The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 75

   

I was appalled—as much by the thought of what might have led to this as by the action itself. The candle wavered; my hands were shaking, and not only with cold. I was not only horrified by what had happened here; I was also worried by the immediate prospects. What on earth were we to do about these wretched people?

Plainly we couldn’t take Beardsley with us—just as plainly, he could not be left here, under the care of his wife. There were no near neighbors to look in, no one else on the farm to safeguard him. I supposed we might manage to transport him to Brownsville; there might be a wagon in the barn. But even if so, what then?

There was no hospital to care for him. If one of the homes in Brownsville might take him in for the sake of charity . . . well and good, but seeing Beardsley’s state after a month, I thought it unlikely that his condition—in terms either of paralysis or speech—would improve much. Who would keep him, if it meant caring for him day and night for the rest of his life?

The rest of his life, of course, could be rather short, depending on my success in dealing with the gangrene. Worry retreated as my mind turned to the immediate problem. I would have to amputate; it was the only possibility. The toes were easy—but the toes might not be enough. If I had to take off the foot or part of it, we ran a greater risk from shock and infection.

Could he feel it? Sometimes stroke victims retained feeling in an affected limb, but not movement, sometimes movement without feeling—sometimes neither. Cautiously, I touched the gangrenous toe, eyes on his face.

His working eye was open, focused on the beams overhead. He didn’t glance at me or make a noise, which answered that question. No, he couldn’t feel the foot. That was a relief, in a way—at least he wouldn’t suffer pain from the amputation. Nor, it occurred to me, had he felt the damage inflicted on his limb. Had she been aware of that? Or had she chosen to attack his dead side only because he retained some strength on the other, and might still defend himself?

There was a soft rustle behind me. Mrs. Beardsley was back. She set down a bucket of water and a pile of rags, then stood behind me, watching in silence as I began to sponge away the filth.

“Can you cure him?” she asked. Her voice was calm, remote, as though she spoke of a stranger.

The patient’s head lolled suddenly back, so his open eye fixed on me.

“I think I can help a bit,” I said carefully. I wished Jamie would return. Aside from need of my medical box, I was finding the company of the Beardsleys rather unnerving.

The more so when Mr. Beardsley inadvertently released a small quantity of urine. Mrs. Beardsley laughed, and he made a sound in reply that made the goose bumps rise on my arms. I wiped the liquid off his thigh and went on with my work, trying to ignore it.

“Have you or Mr. Beardsley any kin nearby?” I asked, as conversationally as possible. “Someone who might come to lend you a hand?”

“No one,” she said. “He took me from my father’s house in Maryland. To thith place.” This place was spoken as though it were the fifth circle of hell; so far as I could see, there was certainly some resemblance at the present moment.

The door opened below, and a welcome draft of cold air announced Jamie’s return. There was a clunking noise as he set my box on the table, and I hastily rose, eager to escape them, if only for a moment.

“There’s my husband with my medicines. I’ll just . . . er . . . go and fetch . . . um . . .” I edged past Mrs. Beardsley’s bulk, and fled down the ladder, sweating in spite of the chill in the house.

Jamie stood by the table, frowning as he turned a length of rope in his hands. He glanced up as he heard me, and his face relaxed a little.

“How is it, Sassenach?” he asked, low-voiced, with a jerk of the chin toward the loft.

“Very bad,” I whispered, coming to stand beside him. “Two of his toes are gangrenous; I’ll have to take them off. And she says they’ve no family near to help.”

“Mmphm.” His lips tightened, and he bent his attention to the sling he was improvising.

I reached for my medical chest, to check my instruments, but stopped when I saw Jamie’s pistols lying on the table beside it, along with his powder horn and shot case. I touched his arm and jerked my head at them, mouthing, “What?” at him.

The line between his brows deepened, but before he could answer, a dreadful racket came from the loft above, a great thrashing and thumping, accompanied by a gargling noise like an elephant drowning in a mud bog.

Jamie dropped the rope and shot for the ladder, with me at his heels. He let out a shout as his head topped the ladder, and dived forward. As I scrambled into the loft behind him, I saw him in the shadows, grappling with Mrs. Beardsley.

She smashed an elbow at his face, hitting him in the nose. This removed any inhibitions he might have had about manhandling a woman, and he jerked her round to face him and struck her with a short, sharp uppercut to the chin that clicked her jaws and made her stagger, eyes glazing. I dashed forward to save the candle, as she collapsed on her rump in a pouf of skirts and petticoats.

“God . . . dab . . . that . . . womad.” Jamie’s voice was muffled, his sleeve pressed across his face to stanch the flow of blood from his nose, but the sincerity in it was unmistakable.

Mr. Beardsley was flopping like a landed fish, wheezing and gurgling. I lifted the candle and found him flailing at his neck with one splayed hand. A linen kerchief had been twisted into a rope and wrapped round his neck, and his face was black, his one eye popping. I hastily seized the kerchief and undid it, and his breathing eased with a great whoosh of fetid air.

“If she’d been faster, she’d have had him.” Jamie lowered his blood-streaked arm and felt his nose tenderly. “Christ, I think she broke my dose.”

“Why? Why did you thtop me?” Mrs. Beardsley was still conscious, though swaying and glassy-eyed. “He thould die, I want him to die, he mutht die.”

“A nighean na galladh, ye could ha’ killed him at your leisure any time this month past, if ye wanted him dead,” Jamie said impatiently. “Why in God’s name wait until ye had witnesses?”

She looked up at him, eyes suddenly sharp and clear.

“I did not want him dead,” she said. “I wanted him to die.” She smiled, showing the stubs of her broken teeth. “Thlowly.”

“Oh, Christ,” I said, and wiped a hand across my face. It was only mid-morning, but I felt as though the day had lasted several weeks already. “It’s my fault. I told her I thought I could help; she thought I’d save him, maybe cure him altogether.” The curse of a reputation for magic healing! I might have laughed, had I been in the mood for irony.

There was a sharp, fresh stink in the air, and Mrs. Beardsley turned on her husband with a cry of outrage.

“Filthy beast!” She scrambled to her knees, snatched up a hard roll from the plate, and threw it at him. It bounced off his head. “Filthy, thtinking, dirty, wicked . . .” Jamie seized her by the hair as she hurled herself at the prone body, grabbed her arm, and jerked her away, sobbing and shrieking abuse.

“Bloody hell,” he said, over the uproar. “Fetch me that rope, Sassenach, before I kill them both myself.”

The job of getting Mr. Beardsley down from the loft was enough to leave both Jamie and me sweat-soaked and streaked with filth, reeking and weak in the knees with effort. Mrs. Beardsley squatted on a stool in the corner, quiet and malevolent as a toad, making no effort to help.

She gave a gasp of outrage when we laid the big, lolling body on the clean table, but Jamie glared at her, and she sank back on her stool, mouth clamped to a thin, straight line.

Jamie wiped his bloodstained sleeve across his brow, and shook his head as he looked at Beardsley. I didn’t blame him; even cleaned up, warmly covered, and with a little warm gruel spooned into him, the man was in a dreadful state. I examined him once more, carefully, in the light from the window. No doubt about the toes; the stink of gangrene was distinct, and the greenish tinge covered the outer dorsal aspect of the foot.

I’d have to take more than the toes—I frowned, feeling my way carefully around the putrefying area, wondering whether it was better to try for a partial amputation between the metacarpals, or simply to take the foot off at the ankle. The ankle dissection would be faster, and while I would normally try for the more conservative partial amputation, there was really no point to it in this case; Beardsley was plainly never going to walk again.

I gnawed my lower lip dubiously. For that matter, the whole business might be moot; he burned with intermittent fever, and the sores on legs and buttocks oozed with suppuration. What were the chances of his recovering from the amputation without dying of infection?

I hadn’t heard Mrs. Beardsley come up behind me; for a heavyset woman, she moved with remarkable silence.

“What do you mean to do?” she asked, her voice sounding neutral and remote.

“Your husband’s toes are gangrenous,” I said. No point in trying not to alarm Beardsley now. “I’ll have to amputate his foot.” There was really no choice, though my heart sank at the notion of spending the next several days—or weeks—here, nursing Beardsley. I could hardly leave him to the tender care of his wife!

She circled the table slowly, coming to a stop near his feet. Her face was blank, but a tiny smile appeared at the corners of her mouth, winking on and off, as though quite without her willing it. She looked at the blackened toes for a long minute, then shook her head.

“No,” she said softly. “Let him rot.”

The question of Beardsley’s understanding was resolved, at least; his open eye bulged, and he let out a shriek of rage, thrashing and flailing in an effort to get at her, so that he came perilously near to falling onto the floor in his struggles. Jamie seized him, shoving and heaving to keep his ponderous bulk on the table. As Beardsley at last subsided, gasping and making mewling noises, Jamie straightened up, gasping himself, and gave Mrs. Beardsley a look of extreme dislike.

She hunched her shoulders, pulling her shawl tight around them, but didn’t retreat or look away. She raised her chin defiantly.

“I am hith wife,” she said. “I thall not let you cut him. It ith a rithk to hith life.”

“It’s certain death if I don’t,” I said shortly. “And a nasty one, too. You—” I didn’t get to finish; Jamie put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing hard.

“Take her outside, Claire,” he said quietly.

“But—”

“Outside.” His hand tightened on my shoulder, almost painful in its pressure. “Dinna come back until I call for ye.”

His face was grim, but there was something in his eyes that made me go hollow and watery inside. I glanced at the sideboard, where his pistols lay beside my medicine chest, then back at his face, appalled.

“You can’t,” I said.

He looked at Beardsley, his face bleak.

“I would put down a dog in such case without a second’s thought,” he said softly. “Can I do less for him?”

“He is not a dog!”

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