Outlander, p.59
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       Outlander, p.59
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  four o’clock, I estimated. Ian followed her gaze and anticipated her question.

  “We met them near midday. It took me over two hours to get to a place that had a horse.”

  She stood still, for a moment, calculating, then turned to me with decision.

  “Claire. Help Ian to the house, will ye, and if he needs aught in the way of doctoring, do it as fast as ye can. I’ll give the babe to Mrs. Crook and fetch the horses.”

  She was gone before either of us could protest.

  “Does she mean…but she can’t!” I exclaimed. “She can’t mean to leave the baby!”

  Ian was leaning heavily on my shoulder as we made our way slowly up the path to the house. He shook his head.

  “Maybe not. But I dinna think she means to let the English hang her brother, either.”

  * * *

  It was growing dark by the time we reached the spot where Jamie and Ian had been ambushed. Jenny slid off her horse and cast about through the bushes like a small terrier, pushing branches out of her way and muttering things under her breath that sounded suspiciously like some of her brother’s better curses.

  “East,” she said, finally coming out of the trees, scratched and dirty. She beat dead leaves from her skirt, and took her horse’s reins from my numbed hands. “We canna follow in the dark, but at least I know which way to go, come the dawn.”

  We made a simple camp, hobbling the horses and building a small fire. I admired the efficiency with which Jenny had done it, and she smiled.

  “I used to make Jamie and Ian show me things, when they were young. How to build fires, and climb trees—even how to skin things. And how to track.” She glanced again in the direction taken by the Watch.

  “Dinna worry, Claire.” She smiled at me and sat down by the fire. “Twenty horses canna go far through the brush, but two can. The Watch will be taking the road toward Eskadale, by the looks of it. We can cut over the hills and meet them near Midmains.”

  Her nimble fingers were tugging at the bodice of her gown. I stared in amazement as she spread the folds of cloth and pulled down the top of her underblouse to show her breasts. They were very large, and looked hard, swollen with milk. In my ignorance, I had not thought to wonder what a nursing mother does if deprived of her nursling.

  “I canna leave the babe for long,” she said in answer to my thoughts, grimacing as she cupped one breast from beneath. “I’ll burst.” In response to the touch, milk had begun to drip from the engorged nipple, thin and bluish. Pulling a large kerchief from her pocket, Jenny tucked it beneath her breast. There was a small pewter cup on the ground beside her, one she had taken from the saddlebag. Pressing the lip of the cup just below the nipple, she gently stroked the breast between two fingers, squeezing gently toward the nipple. The milk dripped faster in response, then suddenly the areole around the nipple contracted and the milk spurted out in a tiny jet of surprising force.

  “I didn’t know it did that!” I blurted, staring in fascination.

  Jenny moved the cup to catch the stream, and nodded. “Oh, aye. The babe’s sucking starts it, but once the milk lets down, all the child need do is swallow. Oh, that feels better.” She closed her eyes briefly in relief.

  She emptied the cup onto the ground, remarking, “Shame to waste it, but there isna much to do wi’ it, is there?” Switching hands, she placed the cup again and repeated the process with the other breast.

  “It’s a nuisance,” she said, looking up to see me still watching. “Everything to do wi’ bairns is a nuisance, almost. Still, ye’d never choose not to have them.”

  “No,” I answered softly. “You wouldn’t choose that.”

  She looked across the fire at me, face kind and concerned.

  “It isna your time yet,” she said. “But you’ll have bairns of your own one day.”

  I laughed a little shakily. “First we’d better find the father.”

  She emptied the second cup and began readjusting her dress.

  “Oh, we’ll find them. Tomorrow. We have to, for I canna stay away from wee Maggie much longer than that.”

  “And once we’ve found them?” I asked. “What then?”

  She shrugged and reached for the blanket rolls.

  “That depends on Jamie. And on how much he’s made them hurt him.”

  * * *

  Jenny was right; we did find the Watch the next day. We left our campsite before full day, pausing only long enough for her to express more milk. She seemed to be able to find trails where none existed, and I followed her without question into a heavily wooded area. Quick travel was impossible through the brushy undergrowth, but she assured me that we were taking a much more direct route than the one the Watch would have to follow, bound as they were to roads by the size of their group.

  We came on them near noon. I heard the jingle of harness and the casual voices I had heard once before, and put out a hand to stop Jenny, who was following me for the moment.

  “There’s a ford in the stream below,” she whispered to me. “It sounds as though they’ve stopped there to water the horses.” Sliding down, she took both sets of reins and tethered our own horses, then, beckoning to me to follow, she slid into the undergrowth like a snake.

  From the vantage point to which she led me, on a small ledge overlooking the ford, we could see almost all of the men of the Watch, mostly dismounted and talking in casual groups, some sitting on the ground eating, some leading the horses in groups of two and three to the water. What we couldn’t see was Jamie.

  “Do you suppose they’ve killed him?” I whispered in panic. I had counted every man twice, to be sure I had missed no one. There were twenty men and twenty-six horses; all in plain view, so far as I could see. But no hint of a prisoner, and no telltale gleam of sun on red hair.

  “I doubt it,” Jenny answered. “But there’s only one way to find out.” She began to squirm backward from the ledge.

  “What’s that?”

  “Ask.”

  The road narrowed as it left the ford, becoming little more than a dusty trail through dense stands of pine and alder on either side. The trail was not wide enough for the Watch to ride two abreast; each man would have to pass down it in single file.

  As the last man in the line approached a bend in the trail, Jenny Murray stepped suddenly out in the road ahead of him. His horse shied, and the man struggled to rein it in, cursing. As he opened his mouth to demand indignantly what she meant by this behavior, I stepped out of the bush behind, and whacked him solidly behind the ear with a fallen branch.

  Taken completely by surprise, he lost his balance as the horse shied again, and fell off into the roadway. He wasn’t stunned; the blow had only knocked him over. Jenny remedied this deficiency with the assistance of a good-sized rock.

  She grabbed the horse’s reins and gestured violently to me.

  “Come on!” she whispered. “Get him off the road before they notice he’s gone.”

  So it was that when Robert MacDonald of the Glen Elrive Watch recovered consciousness, it was to find himself securely tied to a tree, looking down the barrel of a pistol held by the steely-eyed sister of his erstwhile prisoner.

  “What have ye done wi’ Jamie Fraser?” she demanded.

  MacDonald shook his head dazedly, obviously thinking her a figment of his imagination. An attempt to move put paid to this notion, and after an allowance for the statutory amount of cursing and threatening, he at last reconciled himself to the idea that the only way to get loose was to tell us what we wanted to know.

  “He’s dead,” MacDonald said sullenly. Then, as Jenny’s finger tightened ominously on the trigger, he added in sudden panic, “It wasna me! It was his own fault!”

  Jamie, he said, had been mounted double, arms bound with a leather strap, behind one of the Watch, riding between two other men. He had seemed docile enough, and they had taken no particular precautions when fording the river six miles from the mill.

  “Damn fool threw himself off the
horse and into the deep water,” said MacDonald, shrugging as well as he could with his hands tied behind him. “We fired at him. Must have hit him, for he didna come up again. But the stream’s swift just below the ford, and it’s deep. We searched a bit, but no body. Must ha’ been carried downstream. Now, for God’s sake, ladies, will ye no untie me!”

  After repeated threats from Jenny had elicited no further details or changes in his story, we decided to accept it as true. Declining to free MacDonald altogether, Jenny did at least loosen his bonds, so that given time, he might struggle out of them. Then we ran.

  “Do you think he’s dead?” I puffed, as we reached the tethered horse.

  “I don’t. Jamie swims like a fish, and I’ve seen him hold his breath for three minutes at a time. Come on. We’re going to search the river bank.”

  We cast up and down the banks of the river, stumbling on rocks, splashing in the shallows, scratching our hands and faces on the willows that trawled their branches in the pools.

  At last Jenny gave a triumphant shout, and I splashed my way across, balancing precariously on the mossy rocks that lined the bottom of the burn, shallow at this spot.

  She was holding a leather strap, still fastened in a circle. A smear of blood discolored one side.

  “Wiggled out of it here,” she said, bending the circlet between her hands. She looked back in the direction we had come, down that jagged fall of tangled rocks, deep pools and foaming rapids, and shook her head.

  “However did ye manage, Jamie?” she said, half to herself.

  We found an area of flattened grass, not far from the verge, where he had evidently lain to rest. I found a small brownish smudge on the bark of an aspen nearby.

  “He’s hurt,” I said.

  “Aye, but he’s moving,” Jenny answered, looking at the ground as she paced back and forth.

  “Are you good at tracking?” I asked hopefully.

  “I’m no much of a hunter,” she replied, setting off with me close behind, “but if I canna follow something the size of Jamie Fraser through dry bracken, then I’m daft as well as blind.”

  Sure enough, a broad track of crushed brown fern led up the side of the hill and disappeared into a thick clump of heather. Circling around this point turned up no further evidence, nor did calling produce any answer.

  “He’ll be gone,” Jenny said, sitting down on a log and fanning herself. I thought she looked pale, and realized that kidnapping and threatening armed men was no pursuit for a woman who had given birth less than a week before.

  “Jenny,” I said, “you have to go back. Besides, he might go back to Lallybroch.”

  She shook her head. “No, that he wouldna. Whatever MacDonald told us, they’re no likely to give up so easy, not with a reward at hand. If they havena hunted him down yet, it’s because they couldn’t. But they’ll have sent someone back to keep an eye on the farm, just in case. No, that’s the one place he wouldna go.” She pulled at the neck of her gown. The day was cold, but she was sweating slightly, and I could see growing dark stains on the bosom of her dress, from leaking milk.

  She saw me looking and nodded. “Aye, I’ll have to go back soon. Mrs. Crook’s nursing the lassie wi’ goat’s milk and sugar water, but she canna do without me much longer, nor me without her. I hate to leave ye alone, though.”

  I didn’t much care for the thought of having to hunt alone through the Scottish Highlands for a man who might be anywhere, either, but I put a bold face on it.

  “I’ll manage,” I said. “It could be worse. At least he’s alive.”

  “True.” She glanced at the sun, low over the horizon. “I’ll stay wi’ ye through the night, at least.”

  Huddled around the fire at night, we didn’t talk much. Jenny was preoccupied with thoughts of her abandoned child, me with thoughts of just how I was to proceed on my own, alone with no real knowledge of geography or Gaelic.

  Suddenly Jenny’s head snapped up, listening. I sat up and listened myself, but heard nothing. I peered into the dark woods in the direction Jenny was looking, but saw no gleaming eyes in the depths, thank God.

  When I turned back to the fire, Murtagh was sitting on the other side, calmly warming his hands at the blaze. Jenny snapped round at my exclamation, and uttered a short laugh of surprise.

  “I could ha’ cut both your throats before ye ever looked in the right direction,” the little man observed.

  “Oh, could ye then?” Jenny was sitting with her knees drawn up, hands clasped near her ankles. With a lightning dart, her hand went under her skirt and the blade of a sgian dhu flashed in the firelight.

  “None sae bad,” Murtagh agreed, nodding sagely. “Is the wee Sassenach that good?”

  “No,” said Jenny, restoring her blade to her stocking. “So it’s good you’ll be with her. Ian sent for ye, I expect?”

  The little man nodded. “Aye. Did ye find the Watch yet?”

  We told him of our progress to date. At the news that Jamie had escaped, I could have sworn that a muscle twitched near the corner of his mouth, but it would have been stretching matters to call it a smile.

  At length, Jenny rose, folding her blanket.

  “Where are you going?” I asked in surprise.

  “Home.” She nodded at Murtagh. “He’ll be wi’ ye now; you don’t need me, and there’s others that do.”

  Murtagh looked up at the sky. The waning moon was faintly visible behind a haze of cloud, and a soft spatter of rain whispered in the pine boughs above us.

  “The morning will do. The wind’s risin’, and no one will move far tonight.”

  Jenny shook her head and went on tucking her hair beneath her kerchief. “I know my way. And if none will move tonight, there’s none will hinder me on the road, no?”

  Murtagh sighed impatiently. “You’re stubborn as your ox of a brother, beggin’ your pardon. Little reason to hurry back, so far as I can see—I doubt your good man will ha’ taken a doxy to his bed in the time ye’ve been gone.”

  “You see as far as the end o’ your nose, duine, and that’s short enough,” Jenny answered sharply. “And if ye’ve lived so long without knowing better than to stand between a nursing mother and a hungry child, you’ve not sense enough to hunt hogs, let alone find a man in the heather.”

  Murtagh raised his hands in surrender. “Oh, aye, ye’ll take your own way. I didna ken I was tryin’ to talk sense to a wild sow. Get a tush through the leg for my trouble, I expect.”

  Jenny laughed unexpectedly, dimpling. “I expect ye might at that, ye auld rogue.” She bent and heaved the heavy saddle up on her knee. “See that ye take care with my good-sister, then, and send word when ye’ve found Jamie.”

  As she turned to saddle the horse, Murtagh added, “By the bye, ye’ll reckon to find a new kitchen maid when ye reach home.”

  She paused and eyed him, then slowly set the saddle on the ground. “And who might that be?” she asked.

  “The Widow MacNab,” he replied, with deliberation.

  She was still for a moment, nothing moving but the kerchief and cloak that stirred in the rising wind.

  “How?” she asked at last.

  Murtagh bent to pick up the saddle. He heaved it up and secured the girth with what seemed like one effortless motion.

  “Fire,” he said, giving a final tug to the stirrup leather. “Watch your way as ye pass the high field; the ashes will still be warm.”

  He cupped his hands to give her a foot up, but she shook her head and took the reins instead, beckoning to me.

  “Walk wi’ me to the top of the hill, Claire, if ye will.”

  The air was cold and heavy, away from the fire. My skirts were damp from sitting on the ground, and clung to my legs as I walked. Jenny’s head was bent against the wind, but I could see her profile, lips pale and set with chill.

  “It was MacNab that gave Jamie to the Watch?” I asked at last. She nodded slowly.

  “Aye. Ian will have found out, or one of the other men; it doesna
matter which.”

  It was late November, well past Guy Fawkes Day, but I had a sudden vision of a bonfire, flames leaping up timbered walls and sprouting in the thatch like the tongues of the Holy Ghost, while the fire within roared its prayers for the damned. And inside, the guy, an effigy crouched in ash on his own hearthstone, ready to fall into black dust at the next blast of cold wind to sweep through the shell of his home. There is a fine line sometimes, between justice and brutality.

  I realized Jenny was looking full at me, questioning, and I returned her gaze with a nod. We stood together, in this case at least, on the same side of that grim and arbitrary line.

  We paused at the top of the hill, Murtagh a dark speck by the fire below. Jenny rummaged for a moment in the side pocket of her skirt, then pressed a small wash leather bag into my hand.

  “The rents from quarter day,” she said. “Ye might need it.”

  I tried to give the money back, insisting that Jamie would not want to take money that was needed for the running of the estate, but she would have none of it. And while Janet Fraser was half her brother’s size, she more than matched his stubbornness.

  Outclassed, I gave up at last, and tucked the money safely away in the recesses of my own costume. At Jenny’s insistence, I took also the small sgian dhu she pressed upon me.

  “It’s Ian’s, but he has another,” she said. “Put it into your stocking top, and hold it with your garter. Don’t leave it off, even when ye sleep.”

  She paused a moment, as though there were something else she meant to say. Apparently there was.

  “Jamie said,” she said carefully, “that ye might…tell me things sometimes. And he said that if ye did, I was to do as ye said. Is there…anything ye wish to tell me?”

  Jamie and I had discussed the necessity for preparing Lallybroch and its inhabitants against the coming disasters of the Rising. But we had thought then that there was time. Now I had no time, or most a few minutes, in which to give this new sister I held dear enough information to guard Lallybroch against the coming storm.

  Being a prophet was a very uncomfortable occupation, I thought, not for the first time. I felt considerable sympathy with Jeremiah and his Lamentations. I also realized exactly why Cassandra was so unpopular. Still, there was no help for it. On the crest of a Scottish hill, the night wind of an autumn storm whipping my hair and skirts like the sheets of a banshee, I turned my face to the shadowed skies and prepared to prophesy.

  “Plant potatoes,” I said.

  Jenny’s mouth dropped slightly open, then she firmed her jaw and nodded briskly. “Potatoes. Aye. There’s none closer than Edinburgh, but I’ll send for them. How many?”

  “As many as you can. They’re not planted in the Highlands now, but they will be. They’re a root crop that will keep for a long time, and the yield is better than wheat. Put as much ground as you can into crops that can be stored. There’s going to be a famine, a bad one, in two years. If there’s land or property that’s not productive now, sell it, for gold. There’s going to be war, and slaughter. Men will be hunted, here and everywhere through the Highlands.” I thought for a moment. “Is there a priest-hole in the house?”

  “No, it was built well after the Protector’s time.”

  “Make one then, or some safe place to hide. I hope Jamie won’t need it,” I swallowed hard at the thought, “but someone may.”

  “All right. Is that all?” Her face was serious and intent in the half-light. I blessed Jamie for his forethought in warning her, and her for her trust in her brother. She didn’t ask me how, or why, but only took careful note of what I said, and I knew my hasty instructions would be followed.

  “That’s all. All I can think of just now, anyway.” I tried to smile, but the effort seemed unconvincing, even to me.

  Hers was better. She touched my cheek briefly in farewell.

  “God go wi’ ye, Claire. We’ll meet again—when ye bring my brother home.”

  PART SIX

  The Search

 
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