The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 208

   

“Evan Lindsay’s pigs,” Mr. Bug explained, in a rare burst of loquacity. Both Bugs beamed at me, begrimed with their efforts.

“Thank you,” I said, feeling choked, and not only from the smell. I blinked, eyes watering slightly from the miasma of the corn liquor. “Oh, thank you.”

IT WAS JUST AFTER DARK when I made my way upstairs, carrying my tray of potions and implements, feeling a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

Jamie was propped on his pillows, surrounded by visitors. People had been coming by the house all day to see him and wish him well; a good many of them had simply stayed, and a host of anxious faces turned toward me as I came in, glimmering in the light of the candles.

He looked very ill, flushed and drawn, and I wondered whether I ought to have chased the visitors away. I saw Murdo Lindsay take his hand, though, and squeeze it tight, and realized that the distraction and support of his company through the day was probably much more helpful to him than the rest that he wouldn’t have taken in any case.

“Well, then,” Jamie said, with a good assumption of casualness, “we’re ready, I suppose.” He stretched his legs, flexing his toes hard under the blanket. Given the state of his leg, it must have hurt dreadfully, but I recognized that he was taking what he thought would be the last opportunity to move the limb, and bit the inside of my lip.

“Well, we’re ready to have a go at something,” I said, smiling at him with an attempt at confident reassurance. “And anyone who would like to pray about it, please do.”

A rustle of surprise replaced the air of dread that had been sprung up at my appearance, and I saw Marsali, who was holding a sleeping Joan with one hand, grope hastily in her pocket with the other to pull out her rosary.

There was a rush to clear the bedside table, which was littered with books, papers, candle-stubs, various treats brought up to tempt Jamie’s appetite—all untouched—and, for some unfathomable reason, the fret-board of a dulcimer and a half-tanned groundhog hide. I set down the tray, and Brianna, who had come up with me, stepped forward, her invention carefully held in both hands, like an acolyte presenting bread to a priest.

“What in the name of Christ is that?” Jamie frowned at the object, then up at me.

“It’s sort of a do-it-yourself rattlesnake,” Brianna told him.

Everyone murmured with interest, craning their necks to see—though the interest was diverted almost at once as I turned back the quilt and began to unwrap his leg, to a chorus of shocked murmurs and sympathetic exclamations at sight of it.

Lizzie and Marsali had been faithfully applying fresh, hot onion and flaxseed poultices to it all day, and wisps of steam rose from the wrappings as I put them aside. The flesh of his leg was bright red to the knee, at least in those parts that weren’t black or seeping with pus. We had removed the maggots temporarily, afraid the heat would kill them; they were presently downstairs on a plate in my surgery, happily occupied with some of the nastier bits of the Bugs’ gleanings. If I succeeded in saving the leg, they could help with the tidying-up, later.

I had carefully gone through the detritus bit by bit, examining the blue molds with my microscope, and putting aside everything that could be identified as bearing Penicillium into a large bowl. Over this miscellaneous collection I had poured the fermented corn liquor, allowing the whole to steep during the day—and with luck, to dissolve any actual raw penicillin from the garbage into the alcoholic liquid.

Meanwhile, I had made a selection of those herbs with a reputation for the internal treatment of suppurative conditions, and made a stiff decoction of them, steeped in boiling water for several hours. I poured a cup of this highly aromatic solution, and handed it to Roger, carefully averting my nose.

“Make him drink it,” I said. “All of it,” I added pointedly, fixing Jamie with a look.

Jamie sniffed the proffered cup, and gave me the look back—but obediently sipped, making exaggerated faces for the entertainment of his company, who giggled appreciatively. The mood thus lightened, I proceeded to the main event, turning to take the makeshift hypodermic from Bree.

The Beardsley twins, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the corner, pressed forward to see, swelling with pride. They had gone out at once at Bree’s request, coming back in mid-afternoon with a fine rattlesnake, nearly three feet long—and fortunately dead, having been cut nearly in half with an ax, so as to preserve the valuable head.

I had dissected out the poison sacs with great caution, detaching the fangs, and then had put Mrs. Bug to the task of rinsing the fangs repeatedly with alcohol, to eradicate any lingering traces of venom.

Bree had taken the oiled silk that had been used to wrap the astrolabe, and stitched part of it into a small tube, gathering one end of this with a draw-stitch, like a purse-string. She had cut a thick segment from a turkey’s wing-quill, softened with hot water, and used this to join the gathered end of the silk tube to the fang. Melted beeswax had sealed the joints of tube, quill, and fang, and been spread carefully along the line of the stitching, to prevent leakage. It was a nice, neat job—but it did look quite like a small, fat snake with one enormous curved fang, and occasioned no little comment from the spectators.

Murdo Lindsay was still holding one of Jamie’s hands. As I motioned to Fergus to hold the candle for me, I saw Jamie reach out the other toward Roger. Roger looked momentarily startled, but grabbed the hand and knelt down by the bed, holding on tight.

I ran my fingers lightly over the leg, selected a good spot, clear of major blood vessels, swabbed it with pure alcohol, and jabbed the fang in, as deeply as I could. There was a gasp from the spectators, and a sharp intake of breath from Jamie, but he didn’t move.

“All right.” I nodded at Brianna, who was standing by with the bottle of strained corn-alcohol. Teeth sunk in her lower lip, she poured carefully, filling the silk tube as I supported it. I folded the open top tightly over, and with thumb and forefinger, firmly pressed downward, forcing the liquid out through the fang and into the tissues of the leg.

Jamie made a small, breathless noise, and both Murdo and Roger leaned inward instinctively, their shoulders pressing against his, holding on.

I didn’t dare go too fast, for fear of cracking the wax seals by exerting too much pressure, though we had a second syringe, made with the other fang, just in case. I worked my way up and down the leg, with Bree refilling the syringe with each injection, and blood rose glistening from the holes as I withdrew the fang, rolling in tiny rivulets down the side of his leg. Without being asked, Lizzie picked up a cloth and blotted it clean, eyes intent on the job.

The room was silent, but I felt everyone’s breath held as I chose a new spot, let out in a sigh as the stab was made—and then the unconscious leaning toward the bed as I squeezed the stinging alcohol deep into the infected tissues. The muscles stood out in knots on Jamie’s forearms, and sweat ran down his face like rain, but neither he, nor Murdo, nor Roger made a sound or moved.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Joseph Wemyss stroke back the hair from Jamie’s forehead, and wipe away the sweat from his face and neck with a towel.

“Because ye need me,” he’d said. And I realized then that it wasn’t only me that he’d meant.

It didn’t take a long time. When it was done, I spread honey carefully over all the open wounds, and rubbed oil of wintergreen into the skin of foot and calf.

“That’s a nice job of basting, Sassenach. D’ye reckon it’s ready for the oven yet?” Jamie asked, and wiggled his toes, causing the tension in the room to relax into laughter.

Everyone did leave, then, patting Jamie’s shoulder or kissing his cheek in farewell, with gruff wishes of good luck. He smiled and nodded, lifting his hand in farewell, exchanging goodbyes, making small jokes.

When the door closed behind the last of them, he lay back on the pillow and closed his eyes, letting all his breath out in a long, deep sigh. I set about tidying my tray, setting the syringe to soak in alcohol, corking bottles, folding bandages. Then I sat down beside him, and he reached out a hand to me, not opening his eyes.

His skin was warm and dry, the hand reddened from Murdo’s fierce grip. I traced his knuckles gently with my thumb, listening to the rumble and clatter of the house below, subdued but lively.

“It will work,” I said softly, after a minute. “I know it will.”

“I know,” he said. He took a deep breath, and at last, began to weep.

94

NEW BLOOD

ROGER WOKE ABRUPTLY, out of a black and dreamless sleep. He felt like a landed fish, jerked gasping into an alien and unimagined element. He saw but did not grasp his surroundings; strange light and flattened surfaces. Then his mind made sense of Brianna’s touch on his arm, and he was once more inside his skin, and in a bed.

“Hwh?” He sat up suddenly, making a hoarse noise of inquiry.

“I’m sorry to wake you.” Brianna smiled, but a line of concern drew her brows together as her eyes searched his face. She smoothed the tangled hair back from his brow, and he reached for her by reflex, falling back against the pillow with her heavy in his arms.

“Hwm.” Holding her was an anchor to reality—solid flesh and warm skin, her hair soft as dreams against his face.

“Okay?” she asked softly. Long fingers touched his chest and his nipple puckered, curly hairs around it rising.

“Okay,” he said, and sighed deeply. He kissed her forehead briefly, and relaxed, blinking. His throat was dry as sand, and his mouth felt sticky, but he was beginning to think coherently again. “Whatime ist?” He was in his own bed, and it was dim enough in the room to be evening, but that was because the door was closed and the windows covered. Something felt wrong about the light, the air.

She pushed herself up off him, sweeping back the fall of red hair with one hand.

“It’s a little past noon. I wouldn’t have waked you up, but there’s a man, and I don’t know what to do about him.” She glanced in the direction of the big house, and lowered her voice, though surely no one was near enough to hear her.

“Da’s sound asleep, and Mama, too,” she said, confirming this impression. “I don’t want to wake them—even if I could.” She smiled briefly, one corner of her long mouth curling up with her father’s irony. “It would take gunpowder, I think. They’re dead to the world.”

She turned away and reached for the pitcher on the table. The sound of water pouring fell on Roger’s ears like rain on parched land, and he drained the offered cup in three gulps and held it out again.

“More. Please. Man?” That was an improvement; he was making complete words again, and his capacity to think coherently was coming back.

“He says his name is Thomas Christie. He’s come to see Da; he says he was at Ardsmuir.”

“Yeah?” Roger drank the second cup more slowly, assembling his thoughts. Then he put down the cup and swung his legs out of bed, reaching for the discarded shirt that hung from the peg. “Okay. Tell him I’ll be there in a minute.”

She kissed him briefly and left, pausing long enough to untack the hide over the window and let in a brilliant shaft of light and chilly air.

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