In honor of the second seasons premiere being just around the corner, I give you another book nine teaser :).
[In which a massive storm breaks on Fraser’s Ridge, and Claire rushes out to rescue the chickens.]
I stood gasping for a moment, wiping sweat off my face with my apron, but a premonitory spatter of raindrops against the hide covering the window sent me running for the back door, seizing a large covered basket on my way.
Fourteen Nankin hens, four Scots Dumpys and two roosters. The Nankin hens liked to roost in the low branches of the hornbeam near their coop, but the roosters could be anywhere…
Sure enough, a number of round, wind-ruffled shapes were huddled together in clumps amid the lower branches of the hornbeam. One, two, three, four, five… I counted as I snatched them out of the tree and stuffed them ruthlessly into my basket. They squawked but didn’t really resist; chickens are not bright, but I thought they might have enough sense to be thankful at being rescued from the coming storm. The air temperature had dropped a good ten degrees in the last few minutes.
Eight so far….where were the others?
“Chook-chook-chook-chook-chook!” I called, my voice scarcely audible above the wind. A faint squawk, torn away, but enough to turn my attention toward the hen-coop. Yes, two more underneath, the big red hen, huddling over her brood of tiny chicks, and one of the roosters, feathers standing out like quills and his yellow eyes quite mad—he pecked savagely at my wrist when I reached for the red hen, drawing blood.
I said a few things under my breath and seized him by the neck. I was tempted to wring it then and there, but instead stood up, jerked open the door of the coop and tossed him into it, narrowly avoiding being ripped by his spurs. I decanted the contents of the basket after him, dropped to my knees and grabbed the red hen, threw her into the coop as well, then slammed the door, fell to my knees and scrabbled madly after the chicks.
The rain was starting to fall in earnest now, no more of this playful pattering. Cold drops struck my back, hard as pebbles. How many chicks were there? I was tossing them into my apron, trying to keep count as I reached into the deep shadows under the coop. My fingers struck something hard that rolled—a stray egg. Heartened by that, I stuck it into my pocket and with a last inquiring, “chook-chook?” decided I had them all and shook the little balls of fluff into the warm dark of the reeking coop, where they dashed about like so many crazed ping-pong balls before zeroing in on their clucking mother.
I closed the door and dropped the latch, then stood breathing heavily for a moment, realizing that the reason the raindrops fell so cold and heavily was that they were in fact hailstones. Tiny white spheres were bouncing off my head and dancing on the ground, rapidly covering the scattered bits of cracked corn and chicken droppings.
I pulled the shawl over my head and searched under the [ ] bushes near the coop, then further up the path toward Malva’s Garden—the hens loved to go in there and eat the ghastly tomato hookworms off the wild vines, more power to them—but there was no sign of movement among the pokeweeds and [ ], other than the wind. The hail stopped as abruptly as it had started, and I shook melting bits of ice off my shoulders, wondering where the hell to look next.
I threw back my head and shouted, “Cock-a-doodle-dooooo!” several times, as loudly as I could; sometimes you could induce a pugnacious rooster to answer you, but not today.
I felt an increasing sense of panic. The wind was whipping my skirts around my legs and I could feel the spatter of fine drops against my cheeks; Jamie hadn’t been wrong in his predictions of what would happen to the hens—I’d lost many, over the years, to foxes and other predators, but many more to the vagaries of the weather. If they weren’t blown away, they might well freeze to death sitting in a tree overnight, their feathered carcasses thumping to the ground at dawn like cannon balls.
I ran down the path to the spring-house—no sign of chickens—then up and across to the privy; the Dumpys liked to shelter in the honeysuckle vines sometimes…
The door stood ajar—some thoughtless male had doubtless neglected to close it properly—and I pulled it open, though gingerly. I’d once opened a privy door and surprised an enormous rattlesnake, coiled on the seat. The surprise had been sufficiently mutual that I’d never again opened such a door without caution.
The caution was justified on this occasion, though the privy luckily contained neither chickens nor snakes. It did contain a startled red squirrel, who ran up the wall and clung to the rooftree, tail bushed out and chattering angrily at me.
“If you think you’re storing nuts in _here_ for the autumn,” I said, leveling a forefinger at him, “think again.”
A sudden thunder of fresh hail on the tin roof galvanized me back into action and I ran toward the barn through a small blizzard. If any of those damned hens were out in this, they’d be killed—these hailstones were the size of unripe gooseberries and almost as hard, stinging where they struck my unprotected hands and face.
The barn door was halfway open; I glimpsed Clarence the mule’s gray bulk in the gloom, and he brayed companionably at me when I stepped in, breathless with running through a hailstorm. He wasn’t in a stall; he’d evidently leapt the fence and walked sensibly into the barn when he felt the weather coming on. He was casually plucking mouthfuls of hay from the pile on the floor, despite the fact that another refugee from the storm was using the hay as well. The white sow was reclining majestically in the scattered heap, accompanied by two black-spotted daughters, each about half her size, all of them looking pleased with themselves.
I hadn’t come this close to the white sow in a couple of years, and stopped dead at sight of her, so near at hand. She was immense—I gauged her at something between five and six hundred pounds at the moment—and well-known for her irascible temperament.
“Fancy meeting _you_ here,” I said, pressing myself against the wall and trying not to make any move she might regard as threatening. Even Clarence was maintaining a respectful distance from the porcine trio. I glanced to and fro—if the chickens were in here, they could bloody well stay here--but nothing moved along the walls or scrabbled for grain on the hard-packed dirt of the floor. Possibly the pigs had eaten them.
I edged back out, carefully leaving the door half-open. If a pig that size had a mind to leave a place, it left, and the presence or absence of a door was immaterial.
The hail had turned back into rain, and it was pissing down. What now? I wrapped the shawl more tightly round my body and prepared to make a run for the house. If the remaining chickens hadn’t found shelter by now, it was likely too late.