The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 80

   

I wasn’t knocked out, but it didn’t make much difference. I was sprawled in a tangle of brush, struggling for breath, unable to move, and unable to see anything whatever beyond a few scattered stars in the sky overhead.

There was an ungodly racket going on some little distance away, in which a chorus of panicked goats figured largely, punctuated by what I took to be a woman’s screams. Two women’s screams.

I shook my head, confused. Then I flung myself over and started crawling, having belatedly recognized what was making that noise. I had heard panthers scream often enough—but always safely far in the distance. This one wasn’t far away at all. The tearing-fabric noise I’d heard had been the cough of a big cat, very close at hand.

I bumped into a large fallen log and promptly rolled under it, wedging myself as far into the small crevice there as possible. It wasn’t the best hiding place I’d ever seen, but might at least prevent anything leaping out of a tree onto me.

I could still hear Jamie shouting, though the tenor of his remarks had changed to a sort of hoarse fury. The goats had mostly quit yammering—surely the cat couldn’t have killed all of them? I couldn’t hear anything of Mrs. Beardsley, either, but the horses were making a dreadful fuss, squealing and stamping.

My heart was hammering against the leafy ground, and a cold sweat tingled along my jaw. There isn’t much for invoking raw terror like the primitive fear of being eaten, and my sympathies were entirely with the animals. There was a crashing in the brush near at hand, and Jamie shouting my name.

“Here,” I croaked, unwilling to move out of my refuge until I knew for certain where the panther was—or at least knew for certain that it wasn’t anywhere near me. The horses had stopped squealing, though they were still snorting and stamping, making enough noise to indicate that neither of them had either fallen prey to our visitor or run away.

“Here!” I called, a little louder.

More crashing, close at hand. Jamie stumbled through the darkness, crouched, and felt under the log until his hand encountered my arm, which he seized.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?”

“I hadn’t thought to notice, but I think so,” I replied. I slid cautiously out from under my log, taking stock. Bruises here and there, abraded elbows, and a stinging sensation where the branch had slapped my cheek. Basically all right, then.

“Good. Come quick, he’s hurt.” He hauled me to my feet and started propelling me through the dark with a hand in the small of my back.

“Who?”

“The goat, of course.”

My eyes were well-adapted to the dark by now, and I made out the large shapes of Gideon and the mare, standing under a leafless poplar, manes and tails swishing with agitation. A smaller shape that I took to be Mrs. Beardsley was crouched nearby, over something on the ground.

I could smell blood, and a powerful reek of goat. I squatted and reached out, touching rough, warm hair. The goat jerked at my touch, with a loud “MEHeheh!” that reassured me somewhat. He might be hurt, but he wasn’t dying—at least not yet; the body under my hands was solid and vital, muscles tense.

“Where’s the cat?” I asked, locating the ridged hardness of the horns and feeling my way hastily backward along the spine, then down the ribs and flanks. The goat had objections, and heaved wildly under my hands.

“Gone,” Jamie said. He crouched down, too, and put a hand on the goat’s head. “There, now, a bhalaich. It’s all right, then. Seas, mo charaid.”

I could feel no open wound on the goat’s body, but I could certainly smell blood; a hot, metallic scent that disturbed the clean night air of the wood. The horses did, too; they whickered and moved uneasily in the dark.

“Are we fairly sure it’s gone?” I asked, trying to ignore the sensation of eyes fastened on the back of my neck. “I smell blood.”

“Aye. The cat took one of the nannies,” Jamie informed me. He knelt next to me, laying a big hand on the goat’s neck.

“Mrs. Beardsley loosed this brave laddie, and he went for the cat, bald-heided. I couldna see it all, but I think the creature maybe slapped at him; I heard it screech and spit, and the billy gave a skelloch just then, too. I think his leg is maybe broken.”

It was. With that guidance, I found the break easily, low on the humerus of the right front leg. The skin wasn’t broken, but the bone was cracked through; I could feel the slight displacement of the raw ends. The goat heaved and thrust his horns at my arm when I touched the leg. His eyes were wild and rolling, the odd square pupils visible but colorless in the faint moonlight.

“Can ye mend him, Sassenach?” Jamie asked.

“I don’t know.” The goat was still struggling, but the flurries of movement were growing perceptibly weaker, as shock set in. I bit my lip, groping for a pulse in the fold between leg and body. The injury itself was likely repairable, but shock was a great danger; I had seen plenty of animals—and a few people, for that matter—die quickly following a traumatic incident, of injuries that were not fatal in themselves.

“I don’t know,” I said again. My fingers had found a pulse at last; it was trip-hammer fast, and thready. I was trying to envision the possibilities for treatment, all of them crude. “He may well die, Jamie, even if I can set the leg. Do you think perhaps we ought to slaughter him? He’d be a lot easier to carry, as meat.”

Jamie stroked the goat’s neck, gently.

“It would be a great shame, and him such a gallant creature.”

Mrs. Beardsley laughed at that, a nervous small giggle, like a girl’s, coming out of the dark beyond Jamie’s bulk.

“Hith name ith Hiram,” she said. “He’th a good boy.”

“Hiram,” Jamie repeated, still stroking. “Well, then, Hiram. Courage, mon brave. You’ll do. You’ve balls as big as melons.”

“Well, persimmons, maybe,” I said, having inadvertently encountered the testicles in question while making my examination. “Perfectly respectable, though, I’m sure,” I added, taking shallow breaths. Hiram’s musk glands were working overtime. Even the harsh iron smell of blood took second place.

“I was speaking figuratively,” Jamie informed me, rather dryly. “What will ye be needing, Sassenach?”

Evidently, the decision had been made; he was already rising to his feet.

“Right, then,” I said, brushing back my hair with the back of a wrist. “Find me a couple of straight branches, about a foot long, no twigs, and a bit of rope from the saddlebags. Then you can help here,” I added, trying to achieve a good grip on my struggling patient. “Hiram seems to like you. Recognizes a kindred spirit, no doubt.”

Jamie laughed at that, a low, comforting sound at my elbow. He stood up with a final scratch of Hiram’s ears, and rustled off, coming back within moments with the requested items.

“Right,” I said, loosing one hand from Hiram’s neck in order to locate the sticks. “I’m going to splint it. We’ll have to carry him, but the splint will keep the leg from flexing and doing any more damage. Help me get him onto his side.” Hiram, whether from male pride or goat stubbornness—always assuming these to be different things—kept trying to stand up, broken leg notwithstanding. His head was bobbing alarmingly, though, as the muscles in his neck weakened, and his body lurched from side to side. He scrabbled feebly at the ground, then stopped, panting heavily.

Mrs. Beardsley hovered over my shoulder, the kid still clutched in her arms. It gave a faint bleat, as though it had awakened suddenly from a nightmare, and Hiram gave a loud, echoing “Mehh” in reply.

“There’s a thought,” Jamie murmured. He stood up suddenly, and took the kid from Mrs. Beardsley. Then he knelt down again, pushing the little creature up close to Hiram’s side. The goat at once ceased struggling, bending his head around to sniff at his offspring. The kid cried, pushing its nose against the big goat’s side, and a long, slimy tongue snaked out, slobbering over my hand as it sought the kid’s head.

“Work fast, Sassenach,” Jamie suggested.

I needed no prompting, and within minutes, had the leg stabilized, the splinting padded with one of the multiple shawls Mrs. Beardsley appeared to be wearing. Hiram had settled, making only occasional grunts and exclamations, but the kid was still bleating loudly.

“Where is its mother?” I asked, though I didn’t need to hear the answer. I didn’t know a great deal about goats, but I knew enough about mothers and babies to realize that nothing but death would keep a mother from a child making that sort of racket. The other goats had come back, drawn by curiosity, fear of the dark, or a simple desire for company, but the mother didn’t push forward.

“Poor Beckie,” said Mrs. Beardsley sadly. “Thuch a thweet goat.”

Dark forms bumped and jostled; there was a whuff of hot air in my ear as one nibbled at my hair, and another stepped on my calf, making me yelp as the sharp little hooves scraped the skin. I made no effort to shoo them away, though; the presence of his harem seemed to be doing Hiram the world of good.

I had the leg bones back in place and the splint bandaged firmly round them. I had found a good pulse point at the base of his ear, and was monitoring it, Hiram’s head resting in my lap. As the other goats pressed in, nuzzling at him and making plaintive noises, he suddenly lifted his head and rolled up onto his chest, the broken leg awkwardly stuck out before him in its bindings.

He swayed to and fro like a drunken man for a moment, then uttered a loud, belligerent “MEEEEEHHH” and lurched onto three feet. He promptly fell down again, but the action cheered everyone. Even Mrs. Beardsley emitted a faint trill of pleasure at the sight.

“All right.” Jamie stood up, and ran his fingers through his hair with a deep sigh. “Now, then.”

“Now, then what?” I asked.

“Now I shall decide what to do,” he said, with a certain edge to his voice.

“Aren’t we going on to Brownsville?”

“We might,” he said. “If Mrs. Beardsley happens to ken the way well enough to find the trail again by starlight?” He turned expectantly toward her, but I could see the negative motion of her head, even in the shadows.

It dawned on me that we were, in fact, no longer on the trail—which was in any case no more than a narrow deer track, winding through the forest.

“We can’t be terribly far off it, surely?” I looked round, peering vainly into the dark, as though some lighted sign might indicate the position of the trail. In fact, I had no idea even in which direction it might lie.

“No,” Jamie agreed. “And by myself, I daresay I could pick it up sooner or later. But I dinna mean to go floundering through the forest in the dark with this lot.” He glanced round, evidently counting noses. Two very skittish horses, two women—one distinctly odd and possibly homicidal—and six goats, two of them incapable of walking. I rather saw his point.

He drew his shoulders back, shrugging a little, as though to ease a tight shirt.

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