Authors: Diana Gabaldon
“Aye, some,” he said, and turned to the right, moving along the edge of the trees that rimmed the meadow. “But deer dinna feed the same way cattle or sheep do, at least not if the pasture’s good. That was an old buck,” he added offhandedly over his shoulder. “We dinna need to kill those in summer; there’s better meat and plenty of it.”
She raised both brows but followed without comment. He turned his head and smiled at her.
“Where there’s one, there are likely more, this time o’ year. The does and the new fawns begin to gather into wee herds. It’s nowhere near rut yet, but the bucks are always thinkin’ on it. He kens well enough where they are.” He nodded in the direction of the vanished deer.
She suppressed a smile, recalling some of her mother’s uncensored opinions on men and the functions of testosterone. He saw it, though, and gave her a half-rueful look of amusement, knowing what she was thinking, and the fact that he did sent a small sweet pang through her heart.
“Aye, well, your mother’s right about men,” he said with a shrug. “Keep it in mind,
” he added, more seriously. He turned then, lifting his face into the breeze. “They’re near the meadow but downwind of us; we won’t get near, save we climb up and come down on them from the far side of the ridge.” He nodded toward the west, though, across the meadow. “I thought we’d maybe stop by Young Ian’s place first, though, if ye dinna mind?”
“Mind? No!” She felt a surge of delight at the mention of her cousin. “Somebody by the fire last night said he’s married now—who did he marry?” She was more than curious about Ian’s wife; some ten years before, he’d asked
to marry him, and while that had been a counsel of desperation—and completely ridiculous, to boot—she was aware that the thought of bedding her hadn’t been unwelcome to him. Later, with both of them adults and her married, him divorced from his Indian wife, a sense of physical attraction had been silently acknowledged between them—and just as silently dismissed.
Still, there were echoes of fondness between them, and she hoped she would like Ian’s unknown wife.
Her father laughed. “Ye’ll like her, lass. Rachel Hunter is her name; she’s a Quaker.”
A vision of a drab little woman with downcast eyes came to her, but her father caught the look of doubt on her face and shook his head.
“She’s no what ye’d think. She speaks her mind. And Ian’s mad in love wi’ her—and she with him.”
“Oh. That’s good!” She meant it, but her father cast her an amused glance, one brow raised. He said nothing further, though, and turned to lead the way through the rippling waves of fragrant grass.
IAN’S CABIN WAS
charming. Not that it was markedly different from any other mountain cabin Brianna had ever seen, but it was sited in the midst of an aspen grove, and the fluttering leaves broke the sunlight into a flurry of light and shadow, so that the cabin had an air of magic about it—as though it might disappear into the trees altogether if you looked away.
Four goats and two kids poked their heads over the fence of their pen and started a congenial racket of greeting, but no one came out to see who the visitors were.
“They’ve gone somewhere,” Jamie remarked, squinting at the house. “Is that a note on the door?”
It was: a scrap of paper pinned to the door with a long thorn, with a line of incomprehensible writing that Bree finally recognized as Gaelic.
“Is Young Ian’s wife a Scot?” she asked, frowning at the words. The only ones she could make out were—she thought—“MacCree” and “goat.”
“Nay, it’s from Jenny,” her father said, whipping out his spectacles and scanning the note. “She says she and Rachel are away to a quilting at the MacCree’s and if Ian comes home before they do, will he milk the goats and set half the milk aside for cheese.”
As though hearing their names called, a chorus of loud
s came from the goat pen.
“Evidently Ian’s not home yet, either,” Brianna observed. “Do they need to be milked now, do you think? I probably remember how.”
Her father smiled at the thought but shook his head. “Nay, Jenny will ha’ stripped them no more than a few hours ago—they’ll do fine until the evening.”
Until that moment, she’d been idly supposing “Jenny” to be the name of a hired girl—but hearing the tone in which Jamie had said it, she blinked.
Jenny?” she said, incredulous. “She’s
He looked mildly startled. “Aye, she is. I’m sorry, lass, I never stopped to think ye didna ken that. She—wait.” He lifted a hand, looking at her intently. “The letters. We wrote—well, Claire mostly wrote them—but—”
“We got them.” She felt breathless, the same feeling she’d had when Roger had brought back the wooden box with Jemmy’s full name burned into the lid, and they’d opened it to find the letters. And the overwhelming sense of relief, joy, and sorrow when she opened the first letter to see the words,
“We are alive…”
The same feeling swept through her now, and tears took her unaware, so that everything around her flickered and blurred, as though the cabin and her father and she herself might be about to disappear altogether, dissolved into the shimmering light of the aspen trees. She made a small choking sound, and her father’s arm came round her, holding her close.
“We never thought we should see ye again,” he whispered into her hair, his own voice choked. “Never,
I was afraid—so afraid ye hadna reached safety, that…ye’d died, all of ye, lost in—in there. And we’d never know.”
“We couldn’t tell you.” She lifted her head from his shoulder and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “But you could tell
Those letters…knowing you were alive. I mean…” She stopped suddenly and, blinking away the last of the tears, saw Jamie look away, blinking back his own.
“But we weren’t,” he said softly. “We were dead. When ye read those letters.”
“No, you weren’t,” she said fiercely, gripping his hand. “I wouldn’t read the letters all at once. I spaced them out—because as long as there were still unopened letters…you were still alive.”
“None of it matters, lass,” he said at last, very softly. He raised her hand and kissed her knuckles, his breath warm and light on her skin. “Ye’re here. So are we. Nothing else matters at all.”
BRIANNA WAS CARRYING
the family fowling piece, while her father had his good rifle. She wouldn’t fire on any birds or small game, though, while there was a chance of spooking deer nearby. It was a steep climb, and she found herself puffing, sweat starting to purl behind her ears in spite of the cool day. Her father climbed, as ever, like a mountain goat, without the slightest appearance of strain, but—to her chagrin—noticed her struggling and beckoned her aside, onto a small ledge.
“We’re in nay hurry,
” he said, smiling at her. “There’s water here.” He reached out, with an obvious tentativeness, and touched her flushed cheek, quickly taking back his hand.
“Sorry, lass,” he said, and smiled. “I’m no used yet to the notion that ye’re real.”
“I know what you mean,” she said softly. Swallowing, she reached out and touched his face, warm and clean-shaven, slanted eyes deep blue as hers.
“Och,” he said under his breath, and gently brought her into his arms again. They stood that way, not speaking, listening to the cry of ravens circling overhead and the trickling of water on rock.
“Trobhad agus òl, a nighean,”
he said, letting go as gently as he’d grasped her and turning her toward a tiny freshet that ran down a crevice between two rocks. Come and drink.
The water was icy and tasted of granite and the faint turpentine tang of pine needles.
She’d slaked her thirst and was splashing water on her flushed cheeks when she felt her father make a sudden movement. She froze at once, cutting her eyes at him. He also stood frozen, but he lifted both eyes and chin a little, signaling to the slope above them.
She saw—and heard—it then, a slow crumble of falling dirt that broke loose and hit the ledge beside her foot with a tiny rattle of pebbles. This was followed by silence, except for the calling of the ravens. That was louder, she thought, as though the birds were nearer.
They see something,
nearer. A raven swooped suddenly, flashing unnervingly near her head, and another screamed from above.
A sudden boom from the outcrop overhead nearly made her lose her footing, and she grabbed a handful of sapling sticking out of the rock face by reflex. Just in time, too, for there was a thump and a slithering noise above, and at what seemed the same instant something huge fell past in a shower of dirt and gravel, bouncing off the ledge next to her in an explosion of breath, blood, and impact before landing with a crash in the bushes below.
“Blessed Michael defend us,” said her father in Gaelic, crossing himself. He peered down into the thrashing brush below—Jesus, whatever it was, it was still alive—then up.
said an impassioned male voice from above. She didn’t recognize the word, but she did know the voice, and joy burst over her.
“Ian!” she called. There was total silence from above, save for the ravens, who were getting steadily more upset.
“Blessed Michael defend us,” said a startled voice in Gaelic, and an instant later her cousin Ian had dropped onto their narrow ledge, where he balanced with no apparent difficulty.
you!” she said. “Oh, Ian!”
He grabbed her and squeezed tight, laughing in disbelief. “God, it’s you!” He drew back for an instant for a good look to confirm it, laughed again in delight, kissed her solidly, and resqueezed. He smelled like buckskin, porridge, and gunpowder, and she could feel his heart thumping against her own chest.
She vaguely heard a scrabbling noise, and as they let go of each other, she realized that her father had dropped off the ledge and was half sliding down the scree below it, toward the brush where the deer—it must have been a deer—had fallen.
He halted for a moment at the edge of the brushy growth—the bushes were still thrashing, but the movements of the wounded deer were growing less violent—then drew his dirk and, with a muttered remark in Gaelic, waded gingerly into the brush.
“It’s all rose briers down there,” Ian said, peering over her shoulder. “But I think he’ll make it in time to cut the throat.
it was a bad shot and I was afraid I—but what the dev—I mean, how is it ye’re
?” He stood back a little, his eyes running over her, the corner of his mouth turning up slightly as he noted her breeches and leather hiking shoes, this fading as his eyes returned to her face, worried now. “Is your man not with ye? And the bairns?”
“Yes, they are,” she assured him. “Roger’s probably hammering things and Jem’s helping him and Mandy’s getting in the way. As for what we’re doing here…” The day and the joy of reunion had let her ignore the recent past, but the ultimate need of explanation brought the enormity of it all suddenly crashing in upon her.
“Dinna fash, cousin,” Ian said swiftly, seeing her face. “It’ll bide. D’ye think ye recall how to shoot a turkey? There’s a band o’ them struttin’ to and fro like folk dancing Strip the Willow at a ceilidh, not a quarter mile from here.”
“Oh, I might.” She’d propped the gun against the cliff face while she drank; the deer’s fall had knocked it over and she picked it up, checking; the fall had knocked the flint askew, and she reseated it. The thrashing below had stopped, and she could hear her father’s voice, in snatches above the wind, saying the gralloch prayer.
“Hadn’t we better help Da with the deer, though?”
“Ach, it’s no but a yearling buck, he’ll have it done before ye can blink.” Ian leaned out from the ledge, calling down. “I’m takin’ Bree to shoot turkeys,
a bràthair mo mhàthair
Dead silence from below, and then a lot of rustling and Jamie’s disheveled head poked suddenly up above the rose briers. His hair was loose and tangled; his face was deeply flushed and bleeding in several places, as were his arms and hands, and he looked displeased.