Stooping swiftly, he scooped a handful from the horrifying puddle of bloody mud and, standing, wrote carefully on the messenger’s white back with a finger:
I resign my commission. J. Fraser.
He made to fling the remnants of mud away but, after a moment’s hesitation, added a smeared and reluctant Sir at the top of the message, then clapped the boy on the shoulder.
“Go and show that to General Lee,” he said. The lieutenant went pale.
“The general’s in a horrid passion, sir,” he said. “I dassen’t!”
Jamie looked at him. The boy swallowed, said, “Yes, sir,” shrugged on his garments, and went at a run, unbuttoned and flapping.
Rubbing his hands heedlessly on his breeches, Jamie knelt again beside Dr. Leckie, who spared him a quick nod. The doctor was pressing a wad of lint and a handful of skirt hard against Claire’s side with both hands. The surgeon’s hands were red to the elbow, and sweat was running down his face, dripping from his chin.
“Sassenach,” Jamie said softly, afraid to touch her. His own clothes were sodden with sweat, but he was cold to the core. “Can ye hear me, lass?”
She’d regained consciousness, and his heart rose into his throat. Her eyes were closed, shut tight in a furious grimace of pain and concentration. She did hear him; the golden eyes opened and fixed on him. She didn’t speak; her breath hissed through clenched teeth. She did see him, though, he was sure of that—and her eyes weren’t clouded with shock, nor dim with imminent death. Not yet.
Dr. Leckie was looking at her face, too, intent. He let out his own breath, and the tension in his shoulders eased a little, though he didn’t relax the pressure of his hands.
“Can you get me more lint, a wad of bandage, anything?” he asked. “I think the bleeding is slowing.”
Claire’s bag lay open a little way behind Leckie. Jamie lunged for it, upended it on the ground, and snatched up a double handful of rolled bandages from the litter. Leckie’s hand made a sucking sound as he pulled it away from the sopping wad of cloth and grabbed the fresh bandages.
“You might cut her laces,” the doctor said calmly. “I need her stays off. And it will help her to breathe more easily.”
Jamie fumbled his dirk free, hands shaking in his haste.
“Un . . . tie . . . them!” Claire grunted, scowling ferociously.
Jamie grinned absurdly at hearing her voice, and his hands steadied. So she thought she’d live to need her laces. He gulped air and set himself to undo the knot. Her stay laces were leather and as usual soaked with sweat—but she used a very simple granny knot, and he got it loose with the tip of his dirk.
The knot fell free and he jerked the laces loose, wrenching the stays wide apart. Her bosom rose white as she gasped, and he felt an instant’s embarrassment as he saw her ni**les stiffen through the sweat-soaked fabric of her shift. He wanted to cover her.
There were flies everywhere, black and buzzing, drawn by the blood. Leckie shook his head to dislodge one that lighted on his eyebrow. They were swarming round Jamie’s own ears, but he didn’t bother about them, instead brushing them away as they crawled on Claire’s body, over her twitching, pallid face, her hands half curled and helpless.
“Here,” Leckie said, and, seizing one of Jamie’s hands, pushed it down on the fresh compress. “Press hard on that.” He sat back on his heels, grabbed another bandage roll, and unfurled it. With some lifting and grunting and a terrible moan from Claire, together they contrived to pass the cingulum round her body, securing the dressing in place.
“Right.” Leckie swayed for a moment, then got laboriously to his feet. “The bleeding’s mostly stopped—for now,” he said to Jamie. “I’ll come back when I can.” He swallowed and looked directly at Claire’s face, wiping his chin on his sleeve. “Good luck to you, ma’am.”
And with that, he simply strode off toward the open doors of the church, not looking back. Jamie felt such a rush of fury that he would have gone after the man and dragged him back, could he have left Claire’s side. He’d left—just left her, the bastard! Alone, helpless!
“May the devil eat your soul and salt it well first, you whore!” he shouted in Gàidhlig after the vanished surgeon. Overcome by fright and the sheer rage of helplessness, he dropped to his knees beside his wife and pounded a fist blindly on the ground.
“Did you just . . . call him a . . . whore?” The whispered words made him open his eyes.
“Sassenach!” He was scrambling for his discarded canteen, lost in the rubble of stuff from her bag. “Here, let me get ye water.”
“No. Not . . . yet.” She managed to raise one hand halfway, and he stopped dead, canteen in hand.
“Why not?” She was the gray of rotted oats and slick with sweat, trembling like a leaf. He could see her lips beginning to crack in the heat, for God’s sake.
“I don’t . . . know.” She worked her mouth a moment before finding the next words. “Don’t . . . know where it is.” The trembling hand touched the dressing—already showing a stain of blood seeping through. “If it’s perf . . . perf’rated the . . . bowel. Drink would . . . kill me. Fast. Intestin’l . . . sh-sh-shock.”
He sat down by her slowly and, closing his eyes, breathed deliberately for a few seconds. For the moment, everything had disappeared: the church, the battle, the screams and shouts and the rumble of limber wheels along the rutted road through Freehold. There wasn’t anything but her and him, and he opened his eyes to look on her face, to fix it in his mind forever.
“Aye,” he said, keeping his voice as steady as he could. “And if that’s the case . . . and if it didna kill ye quick . . . I’ve seen men die gutshot. Balnain died that way. It’s long and it’s foul, and I willna have ye die like that, Claire. I won’t!”
He meant it, truly he did. But his hand squeezed the canteen hard enough to dent the tin. How could he give her the water that might kill her right before his eyes, right . . . now?
Not now, he prayed. Please, don’t let it be now!
“I’m not . . . keen . . . either way,” she whispered, after a long pause. She blinked away a green-bellied fly, shining like emerald, that had come to drink her tears. “I need . . . Denny.” A soft gasp. “Quick.”
“He’s coming.” He could barely breathe, and his hands hovered over her, afraid to touch anything. “Denny’s coming. Hold on!”
The answer to this was a tiny grunt—her eyes were squinched shut and her jaw set hard—but she’d heard him, at least. With the vague recollection that she always said you must cover folk suffering from shock and lift their feet, he took off his coat and put it over her, then took off his waistcoat, rolled it up, and shoved it under her feet. At least the coat covered the blood that had now soaked the whole side of her dress. It terrified him to see that.
Her fists were clenched, both driven hard into her wounded side; he couldn’t hold her hand. He put a hand on her shoulder, so she’d know he was there, shut his eyes, and prayed with his whole being.
THE SUN WAS NEARLY down, and Denzell Hunter was laying out his knives. The air was thick with the sweetness of corn liquor; he’d dipped his instruments in it, and they lay gleaming wetly on the clean napkin Mrs. Macken had put down on the sideboard.
Young Mrs. Macken herself was hovering in the doorway, a hand pressed over her mouth and her eyes big as a cow’s. Jamie tried to give her a reassuring smile, but whatever his expression was, it wasn’t a smile and appeared to alarm her further, for she retreated into the darkness of her pantry.
She’d likely been alarmed all day, like everyone else in the village of Freehold; she was heavily pregnant and her husband was fighting with the Continentals. And still more alarmed for the last hour, ever since Jamie had pounded on her door. He’d battered six doors before hers. She was the first to answer, and, in poor return for her hospitality, now found a badly injured woman lying on her kitchen table, oozing blood like a fresh-killed deer.
That image unnerved him still further—Mrs. Macken was not the only one in the house who was shaken by events—and he came close and took Claire’s hand, as much to reassure himself as her.
“How is it, Sassenach?” he said, low-voiced.
“Bloody awful,” she replied hoarsely, and bit her lip to keep from saying more.
“Had ye best have a wee nip?” He moved to pick up the bottle of rough corn liquor from the sideboard, but she shook her head.
“Not quite yet. I don’t think it struck the bowel—but I’d rather die of blood loss than sepsis or shock, if I’m wrong.”
He squeezed her hand. It was cold, and he hoped she would keep talking, though at the same time he knew he ought not to make her talk. She’d need all her strength. He tried as hard as he could to will some of his own strength into her without hurting her.
Mrs. Macken edged into the room, carrying a candlestick with a fresh wax candle; he could smell the sweetness of the beeswax, and the scent of honey reminded him of John Grey. He wondered for an instant whether Grey had made it back to the British lines, but he had no real attention for anything but Claire.
Right this moment, he was busy regretting that he’d ever disapproved of her making ether. He would have given anything he possessed to spare her awareness of the next half hour.
The setting sun washed the room in gold, and the blood seeping through her bandages showed dark.
“ALWAYS CONCENTRATE when you’re using a sharp knife,” I said weakly. “You might lose a finger, else. My granny used to say that, and my mother, too.”
My mother had died when I was five, my granny a few years later—but I hadn’t seen her often, as Uncle Lamb spent at least half his time on archaeological expeditions round the world, with me as part of his baggage.
“Did you frequently play with sharp knives as a child?” Denny asked. He smiled, though his eyes stayed fixed on the scalpel he was carefully sharpening on a small oilstone. I could smell the oil, a soft murky scent under the tang of blood and the resinous smell of the unfinished rafters baking overhead.
“Constantly,” I breathed, and shifted my position as slowly as I could. I bit my lip hard and managed to ease my back without groaning aloud. It made Jamie’s knuckles go white when I did.
He was standing by the window at the moment, clutching the sill as he looked out.
Seeing him there, broad shoulders outlined by the sinking sun, brought back a sudden memory, surprising in its sharpness. Or rather, memories, for the layers of experience came back altogether, in a wodge, and I was seeing Jamie rigid with his fear and grief, the slight black figure of Malva Christie leaning toward him—and remembered feeling both a vague affront and a tremendous sense of peace as I began to leave my body, carried on the wings of fever.
I shook the memory off at once, frightened even to think of that beckoning peace. The fear was reassuring; I wasn’t yet so close to death as to find it appealing.
“I’m sure it went through the liver,” I said to Denny, gritting my teeth. “That much blood . . .”
“I’m sure thee is right,” he said, pressing gently on my side. “The liver is a great mass of densely vascularized tissue,” he added, turning to Jamie, who didn’t turn from the window but hunched his shoulders against the possibility of being told anything else of a horrifying nature.
“But the excellent thing about a wound to the liver,” Denny added cheerfully, “is that the liver, unlike the other organs of the body, will regenerate itself—or so thy wife tells me.”
Jamie cast me a brief, haunted look, and went back to staring out the window. I breathed as shallowly as I could, trying to ignore the pain, and trying even harder not to think about what Denny was about to do.
That little exercise in self-discipline lasted about three seconds. If we were all lucky, it would be simple, and quick. He had to widen the bullet’s entrance wound enough to see the direction of its track and to insert a probe along it, in hopes of finding the bullet before he had to dig for it. Then a quick—I could only hope—insertion of whichever one of his jawed forceps looked most appropriate. He had three, of different lengths, plus a davier: good for grasping a rounded object, but the jaws were much bigger than the tips of a forceps and would cause more bleeding.
If it wasn’t simple or quick, I’d very likely be dead within the next half hour. Denny was entirely correct in what he’d told Jamie: the liver is hugely vascularized, an enormous sponge of tiny blood vessels crossed by very large ones like the hepatic portal vein. That’s why the wound, superficially tiny, had bled so alarmingly. None of the major vessels had been damaged—yet—because I would have bled to death in minutes if they had been.
I was trying to breathe shallowly, because of the pain, but had an overwhelming need to draw deep, gasping breaths; I needed oxygen, because of the blood loss.
Sally flitted through my mind, and I seized on thought of her as distraction. She’d survived the amputation, screaming through a leather gag, Gabriel—yes, Gabriel, that was the name of the young man with her—white-eyed as a panicked horse, fighting to hold her steady and not to faint himself. She had fainted, luckily, toward the end—So sucks to you, Ernest, I thought blearily—and I’d left them both in Rachel’s care.
“Where’s Rachel, Denny?” I asked, suddenly thinking to wonder. I thought I’d glimpsed her briefly in the churchyard after I’d been shot, but couldn’t be sure of anything that had happened in that blur of black and white.
Denny’s hand stopped for an instant, the cautery iron he was holding suspended over a tiny brazier he’d set fuming at the end of the sideboard.
“She is searching for Ian, I believe,” he said quietly, and laid the iron very gently in the fire. “Is thee ready, Claire?”