Very slowly, breathing in gasps with a catch and a groan, Jamie crawled out into the clearing.
Disregarding my own bruises, I ran to him, and dropped to my knees beside him.
“God, Jamie! Are you all right?”
“No,” he said shortly, and collapsed on the ground, wheezing gently.
His face was no more than a pale blotch in the starlight; the rest of his body was so dark as to be nearly invisible. I found out why as I ran my hands swiftly over him. His clothes were so soaked with blood that they stuck to his body, his hunting shirt coming away from his chest with a nasty little sucking sound as I pulled at it.
“You smell like a slaughterhouse,” I said, feeling under his chin for a pulse. It was fast—no great surprise—but strong, and a wave of relief washed over me. “Is that your blood, or the bear’s?”
“If it was mine, Sassenach, I’d be dead,” he said testily, opening his eyes. “No credit to you that I’m not, mind.” He rolled painfully onto his side and slowly got to his hands and knees, groaning. “What possessed ye, woman, to hit me in the heid wi’ a fish whilst I was fighting for my life?”
“Hold still, for heaven’s sake!” He couldn’t be too badly hurt if he was trying to get away. I clutched him by the h*ps to stop him, and kneeling behind him, felt my way gingerly up his sides. “Broken ribs?” I said.
“No. But if ye tickle me, Sassenach, I willna like it a bit,” he said, gasping between words.
“I won’t,” I assured him. I ran my hands gently over the arch of his ribs, pressing lightly. No splintered ends protruding through the skin, no sinister depressions or soft spots; cracked maybe, but he was right, nothing broken. He yelped and twitched under my hand. “Bad spot there?”
“It is,” he said between his teeth. He was beginning to shiver, and I hurried to fetch his plaid, which I wrapped about his shoulders.
“I’m fine, Sassenach,” he said, waving away my attempts to help him to a seat. “Go see to the horses; they’ll be upset.” They were. We had hobbled the horses a little way from the clearing; they had made it a good deal farther under the impetus of terror, judging from the muffled stamping and whinnying I could hear in the distance.
There were still small wheezing groans coming from the deep shadows under the trees; the sound was so human that the hair prickled on the back of my neck. Carefully skirting the sounds, I went and found the horses, cowering in a birch grove a few hundred yards away. They whickered when they scented me, delighted to see me, bear piss and all.
By the time I had soothed the horses and coaxed them back in the direction of the clearing, the pitiful noises from the shadows had ceased. There was a small glow in the clearing; Jamie had managed to get the fire started again.
He was crouched next to the tiny blaze, still shivering under his plaid. I fed in enough sticks to make sure it wouldn’t go out, then turned my attention to him once more.
“You’re really not badly damaged?” I asked, still worried.
He gave me a lopsided smile.
“I’ll do. It caught me a good one across the back, but I dinna think it’s verra bad. Have a look?” He straightened up, wincing, and felt his side gingerly as I crossed behind him.
“What made it do that, I wonder?” he said, twisting his head toward where the bear’s carcass lay. “Myers said the black bears dinna often attack ye, without ye provoke them some way.”
“Maybe somebody else provoked it,” I suggested. “And then had the sense to get out of the way.” I lifted the plaid, and whistled under my breath.
The back of his shirt hung in shreds, smeared with dirt and ash, splotched with blood. His blood this time, not the bear’s, but luckily not much. I gently pulled the tattered pieces of the shirt apart, exposing the long bow of his back. Four long claw-marks ran from shoulder blade to armpit; deep, wicked gouges that tapered to superficial red welts.
“Ooh!” I said, in sympathy.
“Well, it’s no as though my back was much to look at, anyway,” he joked feebly. “Really, is it bad?” He twisted around, trying to see, then stopped, grunting as the movement strained his bruised ribs.
“No. Dirty, though; I’ll need to wash it out.” The blood had already begun to clot; the wounds would need to be cleansed at once. I put the plaid back and set on a pan of water to boil, thinking what else I might use.
“I saw some arrowhead plant down near the stream,” I said. “I think I can find it again from memory.” I handed him the bottle of ale I’d brought from the saddlebags, and took his dirk.
“Will you be all right?” I paused and looked at him; he was very pale, and still shivering. The fire glimmered red on his brows, throwing the lines of his face into strong relief.
“Aye, I will.” He mustered a faint grin. “Dinna worry, Sassenach; the thought of dyin’ asleep in my bed seems even better to me now than it did an hour ago.”
A sickle-moon was rising, bright over the trees, and I had little trouble finding the place I remembered. The stream ran cold and silver in the moonlight, chilling my hands and feet as I stood calf-deep in the water, groping for tubers of the arrowhead plant.
Small frogs sang all around me, and the stiff leaves of cattails rustled softly in the evening breeze. It was very, very peaceful, and all of a sudden I found myself shaking so hard that I had to sit down on the stream bank.
Anytime. It could happen anytime, and just this fast. I wasn’t sure which seemed most unreal; the bear’s attack, or this, the soft summer night, alive with promise.
I rested my head on my knees, letting the sickness, the residue of shock, drain away. It didn’t matter, I told myself. Not only anytime, but anywhere. Disease, car wreck, random bullet. There was no true refuge for anyone, but like most people, I managed not to think of that most of the time.
I shuddered, thinking of the claw marks on Jamie’s back. Had he been slower to react, not as strong…had the wounds been slightly deeper…for that matter, infection was still a major threat. But at least against that danger, I could fight.
The thought brought me back to myself, the squashed leaves and roots cool and wet in my hand. I splashed cold water over my face, and started up the hill toward the campfire, feeling somewhat better.
I could see Jamie through the thin scrim of saplings, sitting upright, outlined against the fire. Sitting bolt upright, in a way that must surely have been painful, considering his wounds.
I stopped, suddenly wary, just as he spoke.
“Claire?” He didn’t turn around, and his voice was calm. He didn’t wait for me to answer, but went on, voice cool and steady.
“Walk up behind me, Sassenach, and put your knife into my left hand. Then stay behind me.”
Heart hammering, I took the three steps that brought me high enough to see over his shoulder. On the far side of the clearing, just within the light of the fire, stood three Indians, heavily armed. Evidently the bear had been provoked.
The Indians looked us over with a lively interest that was more than returned. There were three of them; an older man, whose feathered topknot was liberally streaked with gray, and two younger, perhaps in their twenties. Father and sons, I thought—there was a certain similarity among them, more of body than of face; all three were fairly short, broad-shouldered and bow-legged, with long, powerful arms.
I eyed their weapons covertly. The older man cradled a gun in the curve of his arm; it was an ancient French wheelock, the hexagonal barrel rimed with rust. It looked as though it would explode in his face if he fired it, but I hoped he wouldn’t try.
One of the younger men carried a bow to hand, arrow casually nocked. All three had sinister-looking tomahawks and skinning knives slung in their belts. Long as it was, Jamie’s dirk seemed rather inadequate by comparison.
Evidently coming to the same conclusion, he leaned forward and placed the dirk carefully on the ground at his feet. Sitting back, he spread his empty hands and shrugged.
The Indians giggled. It was such an unwarlike noise that I found myself half smiling in response, even though my stomach, less easily disarmed, stayed knotted with tension.
I saw Jamie’s shoulders relax their rigid line, and felt slightly reassured.
“Bonsoir, messieurs,” he said. “Parlez-vous français?”
The Indians giggled again, glancing at each other shyly. The older man took a tentative step forward and ducked his head at us, setting the beads in his hair swinging.
“No…Fransh,” he said.
“English?” I said hopefully. He glanced at me with interest, but shook his head. He said something over one shoulder to one of his sons, who replied in the same unintelligible tongue. The older man turned back to Jamie and asked something, raising his brows in question.
Jamie shook his head in incomprehension, and one of the young men stepped into the firelight. Bending his knees and letting his shoulders slump, he thrust his head forward and swayed from side to side, peering nearsightedly in such perfect imitation of a bear that Jamie laughed out loud. The other Indians grinned.
The young man straightened up and pointed at the blood-soaked sleeve of Jamie’s shirt, with an interrogatory noise.
“Oh, aye, it’s over there,” Jamie said, gesturing toward the darkness under the trees.
Without further ado, all three men disappeared into the dark, from which excited exclamations and murmurings soon emerged.
“It’s all right, Sassenach,” Jamie said. “They willna harm us. They’re only hunters.” He closed his eyes briefly, and I saw the faint sheen of sweat on his face. “And a good thing, too, because I think I’m maybe going to swoon.”
“Don’t even think about it. Don’t you dare faint and leave me alone with them!” No matter what the savages’ possible intentions, the thought of facing them alone over Jamie’s unconscious body was enough to reknot my intestines with panic. I put my hand on the back of his neck and forced his head down between his knees.
“Breathe,” I said, squeezing cold water from my handkerchief down the back of his neck. “You can faint later.”
“Can I puke?” he asked, his voice muffled in his kilt. I recognized the note of wry jest in it, and let my own breath out with relief.
“No,” I said. “Sit up; they’re coming back.”
They were, dragging the bear’s carcass with them. Jamie sat up and mopped his face with the wet handkerchief. Warm as the night was, he was shivering slightly from shock, but he sat steadily enough.
The older man came over to us, and pointed with raised brows; first to the knife that lay at Jamie’s feet, then to the dead bear. Jamie nodded modestly.
“It wasna easy, mind,” he said.
The Indian’s brows rose higher. Then he ducked his head, hands spread in a gesture of respect. He beckoned to one of the younger men, who came over, untying a pouch from his belt.
Shoving me unceremoniously to one side, the younger man ripped open the throat of Jamie’s shirt, pulled it off his shoulder, and squinted at the injury. He poured a handful of a lumpy, half-powdery substance into his hand, spat copiously into it, stirred it into a foul-smelling paste, and smeared it liberally over the wounds.