“Perhaps we should send her to Ste. Anne, Dougal,” offered one of the blank-faced figures squatting by the road. “I’ve not heard Jamie swear once since we left the coast, and he used to have a mouth on him would put a sailor to shame. Four months in a monastery must have had some effect. You do not even take the name of the Lord in vain anymore, do ye, lad?”
“You wouldna do so either, if you’d been made to do penance for it by lying for three hours at midnight on the stone floor of a chapel in February, wearing nothin’ but your shirt,” answered my patient.
The men all laughed, as he continued. “The penance was only for two hours, but it took another to get myself up off the floor afterward; I thought my…er, I thought I’d frozen to the flags, but it turned out just to be stiffness.”
Apparently he was feeling better. I smiled, despite myself, but spoke firmly nonetheless. “You be quiet,” I said, “or I’ll hurt you.” He gingerly touched the dressing, and I slapped his hand away.
“Oh, threats, is it?” he asked impudently. “And after I shared my drink with ye too!”
The flask completed the circle of men. Kneeling down next to me, Dougal tilted it carefully for the patient to drink. The pungent, burnt smell of very raw whisky floated up, and I put a restraining hand on the flask.
“No more spirits,” I said. “He needs tea, or at worst, water. Not alcohol.”
Dougal pulled the flask from my hand, completely disregarding me, and poured a sizable slug of the hot-smelling liquid down the throat of my patient, making him cough. Waiting only long enough for the man on the ground to catch his breath, he reapplied the flask.
“Stop that!” I reached for the whisky again. “Do you want him so drunk he can’t stand up?”
I was rudely elbowed aside.
“Feisty wee bitch, is she no?” said my patient, sounding amused.
“Tend to your business, woman,” Dougal ordered. “We’ve a good way to go yet tonight, and he’ll need whatever strength the drink can give him.”
The instant the bandages were tied, the patient tried to sit up. I pushed him flat and put a knee on his chest to keep him there. “You are not to move,” I said fiercely. I grabbed the hem of Dougal’s kilt and jerked it roughly, urging him back down on his knees next to me.
“Look at that,” I ordered, in my best ward-sister voice. I plopped the sopping mass of the discarded shirt into his hand. He dropped it with an exclamation of disgust.
I took his hand and put it on the patient’s shoulder. “And look there. He’s had a blade of some kind right through the trapezius muscle.”
“A bayonet,” put in the patient helpfully.
“A bayonet!” I exclaimed. “And why didn’t you tell me?”
He shrugged, and stopped short with a mild grunt of pain. “I felt it go in, but I couldna tell how bad it was; it didna hurt that much.”
“Is it hurting now?”
“It is,” he said, shortly.
“Good,” I said, completely provoked. “You deserve it. Maybe that will teach you to go haring round the countryside kidnapping young women and k-killing people, and.…” I felt myself ridiculously close to tears and stopped, fighting for control.
Dougal was growing impatient with this conversation. “Well, can ye keep one foot on each side of the horse, man?”
“He can’t go anywhere!” I protested indignantly. “He ought to be in hospital! Certainly he can’t—”
My protests, as usual, went completely ignored.
“Can ye ride?” Dougal repeated.
“Aye, if ye’ll take the lassie off my chest and fetch me a clean shirt.”
I COME TO THE CASTLE
The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through rough country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain. By the standards I was becoming used to, it was quite dull.
Dawn was coming up in streaks and slashes over the foggy moor. Our destination loomed ahead, a huge bulk of dark stone outlined by the grey light.
The surroundings were no longer quiet and deserted. There was a trickle of rudely dressed people, heading toward the castle. They moved to the side of the narrow road to let the horses trot past, gawking at what they plainly thought my outlandish garb.
Not surprisingly, it was misting heavily, but there was enough light to show a stone bridge, arching over a small stream that ran past the front of the castle, down to a dully gleaming loch a quarter mile away.
The castle itself was blunt and solid. No fanciful turrets or toothed battlements. This was more like an enormous fortified house, with thick stone walls and high, slitted windows. A number of chimney pots smoked over the slick tiles of the roof, adding to the general impression of greyness.
The gated entrance of the castle was wide enough to accommodate two wagons side by side. I say this without fear of contradiction, because it was doing exactly that as we crossed the bridge. One ox-drawn wagon was loaded with barrels, the other with hay. Our little cavalcade huddled on the bridge, waiting impatiently for the wagons to complete their laborious entry.
I risked a question as the horses picked their way over the slippery stones of the wet courtyard. I hadn’t spoken to my escort since hastily re-dressing his shoulder by the roadside. He had been silent, too, aside from an occasional grunt of discomfort when a misstep by the horse jolted him.
“Where are we?” I croaked, my voice hoarse from cold and disuse.
“The keep of Leoch,” he answered shortly.
Castle Leoch. Well, at least now I knew where I was. When I had known it, Castle Leoch was a picturesque ruin, some thirty miles north of Bargrennan. It was considerably more picturesque now, what with the pigs rooting under the walls of the keep and the pervasive smell of raw sewage. I was beginning to accept the impossible idea that I was, most likely, somewhere in the eighteenth century.
I was sure that such filth and chaos existed nowhere in the Scotland of 1945, bomb craters or no. And we were definitely in Scotland; the accents of the people in the courtyard left no doubt of that.
“Ay, Dougal!” shouted a tattered hostler, running up to grab the halter of the lead horse. “You’re early, man; we hadna thought to see ye before the Gathering!”
The leader of our little group swung down from the saddle, leaving the reins to the grubby youth.
“Aye, well, we’ve had some luck, both good and bad. I’m off to see my brother. Will ye summon Mrs. Fitz to feed the lads? They’ll need their breakfasts and their beds.”
He beckoned Murtagh and Rupert down to accompany him, and together they disappeared under a pointed archway.
The rest of us dismounted and stood steaming in the wet courtyard for another ten minutes before Mrs. Fitz, whoever she might be, consented to show herself. A cluster of curious children gathered around us, speculating on my possible origins and function. The bolder ones had just begun to get up enough courage to pluck at my skirt when a large, stout lady in dark brown linen and homespun bustled out and shooed them away.
“Willy, my dear!” she cried. “How good to see ye! And Neddie!” She gave the small balding man a hearty buss of welcome that nearly knocked him over. “Ye’ll be needin’ breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen; do ye go and feed yerselves.” Turning to me and Jamie, she started back as though bitten by a snake. She looked openmouthed at me, then turned to Jamie for an explanation of this apparition.
“Claire,” he said, with a brief tilt of his head toward me. “And Mistress FitzGibbons,” he added, with a tilt the other way. “Murtagh found her yesterday, and Dougal said we must bring her along wi’ us,” he added, making it clear it was no good blaming him.
Mistress FitzGibbons closed her mouth and looked me up and down with an air of shrewd evaluation. Apparently she decided that I looked harmless enough, despite my odd and scandalous appearance, for she smiled—kindly, despite several missing teeth—and took me by the arm.
“Well then, Claire. Welcome to ye. Come wi’ me and we shall find ye somethin’ a bit more…mmm.” She looked over my short skirt and inadequate shoes, shaking her head.
She was leading me firmly away when I remembered my patient.
“Oh, wait, please! I forgot Jamie!”
Mistress FitzGibbons was surprised. “Why, Jamie can fend for himself. He knows where to get food and someone will find him a bed.”
“But he’s hurt. He was shot yesterday and stabbed last night. I bandaged the wound for riding, but I didn’t have time to clean or dress it properly. I must care for it now, before it gets infected.”
“Yes, that is, I mean, inflamed, you know, with pus and swelling and fever.”
“Oh, aye, I know what ye mean. But do ye mean to say as ye know what to do for that? Are ye a charmer then? A Beaton?”
“Something like that.” I had no notion what a Beaton might be, nor any wish to go into my medical qualifications, standing out in the chilly drizzle that had set in. Mistress FitzGibbons seemed of a like mind, for she called back Jamie, who was making off in the opposite direction, and taking him also by an arm, towed us both into the castle.
After a long trip through cold narrow corridors, dimly lit by slitted windows, we came to a fairly large room furnished with a bed, a couple of stools, and most importantly, a fire.
I ignored my patient temporarily in favor of thawing my hands. Mistress FitzGibbons, presumably immune to cold, sat Jamie on a stool by the fire and gently got the remains of his tattered shirt off, replacing it with a warm quilt from the bed. She clucked at the shoulder, which was bruised and swollen, and poked at my clumsy dressing.
I turned from the fire. “I think it will need to be soaked off, and then the wound cleansed with a solution for…for preventing fevers.”
Mistress FitzGibbons would have made an admirable nurse. “What will ye be needin’?” she asked simply.
I thought hard. What in the name of God had people used for preventing infection before the advent of antibiotics? And of those limited compounds, which might be available to me in a primitive Scottish castle just after dawn?
“Garlic!” I said in triumph. “Garlic, and if you have it, witch hazel. Also I’ll need several clean rags and a kettle of water for boiling.”
“Aye, well, I think we can manage that; perhaps a bit of comfrey as well. What about a bit o’ boneset tea, or chamomile? T’lad looks as though it’s been a long night.”
The young man was in fact swaying with weariness, too tired to protest our discussing him as though he were an inanimate object.
Mrs. FitzGibbons was soon back, with an apron full of garlic bulbs, gauze bags of dried herbs, and torn strips of old linen. A small black iron kettle hung from one meaty arm, and she held a large demijohn of water as though it were so much goosedown.
“Now then, m’ dear, what would ye have me do?” she said cheerfully. I set her to boiling water and peeling the cloves of garlic while I inspected the contents of the herb packets. There was the witch hazel I had asked for, boneset and comfrey for tea, and something I tentatively identified as cherry bark.
“Painkiller,” I muttered happily, recollecting Mr. Crook explaining the uses of the barks and herbs we found. Good, we’d need that.
I threw several cloves of peeled garlic into the boiling water with some of the witch hazel, then added the cloth strips to the mixture. The boneset, comfrey, and cherry bark were steeping in a small pan of hot water set by the fire. The preparations had steadied me a bit. If I didn’t know for certain where I was, or why I was there, at least I knew what to do for the next quarter of an hour.
“Thank you…ah, Mrs. FitzGibbons,” I said respectfully. “I can manage now, if you have things to do.” The giant dame laughed, br**sts heaving.
“Ah, lass! There aye be things for me to do! I’ll send a bit o’ broth up for ye. Do ye call oot if ye need anything else.” She waddled to the door with surprising speed and disappeared on her rounds.
I pulled the bandages off as carefully as I could. Still, the rayon pad stuck to the flesh, coming away with a soft crackling of dried blood. Droplets of fresh blood oozed around the edges of the wound, and I apologized for hurting him, though he hadn’t moved or made a sound.
He smiled slightly, with a hint perhaps of flirtation. “No worry, lass. I’ve been hurt much worse, and by people much less pretty.” He bent forward for me to wash the wound with the boiled garlic decoction, and the quilt slipped from his shoulder.
I saw at once that, whether meant as a compliment or not, his remark was a statement of plain fact; he had been hurt much worse. His upper back was covered with a criss-cross of faded white lines. He had been savagely flogged, and more than once. There were small lines of silvery scar tissue in some spots, where the welts had crossed, and irregular patches where several blows had struck the same spot, flaying off skin and gouging the muscle beneath.
I had, of course, seen a great variety of wounds and injuries, doing combat nursing, but there was something about these scars that seemed shockingly brutal. I must have drawn in my breath at the sight, for he turned his head and caught me staring. He shrugged his good shoulder.
“Lobsterbacks. Flogged me twice, in the space of a week. They’d ha’ done it twice the same day, I expect, were they not afraid of killing me. No joy in flogging a dead man.”
I tried to keep my voice steady while I sponged. “I shouldn’t think anyone would do such a thing for joy.”
“No? You should ha’ seen him.”
“The redcoat captain that skinned my back for me. If he was not precisely joyous, he was at least verra pleased with himself. More nor I was,” he added wryly. “Randall was the name.”
“Randall!” I couldn’t keep the shock from my voice. Cold blue eyes fixed on mine.
“You’re familiar with the man?” The voice was suddenly suspicious.
“No, no! I used to know a family of that name, a long time, uh, a long time ago.” In my nervousness, I dropped the sponge cloth.
“Drat, now that will have to be boiled again.” I scooped it off the floor and bustled to the fireplace, trying to hide my confusion in busyness. Could this Captain Randall possibly be Frank’s ancestor, the soldier with the sterling record, gallant on the field of battle, recipient of commendations from dukes? And if so, could someone related to my sweet gentle Frank possibly be capable of inflicting the horrifying marks on this lad’s back?
I busied myself at the fire, dropping in a few more handfuls of witch hazel and garlic, setting more cloths to soak. When I thought I could control my voice and face, I came back to Jamie, sponge in hand.
“Why were you flogged?” I asked abruptly.
It was hardly tactful, but I badly wanted to know, and was too tired to phrase it more gently.
He sighed, moving his shoulder uneasily under my ministrations. He was tired, too, and I was undoubtedly hurting him, gentle as I tried to be.
“The first time was escape, and the second was theft—or at least that’s what the charge-sheet read.”
“What were you escaping from?”
“The English,” he said, with an ironic lift of his brow. “If ye mean where, Fort William.”
“I gathered it was the English,” I said, matching the dryness of his tone. “What were you doing in Fort William in the first place?”
He rubbed his brow with his free hand. “Oh, that. I think that was obstruction.”
“Obstruction, escape, and theft. You sound a right dangerous character,” I said lightly, hoping to distract him from what I was doing.
It worked at least slightly; one corner of the wide mouth turned up, and one dark blue eye glinted back over his shoulder at me.
“Oh, I am that,” he said. “A wonder you think yourself safe in the same room wi’ me, and you an English lassie.”
“Well, you look harmless enough at the moment.” This was entirely untrue; shirtless, scarred and blood-smeared, with stubbled cheeks and reddened eyelids from the long night ride, he looked thoroughly disreputable. And tired or not, he looked entirely capable of further mayhem, should the need arise.
He laughed, a surprisingly deep, infectious sound.
“Harmless as a setting dove,” he agreed. “I’m too hungry to be a threat to anything but breakfast. Let a stray bannock come within reach, though, and I’ll no answer for the consequences. Ooh!”
“Sorry,” I muttered. “The stab wound’s deep, and it’s dirty.”
“It’s all right.” But he had gone pale beneath the coppery stubble of his beard. I tried to lead him back into conversation.
“What exactly is obstruction?” I asked casually. “I must say it doesn’t sound a major crime.”
He took a deep breath, fixing his eyes resolutely on the carved bedpost as I swabbed deeper.
“Ah. Well, I suppose it’s whatever the English say it is. In my case, it meant defending my family and my property, and getting myself half killed in the process.” He pressed his lips together, as if to say no more, but after a moment went on, as though seeking to focus his attention on anything other than his shoulder.
“It was near to four years ago. There was a levy put on the manors near Fort William—food for the garrison, horses for transport, and suchlike. I wouldna say many liked it, but most would yield what they had to. Small parties of soldiers would go round with an officer and a wagon or two, collecting the bits of food and things. And one day in October, yon Captain Randall came along to L—” he caught himself quickly, with a glance at me, “to our place.”
I nodded encouragingly, eyes on my work.
“We’d thought they’d not come so far; the place is a good distance from the fort, and not easy to get to. But they did.”
He closed his eyes briefly. “My father was away—gone to a funeral at the next farm. And I was up in the fields wi’ most of the men, for it was close to harvest, and a lot to be done. So my sister was alone in the house, except for two or three of the women servants, and they all rushed upstairs to hide their heads under the bedclothes when they saw the red coats. Thought the soldiers were sent by the devil—and I’ll no just say they were wrong.”