He recounted this quite matter-of-factly, but I felt a little faint at the thought.
“Obviously they didn’t,” I said. “Why not?”
Jamie scratched his nose and rubbed a hand back through his hair, wiping the wild spill of it out of his eyes. “Well, that was Ian,” he said. “He wouldna let her do it. He said he kent well enough what it was like to live wi’ one leg, and while he didna mind it so much himself, he thought I wouldna like to—all things considered,” he added, with a wave of the hand and a glance at me that encompassed everything—the loss of the battle, of the war, of me, of home and livelihood—of all the things of his normal life. I thought Ian might well have been right.
“So instead Jenny made three of the tenants come to sit on me and hold me still, and then she slit my leg to the bone wi’ a kitchen knife and washed the wound wi’ boiling water,” he said casually.
“Jesus H. Christ!” I blurted, shocked into horror.
He smiled faintly at my expression. “Aye, well, it worked.”
I swallowed heavily, tasting bile. “Jesus. I’d think you’d have been a cripple for life!”
“Well, she cleansed it as best she could, and stitched it up. She said she wasna going to let me die, and she wasna going to have me be a cripple, and she wasna going to have me lie about all the day feelin’ sorry for myself, and—” He shrugged, resigned. “By the time she finished tellin’ me all the things she wouldna let me do, it seemed the only thing left to me was to get well.”
I echoed his laugh, and his smile broadened at the memory. “Once I could get up, she made Ian take me outside after dark and make me walk. Lord, we must ha’ been a sight, Ian wi’ his wooden leg, and me wi’ my stick, limping up and down the road like a pair of lame cranes!”
I laughed again, but had to blink back tears; I could see all too well the two tall, limping figures, struggling stubbornly against darkness and pain, leaning on each other for support.
“You lived in a cave for a time, didn’t you? We found the story of it.”
His eyebrows went up in surprise. “A story about it? About me, ye mean?”
“You’re a famous Highland legend,” I told him dryly, “or you will be, at least.”
“For living in a cave?” He looked half-pleased, half-embarrassed. “Well, that’s a foolish thing to make a story about, aye?”
“Arranging to have yourself betrayed to the English for the price on your head was maybe a little more dramatic,” I said, still more dryly. “Taking rather a risk there, weren’t you?”
The end of his nose was pink, and he looked somewhat abashed.
“Well,” he said awkwardly, “I didna think prison would be verra dreadful, and everything considered.…”
I spoke as calmly as I could, but I wanted to shake him, suddenly and ridiculously furious with him in retrospect.
“Prison, my arse! You knew perfectly well you might have been hanged, didn’t you? And you bloody did it anyway!”
“I had to do something,” he said, shrugging. “And if the English were fool enough to pay good money for my lousy carcass—well, there’s nay law against takin’ advantage of fools, is there?” One corner of his mouth quirked up, and I was torn between the urge to kiss him and the urge to slap him.
I did neither, but sat up in bed and began combing the tangles out of my hair with my fingers.
“I’d say it’s open to question who the fool was,” I said, not looking at him, “but even so, you should know that your daughter’s very proud of you.”
“She is?” He sounded thunderstruck, and I looked up at him, laughing despite my irritation.
“Well, of course she is. You’re a bloody hero, aren’t you?”
He went quite red in the face at this, and stood up, looking thoroughly disconcerted.
“Me? No!” He rubbed a hand through his hair, his habit when thinking or disturbed in his mind.
“No. I mean,” he said slowly, “I wasna heroic at all about it. It was only…I couldna bear it any longer. To see them all starving, I mean, and not be able to care for them—Jenny, and Ian and the children; all the tenants and their families.” He looked helplessly down at me. “I really didna care if the English hanged me or not,” he said. “I didna think they would, because of what ye’d told me, but even if I’d known for sure it meant that—I would ha’ done it, Sassenach, and not minded. But it wasna bravery—not at all.” He threw up his hands in frustration, turning away. “There was nothing else I could do!”
“I see,” I said softly, after a moment. “I understand.” He was standing by the chiffonier, still naked, and at this, he turned half-round to face me.
“Do ye, then?” His face was serious.
“I know you, Jamie Fraser.” I spoke with more certainty than I had felt at any time since the moment I stepped through the rock.
“Do ye, then?” he asked again, but a faint smile shadowed his mouth.
“I think so.”
The smile on his lips widened, and he opened his mouth to reply. Before he could speak, though, there was a knock upon the chamber door.
I started as though I had touched a hot stove. Jamie laughed, and bent to pat my hip as he went to the door.
“I expect it’s the chambermaid with our breakfast, Sassenach, not the constable. And we are marrit, aye?” One eyebrow rose quizzically.
“Even so, shouldn’t you put something on?” I asked, as he reached for the doorknob.
He glanced down at himself.
“I shouldna think it’s likely to come as a shock to anyone in this house, Sassenach. But to honor your sensibilities—” He grinned at me, and taking a linen towel from the washstand, wrapped it casually about his loins before pulling open the door.
I caught sight of a tall male figure standing in the hall, and promptly pulled the bedclothes over my head. This was a reaction of pure panic, for if it had been the Edinburgh constable or one of his minions, I could scarcely expect much protection from a couple of quilts. But then the visitor spoke, and I was glad that I was safely out of sight for the moment.
“Jamie?” The voice sounded rather startled. Despite the fact that I had not heard it in twenty years, I recognized it at once. Rolling over, I surreptitiously lifted a corner of the quilt and peeked out beneath it.
“Well, of course it’s me,” Jamie was saying, rather testily. “Have ye no got eyes, man?” He pulled his brother-in-law, Ian, into the room and shut the door.
“I see well enough it’s you,” Ian said, with a note of sharpness. “I just didna ken whether to believe my eyes!” His smooth brown hair showed threads of gray, and his face bore the lines of a good many years’ hard work. But Joe Abernathy had been right; with his first words, the new vision merged with the old, and this was the Ian Murray I had known before.
“I came here because the lad at the printshop said ye’d no been there last night, and this was the address Jenny sends your letters to,” he was saying. He looked round the room with wide, suspicious eyes, as though expecting something to leap out from behind the armoire. Then his gaze flicked back to his brother-in-law, who was making a perfunctory effort to secure his makeshift loincloth.
“I never thought to find ye in a kittle-hoosie, Jamie!” he said. “I wasna sure, when the…the lady answered the door downstairs, but then—”
“It’s no what ye think, Ian,” Jamie said shortly.
“Oh, it’s not, aye? And Jenny worrying that ye’d make yourself ill, living without a woman so long!” Ian snorted. “I’ll tell her she needna concern herself wi’ your welfare. And where’s my son, then, down the hall with another o’ the harlots?”
“Your son?” Jamie’s surprise was evident. “Which one?”
Ian stared at Jamie, the anger on his long, half-homely face fading into alarm.
“Ye havena got him? Wee Ian’s not here?”
“Young Ian? Christ, man, d’ye think I’d bring a fourteen-year-old lad into a brothel?”
Ian opened his mouth, then shut it, and sat down on the stool.
“Tell ye the truth, Jamie, I canna say what ye’d do anymore,” he said levelly. He looked up at his brother-in-law, jaw set. “Once I could. But not now.”
“And what the hell d’ye mean by that?” I could see the angry flush rising in Jamie’s face.
Ian glanced at the bed, and away again. The red flush didn’t recede from Jamie’s face, but I saw a small quiver at the corner of his mouth. He bowed elaborately to his brother-in-law.
“Your pardon, Ian, I was forgettin’ my manners. Allow me to introduce ye to my companion.” He stepped to the side of the bed and pulled back the quilts.
“No!” Ian cried, jumping to his feet and looking frantically at the floor, the wardrobe, anywhere but at the bed.
“What, will ye no give your regards to my wife, Ian?” Jamie said.
“Wife?” Forgetting to look away, Ian goggled at Jamie in horror. “Ye’ve marrit a whore?” he croaked.
“I wouldn’t call it that, exactly,” I said. Hearing my voice, Ian jerked his head in my direction.
“Hullo,” I said, waving cheerily at him from my nest of bedclothes. “Been a long time, hasn’t it?”
I’d always thought the descriptions of what people did when seeing ghosts rather exaggerated, but had been forced to revise my opinions in light of the responses I had been getting since my return to the past. Jamie had fainted dead away, and if Ian’s hair was not literally standing on end, he assuredly looked as though he had been scared out of his wits.
Eyes bugging out, he opened and closed his mouth, making a small gobbling noise that seemed to entertain Jamie quite a lot.
“That’ll teach ye to go about thinkin’ the worst of my character,” he said, with apparent satisfaction. Taking pity on his quivering brother-in-law, Jamie poured out a tot of brandy and handed him the glass. “Judge not, and ye’ll no be judged, eh?”
I thought Ian was going to spill the drink on his breeches, but he managed to get the glass to his mouth and swallow.
“What—” he wheezed, eyes watering as he stared at me. “How—?”
“It’s a long story,” I said, with a glance at Jamie. He nodded briefly. We had had other things to think about in the last twenty-four hours besides how to explain me to people, and under the circumstances, I rather thought explanations could wait.
“I don’t believe I know Young Ian. Is he missing?” I asked politely.
Ian nodded mechanically, not taking his eyes off me.
“He stole away from home last Friday week,” he said, sounding rather dazed. “Left a note that he’d gone to his uncle.” He took another swig of brandy, coughed and blinked several times, then wiped his eyes and sat up straighter, looking at me.
“It’ll no be the first time, ye see,” he said to me. He seemed to be regaining his self-confidence, seeing that I appeared to be flesh and blood, and showed no signs either of getting out of bed, or of putting my head under my arm and strolling round without it, in the accepted fashion of Highland ghosts.