“Maybe you don’t, but I do!”
“I’m no going to die,” he said firmly, “and I dinna wish to live with half a leg. I’ve a horror of it.”
“Well, I’m not very keen on it myself. But if it’s a choice between your leg and your life?”
“It damn well may be!”
“It won’t.” Age made not the slightest difference, I thought. Two years or fifty, a Fraser was a Fraser, and no rock was more stubborn. I rubbed a hand through my hair.
“All. Right,” I said, between clenched teeth. “Give me the bloody thing and I’ll put it away.”
“My what?” I stared at him.
“Your word,” he repeated, giving me back the stare, with interest. “I may be fevered and lose my wits. I dinna want ye to take my leg if I’m in no state to stop it.”
“If you’re in that sort of state, I’ll have no choice!”
“Perhaps ye don’t,” he said evenly, “but I do. I’ve made it. Your word, Sassenach.”
“You bloody, unspeakable, infuriating—”
His smile was startling, a white grin in the ruddy face. “If ye call me a Scot, Sassenach, then I know I’m going to live.”
A shriek from outside kept me from answering. I swung round to the window, in time to see Marsali drop two pails of water on the ground. The water geysered over her skirt and shoes, but she paid no attention. I glanced hastily in the direction she was looking, and gasped.
It had walked casually through the paddock fence, snapping the rails as though they were matchsticks, and stood now in the midst of the pumpkin patch by the house, vines jerking in its mouth as it chewed. It stood huge and dark and wooly, ten feet away from Jemmy, who stared up at it with round, round eyes and open mouth, his gourd forgotten in his hands.
Marsali let out another screech, and Jemmy, catching her terror, began to scream for his mother. I turned, and—feeling as though I were moving in slow motion, though I was surely not—snatched the saw neatly from Jamie’s hand, went out the door, and headed for the yard, thinking as I did so that buffalo looked so much smaller in zoos.
As I cleared the stoop—I must have leaped; I had no memory of the steps—Brianna came out of the woods. She was running silently, ax in her hand, and her face was set, inward and intent. I had no time to call out before she reached it.
She had drawn back the ax, still running, swung it in an arc as she took the last step, and brought it down with all her strength, just behind the huge beast’s ears. A thin spray of blood flew up and spattered on the pumpkins. It bellowed and lowered its head, as though to charge forward.
Bree dodged to one side, dived for Jemmy, was on her knees, tugging at the strings that bound him to the fence. From the corner of my eye, I could see Marsali, yelling Gaelic prayers and imprecations as she seized a newly dyed petticoat from the blackberry bushes.
I had somehow unfolded the saw as I ran; I cut Jemmy’s strings with two swipes, then was on my feet and running back across the dooryard. Marsali had thrown the petticoat over the buffalo’s head; it stood bewildered, shaking its head and swaying to and fro, blood showing black on the yellow-green of the fresh-dyed indigo.
It stood as tall as I at the shoulder, and it smelt strange; dusty and warm, gamey but oddly familiar, with a barn-smell, like a cow. It took a step, another, and I dug my fingers into its wool, holding on. I could feel the tremors running through it; they shook me like an earthquake.
I had never done it, but felt as though I had, a thousand times. Dreamlike and sure, I ran a hand under slobbering lips, felt warm breath blow down my sleeve. The great pulse throbbed in the angle of the jaw; I could see it in my mind, the big meaty heart and its pumping blood, warm in my hand, cold against my cheek where it pressed the sodden petticoat.
I drew the saw across the throat, cut hard, and felt in hands and forearms the tensile severing of skin and muscle, the grate of bone, the snap of tendon, and the slippery, rubbery, blood-squirting vessels, sliding away.
The world shook. It shifted and slid, and landed with a thud. When I came to myself, I was sitting in the middle of my dooryard, one hand still twisted in its hair, one leg gone numb beneath the weight of the buffalo’s head, my skirts plastered to my thighs, hot and stinking, sodden with its blood.
Someone said something and I looked up. Jamie was on his hands and knees on the stoop—mouth open, stark nak*d. Marsali sat on the ground, legs splayed out in front of her, soundlessly opening and closing her mouth.
Brianna stood over me, Jemmy held against her shoulder. Terror forgotten, he leaned far over, looking down in curiosity at the buffalo.
“Ooo!” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Very well put.”
“You’re all right, Mama?” Bree asked, and I realized she had asked several times before. She put down a hand and rested it gently on my head.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think so.”
I took her hand and laboriously worked my leg free, leaning on her as I stood up. The same tremors that had gone through the buffalo were going through her—and me—but they were fading. She took a deep breath, looking down at the massive body. Lying on its side, it rose nearly as high as her waist. Marsali came to stand beside us, shaking her head in awe at its size.
“Mother of God, how on earth are we going to butcher that?” she said.
“Oh,” I said, and dragged a trembling hand through my hair. “I suppose we’ll manage.”
I GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP
FROM MY FRIENDS
I LEANED MY FOREHEAD against the cool glass of my surgery window, blinking at the scene outside. Exhaustion lent the scene in the dooryard an extra tinge of surrealism—not that it needed much extra.
The sun had all but set, flaming gold in the last ragged leaves of the chestnut trees. The spruces stood black against the dying glow, as did the gibbet in the center of the yard, and the grisly remains that swung from it. A bonfire had been lit near the blackberry bushes, and silhouetted figures darted everywhere, disappearing in and out of flames and shadow. Some attacked the hanging carcass, armed with knives and hatchets; others plodded laden away, carrying slabs of flesh and buckets of fat. Near the fire, the skirted bell-shapes of women showed, bending and reaching in silent ballet.
Dark as it was, I could pick Brianna’s tall, pale figure out of the horde of demons hacking at the buffalo—keeping order, I thought. Before being forcibly returned to the surgery, Jamie had estimated the buffalo’s weight at something between eighteen hundred and two thousand pounds. Brianna had nodded at this, handed Jemmy to Lizzie, then walked slowly around the carcass, squinting in deep thought.
“Right,” she’d said, and as soon as the men began to appear from their homesteads, half-dressed, unshaven, and wild-eyed with excitement, had issued cool directions for the cutting of logs and the building of a pulley-frame capable of hoisting and supporting a ton of meat.
The men, disgruntled at not being in on the kill, hadn’t been inclined to pay attention to her at first. Brianna, however, was large, vivid, strongly-spoken—and stubborn.
“Whose stroke is that?” she’d demanded, staring down Geordie Chisholm and his sons as they started toward the carcass, knives in hand. She pointed at the deep gash across the neck, then wiped her hand slowly down her sleeve, drawing attention to the splashed blood there. “Or that?” One long bare foot pointed delicately at the severed throat, and the pool of blood that soaked the dooryard. My stockings lay at the edge of the congealing puddle where I had stripped them off, limp red rags, but recognizably feminine.
Watching from the window, I had seen more than one face glance toward the house, frowning with the realization that Brianna was Himself’s daughter—a fact the wise kept well in mind.
It was Roger who had turned the tide for her, though, with a cool stare that brought the Lindsay brothers to heel behind him, axes in hand.
“It’s her kill,” he said, in his husking croak. “Do what she says.” He squared his shoulders and gave the other men a look that strongly suggested there should be no further controversy.
Seeing this, Fergus had shrugged and bent to seize the beast—one-handed—by its spindly tail.
“Where will you have us put it, madame?” he asked politely. The men had all laughed, and then with sheepish glances and shrugs of resignation, reluctantly pitched in as well, following her directions.
Brianna had given Roger a look of surprise, then gratitude, and then—the bit firmly between her teeth—had taken charge of the whole enterprise, with remarkable results. It was barely nightfall, and the butchery was almost done, the meat distributed to all the households on the Ridge. She knew everyone, knew the number of mouths in each cabin, and parceled out the meat and sweetbreads as they were cut. Not even Jamie could have managed it better, I thought, feeling a warm swell of pride in her.
I glanced across at the table, where Jamie lay swaddled in blankets. I had wanted to move him upstairs to his bed, but he had insisted on staying downstairs, where he could hear—if not see—what was going on.
“They’re nearly finished with the butchering,” I said, coming to lay a hand on his head. Still flushed and blazing. “Brianna’s done a wonderful job of it,” I added, to distract both of us.
“Has she?” His eyes were half-open, but fixed in a fever-stare; that dream-soaked daze where shadows writhe in the wavering hot air over a fire. As I spoke, though, he came slowly back from wherever he had been, and his eyes met mine, heavy-lidded but clear, and he smiled faintly. “That’s good.”
The hide had been pegged out to dry, the enormous liver sliced for quick searing, intestines taken to soak for cleaning, haunches to the shed for smoking, strips of meat taken off for drying into jerky, fat for rendering into suet and soap. Once stripped bare, the bones would be boiled for soup, salvaged for buttons.
The prized hooves and horns sat bloodily discreet on my counter, brought in by Murdo Lindsay. Tacit trophies, I supposed; the eighteenth-century equivalent of two ears and a tail. I had got the gallbladder, too, though that was simply by default; no one wanted it, but it was popularly assumed that I must have some medicinal use for almost any natural object. A greenish thing the size of my fist, it sat oozing in a dish, looking rather sinister next to the set of detached and muddy hooves.
Everyone on the Ridge had come at the news—even Ronnie Sinclair, from his cooper’s shop at the foot of the slope—and little remained of the buffalo now, save a rack of scavenged bones. I caught the faint odor of roasting meat, of burning hickory wood and coffee, and pushed up the window all the way to let in the appetizing smells.
Laughter and the crackle of fire came in on a gust of cold wind. It was warm in the surgery now, and the cold air from the window felt good against my flushed cheeks.
“Are you hungry, Jamie?” I asked. I was starving myself; though I hadn’t realized it ’til I smelled food. I closed my eyes and inhaled, buoyed up by the hearty scent of liver and onions.