Outlander, p.65
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       Outlander, p.65
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         Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

  Murtagh, undisturbed by the less than cordial greeting, was eyeing the bear-clad figure closely, as though mentally stripping hair and years away.

  “MacRannoch, is it no?” he said, in a tone almost accusing. “Ye’ll have been at a Gathering, I think, some time ago at Castle Leoch?”

  MacRannoch was more than startled. “Some time ago, I should say! Why, that must ha’ been near on thirty year ago. How d’ye know that, man?”

  Murtagh nodded, satisfied. “Och, I thought so. I was there. And I remember that Gathering, likely for the same reason ye do yourself.”

  MacRannoch was studying the wizened little man, trying to subtract thirty years from the seamed countenance.

  “Aye, I know ye,” he said at last. “Or not the name, but you. Ye killed a wounded boar single-handed with a dagger, during the tynchal. A gallant beast too. That’s right, the MacKenzie gave ye the tushes—a bonny set, almost a complete double curve. Lovely work that, man.” A look perilously close to gratification creased Murtagh’s pitted cheek momentarily.

  I started, remembering the magnificent, barbaric bracelets I had seen at Lallybroch. My mother’s, Jenny had said, given to her by an admirer. I stared at Murtagh in disbelief. Even allowing for the passage of thirty years, he did not seem a likely candidate for the tender passion.

  Thinking of Ellen MacKenzie, I remembered her pearls, which I was still carrying, sewn into the seam of my pocket. I groped for the free end, pulling them out into the firelight.

  “I can pay you,” I said. “I wouldn’t expect your men to risk themselves for nothing.”

  Moving a good deal faster than I would have thought possible, he snatched the pearls from my hand. He stared at them disbelievingly.

  “Where did ye get these, woman?” he demanded. “Fraser, did ye say your name is?”

  “Yes.” Tired as I was, I drew myself up straight. “And the pearls are mine. My husband gave them to me on our wedding day.”

  “Did he, then?” The hoarse voice was suddenly hushed. He turned to Murtagh, still holding the pearls.

  “Ellen’s son? Is this lass’s husband Ellen’s son?”

  “Aye,” Murtagh said, unemphatic as ever. “As ye’d ken at once if ye saw him; he’s the spit of her.”

  Mindful at last of the pearls he was clutching, MacRannoch unfolded his hand and gently stroked the shining gems.

  “I gave these to Ellen MacKenzie,” he said. “For a wedding gift. I would ha’ given them to her as my wife, but as she’d chosen elsewhere—well, I’d thought of them so often, around her bonny throat, I told her I couldna see them elsewhere. So I bade her keep them, and only think of me when she wore them. Hm!” He snorted briefly at some memory, then handed the pearls carefully back to me.

  “So they’re yours now. Well, wear them in good health, lassie.”

  “I’ll stand a much better chance of doing so,” I said, trying to control my impatience at these sentimental displays, “if you’ll help me to get my husband back.”

  The small rosy mouth, which had been smiling slightly at its owner’s thought, tightened suddenly.

  “Ah,” said Sir Marcus, pulling at his beard. “I see. But I’ve told ye, lassie, I canna see how it can be done. I’ve a wife and three weans at home. Aye, I’d do a bit for Ellen’s lad. But it’s a bit much ye’re askin’.”

  Suddenly my legs gave way altogether, and I sat down with a thump, letting my shoulders sag and my head droop. Despair dragged at me like an anchor, pulling me down. I closed my eyes and retreated to some dim place within, where there was nothing but an aching grey blankness, and where the sound of Murtagh’s voice, still arguing, was no more than a faint yapping.

  It was the bawling of cattle that roused me from my stupor. I looked up to see MacRannoch swirl out of the cottage. As he opened the door, a blast of winter air came in, thick with the lowing of cattle and yelling of men. The door thumped shut behind the vast hairy figure, and I turned to ask Murtagh what he thought we should do next.

  The look on his face stopped me, wordless. I had seldom seen him with anything more than a sort of patient dourness showing on his features, but now he positively glowed with suppressed excitement.

  I caught at his arm. “What is it? Tell me quickly!”

  He had time only to say, “The kine! They’re MacRannoch’s!” before MacRannoch himself plunged back into the cottage, pushing a lanky young man before him.

  With a last shove, he brought the young man flat up against the plastered wall of the cottage. Apparently MacRannoch found confrontation effective; he tried the same nose-to-nose technique he had used on me earlier. Less poised, or less tired, than I, the young man hunched nervously back against the wall as far as he could go.

  MacRannoch started out being sweetly reasonable. “Absalom, man, I sent ye out three hours ago to bring in forty head of cattle. I told ye it was important to find them, because there’s about to be a damn awfu’ snowstorm.” The nicely modulated voice was rising. “And when I heard the sound of kine bellowin’ outside, I said to meself, Ah, Marcus, there’s Absalom gone and found all the cattle, what a good lad, now we can all go home and thaw ourselves by the fire, with the kine safe in their barns.”

  One ham-fist had fastened itself onto Absalom’s jacket. The material, gathered between those stubby fingers, began to twist.

  “And then I go out to congratulate you on a good job done, and begin to count the beasts. And how many do I count, Absalom, me bonny wee lad?” The voice had risen to a full-powered roar. While not possessed of a particularly deep voice, Marcus MacRannoch had enough lung-power for three ordinary-sized men.

  “Fifteen!” he shouted, jerking the unfortunate Absalom to his tiptoes. “Fifteen beasts he finds, out of forty! And where are the rest o’ them? Where? Out loose in the snow, to freeze to death!”

  Murtagh had faded quietly back into the shadows in the corner while all this was going on. I was watching his face, though, and saw the sudden gleam of amusement in his eyes at these words. Suddenly I realized what he had started to tell me, and I knew where Rupert was now. Or, if not precisely where he was, at least what he was doing. And I began to hope a little.

  * * *

  It was full dark. The prison’s lights below shone weakly through the snow like the lamps of a drowned ship. Waiting under the trees with my two companions, I mentally reviewed for the thousandth time everything that could go wrong.

  Would MacRannoch carry out his part of the bargain? He’d have to, if he expected to get his prized purebred Highland cattle back. Would Sir Fletcher believe MacRannoch and order a search of the basement dungeons at once? Likely—the baronet wasn’t a man to be taken lightly.

  I had seen the cattle disappear, one shaggy beast at a time, down the ditch that led to the hidden postern door, under the expert driving of Rupert and his men. But would they be able to force the cattle through that door, singly or not? And if so, what would they do once inside; half-wild cattle, trapped suddenly in a stone corridor lit with glaring torchlight? Well, perhaps it would work. The corridor itself would be not unlike their stone-floored barn, including torches and the scent of humans. If they got so far, the plan might succeed. Randall himself was unlikely to call for help in the face of the invasion, for fear of having his own little games uncovered.

  The handlers were to get away from the prison as fast as possible, once the beasts were well and truly launched on their chaotic path, and then to ride hell-for-leather for the MacKenzie lands. Randall didn’t matter; what could he do alone, in the circumstances? But what if the noise attracted the rest of the prison garrison too soon? If Dougal had been reluctant to try to break his nephew out of Wentworth, I could imagine his choler if several MacKenzies were arrested for breaking into the place. I didn’t want to be responsible for that, either, though Rupert had been more than willing to take the risk. I bit my thumb and tried to comfort myself, thinking of the tons of solid, sound-muffling granite that separated the dungeons from the prison quarters abov
e.

  Most worrying of all, of course, was the fear that everything might work, and might be still too late. Waiting hangsman or no, Randall might go too far. I knew too well, from stories told by returning soldiers from POW camps, that nothing is easier than for a prisoner to die by “accident,” and the body be conveniently disposed of before embarrassing official questions can be asked. Even if questions were asked, and Randall found out, it would be small comfort to me—and to Jamie.

  I had been resolutely keeping myself from imagining the possible uses of the homely objects on the table of that room. But I could not keep from seeing over and over the bone-ends of that shattered finger pressing into the table. I rubbed my own knuckles hard against the saddle leather, trying to erase the image. I felt a slight burning, and pulled off the glove to examine the grazes left across my hand by the wolf’s teeth. Not bad, no more than a few scratches, with one small puncture where a cusp had penetrated the leather. I licked the wound absently. It was little use telling myself that I had done my best. I had done the only possible thing, but knowing it didn’t make the waiting easier.

  At last, we heard a faint, confused shouting from the direction of the prison. One of the MacRannoch men put a hand on the bridle of my horse and motioned toward the shelter of the trees. The snow was much lighter on the ground and the flurries diminished under the interlaced branches of the grove, thin lines of snow stark and sudden on the rocky leaf-strewn ground. While the snow fell less thickly in here, visibility was still so poor that tree trunks a few feet away loomed surprisingly as I walked my horse restlessly around the small clearing, trunks springing up black in the pinkish light.

  Muffled by the heavy snow, the approaching hoofbeats were almost upon us before we heard them. The two MacRannoch men drew their pistols and reined their horses up close to the trees, waiting, but I had picked up the dull lowing of cattle, and spurred my horse forward out of the grove.

  Sir Marcus MacRannoch, distinguishable by his piebald mount and his bearskin cloak, was leading the way up the slope, snow spurting in small explosions from under the hooves of his horse. He was followed by several men, all in high good humor, from the sound of it. More of his men rode further back, chivvying the milling herd of cattle from behind, driving the band of bewildered beasts around the base of the hill, toward their well-earned shelter in the MacRannoch barns.

  MacRannoch reined up beside me, laughing heartily. “I’ve to thank ye, Mistress Fraser,” he shouted through the snow, “for a most entertaining evening.” His earlier suspicion had vanished, and he greeted me with the utmost geniality. His eyebrows and mustache coated with snow, he looked like Father Christmas on a spree. Taking my bridle, he led my horse back into the quieter air of the grove. He waved my two companions down the hill to help with the cattle, then dismounted and swung me down from my saddle, still laughing to himself.

  “Ye should ha’ seen it!” he chortled, hugging himself in ecstasy. “Sir Fletcher went red as a robin’s breast when I pushed in in the midst of his dinner, shouting that he was concealing stolen property on his premises. And then when we got below-stairs and he heard the beasts bellowin’ like thunder, I thought he’d dirtied his breeches. He—” I shook his arm impatiently.

  “Never mind Sir Fletcher’s breeches. Did you find my husband?”

  MacRannoch sobered a bit, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. “Oh, aye. We found him.”

  “Is he all right?” I spoke calmly, though I wanted to scream.

  MacRannoch nodded toward the trees behind me, and I whirled to see a rider making his way carefully through the branches, a bulky cloth-covered shape draped across the saddlebow in front of him. I dashed forward, followed by MacRannoch, explaining helpfully.

  “He’s no deid, or at least he wasn’t when we found him. Been mistreated a good bit, though, poor laddie.” I had pushed aside the cloth over Jamie’s head, and was anxiously examining him as best I could, with the horse fidgeting from the excitement of the cold ride and the extra burden. I could see dark bruises and feel stiff patches of blood in the rumpled hair, but could tell little more in the dim light. I thought I could feel a pulse in the icy neck, but wasn’t sure.

  MacRannoch caught my elbow and pulled me away. “We’ll do best to get him inside quick, lass. Come with me. Hector will bring him along to the house.”

  In the main drawing room of Eldridge Manor, MacRannoch’s home, Hector humped his burden onto the rug before the fire. Seizing one corner of the blanket, he unrolled it carefully, and a limp, naked figure flopped out onto the pink and yellow flowers of Lady Annabelle MacRannoch’s pride and joy.

  To do the Lady Annabelle credit, she didn’t seem to notice the blood soaking into her expensive Aubusson rug. A birdlike woman in her early forties, arrayed like a goldfinch in a sunburst of yellow silk dressing gown, she had servants bustling in all directions with a brisk clap of her hands, and blankets, linen, hot water, and whisky appeared at my elbow almost before I had got my cloak off.

  “Best turn him on his belly,” advised Sir Marcus, pouring out two large whiskies. “He’s had his back flayed, and it must feel fierce to lie on it. Not that he looks like he feels anything, much,” he added, peering closely at Jamie’s ashen face and sealed, bluish eyelids. “You’re sure he’s still alive?”

  “Yes,” I answered shortly, hoping I was right. I struggled to pull Jamie over. Unconsciousness seemed to have tripled his weight. MacRannoch lent a hand, and we got him positioned on a blanket, back to the fire.

  A rapid triage having established that he was in fact alive, missing no body parts, and not in immediate danger of bleeding to death, I could afford to make a less hurried inventory of the damage.

  “I can send for a physician,” said Lady Annabelle, looking dubiously at the corpselike figure on her hearth, “but I doubt he can get here under an hour; it’s snowing something fierce out.” The reluctance in her tone was only partly on account of the snow, I thought. A physician would make one more dangerous witness to the presence of an escaped criminal in her home.

  “Don’t bother,” I said absently, “I am a physician.” Disregarding the looks of surprise from both MacRannochs, I knelt beside what was left of my husband, covered him with blankets and began to apply cloths soaked in hot water to the outlying parts. My chief concern was to get him warm; the blood from his back was a slow ooze, which could be dealt with later.

  Lady Annabelle faded into the distance, her high goldfinch’s voice summoning, beckoning, and arranging. Her spouse sank down on his haunches beside me, and began to rub Jamie’s frozen feet in a businesslike way between large blunt-fingered hands, pausing occasionally to sip his whisky.

  Turning back the blankets in bits, I surveyed the damage. He had been finely striped from nape to knees with something like a coachwhip, the weals crisscrossing neatly like hemstitching. The sheer orderliness of the damage, speaking as it did of a deliberation that reveled in each punishing stroke, made me feel sick with rage.

  Something heavier, perhaps a cane, had been used with less restraint across his shoulders, cutting so deeply in spots that a gleam of bone showed over one shoulderblade. I pressed a thick pad of lint gently over the worst of the mess and went on with the examination.

  The spot on his left side where the mallet had struck was an ugly contused swelling, a black and purple patch bigger than Sir Marcus’s hand. Broken ribs there for sure, but those too could wait. My attention was caught by the livid patches on neck and breast, where the skin was puckered, reddened and blistered. The edges of one such patch were charred, rimmed with white ash.

  “What in hell did that?” Sir Marcus had completed his ministrations and was looking over my shoulder with deep interest.

  “A hot poker.” The voice was weak and indistinct; it was a moment before I realized that it was Jamie who had spoken. He raised his head with an effort, showing the reason for his difficult speech; the lower lip was badly bitten on one side and puffed like a beesting.

  With consid
erable presence of mind, Sir Marcus put a hand behind Jamie’s neck and pressed the beaker of whisky to his lips. Jamie winced as the spirit stung his torn mouth, but drained the beaker before laying his head down again. His eyes slanted up at me, slightly filmed with pain and whisky, but alight with amusement nonetheless. “Cows?” he asked, “Was it really cows, or was I dreaming?”

  “Well, it was all I could manage in the time,” I said, beaming in my relief at seeing him alive and conscious. I placed a hand on his head, turning it to inspect a large bruise over the cheekbone. “You look bloody awful. How do you feel?” I asked, from force of long-held habit.

  “Alive.” He struggled up onto one elbow to accept with a nod a second beaker of whisky from Sir Marcus.

  “Do you think you should drink so much all at once?” I asked, trying to examine his pupils for signs of concussion. He foiled me by closing his eyes and tilting his head back.

  “Yes,” he said, handing back the empty beaker to Sir Marcus, who bore it back in the direction of the decanter.

  “Now, that’ll be enough for the present, Marcus.” Lady Annabelle, reappearing like the sun in the east, stopped her husband with a commanding chirp. “The lad needs hot strong tea, not more whisky.” The tea followed her processionally in a silver pot, borne by a maidservant whose air of natural superiority was unimpaired by the fact that she was still attired in her nightdress.

  “Hot strong tea with plenty of sugar in it,” I amended.

  “And perhaps a wee tot of whisky as well,” said Sir Marcus, neatly removing the lid of the teapot as it passed and adding a generous dollop from his decanter. Accepting the steaming cup gratefully, Jamie raised it in mute tribute to Sir Marcus before cautiously bringing the hot liquid to his mouth. His hand shook badly, and I wrapped my own around his fingers to guide the cup.

  More servants were bringing in a portable camp bed, a mattress, more blankets, more bandages and hot water, and a large wooden chest containing the household’s medical supplies.

  “I thought we had best work here before the fire,” Lady Annabelle explained in her charming bird-voice. “There’s more light, and it’s far the warmest place in the house.”

  At her direction, two of the larger menservants each seized an end of the blanket under Jamie and transferred it smoothly, contents and all, to the camp bed, now set up before the fire, where another servant was industriously poking the night-banked coals and feeding the growing blaze. The maid who had brought in the tea was efficiently lighting the wax tapers in the branched candelabra on the sideboard. Despite her songbird appearance, the Lady Annabelle plainly had the soul of a master-sergeant.

  “Yes, now that he’s awake, the sooner the better,” I said. “Have you a flat board about two feet long,” I asked, “a stout strap, and perhaps some small straight flat sticks, about so long?” I held my fingers apart, measuring a length of four inches or so. One of the servants disappeared into the shadows, flicking out of sight like a djinn to do my bidding.

  The whole house seemed magical, perhaps because of the contrast between the howling cold outside and the luxurious warmth within, or maybe only because of the relief of seeing Jamie safe, after so many hours of fear and worry.

  Heavy dark furniture gleamed with polish in the lamplight, silver shone on the sideboard, and a collection of delicate glass and china ornamented the mantelpiece, in bizarre contrast to the bloody, bedraggled figure before it.

  No questions were asked. We were Sir Marcus’s guests, and Lady Annabelle behaved as though it were an everyday occurrence to have people come and bleed on the carpet at midnight. It occurred to me for the first time that such a visit might have happened before.

  “Verra nasty,” said Sir Marcus, examining the smashed hand with an expertise born of the battlefield. “And wretched painful, too, I expect. Still, it’s no going to kill ye, is it?” He straightened up and addressed me in confidential tones.

  “I thought it might be worse than this, given what ye told me. Except the ribs and hand, there’s no bones broken, and the rest will heal fine. I’d say maybe ye were lucky, lad.”

  There was a faint snort from the recumbent figure on the bed.

  “I suppose ye could call it luck. They meant to be hanging me in the morning.” He moved his head restlessly on the pillow, trying to look up at Sir Marcus. “Did ye know that…sir?” he added, catching sight of Sir Marcus’s embroidered waistcoat, with its coat of arms worked in silver stitchery among the pigeons and roses.

  MacRannoch waved a hand, dismissing this minor detail.

  “Weel, if he meant to be keepin’ ye presentable for the hangsman, he went a bit far on your back, then,” Sir Marcus remarked, removing the soaked lint and replacing it with a fresh pad.

  “Aye. He lost his head a bit when…when he…” Jamie struggled to get the words out, then gave it up as a bad job and turned his face to the fire, eyes closed. “God, I’m tired,” he said.

  We let him rest until the manservant materialized by my elbow with the splints I had requested. Then I carefully picked up the smashed right hand, bringing it into the candlelight for examination.

  It would have to be set, and as soon as possible. The injured muscles were already clawing the fingers inward. I felt hopeless as I saw the full extent of the damage. But if he was ever to have any use of the hand again, it would have to be attempted.

  Lady Annabelle had hung back during my examination, watching interestedly. When I set the hand down, she stepped forward and opened the small chest of medical supplies.

  “I suppose you’ll be wanting the boneset, and perhaps the cherry bark. I don’t know…” She eyed Jamie doubtfully. “Leeches, do you think?” Her well-kept hand hovered over a small lidded jar filled with murky liquid.

  I shuddered and shook my head. “No, I don’t think so; not just now. What I could really use…do you by chance have any sort of opiate?” I sank to my knees beside her to pore over the contents of the box.

  “Oh, yes!” Her hand went unerringly to a small green flask. “Flowers of laudanum,” she read from the label. “Will that do?”

  “Perfect.” I accepted the flask gratefully.

  “All right, then,” I said briskly to Jamie, pouring a small amount of the odorous liquid into a glass, “you’ll need to sit up just long enough to swallow this. Then you’ll go to sleep and stay that way for a good long time.” In fact, I had some doubts as to the advisability of administering laudanum on top of such a quantity of whisky, but the alternative—reconstructing that hand while he was conscious—was unthinkable. I tipped the bottle to pour a bit more.

  Jamie’s good hand on my arm stopped me.

  “I don’t want drugs,” he said firmly. “Just perhaps a wee drop more of whisky”—he hesitated, tongue touching the bitten lip—“and maybe something to bite down on.”

  Sir Marcus, hearing this, crossed to the lovely glowing Sheraton desk in the corner and began to rummage. He returned in a moment with a small piece of well-worn leather. Looking more closely, I could see the dozens of overlapping semicircular indentations in the thick leather—toothmarks, I realized with a shock.

  “Here,” Sir Marcus said helpfully. “I used this myself at St. Simone; got me through it while I had a musket ball dug out of my leg.”

  I looked on, open-mouthed, as Jamie took the leather with a nod of thanks, smoothing his thumb over the marks. I spoke slowly, stunned. “You actually expect me to set nine broken bones while you’re awake?”

  “Yes,” he said briefly, placing the leather between his teeth and biting down
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