’d ken if it was his own cow he’d seen. Besides . . .” He turned slowly on his heel, looking up the steep slope they’d just descended.

He didn’t have to speak; no cow not equipped with a parachute could have come down that way.

“There’s more than one—a lot more,” Roger said. “You saw.”

“Aye, there are. But where did they come from?” Jamie glanced at him, frowning in puzzlement. “The Indians dinna keep kine, especially not at this season—they’d slaughter any beasts they had, and smoke the meat. And there’s no farm in thirty miles where they might have come from.”

“Maybe a wild herd?” Roger suggested. “Escaped a long time ago, and wandering?” Speculation sprang up in Jamie’s eyes, echoing the hopeful gurgle of Roger’s stomach.

“If so, they’ll be easy hunting,” Jamie said. Skepticism tempered his voice, even as he smiled. He stooped and broke off a small piece of the cow-pat, crushed it with a thumb, then tossed it away.

“Verra fresh,” he said. “They’re close; let’s go.”

Within a half-hour’s walking, they emerged onto the bank of the stream they had glimpsed from above. It was wide and shallow here, with willows trailing leafless branches in the water. Nothing moved save a sparkle of sun on the riffles, but it was plain that the cows had been there; the mud of the bank was cut and churned with drying hoofprints, and in one place, the dying plants had been pawed away in a long, messy trough where something large had wallowed.

“Why did I not think to bring rope?” Jamie muttered, pushing through the willow saplings on the bank as they skirted the wallow. “Meat’s one thing, but milk and cheese would be—” The muttering died away, as he turned from the stream, following a trail of broken foliage back into the wood.

Without speaking, the two men spread out, walking softly. Roger listened with all his might to the quiet of the forest. They had to be nearby; even such an inexperienced eye as Roger’s had picked up the freshness of the signs. And yet the wood was autumn-still, the silence broken only by a raven, calling in the distance. The sun was hanging low in the sky, filling the air in the wood with a golden haze. It was getting noticeably colder; Roger passed through a patch of shadow, and shivered, in spite of his coat. They’d have to find the others and make camp soon; twilight was short. A fire would be good. Better, of course, if there were something to cook over it.

They were going down, now, into a small hollow where wisps of autumn mist rose from the cooling earth. Jamie was some distance ahead, walking with as much purpose as the broken ground allowed; evidently the trail was still plain to him, in spite of the thick vegetation.

A herd of cows couldn’t just vanish, he thought, even in mist as heavy as this . . . not unless they were faery kine. And that, he wasn’t quite prepared to believe, in spite of the unearthly quiet of the woods just here.

“Roger.” Jamie spoke very quietly, but Roger had been listening so intently that he located his father-in-law at once, some distance to his right. Jamie jerked his head at something nearby. “Look.”

He held aside a large, brambly bush, exposing the trunk of a substantial sycamore tree. Part of the bark had been rubbed away, leaving an oozing whitish patch on the gray bark.

“Do cows rub themselves like that?” Roger peered dubiously at the patch, then picked out a swatch of woolly dark hair, snagged by the roughened bark.

“Aye, sometimes,” Jamie replied. He leaned close, shaking his head as he peered at the dark-brown tangle in Roger’s hand. “But damned if I’ve ever seen a cow wi’ a coat like that. Why ye’d think it was . . .”

Something moved at Roger’s elbow and he turned, to find a monstrous dark head peering over his shoulder. A tiny, blood-dark eye met his own, and he let out a yell and jerked backward. There was a loud bang as his gun went off, and then a rush and a thud, and he was lying wrapped round a tree trunk, the breath knocked out of him, left with no more than a fleeting notion of a hairy dark bulk and a power that had sent him flying like a leaf.

He sat up, fighting for breath, and found Jamie on his knees in the leaves, scrabbling frantically for Roger’s gun.

“Up!” he said. “Up, wee Roger! My God, it’s buffalo!”

Then he was up, following Jamie. Still half-winded, but running, his gun in his hand with no clear memory of how it got there, powder-horn bumping against his hip.

Jamie was bounding like a deer through bushes, bundled cloak bouncing against his back. The wood wasn’t silent any longer; ahead there were crashings and splinterings, and low snorting bellows.

He caught up Jamie on the upward slope; they labored up it, feet sliding on damp leaves, lungs burning from the effort, then topped a rise and came out onto a long downward slope, scattered with spindly pine and hickory saplings.

There they were; eight or nine of the huge, shaggy beasts, clustering together as they thundered down the hill, splitting to go around thickets and trees. Jamie dropped to one knee, sighted, and fired, to no apparent effect.

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