Page 78

“What did he tell you?” I demanded fiercely. “Where are you going?”

The dark stringy little man hesitated for a moment, but answered evenly, “I’m to go wi’ young Absalom toward Wentworth and keep watch in that direction. If any Redcoats are headin’ this way, I’m to beat them here, and if there’s time, I’m to see you and him both hidden, then ride off with three horses, to draw followers away from the Manor. There’s a cellar; it might do for hiding, if the search isna too thorough.”

“And if there isn’t time to hide?” I eyed him narrowly, daring him not to answer.

“Then I’m to kill him, and take you wi’ me,” he answered promptly. “Willing or no,” he added, with an evil grin, and turned to go.

“Just a minute!” I spoke sharply and he stopped. “Do you have an extra dirk?”

His scruffy brows shot upward, but his hand went to his belt without hesitation.

“Do ye need one? Here?” His glance took in the opulence and serenity of the entrance hall, with its painted Adam ceiling and linenfold paneling.

My dagger-pocket was shredded beyond use. I took the proffered dagger, and slid it between kirtle and bodice in the back, as I had seen the Gypsy women do.

“One never knows, does one?” I said evenly.

Preparations complete, I probed as gently as possible, assessing harm, deciding what must be done. Jamie drew in his breath sharply when I touched an especially bad spot, but kept his eyes closed as I felt my way slowly along each separate bone and joint, noting the position of each fracture and dislocation. “Sorry,” I murmured.

I took his good hand as well, and felt carefully down each finger of both the good hand and the injured, making comparisons. With neither X rays nor experience to guide me, I would have to depend on my own sensitivity to find and realign the smashed bones.

The first joint was all right, but the second phalange was cracked, I thought. I pressed harder to determine the length and direction of the crack. The damaged hand stayed motionless in my fingers, but the good one made a small, involuntary clenching gesture.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured once more.

The good hand pulled suddenly out of my grasp as Jamie raised himself on one elbow. Spitting out the leather gag, he regarded me with an expression between amusement and exasperation.

“Sassenach,” he said, “if you apologize each time ye hurt me, it’s going to be a verra long night—and it’s lasted some time already.”

I must have looked stricken, because he started to reach toward me, then stopped, wincing at the movement. He controlled the pain, though, and spoke firmly. “I know you dinna wish to hurt me. But you’ve no more choice about it than I have, and there’s no need for more than one of us to suffer for it. You do what’s needed, and I’ll scream if I have to.”

Replacing the leather strip, he bared his clenched teeth ferociously at me, then slowly and deliberately crossed his eyes. This made him look so like an addlepated tiger that I burst into half-hysterical laughter before I could stop myself.

I clapped my hands over my mouth, cheeks flaming as I saw the astonished looks on the faces of Lady Annabelle and the servants, who, standing behind Jamie, naturally could see nothing of his face. Sir Marcus, who had caught a brief glimpse from his seat at the bedside, grinned in his spade-shaped beard.

“Besides,” said Jamie, spitting out the leather once more, “if the English turn up after this, I expect I’ll beg them to take me back.”

I picked up the leather, put it between his teeth and pushed his head down again.

“Clown,” I said. “Know-all. Sodding hero.” But he had relieved me of a burden, and I worked more calmly. If I still noticed every twitch and grimace, at least I no longer felt it as badly.

I began to lose myself in the concentration of the job, directing all my awareness to my fingertips, assessing each point of damage and deciding how best to draw the smashed bones back into alignment. Luckily the thumb had suffered least; only a simple fracture of the first joint. That would heal clean. The second knuckle on the fourth finger was completely gone; I felt only a pulpy grating of bone chips when I rolled it gently between my own thumb and forefinger, making Jamie groan. Nothing could be done about that, save splint the joint and hope for the best.

The compound fracture of the middle finger was the worst to contemplate. The finger would have to be pulled straight, drawing the protruding bone back through the torn flesh. I had seen this done before—under general anesthesia, with the guidance of X rays.

To this point, it had been more a mechanical problem than a real one, deciding how to reconstruct a smashed, disembodied hand. I was now smack up against the reason that physicians seldom treat members of their own families. Some jobs in medicine require a certain ruthlessness to complete successfully; detachment is necessary to inflict pain in the process of effecting a healing.

Quietly, Sir Marcus had brought up a stool by the side of the bed. He settled his bulk comfortably as I finished the strapping, and gripped Jamie’s good hand with his own.

“Squeeze all ye like, lad,” he said.

Divested of the bearskin, and with his grizzled locks neatly clubbed and laced back, MacRannoch was no longer the intimidating wildman of the forest, but appeared as a soberly clad man of late middle age, with a neatly trimmed spade-beard and a military bearing. Nervous at what I was about to attempt, I found his solid presence comforting.

I drew a deep breath and prayed for detachment.

It was a long, horrible, nerve-wracking job, though not without its fascination. Some parts, such as the splinting of the two fingers with simple fractures, went quite easily. Others did not. Jamie did scream—loudly—when I set his middle finger, exerting the considerable force necessary to draw the ends of splintered bone back through the skin. I hesitated for an instant, unnerved, but “Go on, lass!” Sir Marcus said with quiet urgency.

I remembered suddenly what Jamie had said to me, the night Jenny’s baby was born: I can bear pain, myself, but I could not bear yours. That would take more strength than I have. He was right; it did take strength; I hoped that each of us had enough.

Jamie’s face was turned away from me, but I could see the jaw muscles bunch as he clenched his teeth harder on the leather strip. I clenched my own teeth and did go on; the sharp bone end slowly disappeared back through the skin and the finger straightened with agonizing reluctance, leaving us both trembling.

As I worked, I began to lose consciousness of anything outside the job I was doing. Jamie groaned occasionally, and we had to stop twice briefly in order for him to be sick, retching up mostly whisky, as he had taken little food in prison. For the most part, though, he kept up a low, constant muttering in Gaelic, forehead pressed hard against Sir Marcus’s knees. I couldn’t tell through the leather gag whether he was cursing or praying.

All five fingers eventually lay straight as new pins, stiff as sticks in their bandaged splints. I was afraid of infection, particularly from the torn middle finger, but otherwise was fairly sure they would heal well. By good luck, only the one joint had been badly damaged. It would likely leave him with a stiff ring finger, but the others might function normally—in time. There was nothing I could do about the cracked metacarpal bones or the puncture wound except apply an antiseptic wash and a poultice and pray against a tetanus infection. I stepped back, shaking in every limb from the strain of the night, my bodice soaked with sweat from the fire’s heat at my back.

Lady Annabelle was at my side at once, guiding me to a chair and pressing a cup of tea, laced with whisky, into my shaking hands. Sir Marcus, as good an operating-room assistant as any physician could have, was unfastening Jamie’s captive arm and rubbing the marks where the strap had bitten deep into straining flesh. The older man’s hand was red, I saw, where Jamie had gripped it.

I was not aware of having nodded off, but suddenly jerked, my head snapping on my neck. Lady Annabelle was urging me upward, soft hand under my elbow. “Come along, my dear. You’re all in; you must have your own hurts seen to, and sleep a bit.”

I shook her off as politely as possible. “No, I can’t. I must finish…” My words trailed off into the fuzziness of my mind, as Sir Marcus smoothly took the vinegar bottle and rag from my hand.

“I’ll take care of the rest,” he said. “I’ve some experience wi’ field dressing, ye understand.” Flipping back the blankets, he began to swab the blood from the whip cuts, moving with a brisk gentleness that was impressive. Catching my eye, he grinned, beard tilted jauntily. “I’ve cleansed a good many stripes in my time,” he said. “And applied a few too. These are naught, lass; they’ll heal in a few days.” Knowing he was right, I walked up to the head of the cot. Jamie was awake, grimacing slightly at the sting of the antiseptic solution on the raw cuts, but his eyelids were heavy and the blue eyes darkened with pain and weariness.

“Go and sleep, Sassenach. I’ll do.”

Whether he would or not, I didn’t know. It was clear, however, that I wouldn’t do, or not for much longer. I was swaying with exhaustion and the scratches on my legs were beginning to burn and ache. Absalom had cleansed them for me at the cottage, but they needed salving.

I nodded numbly and turned in response to Lady Annabelle’s gently insistent pressure on my elbow.

Halfway up the stairs, I remembered that I had forgotten to tell Sir Marcus how to bandage the cuts. The deep wounds over the shoulders would have to be bound and padded, to allow for wearing a shirt over them when we made our escape. But the lighter lash-marks should be left in the open air to scab over. I took a quick look at the guestroom Lady Annabelle showed me, then excused myself with a word and stumbled back down the stairs toward the drawing room.

I paused in the shadowed doorway, Lady Annabelle behind me. Jamie’s eyes were closed; apparently he had fallen into a doze brought on by whisky and fatigue. The blankets were thrown back, rendered unnecessary by the heat of the fire. Sir Marcus casually rested a hand on Jamie’s bare rump as he reached across the bed for a rag. The effect was electric. Jamie’s back arched sharply, the muscles of his buttocks clenched tightly and he let out an involuntary sound of protest, flinging himself backward in spite of the shattered ribs, to glare up at Sir Marcus with startled, dazed eyes. Startled himself, Sir Marcus stood stock-still for a second, then leaned forward and took Jamie by the arm, gently settling him facedown once more. Thoughtfully he drew a finger very gingerly across Jamie’s flesh. He rubbed his fingers together, leaving an oily sheen visible in the firelight.

“Oh,” he said matter-of-factly. The old soldier drew the blanket up to Jamie’s waist, and I saw the tense shoulders relax slightly under their dressing.

Sir Marcus seated himself companionably near Jamie’s head and poured another pair of whiskies. “At least he had the consideration to grease ye a bit beforehand,” he observed, handing one beaker to Jamie, who heaved himself laboriously up on his elbows to accept it.

“Aye, well. I dinna think it was so much for my convenience,” he said dryly.

Sir Marcus took a gulp of his drink and smacked his lips meditatively. There was no sound for a moment save the crackle of flames, but neither Lady Annabelle nor I made any motion to enter the room.

“If it’s any comfort to ye,” Sir Marcus said suddenly, eyes fixed on the decanter, “he’s dead.”

“You’re sure?” Jamie’s tone was unreadable.

“I dinna see how anybody could live after bein’ trampled flat by thirty half-ton beasts. He peeked out into the corridor to see what was causin’ the noise, then tried to go back when he saw. A horn caught him by the sleeve and pulled him out, and I saw him go down next to the wall. Sir Fletcher an’ I were on the stair, keepin’ out o’ the way. O’ course Sir Fletcher was rare excited, and sent some men after ’im, but they couldna get anywhere near, with all the horns pokin’ and beasts shovin’, and the torches shook down from the wall wi’ the ruckus. Christ, man, ye should ha’ seen it!” Sir Marcus hooted at the memory, clutching the decanter by the neck. “Your wife’s a rare lass, and no mistake, lad!” Snorting, he poured out another glass and gulped, choking a bit as the laugh interfered with the swallow.

“Anyway,” he resumed, pounding himself on the chest, “by the time we’d cleared the cattle out, there was no much left but a rag doll rolled in blood. Sir Fletcher’s men carried him awa’, but if he was still livin’ then, he didna last long. A bit more, lad?”

“Aye, thanks.”

There was a short silence, broken by Jamie. “No, I canna say it’s much comfort to me, but thank ye for tellin’ me.” Sir Marcus looked at him shrewdly.

“Mmphm. Ye’re no goin’ to forget it,” he said abruptly. “Don’t bother to try. If ye can, let it heal like the rest o’ your wounds. Don’t pick at it, and it’ll mend clean.” The old warrior held up a knotted forearm, from which the sleeve had been pushed back during his ministrations, to show the scar of a jagged tear running from elbow to wrist. “Scars are nothin’ to trouble ye.”

“Aye, well. Some scars, maybe.” Apparently reminded of something, Jamie struggled to turn onto his side. Sir Marcus set down his glass with an exclamation.

“Here, lad, be careful! Ye’ll get a rib-end through the lung, next thing.” He helped Jamie balance on his right elbow, wadding a blanket behind to prop him there.

“I need a wee knife,” said Jamie, breathing heavily. “A sharp one, if it’s handy.” Without question, Sir Marcus lumbered to the gleaming French walnut sideboard and rummaged through the drawers with a prodigious clatter, emerging at last with a pearl-handled fruit knife. He thrust it into Jamie’s sound left hand and sat down again with a grunt, resuming his glass.

“Ye don’t think ye have enough scars?” he inquired. “Going to add a few more?”

“Just one.” Jamie balanced precariously on one elbow, chin pressed on his chest as he awkwardly aimed the razor-sharp knife under his left breast. Sir Marcus’s hand shot out, a bit unsteadily, and gripped Jamie’s wrist.

“Best let me help ye, man. Ye’ll fall on it in a moment.” After a moment’s pause, Jamie reluctantly surrendered the knife and lay back against the wadded blanket. He touched his chest an inch or two below the nipple.

“There.” Sir Marcus reached to the sideboard and snagged a lamp, setting it on the stool he had vacated. At this distance, I couldn’t see what he was peering at; it looked like a small red burn, roughly circular in shape. He took another deliberate pull at his whisky glass, then set it down next to the lamp and pressed the tip of the knife against Jamie’s chest. I must have made an involuntary movement, because the Lady Annabelle clutched my sleeve with a murmured caution. The knife point pressed in and twisted suddenly, flicking away in the motion one uses to cut a bad spot out of a ripe peach. Jamie grunted, once, and a thin stream of red ran down the slope of his belly to stain the blanket. He rolled onto his stomach, stanching the wound against the mattress.

Sir Marcus laid down the fruit knife. “As soon as ye’re able, man,” he advised, “take your wife to bed, and let her comfort ye. Women like to do that,” he said, grinning toward the shadowed doorway, “God knows why.”

Lady Annabelle said softly, “Come away now, dear. He’s better alone for a bit.” I decided that Sir Marcus could manage the bandaging by himself, and stumbled after her up the narrow stair to my room.

I woke with a start from a dream of endless winding stairs, with horror lurking at the bottom. Tiredness dragged at my back and my legs ached, but I sat up in my borrowed nightdress and groped for the candle and flintbox. I felt uneasy, so far from Jamie. What if he needed me? Worse, what if the English did come, while he was alone below, unarmed? I pressed my face against the cold casement, reassured by the steady hiss of snow against the panes. While the storm continued, we were likely safe. I pulled on a bedgown, and picking up candle and dirk, made my way to the stair.

The house was quiet, save for the fire’s crackle. Jamie was asleep, or at least had his eyes closed, face turned to the fire. I sat down on the hearthrug, quietly, so as not to wake him. This was the first time we had been alone together since those few desperate minutes in the dungeon of Wentworth Prison. It felt as though that were many years ago. I studied Jamie carefully, as though inspecting a stranger.

He seemed not too bad physically, all things considered, but I worried nonetheless. He had had enough whisky during the surgery to fell a draft horse, and a good bit of it was plainly still inside him, despite the retching.

Jamie was not my first hero. The men moved too quickly through the field hospital, as a rule, for the nurses to become well acquainted with them, but now and again you would see a man who talked too little or joked too much, who held himself more stiffly than pain and loneliness would account for.

And I knew, roughly, what could be done for them. If there was time, and if they were the kind who talked to keep the dark at bay, you sat with them and listened. If they were silent, you touched them often in passing, and watched for the unguarded moment, when you might draw them outside of themselves and hold them while they exorcised their demons. If there was time. And if there wasn’t, then you jabbed them with morph**e, and hoped they would manage to find someone else to listen, while you passed on to a man whose wounds were visible.

Jamie would talk to someone, sooner or later. There was time. But I hoped it wouldn’t be me.

He was uncovered to the waist, and I leaned forward to examine his back. It was a remarkable sight. Barely a hand’s thickness separated the welted cuts, inflicted with a regularity that boggled the mind. He must have stood like a guardsman while it was done. I stole a quick glance at his wrists—unmarked. He had kept his word then, not to struggle. And had stood unmoving through the ordeal, paying the ransom agreed on for my life.

I rubbed my eyes on my sleeve. He wouldn’t thank me, I thought, for blubbering over his prostrate form. I shifted my weight with a soft rustle of skirts. He opened his eyes at the sound, but did not seem particularly haunted. He gave me a smile, faint and tired, but a real one. I opened my mouth, and suddenly realized I had no idea what to say to him. Thanks were impossible. “How do you feel?” was ridiculous; obviously he felt like hell. While I considered, he spoke first.

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.