Authors: Diana Gabaldon
“Jeremiah!” Roger roared. “Stop right there!” Jem froze as though hit by a death ray; Germain didn’t, and vanished with a wild rustling into the shrubbery.
I’d been watching the boys, but a faint choking noise made me glance sharply at Roger. He’d gone pale and was clutching his throat with both hands. I seized his arm.
“Are you all right?”
“I…don’t know.” He spoke in a rasping whisper, but gave me the shadow of a pained smile. “Think I—might have sprained something.”
“Daddy?” said a small voice beside me. Amanda sniffled dramatically, wiping tears and snot all over her face. “Is you mad at me, Daddy?”
Roger took an immense breath, coughed, and went over, squatting down to take her in his arms.
“No, sweetheart,” he said softly—but in a fairly normal voice, and something clenched inside me began to relax. “I’m not mad. You mustn’t tell people they’re going to hell, though. Come here, let’s wash your face.” He stood up, holding her, and turned toward my mixing table, where there was a basin and ewer.
“I’ll do it,” I said, reaching out for Mandy. “Maybe you want to go and…er…talk to Jem?”
“Mmphm,” he said, and handed her across. A natural snuggler, Mandy at once clung affectionately to my neck and wrapped her legs around my middle.
“Can we wash my dolly’s face, too?” she asked. “Dose bad boys got her dirty!”
I listened with half an ear to Mandy’s mingled endearments to Esmeralda and denunciations of her brother and Germain, but most of my attention was focused on what was going on in the clearing below.
I could hear Jem’s voice, high and argumentative, and Roger’s, firm and much lower, but couldn’t pick out any words. Roger
talking, though, and I didn’t hear any choking or coughing….That was good.
The memory of him bellowing at the children was even better. He’d done that before—it was a necessity, children and the great outdoors being what they respectively were—but I’d never heard him do it without his voice breaking, with a follow-up of coughing and throat clearing. McEwan had said that it was a small improvement, and that it took time for healing.
Had I actually done anything to help?
I looked critically at the palm of my hand, but it looked much as usual: a half-healed paper cut on the middle finger, stains from picking blackberries, and a burst blister on my thumb, from snatching a spider full of bacon that had caught fire out of the hearth, without a pot holder to shield my hand. Not a sign of any blue light, certainly.
“Wassat, Grannie?” Amanda leaned off the table to look at my upturned hand.
“What’s what? That black splotch? I think it’s ink; I was writing up my casebook yesterday. Kirsty Wilson’s rash.” I’d thought at first the rash was just poison sumac, but it was hanging on in a rather worrying fashion….No fever, though…perhaps it was hives? Or some kind of atypical psoriasis?
” Mandy poked a wet, chubby finger at the heel of my hand. “Issa letter!” She twisted her head halfway round to look closer, black curls tickling across my arm. “Letter ‘J’!” she announced triumphantly. “ ‘J’ is for Jemmy! I hate Jemmy,” she added, frowning.
“Er…” I said, completely nonplussed. It
the letter “J.” The scar had faded to a thin white line but was still clear if the light struck right. The scar Jamie had given me, when I’d left him at Culloden. Left him to die, hurling myself through the stones to save his unborn, unknown child. Our child. And if I hadn’t?
I looked at Mandy, sherry-eyed and black-curled and perfect as a tiny spring apple. Heard Jem outside, now giggling with his father. It had cost us twenty years apart—years of heartbreak, pain, and danger. It had been worth it.
“It’s for Grandda’s name. ‘J’ for Jamie,” I said to Amanda, who nodded as though that made perfect sense, clutching a soggy Esmeralda to her chest. I touched her glowing cheek and imagined for an instant that my fingers might be tinged with blue, though they weren’t.
“Mandy,” I said, on impulse. “What color is my hair?”
“When your hair is white, you’ll come into your full power.”
An old Tuscarora wisewoman named Nayawenne had said that to me, years ago—along with a lot of other disturbing things.
Mandy stared intently at me for a moment, then said definitely, “Brindle.”
“What? Where did you learn that word, for heaven’s sake?”
“Uncle Joe. He says ’at’s what color Badger is.”
“Auntie Gail’s doggy.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Not yet, then. All right, sweetheart, let’s go and hang Esmeralda out to dry.”
AMIE AND BRIANNA CAME
back in late afternoon, with two brace of squirrels, fourteen doves, and a large piece of stained and tattered canvas that, unwrapped, revealed something that looked like the remnants of a particularly grisly murder.
“Supper?” I asked, gingerly poking at a shattered bone sticking out of the mass of hair and slick flesh. The smell was iron-raw and butcherous, with a rank note that seemed familiar, but decay hadn’t yet set in to any noticeable degree.
“Aye, if ye can manage, Sassenach.” Jamie came and peered down at the bloody shambles, frowning a little. “I’ll tidy it up for ye. I need a bit o’ whisky first, though.”
Given the bloodstains on his shirt and breeks, I hadn’t noticed the equally stained rag tied round his leg, but now saw that he was limping. Raising a brow, I went to the large basket of food, small tools, and minor medical supplies that I lugged up to the house site every morning.
“From what’s left of it, I presume that is—or was—a deer. Did you actually tear it apart with your bare hands?”
“No, but the bear did,” Bree said, straight-faced. She exchanged complicit glances with her father, who hummed in his throat.
“Bear,” I said, and took a deep breath. I gestured at his shirt. “Right. How much of that blood is yours?”
“No much,” he said tranquilly, sitting down on the Big Log. “Whisky?”
I looked sharply at Brianna, but she seemed to be intact. Filthy, and with green-gray bird droppings streaked down her shirt, but intact. Her face glowed with sun and happiness, and I smiled.
“There’s whisky in the tin canteen hanging over there,” I said, nodding toward the big spruce at the far side of the clearing. “Do you want to fetch it for your father while I see what’s left of his leg?”
“Sure. Where are Mandy and Jem?”
“When last seen, they were playing by the creek with Aidan and his brothers. Don’t worry,” I added, seeing her lower lip suck suddenly in. “It’s very shallow there, and Fanny said she’d go and keep an eye on Mandy while she’s collecting leeches. Fanny’s
“Mm-hmm.” Bree still looked dubious, but I could see her fighting down her maternal impulse to go scoop Mandy out of the creek immediately. “I know I met her last night, but I’m not sure I remember Fanny. Where does she live?”
“With us,” Jamie said matter-of-factly. “Ow!”
“Hold still,” I said, spreading the puncture wound in his leg open with two fingers while I poured saline solution into it. “You don’t want to die of tetanus, do you?”
“And what would ye do if I said yes, Sassenach?”
“The same thing I’m doing right now. I don’t care if you want to or not; I’m not having it.”
“Well, why did ye ask me, then?” He leaned back on his palms, both legs stretched out, and looked up at Bree. “Fanny’s a wee orphan lass. Your brother took her under his protection.”
Bree’s face went almost comically blank. “My brother. Willie?” she asked, tentative.
“Unless your mother kens otherwise, he’s the only brother ye’ve got,” Jamie assured her. “Aye, William. Jesus, Sassenach, ye’re worse than the bear!”
He closed his eyes, whether to avoid looking at what I was doing to his leg—enlarging and debriding the wound with a lancet; the injury wasn’t serious in itself, but the puncture wound in his calf was deep, and I was in fact
being rhetorical about the risk of tetanus—or to give Bree a moment to recover her countenance.
She looked at him, head cocked to one side.
“So,” she said slowly. “That means…he knows that you’re his father?”
Jamie grimaced, not opening his eyes.
“Not that happy about it?” One side of her mouth curled up, but both her eyes and her voice were sympathetic.
“Yet,” I murmured, rinsing blood down his long shinbone. He snorted. Bree made a more feminine version of the same noise and went to fetch the whisky. Jamie heard her go and opened his eyes.
“Are ye not done yet, Sassenach?” I saw the slight vibration of his wrists and realized that he was bracing himself on his palms in order to hide the fact that he was trembling with exhaustion.
“I’m through hurting you,” I assured him. I put my hand next to his on the log as I rose, touching his fingers lightly. “I’ll put a bandage on it, and then you should lie down for a bit with your foot propped up.”
“Don’t fall asleep, Da.” Brianna’s shadow fell over him, and she leaned down to hand him the canteen. “Ian says he’s bringing Rachel and his mother down to have supper with us.” She leaned in farther and kissed him on the forehead.
“Don’t worry about Willie,” she said. “He’ll figure things out.”
“Aye. I hope he doesna wait ’til I’m dead.” He gave her a lopsided smile to indicate that this was meant to be a joke, and lifted the canteen in salute.
I CHIVVIED JAMIE,
protesting, into the shade under my surgical shelter and made him lie down with my apron folded under his head.
“Have you had anything at all to eat since breakfast?” I asked, propping his injured leg up with a chunk of wood from the scrap heap.
“I have,” he said patiently. “Amy Higgins sent bannocks and cheese wi’ Brianna, and we ate it whilst waiting on the bear to leave. Do ye think I’d not have said by now if I was starving?”
“Oh,” I said, feeling rather foolish. “Well, yes, I do. It’s just—” I smoothed hair back from his brow. “It’s just that I want to make you feel better, and feeding you was the only thing that came to mind.”
That made him laugh, and he stretched, arching his back, and readjusted himself into a more comfortable position on the trampled grass.
“Well, that’s a kind thought, Sassenach. I could think of a few other things, maybe—after I’ve had a wee rest. And Brianna says that Ian’s lot are coming to supper.” He turned his head, casting a look toward the distant mountain, where the sun was coming slowly down through a scatter of fat little clouds, painting their bellies with soft gold.
We both sighed a little at the sight, and he turned back and took my hand.
“What I want ye to do, Sassenach, is sit wi’ me here for a moment—and tell me I’m no dreaming. She’s really here? She and the bairns and Roger Mac?”
I squeezed his hand and felt the same bubbling joy I could see in his face.
“It’s real. They’re here. Right
in fact.” I laughed a little, because I could still see Brianna below, just heading for the trees that fringed the creek, her long hair loose now, fading to brown in the shadows and lifting in the evening breeze as she called for the children.
“I know what you mean, though. I had a visit with Roger this morning and asked him to let me examine his throat. I felt just like doubting Thomas. It was so strange to have him right there in front of me, touch him—and at the same time, it didn’t seem strange at all.”
I rubbed the back of his hand lightly with my thumb, feeling the knobs of his knuckles and the faint roughness of the scar that ran down from where his fourth finger had been.
“I feel like that all the time, Sassenach,” he said, his voice a little husky. His fingers curled over mine. “When I wake sometimes in the early morning, and I see ye there beside me. I doubt you’re real. Until I touch ye—or until ye fart.”
I yanked my hand loose and he rolled away and came up sitting, elbows hunched comfortably over his knees.
“So how is it wi’ Roger Mac?” he asked, ignoring my glare. “D’ye think he’ll ever have his voice back?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I truly don’t. But let me tell you what he told me about a man named Hector McEwan…”
He listened with great attention, stirring only to brush away wandering clouds of gnats.
“Have ye ever seen that yourself,
?” he asked when I’d finished. “Blue light, as he said?”
A small, deep shiver went through me that had nothing to do with the cooling air. I looked away, to a buried past. Or one I’d tried to bury.
“I…well, yes,” I said, and swallowed. “But I thought I was hallucinating at the time, and it’s quite possible I
I’m reasonably sure that I was actually dying, and imminent death might alter one’s perceptions.”
“Aye, it does,” he said, rather dryly. “But that’s not to say what ye see in such a state isna true.” He looked closely at my face, considering.
“Ye dinna need to tell me,” he continued quietly, and touched my shoulder. “There’s no need to live such things again, if they dinna come back of their own accord.”
“No,” I said, maybe a little too quickly. I cleared my throat and took a firm grip on mind and memory. “I won’t. It’s just that I had a bad infection, and—and Master Raymond—” I wasn’t looking directly at him, but I felt his head lift suddenly at the name. “He came and healed me. I don’t have any idea how he did it, and I wasn’t thinking
consciously. But I saw—” I rubbed a hand slowly over my forearm, seeing it again. “It was blue, the bone inside my arm. Not a vivid blue, not like that—” I gestured toward the mountain, where the evening sky above the clouds had gone the color of larkspur. “A very soft, faint blue. But it did—‘glow’ isn’t the right word, really. It was…alive.”
It had been. And I’d felt the blue spread outward from my bones, wash through me. And felt the bursting of the microbes in my system, dying like stars. The remembered sense of it lifted the hairs on my arms and neck, and filled me with a strange sensation of well-being, like warm honey being stirred.
A wild cry from the woods above broke the mood, and Jamie turned, smiling.
“Och, there’s wee Oggy. He sounds like a hunting catamount.”
I got to my feet, brushing grass off my skirt. “I think he’s the loudest child I’ve ever heard.”
As though the shriek had been a signal, I heard hooting from the hollow below, and a gang of children burst out of the trees by the creek, followed by Bree and Roger, walking slowly, heads leaning toward each other, deep in what looked like contented conversation.
“I’m going to need a bigger house,” Jamie said, meditatively.
Before he could expand on this interesting notion, though, the Murrays appeared on the path that led down from the eastern side of the Ridge, Rachel carrying Oggy—bellowing over her shoulder—and Ian behind her with a large, covered basket.
“The children?” Rachel said to Jamie. Jamie stood up, smiling, then nodded toward the clearing below.
“See for yourself,
Jem, Mandy, and Germain had been sorted out from their companions and were now tagging along behind Bree and Roger, amicably pushing one another.
“Oh,” Rachel said very softly, and I saw her hazel eyes go soft as well. “Oh, Jamie. Thy daughter looks so like thee—and her son as well!”
“I told ye,” Ian said, smiling down at her, and she put a hand on his arm, squeezing tight.
“Thy mother…” Rachel shook her head, unable to think of anything sufficiently descriptive of Jenny’s emotional state.
“Well, I doubt she’ll faint away,” Jamie said, getting gingerly to his feet. “She’s met the lass once before, though no the bairns. Where is she, though?” He glanced up the path that led into the woods, as though expecting his sister to materialize there as he spoke.
“She’s staying at the MacNeills’ tonight,” Rachel said, and set Oggy on the grass, where he lay squirming in a leisurely manner. “She and Cairistina MacNeill became very friendly while we were quilting, and Cairistina told us that her husband has gone to Salisbury and she was frightened at the thought of being alone at night, their home being such a distance from the nearest neighbor.”
I nodded at that. Cairistina was very young, newly married—she was Richard MacNeill’s third wife—and had come from Campbelton, near Cross Creek. Night on a mountain was very dark, and full of things unseen.
“That was very kind of Jenny,” I said.
Ian gave a brief snort of amusement. “I’ll no say my mother isna kind,” he said. “But I’ll give ye good odds that she’s staying on her own account as much as Mistress MacNeill’s.” He nodded at Oggy, who was whining, a long trail of drool hanging from his lower lip. “The laddie’s had the colic three nights runnin’ and it’s a small cabin, aye? I’d wager ye three to one she’s stretched out like a corpse on Mrs. MacNeill’s bed right now, sound asleep.”