Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 86

   

He had grabbed me from the left, pinning my left arm tight against my side, his right hand over my mouth. My right arm was free, though. I drove the heel of my shoe into his kneecap, buckling his leg, and then, taking advantage of his momentary stagger, leaned forward and smashed backward at his head with the rock in my hand.

It was of necessity a glancing blow, but it struck hard enough that he grunted with surprise, and his grip loosened. I kicked and squirmed, and as his hand slipped across my mouth, I got my teeth onto a finger and bit down as hard as I could.

“The maxillary muscles run from the sagittal crest at the top of the skull to an insertion on the mandible,” I thought, dimly recalling the description from Grey’s Anatomy. “This gives the jaw and teeth considerable crushing power; in fact, the average human jaw is capable of exerting over three hundred pounds of force.”

I didn’t know whether I was bettering the average, but I was undeniably having an effect. My assailant was thrashing frantically to and fro in a futile effort to dislodge the death grip I had on his finger.

His hold on my arm had loosened in the struggle, and he was forced to lower me. As soon as my feet touched the dirt once more, I let go of his hand, whirled about, and gave him as hearty a root in the stones with my knee as I could manage, given my skirts.

Kicking men in the testicles is vastly overrated as a means of defense. That is to say, it does work—and spectacularly well—but it’s a more difficult maneuver to carry out than one might think, particularly when one is wearing heavy skirts. Men are extremely careful of those particular appendages, and thoroughly wary of any attempt on them.

In this case, though, my attacker was off guard, his legs wide apart to keep his balance, and I caught him fairly. He made a hideous wheezing noise like a strangled rabbit and doubled up in the roadway.

“Is that you, Sassenach?” The words were hissed out of the darkness to my left. I leaped like a startled gazelle, and uttered an involuntary scream.

For the second time within as many minutes, a hand clapped itself over my mouth.

“For God’s sake, Sassenach!” Jamie muttered in my ear. “It’s me.” I didn’t bite him, though I was strongly tempted to.

“I know,” I said, through my teeth, when he released me. “Who’s the other fellow that grabbed me, though?”

“Fergus, I expect.” The amorphous dark shape moved away a few feet and seemed to be prodding another shape that lay on the road, moaning faintly. “Is it you, Fergus?” he whispered. Receiving a sort of choked noise in response, he bent and hauled the second shape to its feet.

“Don’t talk!” I urged them in a whisper. “There are excisemen just ahead!”

“Is that so?” said Jamie, in a normal voice. “They’re no verra curious about the noise we’re making, are they?”

He paused, as though waiting for an answer, but no sound came but the low keening of the wind through the alders. He laid a hand on my arm and shouted into the night.

“MacLeod! Raeburn!”

“Aye, Roy,” said a mildly testy voice in the shrubbery. “We’re here. Innes, too, and Meldrum, is it?”

“Aye, it’s me.”

Shuffling and talking in low voices, more shapes emerged from the bushes and trees.

“…four, five, six,” Jamie counted. “Where are Hays and the Gordons?”

“I saw Hays go intae the water,” one of the shapes volunteered. “He’ll ha’ gone awa’ round the point. Likely the Gordons and Kennedy did, too. I didna hear anything as though they’d been taken.”

“Well enough,” Jamie said. “Now, then, Sassenach. What’s this about excisemen?”

Given the nonappearance of Oakie and his companion, I was beginning to feel rather foolish, but I recounted what Ian and I had heard.

“Aye?” Jamie sounded interested. “Can ye stand yet, Fergus? Ye can? Good lad. Well, then, perhaps we’ll have a look. Meldrum, have ye a flint about ye?”

A few moments later, a small torch struggling to stay alight in his hand, he strode down the road, and around the bend. The smugglers and I waited in tense silence, ready either to run or to rush to his assistance, but there were no noises of ambush. After what seemed like an eternity, Jamie’s voice floated back along the road.

“Come along, then,” he said, sounding calm and collected.

He was standing in the middle of the road, near a large alder. The torchlight fell round him in a flickering circle, and at first I saw nothing but Jamie. Then there was a gasp from the man beside me, and a choked sound of horror from another.

Another face appeared, dimly lit, hanging in the air just behind Jamie’s left shoulder. A horrible, congested face, black in the torchlight that robbed everything of color, with bulging eyes and tongue protruding. The hair, fair as dry straw, rose stirring in the wind. I felt a fresh scream rise in my throat, and choked it off.

“Ye were right, Sassenach,” Jamie said. “There was an exciseman.” He tossed something to the ground, where it landed with a small plop! “A warrant,” he said, nodding toward the object. “His name was Thomas Oakie. Will any of ye ken him?”

“Not like he is now,” a voice muttered behind me. “Christ, his mither wouldna ken him!” There was a general mutter of negation, with a nervous shuffling of feet. Clearly, everyone was as anxious to get away from the place as I was.

“All right, then.” Jamie stopped the retreat with a jerk of his head. “The cargo’s lost, so there’ll be no shares, aye? Will anyone need money for the present?” He reached for his pocket. “I can provide enough to live on for a bit—for I doubt we’ll be workin’ the coast for a time.”

One or two of the men reluctantly advanced within clear sight of the thing hanging from the tree to receive their money, but the rest of the smugglers melted quietly away into the night. Within a few minutes, only Fergus—still white, but standing on his own—Jamie, and I were left.

“Jesu!” Fergus whispered, looking up at the hanged man. “Who will have done it?”

“I did—or so I expect the tale will be told, aye?” Jamie gazed upward, his face harsh in the sputtering torchlight. “We’ll no tarry longer, shall we?”

“What about Ian?” I said, suddenly remembering the boy. “He went to the abbey, to warn you!”

“He did?” Jamie’s voice sharpened. “I came from that direction, and didna meet him. Which way did he go, Sassenach?”

“That way,” I said, pointing.

Fergus made a small sound that might have been laughter.

“The abbey’s the other way,” Jamie said, sounding amused. “Come on, then; we’ll catch him up when he realizes his mistake and comes back.”

“Wait,” said Fergus, holding up a hand. There was a cautious rustling in the shrubbery, and Young Ian’s voice said, “Uncle Jamie?”

“Aye, Ian,” his uncle said dryly. “It’s me.”

The boy emerged from the bushes, leaves stuck in his hair, eyes wide with excitement.

“I saw the light, and thought I must come back to see that Auntie Claire was all right,” he explained. “Uncle Jamie, ye mustna linger about wi’ a torch—there are excisemen about!”

Jamie put an arm about his nephew’s shoulders and turned him, before he should notice the thing hanging from the alder tree.

“Dinna trouble yourself, Ian,” he said evenly. “They’ve gone.”

Swinging the torch through the wet shrubbery, he extinguished it with a hiss.

“Let’s go,” he said, his voice calm in the dark. “Mr. Willoughby’s down the road wi’ the horses; we’ll be in the Highlands by dawn.”

PART SEVEN

Home Again

32

THE PRODIGAL’S RETURN

It was a four-day journey on horseback to Lallybroch from Arbroath, and there was little conversation for most of it. Both Young Ian and Jamie were preoccupied, presumably for different reasons. For myself, I was kept busy wondering, not only about the recent past, but about the immediate future.

Ian must have told Jamie’s sister, Jenny, about me. How would she take my reappearance?

Jenny Murray had been the nearest thing I had ever had to a sister, and by far the closest woman friend of my life. Owing to circumstance, most of my close friends in the last fifteen years had been men; there were no other female doctors, and the natural gulf between nursing staff and medical staff prevented more than casual acquaintance with other women working at the hospital. As for the women in Frank’s circle, the departmental secretaries and university wives…

More than any of that, though, was the knowledge that of all the people in the world, Jenny was the one who might love Jamie Fraser as much—if not more—than I did. I was eager to see Jenny again, but could not help wondering how she would take the story of my supposed escape to France, and my apparent desertion of her brother.

The horses had to follow each other in single file down the narrow track. My own bay slowed obligingly as Jamie’s chestnut paused, then turned aside at his urging into a clearing, half-hidden by an overhang of alder branches.

A gray stone cliff rose up at the edge of the clearing, its cracks and bumps and ridges so furred with moss and lichen that it looked like the face of an ancient man, all spotted with whiskers and freckled with warts. Young Ian slid down from his pony with a sigh of relief; we had been in the saddle since dawn.

“Oof!” he said, frankly rubbing his backside. “I’ve gone all numb.”

“So have I,” I said, doing the same. “I suppose it’s better than being saddlesore, though.” Unaccustomed to riding for long stretches, both Young Ian and I had suffered considerably during the first two days of the journey; in fact, too stiff to dismount by myself the first night, I had had to be ignominiously hoisted off my horse and carried into the inn by Jamie, much to his amusement.

“How does Uncle Jamie do it?” Ian asked me. “His arse must be made of leather.”

“Not to look at,” I replied absently. “Where’s he gone, though?” The chestnut, already hobbled, was nibbling at the grass under an oak to one side of the clearing, but of Jamie himself, there was no sign.

Young Ian and I looked blankly at each other; I shrugged, and went over to the cliff face, where a trickle of water ran down the rock. I cupped my hands beneath it and drank, grateful for the cold liquid sliding down my dry throat, in spite of the autumn air that reddened my cheeks and numbed my nose.

This tiny glen clearing, invisible from the road, was characteristic of most of the Highland scenery, I thought. Deceptively barren and severe, the crags and moors were full of secrets. If you didn’t know where you were going, you could walk within inches of a deer, a grouse, or a hiding man, and never know it. Small wonder that many of those who had taken to the heather after Culloden had managed to escape, their knowledge of the hidden places making them invisible to the blind eyes and clumsy feet of the pursuing English.

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