I am not a screamer. Screaming rarely does any good and often just makes a situation worse. But I had drawn breath and was ready to shriek before my commonsense stopped me. The cat had already broken the neck of one mulie and was eyeing the deer that I had brought down with my arrow.
It was sniffing the air and I saw its lip rise in a snarl as it turned in my direction. I was slowly trying to fit another arrow but then I was pushed to the ground and there was a blast. I came up prepared to fight with the stone knife in my hand I had been using to cut plants to put into my basket.
Seeing who I faced I dropped the knife in shock and ducked. “Easy Yulee. Did the cat …?”
I whispered, “Please Gid. I’m sorry. I … I … the knife … I didn’t know it was you … I swear it …”
Gid sighed resignedly, “All I care about is whether the cat hurt you. But you’d do me fair amount of good if you could bring yourself to stop that dem cringing.”
I peeked at the strange man in front of me who still stood with his gun aimed at the big cat. I shook my head and told him, “You’re like my father. It’ll take some getting used to. I never thought to meet another like him. I’ll … I’ll try and do as you bid me.”
“Good. Now for the last time …”
“That cat never came near me. It was thinking about it but you never gave it a chance to act.”
“Stay here,” he ordered roughly before going close to make sure the big cat was truly dead. “Jaguar. Haven’t had one in this area in years. They usually stay well to the south of us.”
“I’ve never seen a spotted cat this size before. You say it is called a jug where?”
“A jag-u-ar … jaguar. According to Uncle Fid you used to only see this kind of big cat down in Mexi territory. Then during the Dark Days and all that came after, many animals moved their territories fighting to survive the changes the war wrought, same as man was fighting to survive. Some moved in here but my great grandfather and his brothers hunted them until they were gone. Uncle Fid said there were a couple around when I was a boy but I never saw them. Something must’ve happened to push ‘em back up this way.”
I nodded. “I … well …”
“Spit it out,” Gid said as he took a rope off his belt and started to string the jaguar and the two deer into a tree.
“The drought. Maybe its prey moved out of where it used to live and it was looking for new hunting grounds.”
Not the least affronted Gid nodded, “Likely as anything else and likelier than most.” He cut the animals so that the blood could drain and finally turned and came over to me and wrapped me in his arms.
Surprised I looked up into his face. “Did … did I do wrong by trying to take the deer?”
“No.” He sighed and set me from him. “It was a good shot. I’d been tracking you, coming to ask if you wanted a walk to the stream when I noticed you’d started to track something yourself. You step awful light and I lost you for a moment or I would have been here sooner.” He shook his head. “I saw you fight back the scream and then saw what had scared you. That arrow might have worked on a mountain lion but it wouldn’t have on that jaguar.” He shook his head again. “You sure you’re ok?”
I looked at him in surprise. “Why shouldn’t I be? You’re here.”
I hadn’t meant anything beyond what I was thinking but he gave me a deep look and then backed me against a tree. “Gid?”
All he did was grunt as he started putting his hands where he was want to put them whether it was daytime or dark. He wasn’t rough but I was shaking by the time he stopped. He muttered, “Wish there was time for more but I need to get this meat back to the cabin. Will you wait here while I go back and get Rook?” I nodded, unable to look at him. He continued, “We’ll be the rest of the day dealing with the two deer and skinning the cat.”
“You … you don’t eat the … the jaguars?” I asked, thinking back on some of the cats that Wash had made me cook.
“Not this one. It has a festering sour on a rear leg. You probably didn’t see it … I didn’t until I strung it up. That’s why I hung it on a different branch than the deer. The fur is still good though and it will bring a good price in a trade unless I make it into a coat for you.”
“Oh … oh there’s no need,” I started to say, worried that I was making work for him.
He swooped in and stole my breath with another of the strange kisses that he seemed to enjoy giving and then said, “There’s every need but you’d stand out and I don’t wish to see some hunter go after you all for the sake of my vanity. We’ll get you a warm cloak but that spotted fur might …”
“If it’ll bring more in a trade then use it for that.”
He grunted but would only say, “We’ll see.” And with that he was off to get Rook. I knew he wouldn’t want me wandering far so I looked to see what else I could see to keep my mind from dwelling on the three carcasses swaying slightly as they hung well above the ground.
I was practically on top of them before I figured out what I was seeing … currants. They were just beginning to ripen and were the black kind and I was so excited to find them. Aunt Giselle had bought and sold dried currants by the pound when she could get them as they were favorites of both cooks and brewers; I’d just never seen very many fresh ones. Usually all I handled were dried currants.
I had a cloth full of the dark berries by the time Gid came back. He whistled for me and I startled Rook by appearing almost beneath his nose. “There you are,” Gid said gruffly. “Thought you’d gone off by yourself.”
I shook my head and told him quietly, “I’d not misbehave for you like that Gid.”
“No, suppose not. And don’t look so downcast. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings over it.”
“You didn’t. I just don’t want to do anything to make you think I’d do you that way.”
He sighed. “We’ll work on it; you not being so skittish and always worrying you’ll make me mad and I’ll try and learn I don’t have to watch you every second. Why don’t you go back to your berrying and let me get to work.”
“Don’t you want me to do something useful?”
“You’re already doing something useful,” he said with a wink. “I’m partial to sweets like them oat cakes you made on the trail.”
I was never sure what to make of Gid when he was like this. “I mean the mulies. Don’t you want me to do something useful with the mulies.”
He’d already gone to work on the first deer and said, “You’ll help at the cabin. I’ll whistle when I’m ready to head back.”
I knew I only had about thirty minutes so I continued picking currants but also noted the sound of water nearby. Hesitantly since I wasn’t sure he would appreciate the interruption I asked, “Gid?”
“What water is that? The water that I can hear from here?”
“That’s the stream. It’s a little higher than normal but further down there are a couple of real quiet pools. Some of those further up as well. Uncle Fid and I would go fishing in those pools when there was time. Late in the fall there’s a bit of water not too far where we can get what the locals call kokanee salmon.”
Startled I spoke before thinking. “The water goes to the ‘Cific?!”
I tried not to cringe but it was hard to break such an ingrained habit. Gid made no comment if he saw and instead asked me, “You know what kokanee is?”
“I … I know what salmon is. There’s a people group that some call the Klamath. That’s the name used for an ancient tribe of people but these Klamath take the name from a place that used to exist on the old west coast of the country. The Bards from that area say that the new Klamath descended from survivors from the years of the volcanoes and quakes. I’ve seen a few but their group is small and sickly because they lived too close to a corrupted place in the beginning and the sickness got into their blood and travels down to their children, when they have any. They are shunned for everything but their salmon trade.”
Thinking back to what I had heard I answered, “Their children are born deformed about a quarter of the time. Those that live have a hard life and it makes them … different beyond what shows on the outside. They have no fear of death, even welcome it when it is their time. So because they have no fear they walk into the dangerous areas to fish for the best salmon and even take it from the giant grizzles. It makes people … envious and then angry that they are envious of such a corrupted people.”
Ignoring the last part Gid asked me, “Grizzles? You mean grizzlies?”
I nodded. “Grizzles. Giant, mean tempered bears. I … I’ll try and remember to call them by your word for them from now on.”
“Hmm. Grizzles, grizzlies, doesn’t matter so long as we understand each other. We get ‘em around here a few times a year. I expect to have more trouble with ‘em due to the livestock. But might be able to take advantage of that. One of those ol’ bears will make a fine bed cover for winter … or a rug for a babe to roll about on.”
I nearly dropped the basket I carried. “Gid?”
“Uh … never mind.”
He stopped what he was doing and looked at me and I quickly got back to pulling currants but I couldn’t hide my red face. Gid chuckled. “You might as well get used to the idea Yulee. If I’m half as fertile as my father we’ll have this place full of sprats before I’ve even got my first gray hair … and sure my dad had a head full of gray and was still banging them out.”
I could barely breathe for all the red in my face. I managed to whisper, “You’d … you’d want babes? From me?”
“From who else?”
He asked so casually and had returned to dressing the carcasses that I dared to stand up straight and look over at him. I had nothing to say. I only seemed to want to look at him. He glanced at me and saw me looking at him and smiled. My face felt odd again as it did on occasion with him. I reached up and my skin was cool to the touch but I realized my lips were smiling. Then I did have to tuck my face and look away. Gid just laughed a manly laugh and I had to bite my bottom lip to keep my composure.