A Wrong to Set Right by Darcy Armstrong

1

Paislee McNair

The sun was blinding overhead.

Paislee ran, heedless of the long grass, hitching her dress up to her hips and laughing in joyous abandon.

Ahead of her, she could see Drummond’s back as he walked. His hand trailed down to the flowers on either side, letting them curve and curl under his fingers, feeling the touch of late summer in the stickiness of sweet pollen and the smell of honey. It was hot, but not uncomfortably so; the perfect afternoon for a stroll through the lower outfields.

Her husband heard her approach and paused. Then, slowly, he turned his head, first revealing his profile; sharp, with a nose almost too long yet somehow perfect, and full lips with a ready smile. A shock of bright red hair, and a dusting of freckles on his cheek. He regarded her with bright blue eyes that were full of amusement, and she ran towards that face she’d grown to love so much.

Drummond smiled and raised his hands at the last minute to catch her in a crashing embrace, joining in with her laughter, spinning her around with her own momentum and lifting her high into the air. Paislee felt the warmth of his grip on her hips, and the safety it promised.

And she knew that as long as she had her Drummond, everything in the world made sense.

* * *

Paislee McNair awakenedfrom the familiar dream.

Fifteen years.

Fifteen years since she lost her husband, and still she dreamed of him. How long would it torment her? How long would it return, week after week, unchanging in its details? The field of flowers. Her eager run. The smell of sickly sweet nectar and the hum of bees. The sharp thrill of desire. And above all, the sense of promise and hope, when the world seemed so large, and nothing mattered save the newfound love they shared.

She drew in a shuddering breath. The room about her was hidden in the darkness before dawn, and the idea of remaining in the warm bed was tempting; to pull the sheet up and close her eyes, willing herself back to sleep.

But the farm wouldn’t run itself.

And so, instead of surrendering, Paislee pushed herself up and faced the day.

* * *

It often seemedto Paislee that the life of a farmer was one of finishing the first job, only to have three more spring up in the meantime. No matter how hard she worked, nor for how long, there was always something more urgent to do. Every morning was spent with careful consideration of outstanding tasks and how best to finish them, and every afternoon would invariably end with being pulled from one end of the farm to the other to deal with the unexpected issues that arose.

And today was proving to be no different.

They were in the lower outfields, deep in the valley at the northern end of the farm. The sun was high overhead and blinding hot, and Paislee was up to her thighs in mud.

She hadn’t planned on such an event, of course. And yet when Kester and Brodie Geddes, her two eager farmhands, had rushed to her side to inform her a cow had become stuck, there was simply nothing else for it. The animals of the An Càrnach farm were her livelihood, and she wasn’t about to lose any of them to something as innocuous as a trapped leg.

It was the weather, she knew. The summer had been long and hot, and the bogs at the bottom end of the field had appeared to dry over. It had taken the cows all season to trust the dried mud with their weight and for good reason; it seemed that it was only a thick crust, covering mud that still lay dormant underground, hidden from sight - as one of her cows had unfortunately discovered for themselves. The bog was thick and gave off an altogether unpleasant smell.

“Ready?” she asked, looking to each side. Kester and Brodie nodded grimly. They were spattered up to their waist in mud, much as she was, and at any other time the sight would have made her smile.

But not now, when there was still work to be done.

“Pull!” she cried, heaving with all her might. The lads on each side did the same, each of them finding what little purchase they could on the cow’s remaining limbs, even as it called in distress.

It was no use. However the cow’s leg had become trapped against the earth, it was held tight. She collapsed back and shook her head in despair.

“What now, Mrs McNair?” asked Kester.

“Now?” she asked, considering. “Now, I suppose it’s time for drastic measures.”

“Drastic?” the lad repeated uncertainly.

Paislee lifted one hand up and wiggled her fingers. “We need to ken what the foot is caught on. Who has the longest reach?”

Kester returned his eyes to the deep mud and looked at it distastefully. Beside him, Brodie pulled his face into a grimace. There was no doubt they both knew what was needed, and they also knew they were taller than her. When it came to the two of them, however, the distinction was a little less defined, being twins as they were. She watched them with amusement.

“Ye’re messier,” Kester said, gesturing to his brother. “Ye might as well do it.”

“Ye’re stronger,” Brodie replied. “If it’s a rock, ye’d be best to move it.”

“Ye can get yer hands in places I cannae, if it’s stuck in a crevice.”

Paislee raised her hand once more. “I’ll do it, lads,” she said, having no real intention of making either of them get onto their knees in the stinking mud. She’d made it a rule to never shy away from the toughest of jobs, nor to delegate anything she wasn’t prepared to do herself. And so if one of them was to get up to their shoulder in the mess, it was going to be Paislee.

Slowly, with searching fingers, she reached in. Her hand trailed hesitantly down the cow’s leg and her face drew closer to the surface of the mud. The stench was overpowering, and she scrunched her nose. Her arm was up to the elbow.

She felt the leg give way to hoof, and stretched further. The mud reached her shoulder.

Under her fingers, a hard shape. It was a stone. She tried to move it, but it was held fast, no doubt embedded into the very earth. Was the cow’s hoof trapped by the stone? There was a small lip underneath, but she couldn’t quite get her fingers under it for purchase. Her face was almost touching the bog, and she turned it to one side. It wasn’t enough. She needed another inch.

Paislee had no intention of putting her ear under the mud, knowing as she did such things could lead to illness and worse, but she needed that inch.

And so, with a sigh, she turned her head back to face the bog front-on, closed her eyes, held her breath, and lowered herself further.

She shuddered as she felt the mud cover her face, pushing deeper, only stopping when she felt it reach the skin just before her ears. Her hand returned to the rock and she reached under it, finding the lip once more and pulling up with all her might. And at that moment she was thankful for a life lived outdoors, filled with manual labour. Could a woman from Dun Lagaidh do this? The muscles in her arms tensed and she felt the rock shift slightly in the earth. Paislee relaxed, then heaved again, relaxed, and heaved.

It wobbled, and then all at once, the rock came loose and she pitched up and backwards, gasping for air even as the cow scrambled to its feet and out of the mud. She blew out hard, clearing the filth from her mouth and nose, gagging from the smell of it, looking back to the Geddes lads, knowing the sight she must have presented to them.

They stared back, wide eyed.

And then, as one, they burst out laughing.

Perhaps any other farm owner would have been offended. After all, here were the farmhands laughing at their employer. And yet that wasn’t how Paislee ran things at An Càrnach. In fact, she’d taken great pains to make sure it wasn’t.

And so, after a moment, she surrendered to the humour of the situation, and laughed right alongside them.

* * *

“And when Mrs McNairlifted her face, it was completely covered in mud,” Brodie said over the dinner table.

Paislee watched Brigid McNair absorb the information with wide eyes. “Completely?” her daughter asked, looking towards her mother.

“Aye,” Paislee admitted. “But I did get the cow out, didnae? And I’ve heard wealthy women from France pay good coin to cover their faces with mud.”

“They dinnae,” Brigid said in a disbelieving tone.

“They do,” she said. “Keeps the skin young, so they say. Perhaps we should both go down there tomorrow and take turns dipping ours in?” Paislee watched in satisfaction as her daughter’s face recoiled in horror.

“I… I…” Brigid spluttered.

“Or we could gather it up and sell it at the markets?” she mused. “The best quality farm mud.”

The Geddes lads looked less than enthused. “We smelled it, Mrs McNair,” Kester said. “Ye’d need to pay people to take it, no' the other way around.”

She sighed theatrically. “And there goes another business venture.”

Brigid laughed, finally realising her mother was making a joke, and after a moment the Geddes lads joined her. There was a general feeling of good cheer at the table, as there was at the end of every hard day, and Paislee looked at them all with a fond smile.

McNair and Geddes; the unlikely family of An Càrnach. The mother, the daughter, and the surrogate older brothers.

After dinner was finished and the dishes cleaned away, Paislee stepped out of the house to look down into the outfields. To her left, the sun sank lower. Her farm wasn’t large compared to those that lay in the west, where the foothills and scree gave way to more fertile ground, yet what she had was more than enough for a single woman to manage. There were no crops, as she lacked the labour and equipment required for sowing and harvesting, despite having ample field space.

Instead, Paislee had long ago decided to run a smaller operation that specialised in cattle and animal produce.

In her case, it was mostly cows and sheep, together with chickens, to supply various merchants in Dun Lagaidh. It was a far cry from the heyday of An Càrnach, where the infields would be full of wheat and barley at this time of year. Yet by eschewing crops for cattle, it allowed her to manage the place with only the four of them, which suited her just fine. The farm produced enough to give them a comfortable, though difficult, life.

Paislee wondered what Drummond’s family would have made of An Càrnach today. Generations ago, the McNair family had been granted permanent tenant rights by the McCaskill lairds to live and work on the farm, and had done so for as long as anyone could remember. And yet, through the terrible circumstances of war, the son had been killed, and the parents died shortly after, leaving no other relatives.

And so it was that the tenancy passed to Paislee McNair; recently married, recently widowed; the latest addition to the McNair family, and the only one remaining.

As she stood at the edge of the house and looked down into the fields, Paislee wondered if the feeling of being a fraud would ever go away. After all, she’d run the farm for fifteen years now, and with modest success at that. No, it wasn’t what it once was, but many things had changed in the face of decades of war. Surely, just the fact that the farm still existed was something to be celebrated.

And who knew? Perhaps An Càrnach would one day return to its glory days, where it was known far and wide for the quality of its crops. Its future certainly seemed to be in good hands. Her daughter, having only just recently seen her fifteenth summer, could already read and write, and knew her sums better than Paislee herself. Even as young as she was, Brigid had a mind that was inclined towards consideration and pragmatism, and was mature beyond her years. It was balanced nicely with the Geddes lads, who had originally been brought in as simple labour at fourteen years old or thereabouts, but now, into their early twenties, took on more responsibility with each passing season.

And even after Paislee was gone, she knew the three of them would be up to any task, and the thought filled her with hope.

At last, the sun sank in the west, and she returned inside. They modelled their own habits after the charting of the day, as most farmers did; early to bed, and early to rise. She locked the door and walked through the kitchen and into the long hall, towards her quarters, and to sleep.

Such was the life of a farmer.