I felt as though someone had struck me in the breastbone. My marriages, she meant. I looked for Jamie, and found him looking at me with the same expression of shock I knew was on my own face. He coughed to break the silence, and cleared his throat, turning to Roger.
“When were ye handfast?”
“September the second,” Roger answered promptly.
“And now it is mid-June.” Jamie glanced from one to the other, frowning.
“Well, mo nighean, if you are handfast with this man, then you are bound to him; there’s no question.” He turned and gave Roger a dark blue stare. “So you’ll live here, as her husband. And on September the third, she will choose whether she’ll wed ye by priest and book—or whether ye’ll leave and trouble her no more. Ye’ve that long to decide why you’re here—and convince her of it.”
Roger and Brianna both started to speak, to protest, but he stopped them, picking up the dirk he had left on the table. He lowered the blade gently, until it touched the cloth over Roger’s chest.
“Ye’ll live here as her husband, I said. But if ye touch her unwilling, I’ll cut your heart out and feed it to the pig. Ye understand me?”
Roger stared down at the gleaming blade for a long moment, no expression visible beneath the thick beard, then lifted his head to meet Jamie’s eyes.
“You think I’d trouble a woman who didn’t want me?”
A rather awkward question, given that Jamie had beaten him to pulp under precisely that mistaken assumption. Roger put a hand on Jamie’s and shoved the dirk point-first into the table. He pushed back his stool abruptly and stood up, turned on his heel, and left.
Just as quickly, Jamie stood and went after him, sheathing his dirk as he went.
Brianna looked at me helplessly.
“What do you think he’ll—”
She was interrupted by a loud thud and an equally loud grunt, as a heavy body struck the wall outside.
“Treat her badly and I’ll rip your balls off and cram them down your throat,” Jamie’s voice said softly, in Gaelic.
I glanced at Brianna, and saw that her mastery of Gaelic was sufficient to have appreciated the gist of this. Her mouth opened, but she didn’t get a word out.
There was the sound of a quick scuffle outside, ending in an even louder thump, as of a head striking logs.
Roger didn’t have Jamie’s air of quiet menace, but his voice rang with sincerity. “Lay hands on me once more, you f**king sod, and I’ll stuff your head back up your arse where it came from!”
There was a moment’s silence, and then the sound of feet moving off. A moment later, Jamie made a Scottish noise deep in his throat, and moved off too.
Brianna’s eyes were round as she looked at me.
“Testosterone poisoning,” I said, with a shrug.
“Can you do anything about it?” she asked. The corner of her mouth twitched, though I couldn’t tell whether with laughter or incipient hysteria.
I pushed a hand through my hair, considering.
“Well,” I said finally, “there are only two things they do with it, and one of them is try to kill each other.”
Brianna rubbed her nose.
“Uh-huh,” she said. “And the other…” Our eyes met with a perfect understanding.
“I’ll take care of your father,” I said. “But Roger’s up to you.”
Life on the mountain was a trifle tense, with Brianna and Roger behaving respectively like a trapped hare and a cornered badger, Jamie fixing Roger with brooding looks of Gaelic disapproval over the supper table, Lizzie falling over her feet to apologize to everyone in sight, and the baby deciding that the time was ripe to have nightly attacks of screaming colic.
It was probably the colic that spurred Jamie into a frenzy of activity on the new house. Fergus and some of the tenants had kindly put in a small planting for us, so that while we would have no extra corn this year to sell, at least we would eat. Freed of the need to tend a large acreage, Jamie instead spent every free moment on the ridge, hammering and sawing.
Roger was doing his best to assist with the other farm chores, though hampered by his lame foot. He had several times brushed off my attempts to treat it, but now I refused to be put off any longer. A few days after his arrival, I made my preparations and informed him firmly that I meant to deal with it first thing in the morning.
The time come, I made him lie down, and unwrapped the layers of rags wound around his foot. The sweet-rotten smell of deep infection tickled my nose, but I thanked God to see neither the red streaks of blood poisoning nor the black tinges of incipient gangrene. It was bad enough, for all that.
“You’ve got chronic abscesses, deep in the tissue,” I said, probing firmly with my thumbs. I could feel the squishy yielding of pockets of pus, and as I squeezed harder, the half-healed wounds broke open and a nasty yellow-gray slime oozed from an inflamed crack at the edge of the sole.
Roger went white under his tan, and his hands clenched on the wooden frame of the bed, but he didn’t make a sound.
“You’re lucky,” I said, still working his foot back and forth, flexing the tiny joints of the metacarpals. “You’ve been breaking open the abscesses and partially draining them by walking on it. They re-form, of course, but the movement’s kept the infection from moving much deeper, and it’s kept your foot flexible.”
“Oh, good,” he said faintly.
“Bree, I need you to help,” I said, turning casually toward the far end of the room, where the two girls sat, taking turns between baby and spinning wheel.
“I could; let me do it.” Lizzie sprang up, eager to help. Remorseful over her part in Roger’s ordeal, she had been trying to make amends in any way possible, constantly bringing him bits of food, offering to mend his clothes, and driving him mad generally with her expressions of contrition.
I smiled at her.
“Yes, you can help. Take the baby so Brianna can come here. Why don’t you take him outside for a little air?”
With a dubious glance, Lizzie did as I said, scooping little Gizmo into her arms and murmuring endearments to him as they went out. Brianna came to stand beside me, carefully keeping her eyes off Roger’s face.
“I’m going to open this up and drain it the best I can,” I said, indicating the long black-crusted slit. “Then we’ll have to debride the dead tissue, disinfect it, and hope for the best.”
“And what exactly does ‘debride’ mean?” Roger asked. I let go of his foot and his body relaxed, very slightly.
“Cleansing of a wound by the surgical or nonsurgical removal of dead tissue or bone,” I said. I touched his foot. “Luckily, I don’t think the bone’s been affected, though there may be a bit of damage in the cartilage between the metacarpals. Don’t worry,” I said, patting his leg. “The debridement isn’t going to hurt.”
“No. It’s the draining and disinfecting that will hurt.” I glanced up at Bree. “Go take hold of his hands, please.”
She hesitated no more than a second, then moved to the head of the couch and held out her hands to him. He took them, his eyes on her. It was the first time they had touched each other in nearly a year.
“Hold on tight,” I instructed them. “This is the nasty part.”
I didn’t look up, but worked quickly, opening the half-healed wounds cleanly with a scalpel, pressing out as much pus and dead matter as I could. I could feel the tension quivering in his leg muscles, and the slight arcing of his body as the pain lifted and bent him, but he didn’t say a word.
“Do you want something to bite down on, Roger?” I asked, taking out my bottle of dilute alcohol-water mixture for irrigating. “It’s going to sting a bit, now.”
He didn’t answer; Brianna did.
“He’s all right,” she said steadily. “Go ahead.”
He made a muffled noise when I began to wash out the wounds, and rolled halfway onto his side, his leg convulsing. I kept tight hold of his foot and finished the job as quickly as possible. When I let go and recorked the bottle, I looked up toward the head of the bed. She was sitting on the bed, her arms locked tight around his shoulders. His face was buried in her lap, his arms around her waist. Her face was white, but she gave me a strained smile.
“Is it over?”
“The bad part is. Just a little more to do,” I assured them. I had made my preparations two days before; at this time of year, there was no difficulty. I went outside to the smoking shed. The venison carcass hung in the shadows, bathing in clouds of protectively fragrant hickory smoke. My goal was less thoroughly preserved meat, though.
Good, it had been out long enough. I picked up the small saucer from its place near the door and carried it back to the house.
“Phew!” Brianna wrinkled her nose as I came in. “What’s that? It smells like rotten meat.”
“That’s what it is.” The partial remains of a snare-killed rabbit, to be exact, retrieved from the edge of the garden and set out to wait for visitors.
She was still holding his hands. I smiled to myself and resumed my place, picking up the wounded foot and reaching for my long-nosed forceps.
“Mama! What are you doing?”
“It won’t hurt,” I said. I squeezed the foot slightly, spreading one of my surgical incisions. I picked one of the small white grubs out of the stinking scraps of rabbit meat and inserted it deftly into the gaping slit.
Roger’s eyes had been closed, his forehead sheened with sweat.
“What?” he said, lifting his head and squinting over his shoulder in an effort to see what I was doing. “What are you doing?”
“Putting maggots in the wounds,” I said, intent on my work. “I learned it from an old Indian lady I used to know.”
Twin sounds indicative of shock and nausea came from the bedhead, but I kept a tight hold on his foot and went on with it.
“It works,” I said, frowning slightly as I opened another incision and deposited three of the wriggling white larvae. “Much better than the usual means of debridement; for that, I’d have to open up your foot much more extensively, and physically scrape out as much dead tissue as I could reach—which would not only hurt like the dickens, it would likely cripple you permanently. Our little friends here eat dead tissue, though; they can get into tiny places where I couldn’t reach, and do a nice, thorough job.”
“Our friends the maggots,” Brianna muttered. “God, Mama!”
“What, exactly, is going to stop them eating my entire leg?” Roger asked with a thoroughly spurious attempt at detachment. “They…um…they spread, don’t they?”
“Oh, no,” I assured him cheerfully. “Maggots are larval forms; they don’t breed. They also don’t eat live tissue—only the nasty dead stuff. If there’s enough to get them through their pupal cycle, they’ll develop into tiny flies and fly off—if not, when the food’s exhausted, they’ll simply crawl out, searching for more.”