Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 69

   

Outraged, I stamped over to the desk and gripped Ian by the shoulder, shaking him roughly and ignoring Jamie, who pushed himself upright, saying, “Sassenach, wait…”

Ian was not quite unconscious. His head came up reluctantly, and he looked at me with a set, rigid face, eyes bleak and pleading holes. I realized suddenly that he thought I had come to tell him that Jenny was dead.

I relaxed my grip and patted him gently instead.

“She’s all right,” I said, softly. “You have a daughter.”

He laid his head down on his arms again, and I left him, his thin shoulders shaking as Jamie patted his back.

The survivors now revived and cleaned up, the Murray-Fraser families gathered in Jenny’s room for a celebratory supper. Little Margaret, tidied for inspection and swaddled in a small blanket, was given to her father, who received his new offspring with an expression of beatific reverence.

“Hello, wee Maggie,” he whispered, touching the tiny button of a nose with one fingertip.

His new daughter, unimpressed by the introduction, closed her eyes in concentration, stiffened, and urinated on her father’s shirt.

During the brief bustle of hilarity and repair occasioned by this lapse of good manners, small Jamie succeeded in escaping from the clutches of Mrs. Crook and flung himself onto Jenny’s bed. She grunted slightly in discomfort, but put out a hand and gathered him in, waving at Mrs. Crook to let him be.

“My mama!” he declared, burrowing into Jenny’s side.

“Well, who else?” she asked reasonably. “Here, laddie.” She hugged him, and kissed the top of his head, and he relaxed, reassured, and snuggled against her. She gently pushed his head down, stroking his hair.

“Lay your head then, man,” she said. “Past your bedtime. Lay your head.” Comforted by her presence, he put a thumb in his mouth and fell asleep.

Given a turn to hold the baby, Jamie proved remarkably competent, cupping the small fuzzy skull in the palm of one hand like a tennis ball. He seemed reluctant to hand the child back to Jenny, who cuddled her against her br**sts, crooning soft endearments.

At last we made our way to our own room, which seemed silent and empty in contrast to the warm family scene we had just left, Ian kneeling by his wife’s bed, hand resting on small Jamie as Jenny nursed the new baby. I was conscious for the first time of just how tired I was; it was nearly twenty-four hours since Ian had roused me.

Jamie closed the door quietly behind him. Without speaking, he came behind me and undid the fastenings of my gown. His hands reached around me and I lay back gratefully against his chest. Then he bent his head to kiss me and I turned, putting my own arms around his neck. I felt not only very tired, but very tender, and not a little sad.

“Perhaps it’s as well,” Jamie said slowly, as though to himself.

“What’s as well?”

“That you’re barren.” He couldn’t see my face, buried in his chest, but he must have felt me stiffen.

“Aye, I knew that long ago. Geillis Duncan told me, soon after we wed.” He stroked my back gently. “I regretted it a bit at first, but then I began to think it was as well; living as we must, it would be verra difficult if you were to get with child. And now”—he shivered slightly—“now I think I am glad of it; I wouldna want ye to suffer that way.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” I said, after a long while, thinking of the rounded, fuzzy head and tiny fingers.

“I would.” He kissed the top of my head. “I saw Ian’s face; it was like his own flesh was being torn, each time Jenny screamed.” My arms were around him, stroking the ridged scars on his back. “I can bear pain, myself,” he said softly, “but I couldna bear yours. That would take more strength than I have.”

33

THE WATCH

Jenny recovered rapidly after Margaret’s birth, insisting on coming downstairs the day following the delivery. At the combined insistence of Ian and Jamie, she reluctantly refrained from doing any work, only supervising from the sofa in the parlor where she reclined, baby Margaret sleeping in her cradle alongside.

Not content to sit idle, though, within a day or two she had ventured as far as the kitchen, and then the back garden. Sitting on the wall, the well-wrapped baby in a carrying sling, she was keeping me company as I simultaneously pulled dead vines and kept an eye on the enormous cauldron in which the household’s laundry was boiled. Mrs. Crook and the maids had already removed the clean wash to be hung and dried; now I was waiting for the water to cool sufficiently to be dumped out.

Small Jamie was “helping” me, yanking out plants with mad abandon and flinging bits of stick in all directions. I called a warning as he ventured too near the cauldron, then raced after him as he ignored me. Luckily the pot had cooled quickly; the water was no more than warm. Warning him to keep back with his mother, I grasped the pot and tilted it away from the iron contrivance that held it and kept it from falling.

I sprang back out of the way as the dirty water cascaded over the lip of the pot, steaming in the chilly air. Young Jamie, squatting beside me on his heels, splatted his hands joyfully in the warm mud, and black droplets flew all over my skirts.

His mother slid down from the wall, yanked him up by the collar and dealt him a smart clout on the backside.

“Have ye no sense, gille? Look at ye! There’s your shirt’ll have to go and be washed again! And look what ye’ve done to your auntie’s skirt, ye wee heathen!”

“It doesn’t matter,” I protested, seeing the miscreant’s lower lip quiver.

“Weel, it matters to me,” said Jenny, giving her offspring the benefit of a gimlet eye. “Say ‘sorry’ to your auntie, laddie, then get ye into the house and have Mrs. Crook give ye a bit of a wash.” She patted his bottom, gently this time, and gave him a push in the direction of the house.

We were turning back to the mass of sodden clothes, when the sound of hoofbeats came from the road.

“That’ll be Jamie back, I expect,” I said, listening. “He’s early, though.”

Jenny shook her head, peering intently toward the road. “Not his horse.”

The horse, when it appeared at the crest of a hill, was not one she knew, to judge from her frown. The man aboard, though, was no stranger. She stiffened beside me, then began to run toward the gate, wrapping both arms around the baby to hold it steady.

“It’s Ian!” she called to me.

He was tattered and dusty and bruised about the face, as he slid off his horse. One bruise on his forehead was swollen, with a nasty split that went through the eyebrow. Jenny caught him under the arm as he hit the ground, and it was only then I saw that his wooden leg was gone.

“Jamie,” he gasped. “We met the Watch near the mill. Waiting for us. They knew we were coming.”

My stomach lurched. “Is he alive?”

He nodded, panting for breath. “Aye. Not wounded, either. They took him to the west, toward Killin.”

Jenny’s fingers were exploring his face.

“Are ye bad hurt, man?”

He shook his head. “No. They took my horse and my leg; they didna need to kill me to stop me following.”

Jenny glanced at the horizon, where the sun lay just above the trees. Maybe four o’clock, I estimated. Ian followed her gaze and anticipated her question.

“We met them near midday. It took me over two hours to get to a place that had a horse.”

She stood still, for a moment, calculating, then turned to me with decision.

“Claire. Help Ian to the house, will ye, and if he needs aught in the way of doctoring, do it as fast as ye can. I’ll give the babe to Mrs. Crook and fetch the horses.”

She was gone before either of us could protest.

“Does she mean…but she can’t!” I exclaimed. “She can’t mean to leave the baby!”

Ian was leaning heavily on my shoulder as we made our way slowly up the path to the house. He shook his head.

“Maybe not. But I dinna think she means to let the English hang her brother, either.”

It was growing dark by the time we reached the spot where Jamie and Ian had been ambushed. Jenny slid off her horse and cast about through the bushes like a small terrier, pushing branches out of her way and muttering things under her breath that sounded suspiciously like some of her brother’s better curses.

“East,” she said, finally coming out of the trees, scratched and dirty. She beat dead leaves from her skirt, and took her horse’s reins from my numbed hands. “We canna follow in the dark, but at least I know which way to go, come the dawn.”

We made a simple camp, hobbling the horses and building a small fire. I admired the efficiency with which Jenny had done it, and she smiled.

“I used to make Jamie and Ian show me things, when they were young. How to build fires, and climb trees—even how to skin things. And how to track.” She glanced again in the direction taken by the Watch.

“Dinna worry, Claire.” She smiled at me and sat down by the fire. “Twenty horses canna go far through the brush, but two can. The Watch will be taking the road toward Eskadale, by the looks of it. We can cut over the hills and meet them near Midmains.”

Her nimble fingers were tugging at the bodice of her gown. I stared in amazement as she spread the folds of cloth and pulled down the top of her underblouse to show her br**sts. They were very large, and looked hard, swollen with milk. In my ignorance, I had not thought to wonder what a nursing mother does if deprived of her nursling.

“I canna leave the babe for long,” she said in answer to my thoughts, grimacing as she cupped one breast from beneath. “I’ll burst.” In response to the touch, milk had begun to drip from the engorged nipple, thin and bluish. Pulling a large kerchief from her pocket, Jenny tucked it beneath her breast. There was a small pewter cup on the ground beside her, one she had taken from the saddlebag. Pressing the lip of the cup just below the nipple, she gently stroked the breast between two fingers, squeezing gently toward the nipple. The milk dripped faster in response, then suddenly the areole around the nipple contracted and the milk spurted out in a tiny jet of surprising force.

“I didn’t know it did that!” I blurted, staring in fascination.

Jenny moved the cup to catch the stream, and nodded. “Oh, aye. The babe’s sucking starts it, but once the milk lets down, all the child need do is swallow. Oh, that feels better.” She closed her eyes briefly in relief.

She emptied the cup onto the ground, remarking, “Shame to waste it, but there isna much to do wi’ it, is there?” Switching hands, she placed the cup again and repeated the process with the other breast.

“It’s a nuisance,” she said, looking up to see me still watching. “Everything to do wi’ bairns is a nuisance, almost. Still, ye’d never choose not to have them.”

“No,” I answered softly. “You wouldn’t choose that.”

She looked across the fire at me, face kind and concerned.

“It isna your time yet,” she said. “But you’ll have bairns of your own one day.”

I laughed a little shakily. “First we’d better find the father.”

She emptied the second cup and began readjusting her dress.

“Oh, we’ll find them. Tomorrow. We have to, for I canna stay away from wee Maggie much longer than that.”

“And once we’ve found them?” I asked. “What then?”

She shrugged and reached for the blanket rolls.

“That depends on Jamie. And on how much he’s made them hurt him.”

Jenny was right; we did find the Watch the next day. We left our campsite before full day, pausing only long enough for her to express more milk. She seemed to be able to find trails where none existed, and I followed her without question into a heavily wooded area. Quick travel was impossible through the brushy undergrowth, but she assured me that we were taking a much more direct route than the one the Watch would have to follow, bound as they were to roads by the size of their group.

We came on them near noon. I heard the jingle of harness and the casual voices I had heard once before, and put out a hand to stop Jenny, who was following me for the moment.

“There’s a ford in the stream below,” she whispered to me. “It sounds as though they’ve stopped there to water the horses.” Sliding down, she took both sets of reins and tethered our own horses, then, beckoning to me to follow, she slid into the undergrowth like a snake.

From the vantage point to which she led me, on a small ledge overlooking the ford, we could see almost all of the men of the Watch, mostly dismounted and talking in casual groups, some sitting on the ground eating, some leading the horses in groups of two and three to the water. What we couldn’t see was Jamie.

“Do you suppose they’ve killed him?” I whispered in panic. I had counted every man twice, to be sure I had missed no one. There were twenty men and twenty-six horses; all in plain view, so far as I could see. But no hint of a prisoner, and no telltale gleam of sun on red hair.

“I doubt it,” Jenny answered. “But there’s only one way to find out.” She began to squirm backward from the ledge.

“What’s that?”

“Ask.”

The road narrowed as it left the ford, becoming little more than a dusty trail through dense stands of pine and alder on either side. The trail was not wide enough for the Watch to ride two abreast; each man would have to pass down it in single file.

As the last man in the line approached a bend in the trail, Jenny Murray stepped suddenly out in the road ahead of him. His horse shied, and the man struggled to rein it in, cursing. As he opened his mouth to demand indignantly what she meant by this behavior, I stepped out of the bush behind, and whacked him solidly behind the ear with a fallen branch.

Taken completely by surprise, he lost his balance as the horse shied again, and fell off into the roadway. He wasn’t stunned; the blow had only knocked him over. Jenny remedied this deficiency with the assistance of a good-sized rock.

She grabbed the horse’s reins and gestured violently to me.

“Come on!” she whispered. “Get him off the road before they notice he’s gone.”

So it was that when Robert MacDonald of the Glen Elrive Watch recovered consciousness, it was to find himself securely tied to a tree, looking down the barrel of a pistol held by the steely-eyed sister of his erstwhile prisoner.

“What have ye done wi’ Jamie Fraser?” she demanded.

MacDonald shook his head dazedly, obviously thinking her a figment of his imagination. An attempt to move put paid to this notion, and after an allowance for the statutory amount of cursing and threatening, he at last reconciled himself to the idea that the only way to get loose was to tell us what we wanted to know.

“He’s dead,” MacDonald said sullenly. Then, as Jenny’s finger tightened ominously on the trigger, he added in sudden panic, “It wasna me! It was his own fault!”

Jamie, he said, had been mounted double, arms bound with a leather strap, behind one of the Watch, riding between two other men. He had seemed docile enough, and they had taken no particular precautions when fording the river six miles from the mill.

“Damn fool threw himself off the horse and into the deep water,” said MacDonald, shrugging as well as he could with his hands tied behind him. “We fired at him. Must have hit him, for he didna come up again. But the stream’s swift just below the ford, and it’s deep. We searched a bit, but no body. Must ha’ been carried downstream. Now, for God’s sake, ladies, will ye no untie me!”

After repeated threats from Jenny had elicited no further details or changes in his story, we decided to accept it as true. Declining to free MacDonald altogether, Jenny did at least loosen his bonds, so that given time, he might struggle out of them. Then we ran.

“Do you think he’s dead?” I puffed, as we reached the tethered horse.

“I don’t. Jamie swims like a fish, and I’ve seen him hold his breath for three minutes at a time. Come on. We’re going to search the river bank.”

We cast up and down the banks of the river, stumbling on rocks, splashing in the shallows, scratching our hands and faces on the willows that trawled their branches in the pools.

At last Jenny gave a triumphant shout, and I splashed my way across, balancing precariously on the mossy rocks that lined the bottom of the burn, shallow at this spot.

She was holding a leather strap, still fastened in a circle. A smear of blood discolored one side.

“Wiggled out of it here,” she said, bending the circlet between her hands. She looked back in the direction we had come, down that jagged fall of tangled rocks, deep pools and foaming rapids, and shook her head.

“However did ye manage, Jamie?” she said, half to herself.

We found an area of flattened grass, not far from the verge, where he had evidently lain to rest. I found a small brownish smudge on the bark of an aspen nearby.

“He’s hurt,” I said.

“Aye, but he’s moving,” Jenny answered, looking at the ground as she paced back and forth.

“Are you good at tracking?” I asked hopefully.

“I’m no much of a hunter,” she replied, setting off with me close behind, “but if I canna follow something the size of Jamie Fraser through dry bracken, then I’m daft as well as blind.”

Sure enough, a broad track of crushed brown fern led up the side of the hill and disappeared into a thick clump of heather. Circling around this point turned up no further evidence, nor did calling produce any answer.

“He’ll be gone,” Jenny said, sitting down on a log and fanning herself. I thought she looked pale, and realized that kidnapping and threatening armed men was no pursuit for a woman who had given birth less than a week before.

“Jenny,” I said, “you have to go back. Besides, he might go back to Lallybroch.”

She shook her head. “No, that he wouldna. Whatever MacDonald told us, they’re no likely to give up so easy, not with a reward at hand. If they havena hunted him down yet, it’s because they couldn’t. But they’ll have sent someone back to keep an eye on the farm, just in case. No, that’s the one place he wouldna go.” She pulled at the neck of her gown. The day was cold, but she was sweating slightly, and I could see growing dark stains on the bosom of her dress, from leaking milk.

She saw me looking and nodded. “Aye, I’ll have to go back soon. Mrs. Crook’s nursing the lassie wi’ goat’s milk and sugar water, but she canna do without me much longer, nor me without her. I hate to leave ye alone, though.”

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