“C’mere, lass.” A large, dark-bearded man remained seated at the table by the window as he beckoned me. By his air of command, he seemed to be the leader of this pack. The men parted reluctantly as Murtagh pulled me forward, apparently respecting his rights as captor.
The dark man looked me over carefully, no expression on his face. He was good-looking, I thought, and not unfriendly. There were lines of strain between his brows, though, and it wasn’t a face one would willingly cross.
“What’s your name, lass?” His voice was light for a man of his size, not the deep bass I would have expected from the barrel chest.
“Claire…Claire Beauchamp,” I said, deciding on the spur of the moment to use my maiden name. If it were ransom they had in mind, I didn’t want to help them by giving a name that could lead to Frank. And I wasn’t sure I wanted these rough-looking men to know who I was, before I found out who they were. “And just what do you think you’re—” The dark man ignored me, establishing a pattern that I was to grow tired of very quickly.
“Beauchamp?” The heavy brows lifted and the general company stirred in surprise. “A French name, it is, surely?” He had in fact pronounced the name in correct French, though I had given it the common English pronunciation of “Beecham.”
“Yes, that’s right,” I answered, in some surprise.
“Where did ye find this lass?” Dougal demanded, swinging round on Murtagh, who was refreshing himself from a leather flask.
The swarthy little man shrugged. “At the foot o’ Craigh na Dun. She was havin’ words with a certain captain of dragoons wi’ whom I chanced to be acquent’,” he added, with a significant lift of his eyebrows. “There seemed to be some question as to whether the lady was or was not a whore.”
Dougal looked me over carefully once more, taking in every detail of cotton print dress and walking shoes.
“I see. And what was the lady’s position in this discussion?” he inquired, with a sarcastic emphasis on the word “lady” that I didn’t particularly care for. I noticed that while his Scots was less pronounced than that of the man called Murtagh, his accent was still broad enough that the word was almost, though not quite, “leddy.”
Murtagh seemed grimly amused; at least one corner of the thin mouth turned up. “She said she wasna. The captain himself appeared to be of two minds on the matter, but inclined to put the question to the test.”
“We could do the same, come to that.” The fat, black-bearded man stepped toward me grinning, hands tugging at his belt. I backed up hastily as far as I could, which was not nearly far enough, given the dimensions of the cottage.
“That will do, Rupert.” Dougal was still scowling at me, but his voice held the ring of authority, and Rupert stopped his advances, making a comical face of disappointment.
“I don’t hold wi’ rape, and we’ve not the time for it, anyway.” I was pleased to hear this statement of policy, dubious as its moral underpinning might be, but remained a bit nervous in the face of the openly lascivious looks on some of the other faces. I felt absurdly as though I had appeared in public in my undergarments. And while I had no idea who or what these Highland bandits were up to, they seemed bloody dangerous. I bit my tongue, repressing a number of more or less injudicious remarks that were bubbling toward the surface.
“What d’ye say, Murtagh?” Dougal demanded of my captor. “She doesna appear to care for Rupert, at least.”
“That’s no proof,” objected a short, balding man. “He didna offer her any siller. Ye canna expect any woman to take on something like Rupert without substantial payment—in advance,” he added, to the considerable hilarity of his companions. Dougal stilled the racket with an abrupt gesture, though, and jerked his head toward the door. The balding man, still grinning, obediently slid out into the darkness.
Murtagh, who had not joined in the laughter, was frowning as he looked me over. He shook his head, making the lank fringe across his forehead sway.
“Nay,” he said definitely. “I’ve no idea what she might be—or who—but I’ll stake my best shirt she’s no a whore.” I hoped in that case that his best was not the one he was wearing, which scarcely looked worth the wagering.
“Weel, ye’d know, Murtagh, ye’ve seen enough o’ them,” gibed Rupert, but was gruffly hushed by Dougal.
“We’ll puzzle it out later,” said Dougal brusquely. “We’ve a good distance to go tonight, and we mun’ do something for Jamie first; he canna ride like that.”
I shrank back into the shadows near the fireplace, hoping to avoid notice. The man called Murtagh had untied my hands before leading me in here. Perhaps I could slip away while they were busy elsewhere. The men’s attention had shifted to a young man crouched on a stool in the corner. He had barely looked up through my appearance and interrogation, but kept his head bent, hand clutching the opposite shoulder, rocking slightly back and forth in pain.
Dougal gently pushed the clutching hand away. One of the men pulled back the young man’s plaid, revealing a dirt-smeared linen shirt blotched with blood. A small man with a thick mustache came up behind the lad with a single-bladed knife, and holding the shirt at the collar, slit it across the breast and down the sleeve, so that it fell away from the shoulder.
I gasped, as did several of the men. The shoulder had been wounded; there was a deep ragged furrow across the top, and blood was running freely down the young man’s breast. But more shocking was the shoulder joint itself. A dreadful hump rose on that side, and the arm hung at an impossible angle.
Dougal grunted. “Mmph. Out o’ joint, poor bugger.” The young man looked up for the first time. Though drawn with pain and stubbled with red beard, it was a strong, good-humored face.
“Fell wi’ my hand out, when the musket ball knocked me off my saddle. I landed with all my weight on the hand, and crunch!, there it went.”
“Crunch is right.” The mustached man, a Scot, and educated, to judge by his accent, was probing the shoulder, making the lad grimace in pain. “The wound’s no trouble. The ball went right through, and it’s clean—the blood’s runnin’ free enough.” The man picked up a wad of grimy cloth from the table and used it to blot the blood. “I don’t know quite what to do about the disjointure, though. We’d need a chirurgeon to put it back in place properly. You canna ride with it that way, can you, Jamie lad?”
Musket ball? I thought blankly. Chirurgeon?
The young man shook his head, white-faced. “Hurts bad enough sitting still. I couldna manage a horse.” He squeezed his eyes shut and set his teeth hard in his lower lip.
Murtagh spoke impatiently. “Well, we canna leave him behind noo, can we? The lobsterbacks are no great shakes trackin’ in the dark, but they’ll find this place sooner or later, shutters or no. And Jamie can hardly pass for an innocent cottar, wi’ yon great hole in ’im.”
“Dinna worrit yourself,” Dougal said shortly. “I don’t mean to be leaving him behind.”
The mustached man sighed. “No help for it, then. We’ll have to try and force the joint back. Murtagh, you and Rupert hold him; I’ll give it a try.”
I watched in sympathy as he picked up the young man’s arm by wrist and elbow and began forcing it upward. The angle was quite wrong; it must be causing agonizing pain. Sweat poured down the young man’s face, but he made no sound beyond a soft groan. Suddenly he slumped forward, kept from falling on the floor only by the grip of the men holding him.
One unstoppered a leather flask and pressed it to his lips. The reek of the raw spirit reached me where I stood. The young man coughed and gagged, but swallowed nonetheless, dribbling the amber liquid onto the remains of his shirt.
“All right for another go, lad?” the bald man asked. “Or maybe Rupert should have a try,” he suggested, turning to the squat, black-bearded ruffian.
Rupert, so invited, flexed his hands as though about to toss a caber, and picked up the young man’s wrist, plainly intending to put the joint back by main force; an operation, it was clear, which was likely to snap the arm like a broomstick.
“Don’t you dare to do that!” All thought of escape submerged in professional outrage, I started forward, oblivious to the startled looks of the men around me.
“What do you mean?” snapped the bald man, clearly irritated by my intrusion.
“I mean that you’ll break his arm if you do it like that,” I snapped back. “Stand out of the way, please.” I elbowed Rupert back and took hold of the patient’s wrist myself. The patient looked as surprised as the rest, but didn’t resist. His skin was very warm, but not feverish, I judged.
“You have to get the bone of the upper arm at the proper angle before it will slip back into its joint,” I said, grunting as I pulled the wrist up and the elbow in. The young man was sizable; his arm was heavy as lead.
“This is the worst part,” I warned the patient. I cupped the elbow, ready to whip it upward and in.
His mouth twitched, not quite a smile. “It canna hurt much worse than it does. Get on wi’ it.” Sweat was popping out on my own face by now. Resetting a shoulder joint is hard work at the best of times. Done on a large man who had gone hours since the dislocation, his muscles now swollen and pulling on the joint, the job was taking all the strength I had. The fire was dangerously close; I hoped we wouldn’t both topple in, if the joint went back with a jerk.
Suddenly the shoulder gave a soft crunching pop! and the joint was back in place. The patient looked amazed. He put an unbelieving hand up to explore.
“It doesna hurt anymore!” A broad grin of delighted relief spread across his face, and the men broke out in exclamations and applause.
“It will.” I was sweating from the exertion, but smugly pleased with the results. “It will be tender for several days. You mustn’t extend the joint at all for two or three days; when you do use it again, go very slowly at first. Stop at once if it begins to hurt, and use warm compresses on it daily.”
I became aware, in the midst of this advice, that while the patient was listening respectfully, the other men were eyeing me with looks ranging from wonder to outright suspicion.
“I’m a nurse, you see,” I explained, feeling somehow defensive.
Dougal’s eyes, and Rupert’s as well, dropped to my bosom and fastened there with a sort of horrified fascination. They exchanged glances, then Dougal looked back at my face.
“Be that as it may,” he said, raising his brows at me. “For a wetnurse, you’d seem to have some skill at healing. Can ye stanch the lad’s wound, well enough for him to sit a horse?”
“I can dress the wound, yes,” I said with considerable asperity. “Provided you’ve anything to dress it with. But just what do you mean ‘wetnurse’? And why do you suppose I’d want to help you, anyway?”
I was ignored as Dougal turned and spoke in a tongue I dimly recognized as Gaelic to a woman who cowered in the corner. Surrounded by the mass of men, I had not noticed her before. She was dressed oddly, I thought, in a long, ragged skirt and a long-sleeved blouse half-covered by a sort of bodice or jerkin. Everything was rather on the grubby side, including her face. Glancing around, though, I could see that the cottage lacked not only electrification but also indoor plumbing; perhaps there was some excuse for the dirt.
The woman bobbed a quick curtsy, and scuttling past Rupert and Murtagh, she began digging in a painted wooden chest by the hearth, emerging finally with a pile of ratty cloths.
“No, that won’t do,” I said, fingering them gingerly. “The wound needs to be disinfected first, then bandaged with a clean cloth, if there are no sterile bandages.”
Eyebrows rose all around. “Disinfected?” said the small man, carefully.
“Yes, indeed,” I said firmly, thinking him a bit simpleminded, in spite of his educated accent. “All dirt must be removed from the wound and it must be treated with a compound to discourage germs and promote healing.”
“Such as iodine,” I said. Seeing no comprehension on the faces before me, I tried again. “Merthiolate? Dilute carbolic?” I suggested. “Or perhaps even just alcohol?” Looks of relief. At last I had found a word they appeared to recognize. Murtagh thrust the leather flask into my hands. I sighed with impatience. I knew the Highlands were primitive, but this was nearly unbelievable.
“Look,” I said, as patiently as I could. “Why don’t you just take him down into the town? It can’t be far, and I’m sure there’s a doctor there who could see to him.”
The woman gawped at me. “What town?”
The big man called Dougal was ignoring this discussion, peering cautiously into the darkness around the curtain’s edge. He let it fall back into place and stepped quietly to the door. The men fell quiet as he vanished into the night.
In a moment he was back, bringing the bald man and the cold sharp scent of dark pines with him. He shook his head in answer to the men’s questioning looks.
“Nay, nothing close. We’ll go at once, while it’s safe.”
Catching sight of me, he stopped for a moment, thinking. Suddenly he nodded at me, decision made.
“She’ll come with us,” he said. He rummaged in the pile of cloths on the table and came up with a tattered rag; it looked like a neckcloth that had seen better days.
The mustached man seemed disinclined to have me along, wherever they were going.
“Why do ye no just leave her here?”
Dougal cast him an impatient glance, but left it to Murtagh to explain. “Wherever the redcoats are now, they’ll be here by dawn, which is no so far off, considering. If this woman’s an English spy, we canna risk leaving her here to tell them which way we’ve gone. And if she should not be on good terms wi’ them”—he looked dubiously at me—“we certainly canna leave a lone woman here in her shift.” He brightened a bit, fingering the fabric of my skirt. “She might be worth a bit in the way of ransom, at that; little as she has on, it’s fine stuff.”
“Besides,” Dougal added, interrupting, “she may be useful on the way; she seems to know a bit about doctoring. But we’ve no time for that now. I’m afraid ye’ll have to go without bein’ ‘disinfected,’ Jamie,” he said, clapping the younger man on the back. “Can ye ride one-handed?”
“Good lad. Here,” he said, tossing the greasy rag at me. “Bind up his wound, quickly. We’ll be leaving directly. Do you two get the horses,” he said, turning to weasel-face and the fat one called Rupert.
I turned the rag around distastefully.
“I can’t use this,” I complained. “It’s filthy.”
Without seeing him move, I found the big man gripping my shoulder, his dark eyes an inch from mine. “Do it,” he said.
Freeing me with a push, he strode to the door and disappeared after his two henchmen. Feeling more than a little shaken, I turned to the task of bandaging the bullet wound as best I could. The thought of using the grimy neckrag was something my medical training wouldn’t let me contemplate. I tried to bury my confusion and terror in the task of trying to find something more suitable, and, after a quick and futile search through the pile of rags, finally settled on strips of rayon torn from the hem of my slip. While hardly sterile, it was by far the cleanest material at hand.
The linen of my patient’s shirt was old and worn, but still surprisingly tough. With a bit of a struggle, I ripped the rest of the sleeve open and used it to improvise a sling. I stepped back to survey the results of my impromptu field dressing, and backed straight into the big man, who had come in quietly to watch.
He looked approvingly at my handiwork. “Good job, lass. Come on, we’re ready.”
Dougal handed a coin to the woman and hustled me out of the cottage, followed more slowly by Jamie, still a bit white-faced. Unfolded from the low stool, my patient proved to be quite tall; he stood several inches over Dougal, himself a tall man.
The black-bearded Rupert and Murtagh were holding six horses outside, muttering soft Gaelic endearments to them in the dark. It was a moonless night, but the starlight caught the metal bits of the harness in flashes of quicksilver. I looked up and almost gasped in wonder; the night sky was thick with a glory of stars such as I had never seen. Glancing round at the surrounding forest, I understood. With no nearby city to veil the sky with light, the stars here held undisputed dominion over the night.
And then I stopped dead, feeling much colder than the night chill justified. No city lights. “What town?” the woman inside had asked. Accustomed as I was to blackouts and air raids from the war years, the lack of light had not at first disturbed me. But this was peacetime, and the lights of Inverness should have been visible for miles.
The men were shapeless masses in the dark. I thought of trying to slip away into the trees, but Dougal, apparently divining my thought, grabbed my elbow and pulled me toward the horses.
“Jamie, get yourself up,” he called. “The lass will ride wi’ you.” He squeezed my elbow. “You can hold the reins, if Jamie canna manage one-handed, but do ye take care to keep close wi’ the rest of us. Should ye try anythin’ else, I shall cut your throat. D’ye understand me?”
I nodded, throat too dry to answer. His voice was not particularly threatening, but I believed every word. I was the less tempted to “try anythin’,” in that I had no idea what to try. I didn’t know where I was, who my companions were, why we were leaving with such urgency, or where we were going, but I lacked any reasonable alternatives to going with them. I was worried about Frank, who must long since have started looking for me, but this didn’t seem the time to mention him.
Dougal must have sensed my nod, for he let go of my arm and stooped suddenly beside me. I stood stupidly staring down at him until he hissed, “Your foot, lass! Give me your foot! Your left foot,” he added disgustedly. I hastily took my misplaced right foot out of his hand and stepped up with my left. With a slight grunt, he boosted me into the saddle in front of Jamie, who gathered me in closely with his good arm.
In spite of the general awkwardness of my situation, I was grateful for the young Scot’s warmth. He smelt strongly of woodsmoke, blood, and unwashed male, but the night chill bit through my thin dress and I was happy enough to lean back against him.