Authors: Diana Gabaldon
ye turn up,” said a deep, irascible Scottish voice from somewhere below their feet. “I hope ye’ve a turkey for the pot, lass, for we’ll no be having venison tonight.”
She flung herself flat on the ground, head hung over the edge of the cliff, dizzy with relief at seeing her father ten feet below, standing on the narrow ledge to which he’d led her earlier. His frown relaxed as he saw her above.
“All right, then, lass?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, “but no turkeys. What on earth happened to
?” He was disheveled and scratched, spots and rivulets of dried blood marking his arms and face, and a large rent in one sleeve. His right foot was bare, and his shin was heavily streaked with blood. He looked down from the ledge, and the glower returned.
“Dia gam chuideachadh,”
he said, jerking his chin at the disturbance below. “I’d just got Ian’s deer skinned when yon fat hairy devil came out o’ the bushes and took it from me.”
said Ian in brief disgust. He was squatting beside Brianna, surveying the rose briers. She took her attention off her father for a moment and caught a glimpse of something very large and black among the bushes, working at something in a concentrated manner; the bushes snapped and quivered as it ripped at the deer, and she caught sight of one stiff, quivering hoofed leg among the leaves.
The sight of the bear, quick as it was, caused a rush of adrenaline so visceral that it made her whole body tighten and her head feel light. She breathed as deep as she could, feeling sweat trickle down her back, her hands wet on the metal of the gun.
She came back to herself in time to hear Ian asking Jamie what had happened to his leg.
“I kicked it in the face,” Jamie replied briefly, with a glance of dislike toward the bushes. “It took offense and tried to take my foot off, but it only got my shoe.”
Ian quivered slightly beside her, but wisely didn’t laugh.
“Aye. D’ye want a hand up, Uncle?”
“I do not,” Jamie replied tersely. “I’m waiting for the
mac na galladh
to leave. It’s got my rifle.”
“Ah,” Ian said, properly appreciating the importance of this. Her father’s rifle was a very fine one, a long rifle from Pennsylvania, he’d told her. Plainly he was prepared to wait as long as it took—and was probably a lot more stubborn than the bear, she thought, with a small interior gurgle.
“Ye may as well go on,” Jamie said, looking up at them. “It may be a wee while.”
“I could probably shoot it from here,” Bree offered, judging the distance. “I can’t kill it, but a load of bird shot might make it leave.”
Her father made a Scottish noise in response to this, and a violent gesture of prevention.
“Dinna try it,” he said. “All ye’ll do is maybe madden it—and if I could get down that slope, yon beast can certainly get up it. Now away wi’ ye; I’m getting a crick in my neck talkin’ up at ye.”
Bree gave Ian a sidelong glance and he gave her back the ghost of a nod, acknowledging her reluctance to leave her father shoeless on a ledge no more than twenty feet from a hungry bear.
“We’ll bear ye company for a bit,” he announced—and before Jamie could object, Ian had grasped a stout pine sapling and swung himself down onto the cliff face, where his moccasined toes at once found a hold.
Brianna, following his example, leaned over and dropped her fowling piece into her father’s hands before finding her own way down, more slowly.
“I’m surprised ye didna have at it wi’ your dirk, Uncle Jamie,” Ian was saying. “Bear-Killer, is it, that the Tuscarora called ye?”
Bree was pleased to see that Jamie had regained his equanimity and gave Ian no more than a pitying look.
“Are ye maybe familiar with a saying about how a man grows wiser wi’ age?” he inquired.
“Aye,” Ian replied, looking baffled.
“Well, if ye dinna grow wiser, ye’re no likely to grow older,” Jamie said, leaning the gun against the cliff. “And I’m old enough to ken better than to fight a bear wi’ a dirk for a deer’s carcass. Have ye got anything to eat, lass?”
She’d quite forgotten the small bag over her shoulder, but she now took it off and groped inside, removing a small packet of bannocks and cheese supplied by Amy Higgins.
“Sit down,” she said, handing this to her father. “I want to look at your leg.”
“It’s no bad,” he said, but he was either too hungry to argue or simply conditioned to accept unwanted medical treatment by her mother, for he did sit down and stretch out the wounded leg.
It wasn’t bad, as he’d said, though there was a deep puncture wound in his calf, with a couple of long scrapes beside it—these presumably left as he’d hastily pulled his foot out of the bear’s mouth, she thought, feeling a little faint at the vision of this. She had nothing with her of use save a large handkerchief, but she soaked this in the icy water from the rivulet that flowed down the cliff face and cleaned the wound as well as she could.
Could you get tetanus from a bear’s bite? she wondered, swabbing and rinsing. She’d made sure to have all the kids’ shots up to date—including tetanus—before they’d left, but a tetanus immunization was only good for what, ten years? Something like that.
The puncture wound was still oozing blood, but not gushing. She wrung out the cloth and tied it firmly but not too tightly around his calf.
“Tapadh leat, a gràidh,”
he said, and smiled at her. “Your mother couldna have done better. Here.” He’d saved two bannocks and a bit of cheese for her, and she leaned back against the cliff between him and Ian, surprised to discover that she was very hungry, and even more surprised to realize that she wasn’t worried by the fact that they were chatting away in the near vicinity of a large carnivorous animal that could undoubtedly kill them all.
“Bears are lazy,” Ian told her, observing the direction of her glance. “If he—is it a he-bear, Uncle?—has a fine deer down there, he’ll no bother to climb all the way up here for a scrawny wee snack. Speakin’ of which”—he leaned past her to address Jamie—“did it eat your sandal?”
“I didna stay to watch,” Jamie said, his temper seeming to have calmed as a result of food. “But I’ve hopes that he didn’t. After all, wi’ a perfectly good pile of steaming deer guts just at hand, why would ye bother wi’ a piece of old leather? Bears aren’t fools.”
Ian nodded at this and leaned back against the cliff, rubbing his shoulders gently on the sun-warmed stone.
“So, then, cousin,” he said to Bree. “Ye said ye’d tell me how it was ye came home. As we’ve likely a bit of time to pass…” He nodded toward the now-rhythmic noises of tearing flesh and mastication below.
The bottom of her stomach dropped abruptly, and her father, seeing her face, patted her knee.
“Dinna trouble yourself,
Time enough. Perhaps ye’d rather tell it to everyone, when Roger Mac’s with ye.”
She hesitated for a moment; she’d visualized it many times, telling her parents the whole of it, imagined herself and Roger telling the tale together, taking turns…but seeing the intent look in her father’s eyes, she realized belatedly that she couldn’t have told her part of it honestly in front of Roger—she hadn’t even told him everything when she’d found him again, seeing how furious he was at the details she
“No,” she said slowly. “I can tell you now. At least my part of it.” And washing down the last bannock crumbs with a handful of cold water, she began.
Yes, her mother did know men, she thought, seeing Ian’s fist clench on his knee, and hearing the low, involuntary growl her father made at hearing about Rob Cameron’s cornering her in the study at Lallybroch. She
tell them what he’d said, the crude threats, the orders—nor what she’d done, taking off her jeans at his command, then slashing him across the face with the heavy denim before tackling him and knocking him to the floor. She did mention smashing the wooden box of letters over his head, and the two of them made small
s of satisfaction.
“Where did that box come from?” she interrupted herself to ask her father. “Roger found it in his adopted father’s garage—that’s a place where you park a car, I mean—” she added when she saw a look of confusion touch Jamie’s face. “Never mind, it was a sort of storage shed. But we always wondered where you’d put it at this end?”
“Och, that?” Jamie’s face relaxed a bit. “Roger Mac had told me how his father was a priest and lived for a great many years at his manse in Inverness. We made three boxes—it was a good bit of work to copy out all the letters, mind—and I had them sealed and sent to three different banks in Edinburgh, with instructions that in such and such a year, each box was to be sent on to the Reverend Wakefield at the manse in Inverness. We hoped at least one would turn up; I put Jemmy’s whole name on each one, thinkin’ that would mean something to you, but no one else. Go on, though—ye smashed yon Cameron wi’ the box and then…?”
“It didn’t knock him out all the way, but I got past him and into the hall. So I ran down to the hall tree—it’s not the same as the one your parents have,” she said to Ian, and then remembered what one of the last letters had said. “Oh, God! Your father, Ian…I’m so sorry!”
“Oh. Aye,” he said, looking down. She’d grasped his forearm, and he put his own big hand over hers and squeezed it lightly. “Dinna fash,
I feel him wi’ me, now and then. And Uncle Jamie brought my mam back from Scotland—oh, Jesus.” He stopped, looking at her round-eyed. “She doesna ken ye’re here!”
“She’ll find out soon enough,” Jamie said testily. “Will ye tell me what the devil happened to this gobshite Cameron?”
“Not enough,” she said grimly, and finished the story, including Cameron’s conspirators and the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.
“So I took Jem and Mandy and went to California—it’s on the other side of America—to think what to do, and finally I decided that there wasn’t any choice; we had to try to find Roger—he’d left a letter that told me he was in Scotland, and when. And so we did, and…” She gestured widely to the wilderness around them. “Here we are.”
Jamie drew in air through his nose but said nothing. Nor did Ian, though he nodded briefly, as though to himself. Brianna felt strangely comforted by the proximity of her kin, eased by having told them the story, confided her fears. She felt protected in a way she hadn’t for a good long time.
“There it goes,” Ian said suddenly, and she followed the direction of his gaze, seeing the sudden wild swaying as the rose briers gave way to the bear’s bulk, waddling slowly away. Ian stood up and offered Brianna a hand.
She stretched to her full height and swayed, easing her limbs. She felt so easy in mind that she barely heard what her father said, rising behind her.
“What’s that?” she said, turning to him.
“I said, there’s the one thing more, isn’t there?”
“More?” she said, with a half smile. “Isn’t this enough to be going on with?”
Jamie made a Scottish noise in his throat, half apology, half warning.
“Yon Robert Cameron,” he said. “He likely read our letters, ye said.”
A trickle of ice water began a slow crawl down the groove of Brianna’s spine.
“Yes.” The sense of peaceful security had suddenly vanished.
“Then he kens about the Jacobite gold we keep hidden wi’ the whisky, and he also kens where we are. If he knows, so do his friends. And he maybe canna travel through the stones, but there are maybe those who can.” Jamie gave her a very direct blue look. “Sooner or later, someone will come looking.”
THE SUN WAS BARELY
up, but Jamie was long gone. I’d awakened briefly when he kissed my forehead, whispered that he was going hunting with Brianna, then kissed my lips and vanished into the chilly dark. I woke again two hours later in the warm nest of old quilts—these donated by the Crombies and the Lindsays—that served us for a bed and sat up, cross-legged in my shift, combing leaves and grass heads out of my hair with my fingers and enjoying the rare feeling of waking slowly, rather than with the oft-experienced sensation of having been shot from a cannon.
I supposed, with a pleasant little thrill, that once the house was habitable and the MacKenzies, along with Fergus and Marsali’s son Germain, and Fanny, an orphan left with us after the horrible death of her sister, were all ensconced within, mornings would once more resemble the exodus of bats from Carlsbad Cavern that I’d seen once in a Disney nature special. For now, though, the world was bright and filled with peace.
A vividly red ladybug dropped out of my hair and down the front of my shift, which put an abrupt end to my ruminations. I leapt up and shook the beetle out into the long grass by the Big Log, went into the bushes for a private moment, and came out with a bunch of fresh mountain mint. There was just enough water left in the bucket for me to have a cup of tea, so I left the mint on the flat surface Jamie had adzed at one end of a huge fallen poplar log to serve as worktable and food preparation space, and went to build up the fire and set the kettle inside the ring of blackened stones.
At the far edge of the clearing below, a thin spiral of smoke rose from the Higginses’ chimney like a snake out of a charmer’s basket; someone had poked up their smoored fire as well.
Who would be my first visitor this morning? Germain, perhaps; he’d slept at the Higgins cabin last night with Jemmy—but he wasn’t an early riser by temperament any more than I was. Fanny was a good distance away, with the Widow Donaldson and her enormous brood; she’d be along later.
It would be Roger, I thought, and felt a lifting of my heart. Roger and the children.
The fire was licking at the tin kettle; I lifted the lid and shredded a good handful of mint leaves into the water—first shaking the stems to dislodge any hitchhikers. The rest I bound with a twist of thread and hung among the other herbs suspended from the rafters of my makeshift surgery—this consisting of four poles with a lattice laid across the top, covered with hemlock branches for shade and shelter. I had two stools—one for me and one for the patient of the moment—and a small, crudely built table to hold whatever implements I needed to have easily to hand.
Jamie had put up a canvas lean-to beside the shelter, to provide privacy for such cases as required it, and also as storage for food or medicines kept in raccoon-proof casks, jars, or boxes.
It was rural, rustic, and very romantic. In a bug-ridden, grimy-ankled, exposed-to-the-elements, occasional-creeping-sensation-on-the-back-of-the-neck-indicating-that-you-were-being-eyed-up-by-something-considering-eating-you sort of way, but still.
I cast a longing look at the new foundation.
The house would have two handsome fieldstone chimneys; one had been halfway built and stood sturdy as a monolith amid the framing timbers of what would shortly—I hoped—be our kitchen and eating space. Jamie had assured me that he would frame the large room and tack on a temporary canvas roof within the next few weeks, so we could resume sleeping and cooking indoors. The rest of the house…
That might depend on whatever grandiose notions he and Brianna had conceived during their conversation the night before. I seemed to recall wild remarks about concrete and indoor plumbing, which I rather hoped wouldn’t take root, at least not until we had a roof over our heads and a floor under our feet. On the other hand…
The sound of voices on the path below indicated that my expected company had arrived, and I smiled. On the other hand, we’d have two more pairs of experienced and competent hands to help with the building.
Jem’s disheveled red head popped into view, and he broke into a huge grin at sight of me.
“Grannie!” he shouted, and brandished a slightly mangled corn dodger. “We brought you breakfast!”
me breakfast, lavish by my present standards: two fresh corn dodgers, griddled sausage patties wrapped in layers between burdock leaves, a boiled egg, still hot, and a quarter inch of Amy’s last year’s huckleberry jam, in the bottom of its jar.
“Mrs. Higgins says to send back the empty jar,” Jemmy informed me, handing it over. Only one eye was on the jar; the other was on the Big Log, which had been hidden by darkness the night before. “Wow! What kind of tree is that?”
“Poplar,” I said, closing my eyes in ecstasy at the first bite of sausage. The Big Log was roughly sixty feet long. It had been a good bit longer before Jamie had scavenged wood from the top for building and fires. “Your grandfather says it was likely more than a hundred feet tall before it fell.”
Mandy was trying to get up onto the log; Jem gave her a casual boost then leaned over to look down the length of the trunk, mostly smooth and pale but scabbed here and there with remnants of bark and odd little forests of toadstools and moss.
“Did it blow down in a storm?”
“Yes,” I said. “The top had been struck by lightning, but I don’t know whether that was the same storm that knocked it down. It might have died because of the lightning and then the next big storm blew it over. We found it like this when we came back to the Ridge. Mandy, be careful there!”
She’d scrambled to her feet and was walking along the trunk, arms stretched out like a gymnast, one foot in front of the other. The trunk was a good five feet in diameter at that point; there was plenty of room atop it, but it would be a hard bump if she fell off.
“Here, sweetheart.” Roger, who had been looking at the house site with interest, came over and plucked her off the log. “Why don’t you and Jem go gather wood for Grannie? D’ye remember what good firewood looks like?”
“Aye, of course.” Jem looked lofty. “I’ll show her how.”
“I knows how!” Mandy said, glowering at him.
“You have to look out for snakes,” he informed her.
She perked up at once, pique forgotten. “Wanna see a snake!”
“Jem—” Roger began, but Jemmy rolled his eyes.
know, Dad,” he said. “If I find a little one, I’ll let her touch it, but not if it’s got rattles or a cotton mouth.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Roger muttered, watching them go off hand in hand.
I swallowed the last of the corn dodgers, licked sugary jam from the corner of my mouth, and gave him a sympathetic look.
“Nobody died the last time you lived here,” I reminded him. He opened his mouth to reply, but closed it again, and I remembered. Mandy nearly
died last time. Which meant that whatever had made them come back now…
“It’s all right,” he said firmly, in answer to what must have been a very apprehensive look on my face. He smiled a little and took me by the elbow, drawing me into the shade of my surgery.
“It’s okay,” he said, and cleared his throat. “We’re okay,” he said, more loudly. “We’re all here and sound. Nothing else matters right now.”
“All right,” I said, only slightly reassured. “I won’t ask.”
He laughed at that, and the dappled light made his worn face young again. “We’ll tell you,” he assured me. “But most of it’s really Bree’s story; you should hear it from her. I wonder what they’re hunting, she and Jamie?”
“Probably each other,” I said, smiling. “Sit down.” I touched his arm, turning him toward the high stool.
“Each other?” He adjusted himself comfortably on the stool, feet tucked back under him.
“Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say, how to talk to each other, when you haven’t seen a person in a long time—especially when it’s a person who’s important to you. It takes a bit of time to feel comfortable again; easier if there’s a job at hand. Let me look at your throat, will you?”
“You don’t feel comfortable talking to me yet?” he asked lightly.
“Oh, yes,” I assured him. “Doctors never have trouble in talking to people. You start by telling them to take off their clothes, and that breaks the ice. By the time you’ve done poking them and peering into their orifices, the conversation is usually fairly animated, if not necessarily relaxed.”
He laughed, but his hand had unconsciously grasped the neckband of his shirt, pulling the fabric together.
“To tell you the truth,” he said, trying to look serious, “we only came for the free babysitting. We haven’t been more than six feet away from the kids in the last four months.” He laughed, then choked a little, and it ended in a small coughing fit.
I laid my hand on his and smiled. He smiled back—though with less certainty than before, and, pulling his hand back, he quickly unbuttoned his shirt and spread the cloth away from his neck. He cleared his throat, hard.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You sound much better than you did last time I saw you.”
Actually, he did, and that rather surprised me. His voice was still broken, rasping, and hoarse—but he spoke with much less effort, and no longer looked as though that effort caused him constant pain.
Roger raised his chin and I reached up carefully, fitting my fingers about his neck, just under his jaw. He’d recently shaved; his skin was cool and slightly damp and I caught a whiff of the shaving soap I made for Jamie, scented with juniper berries; Jamie must have brought it for him early this morning. I was moved by the sense of ceremony in that small gesture—and moved much more by the hope in Roger’s eyes. Hope he tried to hide.
“I met a doctor,” he said gruffly. “In Scotland. Hector McEwan was his name. He was…one of us.”
My fingers stilled and so did my heart.
“A traveler, you mean?”
He nodded. “I need to tell you about him. About what he did. But that can wait a bit.”
“What he did,” I repeated. “To you, you mean?”
“Aye. Though it was what he did to Buck, first…”
I was about to ask what had happened to Buck when he looked suddenly into my eyes, intent.
“Have you ever seen blue light?” he asked. “When you touch somebody in a medical way, I mean? To heal them.”
Gooseflesh rippled up my arms and neck, and I had to take my fingers off his neck, because they were trembling.
“I haven’t done it myself,” I said carefully. “But I saw it. Once.”
I was seeing it again, as vivid in my mind’s eye as it had been in the shadows of my bed at L’Hôpital des Anges, when I had miscarried Faith and been dying of puerperal fever. When Master Raymond had laid his hands on me and I had seen the bones in my arm glow blue through my flesh.
I dropped that vision like a hot plate and realized that Roger was gripping my hand.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.
“I’m not scared,” I said, half truthfully. “Just shocked. I hadn’t thought about it in years.”
“It scared the shit out of me,” he said frankly, and let go of my hand. “After he did what he did to Buck’s heart, I was afraid to talk to him, but I knew I had to. And when I touched him—to stop him, you know; I was following him up a path—he froze. And then he turned round and put his hand on my chest”—his own hand rose, unconsciously, and rested on his chest—“and he said the same thing to me that I’d heard him say to Buck:
It means, ‘I know you,’ ” he clarified, seeing the blank look on my face. “In Latin.”
“He knew—what you were—just by touching you?” The oddest feeling was rippling over my shoulders and down my arms. Not exactly fear…but something like awe.
“Yes. I couldn’t tell about
” he added hastily. “I didn’t feel anything strange, just then, but I was watching closely, earlier, when he put his hand on Buck’s chest—Buck had some sort of heart attack when we came through the stones—”
“He came with you and Bree and—”
Now Roger made the same helpless gesture.
“No, this was…earlier. Anyway, Buck was in a bad way, and the people who’d taken him in had sent for a doctor, this Hector McEwan. And he laid his hand on Buck’s chest and—and did wee things—and I saw—I really did, Claire, I
it—a faint blue light come up through his fingers and spread over his hand.”