Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 23

   

I sat down near him and leaned back against a rock, watching him a little diffidently. Beyond a brief nod of acknowledgment, he ignored me, completely occupied with inward thoughts of no very pleasant form, to judge from the dark frown on his face. One foot tapped restlessly against the rock he sat on, and he twisted his fingers together, clenching, then spreading them with a force that made several knuckles pop with soft crackling sounds.

It was the popping knuckles that reminded me of Captain Manson. The supply officer for the field hospital where I had worked, Captain Manson suffered shortages, missed deliveries, and the endless idiocies of the army bureaucracy as his own personal slings and arrows. Normally a mild and pleasant-spoken man, when the frustrations became too great, he would retire briefly into his private office and punch the wall behind the door with all the force he could muster. Visitors in the outer reception area would watch in fascination as the flimsy wallboard quivered under the force of the blows. A few moments later, Captain Manson would reemerge, bruised of knuckle but once more calm of spirit, to deal with the current crisis. By the time he was transferred to another unit, the wall behind his door was pocked with dozens of fist-sized holes.

Watching the young man on the rock trying to disjoint his own fingers, I was forcibly reminded of the captain, facing some insoluble problem of supply.

“You need to hit something,” I said.

“Eh?” He looked up in surprise, apparently having forgotten I was there.

“Hit something,” I advised. “You’ll feel better for it.”

His mouth quirked as though about to say something, but instead he rose from his rock, headed decisively for a sturdy-looking cherry tree, and dealt it a solid blow. Apparently finding this some palliative to his feelings, he smashed the quivering trunk several times more, causing a delirious shower of pale-pink petals to rain down upon his head.

Sucking a grazed knuckle, he came back a moment later.

“Thank ye,” he said, with a wry smile. “Perhaps I’ll sleep tonight after all.”

“Did you hurt your hand?” I rose to examine it, but he shook his head, rubbing the knuckles gently with the palm of the other hand.

“Nay, it’s nothing.”

We stood a moment in awkward silence. I didn’t want to refer to the scene I had overheard, or to the earlier events of the evening. I broke the silence finally by saying, “I didn’t know you were a lefty.”

“A lefty? Oh, cack-handed, ye mean. Aye, always have been. The schoolmaster used to tie that one to my belt behind my back, to make me write wi’ the other.”

“Can you? Write with the other, I mean?”

He nodded, reapplying the injured hand to his mouth. “Aye. Makes my head ache to do it, though.”

“Do you fight left-handed too?” I asked, wanting to distract him. “With a sword, I mean?” He was wearing no arms at the moment except his dirk and sgian dhu, but during the day he customarily wore both sword and pistols, as did most of the men in the party.

“No, I use a sword well enough in either hand. A left-handed swordsman’s at a disadvantage, ye ken, wi’ a small-sword, for ye fight wi’ your left side turned to the enemy, and your heart’s on that side, d’ye see?”

Too filled with nervous energy to keep still, he had begun to stride about the grassy clearing, making illustrative gestures with an imaginary sword. “It makes little difference wi’ a broadsword,” he said. He extended both arms straight out, hands together and swept them in a flat, graceful arc through the air. “Ye use both hands, usually,” he explained.

“Or if you’re close enough to use only one, it doesna matter much which, for you come down from above and cleave the man through the shoulder. Not the head,” he added instructively, “for the blade may slip off easy. Catch him clean in the notch, though”—he chopped the edge of his hand at the juncture of neck and shoulder—“and he’s dead. And if it’s not a clean cut, still the man will no fight again that day—or ever, likely,” he added.

His left hand dropped to his belt and he drew the dirk in a motion like water pouring from a glass.

“Now, to fight wi’ sword and dirk together,” he said, “if ye have no targe to shelter your dirk hand, then you favor the right side, wi’ the small-sword in that hand, and come up from underneath wi’ the dirk if ye fight in close. But if the dirk hand is well shielded, ye can come from either side, and twist your body about”—he ducked and weaved, illustrating—“to keep the enemy’s blade away, and use the dirk only if ye lose the sword or the use of the sword arm.”

He dropped low and brought the blade up in a swift, murderous jab that stopped an inch short of my breast. I stepped back involuntarily, and at once he stood upright, sheathing the dirk with an apologetic smile.

“I’m sorry. I’m showin’ off. I didna mean to startle ye.”

“You’re awfully good,” I said, with sincerity. “Who taught you to fight?” I asked. “I’d think you’d need another left-handed fighter to show you.”

“Aye, it was a left-handed fighter. The best I’ve ever seen.” He smiled briefly, without humor. “Dougal MacKenzie.”

Most of the cherry blossoms had fallen from his head by now; only a few pink petals clung to his shoulders, and I reached out to brush them away. The seam of his shirt had been mended neatly, I saw, if without artistry. Even a rip through the fabric had been catch-stitched together.

“He’ll do it again?” I said abruptly, unable to stop myself.

He paused before answering, but there was no pretense of not understanding what I meant.

“Oh, aye,” he said at last, nodding. “It gets him what he wants, ye see.”

“And you’ll let him do it? Let him use you that way?”

He looked past me, down the hill toward the tavern, where a single light still showed through chinks in the timbers. His face was smooth and blank as a wall.

“For now.”

We continued on our rounds, moving no more than a few miles a day, often stopping for Dougal to conduct business at a crossroads or a cottage, where several tenants would gather with their bags of grain and bits of carefully hoarded money. All was recorded in ledgers by the quick-moving pen of Ned Gowan, and such receipts as were needed dispensed from his scrap-bag of parchment and papers.

And when we reached a hamlet or village large enough to boast an inn or tavern, Dougal would once more do his turn, standing drinks, telling stories, making speeches, and finally, if he judged the prospects good enough, he would force Jamie to his feet to show his scars. And a few more coins would be added to the second bag, the purse bound for France and the court of the Pretender.

I tried to judge such scenes as they developed, and step outside before the cli**x, public crucifixion never having been much to my taste. While the initial reaction to the sight of Jamie’s back was horrified pity, followed by bursts of invective against the English army and King George, often there was a slight flavor of contempt that even I could pick up. On one occasion I heard one man remark softly to a friend in English, “An awfu’ sight, man, is it no? Christ, I’d die in my blood before I let a whey-faced Sassenach to use me so.”

Angry and miserable to start with, Jamie grew more wretched each day. He would shrug back into his shirt as soon as possible, avoiding questions and commiseration, and seek an excuse to leave the gathering, avoiding everyone until we took horse the following morning.

The breaking point came a few days later, in a small village called Tunnaig. This time, Dougal was still exhorting the crowd, a hand on Jamie’s bare shoulder, when one of the onlookers, a young lout with long, dirty brown hair, made some personal remark to Jamie. I couldn’t tell what was said, but the effect was instantaneous. Jamie wrenched out of Dougal’s grasp and hit the lad in the stomach, knocking him flat.

I was slowly learning to put a few words of Gaelic together, though I could in no way be said to understand the language yet. However, I had noticed that I often could tell what was being said from the attitude of the speaker, whether I understood the words or not.

“Get up and say that again,” looks the same said in any schoolyard, pub, or alley in the world.

So does “Right you are, mate,” and “Get him, lads!”

Jamie disappeared under an avalanche of grimy work clothes as the rents-table went over with a crash beneath the weight of brown-hair and two of his friends. Innocent bystanders pressed back against the walls of the tavern and prepared to enjoy the spectacle. I sidled closer to Ned and Murtagh, eyeing the heaving mass of limbs uneasily. A lonely flash of red hair showed occasionally in the twisting sea of arms and legs.

“Shouldn’t you help him?” I murmured to Murtagh, out of the corner of my mouth. He looked surprised at the idea.

“No, why?”

“He’ll call for help if he needs it,” said Ned Gowan, tranquilly watching from my other side.

“Whatever you say.” I subsided doubtfully.

I wasn’t at all sure Jamie would be able to call for help if he needed it; at the moment he was being throttled by a stout lad in green. My personal opinion was that Dougal would soon be short one prime exhibit, but he didn’t seem concerned. In fact, none of the watchers seemed at all bothered by the mayhem taking place on the floor at our feet. A few bets were being taken, but the overall air was one of quiet enjoyment of the entertainment.

I was glad to notice that Rupert drifted casually across the path of a couple of men who seemed to be contemplating joining the action. As they took a step toward the fray, he bumbled absentmindedly into their way, hand lightly resting on his dirk. They fell back, deciding to leave well enough alone.

The general feeling appeared to be that three to one was reasonable odds. Given that the one was quite large, an accomplished fighter, and obviously in the grip of a berserk fury, that might be true.

The contest seemed to be evening out with the abrupt retirement of the stout party in green, dripping blood as the result of a well-placed elbow to the nose.

It went on for several minutes more, but the conclusion became more and more obvious, as a second fighter fell by the wayside and rolled under a table, moaning and clutching his groin. Jamie and his original antagonist were still hammering each other earnestly in the middle of the floor, but the Jamie-backers amongst the spectators were already collecting their winnings. A forearm across the windpipe, accompanied by a vicious kidney punch, decided brown-hair that discretion was the better part of valor.

I added a mental translation of “That’s enough, I give up,” to my growing Gaelic/English word list.

Jamie rose slowly off the body of his last opponent to the cheers of the crowd. Nodding breathlessly in acknowledgment, he staggered to one of the few benches still standing, and flopped down, streaming sweat and blood, to accept a tankard of ale from the publican. Gulping it down, he set the empty tankard on the bench and leaned forward, gasping for breath, elbows on his knees and the scars on his back defiantly displayed.

For once he was in no hurry to resume his shirt; in spite of the chill in the pub, he remained half-naked, only putting on his shirt to go outside when it was time to seek our lodging for the night. He left to a chorus of respectful good nights, looking more relaxed than he had in days, in spite of the pain from scrapes, cuts, and assorted contusions.

“One scraped shin, one cut eyebrow, one split lip, one bloody nose, six smashed knuckles, one sprained thumb, and two loosened teeth. Plus more contusions than I care to count.” I completed my inventory with a sigh. “How do you feel?” We were alone, in the small shed behind the inn where I had taken him to administer first aid.

“Fine,” he said, grinning. He started to stand up, but froze halfway, grimacing. “Aye, well. Perhaps the ribs hurt a bit.”

“Of course they hurt. You’re black and blue—again. Why do you do such things? What in God’s name do you think you’re made of? Iron?” I demanded irritably.

He grinned ruefully and touched his swollen nose.

“No. I wish I were.”

I sighed again and prodded him gently around the middle.

“I don’t think they’re cracked; it’s only bruises. I’ll strap them, though, in case. Stand up straight, roll up your shirt, and hold your arms out from your sides.” I began to tear strips from an old shawl I’d got from the innkeeper’s wife. Muttering under my breath about sticking plaster and other amenities of civilized life, I improvised a strap dressing, pulling it tight and fastening it with the ring-brooch off his plaid.

“I can’t breathe,” he complained.

“If you breathe, it will hurt. Don’t move. Where did you learn to fight like that? Dougal, again?”

“No.” he winced away from the vinegar I was applying to the cut eyebrow. “My father taught me.”

“Really? What was your father, the local boxing champion?”

“What’s boxing? No, he was a farmer. Bred horses too.” Jamie sucked in his breath as I continued the vinegar application on his barked shin.

“When I was nine or ten, he said he thought I was going to be big as my mother’s folk, so I’d have to learn to fight.” He was breathing more easily now, and held out a hand to let me rub marigold ointment into the knuckles.

“He said, ‘If you’re sizable, half the men ye meet will fear ye, and the other half will want to try ye. Knock one down,’ he said, ‘and the rest will let ye be. But learn to do it fast and clean, or you’ll be fightin’ all your life.’ So he’d take me to the barn and knock me into the straw until I learned to hit back. Ow! That stings.”

“Fingernail gouges are nasty wounds,” I said, swabbing busily at his neck. “Especially if the gouger doesn’t wash regularly. And I doubt that greasy-haired lad bathes once a year. ‘Fast and clean’ isn’t quite how I’d describe what you did tonight, but it was impressive. Your father would be proud of you.”

I spoke with some sarcasm, and was surprised to see a shadow pass across his face.

“My father’s dead,” he said flatly.

“I’m sorry.” I finished the swabbing, then said softly, “But I meant it. He would be proud of you.”

He didn’t answer, but gave me a half-smile in reply. He suddenly seemed very young, and I wondered just how old he was. I was about to ask when a raspy cough from behind announced a visitor to the shed.

It was the stringy little man named Murtagh. He eyed Jamie’s strapped-up ribs with some amusement, and lobbed a small wash leather bag through the air. Jamie put up a large hand and caught it easily, with a small clinking sound.

“And what’s this?” he asked.

Murtagh raised one sketchy brow. “Your share o’ the wagers, what else?”

Jamie shook his head and made to toss the bag back.

“I didna wager anything.”

Murtagh raised a hand to stop him. “You did the work. You’re a verra popular fellow at the moment, at least wi’ those that backed ye.”

“But not with Dougal, I don’t suppose,” I interjected.

Murtagh was one of those men who always looked a bit startled to find that women had voices, but he nodded politely enough.

“Aye, that’s true. Still, I dinna see as that should trouble ye,” he said to Jamie.

“No?” A glance passed between the two men, with a message I didn’t understand. Jamie blew his breath out softly through his teeth, nodding slowly to himself.

“When?” he asked.

“A week. Ten days, perhaps. Near a place called Lag Cruime. You’ll know it?”

Jamie nodded again, looking more content than I had seen him in some time. “I know it.”

I looked from one face to the other, both closed and secretive. So Murtagh had found out something. Something to do with the mysterious “Horrocks” perhaps? I shrugged. Whatever the cause, it appeared that Jamie’s days as an exhibition were over.

“I suppose Dougal can always tap-dance instead,” I said.

“Eh?” The secretive looks changed to looks of startlement.

“Never mind. Sleep well.” I picked up my box of medical supplies and went to find my own rest.

12

THE GARRISON COMMANDER

We were drawing nearer to Fort William, and I began to ponder seriously what my plan of action should be, once we had arrived there.

It depended, I thought, upon what the garrison commander was likely to do. If he believed that I was a gentlewoman in distress, he might provide me with temporary escort toward the coast and my putative embarkation for France.

But he might be suspicious of me, turning up in the company of the MacKenzies. Still, I was patently not a Scot myself; surely he would not be inclined to think me a spy of some sort? That was evidently what Colum and Dougal thought—that I was an English spy.

Which made me wonder what I was meant to be spying on? Well, unpatriotic activities, I supposed; of which, collecting money for the support of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, pretender to the throne, was definitely one.

But in that case, why had Dougal allowed me to see him do it? He could easily enough have sent me outside before that part of the proceedings. Of course, the proceedings had all been held in Gaelic, I argued with myself.

Perhaps that was the point, though. I remembered the odd gleam in his eyes and his question, “I thought ye had no Gaelic?” Perhaps it was a test, to see whether I really was ignorant of the language. For an English spy scarcely would have been sent into the Highlands, unable to speak with more than half the people there.

But no, the conversation I had overheard between Jamie and Dougal would seem to indicate that Dougal was indeed a Jacobite, though Colum apparently was not—yet.

My head was beginning to buzz with all these suppositions, and I was glad to see that we were approaching a fairly large village. Likely that meant a good inn, as well, and a decent supper.

The inn was in fact commodious, by the standards I had grown accustomed to. If the bed was apparently designed for midgets—and flea-bitten ones, at that—at least it was in a chamber to itself. In several of the smaller inns, I had slept on a settle in the common room, surrounded by snoring male forms and the humped shadows of plaid-wrapped shapes.

Customarily I fell asleep immediately, whatever the sleeping conditions, worn out by a day in the saddle and an evening of Dougal’s politicizing. The first evening in an inn, though, I had remained awake for a good half-hour, fascinated by the remarkable variety of noises the male respiratory apparatus could produce. An entire dormitory full of student nurses couldn’t come close.

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