“Och, no,” he said, and laughed, a little nervously. “No, I think I’m no bothered about that.”
“Well, then.” Roger forced a smile, and clapped Duncan on the back. “Here’s luck to you.”
Duncan brushed a finger beneath his mustache, nodding.
“And you, a Smeòraich.”
He had expected Duncan to go off about his business, once his question was answered, but the man instead came with him, wandering slowly along the row of wagons in Roger’s wake, peering at the wares on display with a slight frown.
After a week’s haggling and bartering, the wagons were as full as they had been to start with—or more so, heaped with sacks of grain and wool, casks of cider, bags of apples, stacks of hides and other sundries taken in trade. The stock of fancies had dwindled considerably, but there were still things to be bought, as evidenced by the crowd of folk clustering round the wagons, thick as aphids on a rosebush.
Roger was tall enough to peer over the heads of most customers, and made his way slowly along the rank of wagons, squinting at this or that, trying to envision Brianna’s response to it.
She was a beautiful woman, but not inclined to fuss over her looks. In fact, he had narrowly stopped her cutting off most of her glorious red mane out of impatience at it dangling in the gravy and Jemmy yanking on it. Maybe a ribbon was practical. Or a decorated comb? More likely a pair of handcuffs for the wean.
He paused by a vendor of cloth goods, though, and bent to peer under the canvas, where caps and bright ribbons hung safely suspended out of the wet, stirring in the cool dimness like the tentacles of brilliant jellyfish. Duncan, plaid hitched up about his ears against the gusting breeze, came closer, to see what he was looking at.
“Looking for something in particular, are ye, sirs?” A peddler-woman leaned forward over her goods, bosom resting on her folded arms, and divided a professional smile between them.
“Aye,” Duncan said, unexpectedly. “A yard of velvet. Would ye be having such a thing? Good quality, mind, but the color’s not important.”
The woman’s eyebrows lifted—even in his best clothes, Duncan would strike no one as a dandy—but she turned without comment and began to rootle through her diminished stock.
“D’ye think Mrs. Claire would have some lavender left?” Duncan asked, turning to Roger.
“Aye, I know she has,” Roger replied. His puzzlement must have shown on his face, for Duncan smiled and ducked his head diffidently.
“’Twas a thought I had,” he said. “Miss Jo suffers from the megrims, and doesna sleep sae well as she might. I mind, my mither had a lavender pillow, and said she fell asleep like a babe the moment she laid her head upon it. So I thought, perhaps a bit o’ velvet—so as she could feel it against her cheek, aye?—and perhaps Mrs. Lizzie would stitch it up for me. . . .”
In sickness and in health . . .
Roger nodded his approval, feeling touched—and slightly shamed—by Duncan’s thoughtfulness. He had had the impression that the marriage between Duncan and Jocasta Cameron was principally a matter of convenience and good business—and perhaps it was. But mad passion wasn’t a necessary prerequisite for tenderness or consideration, was it?
Duncan, purchase concluded, took his leave and went off with the velvet safely sheltered under his plaid, leaving Roger to make a slow circuit of the remaining vendors, mentally selecting, weighing, and discarding, as he wracked his brain to think what item of this myriad would best please his bride. Earrings? No, the kid would pull them. Same for a necklace—or a hair ribbon, now he thought.
Still, his mind dwelled on jewelry. Normally, she wore very little. But she had worn her father’s ruby ring—the one Jamie had given him, the one he had given her when she accepted him for good—all through the Gathering. Jem slobbered on it now and then, but couldn’t really damage it.
He stopped suddenly, letting the crowd flow round him. He could see the gold in his mind’s eye, and the deep pink-red of the cabochon ruby, vivid on her long pale finger. Her father’s ring. Of course; why had he not seen that before?
True, Jamie had given him the ring, but that didn’t make it his to give in turn. And he wanted, very suddenly and very badly, to give Brianna something truly of his own.
He turned with decision, and made his way back to a wagon whose metal wares gleamed and glinted, even in the rain. He knew from experiment that his little finger was just the size of her ring finger.
“This one,” he said, holding up a ring. It was cheap; made of braided strands of copper and brass, it would undoubtedly turn her finger green in minutes. So much the better, he thought, handing over his money. Whether she wore it all the time or not, she would be marked as his.
For this reason shall a woman leave her father’s house, and cleave unto her husband, and the two shall be one flesh.
BY THE END OF THE FIRST HOUR, I had a substantial crowd of patients waiting, despite the intermittent drizzle. It was the final day of the Gathering, and people who had stood the pain of a toothache or the doubt of a rash had suddenly decided that they must seize the chance of having it seen to.
I dismissed a young woman with incipient goiter, admonishing her to procure a quantity of dried fish, as she lived too far inland to be sure of getting fresh each day, and eat some daily for its iodine content.
“Next!” I called, brushing damp hair out of my eyes.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea, revealing a small, elderly man, so thin he might be a walking skeleton, clad in rags and carrying a bundle of fur in his arms. As he shambled toward me through the ranks of recoiling people, I discovered the reason for the crowd’s deference; he stank like a dead raccoon.
For a moment, I thought the pile of grayish fur might be a dead raccoon—there was already a small pile of furs and hides near my feet, though my patients usually went to the trouble of separating these from their original possessors before presenting them to me—but then the fur stirred, and a pair of bright eyes peered out of the tangled mass.
“My dog’s hurt,” the man announced brusquely. He set the dog on my table, shoving the jumble of instruments aside, and pointed to a jagged tear in the animal’s flank. “You’ll tend him.”
This wasn’t phrased as a request, but it was, after all, the dog who was my patient, and he seemed fairly civil. Medium-sized and short-legged, with a bristly, mottled coat and ragged ears, he sat placidly panting, making no effort to get away.
“What happened to him?” I moved the tottering basin out of danger, and bent to rummage for my jar of sterile sutures. The dog licked my hand in passing.
“Fightin’ with a she-coon.”
“Hmm,” I said, surveying the animal dubiously. Given its improbable parentage and evident friendliness, I thought any overtures made to a female raccoon were probably inspired by lust, rather than ferocity. As though to confirm this impression, the animal extruded a few inches of moist pink reproductive equipment in my direction.
“He likes you, Mama,” Bree said, keeping a straight face.
“How flattering,” I muttered, hoping that the dog’s owner would not be moved to any similar demonstration of regard. Fortunately, the old man appeared not to like me in the slightest; he ignored me completely, sunken eyes fixed broodingly on the clearing below, where the soldiers were going through some drill.
“Scissors,” I said, resigned, holding out my palm.
I clipped away the matted fur near the wound, and was pleased to find no great swelling or other signs of infection. The gash had clotted well; evidently it had been some time since the injury. I wondered whether the dog had met its nemesis on the mountain. I didn’t recognize the old man, nor did he have the speech of a Scot. Had he been at the Gathering at all? I wondered.
“Er . . . would you hold his head, please?” The dog might be friendly; that didn’t mean his good nature would remain unimpaired as I jabbed a needle through his hide. His owner stayed sunk in gloom, though, and made no move to oblige. I glanced around for Bree, looking for help, but she had suddenly disappeared.
“Here, a bhalaich, here, then,” said a soothing voice beside me, and I turned in surprise to find the dog sniffing interestedly at the proffered knuckles of Murray MacLeod. Seeing my look of surprise, he shrugged, smiled, and leaned over the table, grabbing the astonished dog by scruff and muzzle.
“I should advise ye to be quick about it, Mrs. Fraser,” he said.
I took a firm grip of the leg nearest me and started in. The dog responded exactly as most humans did in similar circumstances, wriggling madly and trying to escape, its claws scrabbling on the rough wood of the table. At one point, it succeeded in breaking free of Murray, whereupon it leaped off the table altogether and made for the wide-open spaces, sutures trailing. I flung myself bodily upon it, and rolled through leaves and mud, scattering onlookers in all directions until one or two of the bolder souls came to my assistance, pinning the mangy beast to the ground so that I might finish the job.
I tied the last knot, clipped the waxed thread with Murray’s fleam—which had in fact been trampled underfoot in the struggle, though unfortunately not broken—and took my knee off the hound’s side, panting nearly as heavily as the dog was.
The spectators applauded.
I bowed, a little dazed, and shoved masses of disheveled curls out of my face with both hands. Murray was in no better case, his queue come undone and a jagged rent in his coat, which was covered with mud. He bent, seized the dog under the belly, and swung it off its feet, heaving it up on the table beside its owner.
“Your dog, sir,” he said, and stood wheezing gently.
The old man turned, laid a hand on the dog’s head, and frowned, glancing back and forth between me and Murray, as though unsure what to make of this tag-team approach to surgery. He looked back over his shoulder toward the soldiers below, then turned toward me, his sparse brows knotted over a beak of a nose.
“Who’re they?” he said, in tones of deep puzzlement. Not waiting for an answer, he shrugged, turned, and walked off. The dog, tongue lolling, hopped off the table and trotted off at its owner’s side, in search of more adventure.
I took a deep breath, brushed mud off my apron, smiled thanks to Murray, and turned to wash my hands before dealing with the next patient.
“Ha,” said Brianna, under her breath. “Got him!” She lifted her chin slightly, indicating something over my shoulder, and I turned to look.
The next patient was a gentleman. A real gentleman, that is, judging by his dress and bearing, both of which were a good deal superior to the general run. I had noticed him hovering near the edge of the clearing for some time, glancing back and forth between my center of operations and that of Murray, obviously in doubt as to which medico should have the privilege of his custom. Evidently the incident of the trapper’s dog had tipped the balance in my favor.
I glanced at Murray, who was looking distinctly po-faced. A gentleman would likely pay in cash. I gave Murray a slight shrug of apology, then put on a pleasant professional smile, and gestured the new patient onto my stool.