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BOOK: Judith E French
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She looked unimpressed. “Eat your corncakes now. If we dinna bring down game, ’tis all ye’ll ha’ to eat this day.” She tugged on a long fringed legging and tied it to her skirt. “And wear the vest,” she ordered. “I’ll nay be slowed down in the forest by your complaining.”
“Yes, m’lady, as you say. I’d not wish to delay your hunt.”
Leah fixed him with an unwavering gaze. “Take care, Englishman. I’m nay a fool. Ye’ll go wi’ me into the woods and you’ll do as I bid ye. There are more dangers in the forest than a Shawnee war party, and I for one intend to return to camp with my scalp intact.”
“And a fat deer, don’t forget that.”
“Aye,” she agreed. “If the spirits are wi’ us.”
 
Brandon’s gaze was fixed on the back of Leah’s head as he followed her down the steep incline. They’d been walking for hours without stopping, and he was surprised at the small woman’s endurance. The undergrowth was thick here, and he had to duck his head to avoid the branches from trees overhead. More than once, he’d admitted to himself that he was grateful Leah had insisted he wear the vest.
Sweat ran down his face, and he paused briefly to wipe it away. The air was hot and sticky; the August afternoon seemed to close in around him. He climbed over a rotten log and braced himself with his left hand. Instantly, he felt a sharp stinging and looked down to see huge black ants swarming up his arm. Cursing, he brushed them away and started back down the hill.
His foot slipped, and he slammed down on his backside with a jolt. Ahead, he heard Leah’s faint giggle. Damn the wench, he thought. Was she attempting to walk him to death? What had begun as a welcome respite from the Shawnee camp was fast becoming an ordeal. If the shameless baggage wanted to hunt deer, why in hell didn’t they hunt them? They’d passed enough deer tracks in the last few hours.
Brandon reached the bottom of the slope and found Leah kneeling beside a tiny, fast-rushing stream strewn with mossy rocks. Her longbow lay on the bank beside her, and she cupped her hands to drink.
“It’s about time,” he grumbled. “My mouth is as dry as a powder keg.” He squatted down and splashed his face with the icy water, then drank. It tasted heavenly.
Leah bathed her face and neck. The end of her braid came loose from the bone ornament and dangled into the stream. When she raised her head, water from her hair dripped down her vest front, making a dark stain on the supple leather. “You walk good for an Englishman,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow wryly. “And how the hell would you know how an Englishman walks?”
She shrugged daintily and shifted the quiver of arrows off her shoulder. “We’ll rest here until the sun begins t’ go doon. Then we shall hunt. I’ve a broken-horned buck in mind. He has yet to see his second winter, and his flesh will be sweet.”
Brandon settled down with his back against a pine tree and his long legs stretched out in front of him. “I see,” he murmured lazily, folding his arms across his chest. “We’ve come hunting for a particular deer. I should have guessed. That’s why we walked past enough deer sign to satisfy the king’s hunting party.” He snorted in derision.
Leah raised her head and stared at him.
Her eyelashes are black as soot, Brandon thought. Thick and long, they framed large, liquid eyes—eyes that glowed with an inner flame. No lovelier creature ever graced a sultan’s harem, he decided.
“Ye nay believe me?” she protested indignantly. “I wouldna fash ye wi’ lyin’ aboot such a thing. I know the tracks o’ this deer.”
Brandon deliberately closed his eyes. Salome of the Seven Veils with the speech of a Scottish brigand, he thought. Seconds later, Leah splashed a double handful of water in his face. Gasping at the shock, he jumped to his feet. “What in God’s name . . .” he sputtered. “Why did you do that?”
She stood a few feet in front of him, hands on her hips, stubborn chin high. “You’ll nay laugh at me,” she warned. “You are an ignorant barbarian. Ye ken nothing, and withoot me, ye’d probably slip in yonder burn and drown.”
Brandon’s anger became amusement as he realized how foolish he looked. This slip of a girl—a wench he could lift over his head with one arm—had bested him again. “Truce,” he offered with a grin. “Don’t torture me further, and I’ll believe your tall tale about the broken-horned buck.”
“But ’tis true,” she insisted. “In summer, we hunt far fra’ camp so that the animals nearby dinna fear us. In bad weather, when ’tis hard to walk sae far, we can kill game nearby. Surely ye can see the wisdom o’ it.”
“I’ll believe it when I see your maimed buck.”
Leah sniffed and retreated to sit on a flat rock. Pointedly ignoring him, she began to remove her steel-tipped arrows, one by one, from the beaded quiver and inspected them carefully.
He sat down in front of the tree again and let his eyes drift almost shut so that he could watch her without her knowing. He sighed loudly. The woman was an enigma, and she was fast driving him out of his mind.
As long as Brandon could remember, he’d had a good relationship with women. He liked them, all sizes, all ages, and all types. He liked their laughter and the way they swayed when they walked. He even liked talking to them and listening to what they had to say. Best of all, they liked him.
Contrary to popular opinion, he didn’t believe that women were less intelligent than men. True, their minds worked differently, but no one could compare the intelligence of a dog to that of a cat. You never knew what a cat would do in any given situation, but he’d known cats that he would have sworn were smarter than most dogs. Women, he’d decided long ago, were cats. They were emotional and unpredictable, but they were certainly capable of logic.
He’d always gotten along well with his mother and his female cousins. And he’d never lacked for the other kind of female company since his voice had changed. A chambermaid had introduced him to the joys of sex when he was fourteen. He’d been delighted with the procedure, and he’d not found reason to change his mind in the years since then.
Brandon had always taken his good relationship with women for granted. He knew they considered him handsome, and he was somewhat vain about his appearance. Still, he worked hard to maintain his body, scorning the flabby gentlemen who lounged around King George’s court. He’d coaxed women out of their maidenheads, and he’d even bribed a few, but he’d never forced himself on a wench. He’d never had to. Most women, highborn and servant alike, were quick to show him their interest. So why was Leah an exception to the rule?
He exhaled again, softly, between his teeth. Leah was the key to his escape. She’d saved his life, as she’d reminded him often enough, and she was protecting him from the wrath of those bloodthirsty Shawnee warriors. If he played his cards right, he could convince her to help him get away. The problem was, how to play cards in the dark?
Leah seemed impervious to his many charms. He was no closer to her bed now than he’d been the first night he’d been led to her hut. She was a beautiful, exotic, desirable wench, and he was a healthy, red-blooded Englishman. They were sleeping ten feet apart, and all they were doing was sleeping.
He peered at her through his lashes. She’d replaced the arrows in the quiver and was staring intently down into the fast-moving water. The front of her vest was damp enough to cling to her perfectly shaped breasts; he could glimpse a patch of honey-colored skin between the bottom of the vest and the top of her skirt. A copper band encircled one arm, and tiny earrings dangled from her ears. Her face was smooth and expressionless; her hair was neatly braided into a thick, glossy rope. She didn’t look like a woman who’d just led him on a six-hour march through a trackless forest.
Brandon swallowed, trying to dispel the dryness in his mouth. She was exquisite. He’d find her enchanting even if it hadn’t been months since he’d made love to a woman. Being near her twenty-four hours a day was wearing on his nerves. Her skin was soft and warm; he knew that much from the times they’d accidentally touched.
He remembered that first night when she’d lain beside him and put his hand on her breast—when she’d called out to the war party to witness that she’d taken him as her husband. He’d been too hurt and dazed to appreciate that sweet handful at the time, but he’d gone over and over the scene in his mind since then.
What would she do now if he took her in his arms and kissed those full, tantalizing lips . . . if he slipped a hand into that clinging vest? Would her mouth taste of wild honey? Instinct told him that Leah was a woman made for love, a woman who would give and take passion with wild abandon.
She had nerve enough to captain the king’s guard. She’d come alone into the wilderness with him, armed with a knife, a bow, and a quiver. He could take weapons from her without raising a sweat; he could take her body and her life if he was that kind of man. Yet she trusted him, acting as though they were still within earshot of her protectors. It would take a harder-hearted man than he was to use force against such womanly courage.
“Leah,” he murmured, startling himself that he had spoken her name aloud.
She turned those dark, haunting eyes toward him, and her lips curved upward in a smile.
“Why do you find me distasteful?” he asked.
She chuckled, covering her mouth with her fingertips in a gesture he’d seen her use so many times before. “Do I?”
“You seem to.”
It was her turn to look suspicious. “I ha’ made ye my husband. Would I do sae, did I find ye, dis—distasteful?”
“It appears so.”
She laughed again. “Ye be smarter than ye look,
Englishmanake,”
she teased. “But I promise I will like ye better if ye can shoot yonder bow. Have ye the skill t’ hit a running deer?”
Brandon flushed and glanced at the hickory bow. It was not unlike the English longbow, and he’d practiced many an hour to master that. “I’ve not used your bow and arrows before,” he said, “but I think I could bring down a deer.”
“Good. Ye shall ha’ the first shot. The camp will be pleased if you find meat to share.”
He got slowly to his feet. “No,” he replied. “They won’t be. We have a problem, my Highland lady.”
Her expression hardened. “What then?”
“I don’t hunt deer. I don’t hunt any wild game at all.”
Her eyes dilated in astonishment. “What? What kind of mon be ye, that ye dinna hunt?”
“A soft-hearted one, I’m afraid,” he admitted candidly. “I find no sport in killing animals. Bloodletting is distasteful to me. I kill nothing at all, if I can help it, let alone helpless deer.”
Her brow wrinkled. “You make a joke with me.”
He shrugged and spread his hands. “I’m afraid not.”
“But ye eat my venison wi’ a right good will.”
He grinned sheepishly. “I’ve no aversion to meat, once it’s dead. It’s the killing I don’t have the stomach for.”
For long seconds they regarded each other in silence as color suffused her cheeks. Nostrils flaring, she rose and snatched up the bow and quiver. “I knew ye were different when I chose ye for husband, but I dinna know how different. I thought I ha’ chosen a mon!”
Brandon stiffened with anger. “Hold your tongue, woman. You go too far.”
“Do I?” she taunted.
“If you were a man—”
“If ye were, we’d nay be havin’ this conversation, would we?”
Brandon swore a foul seaman’s oath. “My manhood, or lack of it, has nothing to do with hunting your damned deer!”
“Nay?” She dismissed him with a withering glance and began walking away down the stream bank.
“Leah!”
“Coom if ye like,” she called over her shoulder, “or stay here until the moss grows over ye. I came for venison, and ’tis clear t’ me that if our cooking pot needs filling, ’tis me who maun fill it.”
Chapter 4
B
randon paused to catch his breath and shifted the dead buck’s weight to ease his aching shoulder. True to her promise, Leah had stalked and brought down a young male deer with a broken horn. She’d waited for the animal at a natural salt lick and slain the beast with a single arrow from a distance of thirty yards.
Leah had field dressed the deer on the spot, working quickly to take advantage of the fading light. The job of carrying the venison home fell to him, and she’d given him a few terse instructions on securing the animal’s legs together with thongs to make the burden easier to bear. They’d barely spoken since their sharp exchange by the stream, and Brandon’s temper was short.
Leah kept walking ahead of him through the thick woods, and he muttered a few choice words under his breath and balanced the buck across his shoulders. Brandon guessed the weight of the carcass to be eight stone or better, and he was dreading the hours of steady march back to the village. “Wait for me, damn it,” he called after her, “unless you’d like to take turns carrying this.”
She didn’t answer, but the fading sound of rustling leaves told him that she hadn’t stopped.
“Slow down, or I’ll leave your buck for the scavengers,” he threatened. He set off in the direction she had gone, fighting to get the deer’s head and horns through the briers and ducking when his load wouldn’t fit under low tree limbs.
A branch slapped him across the face, and he began to swear again, soundly cursing the tree, the forest, and the entire North American continent. “I should have stayed at Westover.” His father’s country house in South Wessex was enchanting at this time of year; if he shut his eyes, he could visualize the herds of dun cattle grazing on rolling green pastures and the deep blue surface of the Frome River. “I could have pleaded the wasting sickness, or married Lord Warsham’s hairlipped daughter. No, I have to cross the sea to these godforsaken colonies and fall in with a feathered madwoman.”
Leah materialized from the gathering darkness and laid a small hand on his arm. “Shhh,” she cautioned. “Would ye ha’ us killed?”
Brandon swallowed the reply that rose in his throat, and they continued on without speaking until they reached the edge of a stream. He didn’t know if it was the same creek they’d stopped at before, and he wasn’t about to ask. Leah motioned for him to set down the deer, and he complied gratefully.
“It be too hot to carry it back this night,” she explained. “We’ll cool the meat in the water ’til dawn. Lower it there.” She pointed to a curve in the stream. “Be sure that the water covers it completely. Ye may need t’ pile up rocks t’ make a . . .” She struggled to find the correct English word. “A dam. Wash yourself free o’ the blood, and I’ll cook a wee bit o’ the liver for our supper.”
By the time he’d gotten most of the blood off, Leah had used flint and steel to build a tiny fire and was grilling fresh venison liver over the coals. “We’ll douse the fire as soon as the meat is done,” she said. “’Tis a dangerous time for a campfire.”
“Why? It rained only a few days ago, and the leaves are still damp.” He crouched beside the flames and held out his hands to warm them.
“’Tis nay forest fire I fear.”
“What then?”
She shook her head, and it was clear from her stubborn countenance that he’d get no more from her until she was ready to talk. They ate in silence, then Leah doused the campfire. She led the way up the hillside to a rocky outcrop. There they took shelter in a niche in the hill too shallow to be called a cave.
Leah showed Brandon how to break pine boughs and piled them up to make a bed. “The pine scent will keep away insects,” she said softly, “but ’twill do nothing for snakes. Ye maun take your chances with them.”
She made her own nest of pine needles inches from his and curled up and went promptly to sleep. Brandon lay awake for hours, massaging his aching shoulder and listening to the howling of wolves.
It would be a simple matter, he thought, to take the bow and arrows away from her. He was certain he could even get Leah’s eight-inch skinning knife without hurting her. Was he a fool to pass up this chance to escape? He knew enough about direction to travel north, and if he went far enough, he’d reach French territory. Since the Triple Alliance in 1717, England and France had tolerated each other. If war hadn’t broken out between the two countries since he’d left home, he could arrange passage back to Europe or at least to the English colonies on the coast.
He’d have to take Leah with him, of course. He couldn’t leave an unarmed woman tied up in the wilderness, and if he left her free, she’d have a war party on his tail within hours. For one brief instant, he considered killing her, but the thought was so repugnant it turned his stomach. He rolled over and stared at the star-strewn heavens. He was a prisoner, and now that he had an opportunity to get away, he was too soft to take it. Maybe Leah hadn’t been far off when she’d questioned his manhood.
How in the hell had things gotten so mixed up? He wanted to get away from the Shawnee before they murdered him—probably in a particularly painful manner—but he wanted to do it without putting this woman in danger.
She was sleeping as soundly as a baby; she hadn’t stirred once or altered the soft rhythm of her breathing. Asleep, Leah seemed so tiny and defenseless. If he betrayed her trust and made her his captive . . .
Brandon sighed. Could he do it? Or would she put up such a fight that she might be hurt in the process? Would he be able to face her, to look into those luminous eyes if he betrayed her faith in him? He rubbed his face with his hands and closed his eyes. I’d be no better than Hayden and Lynch, and no amount of reasoning on my part could make it right.
Leah moaned faintly and burrowed down into the pine boughs. She lay on her side with one hand curled over her head, the other half hidden by her body. In the concealed hand, she held her unsheathed hunting knife.
No, Brandon decided. If he played by the rules, he might be able to stay alive until a better chance to escape came along—a chance that didn’t involve risking Leah. His first plan had been the best one; he’d win her confidence, and she’d help him get back to civilization.
At last, his eyelids grew heavy, and he relaxed enough to drift off. When his breathing slowed, Leah crept from her bed and moved off into the forest as silently as a shadow.
 
A primeval growl wrenched Brandon from his sleep. He leaped up, realized that Leah was no longer beside him, and peered frantically into the pitch blackness. A second roar shattered the quiet night, and the hair rose on the back of his neck. Bear! He’d never heard one before, but no other animal was capable of uttering such a chilling sound.
A low, foreboding rumble seemed to shake the trees. Brandon looked about for a weapon, uncertain whether he should run or stand motionless where he was.
“Brandon!”
It was Leah’s voice.
“Machk! Witschemil!
Help me!”
His mouth dry and fear numbing his limbs, Brandon ran down the brush-covered slope toward the source of her cry—toward the snarling bear. As he stumbled into a small clearing, he caught sight of Leah, torch in hand with her back against a tree.
“Here,” she cried. “Over here.
Lachpi!
Ha’ care! It is
machk.”
“Where is—” His feet froze to the ground as he stared through the trees toward the stream bank. Clouds parted overhead, and moonlight filtered through the blackness to illuminate a small mountain rising from the creek.
The bear reared up on his massive hind legs, threw back his head, and roared.
Brandon felt his stomach drop through his knees.
“Brandon!” Leah screamed. “Here!”
The bear tossed aside the bloody deer carcass and waded, still on two legs, out of the stream. His small, piglike eyes glowed red in the torchlight; his teeth loomed like white spears in the gaping cavern of his open mouth. His growl rumbled out of his belly, low and ominous.
Brandon made a mad dash for Leah’s side. “What the hell—” he began. She thrust the torch into his hand and began to light a second branch from his.
“Where’s your damned bow?” he demanded. Her torch burst into flames, and he saw the blood on her face and arm.
The moonlight dimmed, but the bear kept coming, step by ponderous step.
“Matchemenetoo,”
Leah cried out.
“Matchele ne tha tha!”
Shrieking a Shawnee war cry, she rushed toward the bear, waving the burning branch.
“Son of a bitch!” With only a heartbeat’s hesitation, Brandon leaped after her. “Back! Get back!” he yelled at the bear. A putrid stench hit Brandon full in the face and his gorge rose. “Yaaa!”
The beast faltered and stood still. He dropped to all fours and snarled at the two humans advancing on him. Leah hurled her torch, and it bounced off the bear’s head. Brandon smelled burning hair as the animal reared up again, then turned and lumbered back across the stream.
“Palli aal!”
Leah shouted. “Go away! Get!”
The bear stopped and looked back at them, rearing up and giving a final snort. Then the animal lowered himself to the ground and ran off into the woods.
“N’gagelicksi!”
Leah seemed to be laughing, and crying at the same time. “We did it! We saved the deer! Did ye see
machk
run?” She clapped her hands and twirled around Brandon. “I thought he be Matchemenetoo, the devil beast, but he wasna. ’Twas only a bear.” She threw her arms around Brandon’s neck and kissed him full on the mouth.
He dropped the torch and tightened his arms around her, clinging to her warmth, meeting her eager kiss with his own.
“Ach, Brandon—” she began.
A twig snapped sharply beside his head, and a feathered shaft buried itself in the tree beside him. With a cry, he shoved Leah to the ground, protecting her with his own body. Stunned, they lay still.
“Get off me,” she protested. “Ye be crushin’ me.”
“Shhh, listen.” He strained to hear, but there was no sound other than the wind in the trees. He rolled aside and pointed silently to the arrow over their heads. She nodded, pointing toward a patch of thick brush.
They crawled into the thicket and hid there until dawn. When the first rays of morning light lit the forest floor, Leah wiggled free of Brandon’s embrace and ventured out of the undergrowth. Cautiously, he followed her.
The buck lay half in and half out of the water, where the bear had thrown it. There was no other sign of life, human or animal. Even the birds seemed strangely hushed. Brandon noticed that the musty scent of bear was still strong in the air.
Leah went to the tree and examined the arrow. She tugged at it, but the arrowhead remained firmly wedged in the wood. She pointed to the feathering at the end of the shaft. “Seneca,” she said.
He grunted. “I was afraid at first that maybe it was your bear devil come back to finish us off.”
She sniffed. “A small war party. One warrior, one arrow.” Snapping the arrow in two, she rolled it between her fingers. “A small, stupid war party—one that would nay finish off two unarmed enemies.”
“Doesn’t make much sense, does it?” Brandon spied Leah’s broken bow on the ground a few yards away and went to retrieve it. The strong hickory had been splintered in two.
“Save the bowstring,” she called. “The bow is useless.” He glanced at her questioningly. “The bear. He came at me too fast to get off a shot. I beat him off with the bow.”
For the first time, he remembered the blood on her face and arm. “Are you hurt?” By the light of day, he could only see a few dried smears of blood, nothing fresh.
“Only a scratch. I maun care for it.
Machk
’s teeth be bad medicine. The old women say demons live in his mouth.”
“Why didn’t you let him have the damned deer?”
“’Twas ours, not his. Let
machk
hunt for himself.”
“By the wounds of Christ, I’ve never seen anything that big.”
“Aye, but ye showed courage for an
Englishmanake.”
She smiled up at him, and he saw a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “Ye showed courage for a Scotsman.” She unsheathed her knife and tossed it to him. He caught the handle. “Skin the buck,” she said, “whilst I check for signs. I want to see what I can find out about the war party that attacked us last night.” She pursed her lips. “Ye do know how t’ skin a deer, do ye not?”
“After a fashion.”
“Good. Leave the head. As a rule, we use every wee bit o’ the beastie, but we maun travel fast this day, so we will take only the choice meat.” She smiled at him. “And when we reach the camp, ye must scrape your face again. I dinna care for the porcupine quills sproutin’ there. Yellow it may be, but ’tis not human for a mon to grow a pelt on his chin.”
Leah crossed the stream and followed the bear trail long enough to be certain the old bear wasn’t lurking in the bushes to charge them again. Then she circled back to the area she felt the arrow must have been launched from. After a few moments’ search, she found the tracks she had been searching for—those of a lone man. She located the spot where he had waited and watched their fight with the bear and the log he had braced his right foot on when he loosed the arrow.
The forest floor was thick with leaves; there was no bare earth to make her task easier. If she had found a complete footprint, she would have known instantly if the man was wearing a Seneca moccasin or not. The man had not crossed the stream, so there was no chance of finding his tracks in the mud near the water. She did find a freshly broken twig and several crushed ferns—a trail a child could follow—leading off uphill away from the bear’s path.
Satisfied that the man wasn’t in the immediate area, Leah climbed a tall pine. From the highest branch she could reach, she looked out over the forest. To the north, she saw a red hawk circling; to the south was the deer lick where they had slain the buck. She waited and watched as the early morning mist lifted off the trees. There was nothing to alarm her.
BOOK: Judith E French
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