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Across the Pond

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Summer, 1759

"Onahsakenra," Mani said, pointing at the bird in de Fronsac's hand.

"Goose," de Fronsac said, as he stepped shirtless and dripping back onto dry land. Not having a retriever dog and being unable to convince Mani to play the part of one, de Fronsac had been forced to wade into the pond to get it himself after making the kill. "We call it a goose, specifically a Canada goose. There are other kinds," he added. Their first weeks together had spent on learning basic verbs, numbers, colors, units of time, directions, land formations, and other categories of words deemed most useful for communicating information on British troop movements, but now he was slowly working his language lessons towards his own personal interests and trying to learn about how the Mohawk viewed the division of closely related species. So far, they still did not have enough shared vocabulary to address the subject in as much depth as de Fronsac would have liked, but they got a little closer every day.

His superiors had given him a sous-lieutenant's commission before sending him to New France, because everyone knew that the common soldiers would never allow a man without rank to inconvenience them with demands for the acquisition, preservation, and cataloging of scientific specimens. He was accomplishing little enough of his mission even with his rank and more than enough official paperwork to prove that he was acting with the direct blessing of the king's own ministers. And then they had captured Mani. The captain had claimed to be doing him a favor and suggested that de Fronsac could take Mani home as yet another preserved specimen once they were done with him. The man had not even pretended to be joking, and de Fronsac counted it as one of the many reasons why he would never mourn the captain's death at Mani's hands.

De Fronsac suspected that he had been given the job of teaching Mani French specifically as a means of keeping him occupied enough to lessen his demands on the soldiers' time, but ironically Mani turned out to be exactly what he needed, both in terms of a resource for studying the local flora and fauna and in terms of companionship. However, for all that de Fronsac and Mani got along with each other far better than either got along with any of de Fronsac's fellow Frenchmen, de Fronsac knew that Mani might respect his quest for knowledge but did not entirely approve of his methods. He dropped the bird onto the grass and sat down beside it so that he could take his boots off and empty the water out of them.

Mani moved the goose further to the side and sat down between it and de Fronsac, his shoulder bumping against de Fronsac's and his far hand surreptitiously stroking over the bird's feathers as he stared out across the water.

"Don't look at me like that," de Fronsac said. He could feel Mani's full body tension transmitting through the point where their upper arms were touching.

"Not looking at you," Mani said.

"You know what I mean," de Fronsac said, himself not looking up from picking bits of water weeds from his stockings. Of the three varieties stuck to him, he had already pressed and dried more complete specimens of each of them, so he flicked the broken fragments back into the pond. "I did not kill this goose, this onahsakenra," and here he barely stumbled over the new word, having spent the past month learning almost as much of the Mohawk language as Mani was learning French, "just for the enjoyment of killing it. After I record its measurements, we are going to give it to the camp cooks, along with a few more of its fellows if we can get them. The camp cooks will in turn feed everyone well enough that, for the next day or two at least, no one will be tempted to eat any of the specimens which I do want to keep."

He punctuated his statement with a grunt as he pulled one of his boots back on. It squelched, but at least it was not sloshing anymore. He reached for the other one. Going in barefoot had not been an option, not since Mani had taught him the word a'nowara , meaning turtle, several days earlier and then demonstrated how large of a stick the local snapping turtles could bite through. De Fronsac was not sure boot leather would be much protection against jaws like that, but it had to be better than nothing. He doubted any of the blacksmiths on this side of the Atlantic had much skill in making old-fashioned steel sabatons, but maybe he could ask around the next chance that he got, just in case.

"Not looking at you," Mani repeated, this time with equal parts exasperation and resignation. "Looking there."

De Fronsac finally looked up from his boots and followed the direction of Mani's pointing finger. His eyes went wide, and his mouth dropped open into a silent "O" of surprise. Four wolves were staring back at him from across the pond. It was an adult breeding pair and their two juvenile offspring if he had to guess. The juveniles were not yet fully grown but were well past the stage of being called puppies, and the adult she-wolf looked like she might already be carrying her next litter. He marveled that they had not been frightened away by the sound of their voices or the sound of his gun. Even knowing that the local Indians only hunted wolves infrequently and for ceremonial reasons still favored using bows and arrows on the rare occasions when they did so, it seemed so improbable to a man who had grown up in a land where it seemed like wolves had known to hide from men with guns almost as soon as guns were first brought into their woods.

There was a part of him that itched for the trigger of his own gun, a plain-looking but well-made long rifle from one of the best gunsmiths in Paris. A rifle was slower to load than the more standard musket, but for his purposes its improved accuracy more than made up for what it lacked in speed. He had left it propped against a tree several yards away after shooting the goose, but the wolves seemed so unconcerned by his and Mani's presence that he had no doubt he would be able to get to it, reload, and make his shot as long as he was sure to do so carefully, without any sudden movements. They were close enough that it would be almost impossible to miss from this distance. If he took the she-wolf, then he would be able to study both the adult and the unborn pups as well. And yet....

He knew full well that Mani disapproved of wastefully killing an animal just to display its body without doing anything more useful with it, and somehow, the longer that they spent together, the more important Mani's approval became to de Fronsac. They all needed to eat, so he could justify the goose and others like it, but he could not use the same excuses to justify taking the she-wolf or any of her companions. The soldiers killed any wolf they could find, and no one's orders, especially not de Fronsac's, would get them to do otherwise; he could study those wolves with less guilt. The few points of data he lost by forgoing this kill were worth it to stay in Mani's favor, not because of his usefulness, but because there were so few things left in this world which made Mani happy instead of hurting him, and de Fronsac was beginning to understand that, if it was at all possible, he wanted to be counted among the good in Mani's life, not the bad.

No, he would not go for his gun. And then, in a moment of clarity which pained him in a way that his previous decision did not, he realized that he could not go for his folio, pencils, and colors either, because he was still wet enough to destroy any paper he tried to use. With a silent, mirthless laugh at himself, de Fronsac released the breath he had been holding, finally pulled his second boot back on, and settled into a more comfortable sitting position. If nothing else, he could still watch and memorize all as much as he could and consider the opportunity to be a pleasure on a warm day with pleasant company, such as he had now. Beside him, he could feel Mani beginning to relax as well, and though neither said anything about it, de Fronsac suspected that he had just passed a crucial test.

Mani took his hand from the goose and, with the ghost of a smile, leaned more heavily against de Fronsac's shoulder. De Fronsac did not object in the slightest, but he did flick the last bit of clinging water weed off of his breeches and into Mani's lap, just to see how the other man would react. Without a word, Mani flicked it right back again. And so it went, the two men sat and silently kept their eyes fixed on the wolves while occasionally flicking a piece of water weed back and forth at one another without looking, their smiles growing wider with each pass, like a pair of overgrown schoolboys trying to distract each other while still paying heed to their lessons.

The wolves each drank their fill, and the juveniles frolicked at the water's edge for a time, while the adults lounged watchfully in the sun, much like the humans on the far side of the pond, only without the water weed. Nothing lasts forever, though. After a dozen or so passes, the piece of water weed succumbed to its abuses, shredding into damp green fragments too small to fly well, and eventually the adult wolves herded their offspring back into the concealment of the forest's shadowed depths. If the change in the sun's position was to be believed, less than a quarter of an hour had elapsed.

De Fronsac closed his eyes and enjoyed the sun and the silence for a few more moments before he turned to Mani, pointed in the direction the wolves had gone, and asked, "Rahtentyes kayeri okwaho?"

"Four wolves leave," Mani translated with a nod of approval.

"And perhaps we should do the same," de Fronsac said. "Even without the wolves, the rest of the geese appear to have grown wise to our ways and made themselves scarce. If we go back to the first pond we visited today, we might have more luck." He made a move to stand, but Mani caught him by the arm and held him in place.

"Or we stay here and have different kind luck," Mani said. He looked around the quiet pond, then at de Fronsac, then at the soft grass on which they sat, and then back at de Fronsac with a grin and a meaningful tilt of his head.

De Fronsac raised an eyebrow then did his own quick survey of their surroundings, more to give himself a moment to think than to check for danger. They had the place to themselves. They were miles from camp and in the opposite direction from where the expedition's scouting parties were currently being sent. No one would be stumbling across them here today, and there were plenty of other animals around which the local wolves would rather eat before they tried to make a meal of a pair of wayward humans. Mani appeared to be quite sincere in his offer, and de Fronsac saw no reason to refuse.

"Alright," de Fronsac said, "just let me put my shirt back on first, before I start to sunburn."

"You afraid become red man?" Mani laughed.

"I'm afraid of becoming a shade reminiscent of cooked crayfish followed by peeling like a snake a few days later," de Fronsac said. "Becoming an Iroquois doesn't sound half bad though, if such a thing were possible." He stood, and this time Mani let him go. He took the goose with him so as to move it out of the way.

"Yes?" Mani asked his retreating back.

"Yes," de Fronsac said as he dropped back onto the ground, now more clothed than before, though he had left his coat and waistcoat off because they would only get in the way.

"Maybe someday," Mani said. "Must teach you more first. Much more." He leaned in and claimed de Fronsac's mouth in a deep kiss.

"You know me, always happy to learn," de Fronsac said when they finally parted. No lessons were immediately forthcoming though, because they were both too busy using their mouths for other things. It was the best afternoon either of them had had in a very long time.