Authors: Diana Gabaldon
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
keep well back, Uncle,” Ian whispered back. “If ye get within decent pistol shot o’ the man, he can brain ye with his ax. And I’m no going to explain
to Auntie Claire.”
Jamie snorted briefly and nudged Ian away. He loaded and primed his pistol, then walked firmly out through the falling snow toward the ruin of his house.
He’d seen Arch fell a turkey with his ax at twenty feet. And it was true that most pistols weren’t accurate at much more than that. But he didn’t mean to shoot the man, after all. He drew the pistol, holding it clear in his hand.
“Arch!” he called. The figure had its back to him, bent over as it rooted about in the ashes. At his call, it seemed to stiffen, still crouched.
“Arch Bug!” he shouted. “Come out o’ there, man. I’d speak with ye!”
In answer, the figure drew itself up abruptly, turned, and a spurt of flame lit the falling snow. In the same instant, the flame seared his thigh, and he staggered.
He was conscious mostly of surprise; he’d never known Arch Bug to use a pistol, and was impressed that he could aim so well with his left—
He’d gone to one knee in the snow, but even as he brought his own weapon up to bear, he realized two things: the black figure was aiming a second pistol at him—but not with the left hand. Which meant—
“Jesus! Ian!” But Ian had seen him fall, and seen the second pistol, too. Jamie didn’t hear the arrow’s flight, above the rush of wind and snow; it appeared as though by magic, stuck in the figure’s back. The figure went straight and stiff, then fell in a heap. Almost before it hit the ground, he was running, hobbling, his right leg buckling under him with every step.
“God, no, God, no,” he was saying, and it sounded like someone else’s voice.
A voice came through snow and night, calling out in desperation. Then Rollo was bounding past him, a blur—who had let him out?—and a rifle cracked from the trees. Ian bellowed, somewhere near, calling the dog, but Jamie had no time to look, was scrambling heedless over the blackened stones, slipping on the skim of fresh snow, stumbling, his leg was cold and hot at once, but no matter, oh,
, please, no …
He reached the black figure and flung himself on his knees beside it, grappling. He knew at once; he’d known from the moment he realized the pistol had been held in her right hand. Arch, with his missing fingers, couldn’t fire a pistol right-handed. But, oh, God, no …
He’d got her over, feeling the short, heavy body limp and unwieldy as a fresh-killed deer. Pushed back the hood of the cloak, and passed his hand, gentle, helpless, over the soft round face of Murdina Bug. She breathed against his hand—perhaps … but he felt the shaft of the arrow, too, against his hand. It had come through her neck, and her breath bubbled wet; his hand was wet, too, and warm.
“Arch?” she said hoarsely. “I want Arch.” And died.
LIFE FOR LIFE
I TOOK JAMIE into the pantry. It was dark, and cold, particularly for a man with no breeches on, but I didn’t want to risk any of the Higginses being wakened. God, not now. They’d all erupt from their sanctum like a flight of panicked quail—and I quailed myself at thought of having to deal with them before I had to. It would be sufficiently horrible to tell them what had happened by daylight; I couldn’t face the prospect now.
For lack of any better alternative, Jamie and Ian had laid Mrs. Bug in the pantry alongside Grannie MacLeod, tucked under the lowest shelf, her cloak drawn up over her face. I could see her feet sticking out, with their cracked, worn boots and striped stockings. I had a sudden vision of the Wicked Witch of the West, and clapped a hand to my mouth before anything truly hysterical could escape.
Jamie turned his head toward me, but his gaze was inward, his face haggard, deep-lined in the glow of the candle he carried.
“Eh?” he said vaguely.
“Nothing,” I said, my voice trembling. “Nothing at all. Sit—sit down.” I put down the stool and my medical kit, took the candle and tin of hot water from him, and tried to think of absolutely nothing but the job before me. Not feet. Not, for God’s sake, Arch Bug.
Jamie had a blanket wrapped round his shoulders, but his legs were necessarily bare, and I could feel the hairs bristling with gooseflesh as my hand brushed them. The bottom of his shirt was soaked with half-dried blood; it stuck to his leg, but he made no sound when I pulled it loose and nudged his legs apart.
He had been moving like a man in a bad dream, but the approach of a lighted candle to his balls roused him.
“Ye’ll take care wi’ that candle, Sassenach, aye?” he said, putting a protective hand over his genitals.
Seeing his point, I gave him the candle to hold, and with a brief admonition to beware of dripping hot wax, returned to my inspection.
The wound was oozing blood, but plainly minor, and I plunged a cloth into the hot water and began to work. His flesh was chilled, and the cold damped even the pungent odors of the pantry, but I could still smell him, his usual dry musk tainted with blood and frantic sweat.
It was a deep gouge that ran four inches through the flesh of his thigh, high up. Clean, though.
“A John Wayne special,” I said, trying for a light, dry tone. Jamie’s eyes, which had been fixed on the candle flame, changed focus and fixed on me.
“What?” he said hoarsely.
“Nothing serious,” I said. “The ball just grazed you. You may walk a little oddly for a day or two, but the hero lives to fight another day.” The ball had in fact gone between his legs, deeply creasing the inside of his thigh, near both to his testicles and his femoral artery. One inch to the right, and he’d be dead. One inch higher …
“Not a great help, Sassenach,” he said, but the ghost of a smile touched his eyes.
“No,” I agreed. “But some?”
“Some,” he said, and briefly touched my face. His hand was very cold, and trembled; hot wax ran over the knuckles of his other hand, but he didn’t seem to feel it. I took the candlestick gently from him and set it on the shelf.
I could feel the grief and self-reproach coming off him in waves, and fought to keep it at bay. I couldn’t help him if I gave in to the enormity of the situation. I wasn’t sure I could help him in any case, but I’d try.
“Oh, Jesus,” he said, so softly I barely heard him. “Why did I not let him take it? What did it matter?” He struck a fist on his knee, soundless.
, why did I not just let him take it!?”
“You didn’t know who it was, or what they meant to do,” I said, just as softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “It was an accident.” His muscles were bunched, hard with anguish. I felt it, too, a hard knot of protest and denial
be true, it can’t have happened!—
in my throat, but there was work to be done. I’d deal with the inescapable later.
He put a hand over his face, shaking his head slowly to and fro, and neither spoke nor moved while I finished the cleaning and bandaging of the wound.
“Can ye do aught for Ian?” he said, when I’d finished. He took his hand away and looked up at me as I stood, his face drawn in exhausted misery, but calm again. “He’s …” He swallowed, and glanced at the door. “He’s badly, Sassenach.”
I glanced at the whisky I’d brought: a quarter of a bottle. Jamie followed the direction of my gaze and shook his head.
“You drink it, then.” He shook his head, but I put the bottle in his hand and pressed his fingers round it.
“Orders,” I said, soft but very firm. “Shock.” He resisted, made to put the bottle back, and I tightened my hand on his.
,” I said. “Jamie—I know. But you can’t give in. Not now.”
He looked up at me for a moment, but then he nodded, accepting it because he had to, the muscles of his arm relaxing. My own fingers were stiff, chilled from water and frigid air, but still warmer than his. I folded both hands round his free one, and held it, hard.
“There’s a reason why the hero never dies, you know,” I said, and attempted a smile, though my face felt stiff and false. “When the worst happens, someone still has to decide what to do. Go into the house now, and get warm.” I glanced out at the night, lavender-skied and wild with swirling snow. “I’ll … find Ian.”
WHERE WOULD HE have gone? Not far, not in this weather. Given his state of mind when he and Jamie had come back with Mrs. Bug’s body, he
, I thought, simply have walked off into the woods, not caring where he went or what happened to him—but he’d had the dog with him. No matter what he felt like, he wouldn’t take Rollo off into a howling blizzard.
And a blizzard was what it was shaping up to be. I made my way slowly uphill toward the outbuildings, sheltering my lantern under a fold of my cloak. It came to me suddenly to wonder whether Arch Bug might have taken shelter in the springhouse or the smoke shed. And … oh, God—did he
I stopped dead on the path for an instant, letting the thickly falling snow settle like a veil on my head and shoulders.
I had been so shocked by what had happened that I hadn’t thought to wonder whether Arch Bug knew that his wife was dead. Jamie said that he had called out, called for Arch to come, as soon as he realized—but there had been no answer. Perhaps Arch had suspected a trick; perhaps he had simply fled, seeing Jamie and Ian and assuming that they would certainly not harm his wife.
In which case …
hell,” I said under my breath, appalled. But there was nothing I could do about that.
I hoped there was something I could do about Ian. I rubbed a forearm over my face, blinked snow from my lashes, and went on, slowly, the light from the lantern swallowed in the vortex of whirling snow. Were I to find Arch … My fingers clenched on the lantern’s handle. I’d have to tell him, bring him back to the cabin, let him see … Oh, dear. If I came back with Arch, could Jamie and Ian occupy him long enough for me to remove Mrs. Bug from the pantry and display her in more seemly fashion? I hadn’t had time to remove the jutting arrow or lay out the body decently. I dug the fingernails of my free hand into the palm, trying to get a grip of myself.
“Jesus, don’t let me find him,” I said under my breath. “Please don’t let me find him.”
But springhouse, smoke shed, and corncrib were all—thank God—empty, and no one could have hidden in the chicken coop without the chickens making a fuss about it; they were silent, sleeping out the storm. The sight of the coop brought Mrs. Bug suddenly to mind, though—the vision of her scattering corn from her apron, crooning to the silly things. She’d named them all. I didn’t bloody care whether we were eating Isobeaìl or Alasdair for supper, but just at the moment, the fact that no one now would ever be able to tell one from another, or rejoice in the fact that Elspeth had hatched ten chicks, seemed unspeakably heartrending.
I found Ian at last in the barn, a dark form huddled in the straw by the feet of Clarence the mule, whose ears pricked up at my appearance. He brayed ecstatically at the prospect of more company, and the goats blatted hysterically, thinking I was a wolf. The horses, surprised, tossed their heads, snorting and nickering in question. Rollo, nestled in the hay next to his master, gave a short, sharp bark of displeasure at the racket.
“Ruddy Noah’s Ark in here,” I remarked, shaking snow off my cloak and hanging the lantern on a hook. “All we need is a pair of elephants. Hush, Clarence!”
Ian turned his face toward me, but I could see from his blank expression that he hadn’t taken in what I’d said.
I squatted next to him and cupped a hand round his cheek; it was cold, bristled with young beard.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said gently.
“I know,” he said, and swallowed. “But I dinna see how I can live.” He wasn’t dramatic about it at all; his voice was simply bewildered. Rollo licked his hand, and his fingers sank into the dog’s ruff, as though for support.
“What can I do, Auntie?” He looked at me, helpless. “There’s nothing, is there? I canna take it back, or undo it. And yet I keep looking for some way that I can. Something I can do to make things right. But there’s … nothing.”
I sat down in the hay next to him and put an arm round his shoulder, pressing his head toward me. He came, reluctantly, though I felt small constant shudders of exhaustion and grief running through him like a chill.
“I loved her,” he said, so low I could barely hear him. “She was like my grandmother. And I—”
“She loved you,” I whispered. “She wouldn’t blame you.” I had been holding on to my own emotions like grim death, in order to do what had to be done. But now … Ian was right. There was nothing, and in sheer helplessness, tears began to roll down my face. I wasn’t crying. Grief and shock simply overflowed; I could not contain them.
Whether he felt the tears on his skin or only the vibrations of my grief, I couldn’t tell, but quite suddenly Ian gave way as well, and he wept in my arms, shaking.
I wished with all my heart that he was a small boy, and that the storm of grief could wash away his guilt and leave him cleansed, at peace. But he was far beyond such simple things; all I could do was hold him, and stroke his back, making small, helpless noises myself. Then Clarence offered his own support, breathing heavily on Ian’s head and nibbling thoughtfully on a lock of his hair. Ian jerked away, slapping at the mule’s nose.
“Och, awa’ wi’ ye!”
He choked, laughed in a shocked way, wept a little more, and then straightened up and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He sat still for a little while, gathering the pieces of himself, and I let him be.
“When I killed that man in Edinburgh,” he said at last, his voice thick but controlled, “Uncle Jamie took me to confession, and told me the prayer that ye say when ye’ve killed someone. To commend them to God. Will ye say it with me, Auntie?”
I hadn’t thought of—let alone said—“Soul Leading” in many years, and stumbled awkwardly through the words. Ian spoke it without hesitation, though, and I wondered how often he had used it through those years.
The words seemed puny and powerless, swallowed among the sounds of hay rustling and beasts chewing. But I felt a tiny bit of comfort for having said them. Perhaps it was only that the sense of reaching out to something larger than yourself gives you some feeling that there
something larger—and there really has to be, because plainly
aren’t sufficient to the situation. I surely wasn’t.