The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 201


I set a hand gingerly on his ankle. The skin was puffy, hot and dry under my hand. It was also red. Bright red. The brilliant color extended from his feet up nearly to his rib cage; he looked as though he’d been dipped in boiling water.

His face, ears, and neck were also flushed the color of a plum tomato; only the pale skin of his chest had escaped, and even that was dotted with pinpricks of red. Beyond the lobsterlike coloration, the skin was peeling from his feet and hands, hanging in wispy shreds like Spanish moss.

I peered closely at his hip. Here, I could see that the redness was caused by a denser version of the rash on his chest; the stipple of tiny dots showed up clearly on the stretched skin over the ilial crest.

“You look like you’ve been roasted over a slow fire,” I said, rubbing a finger over the rash in fascination. “I’ve never seen anything so red in my life.” Not raised; I couldn’t feel the individual spots, though I could see them at close range. Not a rash as such; I thought it must be petechiae, pinpoint hemorrhages under the skin. But so many of them . . .

“I shouldna say ye’ve much room to criticize, Sassenach,” he said. Too weak to nod, he cut his eyes at my fingers—stained with huge blotches of yellow and blue.

“Oh, damn!” I leaped to my feet, threw the quilts hastily on top of him, and ran for the door. Distracted by Jamie’s dramatic arrival, I had left a vat full of dyeing to mind itself in the side yard—and the water had been low. Christ, if it boiled dry and burned the clothes . . .

The hot reek of urine and indigo hit me in the face as I shot out the door. In spite of that, I drew a deep breath of relief, as I saw Marsali, red in the face with the effort of levering a dripping mass from the pot with the big wooden clothes-fork. I went hastily to help her, snatching the steaming garments one by one from the sopping pile and flinging them onto the blackberry bushes to dry.

“Thank goodness,” I said, waving my scalded fingers in the air to cool them. “I was afraid I’d ruined the lot.”

“Weel, they’ll be a bit dark, maybe.” Marsali wiped a hand across her face, plastering back the fine blond strands that escaped from her kerch. “If the weather keeps fine, though, ye can leave them in the sun to fade. Here, let’s move the pot before it scorches!”

Crusts of indigo had already started to crackle and blacken in the bottom of the pot as we tipped it off the fire, and clouds of acrid smoke rose up around us.

“It’s all right,” Marsali said, coughing and fanning smoke from her face. “Leave it, Mother Claire; I’ll fetch up water so it can soak. Ye’ll need to see to Da, aye? I came down at once when I heard; is he verra poorly?”

“Oh, thank you, dear.” I was overwhelmed with gratitude; the last thing I had time to do just now was to haul several buckets of water from the spring to soak the pot. I blew on my scalded fingers to cool them; the skin under the splotches of dye was nearly as red as Jamie’s.

“I think he’ll be all right,” I assured her, suppressing my own fears. “He feels dreadful, and looks worse—I’ve never seen anyone look like that in all my born days—but if the wound doesn’t get infected . . .” I crossed my sore fingers in superstitious prophylaxis.

“Ah, he’ll do,” Marsali said confidently. “Fergus said as they thought he was dead when they found him and Roger Mac, but by the time they crossed the second ridge, he was makin’ terrible jokes about the snake, so they didna worry anymore.”

I wasn’t quite so sanguine myself, having seen the state of his injured leg, but I smiled reassuringly.

“Yes, I think he’ll be fine. I’m just going to make an onion poultice and clean out the wound a bit. Go and see him, why don’t you, while I fetch the onions?”

Luckily there were plenty of onions; I had pulled them two weeks before, when the first frost came, and dozens of knobbly braided strings hung in the pantry, fragrant and crackling when I brushed against them. I broke off six large onions and brought them into the kitchen to slice. My fingers were tingling, half-burned and stiff from handling the boiling clothes, and I worked slowly, not wanting to slice off a finger accidentally.

“Here, I’ll do that, a leannan.” Mrs. Bug took the knife out of my hand and dealt briskly with the onions. “Is it a poultice? Aye, that’ll be the thing. A good onion poultice will mend anything.” Still, a worried frown puckered her forehead as she glanced toward the surgery.

“Can I help, Mama?” Bree came in from the hallway, also looking worried. “Da looks awful; is he all right?”

“Ganda full?” Jem popped into the kitchen after his mother, less worried about his grandfather than interested in the knife Mrs. Bug was using. He dragged his little stool toward her, face purposeful under his coppery fringe. “Me do!”

I brushed the hair out of my face with the back of my hand, eyes watering fiercely from the onions.

“I think so.” I sniffed and blotted my eyes. “How’s Roger?”

“Roger’s good.” I could hear the small note of pride in her voice; Jamie had told her Roger had saved his life. Possibly he had. I just hoped it stayed saved.

“He’s asleep,” she added. Her mouth curved slightly as she met my eyes, with complete understanding. If a man was in bed, at least you knew where he was. And that he was safe, for the moment.

“Jem! You leave Mrs. Bug alone!” She scooped him off his stool and whirled him away from the chopping board, feet kicking in protest. “Do you need anything, Mama?”

I rubbed a finger between my brows, considering.

“Yes, can you try to find me some maggots? I’ll need them for Jamie’s leg.” I frowned, glancing out the window at the bright autumn day. “I’m afraid the frost has killed all the flies; I haven’t seen one in days. Try the paddock, though; they’ll lay eggs in the warm dung.”

She made a brief face of distaste, but nodded, setting Jemmy down on the floor.

“Come on, pal, let’s go find ickies for Grannie.”

“Icky-icky-icky-icky!” Jemmy scampered after her, enchanted at the prospect.

I dropped the sliced onions into a bowl made from a hollowed gourd and scooped a little of the hot water from the cauldron into it. Then I left the onions to stew, and went back to the surgery. In the center of the room was a sturdy pine table, serving as examination table, dentist’s chair, drug preparation surface, or auxiliary dining table, depending on medical exigencies and the number of dinner guests. At the moment, it was supporting the supine form of Jamie, scarcely visible under his heap of quilts and blankets. Marsali stood close to the table, head bent toward him as she held a cup of water for him to sip.

“You’re sure you’re all right, Da?” she said. One hand stole toward him, but she stopped, clearly afraid to touch him in his present condition.

“Oh, aye, I’ll do.” I could hear the deep fatigue in his voice, but a big hand rose slowly out from under the quilts to touch her cheek.

“Fergus did braw work,” he said. “Kept the men together through the night, found me and Roger Mac in the morning, brought everyone home safe across the mountain. He’s a fine sense of direction.”

Marsali’s head was still bent, but I saw her cheek curve in a smile.

“I did tell him so. He’ll no give over berating himself for lettin’ the beasts get away, though. Just one would ha’ fed the whole Ridge for the winter, he said.”

Jamie gave a small grunt of dismissal.

“Och, we’ll manage.”

It was plainly an effort for him to speak, but I didn’t try to send Marsali away. Roger told me Jamie had been vomiting blood as they brought him back; I couldn’t give him brandy or whisky to ease the pain, and I hadn’t any laudanum. Marsali’s presence might help to distract him from his wretchedness.

I opened the cupboard quietly and brought out the big lidded bowl where I kept my leeches. The pottery was cold, soothing to my scalded hands. I had a dozen or so big ones; somnolent black blobs, half-floating in their murky brew of water and cattail roots. I scooped three into a smaller bowl full of clear water, and set it by the brazier to warm.

“Wake up, lads,” I said. “Time to earn your keep.”

I laid out the other things I would need, listening to the murmured conversation behind me—Germain, baby Joan, a porcupine in the trees near Marsali and Fergus’s cabin.

Coarse gauze for the onion poultice, the corked bottle with its mixture of alcohol and sterile water, the stoneware jars of dried goldenseal, coneflower, and comfrey. And the bottle of penicillin broth. I cursed silently, looking at the label on it. It was nearly a month old; caught up in the bear hunt and the autumn chores upon our return, I had not made a fresh batch for weeks.

It would have to do. Pressing my lips together, I rubbed the herbs between my hands, into the beechwood brewing cup, and with no more than a faint sense of self-consciousness, silently said the blessing of Bride over it. I’d take all the help I could get.

“Are the cut pine-fans ye find on the ground verra fresh?” Jamie asked, sounding slightly more interested in the porcupine than in Joan’s new tooth.

“Aye, green and fresh. I ken weel enough he’s up there, the wicked creature, but it’s a great huge tree, and I canna spot him from the ground, let alone fire on him.” Marsali was no more than a middling shot, but since Fergus couldn’t fire a musket at all with his one hand, she did the family’s hunting.

“Mmphm.” Jamie cleared his throat with an effort, and she hastily gave him more water. “Take a bit o’ salted pork rind from the pantry and rub it ower a stick of wood. Set it on the ground, not too far from the trunk of the tree, and let Fergus sit up to watch. Porcupines are gey fond o’ the salt, and of grease; they’ll smell it and venture down after dark. Once it’s on the ground, ye needna waste shot; just bat it ower the head. Fergus can do that fine.”

I opened the medical chest and frowned into the tray that held saws and scalpels. I took out the small, curve-bladed scalpel, its handle cool under my fingers. I would have to debride the wound—clean away the dead tissue, the shreds of skin and bits of leaf and cloth and dirt; the men had plastered his leg with mud and wrapped it with a filthy neckerchief. Then I could sprinkle the penicillin solution over the exposed surfaces; I hoped that would help.

“That would be grand,” Marsali said, a little wistfully. “I’ve no had such a beast before, but Ian did tell me they were fine; verra fat, and the quills good for sewing and all manner o’ things.”

I bit my lip, looking at the other blades. The biggest was a folding saw, meant for field amputation, with a blade nearly eight inches long; I hadn’t used it since Alamance. The thought of using it now made cold sweat spring out under my arms and inch down my sides—but I’d seen his leg.

“The meat’s greasy,” Jamie said, “but that’s good—” He stopped abruptly as he shifted his weight, with a muffled groan as he moved his leg.