The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 245

   

He couldn’t duck aside and let it go past; Jem was still close behind him. He kicked it in the jaw with all his strength, then flung himself on it, grasping for a hold round its neck.

His fingers slipped and slid, unable to get a firm grip on the wiry hair, stubbing and sliding off the hard rolls of tight-packed flesh. Christ, it was like wrestling an animated sack of concrete! He felt something warm and wet on his hand and jerked it back; had it slashed him? He felt no pain. Maybe only saliva from the gnashing jaws—maybe blood from a gash too deep to feel. No time to look. He thrust the hand back down, flailing blindly, got his fingers round a hairy leg, and pulled hard.

The pig fell sideways with a squeal of surprise, throwing him off its back. He hit the ground on hands and one knee, and his knee struck stone. A bolt of pain shot from ankle to groin, and he curled up involuntarily, momentarily paralyzed from the shock.

The boar was up, shaking itself with a grunt and a rattle of bristles, but facing away from him. Dust rose from its coat and he could see the corkscrew tail, coiled up tight against its rump. A second more, and the pig would turn, rip him from gut to gullet, and stamp on the pieces. He grabbed for a rock, but it burst in his hand, nothing but a clod of dirt.

The gasp and thud of a running man came from his left, and he heard a breathless shout.

“Tulach Ard! Tulach Ard!”

The boar heard Jamie’s cry and swung snorting round to meet this new enemy, mouth agape and eyes gone red with rage.

Jamie had his dirk in his hand; Roger saw the gleam of metal as Jamie dropped low and swung it wide, slashing at the boar, then danced aside as it charged. A knife. Fight that thing with a knife?

You are out of your f**king mind, Roger thought quite clearly.

“No, I’m not,” Jamie said, panting, and Roger realized that he must have spoken aloud. Jamie crouched, balanced on the balls of his feet, and reached his free hand toward Roger, his eyes still fastened on the pig, which had paused, kneading the ground with its hooves and clashing its teeth, swinging its head back and forth between the two men, estimating its chances.

“Bioran!” Jamie said, beckoning urgently. “Stick, spear—gie it to me!”

Spear . . . the splintered fence-pole. His numbed leg still wouldn’t work, but he could move. He threw himself to the side, grabbed the ragged shaft of wood, and fell back on his haunches, bracing it before him like a boar-spear, sharp end pointed toward the foe.

“Tulach Ard!” he bellowed. “Come here, you fat f**ker!”

Distracted for an instant, the boar swung toward him. Jamie lunged at it, stabbing down, aiming between the shoulder blades. There was a piercing squeal and the boar wheeled, blood flying from a deep gash in its shoulder. Jamie threw himself sideways, tripped on something, fell, and skidded hard across the mud and grass, the knife spinning from his outflung hand.

Lunging forward, Roger jabbed his makeshift spear as hard as he could just below the boar’s tail. The animal uttered a piercing squeal and appeared to rise straight into the air. The spear jerked through his hands, rough bark ripping skin off his palms. He grabbed it hard and managed to keep hold of it as the boar crashed onto its side in a blur of writhing fury, gnashing, roaring, and spraying blood and black mud in all directions.

Jamie was up, mud-streaked and bellowing. He’d got hold of another fence-pole, with which he took a mighty swing at the rising pig, the wood meeting its head with a crack like a well-hit baseball just as the animal achieved its feet. The boar, mildly stunned, gave a grunt and sat down.

A shrill cry from behind made Roger whirl on his haunches. Jemmy, his grandfather’s dirk held over his head with both hands and wobbling precariously, was staggering toward the boar, his face beet-red with ferocious intent.

“Jem!” he shouted. “Get back!”

The boar grunted loudly behind him, and Jamie shouted something. Roger had no attention to spare; he lunged toward his son, but caught a flicker of movement from the wood beyond Jemmy that made him glance up. A streak of gray, low to the ground and moving so fast that he had no more than an impression of its nature.

That was enough.

“Wolves!” he shouted to Jamie, and with a feeling that wolves on top of pigs was patently unfair, reached Jemmy, grabbed the knife, and threw himself on top of the boy.

He pressed himself to the ground, feeling Jemmy squirm frantically under him, and waited, feeling strangely calm. Would it be tusk or tooth? he wondered.

“It’s all right, Jem. Be still. It’s all right, Daddy’s got you.” His forehead was pressed against the earth, Jem’s head tucked in the hollow of his shoulder. He had one arm sheltering the little boy, the knife gripped in his other hand. He hunched his shoulders, feeling the back of his neck bare and vulnerable, but couldn’t move to protect it.

He could hear the wolf now, howling and yipping to its companions. The boar was making an ungodly noise, a sort of long, continuous scream, and Jamie, too short of breath to go on shouting, seemed to be calling it names in brief, incoherent bursts of Gaelic.

There was an odd whirr overhead and a peculiar, hollow-sounding thump!, succeeded by sudden and utter silence.

Startled, Roger raised his head a few inches, and saw the pig standing a few feet before him, its jaw hanging open in what looked like sheer astonishment. Jamie was standing behind it, smeared from forehead to knee with blood-streaked mud, and wearing an identical expression.

Then the boar’s front legs gave way and it fell to its knees. It wobbled, eyes glazing, and collapsed onto its side, the shaft of an arrow poking up, looking frail and inconsequential by comparison to the animal’s bulk.

Jemmy was squirming and crying underneath him. He sat up slowly, and gathered the little boy up into his arms. He noticed, remotely, that his hands were shaking, but he felt curiously blank. The torn skin on his palms stung, and his knee was throbbing. Patting Jemmy’s back in automatic comfort, he turned his head toward the wood and saw the Indian standing at the edge of the trees, bow in hand.

It occurred to him, dimly, to look for the wolf. It was nosing at the pig’s carcass, no more than a few feet from Jamie, but his father-in-law was paying it no mind at all. He too was staring at the Indian.

“Ian,” he said softly, and a look of incredulous joy blossomed slowly through the smears of mud, grass, and blood. “Oh, Christ. It’s Ian.”

109

THE VOICE OF TIME

AS LIZZIE HAD NO MOTHER to see to her proper “fitting out” for marriage, the women on the Ridge had grouped together to provide things like petticoats, nightgowns, and knitted stockings, with a few of the more talented ladies piecing quilt blocks. When a quilt-top was completed, everyone would come up to the “Big House” to see to the actual quilting—the laborious stitching together of quilt-top and backing, with whatever might be available in the way of batting—worn-out blankets, stitched-together rags, or wool-combings—laid in between quilt-top and backing for warmth.

I had neither great talent nor great patience for sewing generally, but I did have the manual dexterity for small, fine stitches. More importantly, I had a large kitchen with good light and enough room for a quilting-frame, plus the services of Mrs. Bug, who kept the quilters well supplied with mugs of tea and endless plates of apple scones.

We were in the midst of quilting a block pattern Mrs. Evan Lindsay had pieced out in creams and blues, when Jamie appeared suddenly in the door to the hallway. Caught up in an absorbing conversation about the snoring of husbands in general and theirs in particular, most of the women didn’t notice him, but I was facing the door. He seemed not to want to interrupt, or to attract attention, for he didn’t come into the room—but once he’d caught my eye, he jerked his head urgently, and disappeared toward his study.

I glanced at Bree, who was sitting next to me. She’d seen him; she raised an eyebrow and shrugged. I popped the knot—jerking the knotted end of my thread up between the layers of fabric, so it wouldn’t show—stabbed my needle through the quilt-top, and got up, murmuring an excuse.

“Give him beer to his supper,” Mrs. Chisholm was advising Mrs. Aberfeldy. “A great deal of it, and well-watered. That way, he’ll have to wake to piss every half-hour, and can’t get started wi’ the sort of rumption that shakes the shingles loose.”

“Oh, aye,” Mrs. Aberfeldy objected. “I tried that. But then when he comes back to bed, he’s wantin’ to . . . mmphm.” She flushed red as the ladies all cackled. “I get less sleep than I do with the snorin’!”

Jamie was waiting in the hall. The moment I appeared, he grabbed me by the arm and hustled me out of the front door.

“What—” I began, bewildered. Then I saw the tall Indian sitting on the edge of the stoop.

“What—” I said again, and then he stood up, turned, and smiled at me.

“Ian!” I shrieked, and flung myself into his arms.

He was thin and hard as a piece of sun-dried rawhide, and his clothes smelled of wood-damp and earth, with a faint echo of the smoke and body-smells of a long-house. I stood back, wiping my eyes, to look at him, and a cold nose nudged my hand, making me utter another small shriek.

“You!” I said to Rollo. “I thought I’d never see you again!” Overcome with emotion, I rubbed his ears madly. He uttered a short bark and dropped to his forepaws, wagging equally madly.

“Dog! Dog-dog! Here, dog!” Jemmy burst from the door of his own cabin, running as fast as his short legs would carry him, wet hair standing on end and face beaming. Rollo shot toward him, hitting him amidships and bowling him over in a flurry of squeals.

I had at first feared that Rollo—who was, after all, half-wolf—saw Jemmy as prey, but it was immediately apparent that the two were merely engaged in mutually ecstatic play. Brianna’s maternal sonar had picked up the squealing, though, and she came rushing to the door.

“What—” she began, eyes going to the melee taking place on the grass. Then Ian stepped forward, took her in his arms, and kissed her. Her shriek in turn brought the quilting circle boiling out onto the porch, in an eruption of questions, exclamations, and small subsidiary shrieks in acknowledgment of the general excitement.

In the midst of the resulting pandemonium, I suddenly noticed that Roger, who had appeared from somewhere, was sporting a fresh raw graze across his forehead, a black eye, and a clean shirt. I glanced at Jamie, who was standing next to me watching the goings-on, his face wreathed in a permanent grin. His shirt, by contrast, was not only filthy but ripped down the front, and with an enormous rent in one sleeve. There were huge smears of mud and dried blood on the linen, too, though I didn’t see any fresh blood showing. Given Jemmy’s wet hair and clean shirt—not that it was, anymore—this was all highly suspicious.

“What on earth have you lot been doing?” I demanded.

He shook his head, still grinning.

“It doesna signify, Sassenach. Though I have got a fresh hog for ye to butcher—when ye’ve the time.”

I pushed back a lock of hair in exasperation.

“Is this the local equivalent of killing the fatted calf in honor of the prodigal’s return?” I asked, nodding at Ian, who was by now completely submerged in a tide of women. Lizzie, I saw, was clinging to one of his arms, her pale face absolutely ablaze with excitement. I felt a slight qualm, seeing it, but pushed it away for the moment.

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