It had been years since his back had last done this to him. Ached frequently, now and then was stiff in the morning, but it hadn’t done this in . . . ten years? He remembered it vividly. It was soon after they’d come to the Ridge, just after he and Ian built the cabin. He’d gone out a-hunting, sprung over a bank in pursuit of a fleeing elk, and found himself lying on his face at the foot of the bank, quite unable to move.
Claire, bless her, had come searching for him—he smiled wryly at thought of it; she’d been so proud of tracking him through the forest. If she hadn’t found him . . . well, it would have been the luck of the draw as to whether a painter, bear, or wolf came upon him before his back released its clench and let him move. He supposed he wouldn’t have died of cold, though he might well have lost a few toes to frostbite.
A sound brought his head up, fast. His back stabbed viciously, but he set his teeth, ignoring it, and pulled the pistol out from underneath his pillow.
Mrs. Hardman’s head jerked up at his movement. She stared at him, wide-eyed, then heard what he had heard and got up hastily. Feet on the path, more than one pair. She turned, looking for the cradle, but he shook his head.
“Keep the bairnie with ye,” he said, low-voiced. “Answer when they knock, open if they ask.”
He saw her swallow, but she did as he said. There were three or four, he thought, but not bent on mischief. There were feet on the porch, low murmurs, and a bit of laughing. A knock, and Mrs. Hardman called, “Who’s there?”
“Friends, missus,” said a man’s voice, slurred with drink. “Let us in.”
She cast a frightened glance at Jamie, but he nodded, and she lifted the latch, opening the door to the night. The first man started to come in but then saw Jamie on the bed and stopped, mouth open.
“Good evenin’ to ye,” Jamie said, polite, but holding the other man’s eyes with his own. The pistol lay in plain sight, under his hand.
“Oh,” said the other man, disconcerted. He was young and rather stout, dressed in hunting garb but with a militia badge; he glanced over his shoulder at his companions, who had stopped on the threshold. “I—er—good evening to you, sir. We didn’t—er—we thought . . .” He cleared his throat.
Jamie smiled at him, well aware what he thought. Keeping the man in sight from the corner of his eye, he turned to Mrs. Hardman and gestured to her to sit down. She did and bent her head over the child, brushing her lips over Chastity’s tiny cap.
“We’ve nothing to offer ye in the way of food, gentlemen,” Jamie said. “But there’s cold water from the well, and a bed in the shed, if ye need it.”
The other two men stood outside, shuffling awkwardly. There was a strong smell of liquor coming off them, but they hadn’t come in a mood to do damage.
“That’s all right,” the young man said, backing up to his friends. His round face was flushed, as much with embarrassment as with liquor. “We’ll just . . . sorry to disturb you. Sir.”
The other two bobbed their heads, and all three retreated, shuffling and bumping into one another in their haste to leave. The last one pulled the door to, but not all the way. Mrs. Hardman rose and pushed it to with a small bang, then leaned against it, her eyes closed, the child clasped against her bosom.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“It’s all right,” he said. “They’ll not come back. Put the bairn down and bar the door, aye?”
She did, then turned and leaned against the door, her hands pressed flat against it. She looked at the floor between her feet, breathing audibly for a moment, then slowly straightened.
Her plain jacket was fastened with pins—he didn’t know if this was to avoid the vanity of buttons, as the Moravians did, or whether she was simply too poor to have any. Her fingers fiddled nervously with the top pin, and then she suddenly pulled it out and laid it glinting on the shelf. She looked directly at him then, her fingers gripping the head of the next pin. Her long upper lip was pressed down, and a nervous sweat glistened on it.
“Dinna even think about it,” he said bluntly. “In my present condition, I couldna swive a dead sheep. To say nothing of which, I’m old enough to be your father, lass—and I’m marrit, forbye.”
Her mouth quivered slightly, though he couldn’t tell whether with disappointment or relief. Her fingers relaxed, though, and her hand dropped to her side.
“Ye dinna need to pay me for the food, lass,” he said. “It was a gift.”
“I—yes, I know. I thank thee, Friend.” She looked aside, swallowing a little. “I only—I hoped that perhaps—thee might stay. For a time.” “I’m marrit, lass,” he repeated gently, then, after an uncomfortable pause, felt compelled to ask, “Do ye have such callers often?” It had been clear to him that the men were strangers to her—but she was not to them. They’d heard of the Quaker woman who lived alone with three young girls.
“I take them to the shed,” she blurted, her face going redder than the flames made it. “After the girls are asleep.”
“Mmphm,” he said, after another pause that lasted much too long. His eyes went to the cradle but then shot away. He wondered how long Mr. Hardman had been gone from home, but it wasn’t his business. Nor was it his business how she managed to feed her girls.
“Sleep, lass,” he said. “I’ll keep watch.”
MORNING AIR AWASH WITH ANGELS
JAMIE AWOKE TO THE smell of frying meat and sat up straight in bed, forgetting his back.
“Lord have mercy,” said Mrs. Hardman, looking over her shoulder. “I haven’t heard a noise like that since the last time my husband, Gabriel, killed a pig.” She shook her head and returned to her cookery, pouring batter into an oiled cast-iron spider that sat in the coals, smoking and spitting in a baleful sort of way.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am—”
“Silvia is my name, Friend. And thine?” she asked, raising one brow at him.
“Friend Silvia,” he said through clenched teeth. “My name Is Jamie. Jamie Fraser.” He’d raised his knees in the involuntary jerk that brought him upright, and now he wrapped his arms around them and laid his sweating face against the worn quilt that covered them, trying to stretch his recalcitrant back. The effort shot pain down his right leg and caused an instant sharp cramp in his left calf muscle, which made him grunt and pant until it let go.
“I’m pleased to see thee sit up, Friend Jamie,” Silvia Hardman remarked, bringing him a plate filled with sausage, fried onions, and johnnycake. “Your back is some better, I collect?” She smiled at him.
“Somewhat,” he managed, and smiled back as well as he could while trying not to groan. “You—have fresh food, I see.”
“Yes, God be thanked,” she said fervently. “I sent Pru and Patience out to the main road at dawn to watch for wagons coming in to the market in Philadelphia, and they came back with a pound of sausage, two of cornmeal, a sack of oats, and a dozen eggs. Eat up!” She placed the wooden plate on the bed beside him, with a wooden spoon.
Jamie could see Prudence and Patience behind their mother, industriously wiping sausage grease from their empty plates with chunks of johnnycake. Easing himself gingerly around in order to put his back against the wall, he stretched out his legs, picked up the plate, and followed their example.
The food filled him with a surprising sense of well-being, and he put down the empty plate determined upon enterprise.
“I propose to visit your privy, Friend Silvia. But I may need some assistance to rise.”
Once on his feet, he found that he could make shift to stagger a few inches at a time, and Prudence and Patience at once rushed up to seize him by the elbows, in the manner of small flying buttresses.
“Don’t worry,” Prudence advised him, squaring her puny shoulders and looking confidently up at him. “We won’t let thee fall.”
“I’m sure ye won’t,” he said gravely. In fact, the little girls had a wiry strength that belied their fragile appearance, and he found their presence an actual help, as they provided something for him to hold on to for balance when it was necessary to stop—as it was every few feet.
“Tell me about the wagons that go into Philadelphia,” he said at one such stop, as much to make conversation as because he required the information. “Do they come only in the early morning?”
“Mostly,” Patience said. “They go back empty an hour or two before sunset.” She set her feet wider, bracing herself. “It’s all right,” she assured him. “Lean on me. Thee seems summat shaky.”
He squeezed her shoulder gently in thanks and let her take a very little of his weight. Shaky, indeed. It was more than half a mile to the main road; it would take over an hour to totter that far, even with the girls’ assistance, and the likelihood of his back freezing again and stranding him midway was yet too high to risk it. To say nothing of the risk of arriving in Philadelphia completely unable to move. By tomorrow, though . . .
“And did ye see soldiers on the road?” he asked, essaying a ginger step that shot pain from hip to foot. “Ow!”
“We did,” Patience said, taking a tighter grip on his elbow. “Courage, Friend. Thee will prevail. We saw two companies of militia, and one Continental officer on a mule.”
“We saw some British solders, too, though,” Prudence put in, eager not to be overlooked. “They were with a train of carts, going in the other direction.”
“The other—away from Philadelphia?” Jamie asked, his heart jumping. Was the evacuation of the British army already begun? “Could you see what was in the carts?”
Prudence shrugged. “Furniture. Trunks and baskets. There were ladies riding atop some of the carts, though mostly they walked alongside. No room,” she clarified. “Guard thy shirttail, Friend, or thy modesty will be at risk.” The morning was cool and breezy, and an errant gust of wind had risen up, bellying his shirt—wonderful on his sweating body, but definitely a risk to maiden eyes.
“Shall I knot the tails between thy legs?” Patience inquired. “I can tie a granny knot, an overhand knot, or a square knot. My daddy taught me!”
“Don’t be silly, Patience,” her sister said crossly. “If thee knots his shirt, how will he lift it to shit? No one can untie her knots,” she confided to Jamie. “She always makes them too tight.”
“Oh, I do not, liar!”
“Fie upon thee, sister! I’ll tell Mummy what thee said!”
“Where is your father?” Jamie interrupted, wanting to stop the acrimony before they began pulling each other’s hair. They did stop and glanced at each other for a moment before replying.
“We don’t know,” Prudence said, her voice small and sad. “He went a-hunting one day a year ago and didn’t come back.”
“It might be that Indians took him,” Patience said, trying to sound hopeful. “If so, may be that he’ll escape one day and come home.”
“Maybe,” she said flatly. “Mummy thinks the militia shot him.”
“Why?” Jamie asked, looking down at her. “Why would they shoot him?”
“For being a Friend,” Patience explained. “He wouldn’t fight, and so they said he was a Loyalist.”
“I see. Was—er, I mean—is he?”
Prudence looked at him, grateful for the “is.”
“I don’t think so. But Mummy says Philadelphia yearly meeting told everyone that all Friends should be for the King, as the King would keep peace and the Rebels seek to break it. So”—she shrugged—“people think all Friends are Loyalists.”
“Daddy wasn’t—isn’t,” Patience put in. “He used to say all kinds of things about the King, and Mummy would get worried and beg him to hold his tongue. Here’s the privy,” she announced unnecessarily, letting go of Jamie’s elbow in order to open the door. “Don’t wipe thyself with the towel; it’s for hands. There are corncobs in the basket.”
JOHN GREY WOKE feverish and heavy-limbed, with a pounding headache, and a stabbing pain in his left eye when he tried to open it. Both his eyes were crusted and gummy. He’d been dreaming in vivid, fractured swaths, a confusion of images, voices, emotions . . . Jamie Fraser had been shouting at him, face dark with passion, but then something changed, some sort of pursuit began, and he fell back into queasy nightmare. They were running together through a bog, a sucking quagmire that pulled at his steps, and Fraser was struggling just ahead of him, trapped, shouting at him to go back, but he couldn’t, his feet were mired fast and he was sinking, flailing madly but unable to get a purchase on anything . . .
“Gaah!” A hand shook him by the shoulder, startling him out of the morass. He pried his good eye open and saw the wavering form of a neat young man in a dark coat and spectacles, peering down at him in an oddly familiar way.
“John Grey?” said the young man.
“I am,” he said. He swallowed painfully. “Have I—the honor of your acquaintance, sir?”
The young man flushed a bit.
“Thee has, Friend Grey,” he said, low-voiced. “I am—”
“Oh!” Grey said, sitting up in a rush. “Of course, you—oh. Oh, Jesus.” His head, disturbed by the abrupt change of posture, had apparently decided to fly off his shoulders and thump into the nearest wall. The young man . . . Hunter, he thought, finding the name turn up with an odd neatness among the chaos inside his skull. Dr. Hunter. Dottie’s Quaker.
“I think thee had best lie down, Friend.”