God knew what might have happened next, but the wind changed. A faint cry drifted up from the sea of tossing yellow below. It might have been a baby’s cry, or perhaps only a distant crow, but her head swiveled toward it, like a compass needle pointing to true north.
It broke the mood, and he let go, stepping back.
“D’ye want to go back?” he asked, sounding resigned.
She pressed her lips together and shook her head.
“No. Let’s get a little farther away from the house, though. We don’t want to bother them with the noise. Of—of shooting, I mean.”
He grinned, and she felt the blood rise hot in her face. No, she couldn’t pretend she hadn’t realized there was more than one motive for this private expedition.
“No, not that, either,” he said. He stooped for his shoes and stockings. “Come on, then.”
She declined to put on her own footwear, but took the opportunity to reappropriate the gun. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him with it, though he admitted he hadn’t fired such a gun before. She just liked the feel of it, and felt secure with its weight balanced on her shoulder, even unloaded. A Land pattern musket, it was more than five feet long, and weighed a good ten pounds or so, but the butt of the polished walnut stock fitted snugly into her hand and the weight of the steel barrel felt right, laid in the hollow of her shoulder, muzzle to the sky.
“You’re going to go barefoot?” Roger cast a quizzical glance at her feet, then ahead, up the mountainside, where a faint path wove through blackberry brambles and fallen branches.
“Just for a while,” she assured him. “I used to go barefoot all the time when I was little. Daddy—Frank—took us to the mountains every summer, to the White Mountains or the Adirondacks. After a week, the bottoms of my feet were like leather; I could have walked on hot coals and not felt a thing.”
“Aye, I did, too,” he said, smiling, and tucked his shoes away as well. “Granted,” he said, with a nod toward the faint path that wove its way through brush and half-buried granite outcrops, “the walking along the riverbank of the Ness or the shingle by the Firth was a bit easier going than this, stones notwithstanding.”
“That’s a point,” she said, frowning slightly at his feet. “Have you had a tetanus shot recently? In case you step on something sharp and get punctured?”
He was already climbing ahead of her, choosing his footing cautiously.
“I had injections for everything one could possibly have injections for, before I came through the stones,” he assured her, over one shoulder. “Typhoid, cholera, dengue fever, the lot. I’m sure tetanus was in there.”
“Dengue fever? I thought I’d had shots for everything, too, but not that one.” Digging her toes into the cool mats of dead grass, she took a few long strides to catch him up.
“Shouldn’t need it up here.” The path ambled round the curve of a steep bank overgrown with yellowing pawpaw and vanished under the overhang of a clump of black-green hemlock. He held the heavy branches back for her and she ducked under them into the pungent gloom, gun held carefully crosswise.
“I wasn’t sure where I might have to go, see.” His voice came from behind her, casual, damped by the darkened air under the trees. “If it was the coastal towns, or the West Indies . . . there were . . . there are,” he corrected himself, automatically, “any number of entertaining African diseases, brought in by the slave ships. Thought I’d best be prepared.”
She took advantage of the rough terrain not to answer, but was dismayed—and at the same time, rather shamefully pleased—to discover the lengths to which he’d been prepared to go in order to follow and find her.
The ground was covered with the mottled brown of shed needles, but so damp that there was neither crackle nor prick beneath her feet. It felt spongy, cool, and pleasant under her bare soles, with a give to it that made her think the mass of dead needles must be a foot thick, at least.
“Ow!” Roger, not so lucky in his passage, had set his foot on a rotten persimmon and slid, barely catching himself by grabbing hold of a holly bush, which promptly stabbed him with its prickly leaves.
“Shit,” he said, sucking the wounded thumb. “Good thing about the tetanus, aye?”
She laughed in agreement, but found herself worrying as they climbed. What about Jemmy, when he began to walk, and clamber over mountains barefoot? She’d seen enough of the small MacLeods and Chisholms—to say nothing of Germain—to realize that small boys punctured, scraped, lacerated, and fractured themselves on a weekly basis, at least. She and Roger were protected against things like diphtheria and typhoid—Jemmy would have no such protection.
She swallowed, remembering the night before. That murderous horse of her father’s had bitten him in the arm, and Claire had made Jamie sit down shirtless before the fire while she cleaned and dressed the bite. Jemmy had poked a curious head up from his cradle, and his grandfather, smiling, had scooped him out and taken him upon his knee.
“Gallopy trot, gallopy trot,” he’d chanted, bouncing a delighted Jemmy gently up and down. “’Tis a wicked horse that I have got!/Gallopy trot, gallopy trot/Let’s send him to hell and then he’ll be hot!”
It wasn’t the charming scene of the two redheads giggling at each other that stuck in her mind, though; it was the firelight glowing in her son’s translucent, perfect, untouched skin—and shining silver on the webbed scars across her father’s back, black-red on the bloody gash in his arm. It was a dangerous time for men.
She couldn’t keep Jem safe from harm; she knew that. But the thought of him—or Roger—being injured or ill made her stomach knot and cold sweat come out on the sides of her face.
“Is your thumb all right?” She turned back toward Roger, who looked surprised, having forgotten all about his thumb.
“What?” He looked at it, puzzled. “Aye, of course.”
Nonetheless, she took his hand, and kissed the wounded thumb.
“You be careful,” she said fiercely.
He laughed, and looked surprised when she glared at him.
“I will,” he said, sobering a little. He nodded at the gun she carried. “Don’t worry; I may not have fired one, but I know a wee bit about them. I won’t blow my fingers off. Does this look all right for a bit of practice?”
They had come out into a heath bald, a high meadow thick with grass and rhododendron. There was a stand of aspen at the far side, their pale branches aflutter with a few late tatters of gold and crimson leaves, vivid against the deep blue sky. A stream gurgled downhill, somewhere out of sight, and a red-tailed hawk circled high overhead. The sun was well up now, warm on her shoulders, and there was a pleasant, grassy bank nearby.
“Just right,” she said, and swung the gun down from her shoulder.
IT WAS A beautiful gun, more than five feet long, but so perfectly balanced you could rest it across your outstretched arm without a wobble—which Brianna was doing, by way of demonstration.
“See?” she said, pulling her arm in and sweeping the stock up to her shoulder in one fluid movement. “That’s the balance point; you want to put your left hand right there, grab the stock by the trigger with your right, and butt it back into your shoulder. Snug it in, really solidly. There’s some kick to it.” She bumped the burled walnut stock gently into the socket of her buckskinned shoulder in illustration, then lowered the gun and handed it to Roger, with a somewhat more tender caution than she showed when handing him her infant child, he noted wryly. On the other hand, so far as he could tell, Jemmy was much more indestructible than the gun.
She showed him, hesitant at first, reluctant to correct him. He bit his own tongue, though, and imitated her carefully, following the smooth flow of the steps from ripping the cartridge open with his teeth to priming, loading, ramming, and checking, annoyed at his own novice awkwardness, but secretly fascinated—and more than slightly aroused—by the casual ferocity of her movements.
Her hands were nearly as large as his own, though finely boned; she handled the long gun with the familiarity other women showed with needle and broom. She wore breeks of homespun, and the long muscle of her thigh rose up tight and round against the cloth when she squatted beside him, head bent as she groped in her leather bag.
“What, you packed a lunch?” he joked. “I thought we’d just shoot something and eat it.”
She ignored him. She pulled out a ragged white kerchief to use as a target, and shook it out, frowning critically. Once he had thought of her scent as jasmine and grass; now she smelled of gunpowder, leather, and sweat. He breathed it, his fingers unobtrusively stroking the wood of the gunstock.
“Ready?” she said, glancing at him with a smile.
“Oh, aye,” he said.
“Check your flint and priming,” she said, rising. “I’ll pin up the target.”
Seen from the back, her ruddy hair clubbed tightly back, and clad in a loose buckskin hunting shirt that covered her from shoulder to thigh, her resemblance to her father was intensified to a startling degree. No mistaking the two, though, he thought. Breeks or no, Jamie Fraser had never in life had an arse like that. He watched her walk, congratulating himself on his choice of instructor.
His father-in-law would have given him a lesson, willingly. Jamie was a fine shot, and a patient teacher; Roger had seen him taking the Chisholm boys out after supper, to practice blasting away at rocks and trees in the empty cornfield. It was one thing for Jamie to know that Roger was inexperienced with guns; it was another to suffer the humiliation of demonstrating just how inexperienced, under that dispassionate blue gaze.
Beyond the matter of pride, though, he had an ulterior motive in asking Brianna to come out shooting with him. Not that he thought said motive was in any way hidden; Claire had glanced from him to her daughter when he had suggested it, and looked amused in a particularly knowing way that had made Brianna frown and say, “Mother!” in an accusatory tone of voice.
Beyond the all-too-brief hours of their wedding night at the Gathering, this was the first—and only—time he’d had Brianna to himself, free from the insatiable demands of her offspring.
He caught the gleam of sun off metal as she lowered her arm. She was wearing his bracelet, he realized with a deep feeling of pleasure. He had given it to her when he’d asked her to marry him—a lifetime ago, in the freezing mists of a winter night in Inverness. It was a simple circlet of silver, engraved with a series of phrases in French. Je t’aime, it said: I love you. Un peu, beaucoup, passionnément, pas du tout: A little, a lot, passionately—not at all.
“Passionnément,” he murmured, envisioning her wearing nothing but his bracelet and her wedding ring.
First things first, though, he told himself, and picked up a fresh cartridge. After all, they had time.
SATISFIED THAT HIS loading habits were on the way to being well established, if not yet rapid, Brianna finally allowed him to practice sighting, and at last, to shoot.