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Dr. B, Medicine Woman

Chapter Text

I looked around the empty doctor’s office. Still full of furniture and artwork, but empty of patients. I thought I should feel a pang of remorse at seeing it so, knowing that once I stepped out the door I’d never return, but I was surprised to find that I felt nothing.

Though I’d lived in Boston for the majority of my life, it wasn’t home. Not any longer.

I’d been born to an affluent family in Oxfordshire, England, likely destined for a life of embroidery, idle gossip, lavish parties, and eventually a convenient match with a rich bachelor.

That life had been irrevocably upturned when both of my parents were killed in a carriage accident when I was six years old.

Though I mourned them, I mostly mourned the loss of a relationship I never had with them.

I was plucked out of boarding school by my uncle, Lambert Beauchamp, a doctor in Boston, Massachusetts, and my only living relative.

At first I was irate, thinking this uncle I’d only ever met on holidays was going to simply dump me in another boarding school in America where I’d have to start all over, and as a foreigner to boot. Wait until I was old enough to claim my inheritance so he could take his due.

And, perhaps school had been what the childless bachelor had had in mind, but by the time we reached America it was wordlessly decided that I would go home with him.

He tried his best not to skimp on my formal education; I had the best tutors, and well-meaning nannies, but more often than not I simply tagged along with Uncle Lamb to his office, to watch him at work.

It was in his office that I watched him stitch a severed finger back onto a young man’s hand. And it was seeing this gruesome display that decided it right then and there.

I wanted to be a doctor.

Uncle Lamb never once laughed at me, or attempted to discourage me. Instead he offered me the chance of more active participation, and I was allowed to assist him with female patients and children like a nurse. I think most adults figured a nurse was what I was preparing to be, and paid me no mind other than to smile at the way my uncle indulged me.

But when I turned seventeen, I was admitted into one of the only medical schools for women in the world, and afterward Uncle Lamb proudly hung up a shingle bearing my name up next to his own.

Claire E. Beauchamp, M.D.

Though I’d worked alongside my uncle for years as a doctor, though I’d treated multiple patients all on my own, they all vanished once Uncle Lamb was gone.

The cancer that took him was fast acting, and no amount of medical knowledge I or anyone else had could treat it. In a matter of months I was an orphan all over again.

With no patients, it was pointless to stay in Boston. I had few friends; life as a woman doctor didn’t exactly make one terribly popular, and no family left.

It was purely by chance that I came across an advertisement in the Boston Globe looking for a doctor in a small town in the Colorado territory. It felt like fate. I sent a telegram, detailing my experience, and in less than a week I was offered the position.

It was the Frontier; a place where people made new beginnings. A place where my services would be needed, where my skills would be appreciated. Where I would finally be truly accepted as a doctor.

So I took up the last of my inheritance from my parents and Uncle Lamb, and boarded a train to Colorado. I watched from the window as the landscape I was familiar with transformed into something wider and wilder.

The railroad didn’t even reach the town of Colorado Springs, so it was a long carriage ride, bumping across vast territory, civilization receding behind me, slipping away with each turn of the wagon wheels.

Uncle Lamb had taught me that different customs, language, or color of skin were not causes for prejudice or hostility…if ever there were a cause for it. But as I looked out that carriage window and saw real Indians for the first time, I could not reason with the knots in my stomach.

 

When I’d imagined Colorado Springs, I’d had in mind a picturesque little village like the ones in storybooks, where people were friendly and everyone knew everyone else. The idea of such a close-knit community couldn’t help but appeal to one such as me who had never belonged to any sort of family outside the one Uncle Lamb and I made for ourselves, and, briefly, one other.

When I first arrived in town, my first thought was that it wasn’t nearly so picturesque as I’d thought. My first thought, was…dirt.

As the daughter first of a wealthy family, then of a doctor, I’d been raised since infancy to know the virtues of cleanliness. And Uncle Lamb was a particular stickler, whereas many doctors still hadn’t come ‘round to the idea that a sterile environment could mean the difference between a healed patient and a dead one.

My kid-skinned boots, one of my last gifts from Uncle Lamb for my birthday, sank three inches into the mud the moment I stepped out of the carriage. I couldn’t stop my nose from wrinkling in disgust, but forced myself to assume a nature of nonchalance when I realized there were eyes on me.

“Pardon me,” I spoke to a gentleman who wasn’t even bothering to hide the fact that he was looking me up and down. “Could you tell me where to find Reverend Wakefield?”

The man raised one eyebrow, but jerked his head to the right. “Down at the church,” he drawled, as if it were obvious, which, I supposed it was.

“Thank you,” I replied politely. “Do…do you think it would be alright if I left my luggage here?” I indicated the suitcases currently sitting where the porter had left them, in front of what I presumed was this gentleman’s shop.

“Y’mean, do I think anybody will take them if you do?” the man said, eyes narrowing.

“Oh! No! I only meant…would they be in anyone’s way?” I finished lamely.

The man simply shook his head, so I decided to make my exit as gracefully as I could.

Uncle Lamb had warned me time and time again that my hot temper and penchant for speaking before thinking were poor qualities in a doctor, and now more than ever I needed to make people like me. To put on an image of a mature, respectable doctor.

My graceful exit was made significantly less graceful when I nearly tripped over a loose board, much to the amusement of the man, and a second man who’d come out of his barbershop to see what was about.

The town was very small, so it was easy work to find the church, sitting a little apart from the main part of town.

It was a pretty little thing, much more like the storybook I’d imagined. All neat a tidy with a cross atop it.

My parents had been devout Catholics, but Uncle Lamb’s faith had been nominal at best. He took me to mass only on Christmas, instead offering me books and ideas far outside the scope of the church.

I still believed in God, in an abstract sort of way, but was not so stoutly Catholic that I couldn’t appreciate the loveliness of this little Presbyterian church.

“Hello,” I called to a gentleman who was painting the side of the church. Judging by his clothing, I suspected that he was indeed the Reverend. “Are you Reverend Wakefield?”

The man who turned around was surprisingly young, with jet-black hair, and friendly-looking green eyes. I warmed to him immediately.

“Yes, ma’am, Roger Wakefield. Is there anything I can help you with?”

I smiled and stuck out my hand. “It’s wonderful to meet you, Reverend. I’m Claire Beauchamp, the new doctor.”

The Reverend stared blankly at me for several moments, before looking over my shoulder as if waiting for someone else to appear.

“I’m terribly sorry, Miss, did you say, doctor?”

I let my hand fall awkwardly back to my side. “Erm, yes. I answered the advertisement you posted…about the town doctor?”

He shook his head in confusion. “Yes…but…I hired a doctor by the name of Lambert Beauchamp.”

The warmth I felt from the Reverend was dissipating quickly, being replaced by something cold and unfortunately very familiar. “Lambert was my uncle. I shared his practice in Boston. But he…he’s no longer with us.”

“My condolences,” The Reverend murmured automatically. “Could you…come with me, please?”

Biting my tongue and fighting the urge to stick out my chin, I followed the young Reverend back into town, and toward what I presumed was the telegraph office.

“Denny!” The Reverend shouted up at a man on the roof of the telegraph office, making some sort of repair.

“Oh, hello there, Reverend!” Denny called back cheerfully. “Nice day, is it not?”

“Um, yes. Listen, Denny, do you remember that telegraph we got about the doctor?”

“Of course I do!”

The Reverend looked back at me awkwardly. “Well…you didn’t make any…erm…changes to it, did you?”

Denny stared down at him over his round spectacles. “Of course not!” he snapped indignantly. “It came from the office of Doctor Lambert Beauchamp.”

“That’s where it came from,” I piped up. I’d foolishly used Uncle Lamb’s name in effort to boost my own. “Did it mention anyone else’s name?”

“Only a…Claire, that’s it,” Denny said. “Figured she was the daughter, or secretary.”

I cocked an eyebrow at Reverend Wakefield, who was blushing crimson. “Thank you, Denny,” he called.

“Any time, Reverend!”

The Reverend gently took my elbow, and I turned to follow him back the way we came. As we went, my eyes were drawn inexorably to a group of Indians having some sort of conversation with a group of American soldiers.

What caught my attention even more than that, however, was a man who towered over all of them, dressed in Indian garb but in possession of the most remarkable mass of curling red hair I’d ever seen.

He was quite obviously white, but his skin was deeply tanned by the sun. He stood staring down the soldier with crossed arms and an air of calm hostility, and seemed to be leading the Indians’ side of the conversation.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Union Colonel Chivington and Cheyanne Chief, Black Kettle,” he replied distractedly. “Army’s negotiating with the Indians for all the land north of Sand Creek.”

I was so absorbed in the sight I almost missed what the Reverend was saying.

“I’m so terribly sorry for the misunderstanding,” he rambled on. “Of course we’ll pay for your travel back to Boston…”

“That won’t be necessary,” I interrupted, giving in to the urge to stick up my chin and my nose. When he appeared to take that to mean I’d leave without his help, I hastened to continue. “This town is in need of a doctor, and I am a doctor.”

“B…but the townsfolk will never accept a lady doctor!” The Reverend protested in a mild panic. I shrugged, as if it were of no consequence. “And the boarding house doesn’t allow single women!”

I caught sight of the sign that said Boarding House just as he spoke, and made my way straight there.

I glanced back at the soldiers and Indians, feeling a jolt when I locked eyes with the tall redheaded man. The surprise caught me off balance, and I tripped over something in the mud, sending me flying face-first into it.

My cheeks burned with shame as the Reverend rushed to assist me, muttering reassurances and insistences that the roads needed to be better maintained.

My dress was ruined, and I could feel the grit of dirt and mud all over my face. I swiped impatiently at it, biting back tears, but realized at once that I would only make it worse. As much as I didn’t want to, I couldn’t help myself, and looked back over toward the men, expecting riotous laughter.

Only a couple of the soldiers had noticed, and they were chuckling, though with attempted discreetness. The redheaded man and the Indians did not laugh, though the man who I thought must be Chief Black Kettle leaned toward the redheaded man and asked him something. The redheaded man replied, nodding in my direction, and I wondered uncomfortably what they were saying about me.

I reached the boarding house and knocked. The door swung open to reveal an attractive older woman, flanked by two children.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“My name is Doctor Claire Beauchamp,” I introduced formally, when it seemed like Reverend Wakefield wouldn’t.

You’re the new doctor?” the woman asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I replied at the same time the Reverend said, “No.”

“I erm, told Miss Beauchamp that you don’t accept female boarders,” he said, smiling as if that settled the matter.

“I don’t have a rule against it,” the woman sniffed before turning a friendly smile upon me. “I’m Charlotte Cooper. These are my children…William,”

I glanced down at the little boy half hiding behind her skirts, but realized she was indicating an older boy who’d appeared behind me. He was a handsome young man of about fifteen or sixteen, with dark hair and the promise of height and strong features.

“This is Brianna,” Charlotte continued, beaming proudly at the girl standing at her left. This child looked around twelve and was nearly an exact copy of her older brother, only with far softer, more feminine features and ruddy red hair.

“And this little one is my Fergus,” Charlotte patted the little boy’s head, who grinned up at me impishly.

“Hello,” I greeted him with what I hoped was an approachable smile. I’d never been very good with children, unless I was stitching their forehead.

“Your dress is very dirty,” Fergus said simply, but I was struck more by his surprising accent than the blunt comment.

“Fergus! Manners!” Charlotte scolded, but lightly. “You come on in dear, and we’ll see you settled. William, run along and help the Reverend with the doctor’s luggage.”

“Yes ma’am,” William replied at once, bounding off to do as told, leaving the Reverend to follow, gaping helplessly.

“You’re a real doctor?” Brianna asked me, eyes wide in amazement. “You mean you went to college and everything?”

I smiled, leaning to speak conspiratorially to her. “And everything!”

 

Charlotte led me to a small, but blessedly clean bedroom, informing me with a bit of warning in her voice that she also had several soldiers currently boarding.

Once she left me alone, I let my confident façade fall, and nearly sank onto in the bed before I remembered how filthy I was. I looked down at my ruined dress and shoes, whimpering slightly, and trying to tell myself it was stupid to worry about clothes.

I opened my suitcase and pulled out the photograph I had of Uncle Lamb, tracing his beloved features with the tip of my finger. I’d only just got there and I already felt like I was failing him.

No one in this town was going to take me seriously. Their minds were just as closed as those in Boston.

Placing Uncle Lamb’s picture on the mantle, I took a deep breath, and heard his voice in my head,

Don’t you ever let anyone treat you like you’re less because you’re a woman. You’re smarter and more capable than just about any man I know.

He’d said that to me when I was thirteen years old, and I’d had to go to him, face aflame, to inform him that I’d begun my menses for the first time. Doctor that he was, he hadn’t batted an eye, and we’d had an in-depth and detailed discussion on female biology. But it had morphed somehow into a lecture on making sure I’m treated the way I deserved to be treated. Both as a woman, and as a person.

Though I’d never possessed the supposed “natural” desire to have children of my own, I often wished that more parents couldn’t teach their children the way Uncle Lamb taught me.

“I’m not giving up,” I whispered to his photograph.

Other things Uncle Lamb had taught me were that anything worth having required work, and that the best things in life often took you by surprise. I hadn’t quite figured out the meaning to that second part yet, but I knew that if I wanted to be a doctor in this town it was going to take work.

A lot of work.

Chapter Text

My attempt at civil conversation with Colonel Chivington at supper that night was met with patronizing hostility. But he didn’t live in town, so I ceased attempting to converse with him or his men.

I’m confident that the only way to be rid of the red menace is to kill them,” I quoted mockingly to Charlotte as we made our way over to the Mercantile to post a notice that I was looking for permanent lodging. “The Colonel’s attitude toward the Indians in abominable! Didn’t we just fight a war to say that all men are created equal?”

Charlotte seemed inclined to agree, but she shrugged helplessly. “I’m afraid to say that folk here didn’t care too much about that war.” She nodded in greeting to the man I’d spoken to when I’d first arrived, a man by the name of Murtagh Fitzgibbons, who owned the Mercantile. He was a sullen, harsh-looking man, his face almost completely concealed by a beard that I suspected made him look older than he really was.

“Anything I can help you ladies with?” he asked in a bored tone, seeming to resent our presence either due to the fact that we’d disrupted his conversation with some other gentlemen, or simply because I was there.

“Just posting a notice,” Charlotte said breezily.

Murtagh’s eyes narrowed in on the small slip of paper in my hand. It was a short and simple advertisement that I was looking for a house to rent. I didn’t bother going into detail with it, but I hoped that specifying that I wanted a house and not a room in a house was enough to explain what I needed. And what I needed, was a place I could not only live, but open my practice.

“No room,” Murtagh said, turning back to his friends and roundly dismissing us.

I glanced skeptically at the notice board, having to admit that it looked quite full.

Charlotte chuckled, however. “Really? Murtagh, some of these notices have outlived the people who posted them!”

Murtagh glared at her. “None of those have seen their day. No. Room.”

Clenching my fists, I opened my mouth to argue, but the door swung open again, and my words dissolved into a quiet peep that I hoped no one heard.

The redheaded man stepped into the store, seeming to instantly fill it up entirely not only with his sheer size but also with a commanding presence that could only be natural to him. He was accompanied by an Indian on one side, and at his other was an enormous wolf.

Murtagh didn’t seemed as intimidated as I felt, and merely growled at him at pointed over to the notice board. “Can’t you read?”

Confused, I glanced back at the board, only just noticing that above the board itself was a wooden sign that said, “NO DOGS OR INDIANS.”

I couldn’t exactly fault him for not desiring dogs inside a store that sold foodstuffs, but the rest of it made me suddenly very angry, and I wasn’t even sure where it came from.

“This one’s certainly seen its day,” I clipped, taking the sign down and deliberately avoiding the gaze of the redheaded man.

One of the men who’d been talking with Murtagh, a soldier, stomped over to me a snatched the sign out of my hands. From the corner of my eye I thought I saw the redheaded man flinch. “That’s private property!” the soldier snapped, rehanging the sign.

I was ready to back down. I’d made my point, and it was foolish of me to antagonize the people of this town when I needed them as patients, but the very instant the sign was back on the wall, it was being split in half and knocked right back down by a flying ax.

No…a tomahawk.

I let out another undignified squeak, and Charlotte and I both cringed back in fear when the soldier pulled his pistol on the redheaded man, who still had his arm slung downward from throwing the weapon.

The Indian at the redheaded man’s side tensed, and the wolf bared its teeth, letting out a chilling snarl.

The soldier gave the animal a worried look and lowered his pistol. The redheaded man strode forward, and I took an involuntary step back. But he only reached over my head and yanked his tomahawk out of the wall.

When he looked down at me, it was with quite possibly the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. They were drawn and flashing in anger, but softened when they turned to me.

Still intimidated, but not quite so fearful, I spun on my toe and neatly stuck my notice on the nail the sign had been hanging on. When I met his eyes a second time, his held something like amusement in them.

“Time to go,” Charlotte said, reminding me of the unbearable tension in the room. “We need to go see about that horse.”

“Horse?” I asked dazedly, following her to the door. “What horse?”

“The one you’re gonna need for your doctoring!”

“Oh,” I turned back, realizing I’d left my purse. I skirted nervously around the wolf and back to the redheaded man, having to reach around him to grab it. I only briefly met his eye this time before turning to dart out the door. “That horse.”

 

The selection of horses was a small one. The blacksmith, a man by the name of Joe Abernathy, and who appeared to be the only black man in town, was who was selling the horses. He eyed me distrustfully, but I supposed I couldn’t blame him.

The unfortunate part was I knew next to nothing about horses. For my whole life they’d been nothing but nameless animals that pulled the carriages I needed to ride in. There’d been a stable at boarding school, but unlike most girls, I hadn’t fawned over the creatures any more than I fawned over babies.

I liked horses…in a theoretical sense. They were beautiful, and incredibly useful. And I supposed they must be rather smart to perform all the duties they did.

But I had never actually had cause to get on top of one. How hard could it be though?

Charlotte had tried to dissuade me from purchasing the old brown horse, but she hadn’t much liked the other one either, and the one called Bear was large, but seemed calm and gentle. I wanted calm and gentle.

“Have you ever ridden a horse?” Charlotte asked with mild astonishment when I attempted to put my foot in the stirrup. It was a lot higher up than I thought it should be.

“Have I ever ridden a horse?” I echoed. Someone had once told me that when one doesn’t want to answer a question, one simply repeats the question back to the asker. It gives an illusion of superiority while not actually lying. That someone had been well aware of the fact that I wasn’t a terribly good liar.

Charlotte, however, wasn’t fooled. “Well…have you?”

I gritted my teeth and tried again, but the blasted horse kept moving! “Be still, Bear,” I whispered pleadingly. I knew people were starting to stare by now, and this almost felt worse than falling face-first into the mud. All I could hope was that he wasn’t watching my foolishness too…

Just as I got my foot firmly into the stirrup, peevishly ignoring Charlotte’s suggestions, I felt a hand slide under my rear, quite intimately in fact, and hoist me up into the saddle.

I knew before I even looked who it was, and also knew my face must have been the color of a tomato.

I was already frustrated, embarrassed, and now incredibly shocked by this man’s improper manhandling, that I couldn’t help but glare at him when I caught sight of my notice hanging out of his mouth.

“Why did you take it down?” I snapped, snatching it away from him. And there I had tried to act in defense of him, his friend, and his dog. But he turns around and brings me my notice like a dog himself, after putting his hands on me in a most unseemly manner. Who did this man think he was?!

“I’m answering it, lass,” he said simply, quietly, but it was enough to silence the raging tempest in my head right away.

I hadn’t realized until that moment that I had yet to hear the man speak, and if his size, hair, and manner of dress weren’t unusual enough, the soft Scottish burr sent him right over the edge.

I knew I must have been gaping like a simpleton, but he only jerked his head so that I would follow, and turned to walk away.

I hesitated to follow. I didn’t know this man, and he was quite obviously not a terribly respectable one. Uncle Lamb had warned me often to be selective of whom I spend time with, and this man appeared to be trying to lead me out of town.

I looked down at Charlotte, who shrugged, but didn’t look overly concerned. She didn’t, however, offer to accompany me.

“It’s alright,” she said. “I know what he seems like, but the man is harmless.”

I didn’t believe that for a moment, but I supposed Charlotte meant he wasn’t likely to hurt me.

I clicked my tongue at Bear, and when that didn’t work, I kicked him gently on the sides. That did it, and he started ambling along, following the redheaded man of his own volition.

We walked well away from town, too far away for my liking if I was honest. “Are we almost there?” I asked, unsurprised when I received no answer. “You’re a man of few words, aren’t you…” I trailed off, because that usually urged others to give their name, but it didn’t, and he just kept on. For some reason I rebelled against merely asking for his name, and occupied my time coming up with guesses in my head.

Smithy, Willie, Tiny…

Just when I began to wonder if the odd man had forgotten entirely that he was supposed to be leading me somewhere, we came upon a small, old farmhouse.

I twisted to dismount, my eyes widening when I took in just how high up I was, and that I had no clue how to get down. I tried to just reverse my movements from when I got up, and got down…but ended up laying in the dirt.

Hello my old friend, I thought in annoyance.

I looked up at the redheaded man, still expecting laughter or some sort of reaction from him. But he only raised one eyebrow. “If you’re to make it on your own…ye’ll need to learn to take care of yourself.”

I flushed, realizing he thought I had been waiting for him to help me up. And okay, maybe I was waiting, unconsciously. But even the most boorish men I’d encountered, who sneered in my face about being a doctor, telling me I needed to get married and have babies instead, still pulled out chairs for me and handed me into them.

“Of course,” I snipped, struggling to my feet.

I looked around at the property as I mounted the rickety steps to the house. It had been a working farm once…or at least was supposed to be. It was still small, as if the builder had stopped trying to make it grow.

The house itself was in disrepair, but the structure seemed sound. I peeked my head inside, finding it still full of furniture, but that was just as well.

It wasn’t perfect, and it was really farther away from town than a doctor should be, but it was charming, and very likely the only offer forthcoming.

“How much?” I asked him.

He shrugged, as if it was of little importance. “Dollar a month?”

Seemed fair, considering the repairs and cleaning that would need done. “I’ll take it!”

I expected him to discuss terms with me, or ask me to sign something. Or even offer to show me about the place proper. But he didn’t. He just made a whisht sound at his wolf, and the two of them were gone, as if they were never there.

It was a full ten minutes before I realized he hadn’t even offered to show me back to town, and my silly name-guessing game had prevented me from paying much attention to the path we took.

I felt panic rise up in my chest, but fought it down resolutely. If I was to live here, by myself, I was going to have to learn to take care of myself, like the redheaded man said. And getting to and from town was something I would need to do every day. Alone. May as well start now.

 

“I don’t even know how you managed to get home at all!” Charlotte said with playful teasing the following day, when she and her children volunteered to come back with me to clean things up.

In truth I had let the horse choose the direction to go, and just trusted him not to wander off into unknown territory. But I’d been terrified the whole way, waiting for some wild animal to appear and drag us both off.

“I managed,” I said weakly.

“Well, I could just wring Mac’s neck for leaving you alone like that.”

“Oh, Mac. Is that his name? I’d wondered.” I looked around the small space, at the handmade furniture and threadbare – but lovely – throw rug. “This was his house, wasn’t it?”

Charlotte nodded sadly. “He built it for his wife, Geneva Fitzgibbons.”

“Fitzgibbons?” I asked, recognizing the name. “Like the Mercantile?”

“Yes, Murtagh and Maude were Geneva’s parents.”

I frowned, remembering the two men’s interaction in the store when I’d been trying to post an advertisement. “But he acted like he didn’t even know Mac.”

Charlotte sighed. “Murtagh didn’t want his daughter to marry that “barbarous” Highlander, as he put it. For all the man’s a Scot himself. Mac came to America on parole, you see.”

“He was a criminal?” I asked, with genuine surprise.

“Depends on your point of view. From what I hear, the boy didn’t do a damned thing. Just got on the bad side of a British captain. But, then again,” she shrugged again. “I can’t say I know much at all about him. No one does, except for Geneva. But she died giving birth to their first child. Murtagh blames Mac.”

It felt like I’d been punched in the gut, and my view of the little house changed instantly.

“That’s why I was surprised, you see,” Charlotte continued quietly. “When he offered this place to you.”

The children had been silently bringing in my things, seeming to understand the seriousness of what was being discussed, but then William knocked over a stack of buckets, causing everyone to laugh, and the tension dissipated.

I picked up a broom, eager to tidy the place up, but when I began to sweep, clouds of dust just flew into my face.

“Have you ever swept before?” Charlotte asked between chuckles and coughs.

“Have I ever swept before?” I repeated, stubbornly trying to beat the dust into submission.

Charlotte took the broom and set it aside, before taking my shoulders and looking and me wryly. “It’s like with the horse…isn’t it?”

I flushed, but was forced to admit the truth. “We had maids.”

With a good natured roll of her eyes, Charlotte showed me the proper way to sweep, with water sprinkled on the floor to keep the dust from flying everywhere.

I wondered vaguely if this was what having a mother was like, and found I didn’t really mind her teasing and exasperation at my uselessness as long as she taught me how things were done.

Even her children didn’t mock me for my ignorance, though I’d caught sight of a twinkle in Brianna’s eyes a time or two. I wonder what she thought of a woman who had been to college, but didn’t know how to sweep a floor.

I glanced up to see Fergus poking around in my medical bag. I tensed, ready to tell him to stop, but forced myself to relax. He was only a child, after all.

“What’s this?” he asked, holding up my reflex hammer.

“Fergus!” Charlotte scolded. “Put that back this instant!”

“It’s alright,” I assured her. “So long as he’s careful.”

Fergus ignored me, but there wasn’t much damage to himself or anything else he could do with a tiny hammer. “It looks like a tomahawk!”

William rolled his eyes and playfully mussed his brother’s hair. “Everything looks Indian to you!”

“Fergus is Cheyenne crazy,” Brianna explained to me. “And he thinks Mac is one of them.”

“Mac has a tomahawk!” Fergus piped up, right on cue.

Putting down the broom, I made my way over to the little boy, lifting him up onto the table. “It’s for checking reflexes,” I explained, taking the hammer and tapping him on the knee with it.

When his leg bounced automatically, Fergus laughed in delight. “Do that again!” Smiling, I did.

“Why do you need to know about reflexes?” Brianna asked, watching curiously.

“It tells me something about your brain,” I said, trying to find a way to explain it that they might understand.

“Your knee tells you about your brain?” William said skeptically. “Sounds like a load of malarkey!”

“Enough!” Charlotte cut him off with a glare. “Back to work, all of you!”

I took that to mean me too, so I replaced to hammer and picked my broom back up.

“They’re sweet children,” I told her, as they all scampered out.

“When they want to be,” she said with a fond chuckle.

“Fergus is…” I hedged carefully, wondering about the child who looked nothing like his siblings. “He has an interesting way of talking…”

Charlotte chuckled again. “That’s because he’s French. He sailed here with…” she frowned and looked at me appraisingly, as if trying to determine whether she could tell me. “Well, he came with some women that now work in the Saloon. I assume he belonged to one of them, but no one claimed him. Dougal, for all his smarminess, had no use - thank goodness - for a child, and, well…” she shrugged. “I took one look at his little face and knew he had to come home with me. William and Brianna took to him just as quick. Sometimes I don’t even think he remembers that he’s adopted, and yet somehow he’s never lost that last trace of accent.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said in admiration. “Taking in another child who’s not your own.”

She shrugged again, this time a little self-consciously. “To me he’s no different than the other two. Only with him I didn’t have any pesky morning sickness or extra stretch marks!”

My estimation of Charlotte Cooper went up several degrees, though by then I’d already decided she must be near to being a saint.

Chapter Text

It took days to fix up the homestead, but then, there wasn’t much else for me to do in town.

When Charlotte tried to introduce to me to women at church, their husbands steered them away from me. And when a man was shot inside Dougal’s saloon, I was shoved aside to allow Tom Christie, the barber of all people, take care of him instead.

Last I heard the man survived, but was home boiling with fever. I doubted very much that he would make it, but no one would so much as tell me where he lived so I might try and help.

It was maddening, but there was precious little I could do about it.

But the homestead was coming along well. Charlotte generously gifted me with a few chickens, and Brianna patiently taught me how to take care of them. Luckily the birds were quite easy to care for, and I quickly mastered the art of getting their eggs without getting pecked.

One of the first things I did was plant my garden. Brianna offered to find flower seeds for me, but I explained to her that my garden wouldn’t be ornamental, nor even purely for food.

During my college years I’d become fascinated with botany. The idea that so many modern medicines derived from simple plants and herbs was amazing, and studying the delicate but important difference between herbs that can cure, and herbs that can harm, was more fun to me that an adventure novel.

I enjoyed the sparks of interest that lit in the little girl’s eyes when I explained what I was planting and why. If she wanted to learn more, I hoped her mother would allow it. But even if her interest in medicine was passing, I hoped I could at least instill within her the knowledge that she could do anything, regardless of her sex.

The difficult part of fixing up the house was making it my own and not…someone else’s.

Mr. Mac had left everything the way I assumed his had wife decorated it. Every piece of furniture, every handmade blanket, every sweetly painted picture of flowers, cried out the tale of a happy young bride whose life was cut too short.

There was even a hand-carved rocking horse, the sight of which shattered my heart every time I looked at it. And a hope chest held bits of linin, baby booties, dried flowers. And a wedding picture, showing stunning girl, looking blissful to be on the arm of the tall, handsome Mac. He was clean-shaven, and his hair was cropped shorter in the picture - combed back respectfully. It couldn’t have been a terribly old picture, because Mac himself didn’t look very old, and yet the man in the picture looked decades younger than the silent, glowering man I was renting a house from.

I moved all of their belongings that I couldn’t use to a corner, but even still…I felt like an intruder.

 

A frantic knock on the door interrupted my failing attempt at cooking, and I opened it to reveal William, anxiously shifting from one foot to the other.

“Ma sent me!” he exclaimed. “She needs you!”

Thankfully remembering to take the food off the stove, I followed William out the door and to his cart. On the way there he explained that Mrs. de la Tour was having her baby, but something wasn’t going right. The boy couldn’t tell me what wasn’t going right, but his urgency told me I’d better prepare for the worst.

Louise de la Tour was a sweet woman a little younger than myself, one of the only people besides Charlotte and her family who had been friendly to me right away.

Her husband was pacing the living room, but didn’t bat an eye when William ushered me up the stairs. He hadn’t wanted his wife to associate with me when Charlotte had brought me to church, but I supposed birthing was an appropriate enough occupation for me.

I could hear the screaming from the front yard, and I raced up the stairs to the bedroom to find Charlotte hovering over the sweating, convulsing form of Louise.

Her screams, while loud, were faltering, and had the ragged edge of someone who was about to give out from exhaustion.

“The baby’s turned around,” Charlotte said as soon as I’d entered the room. The mixed, familiar smells of the birthing room permeated the humid room, nearly overwhelming me in their intensity. Blood, sweat, fecal matter, and something else that couldn’t quite be described but only occurred during a birth.

I opened the window to let in some fresh air, though Charlotte looked a little cross-eyed at that. I assumed it was because they didn’t want all of Colorado Springs to hear poor Louise. Or perhaps it was some sort of superstition, but I was hardly inclined to care. We couldn’t very well help Louise if all of us passed out from heat exhaustion.

I pulled Louise’s nightgown up, telling her what I was doing as I did. But Louise was insensible.

“The baby’s turned around,” Charlotte repeated, as I felt the evidence of that in Louise’s lurching stomach. “We’re losing them.”

Charlotte was right. Louise was fading fast; it was only a matter of time before her heart gave out under the immense strain she was under. And judging by the soaked bedclothes, the baby would soon suffocate if it didn’t come out now.

If I’d gotten there sooner, I could possibly have reached in and turned the baby. That could be time consuming, however, and now I had no time. If I tried to pull the baby out feet-first, I risked strangling the child, and Louise would very likely die.

I had one other option, which was incredibly tricky in the circumstances, but it was the only one I had that gave me the chance to save both mother and child.

I opened my medical kit and pulled out a rag which I promptly soaked in alcohol. “Quick,” I said to Charlotte. “Wipe her stomach with this.”

Charlotte did as I asked, but she looked at me in fear and shock as I started to douse my scalpel and hands with the same alcohol.

“You’re not going to cut her open!” Charlotte said, but whether it was a command or question, I wasn’t sure.

“If I’m going to save them, yes I am,” I said, then produced a second rag, which I poured ether on.

Louise may have been insensible, but she was still awake, and could most certainly feel pain. “Hold this to her face,” I ordered, and Charlotte hurried to obey.

For just a split second, I closed my eyes, letting myself see in my mind what needed to be done, and how. I knew what needed to be done. I’d done it before. But that had been with Uncle Lamb at my side. I liked to think he was still there, watching over my shoulder, offering critiques on the way I held my scalpel. The thought made me smile, and when I opened my eyes again, I was calm and ready.

I made the first incision, watching the way the line bloomed as blood started to bubble out. From the corner of my eye I saw Charlotte back away, her face pale. She may have seen all manner of blood and gore in a delivery room, but I supposed perhaps that was a tad different than watching someone get cut open.

But she’d left the ether rag, and Louise was starting to moan. I picked the rag up in my own bloody hand and held it over her face, satisfied when she slumped back into unconsciousness.

The cut into the abdomen was easy, but the cut into the womb made sweat trickle down my face. There was absolute no room for mistake. Either I cut just the right way, or I risk cutting the baby.

I couldn’t take the time to agonize over it though, and it was a matter of minutes before I had a squirming, wrinkly baby girl in my hands and passed off to Charlotte while I began stitching Louise back up.

“Something’s wrong,” Charlotte said worriedly. “She’s not crying!”

I couldn’t take the time to look away from where I was stitching up Louise’s womb. At that moment the mother had to be my priority, but I instructed Charlotte to make sure the baby’s mouth and nose were clear of fluid.

From the corner of my eye I could see her swiping at the baby’s face, and I was surprised I needed to tell her what needed to be done, considering she was a midwife, after all.

“You’ll have to suction the fluid out,” I said, moving to my final set of stitches on Louise’s abdomen.

“With what?” Charlotte asked, panicked.

“With your mouth! But gently!”

Charlotte gaped at me, and with a quiet growl of frustration, I finished up the stitches and snatched the baby away before fastening my mouth over her tiny mouth and nose, inhaling carefully. I turned my head to spit onto the floor at the same time I tilted the baby upside down, slapping her flank and being rewarded with a lusty wail.

Louise was just starting to come awake, blinking drowsily around. I wrapped the baby in a blanket and handed her to the dazed mother. “Congratulations,” I whispered breathlessly. “You have a daughter.”

Louise sobbed as she kissed the baby’s face, and Charlotte and I leaned against one another, exhausted in our own rights, but beaming almost as brightly as the new mother.

 

“That was incredible,” Charlotte told me later, as I followed her to the boarding house for dinner.

I’d repeatedly rinsed my mouth first with water, then with whiskey, but I could still slightly taste the coppery tang of birthing fluid and I was anxious for a good meal, to hopefully be rid of it for good.

“Indeed,” I agreed. “Louise is a strong woman.”

“Well, yes,” Charlotte said, blinking at me. “But I meant you. You saved that woman, and her baby. I could have never opened her up that way. And I don’t know who taught you to clear the baby’s airways like that but…”

I chuckled. “It was my first birthing. I accompanied my uncle to a home birth, and the device he used to clear the baby’s airways had fallen out of his bag and had been subsequently snatched up by the family’s poodle. The mother’s own mother was there, and she snatched the baby up and did it. Likely saved his life. My uncle was so impressed. I do hope that Mrs. de le Tour remembers what I said about keeping the stitches clean. It’s so important.”

“I’ll drop by tomorrow to remind her,” Charlotte said, stopping to turn to face me. “You’re a good doctor, Dr. B.”

I smiled at her. “Thank you,” I said sincerely. But over Charlotte’s shoulder I caught sight of a figure huddling near the ground. “Would you excuse me just a moment?”

Charlotte turned and followed my gaze before giving me an indecipherable look and continuing on to the boarding house.

By the time I realized Mac was kneeling beside a grave, he’d already noticed me, and was standing to face me. His wolf turned his disconcerting yellow eyes toward me, but only blinked sleepily.

“Sorry,” I began lamely. “I didn’t mean…”

“No matter,” he said, in that soft burr of his. It occurred to me that this was only the second time I’d ever spoken to the man. He was dressed in his usual Indian attire of buckskin pants and course linen shirt, but around his shoulders was a well-worn plaid shawl of some kind. I watched as he discreetly crossed himself before turning away from the grave altogether.

“There are some things of yours in the house…” I said, feeling terribly awkward.

He cut me off with a shrug. “Nothin’ I want.”

“Y…you’re sure? Maybe I could store them up in the barn for now?”

He shrugged again. “Whatever pleases ye.”

He stalked off, wolf following, as was his wont, leaving me ever puzzled over him. I wouldn’t get rid of his belongings; eventually his hurt would recede and he would want them again.

I glanced down at the grave he’d been visiting, a tiny headstone bearing the name Alexander MacTavish, Beloved Son. Beside it was a larger headstone; Geneva MacTavish, Beloved Daughter and Wife. But it was that smaller mound of dirt, with the little posy of wildflowers atop it that drew my gaze so that I couldn’t look away.

I had a sudden, striking image of a round, happy little boy, with flaming red hair and china blue eyes, giggling madly as he rocked on the horse his father made for him. I shook my head, trying to shake away the image, tears blurring my eyes, and turned to make my way to the boarding house.

I didn’t know why the sight of that tiny grave affected me so, maybe it was just because I’d been living alongside the pieces of the life he never got to live. But my heart ached for the father, who seemed so alone.

Chapter Text

My life more or less settled pleasantly, except for the fact that my career as a doctor was off to a rocky start. But word had spread about what I’d done for Louise, and it was met with a mixture of horror and grudging respect.

But still, no one would come to me, or even let me come to them, and I knew by looking at some of the women’s faces that they wanted to. So it all had to do with the men.

I needed to do something, and the normal methods of establishing oneself as a medical practitioner weren’t going to work. So, as Uncle Lamb always liked to say, when in Rome...

I bit my lip and steeled myself, holding my head high as I walked into Mr. Christie’s barbershop.

“Gentlemen,” I said cordially to the some five or six men loitering inside.

“What are you doing here?” one of them said snidely.

Tom Christie only narrowed his eyes from where he leaned against a counter holding his admittedly impressive array of tools, both barber and otherwise. From what I understood, Mr. Christie was a quiet man, a widower, but very influential about town. That, and he was the sole person the other men went to for medical problems. If I could somehow get him on my side, I might stand a chance.

“I require your services,” I told him, hoping I didn’t sound as nervous and childish as I felt.

Tom smirked. “I don’t cut ladies’ hair.”

I raised my chin further. “Not your barbering services…medical. You see…I have this toothache,” I gingerly touched the side of my face. “It’s the darnedest thing. I was hoping perhaps you wouldn’t mind taking a look at it.

The men gathered all raised the eyebrows. “Hear that? She wants ya to take a look, Tommy!” a youngish fellow by the name of Angus chuckled, somehow managing to make the simple words sound lewd. His brother, Rupert, guffawed.

Tom, to his credit, didn’t acknowledge their teasing, and motioned me over to his barber chair with an air of professionalism.

I sat down and touched my face again. “It’s just been driving me crazy…”

“I thought you said it was the other side,” Tom said, looking at me askance.

I realized with a jolt that I had in fact been holding the other cheek in the beginning. “Well, it’s this side,” I said firmly, touching my right cheek. “In the back.”

The chair squealed on rusty metal hinges as he tipped me back, prying my mouth open with less-than-clean hands.

My eyes immediately went to the hand currently poking in my mouth. He had a filthy rag wrapped around his palm, and the skin around it looked red and inflamed. “Quite a cut you have there,” I said around his probing fingers.

“Hand slipped while shaving someone,” he said dismissively. “It’s fine.”

I pulled away a bit. “It looks infected. I have something you could put on…”

“I see the problem,” he interrupted. “You got a bad tooth back there. Only thing to do is pull it.”

“Pull it?!” I exclaimed. I’d expected him to either send me off as a weakling woman with nothing wrong, or advise me to rinse with whiskey or something. My teeth were all fine, thanks to a dedicated regimen of brushing and flossing.

Tom nodded solemnly, and I studied his face intently for hints of lying or taunting. But he looked absolutely serious. I glanced around at the now increased audience. If I rejected him now, they could all go around and say I didn’t know anything and was a coward besides.

“Well,” said weakly, a little pleadingly. Maybe this was just a very good bluff, maybe he’d let me off. “You’re the expert. I leave myself in your capable hands.”

He raised one eyebrow and I reiterated. “Pull it.”

Angus and Rupert whooped and everyone pressed close to watch. Tom pushed the chair farther back, so that my feet were higher than my head, and he shoved a dirty looking set of pliers into my mouth.

Luckily for me, he did latch on to a tooth that had been loosened ages ago when a young patient accidentally kicked me in the face while I was trying to bind it. He pulled and twisted; I could feel it ripping from my tender gums, and I gripped my skirts tightly in my fists and tried not to cry out.

With an audible pop the tooth was out, and my vision swam in pain. I dimly heard the men cheer, and I struggled to my feet, now pressing my hand to my cheek in earnest.

Through the haze of pain, I thought they were looking at me in admiration, and not a little humor. But all I could really focus on was getting out and away before I broke down and cried.

“What do I owe you?” I asked.

Tom tilted his head from side-to-side in thought. “Ten cents?”

I went to my medical bag to get the money, and on the way, grabbed a small bottle, handing it to him along with the money. “This will help your hand,” I said quickly, both so he didn’t have time to refuse, and so I could get out.

“Souvenir?” Tom asked, holding up my bloody tooth.

I took the tooth, trying to think if there was any way I could put it back in. “I think I earned that, don’t you?” I mumbled around rapidly swelling gums.

“Yes ma’am!” Rupert said, his round cheeks broadened in a grin.

 

I bee-lined straight to the boarding house, not thinking I could stagger all the way home just then, much less get on a horse.

Charlotte opened her mouth to greet me when I entered the main room, but her expression immediately became concerned. “What happened to you?” she asked. “Child, you’re white as a sheet!”

“I…had a toothache,” I murmured. “Tom said it had to go.”

Tom?” her eyes widened. “Claire Beauchamp. There wasn’t at thing wrong with that tooth, was there?!”

When I didn’t answer, she gasped. “You should be ashamed! Letting that man…but then again…” as quickly as she’d turned scandalized, her expression morphed once more to one of absolute mischievousness. “What I wouldn’t have given to see old Tom’s face! You must have really got those boys to thinkin’!”

“I hope so,” I said with a shrug. “I’d hoped maybe they’d start to trust me,” I winced. “I didn’t know it was going to come at the cost of my tooth.”

Charlotte laughed, coming over to give me a hug. “Oh you sweet thing. Hopefully, it’ll be worth it.”

“Me too,” I admitted before sighing in disgust. “Men.”

Charlotte laughed again. “Men is right, darling. I’m hoping that I’m raising my boys up to be the kind that ain’t gonna treat women the way you’re treated.”

“I’d say you’re doing a fine job,” I said, wincing as I took a tentative sip of water. “Not that I know much about it.”

“You ever been married?” Charlotte asked, crossing her arms under her ample bosom.

I blushed, hoping my face was already red from the pain, and she couldn’t tell. “Erm…no. Almost. Once. But…no.”

Charlotte “ahh”-ed and elected not to comment further, much to my relief. It was a sore subject, not just that of my missed chance at marriage, but the nagging embarrassment I couldn’t quite shake at being my age, and still as innocent as a girl.

“Well, there are plenty of men ‘round these parts,” she said. “Not all of them are like Tom Christie.”

I wrinkled my nose, unable to think of a single man in town who I…well…maybe one but…no. Never mind.

“What about you?” I asked, trying to get the conversation off my marital status. “Did you ever remarry?”

Charlotte snorted. “Couldn’t if I wanted to, not that I do. For all I know, my husband’s still alive and kickin’, somewhere.”

I blinked. “But…I heard people call you Widow Cooper.”

She shrugged, unselfconscious. “That’s just their way of bein’ nice, I suppose. Truth is, he…left. Decided that having a family, and roots wasn’t for him. So he took my money sock, walked out the door, and I never heard from him again.”

“I…I’m sorry,” I stammered, unsure of what else to say.

Charlotte’s confidence faltered, and her shoulders sagged. “I wish I didn’t miss him. I try not to. But sometimes…” she sighed, then smiled at me. “I guess you can’t help who you love, hm? We’d only just adopted Fergus. My husband had been so fond of the boy…I never understood why…well. The poor boy has sometimes thought he was responsible somehow for him leavin’.”

“Poor Fergus,” I said. “After everything he’d already been through. Surely the other children don’t think it.”

Charlotte’s sadness lifted, and she grinned. “Oh no, the children are Fergus’s fiercest defenders, even when they have to defend Fergus from himself. My husband was going to leave one way or the other. Perhaps he thought the timing was better, because I had something else to focus my energy on. But he’d have left. He was never meant to stay in one place, I think.”

I placed my hand over Charlotte’s where it rested on the table, and tried to smile, though the effect was comical with my swollen face, if her laughing was any indication.

 

Charlotte sent me home that night with a bottle of her best Scotch, and I proceeded to have an evening of feeling quite sorry for myself. I was a little peeved the next couple of days, thinking it was all for naught, when up rode Tom Christie, some three days later.

“Mornin’,” he said as way of greeting, riding up on his horse while I was weeding my garden. “How’s your teeth?”

I blinked, getting over my surprise at seeing him here. “Oh, much better. Thank you.”

He nodded, and just when I began to think he’d ridden all the way to my house just for that, he pulled the bottle of medicine I’d given him out of his pocket, now nearly empty.

“This really did the trick,” he said. “Thank you.”

I accepted the bottle, seeing with satisfaction that his hand did, indeed, look much improved. “Oh, good! I’m glad.”

He nodded stiffly. I’d started to gather that he was a man of few words, at least with women. “Was there…anything else I can help you with?”

“Not me,” he said. “But…you know the blacksmith? Joe?” when I nodded, he continued. “Well, he’s been griping about his lumbago. Thought you might want to have a look at it.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Do you really think he’d let me look at it?”

Tom shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “Well, see, I asked him to let you.”

At this I was actually at a loss for words, and all I could do was nod as he turned his horse and headed back to town.

Nearly giddy with this new development, and finally feeling like I was making progress, I went straight away to town to find Joe the blacksmith.

 

I found him at his smithy straightaway, and could see almost immediately the way he kept flexing his left hand when he had to use the tools to lift a horseshoe out of the fire.

“Afternoon, Joe,” I greeted.

“Afternoon,” he said, not looking at me, a clear sign that he’d rather be left to work.

“I…I wanted to thank you for my horse. He’s wonderful.”

“He’s old,” Joe said dismissively.

“Well, yes, but he’s sound.”

Joe nodded. “He’s sound.”

“I um…couldn’t help noticing you seem to be having trouble with your hand, do you mind if I take a look at it?”

Joe glared at me from over his brazier, “It’s fine.”

So apparently Tom’s request hadn’t been met with much agreeability.

I stepped around the brazier, reaching tentatively for his hand. “I promise I won’t take much of your time, I just…”

Joe snatched his hand away. “I don’t want no woman doctor!”

I recoiled, having not expected such an explosion from such a seemingly quiet man. Granted, it was wrong of me for reaching for him without permission, but still…

“You know, I expect this kind of treatment from other men, but not you Joe. Of all people in town, I thought you at least could understand being judged by people before they know you!”

All at once, Joe’s face fell, and his eyes softened visibly. Just as I was about to turn to go, he took a step forward, holding his hand out to me.

Still frowning in frustration, I took it gently between my own, probing his swollen joints.

“Can you fix it?” he asked gently.

“Not exactly,” I said regretfully. “Unfortunately, there’s no cure, but I can help alleviate the pain.”

At this, he graced me with a smile, and I noted how it transformed his face into one might could be considered downright jovial.

“I’ll take what I can get,” he said. “And…I’m sorry.”

I smiled back, squeezing his hand gently. “Don’t mention it. Sorry I yelled.”

He chuckled with a shrug. “I needed it. Do you think the new doctor will have what I need too?”

I let go of his hand, blinking in confusion. “New doctor?”

“Oh…uh, I thought you knew. Reverend Wakefield put out a new advertisement…”

“He what?!”

Joe held up his hands in defense. “Like I said! I thought you were just wanting to leave! I thought he’d told you!”

“I’ll be back,” I growled, stomping away.

Rupert and Angus were in my path, and they flew apart and out of my way, but I didn’t pause to be satisfied about it.

I found the Reverend at his church, talking with a young member of a sewing circle who was fluttering her eyelashes at him.

“Reverend Wakefield!” I snapped once I was in hearing distance.

As soon as he saw me, he blanched, and I knew he knew why I was there. The coward.

“Pardon me, Leoghaire,” he said stepping away from her and acting like he was going to try to flee.

“You put out another advertisement?!” I demanded. “How dare you!”

“Really, now, Ms. Beauchamp…” he began.

Doctor Beauchamp!”

Doctor Beauchamp. Why don’t we step inside and talk about this?”

“No!” I insisted, ignoring the captivated eyes of the sewing circle. “We’ll do this here. How dare you try and replace me, without even saying anything!”

He finally turned to face me fully, his jaw clenching in either irritation or nerves. “Please try and understand my position. This town needs a doctor, and I’m afraid they’re never going to accept a woman doctor.”

“Oh?” I propped my hands on my hips. “Have you polled my patients?”

He sighed, running a hand over his face. “What patients?”

I ticked them off on my fingers. “Louise de le Tour, Tom Christie, Joe Abernathy…”

He arched a skeptical brow at me. “Tom let you doctor him?”

I jutted my chin out at him. “He did. Just ask him!”

“Because I heard that you went to Tom to…”

Dr. B! Dr. B!!!

I spun around, startled by the panic in young Fergus’s voice. I saw him from a distance, speeding toward me before skidding to a stop and waving his arms.

“It’s Mama!” he cried, voice hoarse from screeching, and gasping for breath. “A rattlesnake got her!”

Chapter Text

My heart – and breakfast – felt like they were in my throat the whole headlong run to the boardinghouse, Fergus darting ahead and stopping every so often to wait up when the Reverend and I were too slow for him.

A rattlesnake.

Snakebites certainly weren’t unheard of in Boston, but weren’t common, considering Uncle Lamb and my practice was in the middle of the city. Unfortunately the reason we didn’t get many cases was because the victims didn’t usually make it to us.

Usually, the first act should be to extract the venom, or as much as possible, with one’s mouth. But that was only effective if done immediately, and from Fergus’s hurried explanation as he ran, it had happened on the way back from Widow O’Malley’s house, which was an hour away by cart.

The next step after that was to cut away the infected tissue, the entire limb if need be. If she was bitten in her foot, that gave me more time before venom devoured the tissue surrounding her heart…but if it were her hand, or something closer…

My heart sank when William led us into Charlotte’s bedroom, and I saw her pale, sweating form on the bed. The bite was easy to see; her right hand was swollen to three times its normal size. Her skin was waxy, her eyes glassed over. It had been far too long.

“Dr. B?” she whispered when I came into view.

“Charlotte,” I said, stepping carefully past Brianna and laying a hand on her shoulder. “I’m here. You’re going to be okay.”

“Can you help her?” William asked, his voice shaking, eyes red-rimmed.

I couldn’t answer him past the lump in my throat, so I turned to my medical bag, pulling out a vial of Belladonna root, and pouring a small measure of its contents into my pestle. A pinch of it mixed in water would hopefully increase her heartrate, and give me more time to try and remove the infected tissue.

“Get her to drink this,” I said to Brianna, handing her the mixture in a small tin cup before turning back to my bag, wracking my brain for something else that could help.

I glanced up, past Charlotte’s sheet-white face to Fergus’s, his big brown eyes staring pleadingly at me. Silently begging me to save her.

Brianna tried to give her mother the water, but she just coughed it up, so I went to work grinding some more.

“Dr. B,” Charlotte said, weakly motioning me closer.

I knelt down so I was closer to her face, but I refused to say goodbye to her. There had to be something

“Promise me…” Charlotte whispered, eyes fixed on a spot above my head.

“What do you need?” I asked, stubbornly keeping my tears at bay.

“Promise me…you’ll take care of…my children,” she rasped.

Just like that, my world paused. Froze on its axis. Surely I hadn’t heard what I thought I had. But a glance up at the horrified and confused faces of the children told me they’d heard it too.

“Oh, Charlotte,” I said, turning back to her. “Not me,” what I wanted to say, was why me? “I…I don’t know anything about children. And…and besides…” I pulled back to start preparing more Belladonna. “You’re going to make it, Charlotte.”

She grabbed my arm, stilling me. “Promise me,” she said, her voice a bit stronger, her eyes pleading.

The tears that had threatened…really since the day I’d arrived in Colorado Springs…to fall, finally did, and I looked again at Fergus, at the dawning realization on his little face as he looked at the only mother he’d ever known. I looked back at Charlotte, her eyes still boring into me. More focused than before, but fading. “I promise,” I whispered.

I stood up, furiously still trying to produce some kind of cure, knowing as I did how useless it was. I dimly heard the whispered goodbyes from Charlotte to each of her children, and after a few quiet moments, Roger laid his hand on mine, stilling my movements.

Charlotte took two more breaths, and was gone.

 

The next several days were a blur of grief, stress, and quite honestly – utter fear.

I grieved Charlotte for my own sake; in the scant six months I’d lived in Colorado Springs, she had become the closest friend I’d ever had in my life. She given me a glimpse into what a good mother was. I quite honestly didn’t know how I was going to survive in this town without her. She’d taught me how to do my own laundry, how to light the stove, how to sweep for heaven’s sake. I just knew there were a thousand things I still needed to learn, like how to cook.

But my grief was a drop in the bucket compared to that of William, Brianna, and Fergus. Where three lively, excitable children once stood, were now three solemn, resigned, quiet individuals who all looked far too old for their years.

After the funeral – a tense, uncomfortable experience for me where William completely ignored my presence and his siblings seemed to feel they needed to copy his behavior – Brianna was all business. The women in town had provided food of course, but she went straight to work sitting the boys down and assuring they ate. That evening it was she who bathed Fergus and tucked him in, and it was her bed I heard him run to when he woke up crying.

William went about his work as well, but where Brianna tolerated my presence politely, he seemed downright hostile.

For my part, I didn’t know what to do. I certainly didn’t feel right forcing my attention on them, but I it also felt wrong to just let them all hurt without even trying to comfort them. I half expected another family in town to ask to take them in themselves, because surely for as long as they’d all lived there, they had close friends, if not relatives who the children would feel more at home with. But no one came except to offer condolences, and we were on our own.

Matters weren’t helped at all when barely a week after Charlotte’s death, a man from a bank in Denver arrived to inform me that Charlotte was past due on paying for the boarding house, and he’d come to foreclose. He didn’t even let me try to come up with the rent payment, stating if I was interested, my husband could put in a bid at a later time to purchase it outright.

We barely had time to get the family’s belongings out of the house before it was being boarded up, and with nowhere else to go, the three children and I piled into their wagon and made our way to the homestead.

 

“The horse and wagon belong to us,” William said without preamble once we’d arrived.

“Well…yes, of course,” I said, confused by his outburst; it was the first sentence he’d said to me all day.

“We’ll take it with us when we leave,” he continued.

“We can’t leave,” Brianna said, in a long-suffering tone that told me they’d had this conversation before in private.

William ignored her, and headed for the barn. “I’ll sleep in here,” he said, looking inside before turning back to me, speaking almost cordially for once. “There’s room for a cow in here.”

I shrugged a bit helplessly. “I’m afraid I don’t know anything about cows. I don’t really don’t know much about housekeeping, or children…or being a mother.”

I knew they were the wrong words the moment I spoke them. All I’d meant was, I didn’t expect them to treat me like a parent because I understood if that wasn’t what they wanted from me right then. But I saw the anger surge into William’s face at once, and he strode quickly over to me, getting close to my face.

At almost sixteen, he already towered over me, and was muscular and strong. He could have been intimidating, but I knew deep down that he’d never lay a hand on me. For all he looked like a man, he was really just a deeply hurting boy.

“You are not our mother,” he hissed.

I shook my head. “No…I know that…that isn’t what I meant, William.”

“I don’t want to live here,” Fergus said, climbing down from the wagon and thankfully breaking the tension some.

“Well, you don’t have a choice!” Brianna snapped.

Fergus stomped his foot. “I don’t WANT to live here! I want to live with Mac and Cheyenne!” with that, he turned and fled.

“Fergus!” William shouted, as we both chased after him.

Being much faster, William caught him first, but Fergus thrashed and kicked, then kicked more when William handled him roughly. “Stop it!” William snapped. “You ain’t leaving!”

I grabbed Fergus by the shirt, trying to pull him away from William. William released him, but I kept my hold, worried the boy would run again.

But he didn’t. Before I could quite process what was happening, Fergus’s small arms were around my waist, and his face was buried in my skirt, and he was sobbing.

I glanced up at William and Brianna, hoping for some kind of guidance. A shameful part of me even hoped one of them would come and take him, give him the comfort I wasn’t sure I could provide. But they only watched sadly, just as helpless as I.

I wrapped my arms around him as best as I could with the way he clung to me. “It’s alright,” I whispered as soothingly as I could. “You can cry, Fergus, it’s alright. Just go ahead and cry.”

He did, and after a moment I heard sniffling, and looked up to see Brianna standing a foot away, crying quietly. I held out one arm, and the little girl flew into it instantly, pressing her face against my shoulder, and wrapping her free arm around Fergus.

I don’t know how long the three of us stood there, all crying, but eventually we pulled apart, and I took both their hands to lead them inside. At some point William had left us and retreated to the barn, and I hoped that it was to have a good cry by himself.

I’d come to Colorado with hopes of succeeding as a doctor. None of it had turned out how I planned. I was now only barely a doctor…and I was now more intricately tethered to this place than I ever really intended to be.

What do I do now?

Chapter Text

I quickly became aware of the fact that in my experience, mothers tended to make childcare look easier than it really was. Even beyond the emotional struggles all three were enduring, there were more day-to-day challenges than I’d ever expected.

Fergus didn’t want to wear his shoes. Only now his feet hurt because of rocks. Brianna couldn’t find her blue ribbon and NO! She couldn’t wear a RED ribbon in her RED hair! They were hungry…but they were tired of eggs.

William blessedly didn’t ask for much, and took care of himself, but his moody attitude was contagious to the others, making for three sullen, unruly children and a guardian who was nearly at her wit’s end. I refused to scold them, however, trying to use the same quiet understanding my uncle had shown me after I’d suddenly become an orphan.

We made our way into town one afternoon for some much-needed shopping, but I was trusting Brianna to know what all they needed. I hoped perhaps the outing, maybe seeing some friends or at least friendly faces, would raise their spirits some.

I was trying to figure out why red apples were more expensive than green ones when crash sounded, and I closed my eyes for a moment, just knowing without needing to look that I was going to have to pay for whatever just broke.

“Why you little brat!” Murtagh snapped. “I told you to get down!”

“I was just looking!” Fergus protested hotly.

Brianna and I came around the shelves to see Fergus and Murtagh in the midst of a stand-off on either side of a large glass jar of candy, shattered on the floor along with its contents. Brianna rushed to her brother, standing behind him with her arms about his shoulders protectively.

“Fergus,” I began, struggling to keep my voice calm. “What happened?”

Murtagh turned to me, red in the face. “I told him not to climb up there, but he did it anyway!”

“Fergus,” this time a hint of warning crept into my voice. “Did you disobey Mr. Fitzgibbons?”

Fergus glared up at me from where he leaned back into Brianna.

“Add the cost of the jar and candy to our order, Mr. Fitzgibbons,” I said, rubbing a hand over my face. Murtagh harrumphed and declared that’s exactly what he’d do. “Meanwhile, someone needs to clean up this mess.”

I looked pointedly at Fergus, who gave me an incredulous one in return. “I don’t know how!”

I shrugged, hefting my shopping basket higher on my arm. “Then you’ll learn.”

We stared one another down. I hated to be too hard on him, but after two months, his loss was no excuse for me to allow him to go completely without discipline. It wasn’t fair to him or others. As privileged as I had been growing up, Uncle Lamb would never have let me get away without at least cleaning the mess I’d made.

But nothing prepared me for the words Fergus spat next, nor the stab of pain it left.

I hate you.”

From the corner of my eye, I caught Murtagh giving me an uncharacteristically sympathetic look, and even Brianna looked upset and ready to apologize on her brother’s behalf.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I choked out, mentally trying to remind myself that he was just a child, and didn’t always mean the things he said. “Brianna, go on ahead with your shopping. I have to go send a telegram.”

Brianna nodded, leaving her brother to his mess.

I left the shop gratefully, relieved to have even just a few moments alone. As much as I cared about the children, having them with me in that tiny house, day and night, was beginning to seriously wear on me. I’d lived my whole life more or less left to my own devices. Uncle Lamb and I stayed busy with our work, and as a child, though I’d had nannies and servants, I had become very accustomed to privacy.

When faced with the prospect of getting married, that had been the only aspect that had given me pause – the idea of sharing my intimate space. But I’d been in love, and thought I’d get used to it before children came along.

Well, I’d gone and skipped that considerably important step of a husband, and it was a challenging adjustment for all involved.

Before I reached the telegram office, I heard what I thought was someone hissing, “Dr. B!”

I looked around, and finally found the source of the sound coming from a window of the saloon. A young woman was hanging out the window, dressed in a chemise. “Dr. B!” she repeated a bit louder, and I caught a sense of urgency.

“Do you need help?” I asked her.

She looked nervously toward the front entrance of the saloon, then back at me.

“Just wait there,” I said. “I’ll come inside.”

I didn’t think much of entering the saloon, until I did and the entire establishment froze and stared.

It was the middle of the day, so there was hardly anything terribly unsavory happening, but a tired-looking saloon girl was draped lazily across Rupert’s lap. Angus blinked in shock at me from over the rim of his pint glass.

“Can I help you?” the owner, Dougal McKenzie barked at me from the other side of the bar.

I looked across the saloon to see the young woman standing at base of the stairs. “No,” I told Dougal as I made my way over to her. “I’m just here to have a word with one of your girls.”

“Hey!” Dougal snapped. “Ladies aren’t allowed in the back.”

I looked back at him over my shoulder, arching an eyebrow. “I’m not a lady. I’m a doctor.”

 

“That was good,” the girl said, chuckling a bit nervously. “That bit about not being a lady.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking a clinical look around the bedroom she’d led me to.

It was sparsely furnished, but clean, and I could see where she’d made it her own with colorful fabrics hanging on the walls, and a small still-life painting of a cat. I looked at her again and felt a stab of sadness. She couldn’t have been older than nineteen or so, just barely out of girlhood, and I had a sudden, terrifying image of Brianna – just a little older than she was now – standing in this young woman’s place.

Without parents, could Brianna have ended up in a place like this? What of little Fergus? He’d already been in a place like this. But no…William would never have allowed that to happen, with or without me.

I shook my head to clear it, and focus on the matter at hand. “So, what was it you wanted to talk about Miss…”

Her eyes widened. “Oh! Dorothea. M…my name is Dorothea. Or Dottie, if you like.”

“Dottie,” I said, smiling, reaching out to shake her hand. “My name is Claire, or Dr. B, as it seems most of the town has taken to calling me!”

Dottie giggled. “I hope you don’t take offense. People in these parts only give you a nickname if they like you!”

“Well, then I suppose I should be flattered! Now, back to business. Are you feeling alright, Dottie?”

Dottie crossed her arms, her face flushing. “It’s erm…well, that is to say…it’s a lady problem.”

“Ah,” I said, having expected as much. “I hope you don’t mean a delay in your menses?”

“Oh! No! God, no. I’m very careful, Dr. B. Promise. But it’s…”

“Have you ever been examined, Dottie?” I asked her.

She eyed me in embarrassed discomfort. “E…examined? You mean down th…no…”

I steered her in the direction of the bed. “Come along. I promise it won’t hurt.”

“A…alright,” she said, laying back on the bed with rather depressingly practiced ease. “Never been like this for a lady before. Uh…beggin’ your pardon. I mean doctor.

I smiled at her correction, pushing her feet up toward her body. I’d found in my experience if I kept them talking, it could help make this experience a tad less awkward.

“It isn’t like that, Dottie. I’m not going to touch you without telling you exactly what I’m doing. An examination like this should never make you feel the way it does when you’re with an…erm…customer. If it does, the doctor isn’t doing it right.”

“It’s alright,” she said, looking up at the ceiling. “I don’t even mind being with…customers.”

“No? Do you mind if I ask…how you came to work here?”

She shrugged. “My parents died and…well, there wasn’t much else I felt I could do,” she looked down at me. “I didn’t know doctoring was an option for women.”

Smiling, I told her, “I firmly believe anything is an option for women. Including this, if it’s what you want.”

“It’s not such a bad life. Dougal takes care of us. He doesn’t beat his girls, or mistreats them at all the way I know many do. We have plenty to eat, a clean bed. He doesn’t let customers be mean either. Kicks out everyone who gets too rough. I knew when he let little Fergus go, even after paying for him, that he was a good man.”

I inwardly rolled my eyes, thinking that having the bare minimum of humanity didn’t exactly make for a “good man.”

“And when I pay off my contract,” she continued. “I’ll go free, and can do whatever I want!”

“Well, that’s certainly something,” I said, noncommittedly, wondering exactly how long she had before she was paid off.

For the most part, she was healthy. But she was still very young, and I knew this life was going to begin to wear on her body eventually. I eyed a set of bruises on her slender inner thighs, wondering if Dougal knew someone had done that to her…or if perhaps he’d done it himself.

No, her problem, thank God, was curable, and I had the medication to do it.

I turned away while she got up and arranged her skirt back down, then let her lead me back down the stairs. “Now, remember,” I said quietly on the way down. “You have to refrain from…erm…activity for at least a month.”

She shook her head. “Dougal isn’t going to like that.”

“Let me handle Dougal.”

Dottie looked rather skeptical, but I squared my shoulders and made my way back to the pub.

Dougal was glaring at me from where he stood wiping a glass. He was, admittedly, an intimidating figure. Tall and muscular. Handsome – but with a dark look perpetually on his face that made him more off-putting than attractive.

“Dougal,” I said authoritatively as I could. “I’ve given Dorothea orders to refrain from activity for a month.”

“Activity?” Dougal asked, a warning growl in his voice.

“She doesn’t work,” I clarified.

“She works for me,” he said, leaning across the bar.

“Unless you’d like to take her place!” Angus crowed from behind me with a guffaw, joined in by his friends.

I turned to smile winningly at him. “That’s not my line of work, fellas. I’m a doctor, and I expect to hear from any of you who are foolish enough to spend time with Dorothea before the month is up.”

The men all looked at one another in discomfort, and I thought I saw Rupert scratching worriedly at his crotch.

I turned back to Dougal, who was turning red in anger. “Get out.” He hissed.

I didn’t really need to be asked twice, and besides, the children had to have been wondering where I was.

I turned to leave, only to find my way blocked by I man I hadn’t met. He wore a cowboy hat low over his face, and looked me up and down lecherously.

“Maybe we’re not done with you, darlin’,” he said lowly.

“Excuse me,” I said, refusing to be intimidated.

He stepped up close, getting into my personal space, his hand reaching out to just graze the side of breast. “What’s your rush?” he asked. The other men hooted and hollered, and someone egged him on, suggesting he kiss me. Someone else suggested something much cruder. Evidently his name was Carl.

I tried to stand my ground, but I was becoming afraid. There were any number of men in the establishment, and none seemed inclined to step in. But surely if Dougal was so protective of his girls, he wouldn’t allow a woman to be raped in the middle of his saloon.

I made to shoulder my way past him, and he grabbed my arm in a bruising grip. But as quickly as he’d grabbed me, he was suddenly gone. I blinked and he was crashing into the bar, and in his place stood Mac, crouched low, his tomahawk at the ready.

All at once the saloon was a riot, men lunging for Mac and him beating them all off like it was practically nothing. Just as Dougal made to join the fight with a pistol, Mac grabbed my hand and dragged me out.

I didn’t wait for him as I sprinted for the wagon, where the children were all already sitting ready.

“Fergus cleaned up the mess real good!” Brianna exclaimed cheerfully as I hoisted myself up into the wagon.

“Great,” I said wobbly. “Now let’s go!”

“What’s wrong?” William asked, looking in the direction of the saloon where men were spilling out, watching us go.

William whipped the rein, finally catching onto my urgency. I looked down and found Mac, his lower lip cut and bleeding. I wanted to stay and tend it, but more than that I wanted to get the kids away and fast.

“Thank you,” was all I could manage, but I held out my hand, and he grabbed it with a light squeeze.

As we jolted away, I kept looking back at him, wondering how he’d known to come to my aid, and thinking about how warm his hand was.

Chapter Text

During the drama at the saloon, I’d forgotten all about Fergus’s anger at me. But he certainly hadn’t, and had ceased to so much as look at me.

I think Brianna was trying to balance things out by being a little extra nice to me, but I still felt irrationally guilty over Fergus. I’d done the right thing, punishing him for the jar…hadn’t I? And really, it wasn’t as if I’d spanked him, though that’s what my nannies would have done to me. Cleaning the mess he’d made had seemed perfectly reasonable.

I lay in bed that night, unable to sleep. Disjointed images floated underneath my eyelids every time I closed my eyes. The bruises on Dottie’s thighs. The candy scattered across the shop floor. Carl’s lascivious gaze. The calluses on Mac’s hand. The cut on his lip. His intensely blue eyes.

I woke up feeling almost more tired than when I went to sleep, but I wasn’t one for lazing about bed, tired or not. So I dragged myself up to get started on the morning chores. We’d just added that cow to our tiny farm, but William took care of it on his own. And Brianna usually took care of the chickens, but I thought I’d let her sleep in a little and do it myself. She’d been so helpful lately.

I peeked past the curtain that we had hung to section off a bedroom of sorts for Fergus and Brianna, to check on them before I went out.

Brianna was curled up under her quilt, her long red hair spilled out over the pillow, and a dreamy smile on her face. I smiled in response, and peered farther around the curtain to see Fergus’s bed…only to find it empty.

“Fergus?” I called, looking around their sleeping space, wondering if he was hiding behind the bed or something. “Fergus!”

“What’s wrong, Dr. B?” Brianna said drowsily, sitting up and rubbing her eye with a fist.

“Do you know where your brother is?”

Brianna glanced over at his empty bed. “He probably just went to the outhouse.”

That was a rational thought, but I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something wasn’t right.

I went to the outhouse, but the door was hanging open, and he was nowhere in sight.

“Fergus!” I called, panic rising like gorge in my throat. I ran for the barn, yelling his name, then William’s.

“What’s goin’ on?” William asked, fastening his trousers as he emerged from the barn.

“Was Fergus in the loft with you?”

William blinked, concern lighting his groggy face. “What? No, I haven’t seen him. You mean he’s not inside?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “He wasn’t in his bed! He must have run off!”

“Damn it!” William snapped. “He’s always talkin’ about running off and living with the Cheyenne! The little fool must have gone and done it!”

“Oh God,” I moaned, running back inside to throw on a decent skirt and coat over my nightgown.

“Are you going to find him?” Brianna asked, a tinge of hysteria in her voice.

“Yes, I’m going to find him,” I said firmly.

“I’m coming with you,” William said, shrugging on his coat.

I held out a hand to stop him. “No, you’re not. You’re staying here to look after your sister.”

“Like hell I am!” he shouted.

Don’t use that language with me!” I snapped back. “You’re going to stay here and do as you’re told, do you understand me?!”

I half expected William to keep fighting me, but to my surprise his eyes only widened minutely and then he nodded without a word.

Well that was one victory, but now I had much more urgent matters to attend.

 

William saddled Bear for me while I gathered up my medical kit, just in case. He pointed me in the general direction of where the Cheyenne village was, and I took off at a trot, wondering how much of a head start Fergus had gotten.

I realized fairly early on that I wasn’t much of a tracker, and it wasn’t long before I seriously questioned the wisdom of leaving William at home.

It was just so frustrating. I had three people depending on me for survival, whether they wanted to or not, and I was just barely managing to survive myself. For the hundredth time I wondered if they wouldn’t be better off if I just threw in the towel, and went home to Boston. Surely my unwanted presence in their life wasn’t helping. For God’s sake, they were now actively running away from me!

“Why me, Charlotte?” I whispered. “I wasn’t meant for this.”

It was nearing four o’clock, I hadn’t eaten since the night before, and had barely remembered to drink from my canteen, despite the dry heat of the day. But all I could think was that I hoped Fergus had taken food with him, and would not attempt to eat berries or something, not knowing whether they were poisonous or not.

The longer I went without finding him, or even a sign of him, the more terrifying the ideas of what could happen to a six-year-old boy, alone in the wilderness became.

I came to a little road, one that looked seldom used, and wondered if Fergus would follow it or not.

But before I had time to give it much thought, four Indian men appeared around me, seemingly out of thin air. They were all on horseback, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard them. But then, I’d been so wrapped up in my own head, and searching only for Fergus.

They didn’t look openly hostile, but a brief attempt at speaking to them revealed that they didn’t understand English. Or at least they pretended not to.

One reached over and took the reins out of my hand, and began leading Bear away – with me on him.

“W…wait…” I stammered, shaking my head in attempt to make them understand. “I’m looking for someone. Please, if I’ve trespassed, I’m sorry but…”

The man leading my horse said something that I surmised to mean “be quiet,” so I was. There was really nothing I could do, but go peacefully.

 

My heart felt like it was going to thud right out of my chest, and I wondered absently if I was having a heart attack, or at the very least, a panic attack. I’d heard all the stories of what happens to white women who are kidnapped by Indians. They ranged from tales of being forced to wed, but eventually living as one of them – to horror stories of brutal rape and scalping.

I liked to believe the stories were exaggeration, if not right out false, but I knew fine well that dangerous men existed everywhere, and I had no way of knowing if these men were a danger to me or not.

It felt like we walked forever, and it was almost completely dark by the time we reached what must have been their village. I couldn’t even be positive that these were the Cheyenne, and not another tribe. Women milled about, and a pair of children ran past, shrieking with laughter. People stopped to stare at me as we rode past, but again, they didn’t appear threatening.

The man who had been leading Bear motioned for me to dismount, then he took me by the arm and started leading me toward a teepee, decorated with pictures of animals. A stream of smoke was rising from the top.

As much as I didn’t want to, I whimpered, and tried to pull away from the man. But he tightened his grip and dragged me on, all but throwing me through the flap that acted as a door.

He said something, then shoved me the rest of the way in, and I landed in a heap, just barely managing to miss the fire. I looked up and found myself met with three sets of bemused expressions – one of which was quite familiar.

“Mac!” I exclaimed, nearly dizzy with relief. He was sitting cross-legged between two Indian men, and in the dark would have blended right in had it not been for his hair which glowed even redder in the firelight.

Mac turned to the man who’d brought me in, asking him something in their language. I couldn’t help but marvel at the way he formed the words so perfectly, not a hint of the Scottish accent I knew him to have.

“Please,” I said to him. “Tell them to let me go!”

He spoke to the man again, who answered back with a wave of his arm.

“He said ye were lost,” Mac said to me, slipping seamlessly back into his brogue. “Didn’a think it right to leave ye alone in the dark, so he brought ye back here for safe keeping.”

“I wasn’t lost!” I said indignantly. When he gave me a level look, however, I deflated. “Maybe I was. A little. I was looking for Fergus!”

At this, Mac looked concerned. “Is the lad missing?”

I sighed, sitting up into a more comfortable position, feeling strangely ashamed to have to tell him what had happened. “He ran away. He was mad at me and…” I groaned. “He wanted to run away and join the Cheyenne. Join you. He thinks it’s what you did.”

Mac gave me a half-smile, and I realized it was the first I’d ever seen from him. “Maybe that is what I did.”

“Well, regardless, unless he’s here, he’s out there somewhere, alone, and I have to go and find him!”

The man sitting beside him, who I now recognized as Chief Black Kettle, spoke, and Mac answered, presumably catching him up on what was happening. After a brief discussion, Mac turned back to me.

“Ye can’t go back out now, lass. It’s dark. Ye’d do more harm than good.”

“But I can’t just sit here! He’s just a little boy!”

“One who’s lived here long enough to know the dangers. But ye can’t help him if ye get yourself even more lost, or eaten by a wolf,” Mac’s own pet wolf perked up from beside me, as if knowing his kind was being spoken of unfavorably, and fixed me with that unnerving yellow stare of his.

“Chief Black Kettle,” Mac continued, nodding to the man next to him. “Says the Cheyenne will help ye. In the morning.”

As hard as it was to accept, I knew what Mac was saying made sense. And help from the Cheyenne would be invaluable. Chief Black Kettle smiled kindly at me and spoke, the Mac translated.

“We’ll find your boy.”

I smiled back, finding I quite liked the man. “Thank you.”

Nea ese,” he said, in a tone I took to mean he was teaching me the Cheyenne phrase.  

I repeated it, clumsily, but he still nodded in approval.

After a few more words spoken with Mac, both Black Kettle and the other man took their leave, the latter giving me a peculiar look on the way, leaving Mac and me alone.

Mac stepped out, but returned a moment later with some corn and smoked meat. “You should eat,” he said to me.

“I’m not hungry,” I said, though the smell of food was making my mouth water.

He rolled his eyes. “Ye want to find the lad? Then ye’ll eat. Ye canna take care of anyone if ye dinna take care of yourself.”

It annoyed me how he always seemed to be right, but I took the food without further protest. He then offered me a small flask, which a tentative sip proved to be excellent whiskey.

I smirked up at him. “You can take the man out of Scotland…”

He smirked back. “But no’ the Scot out o’ the man. Aye, I’ve taught the Cheyenne a thing or two about good whiskey.”

I wouldn’t have thought I could possibly sleep with worry for Fergus, but the stress of the day and the long ride were catching up to me, and fast. And by the time I’d filled my belly, my eyes were drooping shut.

I was roused briefly by the sudden appearance of Mac’s wolf at my elbow. He sniffed at me questioningly, and I recoiled nervously. The thing looked even bigger than usual within the small confines of the teepee.

“Rollo willn’a hurt ye, Sassenach,” he said. “In fact, he likes ye.”

“He does?” I asked, gingerly reaching out to pat Rollo’s massive head. “And…wait…did you just call me a Sassenach? I haven’t been called that since my last trip to Scotland as a teenager. From what I remember, it wasn’t a terribly complimentary term.”

To my astonishment, Mac blushed, and I gathered that he hadn’t expected me to know the meaning of the Gaelic word. “It means only that you’re English, ken. Or, at worst, outlander. And I’d say you’re both, here.”

“You can tell that I’m English?” I asked. I had never adopted the rather harsh Bostonian accent, but thought my English one was considerably watered down.

“Oh aye, but I can tell as well that ye’ve lived here a long time.”

“How long have you lived here?” I asked. “Your accent is still quite strong.”

And just like that, the openness he’d begun to display shuttered right back up again, and he started arranging himself a pallet on the ground. “Long enough,” he said, and I knew that was the end of that conversation.

Realizing he meant to sleep there in the teepee with me, I felt a little strange, all the while being annoyed with myself for it.

I tried to maintain a forward-thinking, open mind, but the simple fact was, besides Uncle Lamb and my patients, I wasn’t used to being alone with men. And something about Mac made me especially on edge, even though I felt with upmost certainty that he wouldn’t lay a finger on me. In fact, I was likely safer with him there.

I sat and gazed into the flames for a time, trying to gather up the energy to cobble together a pallet of my own, and became sleepily aware of the form beyond the fire moving and rising.

Mac crossed round to me, slipping off the plaid blanket he was wearing around his shoulders, and wrapping it around me. For just a moment, his hands lingered on my shoulders, kneading them gently. It was a brief touch, but one that soothed, and I found that I missed his warmth when he stood back up and went back to his side of the tent. I laid down, and as I closed my eyes, his were still on mine.

Chapter Text

As exhausted as I was, sleep unsurprisingly did not come easily. But eventually sleep I did. I didn’t remember my dreams, but I awoke feeling flushed and warm, and for some reason, the sight of Mac shaking me awake made me flush even more. I decided I didn’t want to know what I’d been dreaming.

“They’re ready to go,” he told me, helping me up and handing me his flask of whiskey. It wasn’t really what I was accustomed to drinking first thing in the morning, but the morning was damp and cold, and the heat of it was welcomed.

A woman brought Bear round to me, and I thanked her haltingly the way Black Kettle had taught me. The way her cheeks dimpled made me think I’d butchered it, but neither she nor Mac corrected me.

We rode out with eight other men, and then Mac said that he and I would break off and go on our own, to cover more ground.

“Why’d he run away?” Mac asked.

“Does it matter?” I responded crossly.

He shot me an apologetic look. “S’pose it don’t.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, my shoulders slumping. “I just…I don’t think I’m doing this right.”

“What? Looking for the lad?”

“No,” I sighed. “Parenting. As unusual as I know it must sound, I was never one to want children. I mean, I like them and all, but I never thought about it the way most women do. I never paid attention to the way people raised their children. My own mother died when I was so young, and she was never… so I just…don’t think I’m cut out for this at all.”

I hadn’t mean to unload so much on him, but it felt good to say it aloud to someone, even if I could hear how pathetic and self-absorbed it sounded.

“You think I’m a horrible person, don’t you?”

“Nah,” he scoffed. “I think yer human. And I think maybe no one knows how to be a parent till they are one. Maybe no’ even then. But then they’re there and…” he trailed off, his eyes trained on the path ahead of him. “And ye’d move mountains for them. But sometimes…even that’s no’ enough.”

I knew he was thinking about his own child…gone before he could begin to live, and I mentally kicked myself for bringing it up.

“Do ye love them?” Mac asked, and I thought I heard a hint of challenge in his voice, but then he shrugged and relaxed his voice. “S’pose it’s a wee bit different for ye, as they’re half-grown already, and no’ your own.”

“I do love them,” I said, just a little bit surprised at how much I meant it. “I love all of them.”

He smiled then, softly, and I was amazed by how it transformed his face, making him look almost boyish. And it dawned on me then that he wasn’t nearly as old as I thought he was, I thought perhaps he was even younger than me. “Then that’s all that matters, Sassenach. Love them, and the rest’ll fall into place.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. “I don’t know what I’ll do if anything happens to Fergus.”

“He’s a canny lad, dinna fash.”

“He…fash…what?”

“I know…” he continued, ignoring my confusion, and dismounting his hulking black horse. “Do ye have anything of the lad’s?”

I had brought Fergus’s spare coat, in case he was cold, and reached into my saddlebag to get it.

He took the coat and whistled for Rollo, sticking it under the wolf’s nose. “Find the lad, Rollo,” he said. “Find.”

Rollo sniffed the coat, excited it seemed, to be given a job. Then he took off like a shot, into the brush.

“Come on!” Mac exclaimed, leaving me to follow.

The terrain became rocky, and before I knew it, we were climbing. I hurriedly slid off of Bear, letting him loose to graze while I scrambled up after Mac and Rollo. It felt like we climbed forever, and then suddenly Mac was calling for me.

My eyes watered as I stubbed my toe for the third time on a rock, but I managed to catch up to find both Mac and Rollo peering over the edge of a steep drop.

My stomach plummeted, feeling like it was going to drop right out of my body. I almost couldn’t even bring myself to look, but then Mac was yelling Fergus’s name and I almost tumbled down myself in my rush to see.

He was lying on the ground about ten feet down, one of his legs at an awkward angle.

“Fergus!” I cried, my voice shaking.

The relief I felt when he lifted his head was dizzying, and he looked up the cliff uttering a wobbly, “Dr. B?”

“Don’t move, Fergus! We’re going to get you!”

Mac was already turning to lower himself down the cliff, and I bit my lip, feeling my heart in my throat the whole time he climbed down, petrified his foot would slip and send him careening the rest of the way down the 100 foot drop.

But his feet were sure, barely disturbing a stone under his leather moccasins. Before I knew it, he had Fergus hoisted onto his back, and was effortlessly climbing back up.

The moment their heads popped up over the edge, I was hauling Fergus into my arms, hugging tightly. His little arms wrapped around my neck tight enough to cut off my air, but I didn’t care. I didn’t ever want to let go.

But the doctor in me prevailed, and I pulled away, trying to look him over without putting him down. “Are you alright?” I asked, verging on hysteria.

“Hurts,” he said weakly, trying to bury his face back into my shoulder.

“Where? Where does it hurt?!”

“Leg.”

I sat him down in the grass, able to see the problem immediately.

“His leg is broken,” I said to no one in particular, but Mac was at my side, looking at me as if waiting for instruction. “I’ll need something to use as a splint, and then I’ll have to reset the bone.”

Mac nodded once and set off, presumably in search of a splint, while I gently prodded the rest of Fergus’s body, checking for other injury. But his eyes were clear; I didn’t think he’d hit his head, and nothing else seemed so urgent that I couldn’t wait to examine him better at home.

Mac returned with a sturdy branch that he snapped to be the right size, and without be asked to, situated himself behind Fergus to hold him still. Fergus’s eyes were wide and fearful, but understanding of what needed to be done.

“Bite on this, lad,” Mac said, holding a stick up to Fergus’s mouth.

Fergus bit down on the stick, looking up at me trustingly.

“This will hurt,” I told him apologetically, but he only nodded.

I positioned my hands above his leg, trying to find the right placement without touching him to lessen the amount of time I would hurt him. The break was in his shin, and looked and felt clean, with none of the bone having broken the skin. I placed my hands on either side of the break and pulled, snapping the bone back into place one go.

Fergus cringed and whimpered, tears leaking out from the corners of his eyes, but he didn’t scream, and I quickly bound up his leg with the splint.

“Brave lad,” Mac praised, removing the stick from between Fergus’s teeth and patting his shoulder.

“Very brave,” I agreed, smiling. “But also very foolish. How could you run away, Fergus?”

“I’m sorry,” he said sadly. “Are you mad at me?”

My urge to scold him vanish as quickly as it appeared, and I gathered him into my arms once more. “No. No, I’m just glad you’re alright.”

I helped situate Fergus onto Mac’s back, and we started our slow decent back to where our horses were hopefully waiting.

 

We reached the road, with no sight of our own horses, but heard the thundering of many more hooves.

“It’s the army,” Mac said, ducking down in some tall grass. “Christ…they’re off the reservation…”

The army was in pursuit of the Indian men who had been helping us search for Fergus. They had the eight men cornered by the side of the mountain, their horses whinnying and jostling restlessly. I could see them speaking to one another, watching the army fast approaching, and I knew that there was going to be bloodshed very soon.

“But they were just helping us,” I said to Jamie, and frowned to see several of the men from town hanging behind the army…along with William. “I can’t let this happen…”

“Stop!” Mac hissed at me as I stumbled to my feet and darted to intercept the charging horses. I ignored Mac and threw myself in front of them, my arms raised above my head.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” General Chivington snapped, his horse rearing to a stop.

“These men have done nothing wrong!” I shouted, glancing over my shoulder where the Indians hesitated, watching me curiously and ready to run again at a moment’s notice.

“They left their land in numbers greater than two,” he said condescendingly. “They broke the law.”

I wanted to snarl at him that this was their land first, but didn’t think that’d go over too well. “They left because of me! My boy was missing, they were helping me search for him!”

I became aware of a presence behind me, knowing without looking that it was Mac, and was grateful for it.

The general eyed me in distaste, then Mac over my shoulder, then the Indians.

“Please accept my apologies,” I continued. “It’s my fault.”

The general sneered, but what could he do? “Fall back,” he snapped at his men, roughly turning his horse about.

Only once they all started to retreat did I relax, then I turned to look at Mac to offer my thanks, only to find him giving me a peculiar look of his own. Before I could start to decipher it, William came riding up, followed by the other men from town. I glanced back at the Indians, and one of them waved at me before they all disappeared into the trees.

“Dr. B!” William exclaimed once he was near enough. “You okay? Have you found Fergus?”

“Yes,” I answered to both his questions, following Mac up the slope to where he’d left Fergus.

“That was incroyable!” Fergus squealed from his hiding spot in the grass, his slight French accent coming through stronger on the word. “You stood up to all those soldiers!”

I ducked my head, busying myself with checking his splint. “Well, I couldn’t just do nothing, could I?”

“He’s right,” William said, crouching beside me. “It was pretty darned incredible.”

“Let’s get your brother home,” I said, rolling my eyes self-consciously.

I helped get Fergus situated in front of William on his horse, relieved to see that they’d found and brought Bear.

“Where are you going?” I asked Mac, when he turned as if to leave.

“Time to go track down Donas,” he said. “The wee bastard is more apt to finding a filly than he is to going home.”

I chuckled at the idea of called that massive beast of a horse “wee,” as well as his unexpected use of profanity.

“Thank you,” I told him. “Truly. I couldn’t have saved Fergus without you. I hope you’ll thank the men for me, too.”

To my bafflement, he blinked slowly, like a lazy cat. But there was a glint in his eyes that made me wonder if he was trying to wink…and couldn’t.

“Aye Sassenach. And you,” he moved over to William’s horse, looking up at Fergus. “Stay close to home in the future, aye?”

“Aye,” Fergus mimicked, making Mac smile.

I watched him walk away for a moment, Rollo trailing after him, then climbed onto Bear.

“Dr. B?” William began as we rode away. “What did he just call you?”

 

Brianna was anxiously waiting outside with one of the ladies from town when we rode up.

“Dr. B!” she exclaimed when we came into view. “FERGUS!”

“Take it easy, Bree,” William said, sliding down before lifting Fergus into his arms. “Kid’s leg is broken.”

Brianna fussed over Fergus while we got him inside, but once he was situated in bed she turned to me, fists perched on her small hips.

“You scared us to death!” she scolded, taking me by surprise.

I did? I was looking for Fergus, you knew that.”

“You were gone all night! Then when Bear came back without you…” she trailed off, and I realized with horror that she was beginning to cry, and I took two steps forward to wrap her in my arms.

“I’m sorry!” I said breathlessly. “I never meant to worry you even more. The Cheyenne took me in last night, and Mac wouldn’t let me go out after it got dark. Then I had to abandon Bear to get to Fergus. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”

Brianna sniffled, cuddling into me. “You can’t be gone all night without telling anyone,” she scolded, her voice muffled by my blouse. “You don’t live here alone anymore!”

“I won’t,” I said, smoothing down her hair. “I promise. In fact I think we should all promise,” I raised my voice, looking pointedly over at Fergus. “That no one should leave anymore without telling the others in the house where we’re going.”

“Sounds fair to me,” William said, arching an eyebrow at Fergus.

“I’m sorry,” the little boy said sleepily. “I won’t run away no more.”

“Good,” I said, sitting beside him on the bed and gathering him to me. “Because we’d all miss you, very, very much.”

 

I awoke in the night to rhythmic thump thump that had me rolling over and blinking sleepily into the dark.

“Fergus!” I whispered as loudly as I could, seeing him hobbling his way toward my bed with the little impromptu crutch William had fashioned with a tree branch. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“Can’t sleep,” he whispered back.

I sat up, adjusting the neck of my nightgown to make sure I was properly covered. “Does your leg hurt too bad?”

He shook his head, then nodded it, then shook it again. “It hurts, but can I stay with you?”

Melting at the pleading look in his big brown eyes, I went to him and picked him up, carrying him the rest of the way to my bed.

While settled himself right down against my spare pillow, I poured out a small dose of laudanum into a spoon to help ease his pain.

“Take this,” I ordered, biting back a small at the face he made from the taste.

We lay facing each other, and he got hold of my braid, expertly undoing it and braiding it again.

“Tell me a story?” he asked.

“I don’t think I know any.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “Make it up.”

I hummed to myself, thinking, then started telling a story off the top of my head, quietly, barely more than a whisper, and watched as his eyes grew heavy.

“Once upon a time there was a woman. For a long time she lived just her and her beloved uncle, and then, for a while, she was on her own. She didn’t mind so much, she didn’t think she needed anybody. But then a wonderful lady and her three beautiful children came into her life. And the lady, well, she couldn’t stay for nearly long enough, which left the woman and the three children all without families of their own. So they became one…and it wasn’t easy at first.”

“Because sometimes they yell and fight?” Fergus asked, eyes drooping. “And sometimes they don’t do what the woman says?”

“Mmhmm, and sometimes they even run away!”

Fergus gasped in mock surprise. “How terrible.”

“Yes, but it wasn’t all the children’s faults. Sometimes the woman tried too hard, or worried too much. But they were all trying their best. And then one day, the woman realized something amazing.”

“What’s that?”

“She realized that she did need someone after all. And it just so happens that the exact people she needed in her life were the three children.”

“And even though they weren’t hers, she loved them just the same?”

“Just the same. And then some.”

Chapter Text

As frightening as the experience with Fergus was, it ultimately brought peace to our tentative family. William began to make a concentrated effort to listen to me, and treat me with respect, which served as an example to the younger children.

After healing from his injury, Fergus seemed happier, though perhaps a bit too big for his britches, so-to-speak, due to all the attention he received as a result.

Summer turned to Fall, and we began preparing for Thanksgiving and Christmas, which I knew was going to be a very difficult time for the children, so I was determined to make it as festive as possible.

Brianna excitedly picked out some red fabric to make herself a dress for the church Christmas party, and I continued to be astounded by the little girl’s ability to sew. The only sewing I could do successfully involved human flesh.

It was just before Thanksgiving and all eyes were watching for the first snow of season, expected to come early, judging by the weather. Luckily, growing up in Boston, I was no stranger to cold and snow. So there was that.

I was curled up under multiple quilts in the early pre-dawn hours, dreaming of a successful triple bypass surgery and the astonished faces of an entire team of male surgeons who had needed my help to get it done, when came a loud banging at the front door.

I awoke with a start and made to jump out of bed, managing instead to get tangled up in my own blankets and landing in a heap on the floor.

“Dr. B?” Brianna said, both hers and Fergus’s faces peeking from around the curtain to their room. “Who’s at the door?”

The knock came again, and I felt an unfamiliar twinge of fear. If it were William coming from the barn with an emergency, he would be calling out for me to let him in, so I couldn’t help but wonder who it was. It could be someone who needed my help…and not long ago I would have flown to the door in a heartbeat.

But I had two small children in the house to worry about, now.

“Dr. B!” called a male voice from the other side of the door, and though I’d never heard it raised in such a manner, I recognized it at once.

I unbolted the door and swung it open, eyes widening to see Mac there along with a young Cheyenne man, and propped up between them was Chief Black Kettle.

“He’s been shot,” Mac said, half-carrying the barely conscious man into the house.

“Put him on the table,” I ordered, slipping immediately into the calm, calculated state needed to deal with an emergency situation.

“Chivington,” Mac snapped breathlessly with barely contained rage that would have terrified me had I not known it wasn’t aimed at me. “We were coming back from hunting. They killed the others, chased us back awa’ from the village. Christ, we dinna even know what’s happened tae the village.”

I spared only a moment to stare at him in appalled shock, and found his normally calm, solemn, somewhat sad eyes were flashing with rage, passion, and most of all…trust.

That trust was directed at me, and I swallowed my nerves, determined not to let him, them down.

I immediately began the examination, finding the source of bleeding quickly enough. “There’s a bullet lodged in his neck,” I reported.

“Can ye help him?” Mac asked.

I felt along Black Kettle’s neck, trying to see without seeing whether his esophagus was punctured. His breathing was shallow and rattling, but not, I thought, due to blood in this throat. “I think so,” I said. “But the swelling is making it hard for him to breath. I’m going to need to administer a tracheotomy.”

“A what?”

I cut my eyes up to him. “He’s going to suffocate before I can remove the bullet unless I open up a way for him to get air in. Bree…”

“Yes, Dr. B?” Brianna said from right beside me, where I hadn’t realized she was.

“Boil some water,” I told the girl, pleased by the calm manner she began doing just that. “Fergus, go out to the barn and tell William what’s going on, and the two of you stay there and keep an eye out for soldiers, understand?” Fergus, eyes wide as saucers, nodded once and scampered out the door. I turned back to Mac and the other man, who I recognized from the village when I’d first been brought to the tent with Mac and Black Kettle. “I need something to put in his windpipe to help him breathe, some kind of hollow tube.”

Mac shook his head in bewilderment. When Black Kettle’s breathing suddenly got shallower, I snatched at the necklace of feathers Mac wore around his neck, snapping one off and hurriedly breaking off the end. I blew hard through it to make sure air could get all the way through, and with my other hand, reached into my medical kit for the chloroform.

But when I made to place the dampened rag over Black Kettle’s mouth, the other Cheyenne man grabbed my hand, glaring at me reprovingly.

“I’m just going to make him sleep,” I told Mac.

Mac nudged the other man away, making him break his grip, then spoke in hurried tones to Black Kettle in their language. Black Kettle rasped an answer.

“He says he’s no’ afraid of pain,” Mac said. “He wants to be alert, ken.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, but there was no time to argue. I wiped his skin with alcohol, and took up my sharpest knife and made a small incision in his neck, making sure to cut just deep enough to get into his windpipe. After dousing the feather in alcohol as well, I inserted it into the incision, feeling over the end to make sure air was getting in and out.

Satisfied that Black Kettle would at least not suffocate, I went to work on extracting the bullet, which proved to be a messy job when I caused a bleeder I first had to tie off before continuing.

As any time I’m performing a procedure, I go into a state where nothing and no one else really exists for me. When all there is in the world is myself, and the patient.

However, never before had I performed such a risky procedure without Uncle Lamb or one of the nurses at my side, and the lack of extra hands made things difficult.

I patted along the blood-soaked table beside me for my forceps, annoyed when I couldn’t find them. “Forceps,” I muttered aloud, surprised to find them being tapped on top of my hand. I glanced up to find Brianna back beside me, looking pale but sturdy, handing me my tool. Behind her, Mac stood watching, looking considerably less steady, and the other man was nowhere to be seen

“Thank you,” I said to Bree, going back to work. After that it was a simple matter of saying aloud what I needed, and finding it silently passed to me. Later I would realize that Brianna was carefully avoiding touching Black Kettle or the blood, but the way she stepped easily into the role of assistant was impressive for one so young.

In no time at all, the wound was stitched, and it and the tracheotomy were cleaned and bandaged.

I had them move Black Kettle to my bed, then sent Brianna out to bring the boys inside, feeling like I needed them safely nearby. I sent them all to bed, though I could see Fergus sitting up at the end of his bed, having drawn Rollo close by and was stroking the wolf’s enormous head. I was a little uneasy about that, but Jamie seemed unconcerned, so I tried to be as well.

Though the night was cold, it was quite warm inside with the fire going and the many extra bodies. The man who had come with Mac and Black Kettle, who Mac bewilderingly called Ian, sat awake on the floor beside the bed, still as stone.

Mac and I sat closely beside each other at the table, to be able to talk without disturbing anyone. I had my shawl wrapped tightly around me, having become aware only after the stitches were in place that I was wearing nothing but my nightgown. To his credit, Mac never even appeared to notice, but with my house currently very full of men, I couldn’t easily change. Luckily I’d taken to making sure I wore only nightwear that kept me decently covered, in deference to living with two young boys.

“Chivington’s army will expect to find his body,” Mac said quietly, fidgeting with his tomahawk on the table. “When they don’t, they’ll come looking.”

“You can’t move him yet,” I told him sternly. “If his stitches break, he could start to bleed again. And the tracheotomy can’t come out until the swelling has gone down.”

Mac ran a hand through his shaggy hair, a gesture that looked born of stress. I realized only then that he had blood on him, and it didn’t all look like it came from Black Kettle, and he was holding his other arm at an odd angle.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said suddenly, making him look up at me in alarm.

“Never thought I’d hear ye blaspheme, Sassenach,” he said, amusement tinging his features. “Who’s H. Roosevelt though?”

“My uncle’s anatomy professor,” I answered distractedly. “You’re hurt, aren’t you?”

He shifted uncomfortably, then winced. “Aye, well, maybe a bit.”

“Let me see,” I hissed, making him turn in his chair so I could reach his other arm. “Your shoulder is dislocated! Why didn’t you say something?”

He shrugged, which made him wince even more. “Didn’a hurt so much at the time.”

“Oh I’m sure. Now be still, I need to set it.” I felt around his shoulder through his shirt to determine exactly how it was dislocated. Then I lifted his hand, pushing it inward to get it in the right position before getting out of my seat and bending over him. So far he’d kept still and silent, but his face had broken out into a sweat, and his jaw was clenched tight. “This is the worst part,” I told him more gently, waiting for his nod before jerking the joint back into place.

A dhia,” he breathed. “It doesn’a hurt anymore!”

“It will,” I said crossly, going to fetch some linin to make a sling. “You’re such a bloody man, sitting here in pain instead of just asking for help.”

“I was gonna ask,” he said, a bit contritely, and a bit petulantly. “I only though t’ let ye rest is all.”

I deflated at that, not knowing exactly how to answer. I glanced over at my other patient, seeing that he was sleeping peacefully, and “Ian” was watching my and Mac’s proceedings with interest.

“How did you get so involved?” I asked after a time, tying the sling around him.

“With the Cheyenne?” he said, then shrugged his good shoulder. “They were friend to me when I needed friends,” he nodded over to where Fergus was slumped over Rollo’s furry form, both fast asleep. “Just as that wolf was. Did ye know, that just thirty years ago, thousands of those wolves roamed this land? But people thought they were too dangerous. Some even tend to believe they’re evil. The governor put a price on their heads, and they were hunted down to near nothin’. Now only a couple hundred exist,” he looked back over to the bed. “Th’ way I see it, same thing is happen’ now, only with the Indians.”

I bit my lower lip. On one hand, keeping these men in my house could bring danger to myself and the children. But on the other…where else could they go?

“You could hide him in the barn,” I suggested. The children’s safety would come first, but I couldn’t turn my back on Mac and his friends.

“Thank you,” Mac said sincerely, meeting my eyes. “Truly.”

 

By the time Mac, Ian (or Two Moons, I heard Mac call him both,) and William had moved Black Kettle to the barn, the sun had risen.

Ian/Two Moons seemed anxious to leave, though he eyed me with begrudging gratitude. He spoke to Mac, who turned to me to translate.

“How long until we can move him?” he asked as they arranged Black Kettle as comfortably as possible in the hay.

“At least a day,” I told him. “Ideally more, but he needs to remain as still as possible for as long as possible for the tissue to bind and the swelling to go down.”

“Aye,” Mac murmured resignedly. “Aye, well, you and the bairns best get back inside.”

I nodded. “Alright, but come get me if he starts bleeding again.”

The children and I went into the house to hurry and clean up the mess left behind. We started breakfast, though we were all quiet and tense. All except for Fergus, who was chattering on excitedly about Rollo.

We just sat down at the table when we all turned at the sound of approaching hoof beats.

“Wonderful,” I muttered, getting up to go to the door.

“Dr. B!” William hissed. “What if they recognize you from when Fergus went missing?”

I thought of a few very coarse words, realizing he was right. I’d already well and truly established myself an Indian “sympathizer.” I would automatically be suspected of harboring them.

When the knock came, I took a deep breath and wrapped my shawl around my head, trying to conceal as much of my riotous curls as I could.

I peeked out the door, keeping my eyes low, like a meek housewife. I couldn’t tell if the soldier in front of me had been there during the confrontation, but neither could I say for sure he wasn’t.

“Can I help ye?” I asked, pitching my voice higher and trying (and spectacularly failing) to mimic Mac’s accent.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said removing his hat. “Sorry to bother you, but we’re looking for some renegade Indians. They were involved in an attack on the Continental Army. I’m sorry, but we’ve orders to search every house.”

Attack on the army, hm?

“Oh aye?” I said aloud, standing aside to let him in. “How awful!”

“Yes ma’am, you haven’t seen any Indians in these parts, have you?”

Och, no! Are we in danger?”

“Well, you’d best stay indoors, today” he advised, turning toward the table. “You, boy, you see anything?”

“No, sir,” William said. Fergus and Brianna both shook their heads in agreement.

“Well, keep an eye out,” the soldier said before turning back to me. “We’ll need to check your barn, ma’am.”

“Oh…erm…yes…aye, o’course.”

“If you see any renegades, send the boy to the fort,” he instructed, before letting himself out.

The children and I took one look at each other before scrambling for the back door, to peek out from between the gaps in the wood toward the barn.

I could see one of them trying the main door, but it was apparently stuck. (Or barred from the inside.)

I watched with my heart in my throat as eight soldiers walked around the barn, trying to get in, and seemingly growing suspicious when they couldn’t.

I could only imagine what they would do to Mac and the others if they found them. Would they shoot them all? Would I have to watch helplessly alongside the children as three good men died?

All of a sudden the main door swung open, and the soldiers filed inside. For several heart-stopping minutes nothing happened.

“Did they find them?” Fergus asked, earning a harsh “SHH!” from the rest of us.

Then, all the soldiers came walking out calmly, not so much as looking back at the house before mounting their horses and riding away.

I kept a tight grip on both William and Brianna’s arms and made myself count to one hundred before tearing out of the house.

“Mac?” I called.

“Here,” he called back, he and Ian carrying Black Kettle out of the woods.

“Hurry, we need to lay him back down,” I said, ushering them back into the barn. “And you,” I snapped, taking Black Kettle’s weight from Mac. “You’re not supposed to be using that arm!”

“Sorry, Sassenach,” Mac said, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “It was either use my arm, or no’ use anything else ever again.”

“Ha, bloody ha,” I muttered, earning twin scandalized expressions from William and Bree, and impressed ones from Fergus and Mac.

 

Black Kettle healed quickly, and was an absolute model patient. In the rare few times I’d been permitted to treat men, never before had one been so courteous and respectful, for all we didn’t understand one another’s languages.

Ian, as it turned out, was actually named Ishaynishus, or Two Moons. The name Ian was apparently an affectionate nickname between him and Mac, and had even resulted in Two Moons’ own son actually being named Ian.

“I’ve known him many long years,” Mac said, but didn’t offer anything else of the relationship.

After two days of healing, I deemed Black Kettle well enough to travel back to his village and help those who were left migrate farther North to get away from Chivington and his army.

Mac and Ian helped the older man onto his horse, and he turning back and spoke to me, using flowing hand-gestures.

“What did he say?” I asked Mac.

Mac smiled at me and nodded. “Chief Black Kettle has given you your Cheyenne name, lass. Ma’heóná’e. It means…well, I suppose ye’d say it means Wise Woman, or Medicine Woman.

I grinned up at Black Kettle. “Nea ese.”

Black Kettle nodded in approval and turned to go, followed by Two Moons.

“Thank ye, Sassenach,” Mac said, mounting his own horse. “Fergus, behave yer’self a charaid.”

“Bye Mac!” Fergus exclaimed, waving wildly as Mac rode away, wolf trailing behind. “Bye Rollo!”

I watched Mac ride out or sight, and wondered a bit when I’d see him again.

 

The first snow came that night, and like the birds that fly South, Mac seemed to fade away into the winter, and I hoped it was just because he was helping his Indian family resettle.

Thanksgiving came and went, and we readied the house for Christmas. We found a tree in the woods, and William cut it down, then we decorated it together with homemade ornaments and painted pinecones. It was a far cry from the lavish, enormous trees we’d had as I was growing up, but I thought it was beautiful.

Christmas Eve arrived, and though I could see the aching sadness in their eyes, I encouraged the children to tell me all about their traditions with their mother, and let them choose the ones they would like to recreate, and which they felt were better left as memories. I reciprocated in kind, and told them all about Christmases with Uncle Lamb.

“You spent Christmas in Bethlehem?” William asked in astonishment. “Real life Bethlehem?”

“Well, we were on a holiday in Asia, and Lamb thought it would be quite the experience to spend Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus himself,” I said. “But of course Christmas there isn’t anything like it is here. The traditional meal is…”

“Oh no!” Brianna cried, sitting by the window in her lovely Christmas dress.

“What is it, Bree?” I asked, getting up to join her before echoing her words. “Oh no, the snow is really coming down.”

“Don’t look like it’s gonna let up, either,” William said, peering out as well. “No one’ll be going out tonight, Bree.”

“But what about the church party?! It could still let up! Right, Dr. B?”

I opened my mouth, but couldn’t think of anything encouraging to say. There was no way we could head back into town now, likely not even if we lived in town.

“Just give it up,” William snapped. “It’s just a dumb party!”

Bree’s face screwed up in anger, but then she began to cry softly, and my own scolding expression melted when I saw the remorseful look on William’s.

“What about Santa?” Fergus asked quietly. “Can he still come?”

“Of course he can,” I told the little boy, sitting beside him on the couch. “No amount of snow can stop him.”

I was immensely grateful to William for taking me aside before and making sure I understood that Fergus and Bree would need something under the tree from Santa Clause on Christmas morning. Uncle Lamb had never fostered that belief in me, but the last thing those children needed was that kind of disappointment after the year they’d been through.

“I worked so hard on my dress,” Bree whimpered.

“And you look beautiful,” I insisted, though I was slowly floundering and at a loss of what to do to cheer them up. “Who needs to sit in a church to have fun? We can have our own fun right here. We could sing, play games…”

I got three sets of sullen looks for my efforts. “Erm…well I suppose since it’s a special occasion…who would like to try a little of the wine Mr. Abernathy gave me?”

Three much-cheered children raised their hands excitedly and I portioned out tiny servings to each, (a slightly larger one for William,) and interestingly enough, only Fergus liked it.

With a lot of help from Brianna, we prepared ourselves a lovely Christmas dinner, and the party seemed forgotten as we gathered around the table.

“Are you going to say grace, Dr. B?” Brianna asked. The honor usually fell to one of the children, myself not being terribly versed in how to pray, but they were looking at me expectantly, so we joined hands and I did my best.

“Thank you for this meal, and for our health and safety…” I peeked up at the children. “And please let Charlotte know how much we all love and miss her. And tell her…tell her that even though I wish she were still here with all my heart, I thank her for bringing these children into my life. Amen.”

The children seemed pleased with my words, to my relief, and it was rather remarkable to me how much I meant them. I would always wish that Charlotte hadn’t died, and that these children still had their mother. But in the nine months since becoming their guardian, they had become such an integral part of my life. I’d never thought anything could mean as much to me as being a doctor…but I was being proven very wrong.

For the first time in a long time, I thought of Frank. He’d wanted children so badly, and I didn’t. I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d think of me now.

“Dr. B?” Fergus piped up.

“Yes, Fergus?”

“Do you think Mama would mind…if I call you Mama, too?”

I felt my eyes widen, and my breath caught in my throat. Nothing could have prepared me for that sweet, innocent question…nor for the feeling it sparked within me.

Half in a panic, I looked first to Brianna, then to William, surprised to find them smiling and nodding at me. Giving me their permission.

I looked back at Fergus…and God how I loved him. How I loved all of them. “I don’t think she’d mind a bit, Fergus.”

Pleased, Fergus wordlessly went back to eating, completely unaware of how he’d just changed my world.

Our peaceful little Christmas was interrupted by a rapping on the door.

“Is it Santa?!” Fergus exclaimed, making to jump out of his seat.

“Fergus wait!” I said. “Stay back. William…”

William got to is feet and stood between Fergus’ and Brianna’s chair.

It had to be a serious emergency for someone to be knocking in this weather, and when I opened the door, I almost couldn’t see the person for the layers and layers of cloth that covered them.

But when their face peered out from underneath their hood, I was greeted by a familiar pair of blue eyes.

“Mac!” I exclaimed, immediately stepping aside to let him in, shaking off snow as he did.

“Mac!” Fergus cried, jumping out of his chair. “I thought you were Santa!”

“You must be freezing,” I said, steering Mac toward the fire. “What are you doing running about in this blizzard?”

He chuckled, though it was shaky from his shivering. “Weel, I dinna quite know what to do w’out yer scolding, so here I came.”

The children all thought that was quite funny, so I shot them all a playful glare. “Very funny.”

He had his arms inside his fur-lined cloak, and I wondered if he’d reinjured his shoulder. Before I could usher him into a seat for an examination, he was pulling out what looked to be a tomahawk, only the blade was made of leather. In fact, it looked simply like an overgrown reflex hammer. “Happy Christmas, Fergus.”

“My own tomahawk!” Fergus cried. “Thank you, Mac!”

He then produced a small buck knife for William, then a beautiful wooden comb for Brianna, both of which caused the same gratitude as Fergus.

He still had one arm inside his cloak, and when he turned to look at me, he looked downright sheepish. “I didn’a know quite what to get ye, Sassenach…”

“Oh, don’t be silly!” I interrupted him. “I don’t expect…”

“It’s only…I ken ye may no’ like it…” he continued. “But I figured as, weel, when the Spring comes, there’s like to be a lot of mice and such. Which canna be good for doctoring…”

“No…” I agreed, curious.

When he unveiled his other arm, he revealed in the palm of his hand, a tiny gray kitten.

“By Spring he’ll be big enough to be a bonny mouse-catcher,” Mac explained shyly.

I gasped, reaching out immediately to take the little ball of fur and cuddle him to me. “Oh, look at him! He’s precious!”

“Ye like him, then?”

I was surprised at how much it seemed to matter to Mac that I liked his gift, and I was glad that I didn’t have to pretend. “I love him,” I said, lowering the cat to let Fergus and Bree fawn over him. “What’s his name?”

Mac shrugged, and if it weren’t for the cold already making his face red, I would have sworn he was blushing. “I’ve been calling him Adso…after a wee cheetie I had as a lad. But he’s yours…ye can…”

“I like Adso,” I told him, stroking the purring kitten’s fur.

“Can I hold Adso while we eat, Mama?” Fergus asked.

Mac’s eyes darted quickly to me in surprise at Fergus’s form of address, and he melted into a soft smile that left me with a peculiar feeling I didn’t care to evaluate.

“Just this once,” I said, handing the kitten over. “But I don’t want him in the habit of eating at the table.”

Mac shuffled his feet a bit awkwardly, before wrapping his arms up back into his cloak. “Weel, Happy Christmas…” he said, heading for the door.

“Wait…” I called. “Won’t you…won’t you join us?”

Mac seemed to hesitate, but the children answered for him by scrambling to fetch a chair, and extra place setting, and room at the table.

“Aye,” he said at last, shrugging off some of his layers. “Thank ye.”

We gathered back around the table, now one friend extra, and enjoyed our meal as a rather mismatched family of sorts. Though it was bittersweet, though every person was missing someone terribly, it was a truly wonderful Christmas, and I felt, perhaps, a new beginning.

Chapter Text

“Bree…did you take my aaaARG JESUS H. ROOSEVELT CHRIST!”

“Dr. B! What happened?!” Brianna exclaimed, darting inside from where she’d been out feeding the chickens.

I leaned against the counter underneath the cabinet where I kept my medicines and medical supplies, a hand pressed to my chest. “Adso,” I said, as way of explanation.

“In the medicine cabinet?” Bree asked. “How’d he get way up there?”

I glanced down to where a pair of yellow eyes were glaring at me from underneath my bed…the place he’d gone to hide after leaping at me from within the latched medicine cabinet.

“I have no idea,” I said, opening the cabinet again in search of quinine. “I don’t know how that cat manages to get into the places he gets into. Oh, come out now, Mr. Prima Donna.”

Adso had indeed grown into a bonny mouse-catcher over the winter, and was now large, fat, and spoiled rotten for all that he was still half-feral. And he seemed absolutely determined to give me a heart attack, as he was constantly popping out of places no cat had any business being.

“He was probably after your Catnip,” Fergus suggested. “Why do you keep that stuff in the medicine cabinet anyway?”

“Aside from how appealing it is to cats, Catnip actually has several medicinal uses,” I explained. “Reducing fevers is one of them.”

“How do doctors figure this stuff out?” William asked from where he sat at the table, carving a new handle for my bone saw. “Who went up to a Catnip plant one day and decided, ‘I think this can cure fevers?’”

“There’s a bit more to it than that,” I said, chuckling. “But for that matter, who went to something like a…an oyster and decided, ‘I think this looks like a tasty snack?’”

That got a laugh out of all of them, until Brianna sobered and asked, “Have you ever eaten an oyster, Dr. B?”

“Once, and the taste wasn’t bad, I just couldn’t get past the slimy texture,” I shuddered briefly at the thought. “My…erm…friend made me try them, years ago, when we visited Hawaii.”

The children ooh’ed and ahh’ed over that. “Hawaii?!” Bree squeaked. “What’s it like?”

Beautiful,” I gushed. “The land, the ocean, the people. They have these dances that are like…” I raised my hands in attempt to imitate, but aborted the idea immediately.

“No, do it, Mama!” Fergus pleaded.

“Yeah, let’s see it,” William agreed.

Feeling completely silly, I tried my best to repeat what the sweet Hawaiian girls had taught me, holding my hands in the way they’d shown me and swaying my hips.

Bree and Fergus giggled in delight, but William’s eyes went round. “They dance like that?” he asked. “Ain’t it kind of…kind of…”

“Oh, and they do it wearing nothing but grass skirts and cloth wrapped around here,” I said, indicating my chest and grinning at the way William turned scarlet.

“You’ve been all kinds of places,” Fergus said. “Are you gonna take us on trips? Like to Hawaii?”

“Fergus, that was a rude question,” Brianna admonished.

“Why?” he asked. “She’s our mother now.”

William tossed a small chunk of wood at his brother. “Yeah, but that don’t mean she’s gonna suddenly start taking us on trips around the world.”

“I would love to be able to take you on trips like that,” I said, sitting at the table and beckoning Fergus over to me. “But the truth is, even though I come from money, I haven’t really got a whole lot left, you see. After Uncle Lamb died, a lot of his money went to his funeral, paying some old debts. I have an inheritance, but I don’t want to spend through it too fast now, because we might really need it later. Besides, it’s time I start putting money into your inheritances.”

“No offense,” William said lowly. “But we’d rather have ya around than have you die just so we can have money.”

I smiled at him. “And I appreciate that. But when I say inheritance, I don’t just mean money you can use when I’m dead, I also mean money you can use when you’re older. Like to go to college.”

“Even me?” Bree asked.

“Of course you,” I insisted. “I intend to see to it all three of you go to school if it’s your wish…”I huffed. “Unfortunately we’re not off to a great start, with my doctoring.”

“That’s not necessary,” William muttered. “You don’t need to do that.”

I reached across the table to pat William’s hand. “I know I don’t. But that’s what my parents did for me, including the one that didn’t make me.”

William finally smiled at that, glancing at me from underneath his long eyelashes.

“M…Dr. B?” Bree piped up. “How come you never got married, and had kids?”

“Bree, don’t ask that,” William snapped, though his expression was curious.

“It’s alright, William,” I said, fidgeting with my hands. Truth be told, I’d been expecting the question for some time. Especially in a small town like this one, it seemed like girls were married and pregnant before they even left their teens. As a woman on the verge of turning thirty, I was officially an old maid. “I erm…well, what with school and then becoming a doctor, I just didn’t have time for courting the way other girls did with parties and such and well…” I shrugged self-consciously. “There was one man…”

The children all leaned forward expectantly. “What happened?!” Bree gasped.

“We were engaged,” I said, then shrugged again. “But then he…he died.”

Like hot air balloons, they deflated visibly. “Oh,” Bree said sadly. “I’m sorry, Dr. B.”

“Real sorry,” William agreed.

“Well,” Fergus said brightly. “I heard our Mama once say that the men in this town outnumber women four to one!”

I laughed, ruffling his hair. “Yes, she said that to me, too. Thank you, Fergus, but I’m quite alright.”

 

“Morning, Joe!” I greeted cheerfully from the wagon as we passed by the smithy. I’d found out that Joe was completely powerless against my over-the-top displays of friendliness, so I made it a point to wear him down with smiles every time I saw him.

His normal dour expression broke into a smile and he waved while trying to get his expression back under control. “Mornin’ Dr. B,” he said.

Even if I didn’t exactly have patients, I felt like the townspeople were at least becoming less antagonized by my very presence.

“Hi, Dr. B!” Denny said, rushing to hand me down from the wagon at the Mercantile.

“Good morning, Denny,” I said. “Any interesting news, today?”

“Not from the telegraph,” Denny said, walking alongside me into the store. Fergus made a bee-line straight to the candy, while Murtagh glared on. “But I just heard news that’ll be of interest to your kids.”

“My kids?” I asked, confused. “What do you mean…”

“AUNT JENNY!”

I jumped at the sound of Bree and Fergus squealing and thundering out of the store, straight into the arms of a slight, dark-haired woman dressed in dusty traveling clothes.

“Bree! Oh, Fergus, look how you’ve grown!” the woman was cooing, hugging them both tight.

I watched on in puzzled bemusement. Aunt? Charlotte had said nothing of having a sister, and we’d had more than one conversation about family. Could it be the father’s sister?

William slid out the door from around me, grinning wider than I’d ever seen since Charlotte’s passing. “Aunt Jenny!” he exclaimed, leaping down the stairs to embrace her.

I glanced over at Murtagh, who’d appeared at my side.

“My niece,” he said simply, nodding in Jenny’s direction.

“I was in the middle of New Mexico when I heard about your mother,” Jenny was saying to the children, sorrow etched across her features.

Having that reminder, Bree took a small step away from Jenny, gravitating automatically toward me, the way she usually did when thinking strongly about her mother. I wrapped my arm tight around her.

“And what brings your breezing through?” Murtagh asked.

“Good to see you, too, Uncle,” Jenny said, grinning and perching one hand on her hips, the other still propping up Fergus. “And well, besides wanting to see the kids first of all, I’m needing to get one of my cow-hands to a doctor. He’s fallen sick all of a sudden.”

“We got a doctor right here,” William said, gesturing in my direction.

Jenny fixed a pair of piercing blue eyes at me, seeming to notice me for the first time. When she took in what William had said, she raised a single arched eyebrow at me.

“This is Dr. Claire Beauchamp,” Brianna introduced proudly. “She went to college and everything!”

“That so?” Jenny said skeptically.

Qui!” Fergus agreed. “Everyone here calls her Dr. B, ‘cept me. I get to call her Mama!”

Jenny paled visibly and she nearly dropped the boy in shock. She looked up, first at me in horrified suspicion, then at Murtagh in furious indignation.

“Charlotte left the children to her,” he said, raising his bushy brows meaningfully. “On her deathbed.”

“…That so?” Jenny repeated, this time her tone much more pinched.

“Well, a doctor is exactly what we need,” another woman piped up, thankfully breaking the tension that even the children were starting to notice.

I looked over to see a handsome black woman, dressed similarly to Jenny, over by the cart. “We’ve a sick cowhand here,” she said, gesturing to the motionless man in the cart, draped in blankets.

Having completely forgotten about the sick man in the confusion and surprise of this Jenny’s appearance, I rushed over, first checking the man’s pulse when at first sight he barely looked alive.

Alive he was, and roused when I touched his neck, but he was burning hot.

“I’ve a sick cowhand,” I heard Jenny saying, wondering why she kept repeating herself, until she continued. “Do you mind taking a look at him, Tom?”

“Of course,” Tom said, elbowing past me and lifting the sick man’s arm. “Rupert, Angus, help me get this man into my shop.”

I didn’t even have it in me to argue at that point, stepping aside as they took the gentleman into the barbershop. Jenny followed them in, smiling at the children and informing them she’d see them soon, then shooting me a look that was positively frigid.

The other woman appeared miffed on my behalf, and gave me an apologetic shrug before going to tend to the horses.

“How come Aunt Jenny wouldn’t let Mama tend that man?” Fergus asked petulantly.

“Maybe she’s…just surprised,” William said, turning to me. “We’ll talk to her, you’ll see.”

 

I spent that evening being regaled by the children of Jenny Murray’s every virtue.

Jenny was younger than Charlotte by several years, closer to my age in fact, but the two had been very best friends. Jenny had been there for the family when Charlotte and her husband adopted Fergus, and then soon after when Charlotte’s husband left.

She was a cattle herder, never married, and completely independent. She led a team of cowherds all over the country, and had many exciting adventures.

The children went on about how alike we were, how they just knew we would be best friends. And quite honestly, she sounded like a woman I would very much admire…if I didn’t feel incredibly threatened by her.

Besides the slight envy I felt toward her for being so successful in a field that was primarily male dominated, and apparently having the respect of not only a team of men, but the town, she had a relationship and history with the children I simply did not have.

I could only assume that it was my proximity that made Charlotte name me guardian and not Jenny. Perhaps it was Jenny’s life of practical vagrancy. Or maybe her mind had been simply clouded by near death and she’d forgotten. Either way, it stood to reason that Jenny had fairly good grounds to demand guardianship of the children, and would almost certainly have the town’s support.

I determined to be friendly with her, both out of necessity and because it was so important to the children. But the knot of fear would not dissipate.

 

I was not an avid church-goer, and was certainly not Presbyterian, but it felt important to keep the children going after Charlotte’s death, not to mention it was a good way to keep up appearances. So every Sunday we attended, and I did my best at socializing.

“Good morning, Reverend,” I said, nodding at the young Wakefield. “That was a lovely sermon.”

“Oh, thank you,” he said, almost shyly. “I always fear I’m going to bore people.”

I perked up at his actual offer of conversation. “Oh no, you’re actually a wonderful speaker. You’ve a good voice for it.”

“Thank you,” he said, genuinely pleased. “I imagine you’ve heard a lot of speakers in college, so that means a lot!”

I grinned, happy that he of all people would mention my education without scorn.

My good mood dimmed when I saw that Jenny had caught up with the children, her arms looped around Fergus and Bree’s shoulders, and was starting to lead them away.

I took my leave of the Reverend and caught up. Luckily William noticed me before I had to awkwardly ask where on earth she was taking my children.

“Aunt Jenny invited us to have lunch with her,” he said, a little uncertainly.

“Uh…oh…” I stammered. It was my first instinct to say no, we always make lunch together on Sundays.

“If that’s alright with you,” Jenny said, as if daring me to object.

“Of course,” I said at last. “You children erm…have fun.”

Bree and William looked at one another in discomfort, easily seeing the tension.

“Would you…care to join us?” Jenny offered, her eyes anything but welcoming.

“Yeah, Mama, come with us!” Fergus pleaded, innocently clueless to everything.

“Please?” Bree said sweetly.

“Oh, no,” I waved them off. “You all, go on ahead.”

“I won’t have them back too late,” Jenny said, clearly relieved, and they all turned and happily marched away.

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Louise said, sidling up beside me, little Emily fussing in her arms. “The kids always get excited when Jenny rolls into town, but she always rolls out again, sure as clockwork.”

I frowned at the fact that I was so transparent, but was a little relieved. As long as she doesn’t think to “roll out” taking MY children with her!

“And how’s Emily?” I asked, eager to change the subject, peering carefully at the cranky baby.

“Oh, she’s just tired,” Louise said. “My husband isn’t feeling well, and none of us got a good night’s sleep last night, is all.”

“He isn’t feeling well?” I pressed. “I could come take a look…”

Louise huffed a laugh and turned to go. “Oh, goodness. He’d never sit still long enough for it. He’s alright, but thank you, Dr. B.”

“Well, alright,” I said. “But come get me if you change your mind.”

“Will do!” she called over her shoulder.

I stood in the grass for a moment, feeling a bit at a loss of what to do. My life had quickly become completely revolved around the children, so a free afternoon to myself should have come as a relief, but all I felt was lonely.

I passed by the woman who’d come into town with Jenny on my way back through town. I’d long since noticed that Joe did not attend church, and if that was his choice than fine, but it hadn’t escaped me either that this woman hadn’t attended with her boss.

“Hello,” she greeted with a smile as I slid off of Bear.

“Hi,” I said. “How’s the cowhand?”

“Doing alright last I heard,” she said. “Has a room at the saloon, so the girls are probably keeping him entertained while he convalesces,” she winked saucily and I laughed.

“Oh, I’m sure.”

“I’m Gail, by the way,” she said, sticking out her hand.

“Claire,” I said, shaking her hand. “It’s nice to meet you!”

“You as well. So, you’re a real doctor?”

I playfully rolled my eyes, but smiled to show I didn’t begrudge her the question. “Got the degree to prove it.”

“Well, I think that’s amazing,” she said, turning to brush down her horse. “I bet you and Miss Jenny would really get along, both of you getting in on the man’s working world.”

“Yes,” I said wryly. “I’ve been told as much. How did you come to travel with her?”

She shrugged. “My choices were either be a maid, or get married and have babies. Neither option particularly appealed to me, so when I met Jenny and she offered to let me work for her, earning the same wages her cowboys do…well…the choice was clear, as far as I was concerned.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “Growing up my choice seemed to be firmly situated in the get married and have babies option. And…while I thought that might be nice someday, it certainly wasn’t all I wanted from life.”

“Ended up with some babies of your own anyway, though, didn’t you?” Gail said with a wink.

“Hardly babies,” I said, chuckling. “But yes. As sorry as I am for the way they came to me…I really can’t imagine life without them now.”

Gail hummed, thought whether it was in simple acknowledgement, or something else, I wasn’t sure.

 

It was long past suppertime before Jenny deigned to bring my children home, her expression that of someone saying, “and what are you going to do about it?” And I had no choice but to more or less dismiss her or else risk losing my temper and saying something rude.

“Shouldn’t we have invited Aunt Jenny in?” Brianna asked, ever the polite hostess.

“Oh, well, it’s late,” I said as aloofly as I could manage. “I’m sure she has a lot to do before bed, and I’m awfully tired myself.”

“Want to see our presents?” Fergus exclaimed, plopped a package wrapped in brown paper on the table.

“Of course,” I said, taking a seat.

Fergus excitedly unwrapped a large blue geode, while Brianna showed me a heart-shaped brooch.

“Very nice,” I said, hating the way their expressions fell at my lack of enthusiasm.

While I was trying to work up a more satisfactory response, I noticed William shuffling uncomfortably, fidgeting with the box in his hands.

At my expectant nod, he gingerly set the box on the table, opening it to reveal a long barrel revolver.

I felt my jaw drop, and my eyes went from the weapon to William and back again. “A gun?!”

William picked up the gun, handling it with an obvious lack of practice. “Aunt Jenny says I’m old enough,” he said, both challenging and entreating. “She says I’m man of the house now.”

“She did, did she?” I snapped. “And I suppose I have no say in this?”

“W…well, I’m sixteen now and…”

Exactly. You’re sixteen, William. Do you think that makes you old enough to kill a person?”

“It makes me old enough to protect my family!” he exclaimed hotly. “I don’t understand why you have such a problem with Aunt Jenny.”

“It’s not Aunt Jenny I have a problem with, it’s her sending my children into my home with weapons!”

William clenched his jaw, roughly replacing the gun back into the case. “Your children? Fergus may call you Mama, but you ain’t our mother. Not by a long shot!” with that he stomped out of the house and to the barn, leaving the rest of us sitting in silence.

“He didn’t mean that,” Brianna said at last, quietly.

I sighed, running a hand through my hair. “I think he did, Bree. But it’s alright, it’s true, after all. I’m not your mother.”

“You’re the closest thing we got,” Fergus said, shrugging.

“You don’t wonder why your mother didn’t leave you to Jenny?”

“Not really,” Brianna said. “We love Aunt Jenny, but we love you, too, Dr. B.”

“You’re not gonna give us away to Aunt Jenny are you?” Fergus asked, brown eyes widening sadly.

I pulling the little boy into my arms, cuddling him close. “Of course not, Fergus. I wouldn’t give you up for the world! I guess I’ve just been afraid you might wish to go with Jenny.”

“We’re a family, Dr. B,” Brianna said, wrapping her small arms around my shoulders. “William thinks so too. He’s just mad. He was afraid from the start that you’d take away the gun.”

“Can I keep the geode, Mama?” Fergus asked.

I chuckled. “Of course you can. Now come, show it to me again.”

Chapter Text

I hurried into town early on the second Tuesday of the month, or “Stagecoach Day,” eager to see if the medicines I’d sent to Boston for had arrived.

“I got them right here, Dr. B,” Denny said with a smile, producing five small packages. “Just came in this morning!”

“Oh, thank you,” I said, sighing in relief. I was completely out of quinine powder, and what with both Jenny’s cowhand and Louise’s husband ill, I didn’t want to be caught without it, even if I wasn’t being allowed to treat them.

I hurried out of the telegraph office, hoping to pick up some apples from Murtagh’s store before they were all snatched up by everyone else, when I ran smack into what basically felt like a living brick wall.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed, realizing the reason that the person had been so unmovable was because it had been Mac, of course.

“Ah, dinna fash, Sassenach,” he said, stooping to help pick up the packages I’d managed to drop.

“No, no, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” I held two of my packages, and reached for the other three, but he pulled them back out of my reach.

“Where’s your wagon?” he asked.

“I’ve got it!” I insisted, feeling a little befuddled and flustered, as I’d found I tended to whenever meeting with Mac unexpectedly.

“Where’s your wagon?” he repeated, patiently, but insistently.

 “What happened to making it on my own?” I quipped, regretting the uncharitable tone almost instantly.

I just knew he would drop my packages and walk away, and I wouldn’t have blamed him, but to my surprise his jaw twitched and his eyes sparkled with mirth. “Och, ye strike true, lass. I wasn’a much of a gentleman ‘afore, was I? Allow me to atone for my past sins…” he bowed, extending a leg and everything, and managed to look graceful even while balancing three boxes.

For some completely unknown reason, his sudden gallantry rather annoyed me, which was puzzling since it was much preferable to being left in the middle of nowhere all alone.

“This way,” I said between my teeth, marching past him in the direction of my wagon. He didn’t laugh, but I could see his shoulders shake from the corner of my eyes. “It’s not far,” I continued airily. “Wouldn’t want to keep you from whatever assuredly important business you have at the telegraph office.” I bit my tongue, not knowing why on earth I was trying to bait the man.

He made some sort of snorting/grunting noise deep in his throat, like a “mmrph.” “I’m in no rush,” he said. “Just sendin’ a telegraph to the President, is all.”

My head whipped around to look at him. “The President? Are you serious?” that damned amused look on his face hadn’t faded, and I scowled. “I swear if you’re trying to pull one over on me, I’ll throw his box of quinine powder at you. It’s quite heavy.”

“I’d never dream of such,” he said in all seriousness. “And no’ only out of fear of my own safety. I’m sendin’ the telegram for Black Kettle. Abraham Lincoln once gave him an American flag as a gift, and now he thinks every president is his friend.”

This last was said with some derision, hinting at an anger which surprised me. “Is that so bad? Lincoln’s government is what freed the slaves.”

“Aye,” he agreed. “But it was also Lincoln’s government which sent Chivington here.”

I sobered completely, having heard the whole extent of what Colonel Chivington had done during the encounter which nearly killed Chief Black Kettle, and did kill many others. Mostly women, and children. I shivered. “I heard he was called back, and severely reprimanded for what happened at Sand Creek.”

He made that curious noise in his throat again, and I was beginning to wonder exactly what emotion it was meant to convey. “Reprimanded,” he echoed, mockingly, and I didn’t comment, though I was inclined to agree that it was nearly a severe enough punishment for murder. “Aye, they called him back, but they’ve sent someone else in his place by the name o’ Custer.”

“Well…that’s something,” I said, trying at encouraging, because I was beginning to prefer his teasing mood to this dark one.

“Who’s to say he’ll be any better?” he asked.

“Well, he can’t be any worse!”

Before Mac could give an answer to accompany his very skeptical look, I heard my name be called frantically.

“Louise?” I said, seeing her run from across the street, baby Emily wailing in her arms.

“Dr. B!” she cried, out of breath. “Something’s wrong with her! She’s burning up with fever!”

I ran to meet her, dropping my other packages and medical bag in the process, and only dimly aware of the fact that Mac was scooping them up as I did. I took Emily from Louise’s arms, feeling the intense heat even through her clothes and blanket. She was crying, but it was scratchy and raw-sounding, like it was painful to do, but the poor infant could do nothing else.

I hesitated in the middle of the street, going through my head on what I needed to do, and fast. Without even taking her temperature, it was plainly obvious that it was dangerously high, and if I didn’t get it down immediately, her little body would quickly start shutting down.

My eyes landed on Tom’s barbershop, and I took off at a run toward it. When I burst through the door, Tom let out an indignant shout, but I ignored him, shoving him roughly out of my way with the palm of my hand and going to lay the baby beside the water basin.

Louise fluttered helplessly beside me while I stripped Emily down to only her diaper, and poured some water into the basin one-handedly. I held Emily over the basin and used a nearby empty canister to pour streams of cool water over her head like a manic baptism while she screamed pitifully.

“Are you trying to kill that child?!” Tom demanded, having regained his power of speech from his previous stunned silence.

“I’m trying to save her,” I snapped without looking up. “Her fever is dangerously high,” I looked at Louise, praying she would listen to me, and that her husband wasn’t about to burst through the door and snatch the girl away from me. “This is the safest way to cool her down quickly.”

Louise was already using her hand to help scoop the water over Emily’s overheated body, and she nodded tearfully.

“No,” Tom said. “You have to keep the child hot so as to sweat the fever out!”

To my immense relief, Louise only scowled up at him and snapped at him to shut up.

“Does your husband have the same fever?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she cried. “I woke up late because it’s always he who awakes early, but he didn’t, and then I went to check on the baby and she was burning up. I rushed her right outside to you.”

“You did the right thing,” I told her, having a sinking feeling about what she’d said about her husband not waking. “Here, take Emily, and keep pouring the water. I’m going to go check on your husband and then I’ll be back, alright?”

Louise nodded, and though her hands shook a little, she took the baby and took over with the water.

I shouldered past Tom again, pausing only a second to realize Mac was still there in the doorway, apparently having put the packages away and stood holding only my medical bag. He stepped quickly aside, motioning that he would follow, and I ran out and back across the street where Louise lived with her husband.

The door was hanging open when I reached it, and when I stepped inside the small apartment, I was hit with the distinct smell of sickness. I moved past the living area to the one bedroom. There was a tray on the bedside table that showed that Louise had been trying to tend her husband and bring him food. Between the ill spouse and infant daughter, the young woman had probably worked herself into exhaustion, which was likely why she hadn’t realized that her husband had died in his sleep.

He was pale and waxy beneath his mustache, but almost every other inch of his body was wrapped up in multiple blankets. While “sweating the fever out” was something that could occasionally work for a mild fever, it was dangerous if the person was fighting a serious illness like this man had been.

“Hey!” Tom was shouting, appearing in the doorway behind Mac. “Now, you just get away from my patient! He’s doing…fine…”

“Fine?” I hissed. “Oh, he’s doing just fine, Tom. He’s dead!”

Tom blanched almost as pale as his deceased “patient” and took a wide-eyed step back.

“What happened to him?” Mac asked quietly.

I bit my lower lip, a looming sense of dread settling over me. It was something I’d seen often. I saw it in Boston, I saw it during my internship in New York. I saw how it could wipe out entire families, and even neighborhoods. I’d heard about how it could wipe out entire towns. Towns that were small, and close-knit.

Towns like this one.

“Influenza,” I said, resignedly.

“The grippe?” Tom asked, horror lacing his already pale features.

I pulled the quilt up over Mr. de le Tour’s face and rose, taking my medical bag from Mac with a grateful nod and leading the way out of the house. “I need to go tend to Emily,” I said.

“Anythin’ I can do?” Mac asked.

I shook my head. “No. Honestly, it would be best if you go send your telegram and then get out of town,” I pulled him aside by his sleeve, glancing over my shoulder to where Tom was dazedly heading over to the saloon, hopefully in order to procure help with the body and not just to drink away his upset. “I think it was Jenny Murray’s cowhand who brought it,” I said quietly. “The other cowhands could have contracted it, spread it at the saloon, where I know Mr. de la Tour spends time. Hopefully we’ve caught it with the baby in time but…”

“This is just the beginnin’,” Mac finished, jaw clenched.

“I’m very afraid so,” I said. “So you better go. You’ve already been exposed just by being in that house, but not much, so you should be fine. Perhaps don’t go straight to the Cheyenne village, though, just to be safe. And wash yourself well, once you’re out of town.”

“Wash?” he asked. “Why?”

“Influenza is a virus,” I explained. “Spread by something called germs. If we can contain the germs, we can contain the virus. At least…that’s the current theory.”

“Gerrrms,” he echoed, rolling the R thoughtfully. “Aye…but what about you? Ye’ve been exposed now too, ken.”

I shrugged. “Life as a doctor, I’m afraid. I’ll be fine,” I made a shooing motion with my hand. “Now go.”

Amazingly, he didn’t object to being ordered about, and made his way to the telegraph office.

Emily’s temperature had already decreased considerably by the time I returned, but it was another hour of pouring the water before her fever broke. It was then that I was forced to give Louise the heartbreaking news that her husband was gone.

Louise seemed more afraid than grieved that her husband was dead. But then, I’d never gotten the impression of a great love between the de la Tours, though life for a woman with a baby and no husband would be a daunting prospect no matter what.

 

By the time Mr. de la Tour’s body had been taken and prepared for burial, I noticed two more men sitting outside Tom’s barbershop, looking drawn and pale, coughing harshly. Tom himself was ushering them inside for his expert “care,” but the barber looked petrified.

I went home and explained to the children what had happened, and why they must stay at the homestead for the time being.

“Why do we have to stay cooped up?” Brianna demanded as I readied Bear the following morning to ride back into town.

“Influenza is highly contagious,” I repeated for the fifth time. “It’s for your own good.”

“Yeah?” William said, crossing his arms. “And what about your good?”

“I have to try and help, it’s my duty as a doctor.”

“And what about your duty to us?” Bree asked. “We’re your family, aren’t we?”

I handed Fergus Bear’s reign and mounted the steps to where Brianna stood, placing my hands on her shoulders.

Yes. You are. And that’s why you have to be safe, and you must stay here.”

“Can’t we at least stay with Aunt Jenny?”

I sighed, and went back to strapping my medical case onto Bear’s saddle. “No.”

Brianna huffed. “Why don’t you like her?”

“It’s not about liking, or disliking!” I growled in frustration, though I certainly didn’t particularly like Jenny. “There’s good reason to believe it was her cowhands who brought the virus here. She’s been exposed.”

“So have you,” William pointed out.

“Not to same degree,” I argued.

Yet.” Bree snapped.

“And besides,” I continued as if I hadn’t heard her. “I’ve been around it many times during my schooling and career. I’ve built up immunities.”

“So you can’t catch the ‘fluenza?” Fergus asked.

I bit my lip. “Well…I can. What I mean is I’ve built up a stronger immune system, so I can fight it off easier. Like, the more you load hay into the wagon, the easier it gets, right? Because you’ve built up your muscles.”

Fergus flexed his willow-branch arms in demonstration and I chuckled and kissed his head. “I’ll be home soon,” I promised, climbing into the saddle.

Any hopes I may have entertained through the night that the virus had already run its course were dashed when I saw the number of people sitting around the barbershop, mostly men, though several of their wives were there, looking just as sick as their husbands, though it didn’t stop them from trying to tend them.

It was rapidly becoming epidemic, and watching the sick people out mingling with the well was like watching a child play with explosives.

But I wasn’t going to waste my energy trying to convince all of these people individually to stay within their homes to contain the sickness. I needed the support of the people who had actual influence in this town.

 

I went first to Louise’s house to check on her and the baby, and was greeted at the door instead by Jenny.

“I’m taking care of Louise,” Jenny sniffed. “You just run along.”

I rolled my eyes at her and brushed past, shocked to see Louise sitting at a sewing machine, working and sweating and white a sheet.

“Louise, what are you doing?!” I exclaimed. I checked Emily in the bassinette, but she was sound asleep and cool to the touch. Louise, however, was burning hot. “Louise, stop, you need to rest.”

“No, she needs to work,” Jenny said, crossing her arms. “It’s the best thing for her to do to keep her mind off her husband.”

“Oh what do you know?!” I snapped. “This woman is sick.”

“You listen to me, Louise needs…”

No, you listen to me. You don’t know a thing about medicine, just as I don’t know a thing about cow herding. Don’t tell me how to do my work, and I won’t tell you how to do yours!”

To my satisfaction, Jenny looked stunned into silence, then turned to go. But I couldn’t stop myself from adding one more thing; “And I would appreciate it if you asked me before giving weapons to my children!”

After getting Louise settled into bed with a dose of quinine to lower her fever and a promise to come back and check on her later, I made my way over to the Mercantile in hopes of finding some kind of help.

Murtagh’s store was a madhouse of people scrambling to get food and supplies. It would seem that word had already spread, or they simply knew that it soon would, which would mean supply wagons were about to stop indefinitely.

Reverend Wakefield was inside the store, trying his best to quell the mob, to no effect.

“Dougal please,” he was saying. “Now isn’t the time to start hoarding!”

Dougal rolled his eyes and muscled past the young reverend, who raised his arms and let them flop in resignation.

“Roger,” I said, worming my way around the crowd “Listen, we need to contain this virus before it gets any worse.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Influenza is contagious…catching. You know that…”

“So what?” Tom said, snatching cans of beans off the shelf. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Yes there is,” I said. “We can isolate the sick. You see, Influenza is caused by germs…”

Tom raised an eyebrow. “What the hell is a germ?”

“It’s like…” I struggled to find a way to explain that they might understand. “It’s like a tiny animal, too small to see. It passes from person to person, and that’s how we get sick.”

I heard a musical sounding laugh, and turned to find Jenny, standing with her uncle beside her, shaking her head at me. “Do you even realize how that sounds?”

She and the men were all staring at me like I was crazy, and I was suddenly grateful for the way Mac hadn’t.

“Well it doesn’t matter,” I said, wishing Jenny would just go away already. “It’s catching, and our best bet of stopping the epidemic is to keep the sick people away from the well. Surely that makes sense to you!”

“Well, then how do we do that?” the Reverend asked.

“We need a hospital,” I said.

Murtagh snorted. “We don’t have a fancy hospital ‘round these parts.”

“I know that! I don’t mean a real hospital, just a place we can use as one, to keep the sick.”

“You could use the church,” Roger suggested.

I smiled at him in gratitude. “Thank you, but we need somewhere with lots of rooms, so that we can separate those who are very sick, from those who have cases that are not so severe.”

“We don’t have a place like that,” Jenny said.

“We do,” I argued. “Charlotte’s boarding house.”

“That belongs to the bank now,” Roger pointed out.

“We’d only be borrowing it.”

“That’s trespassing!”

I growled in aggravation. “But this is an emergency!” when no one made any move to so much as consider what I’d said, I stamped my foot and turned on my heel. “Fine. I’ll do it myself!”

I marched outside, heedless to the curious stares that read, ‘what is she up to this time?’ The men and Jenny followed closely on my heels.

The boarding house had long pieces of plywood crossed over the door and all the windows. A sign hanged by the door that said, “For Sale. Contact First National Bank of Boston.”

But the banker didn’t live in town; no one around for miles had any stake or ownership of the building. I didn’t care it if was “trespassing.” Charlotte left me her children for Christ’s sake, she would have wanted me to use this building.

I took a hasty glance around at my new audience. Townspeople; men, women, and children alike, had gathered close to watch. I looked extra long at Roger, silently entreating him to help, but he just stared back at me stoically.

Taking a deep breath, I tugged on the boards shuttering the front door. I pulled harder, nearly falling backward when I lost my grip, and the crowd laughed. My cheeks burned, both from embarrassment and anger that they refused to help, but I stubbornly tried again.

So focused was I on trying to loosen at least one board, I didn’t notice the shadow fall over me until a large hand covered mine, followed by a second one that firmly removed my hands from the wood.

I looked up in amazement as Mac wordlessly jerked the plywood off the door with a strength that both impressed me, and if I were perfectly honest, intimidated me a little.

He tossed the wood carelessly away, heedless of the fact that he nearly threw it at Tom, then used his shoulder to break the door in before standing aside and nodding once to me.

For just a moment I stood in rather stunned silence. This McTavish hadn’t even questioned why I was trying to break into the boarding house. And he hadn’t argued my stance on germs either, though he hadn’t appeared to really believe it. It shouldn’t have been so discombobulating to have the unquestioning support of a man like that who wasn’t my Uncle Lamb…but there we were.

However…he hadn’t listened to my word about getting out of town.

I turned away from him with effort, addressing the crowd in a tone I wished could have been a tad more authoritive. “Bring your sick here,” I said. “If you don’t, this sickness could very well wipe out the town.” I didn’t bother elaborating, letting them stew on those ominous words alone.

“Can that really happen?” Mac asked, following me into the boarding house.

“I wasn’t being dramatic,” I told him. “I’ve seen illnesses like this one wipe out entire families. A town like this one, so isolated on the map…well, let’s just say I’ve heard tale of ones just like this that disappeared from the map entirely.”

Mac took a deep breath, then flexed his shoulders. I wondered if he was still sore from the dislocation, and whether removing the boards had aggravated it. “What else will ye be needin’, Sassenach?”

I ran a hand through my hair, calculating. “I have quinine in my bag, but I’ll need the rest from home. No, I’ll get it, I need to check on the children anyway and tell them what’s going on. I’ll need more blankets and sheets though, as many as possible, and plenty of clean water.”

“I know where to get some sheets and blankets,” Roger said, peering in the door, a little sheepishly.

“And um…I can get water,” Tom offered, clomping away.

“I’ll see t’ gettin’ things rearranged while ye go home,” Mac said. “I ken what a hospital ought t’ look like.”

Thank you,” I said earnestly, laying a hand on his arm, which he gave a rather curious look to. “I mean it, and for out there as well. But…why didn’t stay gone like I said?”

The corner of his lip twitched. “Figured ye might need a wee bit o’ help,” he said, shrugging.

It was on the tip of my tongue to insist he go, but the fact of the matter was I wanted him there. I desperately needed someone on my side who I could trust and…well…I did trust Mac, for all that I didn’t really know him.

Chapter Text

News that I would be staying in town at the boarding house for the foreseeable future was met with the expected disappointment and argument from the children. William, to my surprise, eventually took my side in the interest of protecting his siblings, and his obvious concern for my welfare was touching. Brianna, however, was incensed.

By the time I’d gathered every supply I could spare from home, along with the rest of my quinine, and returned to the boarding house, several people had already been set up in bedrooms and Mac was wondering around, clearly out of his depth, but trying his best to help.

I reached into the recesses of my memory to recall the time Uncle Lamb had had to set up an emergency hospital in Dubai after an earthquake had devastated a small village. I’d been fifteen at the time, and near enough to begin my schooling that he’d allowed me to help.

The first step had been to set up a triage for the people coming in, in order to separate severity of injury, or in this case, illness.

Roger was able to fill that role well enough, directing the incoming sick people to different rooms. Unfortunately, due to space, there wasn’t much we could do about separating women from men, which bothered the Reverend, but for the most part people were too sick to notice that anyone was lying in the bed next to them at all, much less whether it was a member of the opposite sex in various stages of undress. The children, however, we were able to keep separate in a room of their own.

My life immediately became a tunnel where all I could focus on was the patient in front of me. Not on the patient before, or the one next. But only the one who’s life was currently in my hands.

The virus was terrifyingly fast-acting and horribly contagious, and by the second day I had twenty-four people in the boarding house and three had already died.

Jenny arrived the evening of the first day, simply stating that she was there to help. I gratefully assigned her the work of bathing the patients and administering quinine, as I felt she was detail-oriented enough to trust not to waste the precious medicine. For all that I didn’t care for her personally, I trusted her in this.

It was easy for me to focus on the problems. To me, it mattered not who the patient was; each person needed to be treated the same according to necessity. I ignored hapless parents who insisted their eleven-year-old was most important and should be treated first, no matter that the elderly Mr. Comfrey’s condition was worse.

Perhaps it sounds callous but when I was treating them, I was treating the illness more than the person. But it was the best way to keep me going quickly and efficiently without letting emotion cloud my judgement.

Tom wanted to bleed people, insisting that it was best, but I vehemently refused to allow him to administer such a barbarous “treatment” in my hospital. Mac hovered nearby during the altercation, ready to escort Mr. Christie out, but it didn’t come to that. However, I suspected Tom of bleeding willing citizens in his barbershop.

Through everything stood Mac. Quiet, out of the way, but scarcely needing me to even voice my needs before he was delivering to the best of his abilities. He didn’t balk when I asked him to help a heavy man sit up to use the bedpan, as he was too large for me to do it myself. Instead, he took it upon himself to assist all the men without me asking, uncaring of waste or vomit.

I could see though that Mac was not immune to the emotion. I could see the sympathy in his eyes every time a person was caught in a coughing fit, and the terror every time a child was brought in. I could see it was hard for him, but he did it anyway.  

 

My rhythm, and my determined focus were thrown for a complete loop when on the third day, I heard my name being screamed from outside by Brianna.

I rushed out of the boarding house to see William racing recklessly up in the wagon, and all I could see in the back was Bree’s head.

“Dr. B!” William shouted. “It’s Fergus! He’s got the grippe!”

Heart and bile rising to my throat, I rushed to the back of the wagon, seeing now that Bree was cradling Fergus’s head in her lap.

“Oh God,” I whispered, then louder, “William! Get him inside! Your Aunt Jenny will tell you where.”

William scooped his brother up and hurried inside, but I stopped in front of Brianna when she made to follow them. “You wait out here,” I told her.

“What?” she asked. “Why?!”

“For your brother to take you back home!” I said, impatient to get to Fergus.

“No!” she snapped. “I’m not going!”

“Yes you are,” I said firmly. “The less you’re exposed the better, now do as I say.”

“I won’t! What if me and Willie get sick and there’s no one to take care of us?!” the look she gave me was darkly accusing. “We could die out there and no one would ever know, least of all you!”

“Bree, please, be reasonable,” I said, taking her face between my hands, both to try and calm her and to surreptitiously check for fever. “I just want you to be safe. I’m trying my best here.”

“I’m not leaving,” she said definitively, pulling away. “I’m staying here, and I’m gonna take care of Fergus,” she skirted around me, heading into the boarding house. “Like family SHOULD!”

I sighed in exasperation. Wasn’t it the right thing? Trying to keep the children as safe as possible? Wasn’t that what a mother did?

Even Uncle Lamb put his foot down against allowing me to treat patients with contagious diseases, even after graduating the university. But then…I’d never listened.

Just how could a girl who I have no blood relation to remind me so much of myself?

When I got inside, Jenny was settling Fergus into a bed in one of the rooms of the top floor, where we kept all of the children. Her face was pinched with worry, and she shot me a questioning look over Brianna’s head, indicating the girl’s presence, but I shrugged helplessly and she thankfully didn’t comment.

Fergus’s temperature was frighteningly high, but thankfully William had acted fast and brought him straight into town the moment they’d all awoken and realized the little boy was sick.

Just like that my impartialness had dissolved, and I couldn’t go more than twenty minutes with the other patients before hurrying to check on Fergus. I’d relented to Brianna, but with the compromise that if she was going to stay and help, she would be responsible for monitoring the entire children’s ward. I wondered if it was too much to ask of a thirteen-year-old, but having someone in the room all the time to alert me if any of their conditions worsened, was invaluable.

William joined the ranks as well, spending almost all of his time fetching and carrying water. Louise arrived, evidentially having not contracted the influenza after all. And though I had reservations about her working so soon after her husband’s death, and with a baby at home, Jenny ushered her cheerfully in, so I didn’t bother to argue.

I was surprised when Dorothea appeared, the young woman who I’d treated from Dougal’s saloon.

“Dottie,” I said, leaning tiredly against the bed where William had just helped deposit a fevered Denny. “What are you doing here?”

“I, erm, wanted to help,” Dottie said, wringing her hands nervously, her dark eyes fluttering over Denny’s sweat-soaked form. “Dougal closed down the saloon. He’s too afraid of the grippe. I had the grippe when I was little and lived to tell the tale, so, I just thought maybe you could use an extra pair of hands.”

“We have all the hands we need right now,” Jenny said, coming over from where she was bathing Mr. Gunn and crossing her arms.

I narrowed my eyes at her. “Nonsense, we can always use the extra help.”

Jenny came closer, as if to speak quietly, but failed to pitch her voice low enough so that Dottie didn’t hear. “She’s a whore.”

She’s my friend,” I hissed back.

Jenny scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Don’t even get me started on the kind of company you keep.”

“How about you just worry about Mr. Gunn and I’ll worry about Dottie, hm? It looks like he’s about to vomit.”

Jenny spun back around just in time to get a bucket under Mr. Gunn’s head, and I turned back to Dottie who was smiling pleasantly, as if she hadn’t just overheard a woman sneering at her for her profession. “What can I do, Dr. B?” she asked.

“Hm, well, Denny here needs to be bathed,” I suggested, passing her a sponge and bowl.

Dottie took them, then stared at them then back at Denny, a blush rising in her cheeks. “Do you…um…do I wash…everything?”

It was only my tiredness that made me not immediately catch her meaning, then I chuckled lightly. “No. No, just his face, neck, and chest will suffice.”

Dottie nodded and set right to work, tenderly bathing Denny’s face and cooing comforting words to him.

The young prostitute wound up being one of my most invaluable nurses. Her innate kindness and practice at hiding her real feelings behind a pleasant smile made for a welcoming presence to the sick patients…especially the men.

But she was also simply happy and eager to work, and it wasn’t long at all before even Jenny was calling on for her for assistance.

 

I sat at Fergus’s bedside, sponging his face, just wishing his big blue eyes would open.

“Dr. B, shouldn’t you rest?” Brianna asked quietly.

“I’m alright,” I assured her. “I took a nap earlier. Could you just open that window a little more? It’s so hot in here.”

Brianna gave me a shrewd look and did as I asked. “Can I bring you some soup?” she asked.

I wondered briefly when the last time I’d eaten was, and I decided it must have been recently because I wasn’t remotely hungry. “No, thank you,” I said.

She stood at the door a long moment, watching me worriedly, and I resisted the urge to tell her to stop. She finally left, and I let my shoulders droop. The water in the bowl beside me was looking far too appealing to resist, so I gave in and used the sponge to mop at my own sweat-soaked face. I’d been running around for days, barely stopping for anything, much less a proper bath, and I felt exhausted and grubby and so incredibly hot.

My supply of quinine powder was diminishing rapidly. I’d already ordered everyone to cut the usual dosage in half, to make it stretch, but more people were coming down with the influenza daily and the supply simply wasn’t going to last forever.

“This is my last bottle,” I told Mac as he raised Fergus’s head to help me get the solution of powder and water down his throat.

“What will you do then?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I sent William home for my supply of Catnip, but it doesn’t stretch as far, and my own crop hasn’t sprouted up yet. Do you know where to find any?”

“Aye, I might,” he said, scratching at the red beard that was beginning to show on his face. “But I also ken a remedy the Cheyenne use for fever.”

“What’s it made of?”

“Canna say for sure, Willow Bark, I know…but the rest I’d have t’ ask. They brew it in a tea, ken.”

“Well, I know Willow Bark is good for many things,” I said. “Could it possibly be made of wild garlic too, do you think?” at his shrug I sighed. “I just don’t know if I can use something I’m not familiar with, not without knowing for sure its dosage, its effects…” I looked at Fergus’s pale face and shuddered at the idea of experimenting medications on him.

“It’s better than nothin’,” Mac argued. “The Cheyenne have used it for generations. Unless, that’s th’ part that’s bothering ye.”

“Of course not,” I snapped. “I just can’t in good conscience test something like that on people. I’d need time to study it, learn everything that goes in it.”

He made that sound again, one I was beginning to associate particularly with him. I wondered if it was a Scottish thing. “As ye say,” he murmured, getting up to leave.

 

I scraped the bottom of the bottle of quinine with a spoon, managing to get barely a pinch of powder divided into three cups. Soon I would add water straight to the bottle to wash it out, and then that would be it.

Twelve people so far had died. Mostly elderly, but little Davie Anderson had succumbed after fighting bravely for four days, which had lowered the spirits of everyone.

I had to keep reminding myself that Davie was evidently a sickly child since birth, and Fergus was robust and strong. Or “braw” as Mac called him.

My vision swam as I poured out a measure of water into each cup, and I shook my head, promising myself I would lie down and rest soon. Later.

I felt eyes on me, and glanced to the side to find Bree at my elbow, staring up at me. She’d been doing that a lot the last couple of days.

“Are you okay, Dr. B?” she asked.

I smiled at her and tugged a copper braid. “Fine, sweetie. Just a little tired.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Tired? Dr. B, I haven’t seen you even sit down since yesterday.”

“I know,” I sighed. “And you’re right. I’ll go lie down now…”

The front door swung open and there stood Tom Christie, pale and shaking.

“I erm…wasn’t feeling too good…” he rasped before lapsing into a coughing fit.

I ushered him to an open bed. He was hot but not dangerously so, though his eyes were glassy and unfocused. I looked down when I caught sight of a spot of red, and saw that he had a blood-stained bandage around the crook of his arm. A peek beneath the bandage confirmed that he’d attempted to let his own blood.

“Well, fuck,” I muttered, watching Tom’s dazed eyes fly open wide, and from the corner of my eye I saw that Brianna’s jaw had dropped open and Dottie had dropped the tin cup of water she was holding. I ignored them all.

“You bloody man,” I said. “You’re lucky that you’re not dead on the floor of your barbershop.”

“Someone ought to tan your hide for that kind of language,” Tom croaked.

“And who’s going to do it, you?”

I heard a chuckling from the hallway, and paused long enough in spooning quinine water into Tom’s mouth to glare at Mac. “Haven’t you got something better to do?” I asked.

“Aye,” he said, still smirking, then slinked back into the hall.

Tom had already lost his desire to fuss, and lay like a rag doll while I got him out of his shirt and began sponging his face and chest.

I could feel Bree watching all the while, and once I’d gotten Tom comfortable she approached me, wringing her hands almost bashfully.

“I’ve been watching you all this week,” she said. “And just…well…I don’t know if I wanna be a doctor but…when I grow up, I wanna be like you.”

She turned and fled before I could respond, but I felt tears sting my eyes. I hadn’t even realized she’d stopped being angry with me…

“Dr. B! Dr. B! Come quick!”

I raced up the steps, stumbling on almost every one, when I heard Brianna’s shriek.

A million worst case scenarios were running through my head, but the sight that greeted me when I reached the children’s room was one that had me literally doubling over in relief.

Fergus was sitting up, cheeks pink, giggling and dangling a string in front of Adso.

“His fever’s broken!” Bree exclaimed.

I hurried to his side, startling Adso and sending him scurrying under the bed. “And just when did that cat get here?” I asked, feeling Fergus’s cool forehead.

“William brought him yesterday,” Brianna explained. “He thought maybe it would get Fergus to wake up, and it worked!”

“Well, I’m not inclined to argue,” I said, grinning, and hearing the tired giggles of the other children, seeing Adso scamper across the floor. “How do you feel, sweetheart?”

“Hungry!” Fergus exclaimed.

I chuckled. “Of course you are. Bree, can you fix your brother some soup while I go find William to let him know?”

“Sure!”

The sudden high of happiness at seeing Fergus well had left me lightheaded and impossibly tired. I swore to myself that as soon as I told William about Fergus, I’d find a quiet corner somewhere and get some sleep. Maybe I’d even let Bree force some soup into me like she’d been trying all day. Except my throat felt like I’d been swallowing glass. I must just be thirsty.

William was sitting out on the front porch taking a rest beside Mac. I leaned against the doorframe, trying to catch my breath. Had I run down the stairs?

“Fergus’s fever has broken,” I said. “He’s going to be okay.”

William let out a whoop and raced inside. I decided to take in a little of the fresh air outside before going back in.

Chapter Text

Jamie could see that she was near the breaking point of exhaustion, but he hadn’a realized that she’d actually caught the grippe. She seemed too strong, too assured. She was a wee thing – well, wee to him, though she was rather tall for a woman – but her presence seemed to fill every room she was in. How could a woman like that be struck down with mere illness?

Claire had come out to tell them that Fergus was on the mend, and while William ran inside, Jamie hesitated, not liking the pasty tone of her skin, or the glassy look in her eyes. Good thing, because she dropped like a stone, and Jamie had just enough time to catch her before she hit the porch.

He rushed her inside and up the stairs, to a room he knew was otherwise vacant of late. Jenny Murray caught sight of them and followed them up, demanding to know what was wrong.

“She’s caught it,” he said, laying Claire on the bed.

“Christ,” Jenny muttered.

Jenny and her cousin, Geneva had been as close as sisters, they along with Charlotte, who was like the mother hen. And in turn, Jenny and Jamie had grown close during his marriage. Unlike her uncle, Jenny hadn’t blamed Jamie for what happened to Geneva and Alexander, but the bad blood between him and Murtagh, followed by Jamie’s increased activity within the Cheyenne community had left them a little at odds.

He was also perfectly aware that she and Claire didn’t get along for multiple reasons. Not least of all was because they were so alike.

“Do ye know what to do?” he asked Jenny.

Jenny froze, a bit like a deer. “I only know what Dr. B tells me to do.”

“Then go get Brianna,” Jamie said, motioning her on. He sat on the bed beside Claire, brushing a damp lock of hair out of her face. Her skin felt like a hot coal. Christ, how did they all miss it?!

Brianna and William came running in in an instant, and Jamie moved aside to make room for the little girl, who he’d seen to be quite competent in helping Claire tend the sick.

He watched as she felt Claire’s head, and even checked her pulse and eyes. He made a mental note to tell Claire of it later. She’d be proud.

After a moment, Brianna sighed and came back over, crossing her arms. “Her fever’s really high,” she said. “And we’re out of quinine. I…I have nothing to give her.”

Well, Claire might have been too unsure to try the Cheyenne medicine, but he’d seen it work, and he wasn’t about to stand by and just do nothing, when he knew there was something that could help.

“Where are you going?” William asked, stopping him with a hand.

“To get medicine,” Jamie said. “The Cheyenne have something that can help.”

“Let me go,” William said, moving again to block Jamie’s exit.

“What?” Jamie asked in confusion. “You?”

The look William gave him was young and pleading, though Jamie wasn’t sure if it was because the lad needed to helpful, or if he was too afraid to be left completely in charge of his little family. Jamie suspected it was a combination of the two.

“Aye, a charaid,” he said, patting the lad’s shoulder. “Ye need to find Two Moons and bring him here. He’ll be out near Sand Creek.”

“I know the way,” William said, anxious to be off.

“Take this,” Jamie pulled off his medicine pouch and handed it to the lad. “Show it to Two Moons, tell him what has happened. He’ll ken what to do.”

“Wait…how will I tell him? He doesn’t know English, does he?”

Jamie chuckled. “He kens a lot more ‘n he lets on. Now go.”

The next hours were spent in a whirl of anxiousness and stress. There were still seventeen other people in the boarding house that needed tending as well, but Jamie refused to go too far from Claire’s side.

He wasn’t even sure where this sudden feeling of protectiveness for the doctor had come from. He liked her fine, that was sure. He’d liked her the moment he first saw her, falling face-first into a puddle of mud then picking herself right back up again, stubborn little chin in the air. And, well, he wasn’a afraid to admit he’d felt desire for her when she’d popped her housing advertisement cheekily up in the shop where he’d knocked down the “no dogs or Indians” sign, her unique whiskey-colored eyes flashing determinedly. It was truly no secret to any man in town that Claire was an extremely attractive woman.

But this surge of caring and concern for her well-being was unexpected, and not terribly welcome, either. He had no room in his life for an entanglement with one such as Dr. B, who’d likely eventually give him a heart attack if he spent too much time with her.

He’d gone out to check for any sign of William before going back upstairs. But when he returned to Claire’s room, Jenny and Louise were there, bathing her. They had her rolled over on her stomach, stripped to her waist.

Jamie froze, knowing full well he should look away and leave immediately, but he couldn’t manage to tear his eyes away from the smooth, white skin that made his fingers itch to touch.

It was shameful even thinking such things while she lay there, deathly ill…but he couldn’t help it.

He was saved from further sinful thoughts by Fergus, who was peeking out of the bedroom he shared with two other children. Jamie hurried past Claire’s door to keep Fergus from looking in, and knelt down before the lad.

“What are ye doing out of bed, then?” he asked.

Fergus was looking past Jamie at the room Claire was in. “Is Mama in there?”

“Aye…yer Mam caught the grippe, like ye did.”

Fergus’s small face pinched. “That’s the room where my other Mama died.”

Jamie took Fergus by the shoulders, turning him to face him fully. “No, lad! Ye canna be thinkin’ like that!”

“Is she gonna die too?” Fergus asked, in an almost resigned sort of way.

Jamie clenched his jaw. “No. No, a bhalaich, she isn’a going to die.”

“How do you know?”

Jamie hesitated. “I willn’a let her, that’s how.”

Somehow, that seemed to assuage the lad’s fears, and he went back to bed. And Jamie could only hope that he was worthy of that kind of trust.

 

It was a full night and day of wame-curdling worry, both for Claire, and for William who’d been gone so long. But that evening the lad came barreling in.

“He’s here!” he exclaimed. “He wants you to bring her outside.”

Jamie didn’t stop to ask why, and rudely pushed Jenny out of the way in order to gather Claire up in his arms, wincing at the intense heat radiating off of her body.

“Just what are you doing?!” Jenny yelled.

“I’m tryn’a save her,” he said simply, carrying her out of the room.

“She’s too weak to be moved! You’re gonna kill her!”

He found his way in the hall blocked by wee Brianna, who stared up at him in alarm and confusion.

“My brathair has a way to help yer Mam,” he said gently. He could ignore Jenny, but no’ this lass who’d likely be cowing armies with her mother in a few years’ time.

“Put her back!” Jenny exclaimed.

Brianna looked worriedly from her aunt, to William, to Jamie, and then Claire. With a hard look Claire’s face, Brianna stepped aside. “Bring her home, okay?”

“Ye can count on it, a leannain.”

 

Ian was waiting outside on his horse, with Donas beside him. Jamie handed Claire to William long enough to mount Donas, then reached for her.

He cradled Claire to his chest as he followed Ian out of the town and into the woods, feeling her hard head thumping him with every step. Her breath was labored, and every now and then her body would quake with weak coughing fits. Occasionally her eyes would open, two dots of whiskey brown, and she would stare up at him dazedly. He whispered nonsense to her in the Gaidhilg until she went back to sleep.

Finally, they reached where Ian had been leading them, and the other man motioned for him to give Claire over.

Almost reluctantly, Jamie did so, and watched as Ian gently laid Claire on a soft pelt on the ground.

Ian’s face was already painted in black designs for the ceremony. Jamie had seen it done before, and at first thought it pagan nonsense, but he couldn’t deny the results, and he trusted Ian with his life. And Claire’s.

It felt like an eternity that Jamie sat there, watching his Cheyenne brother sing and wave smoking herbs over Claire’s weak form. She was wearing only her shift, and the sight made Jamie want to cover her, thinking she wouldn’a much like being exposed before two men this way.

But she wasn’t in a place now to care, and rather than look alluring, it made her look small and defenseless, instead of larger-than-life like she usually did. It tore at Jamie’s heart.

Finally, Ian’s song came to an end, and he sighed tiredly.

“Will she live?” Jamie asked.

Ian looked over Claire critically. She didn’t look any different than before, but Jamie knew the effects weren’t instant. “She is strong,” Ian said.

“Will she live?” Jamie demanded. He knew damn well that strong people died every day.

Ian looked from Jamie, to Claire, and back again, a look of calm understanding spreading across his features – a long with a mildly sly grin. “That is up to you, brother.”

Jamie narrowed his gaze. Sometimes his Cheyenne family’s cryptic tendencies wore on the nerves.

He knelt beside Claire, touching her cheek, and he could swear she was already a little cooler to the touch.

“Get her to drink,” Ian said, handing him a small bowl with the tea he’d been brewing on the fire.

Jamie sat down near Claire’s head, raising her up so she leaned against him. “Come on now, Sassenach,” he whispered. “Ye need to drink.”

“Mac?” she whimpered, not opening her eyes.

“Aye, it’s me, mo ghrigh. Yer gonna be alright.”

She sipped the brew obediently (probably the most obedient he was bound to ever see her,) then nuzzled into his chest like her own wee cheetie and went back to sleep.

He felt his heart take a lurch at the sight, and busied himself in gathering her up for the ride back to hide it. Ian was already looking smug enough as it was.

By the time they’d returned, word had well spread that an Indian had been seen in town, so people were congregated near the boarding house to get a keek.

“Well, she doesn’t look any worse,” Jenny said as he carried her in. “Now, will you get her upstairs? You can’t be carrying her all around Colorado in her underwear like that!”

A chuckle from Tom Christie and a couple of the other men earned them a withering glare from Jamie, Jenny, Brianna, William, and Ian alike.

Jamie went to head for the stairs, but hesitated when he realized Ian wasn’t right behind him. When he turned to check, he found Ian and Jenny staring curiously at one another.

Two Moons,” he called in the Cheyenne language. “The medicine?”

Shaking himself, Ian produced the sack which contained the ingredients for the tea.

“What’s this?” Jenny asked.

“Claire needs a cup o’ this tea every hour,” Jamie ordered. “And there’s enough there to brew for everyone.”

Jenny took the bag gingerly, but only stared at it in indecision.

Louise sighed and reached to take it away. “Oh, I’ll do it. Get Dr. B to bed, Mr. McTavish.”

That, irritatingly, led to a few more lewd chuckles from the men, but Jamie opted to let it go. They were feverish, after all.

Chapter Text

I had no idea how long I swam in an out of consciousness. It could have been days or weeks, or merely hours. Everything was just a churning, bubbling pot of cold and heat and miserable discomfort.

At one point I remembered speaking to Jenny. It had been in my mind to wonder if this was what Charlotte felt like before she died, and I was suddenly petrified that I was about to once again leave the children motherless. I pleaded with Jenny to take care of them, but she only shook her head and insisted I wasn’t going to die.

But, wasn’t that what I said to Charlotte?

Brianna was there the most, bathing my face and getting me to drink. Drinking was the worst, because even water seared my raw throat like acid. And I knew that it was just plain water; the quinine was gone.

I began to have thoughts of my parents, what little I clearly remembered of them, what with the way they drifted in and out of my life while keeping me mostly in boarding school until they drifted out of my life for the last time.

Would I see them when I died? Would they be happy to see me? Would they be up there with my two younger siblings who’d never had the chance to be born?

I thought of Frank. He’d be glad to see me, I’m sure.

What are you doing here?” he’d ask with a quirk of his lips. “You’re not scheduled to be here for many, many more years, love.”

“You and your schedules,” I would say. “Perhaps I simply missed you.”

“Posh, last I checked you were being followed about by a wild mountain man.”

“By a…oh, don’t be silly. Mac is a friend.”

“I don’t recall you ever looking at your other friends like that…or me for that matter.”

I didn’t like the direction my daydream was taking, so I decided to stop.

 

Voices drifted in and out, in and out, always changing, yet somehow merging into one. Occasionally I could pick out Bree, or William. They sounded upset. I hoped Fergus was okay.

The hands that touched me were indistinct. Normally I wasn’t overly fond of being touched, with the exception of friendly hugs. But I was helpless but to cooperate when they needed to roll me over, or remove my clothes and put them back on. And it was a thousand times worse because their touch hurt. Every finger that lay on my skin stung like a wasp all the way to my bones.

I would cringe away, but I was still helpless.

But then…strangely…I was being picked up. The sensation made me think I was falling and I curled instinctively into the body that was holding me. It was warm, and smelled like horses. The press of hands against my back and legs miraculously didn’t hurt, and for a wild moment I wondered if I was being carried to Heaven.

But no…I heard his voice…and somehow that one was easy enough to pick out from the rest. With its deep, rumbling tone, and the way all the R’s rolled. I wished I could roll my R’s like that.

We flew around like that for a while, jolting and jerking and preventing me from being able to sleep. And then he put me down and took his hands away. I didn’t like that…and I think I made a sound, but I wasn’t sure.

There was singing, but it didn’t really sound like angels. Then again, I didn’t know what angels sounded like.

You’re not dying, Chick-pea,” Uncle Lamb said. “You have far too much to do yet. Far too many people counting on you.”

“But I’m tired,” I complained. “I want to go to sleep.”

“Not just yet. That man there is too stubborn by far, at any rate. Almost as stubborn as you. He’s not about to let you go.”

“Who’s he to tell me whether or not I can die? He’s never even told me his first name.”

“Did you ask?”

“…No. But it doesn’t matter! I don’t need him.”

“Maybe not…but it is okay to need people, Chick-pea.”

“I needed you. But now you’re gone.”

“I know that, sweetheart. And I miss you, so. But I’m having a whale of a time watching you find your way. You’ve a family now, Claire. They love you, and they need you. And even if they won’t admit it, the town needs you, too.”

“Bugger the town.”

“That’s my girl! Now, go on home.”

“No! I don’t want you to go just yet!”

“I have to, Chick-pea. Besides, the looks that man is giving you are starting to make me blush. There are SOME things a father just doesn’t need to see! I love you, little one. Now go keep making me proud.”

“I love you too, Uncle Lamb…Papa…”

 

I was in his arms again, and this time it felt natural just to burrow on in. “Mac?” I said weakly.

When he offered me a warm drink, I drank, and he murmured some more of those funny words I’d been hearing him say all the time. At first I thought they were Cheyenne words, but I could hear him talking to Ian, and those words sounded different.

There was Sassenach, which I knew, but also mo gr-aye and mo nee-an down. I made a mental note to ask him about it later.

 

The sounds and colors blurred again for some time, and the next time I became aware, I was in back in bed at the boarding house. Wait…had I ever left? No, that must have been a dream.

I opened my eyes, astounded that I could see clearly, and nothing spun around. I was no longer stuck in the miserable mix of hot and cold. In fact, I was fairly comfortable. My fever was gone.

I rolled my head over, saw from the window that it was dark, and the person watching over me for the night was none other than Mac. He sat in a chair beside my bed, head leaned against the wall, sound asleep.

“Mac?” I whispered, moving my hand to reach out for him, only to find that it was already pinned beneath his own. The motion roused him and he jerked awake, his eyes focusing on me instantly.

“Sassenach?” he said, leaning forward quickly to touch my forehead, then smiled broadly. “Welcome back, lass.”

“The children?” I asked. “They’re all okay?”

He grinned some more. “Aye, wait here. Don’t go away.”

I chuckled at the mere idea of getting up, but tightened my grip on his hand when he made to leave. “Wait…Mac?”

He settled back down, picking up my hand to hold between his own massive ones. My hands normally looked so masculine due to all the work they did, but next to his they looked positively dainty.

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

“My name?”

“I know bloody well your name isn’t Mac McTavish.”

He chuckled. “No lass, it’s not. Pains me, it does, to not be able to go by my family name at all. But there’s a reason, ken.”

“Oh,” I felt a little disappointed that he didn’t seem to want to tell me, but also surprised, because I had thought McTavish was his last name. I’d merely thought Mac was a play on it.

“I’d like to tell ye my name,” he continued. “All of them. But I need ye to keep them safe for me, ken? For now, at least.”

I perked up, feeling like I was being given something precious, and nodded. “You can trust me.”

“Aye, I know I can,” he cleared his throat and straightened up, before bowing as formally as one can while sitting. “James Alexander Malcolm McKenzie Fraser,” he spoke each one slowly, annunciating carefully, as if he hadn’t spoken them in a long time and wanted to make sure I heard them all.

“That’s a lot of names,” I joked, before growing more serious. “I like them…James Fraser.”

The smile he gave me then was resplendent, and it did something to me I couldn’t quite name.

“I’ve always been Jamie,” he whispered. “And I think…I think it’s safe enough to be so still. Ye could call me that, if ye like.”

I nodded. “I’d like that. Thank you for helping, Jamie. I know you gave me that Cheyenne tea.”

He smirked. “I gave everyone that Cheyenne tea. No one has died in three days.”

“That’s wonderful. Even Jenny went along with it?”

His jaw twitched with mirth. “Ah, her? She’s been brewin’ like mad. And do ye know, when that General Custer showed up here yesterday, lookin’ for Ian, she told him he’d never been here. Made Tom and everyone else play along. All while Ian was up here, the whole time. She’s been sore worrit about ye, Sassenach.”

Really?”

“Aye…but no’ as much as a few others…and I’d best go get them, ‘fore they find out yer awake and I didn’t get them right off.”

Jamie slipped out the door and reappeared after a moment with William, Brianna, and Fergus – looking healthy as a horse.

“Mama!”

“Dr. B!”

In an instant I was in a crushing hug between Fergus and Brianna.

I pulled back to look at Bree, who was grinning madly, and feeling my forehead quite professionally. “Your fever’s broken!”

“Alright, alright,” Jenny was saying, appearing through the doorway and gently urging the children away. “Let’s let your ma get some rest.”

I was already half-asleep by the time the children were gone, but I knew this time it was going to be peaceful rest.

I felt more than heard Jamie come back into the room, and it made me a little glad that he was still going to sit with me. Just before slipping back into blissful sleep, I thought I felt his lips press fleetingly against my head. But I could have been dreaming.

Chapter Text

Being awake and alert was almost worse than the fever-induced coma, because I so aware of my limitations. My recovery was much, much slower than I wanted it to be, and I was admittedly a little waspish as a result.

My poor mood, however, didn’t diminish the joy I felt at watching the way Brianna had practically taken over the hospital, bossing volunteers about and bullying patients into taking their medicine. It was beautiful.

The influenza evaporated from the town as quickly as it had descended, having claimed the lives of fourteen individuals. As sad as that was, I considered it a triumph considering how easily I knew it could have been all two hundred plus residents.

Once it was clear I wasn’t about to drop dead any time soon, Jamie vanished into the woods, as was his wont. But I couldn’t help but feel like something had changed drastically between us, and not only because I was now the sole person in Colorado Springs who knew his name.

Things had also changed between Jenny and me. She’d seemed to develop a sense of respect for me, and I no longer feared that she was about to try and take my children, so it allowed me to become downright fond of the indomitable person she was.

Once I was well enough to walk, the children took me home. It was sweet the way Fergus jumped at every chance to help me, the way Brianna assumed command of the family while I continued to recover, and how William fussed over my every movement like I would break any moment.

Sweet…but a little tiring after a while.

“Willie, I’m fine. It’s good for me to get exercise,” I told him as he reluctantly saddled Bear for me.

“Walking to the lake and back is exercise,” he huffed. “Going on rounds to check on the other flu patients is work.”

“Well, I need to work. Surely you know me well enough by now to know that I’m not exactly the type that’s satisfied sitting around, doing nothing?”

His mouth twitched, though he remained trying to look stern. “No, I know that. I just don’t get why you have to go and check on everyone when you were the last one to get real sick. Can’t you at least take Bree?”

I sighed. “William, as brave and remarkable as your sister is, she’s a little girl, and she’s been taking care of me for two weeks. I sent her to the creek with her friends, and I do not want you disrupting them, do you understand?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he allowed. “She deserves a break. But so do you.”

I smiled, and patting his cheek fondly. “And I appreciate your concern, I really do. But…maybe I kind of also need a little time to myself…” I winced, hoping he wouldn’t take it the wrong way.

But he only chuckled, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah…we’ve been kinda all over you the past couple weeks, huh? Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I love you all for what you’ve done for me. I promise I won’t overdo it, and I’ll be home before supper.”

William nodded, and helped me to mount Bear, which was admittedly a little more difficult than it normally would be for me.

I wanted to check on the other recovering influenza survivors, but really it was more about being visible again, and letting everyone know that I was okay, and back to work should they need me.

The boarding house had been thoroughly cleaned, by my orders, and it was tacitly decided by everyone that it would remain a medical center for the time being.

I passed by the saloon, waving at Dottie as I went, though my eyebrows shot up in surprise at the sight of Denny hanging around the establishment, as he’d never struck me as the type.

After going around to the flu patients in town, and seeing that everyone was on the mend, I went back to the boarding house and starting setting things up for patients should they come.

Almost right away I had Gail peeking her head in, asking if I was there.

“Come on in,” I greeted. “I’m glad you see you escaped the virus.”

“You and me both,” she chuckled, hovering in the doorway.

“Is there…something you need?” I asked, eyeing the way she was cradling her left hand.

“Oh…I just have a cut is all,” she said. “I hoped maybe you wouldn’t mind taking a look at it…is it…okay?” she looked around, as if seeing if anyone else was in the room.

“Of course it is,” I said, confused. “Please, come in.”

Gail entered the building fully at last, sitting on the bed I had set up in the main area of the boarding house to make for a quick clinic.

“I just didn’t want to disturb you if you were seeing another patient,” Gail explained bashfully.

“Why would you…” and then it dawned on me. Gail was afraid she wouldn’t be allowed inside the same medical clinic the other citizens used because of her skin color. And I imagined there would be a fair few who might take exception to me using the same medical tools on a black woman that I used for everyone else.

Well, they could all just bugger off.

“Let me see your hand,” I said instead, carefully examining the cut. “Hm, it’s not deep. But I think I’d better put a stitch in, just to be safe.”

Gail sat bravely and silently while I stitched and bandaged her hand. “You’ll need to be careful how you use it for a few days, until I can remove the stitch,” I told her. “And keep it clean, but don’t get the bandage wet.”

“Thanks, Dr. B,” she said, reaching into her purse. “How much do I owe you?”

I hesitated, then chuckled. “Do you know? I have no idea! I haven’t a chance to think about prices yet.”

Gail arched an eyebrow. “Well, don’t you think you should? Half the town owes you, already.”

I waved that off. “That was an epidemic, and I wound up needing cared for too. I wouldn’t accept payment for any of that.”

“That’s kind of you, Dr. B, and I mean no offense here, but it’s also a bit irresponsible. This is your livelihood isn’t it? You got three kids to take care of. You need to be paid.”

“You’re right,” I said, biting my lip. “I’ve never had to think about it like that before. I know what people paid in Boston for treatment, but I can’t expect that much from people here.”

“Maybe not, but you ought to expect something. Here,” she handed me fifty cents. “For the price of the thread and bandage and…” she placed another dime in my palm. “For your time. Seem fair?”

“Very,” I said, grinning. “Thanks, Gail.”

At long last, I started having a fairly steady business of patients at my “clinic.” Unfortunately for me, most people didn’t pay the way Gail did. For the most part I received jars of preserves, or bags of apples or such as way of thanks.

The food wasn’t unwelcome, as it went straight home to my children, but eventually I would need to buy medical supplies, and my savings were quickly dwindling.

But I didn’t know how to tell the townspeople, most of whom were far poorer than I, that they had to pay money. It’s not like I would deny anyone treatment if they couldn’t pay.

The day the stagecoach returned was met with celebration as people clamored to get to their packages and supplies, or hear news of the world outside Colorado Springs.

The catgut sutures I’d ordered months ago had finally arrived, much to my relief, along with a new set of needles that I fawned over like a child would Christmas presents.

“Most women like dresses and hats,” Jamie said, appearing over my shoulder. “Ye get excited over things ye poke into people.”

“What can I say, I’m a simple woman with simple desires,” I teased. “Keep the flowers and give me a bone saw, and I’ll be happy as a clam.”

He chuckled, stepping around me to accept a package, and that’s when something dawned on me. “Erm…Jamie?” I said, drawing him away from the crowd.

“Something wrong, Sassenach?”

I grimaced, hating that I had to say this while holding new supplies. “I ordered these ages ago…”

“Aye…” he agreed, holding up his own package. “As did I. We haven’t had a stagecoach in two months.”

“Yes…but what I mean is…” I flushed hotly. “I know my rent is past due, and I just wanted you to know I’d get it to you…I just maybe need a little more…”

“Claire,” he interrupted, surprising me, as I didn’t think he’d ever used my first name. “Lass, ye dinna need to fash yer’self about that.”

“But I am…uh, fashed,” I said. “I don’t want you to think I’m trying to take advantage or anything.”

He smiled, taking hold of my wrist and squeezing it gently. “I don’t, and I won’t. Ye dinna think I know how folks in this town have been payin’ ye in peaches instead o’ money? It’s alright, Sassenach. I ken you’re getting yerself established. I also ken you’re honorable and will’na give up on payin’ me, even though it’s no’ necessary. That’s why I will’na bother tryn’a tell ye so.”

“You’re a smart man,” I said, smirking. “I will pay, Jamie. With interest.”

No interest,” he said firmly. “And that, I willn’a bend on. Ye’ll also promise me ye willn’a pay a dime to me before you and yer children’s needs are met first. Promise?”

I finally relented, nodding. “I promise. Thank you, Jamie.”

“Yer welcome,” he said distractedly, looking over my shoulder. “Now what’s that fellow doing?”

I turned to follow his look and saw a man hovering around the boarding house, looking at it appraisingly. I’d glimpsed him coming off the stage, so I knew he wasn’t a townsperson, as if his clean, expensive-looking suit wasn’t sign enough.

“Oh no,” I said, my heart sinking as I made my way over.

“Pardon me, erm, can I help you?” I asked him, praying he was just looking for the doctor.

“Are you Miss Beauchamp?” he asked, his bushy mustache twitching.

“That’s Dr. Beauchamp,” I corrected. “And you are…?”

His mustache twitched again. “Jedidiah Bancroft, from the First National Bank of Denver. And you, doctor, are occupying these premises illegally.”

I watched with wide-eyed outrage as he proceeded to hang up a sign over the door that said, Property of the First National Bank of Denver. NO TRESPASSING.

“I’ll give you three days to vacate, or you’ll be forcibly removed,” he said airily.

“I…I’m sorry…” I began, at a loss for words. “But do you understand what you’re doing?”

He raised one bushy eyebrow. “My job?”

“This building is this town’s only medical clinic,” I told him.

He chuckled. “No offense, but it’s not much of a clinic.”

I growled, wishing to rip the mustache right off his face. “Fine. Then let me rent it from you.”

“You can’t rent a foreclosed property,” he droned, as if that were something everyone should know. “It’s already going to auction.”

“Okay…then I’ll buy it.”

He put away the hammer he’d been using and dusted off his jacket. “Fine. Then I’ll see you in Denver next week.”

“Denver?”

The look he gave me was disgustingly patronizing. “That’s where the auction will be, dear. The bid starts at $1,500.

I blinked. $1,500? I had perhaps half of that left in savings, and that was all I had to live off of until my practice took off. But my practice would have nowhere to take off from without the building!

“I…I’ll need a mortgage.”

“Fine, fine. What’s your collateral?”

I squared my shoulders. “My medical degree.”

He chuckled. “If you were a man, you might have something there. But people don’t exactly put a lot of confidence in a woman doctor. No, I’m sorry. Now…if your husband was around…perhaps I could do business with him…”

I scowled. The man knew fine well I wasn’t married. “I don’t have a husband.”

He raised his hands and gave me a look as if that was my every flaw. “Do you have any plans?”

“That’s none of your business!”

“Then I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for you, now if you please vacate the premises…” he took my arm as if to guide me off the porch, only for his hand to be snatched back by Jamie, who’d materialized out of nowhere.

“Please keep yer hands to yerself, sir,” Jamie said with a quiet cordiality that sounded more dangerous than shouting would have.

“Well I never!” Mr. Bancroft exclaimed, fussily adjusting his jacket and marching away.

“I guess you heard,” I groaned.

“Aye, I can see, too,” I gestured toward the sign. “What are ye going to do?”

I rubbed my face, mentally going through my finances. “I don’t know. I already sold Uncle Lamb’s practice. I have nothing left of value enough to put up for collateral.”

Jamie made that sound in his throat. “I have a feelin’ that even if ye did have collateral, that man wouldn’a give ye the loan.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re probably right.”

We walked away from the boarding house, and my mind was whirling so much that I didn’t realize anything was happening until I heard a shriek, following by Jamie crying out and running in the direction of the smithy.

Joe Abernathy was rolling on the ground, flames licking across his arm and chest, and Gail was standing nearby, screaming for help.

Jamie rushed straight for him, grabbing a saddle blanket and wrapping Joe in it, smothering the flames. Something must have exploded from the forge, catching Joe’s clothing on fire.

“Dr. B!” Jamie called, but I was already knelt beside him, pulling back the saddle blanket to see.

Joe was writhing and crying out in pain, and my hands fluttered over him, at a loss of what to do.

“Tom!” I exclaimed. “We need to get Joe to the barbershop, the bank closed down the boarding house.”

“I…I can’t do that,” Tom stammered.

“What do you mean you can’t?!” but then it dawned on me and I snarled. “What? Joe’s good enough to shoe your horse but not good enough to go into your damned shop?!”

“It’s not me!” he snapped. “But my customers…”

“Oh, hang it,” I sneered, turning back to Joe. “It’ll be alright, Joe. Roger! Can you help Mac carry Joe to my house?”

“I’m on it, Dr. B,” Roger said, getting Joe’s feet while Jamie gingerly grabbed Joe around the arms.

I yelled for William to come and get the wagon, and we raced back to the homestead, getting Joe into my bed.

He continued to thrash and fight, but I was too wary of using the chloroform on him in his state.

“Hold him still,” I ordered the men while I started cutting away Joe’s shirt. Gail hovered nearby, shaking and crying, but she didn’t appear hurt.

I’d noticed Gail hanging around the smithy quite a bit of late, and I’d also noticed the long looks Joe would give her whenever she walked past.

“Gail,” I said. “Can you talk to him? Try to distract him. I’m going to have to clean the wounds…and it’s going to be painful.”

Gail sidled up between the headboard and Roger, and stroked Joe’s head, whispering nonsense words to him while I painstakingly cleansed the wounds. His entire right arm was covered in second and third degree burns, though luckily the burns on his chest and shoulder were less severe. Still, if I didn’t get the burns clean and keep them that way, he stood a very real chance of losing the limb altogether.

It was long, excruciating work, and by the time I was finished, Joe had passed out from the pain. Roger looked near to passing out himself, and even Jamie looked rather pale.

“I’ve done all I can do for now,” I said, stepping back and mopping my forehead with my sleeve. “We’ll let him rest for now. Thank you, everyone.”

“Is he going to make it?” Gail asked, wringing her hands.

I walked to the other side of the bed, placing my hands on her shoulders. “I’ll do everything I can, Gail. The rest is up to him.”

“Joe’s a strong man,” Jamie said quietly. “He’ll make it.”

“Would you go to Two Moons, and see if I could have more of that fever tea?” I asked Jamie. “I still have some, but I’d like to have extra, just in case.”

“Aye,” Jamie said, nodding once and heading for the door. “Right away.”

“Anything else I can do?” Roger asked.

I smiled at him. “No, thank you. Except…I eyed Joe, but also thought about the boarding house. “Pray for a miracle?”

Roger smiled back. “Way ahead of you, Dr. B.”

Chapter Text

Gail came every day to help tend to Joe, though at times he seemed resistant to her care. I assured her it was just a manly sense of not wanting to appear weak in front of her, however much a consolation that was.

I sat with him through the nights, given brief reprieves by Bree and William. Once the fever hit though, it did so with a vengeance.

“He’s not getting any better?” Jamie asked, holding Joe’s head while I poured fever tea into his mouth.

I shook my head, feeling like I was about to explode. “It’s too much. I can’t care for him properly here! It’s too hard to keep things sanitary, not enough room to bath him properly. He’s going to lose that arm, and it’ll be all my fault.”

“How in th’ hell is it yer fault?” Jamie asked, outraged, before growing sheepish. “Beggin’ yer pardon. But it’s no’ your fault that the bank willn’a give ye the loan.”

“Maybe not but it’s just…” I sighed. “I’m sorry, I know I’m not making much sense.”

“Yer tired,” he said simply. “Go take a wee nap, I’ll sit w’ Joe.”

I opened my mouth to refuse, but I’d learned my lesson about running myself too ragged during the epidemic, so I relented and took myself to Bree’s bed for a rest.

I wasn’t asleep for long before I heard voices arguing.

“She’s restin’,” Jamie was saying firmly.

“What, are you her secretary?” that voice was Dougal, the saloon-owner. “Or…” he chuckled. “You her kept man?”

“Get out.”

“Look, I’m bleeding here! Are you gonna get the doctor or…”

“What’s the problem?” I asked, coming out from behind the curtain, rubbing my face.

“Sorry, Sassenach,” Jamie muttered, standing aside to admit Dougal, who was standing on the porch, bleeding from the arm.

“What happened?” I asked him dispassionately. I’d been witness a few days prior to an altercation between Dougal and Denny, where Denny merely wanted to talk with Dottie but Dougal insisted on charging him for the time. I’d never been a fan of Dougal from the start, but watching him put a price on a young woman’s free time, prostitute or not, was grating.

“I got cut,” he said, as if it were obvious. “Now are you gonna stitch me up?”

“I thought you preferred the services of Tom Christie?”

Dougal rolled his eyes. “You and me both know Tom can’t sew for beans. Now, what’s it gonna take to get some help?”

I narrowed my eyes calculatingly. “Hmm…a dollar a stitch.”

Dougal’s eyes flew open wide. “W…that’s robbery!”

“That’s the price,” I said, crossing my arms. “Take it or leave it.”

“Fine,” he hissed, stepping into the house. “Your savage here gonna stay and make sure I pay, I take it?”

“Yep,” Jamie said cheerfully, taking back up his spot at Joe’s bedside. “But mostly I just want to see if ye cry when she sticks the needle in.”

Dougal flinched as if he was going to swing at Jamie, but I put a restraining hand on his arm, his injured arm, and he stilled instantly. Rollo growled from the doorway, but he’d been temporarily banished from inside the house until Joe was on the mend.

I dealt with Jamie and Dougal growling at one another like a pair of territorial baboons just long enough to stitch Dougal’s arm, accept payment, and send him on his way.

“Well, I’m five dollars closer to $1,500,” I joked.

Jamie chuckled. “That cut didn’t need five stitches,” he accused teasingly.

I gaped at him. “Excuse me? Who is the doctor here?” he gave me a look and I smirked. “So I added an extra stitch. Just to be safe.”

 

Joe’s condition continued to deteriorate, and every passing hour that I couldn’t get the inflammation in his arm down, made me grow more and more afraid that I would be forced to amputate before gangrene set in.

The children and I sat and pooled all our resources; the little money I’d made doctoring, extra cash William had earned from helping Jenny with the cattle, Bree had sold a couple of dresses she’d made, and even Fergus contributed twelve cents Murtagh had paid him for sweeping the store. That, combined with the last of my inheritance, added up to just $1,000, (and twelve cents.)

“This means we’ll be in fairly dire straits for a while,” I warned them. “Perhaps a long while. The bare minimum of everything,” I looked at Fergus. “No candy.”

“It’s alright,” Fergus said. “People need a clinic more than I need candy.”

I pulled him into my lap for a hug. “And you, my darling, are a wonderful person.”

“We’ll be alright,” William said. “The chickens, the traps, and the garden are enough for food, and I can still work for Aunt Jenny and earn more.”

“I don’t know when I’ll be able to pay you back,” I said.

He scoffed. “Pay us back? We’re a family, Dr. B. Families work together.”

I smiled at him, feeling tears sting my eyes. “Well, this has to be enough for a down payment.”

 

It wasn’t.

I found Mr. Bancroft at the saloon, getting my usual leers and scorn for entering the establishment that only women who were willing to take their clothes off were allowed in.

“I distinctly remember telling you that the price is $1,500,” he said, as if speaking to a child. “Not $1,000. Surely if you’ve been to medical school you would have learned to count.”

I bit my lip in an effort not to tell him where he could put his mustache. “This is two thirds of the entire payment. Surely you can see that I’m good for it. Just give me the loan for the other $500…”

Miss Beauchamp,” he snapped, deliberately not using “doctor.” “I’m sorry, but I cannot give a loan to a single woman! It’s not…”

“Can’t?” I hissed. “Or won’t?”

“Both! Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go. Goodbye Miss Beauchamp.”

“Hey,” Denny said, entering the saloon just as Bancroft was leaving. “That’s Dr. Beauchamp!”

“Thanks Denny,” I murmured, receiving a distracted nod before he marched up to the counter, slapping a dime on the bar to buy time with Dottie.

“There! That’s ten cents! Now can I see Dorothea?”

Dougal rolled his eyes and motioned Denny toward the back, where Dottie was waiting with a smile on her face.

 

I returned home, but opened the door to see Gail and Joe talking in hushed tones, and since Joe looked to be doing reasonably alright, I snuck back out to give them privacy.

Jamie came upon me as I was weeding my garden, and he looked at it critically. “Aren’t those poisonous?” he said, pointing to the plant I was tenderly watering.

“Very,” I said. “But applied topically they’re an excellent at drawing venom from a snake bite,” I looked away. “So what happened to Charlotte doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

“Aye,” he said quietly, then knelt down. “I should really get you and Black Kettle together. You could talk about yer wee herbs from now to eternity. His wife is verra knowledgeable as well”

“I’d like that,” I said, smiling.

“How is Joe?”

I nodded toward the house. “Gail is with him now. It’s still touch and go, but it still hasn’t gotten severe enough to warrant amputation, so that’s something.”

“Did ye talk to Bancroft again?”

“Yes,” I growled. “Pompous ass.”

Jamie chuckled. “I like it when ye curse. Sounds so odd coming from such a proper lady.”

“Don’t know many people who would call me a proper lady,” I teased. “I offered two thirds of the payment to Bancroft and he still said no. Can you believe it?”

“Unfortunately I do,” he said. “But you’re more reliable than most anyone I know. Man or woman. It isn’a fair.”

“All because I don’t have the right sort of equipment between my legs,” I sneered, startling a shocked choking sound out of Jamie. I smiled in victory.

“Dr. B!” Gail called.

I jumped up and raced inside, relieved to see Joe sitting up a little against some pillows and looking alert.

“I think his fever has broken!” Gail exclaimed.

I sat down on the bed beside Joe and felt his head. He was clammy, but cool. “So it has. Well, done, Joe.”

“Thank you,” he said, taking and squeezing my hand. “Don’t know what I’d ‘a done without you.”

I grinned, squeezing his hand back and pulling Gail in for hug with the other.

 

The day of the auction came, and Mr. Bancroft was leaving on the stage. Soon the boarding house would belong to someone else, and I would be back at square one.

“Sassenach,” Jamie said coming up beside me where I stood staring at the bank sign on the door of the boarding house.

“I even tried to sell my ring,” I said. “If only I had more time.”

I saw Jamie look at me curiously at the word “ring,” but he didn’t comment. “Aye…well…maybe this’ll help.”

I glanced up at him to find that he was holding a folded piece of paper out to me. I took it, surprised by its weight, and unfolded it to find a stack of wrinkled bills.

“What…”

“$1,000,” Jamie said, nodding at it. “Couldn’a get up the whole amount, but at least this way ye can pay for it wi’out breaking yerself.”

I gaped at him, speechless for a long moment. “But…how…where…”

“Sold some hides,” he said. “And some o’ that furniture o’ mine ye’d put in the barn. But it wasn’a all me. Gail gave some, as did Joe. He figured he owed ye, after all.”

I opened my mouth to speak again only to find a finger being pointed at my face. “And dinna ye even think the words, pay back. This is a gift, Sassenach. Or…pre-payment, if ye like. Never know when I’ll be needin’ stitches o’ my own.”

I laughed, tears falling freely from my eyes. “Consider every medical treatment from here to eternity paid for.”

“Aye, now go! Bancroft will be leaving soon.”

I let out a rather undignified squeal and turned to go before pausing. “Jamie? Will you come? I may be proud but I’m not so proud that I won’t let you intimidate him in case he still doesn’t want to sell.”

“It’ll be my pleasure, Sassenach.”

Chapter Text

At long last, I had my very own clinic.

Mine to decide how it should be set up. Mine to decorate to make it comfortable for patients. Mine to open the doors to everyone in need, regardless of race, religion, or creed.

“That should do it, Lady Jane,” Joe said, straightening up from where he’d replaced the hinges on the front door, they having been damaged when Jamie kicked the door in during the epidemic.

“Thank you, J…did you just call me Lady Jane?”

Joe smirked, fixing the brim of his hat.

“He’s been calling you that behind your back for months,” Louise said, laughing as she carried in a few odds and ends from the wagon that I’d brought from the house. “I’ve just been waiting for him to slip up and call you it to your face.”

I frowned, unsure if I should be hurt or not, since I didn’t understand the reference. I knew who Joe was talking about, but not why I was being compared to an executed Tutor.

“Sorry, Dr. B,” he said. “I only mean it ‘cause you got that posh accent and seemed so…proper when you first came to town. You proved me wrong there, though.”

Gasping in mock-outrage, I threw a hand towel at him. “Thanks a lot, Joe! You and Mac and your “complimentary” nicknames!”

“It means they like you,” Gail said, arranging a vase of flowers. “And I don’t think you mind an ounce when Mac calls you Sassy…erm…whatever it is, if the blush on your face every time you hear it is any indication.”

The others laughed, and to my embarrassment I did indeed blush, which only sent them into more fits of laughter.

“You could do worse than Mac,” Joe said, more seriously. “He’s a good man, you know.”

“I do know,” I allowed. “And that’s the end of that conversation. Has anyone seen Fergus?”

“You sent him to get extra eggs from Mrs. Thomas for the church cakewalk,” Louise said.

“That was an hour ago!”

“But you know how Mrs. Thomas likes to talk!”

I chuckled. “Why do you think I sent Fergus? I didn’t have the time!”

Still, it had been a while, and it was almost time to head home for supper. I went out to see if I could see him, when suddenly there was an outcry and two bodies hit the ground in the middle of the road, scuffling and swinging.

The minute I recognized William’s dark hair, I was rushing forward, though how I thought I was going to break up two grown boys from a fight, I wasn’t sure.

“William! Stop!” I exclaimed, attempting to reach for them, but my hand was snatched back by a man I didn’t recognize.

“Stay out of it!” he snapped, yanking me roughly backward.

Then Jamie was there, punching the man swiftly in the jaw before tossing him aside like he was nothing, and then leaping toward the fight.

Just then, another man appeared who immediately reached for the boy fighting with William, and he and Jamie managed to finally pry the boys apart.

“Willie!” I exclaimed, briefly examining his bruised face. “What on earth are you doing?!”

“He pushed Fergus,” William huffed, glaring daggers at the other boy.

“What?”

“He knocked me down, Mama,” Fergus said, rushing out of the crowd to cling to my skirts. “He made me drop all my eggs, and then he pushed me!”

“Saw the whole thing,” Murtagh said from the porch of his store. “Fergus is telling the truth.”

“And if Mr. Murtagh agrees with me, you know it’s true,” Fergus said solemnly.

“Of course I believe you,” I said quietly before turning to the older man, who appeared to be the boy’s father. “Your boy knocked over my son and made him lose all his eggs.”

The man scowled and looked around at the crowd, hearing the fuss in Fergus’s defense, before producing a silver dollar and tossing it carelessly to the ground at mine and Fergus’s feet.

“I meant my sons are owed an apology,” I said patiently.

The man didn’t even speak, just snorted and motioned for his boy to follow before walking away. I wanted to smack the cocky grin off that boy’s face myself.

“They’re not very nice,” Fergus said, bending to pick up the coin.

“They sure aren’t. Who are they?”

“Gold miners,” Jamie said, flexing the hand he’d punched the other man with. “Saw them poking around near the reservation last week. Ian and the braves chased them off.”

I hummed. “Well, William, I think you’d do best to stay away from that boy. You too, Fergus.”

“Gladly,” William huffed, wiping at the small trickle of blood coming from his nose.

 

While I was glad to have patients, the sudden onrush of individuals coming through feeling ill reminded me far too much of the epidemic for comfort, and I found myself holding my breath every time someone new walked in the door.

Stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea. All fairly common symptoms. Dysentery was unfortunately frequently come by in a small town such as this. What didn’t add up, however, was the jaw pain and hair loss.

“I’m going bald,” Roger said resignedly, running a hand through his thick black hair, only to come away with a handful of it.

“Male pattern baldness isn’t normally this sudden,” I told him, checking his pupils.

“If he’s going bald, so am I,” Jenny said, letting herself into the clinic.

“You too?” I asked. “Sick to your stomach?”

“How’d you know?” she said miserably, plopping down on a cot. “I can’t keep anything down!”

“Do we have to talk about it?” I heard Angus moan from behind a screen I had set up to separate the handful of cots in the main lobby of the clinic.

“You’re the fifth one today,” I told Jenny as I checked her temperature.

“Lord,” she muttered. “This isn’t another epidemic, is it?”

“We’re gonna die!” Rupert howled from his cot near Angus.

“You’re not going to die!” I called over my shoulder, muttering “babies” under my breath where only Jenny could hear me, and she chuckled.

“Well, what could it be?” Roger asked.

I tapped my chin, thinking. “Food poisoning can cause the vomiting, but not the hair loss and tooth pain. And that would normally run its course much more quickly. Where do you get your drinking water?”

“Willow creek,” Jenny and Roger said at the same time.

“Not me,” Rupert said, peeking around the screen.

“Or me,” Angus agreed. “I have a well.”

“Hm, then it can’t…”

I trailed off, watching in amused horror as Angus, who’d only moments ago lost his breakfast, started drinking something very potent-smelling from a flask. “Are you serious?” I asked, astonished.

“What? It settles my stomach!” Angus sniffed, passing the flask to Rupert, who also took a huge swig.

“What is it?” I pressed.

Rupert smacked his lips in thought. “Moonshine, right Angus?”

“Angus,” Roger admonished. “You’re running a still?”

“Not me,” Angus retorted. “I bought it, from old Happy Walker.”

“Happy Walker?” I asked.

“A hermit who lives up the mountain,” Jenny said.

“And where does he get his water?”

Angus blinked, then stared at his flask. “He gets it from uh…Willow Creek.”

 

After giving everyone a tincture to settle their stomachs, I hurried back home. I had a sinking suspicion about what the cause of everyone’s problems was, but I’d need to test my theory out first. And I needed help.

When I got to the homestead, I was almost knocked over by two blurs of gray, one small and one large. The smaller went careening up the hill, the larger hot on his tail.

“Rollo!” I shouted. “You leave Adso alone!”

To my surprise, Rollo stopped, hanging his head and sulking away.

I looked around for his master, following the sound of chuckling to the roof of the barn.

“Not bad, Sassenach,” Jamie said, peering down at me. “I dinna think I’ve ever seen Rollo obey anyone who’s no’ me. But he willn’a hurt the wee cheetie.”

I propped my hands on my hips. “Forgive me if I don’t trust the same animal you use for hunting not to eat my poor cat. Now, what are you doing up there? Where’s William?”

“Checkin’ his traps w’ Fergus,” Jamie said, hammering at something on the roof. The movement drew my eyes to his arms, where he’d rolled his sleeves up all the way to his biceps. I shook my head to clear it.

“And Bree?”

Jamie winced. “She’s inside. No’ in a good mood I think. I asked her about her day, and she near to ripped my head off.”

I scowled. “She has been in a mood lately, but that’s no excuse to be disrespectful. I’ll have a talk with her. Now, are you going to tell me what you’re doing, or do I have to guess?”

“Is it no’ obvious?” he chirped. “I’m fixin’ the shingles on the barn. Several came lose after that last winter storm.”

“Oh…” I said lamely, thrown slightly for a loop. “Well…thank you.”

He gave me a smirk. “It’s still technically my homestead, lass. My responsibility to see it right.”

“Oh, of course,” I said more confidently. Of course he was only fixing it out of responsibility for the property. Not responsibility for…us. “But still, thank you. You’re the best landlord anyone could ask for.”

The look he gave me then was indecipherable, and it almost made me forget my purpose of coming home to begin with. “Actually…I hate to ask anything of you but…”

“Hang on, Sassenach, I’m near done,” he called, hammering twice more before climbing down off the roof as skillfully as a monkey. “What is it ye need?” he asked once he was standing before me.

“Could you take me to Willow Creek?” I asked. “People are getting sick in town, and the one thing in common seems to be the water source. I need to go there and check on it. I came to ask William but…”

“Of course, I’ll take ye,” he said instantly.

“Do you drink from Willow Creek?”

“Sometimes,” he admitted, shrugging. “But truth be told ye, I’ve been drinkin’ from yon well there more often of late.”

He gestured to my own well, and I realized that it was true; he spent quite a lot of time close to the homestead.

“Jamie…” I began, formulating a question I couldn’t believe I’d never asked before. “Where do you live?”

“He chuckled. “Here and there, Sassenach. Now, go get what ye need.”

 

“Bree?” I called once I was inside.

“Yeah?” she called back from behind the curtain to her and Fergus’s room.

I bristled at the “yeah” but opted to let that part go. “I think you owe Mac an apology. He said you were short with him. He doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment, you know.”

She emerged from her room, looking sullen. “I’ll apologize,” she said. “I didn’t mean to snap at him.”

“Are you alright?” I asked, feeling her forehead. “You feeling okay? You look a little pale.”

She shrugged. “I’m fine.”

“You’re sure?” I pressed. “Not sick to your stomach are you? Teeth hurt?”

She held a hand to the side of her face, eyes widening. “Why?”

I sighed. “I think Willow Creek may be contaminated somehow. But I have to go and run some tests.”

Brianna perked up some, coming over to where I was rooting around the kitchen. “What kind of tests?”

“Tests to see if there’s anything in the water there shouldn’t be. Want to come?”

She shrugged, but fetched the copper pot I asked for and followed me out the door where Jamie was waiting.

Along the way we ran into William and Fergus, and the five of us continued on to Willow Creek.

“What are you looking for exactly?” William asked.

“Just…something out of the ordinary,” I replied.

“I see a speckled frog!” Fergus exclaimed.

“That not what she meant, Fergus,” Brianna scoffed.

“Over here!” Jamie called.

I climbed down the bank where Jamie was crouched by the water, pointing into it.

“It’s shiny,” William commented.

“So it is,” I said, kneeling beside Jamie. “Bree, hand me the pot, will you?”

“I wondered why you needed it,” she said, handing it over.

“I’m testing for minerals,” I said, scraping the pot against the metallic-looking rock. “Willie, do you have a quarter?”

He handed one over, and I rubbed it against the pot, unsurprised when it turned black.

“What just happened?” Jamie asked, staring in wonder at the pot.

“Mercury,” I told him. “This is what would cause all of those symptoms in Jenny, Roger, and the others. “Mercury poisoning.”

“Is Aunt Jenny gonna be alright?” Bree asked worriedly.

“She’ll be fine,” I told her. “We caught it all early enough. But given enough time, the effects could have been disastrous. Where is this creek’s source?”

“Up the hills,” Jamie said. “Toward the Cheyenne reservation. But it isn’a them.”

“You sound like you know who it is, though.”

“The gold miners,” he said lowly. “Harding and his men. The one whose lad pushed wee Fergus. The river runs right through their claim.”

“You’re sure?” I asked. “You’ve seen it?”

“Ian has,” he said. “He and some of the braves went to investigate, no’ liking how close they were to the village, ken.”

“I’ve heard of miners using mercury,” I said. “But normally they have the sense to keep it out of the water.”

“I ken Harding,” he said rather cryptically. “He’s one who doesn’a care overmuch for the affairs o’ others.”

“Even still,” I said, dusting my skirts off. “I’m going to talk to him, see if he’ll let me go take samples from his mill.”

“He won’t let ye,” Jamie said.

“What else can I do but try?”

 

Unsurprisingly, Jamie and William insisted on being my guard dogs while I went to confront this Harding. I tried to dissuade them, thinking I’d seem less threatening to their business and more amiable without two hulking men behind me, but it was a losing battle.

“Mr. Harding?” I said, finding the gentleman in the saloon, of course, with his son sitting beside him. I folded my hands together, going for meek.

“Can I help you, missy?” he asked, barely deigning to look at me. I doubt he even recognized me from the altercation between our boys.

I was already losing grip on my amicableness, and clenched my fists. “Do you happen to use mercury in your mining business?”

He looked up at me then, quirking an eyebrow. He might have been handsome, had in not been for the maddening look of patronization on his face. “As it so happens, I do,” he said in a bored tone. “It’s the best way for separating gold from ore.”

“Is it possible,” I bit out, still trying to stay polite. “That any of that mercury found its way into Willow Creek? It does run right by your mill, after all.”

He huffed, turning back to his drink. “And a dozen other mills.”

“If I could perhaps just take some water samples from your mill, then I could…”

He stood up suddenly, attempting to tower over me. The effect was ruined, however, by the fact that we were roughly the same height. “Outsiders are not allowed,” he said lowly. “It leads to jumping claim, which leads to shooting, which leads to people getting killed, do you understand me?”

“Mr. Harding, people here are getting very sick! Mercury poisoning is extremely dangerous, and a horrible way to die.”

“Not my concern.”

I could practically feel the anger vibrating off of both Jamie and William, but to their credit, they remained silent and still until time came I needed physical protection. For now, though, I was finished with pleasantries.

“Mr. Harding,” I said sweetly, before my tone gradually grew less and less sweet with every word. “If I can prove to the authorities in Denver that the mercury is coming from your mill, I will personally see to it that you’re shut down. Permanently.”

“And it’ll be about time,” Jamie said.

Harding stepped closer into my personal space, and I heard a low growl from behind me. I honestly could not tell if it came from Rollo…or Jamie.

“You stay off my land,” he said. “Trespassers get shot.”

With that final word they all marched out, Dougal shaking his head at me as they went. “You’re terrible for business, you know that, Doc?” he droned.

“I’m gonna make sure they leave without causing trouble,” William said, chomping at the bit.

“Don’t you go starting anything,” I told him firmly, but he was already gone.

I felt like chomping at the bit myself. I didn’t think I’d ever met a man quite as odious as Harding, and I’d met many odious men.

“I need to get samples of the water from Harding’s mill,” I told Jamie as we walked away from the saloon.

“Aye,” he said. “I’ll get them.”

“I’ll come with you. I need to be able to do certain chemical tests right at the source.”

Jamie looked at me askance. “Mhmm. So ye’ll teach me, and I’ll do it for ye.”

I groaned. “If I want to be sure my case is rock solid, I need to do it myself. Woman or not, I am a doctor, and that will mean something in this situation. Besides, you made it fairly, publicly, clear that you dislike Harding, and he seemed to recognize you, as well. If he tries to assert that you have it out for him…”

“Aye, I see what yer saying,” he said in exasperation. “And we dinna have to tell the authorities ye weren’a there to do the test, but ye heard Harding. Trespassers are shot on sight, Sassenach.”

I stuck up my chin at him. “So we’ll have to be very careful.”

He glared down at me, but even though he did tower over me, it didn’t escape me that he never attempted to deliberately appear intimidating, the way men like Mr. Harding did.

I can get in and out wi’out Harding knowin’,” he said. “If you come, ye’ll just slow me down, while people here continue to get sick.”

I could see his point. I wasn’t exactly a wilderness expert. But I’d never handled being told I couldn’t, and I certainly wasn’t about to start with Jamie.

“Fine,” I said breezily, skirting around him. “I’ll go by myself.”

Chapter Text

“At least let me go with you,” William pleaded as we all walked to the Mercantile. “Bree and Fergus can stay with Aunt Jenny.”

“Aunt Jenny might need to help run the clinic with Bree and Louise if any more poisoning victims crop up, that leaves Fergus, the homestead, and the animals all on their own. No, William, I really need you to look after things here for me.”

“What if I don’t wanna run the clinic?” Bree groused from my other side.

I blinked at her. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t make you. But you’d be invaluable keeping Jenny and Louise in line.”

Bree stuck up her nose at that and flitted ahead to the store, leaving me, Fergus, and William to all look at one another in confusion.

“Don’t look at me,” Fergus said. “I asked her if she wanted to go swimming this morning and she bit my head off!”

“I really need to have a talk with her,” I murmured, heading into the store.

I had William help me select supplies, but kept adding onto them. “Will you be able to carry all this?” he asked, staring in askance at the spatula I handed him.

“Can’t be too prepared,” I reasoned, carrying my selections to the counter.

“So, yer really goin’ up to Harding’s mill?” Murtagh asked as I started unloading my basket.

“I am,” I told him. “But I’m not thrilled with how word is spreading. Before I know it, Harding himself will hear.”

“Jenny told me is all,” he said. “Fool’s errand if you ask me.”

I jutted my chin out at him. “I didn’t.”

He rolled his eyes. “Mac goin’ with you?”

Then it was my turn to roll my eyes. “He wants to go alone, says I’ll slow him down.”

“’Least he has some scruples.”

“That’s enough, Uncle Murtagh,” Jenny scolded playfully, coming up to help load my purchases back into the basket. “And what do you mean, he thinks you’ll slow him down? I’ve seen you ride, you’re just as good as him.”

“Hardly,” I chuckled. “But it is dangerous out there.”

Jenny’s eyes narrowed and glinted mischievously, giving me an uneasy feeling. “Maybe it’s not so much worry for you, but worry about you.”

“Aren’t those the same things?” I asked puzzledly.

Murtagh snickered. “’Think she means old Mac might be too afraid to go on off alone with you.”

“But…why…”

Both of them laughed, and Jenny propped her chin on her hands and her elbows on the counter. “I just can’t imagine…”

Their meaning finally dawned on me and I felt myself blush scarlet, which only sent them into further peals of laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Brianna asked.

“Nothing,” I sighed, fighting back a nervous laugh of my own. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Why can’t I know the joke?” she asked petulantly as we headed out and I waved for Fergus to come along and stop trying to catch a toad.

“They were just being silly, is all,” I said, but their comments didn’t cease to bother me.

Surely it wasn’t like that. Jamie had never made any sort of overture to me, nor had he ever behaved in a manner that was less than appropriate, and I wasn’t a stranger to any such behavior.

Men had been crude toward me since the moment I’d begun to develop my body, and while others maybe weren’t crude, they were very clear on what they desired.

There had been only one man who had sweetly and properly asked for the opportunity to court me.

Meanwhile, Jamie had done none of those things, and I had no reason to believe that he saw me as anything more than a friend. And he’d had plenty of opportunities. Goodness, we spent the night in a teepee together soon after meeting, when Fergus had gone missing. And I’d been told he’d been the one to tend to me the most during my bout with influenza. (But not, Jenny assured me, when it came to bathing.) Not to mention the countless times he’d been at the homestead with me while the children were out…

No, we were nothing more than friends, and I found I didn’t quite want it to be otherwise. It had been a very long time since I’d had a friend like him.

Besides…Jamie and me? What a crazy idea.

    

I wasn’t even remotely surprised when morning dawned and Jamie was waiting for me outside, Bear already saddled and packed beside Donas.

I opted not to make a comment, and neither did he.

Bree looked a little teary as I told the children goodbye, and I swore to myself that I would sit her down for a talk the moment I returned, as something seemed to have been bothering her.

“Promise you’ll be careful?” she asked.

“I promise,” I told her with a hug. “I’ll be just fine, and I’ll be back before you know it.”

I heard William and Jamie exchange quiet words, and though I didn’t hear exactly what was said, I smiled at the dramatically stern look on William’s face, and the solemn one on Jamie’s.

“Bye, Mama! Bye, Mac! Hope you find the mare-cury!” Fergus yelled, running alongside our horses until we reached the fence.

“What was William saying to you?” I asked after we’d ridden in silence for a spell. “You both looked so serious.”

One corner of Jamie’s mouth twitched up. “He was just informin’ me, as a man, ken, that I’d best be lookin’ out for ye.”

I chuckled. “My hero.”

“He’s verra protective of you, Sassenach,” Jamie said. “They all are. You’re verra beloved by those children.”

I thought I caught a hint of wistfulness in his voice, and it gave me a pang. “As I love them,” I said quietly. “I’ve been their mother not even a year and I already cannot imagine my life any other way.”

“Aye,” he said. “They take root, hm?”

I wasn’t entirely sure if he meant my children or someone else, so I didn’t respond.

 

Jamie and I rode out of Colorado Springs and far up into the hills until we reached a crude wooden fence with a sign that read,

Property of
Harding Milling Co.
TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT

“Are there no guards?” I asked, looking around.

“They’re changin’ shifts,” Jamie said, handing me Donas’s reign and hopping down to move the logs in the fence so that the horses could get through. “Th’ next shift’ll be here at noon, so we need tae hurry.”

He looked up at me as I rode past him, blue eyes glinting in challenge. “No’ too late to turn back, Sassenach.”

Despite the look in his eye, he sounded almost hopeful, and when I stuck up my nose and carried on, he made that Scottish sound in his throat.

“I told William I’d look see ye safe,” he said. “But I canna be waitin’ for ye to catch up when ye fall behind, or when th’ terrain gets too difficult for ye. No’ if we’re gonna get the proof we need.”

“You won’t have to,” I said testily. “And just what, pray-tell, has given you the idea that I can’t handle myself just fine? I’ve traveled the world with my Uncle Lamb.”

“And I suppose ye took a days-long trip wi’ enough supplies to last ye the winter then, too,” he snarked, nodding to my laden horse.

“My uncle believed in being prepared for anything.”

“Ye didn’a even know how to ride a horse when ye came here, lass,” he said almost gently, but even though it wasn’t really patronizing, I felt my hackles rise. “There’s no shame in bein’ a well-bred lady. Ye dinna have to try and do things you can’t, just because yer stubborn.”

I scowled at him. “You’re right, I don’t like being told I can’t do things! What of it? And as for how I was when I first came to Colorado Springs, I’ve come a long way! And that’s mostly due to my stubbornness.”

Jamie hardly looked convinced, but at least he quit arguing, and we continued up the hill in silence.

Eventually it grew dark – sooner than normal, this close to the mountain, and Jamie declared it was time to make camp.

I busied about, setting up my small tent, arranging my bedroll and blankets, feeling very accomplished as I began my evening ablutions, until I looked up and saw that Jamie had only a bedroll, and nothing else.

“You don’t even have a tent?” I asked. “What do you do if it rains?”

“It won’t rain,” he said simply, passing over the package of beef jerky.

“What about a fire? It’s getting a little cold.”

His eyes flicked up to me and I bit my lip, remembering that I wasn’t supposed to complain. “They might see it,” he said, then reached into a pouch he wore at his hip and withdrew a flask. “Here, take a wee nip. It won’t warm ye like a fire would, but it’ll make ye forget you’re cold.”

I smirked and took the flask, wincing when I tasted his signature, very strong whiskey. “What is that?” I asked, pointing to the pouch he’d been carrying it in. “It doesn’t look Cheyenne.”

“Ah, that,” he said, smiling a bit bashfully. “It’s a, weel, it’s a sporran, ken.”

“A sporran? What’s that?”

“They’re no’ used so much in Scotland anymore, except for when you’re dressed in tartan – and that’s normally for special occasions. But my Da wore this one ev’rywhere he went, so I do, as well,” he untied it from around him, handed it to me, and I admired the soft, worn leather and expert craftsmanship.

It still felt heavy, and on impulse I made to look inside, but caught myself in time and hurriedly handed it back.

“Go on,” he said, nodding at it. “It’s no’ but bits and baubles.”

Curiosity won over politeness, and since I had his permission, I opened the flap to peer inside, slowly removing the contents and placing them in my lap.

A button, a shiny rock, a needle and thread (handy,) a piece of taffy (Fergus better never find out he keeps candy in there,) a feather, the tooth from some kind of animal, but the most interesting items were a carved wooden snake, a brooch of some sort, and a man’s ring adorned with an emerald.

“My brother carved that for me when I was a bairn,” Jamie said as I turned the wooden snake over in my hands. “Willie, was his name. William, like your lad. He died, when he was ten.”

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, scooting a little closer to him. “Sawny?” I enquired, running my fingertip across the sprawling carved letters on the snake’s belly.

He chuckled. “It was his own nickname for me, ken. A play on my middle name, Alexander.”

“James Alexander Malcolm McKenzie Fraser,” I recited, seeing him seem to perk up a bit at the fact that I’d remembered them all. “You’ve a great many middle names.”

“Weel, I’m James, for my Da’s best childhood friend. Alexander, because my Mam liked the sound o’ it. Malcolm, for my Da’s mother. McKenzie, which was my Mam’s maiden name.”

“You sound very proud of it,” I said. “And it’s so lovely, it’s a shame you don’t use it.”

His smile fell. “Aye…well.”

He didn’t seem to want to elaborate, so I picked up the ring. “Was this your…erm…wedding ring?” I mentally kicked myself, thinking that subject probably wouldn’t be any better.

“What man has a wedding ring?” he asked wryly. “That belonged to my Da, is all. Brian, was his name.”

“Ah,” without thinking, I slipped the ring onto my middle finger, where it was still too big, but Jamie didn’t comment. “And this?” I held up the brooch with a picture of a deer and a phrase etched above it.

That,” he said, taking the brooch and handling it fondly. “Is my family crest,” he looked at me, his eyes strangely bright, even in the dark. “The Fraser clan motto…Je Suis Pres.”

“I am ready,” I translated a bit dazedly, caught by the intense blue of his eyes. “W…why does a Scottish clan have a French motto?”

He chuckled, taking the sporran and opening the flap while I placed his possessions carefully back inside. “No idea. Now, ye best get some rest, Sassenach. We’ve a long day ahead of us.”

I crawled back to my tent and sat, glancing over at Jamie to make sure his eyes were closed before undoing my top buttons so that I might wash my face and neck. Though the night was cold, the day had been hot, and I felt grimy.

Feeling more refreshed after the quick wash, I looked over to see Jamie’s eyes open, and watching me. But when he saw that I’d caught him, his eyes slammed shut and he rolled over to face away from me.

Shrugging it off, I buttoned my blouse back up, whispering, “goodnight,” before laying down and falling asleep almost instantly.

Chapter Text

I jolted awake in the morning to a tickle on my nose, and I swatted away something crawly and with far too many legs, letting out an involuntary yelp.

“Just a wee spider,” Jamie muttered.

I sat up, seeing that he had already packed up his meager belongings and was readying Donas to go.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” I demanded.

“I told ye we were leaving at sunup,” Jamie said shortly. Perhaps he wasn’t a morning person, but regardless, these mood swings of his were getting ridiculous.

I sighed, scrambling out of my bedroll and hurrying to gather my things. “You could have warned me!”

“I just did.”

I glared at his back and continued to throw my things into my saddlebag. “Bloody-minded man,” I muttered under my breath.

“Ye’d better hurry up gatherin’ up all that junk,” he snapped, exasperatingly rolling up my tent.

“It’s not junk,” I snapped back.

He snatched up my bar of soap that had fallen out of my bag and waved it at me. “And ye’d better stop washin’ wi’ this fancy soap. If I can smell ye, so can everythin’ else.”

I snatched the soap away and shoved it into my bag with my other things. Why in the world did he have to be so impossible sometimes?

He muttered under his breath as he helped load Bear, and though I didn’t understand it, I suspected it of being a mix of Gaelic and Cheyenne. I also suspected it of being not entirely complimentary toward me.

 

We continued on along the creek until Jamie called for a stop, and I pulled out my case which held the tubes and chemicals I needed to test the water, and went to work.

“We’ll rest here a time,” he said, taking a drink from his canteen. “Then ride ‘till dark.”

“You don’t have to stop on my account,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“We’re stopping for the horses,” he said dryly.

I had the irrational urge to stick my tongue out at him like a child, but narrowly refrained.

“There’s a pond just there,” he continued. “It’s no’ connected to th’ creek. I’ll see about catching us some fish.”

I glanced up at him, arching a brow. “With what? Your good looks?”

He smirked. “Ye think I can, is that it, Sassenach?”

I rolled my eyes. “I think you can stick your big head in the water and open up your big mouth and catch them that way, that’s what I think.”

“Weel, that can be plan B, I suppose. But I dinna need a fishing pole to catch some fish. All I need are these,” he wiggled his fingers in my direction.

“Do I even want to know?”

“That’s up to you, Sassenach. But while yer thinking of it, I’ll be tickling some fish.”

 

I sat stubbornly on a rock, scratching Rollo behind the ear for a solid seven minutes before my curiosity finally won out, and I wandered over toward the pond. Casually, as if just strolling about, and not so I can find out what on earth “tickling fish” meant.

I found him knelt on the edge of the water, shoes off, trousers rolled up to the knees, one hand in the water. He was perfectly still.

I looked down at Rollo who was making himself comfortable on a sunny slab of stone, completely unconcerned by his master’s odd behavior.

Giving up the pretense of nonchalance I eased up behind him to stand over his shoulder. He had his hand laying in the mud, palm up, his fingers wiggling slowly, like weeds in the water.

“What…” I began, but he raised his free hand up to hold a finger to his lips with a “shh” sound.

I held myself as still as he…or tried to at least. He was like a statue; I’d barely even know he was alive if it weren’t for the periodic flutter of his eyelashes against his freckled cheeks, and the lazy drifting of his fingers.

Finally, a fish floated in our direction, mouth opening and closing dumbly. Jamie never flinched, never changed the rhythm of motion in his fingers. I held my breath as the fish slowly, slowly swam to his fingers, watched as those fingers actually tickled the fish’s belly. I wanted to laugh, but bit my lip, trying and failing to keep my shoulders from shaking.

Jamie peered at me from the corner of his eye, his mouth quirking up, but he puckered his mouth to hush me again.

There were several times I kept expecting his fingers to close around the thing, but they just kept teasing it, playing with it. I was getting impatient, and twitchy, and just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be still a second longer, a flurry of movement my eyes couldn’t follow preceded the water splashing into my face.

By the time I was finished spluttering and wiping the droplets out of my eyes, Jamie was cockily holding his prize in the air.

“Hungry, Sassenach?”

 

“Don’t most Indians spear fish?” I asked later, enjoying my roasted fish supper.

“Some do,” Jamie said. “Some use fishing poles like you. The Cheyenne use nets, usually.”

“Then where did you learn to “tickle” them like that?”

He smiled. “Ah, that was from my da, ken.”

Before I could ask him more about his family, Rollo’s ears perked up, and he began to growl lowly. Then the horses, normally used to Rollo and his behaviors, began to whinny nervously. We jumped up, and I quickly gathered the horses’ reigns before they could bolt.

“What is it?”

Jamie looked around, his nose up as if he were actually smelling the wind. “Dinna ken. Bear, maybe. Or another wolf. Or…a mountain lion.”

The unmistakable screech of a mountain lion filled the air as one appeared over the rocks. All at once there was chaos as the horses screamed and reared, ripping their reigns out of my grip with a shred of my skin and barreling away. Rollo darted up the mountain after the cat, Jamie yelling at him to come back.

Rollo obeyed, returning but still snarling and whining worriedly.

“We need to get moving,” Jamie said, tossing my saddle bag on the ground. “Take out everything ye dinna need, and come on.”

“Aren’t we going after the horses?!” I exclaimed, cradling my hand.

“They’re halfway to home already,” Jamie said. “We dinna have the time. Let’s go!”

I knelt on the ground and began pulling things out of my saddle bags, gritting my teeth at the pain in my hand. Luckily Jamie had taken the saddle bags off of Bear, otherwise they’d be halfway home as well, and my tent and bedroll had fallen off in all the excitement. I could do without my change of clothes, but my medical kit I definitely needed.

“Will ye hurry?” Jamie hissed. “That cat could be back any minute!”

“Hold on,” I snapped, refusing to be hasty in what I left behind. I picked up my saddle bags and tent, looking in regret at the pile of clothes on the ground. I hoped maybe they’d still be there on the way back.

 

I had to jog to keep up with Jamie, lugging my saddlebags, water testing kit, bedroll, and tent as I went. He’d officially lost patience with me, and didn’t even bother to measure his long stride as we navigated the rocky terrain, but I vehemently refused to ask him to slow down, or for help, even though my palm stung sharply where the horse’s reigns had blistered my skin. I hadn’t even stopped to check it or clean it, which in and of itself rattled on my nerves.

We came upon a small, isolated homestead, far into the mountain. Just a rickety old shack, a smattering of outbuildings, and some wandering goats.

“This is Happy Walker’s still,” Jamie said quietly, looking around the place that seemed deserted save for the goats.

“We should see if he’s here,” I said. “He could be sick.”

Jamie shook his head. “He’s crazy. Shoots at anyone on his property. Wait here.”

Tired enough to listen for once, I stood and watched while he crept around a large contraption made of pots and spouts. The moonshine still, I assumed.

“Sassenach,” he hissed, jerking his head for me to join him.

I rounded the still to see an older man, sitting slumped against it, a brown jug held in the crook of his arm. He could have looked like a passed-out drunk, had it not been for his bluish skin, flesh that had been eaten away by crows, and a smell that had me taking an involuntary step backward.

“I’d say he’s been dead three days, at least,” Jamie said, shooing Rollo away from the corpse.

“That’s a pretty astute estimation,” I agreed, covering my mouth and nose with a handkerchief and kneeling beside the old man, taking a peek at his gums and hair.

“Is it th’ poisoning?” Jamie asked.

“A little hard to say, since his overall health habits were probably poor to begin with, but it certainly looks that way,” I removed the jug from his arm, sniffing it and shaking it to see if any was left.

“If yer thirsty, I’ve more whiskey, Sassenach,” Jamie teased.

I gave him a dry look. “I need to test it for mercury. If it’s truly coming from the mine, it would be highly concentrated here.”

“Well, come on,” he said. “Get tae testing, because we best keep moving.”

 

We continued to hike with little rest on into the afternoon. The terrain quickly grew even more treacherous the higher up the mountain we got, until we reached a nearly vertical climb.

I struggled behind Jamie, warily eyeing the long fall I could take with just one stumble. My legs felt like butter, my arms and back ached from carrying all my supplies, and my skinned palm burned. But I grit my teeth and bore it.

“Do ye need that tent?” Jamie sighed when he was forced to wait up for me.

“It might rain,” I insisted.

Jamie narrowed his eyes then glanced up at the cloudless blue sky. “Well, what about that jug? Ye already tested it.”

“It’s evidence,” I said, cradling the jug protectively as if he might jump down and rip it away from me.

“Evidence,” Jamie muttered, climbing on.

We reached a point where the cliff went straight up, and my shoulders began to droop in defeat.

“Perhaps ye should get on my back,” Jamie suggested.

I balked at the very idea, straightening up again. “I can do it myself.”

“Then at least leave your things down here, I’ll climb up w’ you and my bag, and come back down for them.”

“I can do it!”

Jamie positively snarled. “Ye canna climb up while carryin’ all that! And I canna carry all that and my bag and be sure ye dinna fall to your death so would you just…”

“Why don’t you worry about yourself, and I’ll worry about me?” I snapped, brushing past him and starting to climb.

It was slow going, and several times I was forced to stop and cling to the rocks and catch my breath. My sweaty palms were slick against the rock, and I thought my skinned palm was starting to bleed.

Jamie stayed right behind me, and at one point when I jerked like I was going to slip, a hand reached up to steady me, landing squarely on my rear. The same way it did the day we met, and he helped me onto Bear.

I wanted to turn and glare at him, perhaps hit him, but I couldn’t risk looking down and getting vertigo so I muttered that I was fine and continued on.

Even Rollo was managing just fine, skittering up the rocky path like he was a squirrel.

I was nearly to the top, but couldn’t reach the ledge, so Jamie skirted around me and hauled himself up, then Rollo by the scruff, then reached a hand down for me.

Just then, we heard the rattling of wagon wheels from down below. Jamie hissed what I assumed was a Gaelic curse and flattened himself against the rock. “Harding’s men!” he gritted out. “Sassenach, hurry!”

I grabbed his hand, but couldn’t get a good enough grip, and when he tried to pull me up, I got tangled in the straps of my bags and tent.

“Ye gotta drop the tent!” Jamie hissed.

I tried, but that would mean also dropping the jug, which I couldn’t do. And besides, the heavy object falling would surely alert the men.

“Drop the damned tent, Claire! Hurry!”

“I can’t!”

The Harding men were rounding the trees, and would be able to see us soon if they just looked up. Jamie slid himself almost halfway off the rock, got hold of my wrist and yanked me up before pinning me roughly to the ground.

“You and yer damned stubbornness!” he growled from on top of me. “Why can’t ye just do as I say?!”

“I don’t have to do as you say!” I growled back. “Now get the hell off of me!”

“Gladly!” he rolled off, crawling to the edge of the cliff to check for the Harding men. “Ye nearly got us both killed.”

“I couldn’t drop the tent! Not without dropping the jug and we need that for evidence! That’s whole point of this trip!”

“It isn’a worth your life! Yer a stubborn wee besom so bent on proving yerself ye dinna care what ye risk in the process!”

“Don’t call me names, you…you bloody Scot!”

He leaned closer, his blue eyes flashing in ire, and his accent deepening nearly to the point of illegibility. “If I were yer husband I’d tan yer hide, ye foul-mouthed shrew!”

“Thank God you’re not you…you…” I wracked my brain for the worst thing I could call him, coming up with one I’d heard being shouted from the saloon. “Fucking bastard!”

Jamie’s jaw dropped at that, and his eyes widened to saucers. We sat there in furious silence for a moment, breathing heavily, until a shot suddenly rang out, and we both hit the ground.

The wagon was just behind the trees down on the ground, and one of the men had spotted us. Probably heard us arguing, and was raising his rifle to try again.

“Come on!” Jamie hissed, grabbing my hand and running.

Chapter Text

There was no way the Harding men would have been able to catch up with us from way down the cliff, but we still ran for as long as we could, deep into the woods.

Eventually we slowed down beside a large tree, and Jamie dropped his gear tiredly. I looked at him a bit askance, thinking he was breathing awfully heavy for someone as fit as him, and then I saw the spreading stain of red on his shoulder.

“Jamie!” I exclaimed. “You’re hurt!”

I glanced at his shoulder, as if surprised he even had one, much less that there was now a hole in it. “A bit.”

I shoved him down to sit against the tree, easily since the fight was completely gone out of him, and yanked aside the neck of his shirt, popping the top button off in the process.

“Why you…you’ve been shot! Why didn’t you tell me?!”

He shrugged like it was nothing, but he was pale and panting heavily. “Didn’a hurt much at the time.”

“I can’t believe you,” I muttered.

“I’m sorry,” he said more sincerely. “I just wanted to make sure I got ye awa’ from there. I truly didn’a realize how bad it was.”

I softened, getting out my medical supplies. “I shouldn’t have been so stubborn about letting you help, and I should have just dropped the jug. You were right, it wasn’t worth our lives.”

“But it was important. I shouldn’a have called ye those names, Sassenach. It wasn’a right. I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” then I chuckled. “Sorry I called you a fucking bastard.”

As I’d hoped, that made him laugh, but it turned into a wheeze of pain. “Nay, Sassenach, I’ll remember hearing ye say those words the rest o’ my life, and th’ way yer face turned all beet red…like th’ way it is now!”

“Oh hush,” I said, but still laughing. “You’re going to make yourself pass out. Come on now, let’s get you out of that shirt.”

Jamie tensed up when I reached for him, but I assumed it was from pain. At least…I thought it was, until I helped him pull off his shirt and moved to sit behind him to examine the exit wound…

For a long moment I just sat and stared, stupidly heedless of the blood slowly trickling down his shoulder blade.

Jamie’s back was a lattice-work of long, pale scars, covering every inch of skin from shoulders to waist.

I’d seen similar scars – on Joe’s side when I treated his burns. Jamie had stared darkly at them a moment before quietly informing me that they were whipping scars.

These were worse – far worse. They looked old, but they must have been deep, the sharp ridges making a mountain scape of his entire back.

“I was flogged,” Jamie said quietly.

His resigned-sounding voice broke me out of my trance and I hurried to press a wad of cotton to his wound to staunch the blood, though it had already mostly stopped on its own. The bullet had gone clean through his shoulder, and hadn’t caused much damage, which explained how he was even still upright.

Flogged?” I whispered. “I didn’t…I didn’t even know such a thing was done anymore.”

“Dinna ken if it is or no,” he said. “But it was done. 200 lashes in the space o’ a week.”

I felt dizzy and sick at his words, but forced myself to focus on cleaning his wound. “Why?”

“What was I charged w’ ye mean? Weel…I was charged w’ murder.”

I froze behind him, trying and failing to reconcile the kind, quiet man I knew with the type of person who committed murder.

Jamie turned his head to look at me. “I was a soldier in Scotland, Claire. I willn’a try to say I haven’a killed men... ‘cause I have. I’ve killed here, too, livin’ among the Cheyenne. But that was fightin’ to protect others and myself. I dinna like it, but I’m no’ ashamed, either. But I didn’a murder the man I was charged with.”

“I believe you,” I whispered, wincing with him when the alcohol I applied to his wound stung. “How did you end up here?”

“A Major I knew, a good man, learned of what ha’ been done to me. He couldn’a lift my sentence entirely, but he could get me out of prison, and awa’ from the man who seemed intent to kill me.”

“Who wanted to kill you?”

Jamie grunted. “A man by the name of Captain Randall.”

I gasped and dropped the gauze I had been cleaning his wound with, cursing slightly and reaching for another. “Randall?”

“Jonathan Randall,” he said, turning again. “Ye know him?”

“N…no. Go on.”

“Oh, well, he was known as Black Jack, so ye can imagine th’ type o’ reputation he had. It was he who had me flogged. It shouldn’a ha’ been so much. But…it’s personal wi’ him, ye see. Long story. Lord John, the other man I spoke of, he was able to have me paroled to America. To here. He had to check on me regular for a while, but I was free to do as I pleased. I met Geneva and well…decided t’ stay.”

“Even after she…passed?”

He sighed. “I ha’ no family left in Scotland. Nothing left for me there, save Randall. My family is here now, wi’ the Cheyenne. With…” his eyes met mine and he trailed off.

I cleared my throat. “This doesn’t need stitches, but I’ll need to bandage it. How did you fall in with the Cheyenne? You never really told me.”

Jamie smiled. “Ian found me just after my wife and child died. I was lost. He took me in, we became like brothers. Black Kettle made me one o’ them. Normally, the Cheyenne make you renounce who ye are…yer whiteness, for a lack o’ better way to describe it, to be fully adopted into the tribe. Black Kettle decided my spirit was too strong to renounce who I was. Said I must always be who I am.”

“I knew I liked Black Kettle,” I said, smiling back at him. Without thinking, I lightly ran my fingers over his scars. He shivered, but didn’t pull away.

I finished bandaging him up, and without any more excuse to touch him, moved to sit in front of him.

“Ye acted strangely when I mentioned Randall’s name,” he said, though I’d been hoping he would forget that. “Did it mean something to ye?”

“Well…” I bit my lip, but Jamie had just shared something intensely private about his life. How could I do any less? “It’s…Randall was my…fiancé’s name. Frank Randall. He had relatives in England. I…really hope there’s no relation there.”

“Ah,” Jamie said in an indiscernible tone. “I didn’a think ye were ever engaged, Sassenach,” he shook his head. “Sorry, silly thing for me to assume.”

“No…it’s alright,” I said. “I don’t really talk about him much.”

Jamie tilted his head, listening, but not pressing.

“He was one of my professors in college,” I said, smiling sheepishly. “Older…obviously. So…accomplished and distinguished.”

“Ah,” Jamie said again, his expression dimming somehow. “He must ha’ been quite exciting for a young doctor such as yerself.”

“He was,” I admitted. “And he was the first man besides my uncle who ever treated me like I was more than just a woman who needed to go home and cook something. I’d never…” I shrugged, a bit embarrassed. “Boys and men were never that interested in bookish, loud, opinionated Claire who was more interested in biopsies than dances. They liked quiet girls who agreed with everything they said.”

“How boring,” Jamie intoned, smirking.

“Indeed,” I agreed. “Frank wasn’t like that. He wanted me to learn. He taught at a woman’s medical college, after all. And he liked to hear my opinions. He asked Uncle Lamb’s permission to court me and I felt like I’d won the lottery. Then he asked for my hand and it was the happiest day of my life. I envisioned a long life of working side-by-side as equals…”

“What happened?” Jamie asked.

I shrugged again. “He erm…went to war. And he died.”

Jamie reached over, taking my hand in his. “I’m so sorry, lass.”

I squeezed his hand, then suddenly became very aware that he was still shirtless.

“You erm…better get some rest,” I said, moving away. “If you want to be able to keep going tomorrow.”

It wasn’t yet dark, but it soon would be, so I insisted that Jamie eat and go straight to bed, with a small dose of laudanum. Not enough to put him in a stupor; just enough to take the edge off the pain, to let himself recover as much as possible.

I sat beside him as he slept and managed to bandage my blistered hand, which had become more and more irritated through the day.

It had been the first time I’d ever really talked to anyone about Frank. Since Uncle Lamb had been there at the time, I hadn’t even talked about it with him either.

But talking about him, to someone as understanding as Jamie, felt rather cathartic. For the first time I was able to think back on our too-short time together with fondness instead of aching sadness.

I thought about how calm and uneventful our life together had been, save the odd medical emergency. Our time together had been filled with quiet reading, discussing politics, arguing the best type of stitching style. Our marriage would likely have been the same; peaceful and companionable. Not like…

I glanced down at Jamie’s sleeping face, thinking of how tumultuous our time together had been…and we were just friends. But it was also exciting, and dare I say…fun.

Though I’d seen men in absolutely every state of undress – had even lanced a boil from underneath a gentleman’s scrotum – I was painfully inexperienced when it came to them…men that was. And all that that implies.

Uncle Lamb had never really been the type of father to put any stock on his daughter’s virginity. He’d wanted me to present myself as a respectable woman, of course, and he’d never have approved of me going about loosely, but it had always been my decision whether I spent time alone with men. The only thing was…there hadn’t been many offers. Not offers I had wanted anyway.

Frank would have been my first, but he was such a principled man, and insisted on waiting until our wedding night, as was proper. I almost regretted it after, wishing I had insisted so I could have at least had that with him before he died.

As it stood, I was a virgin, and knew only the most biological aspects of the man and woman relationship. The older I got, the more daunting the prospect seemed.

Frank had only ever kissed me a handful of times. And it had been…pleasant. Didn’t seem like there was much to it. You press your lips to another person’s lips. I’d never quite understood why some people got so passionate about it.

And yet…

I stared at Jamie’s mouth…wondering what it would be like…

But no. No. Jamie didn’t think of me that way and I…well. I hardly had time for such a thing. I was a doctor and a mother to three children, for goodness’ sake. Besides, Jamie was too unpredictable for me. Too hot-headed. Too solitary. Too wild.

On impulse I reached down to brush a red curl out of his face and he smiled sweetly in his sleep, like a little boy.

And I smiled, too.

Chapter Text

“We should be almost there,” Jamie said as we got started early the next morning.

“Are you sure you’re okay to continue?” I asked him, trotting to catch up to feel his head for a fever.

“I’m fine, Sassenach, truly,” he insisted. “It’s sore, true, but I’ll bide. I swear I’ll let ye fuss o’er me t’ yer heart’s content when we’re home safe, aye?”

“Aye,” I mimicked, making him laugh.

We walked steadily well into the late morning, making good time, though I watched Jamie like a hawk for signs of fever or bleeding. I had no idea how anyone, even someone as seemingly infallible as Jamie could be shot in the shoulder and walk about the next day like nothing happened, but he did. Just what was this man’s secret?!

Along the way, Jamie explained how our trip back down the mountain would be much faster, both due to the downhill walk, and the fact that we would no longer need to keep to the edge of the creek, especially considering it was too contaminated to drink from.

But our multiple dilemmas had cost us time, a lot of it, and I worried about our drinkable water supply. Not to mention our prolonged absence was bound to worry the children. Doubly so if our horses made it home without us.

My worries distracted me from the relative boredom of walking until I realized we had stopped at a point where the creek turned into a rather wide river.

“We’ll need to cross here,” Jamie said, hosting his bags higher on his shoulders.

I wrinkled my nose; the water looked frigid. But there was little for it.

Rollo splashed happily in, and I worried he would try to drink it. We’d already had to stop him from doing so multiple times, and luckily there were ponds around, unconnected to the creek where he could drink, but there wasn’t exactly any reasoning with a wolf.

My initial assumption had been right. It was frigid, but I grit my teeth and bore it. I didn’t, however, refuse Jamie’s hand to help me over a slippery area, which I considered progress on my part.

There was no warning. No gunshot, no shouts. Nothing that could have prepared us for the sudden explosion that send a geyser of water erupting from the creek with a pressurized blast that sent Jamie and me rolling through the water like guppies trying to swim in a hurricane.

For a heart-stopping second, I couldn’t even tell which way was up, the water clouded and murky, but the creek wasn’t terribly deep and I was able to push off from the bottom and emerge from the surface with a gasp.

My ears were ringing, and I had no real clue what had just happened, though I suspected it of having to do with Harding and his men. So I refrained from screaming for Jamie, but neither could I see him…until I caught a glimpse of red hair in the reeds.

He was floating face down, and I splashed and scrambled to his side, rolling him over and struggling to drag him to the shore, vision blurring from the strain and head pounding from the blast.

My tent and bedroll were weighing us down, so I hurriedly detangled myself from them and abandoned it all into the creek in favor of pulling Jamie along, ripping open the blisters on my hand in the process. I only managed to hold onto my saddlebags and everything attached by pure virtue of refusing to release Jamie long enough to drop them.

I got him to the shore and managed to drag most of his body out of the water. His heart was beating, and strong, and his bullet wound wasn’t bleeding, but he wasn’t breathing.

First I rolled him on to his side to beat his back, in an effort to expel the water, then I let him fall on his back again and tilted his head up before fastening my mouth over his, breathing for him.

I felt the convulsion in his chest with the first breath, and moved out of the way just in time to avoid having half a gallon of water coughed up on me.

Jamie gasped and retched, but he was breathing.

“Easy,” I whispered. “You’re alright.”

He coughed. “Am I gonna get sick?”

“I think you coughed most of it up,” I told him. “You should be fine. What on Earth just happened?”

“I saw something hit the water just before the blast,” he said, peeking up and around the reeds. “Dynamite, most likely. What they use in the mill. Harding knows we’re here.”

I harrumphed. “Well, hopefully now he thinks we’re dead. Can you walk?” I checked what was left of my supplies; I’d managed to keep my saddlebags and the jug that had been tied on, which was a relief.

“Aye,” Jamie groaned, getting to his feet and grabbing gingerly at his hurt shoulder. “If ye can lead the way, Sassenach. My brain’s a wee bit rattled.”

He ducked down suddenly as we heard hoof beats coming down the bank, and I saw him wince at his too-quick motion. I put my hand on his back to steady him.

Two men rode by, but all I could see were their boots.

“That’ll teach em’,” one of the men snickered.

“Come on,” said the other. “’Bodies must’a gone downriver.”

We hid, still and silent as rabbits, until the men had ridden far enough away, then slunk out of our hiding spot, Jamie’s hand held tightly in mine.

Rollo,” Jamie hissed, looking around worriedly. “Did ye see him?”

“There he is,” I pointed up the path, where Rollo stood, looking wet and irate, but unharmed. “Hardy thing, isn’t he?”

 

We ended up having to retreat away from the mill in order to avoid being spotted, and found a quiet hollow along the side of the mountain, hidden from view by spiraling tree branches and boulders.

“Let me look at you,” I said, tilting Jamie’s head toward me to check his eyes for concussion.

“What about you?” he asked. “Christ, Sassenach, look at yer hand!”

I’d been pointedly not looking at my hand, because the pain was searing, and I figured seeing the damage would make it hurt worse. But I finally raised my right hand and grimaced at the raw, enflamed skin, and dripping blood.

“Damn,” I muttered.

Jamie shook his head. “So like ye, worryin’ so much about ev’ryone else ye dinna stop tae take care of yerself.”

“It hurt less when I ignored it,” I muttered petulantly. “But you’re right. I made it worse after the explosion, and now I fear it could be getting infected, or contaminated by the creek.”

I shivered as a particularly cold evening breeze blew through the leaves. It was still late August, but this high in the mountains it was settling into an early fall, especially once dark fell.

“We need to get out o’ these wet clothes,” Jamie said. “’Fore we catch our deaths. We’ll no be getting to the mine, today.”

“Our clothes?” I asked idiotically, unconsciously pressing a hand to the buttons of my blouse as if he were about to lunge at me and rip them off.

He quirked a brow at me. “Aye. Yer in too many layers to risk goin’ about sopping wet like that. I’ll be changin’ on the other side of the tree, there. You’ll no look, will ye?”

“Of course not!” I said with false crossness to cover up my embarrassment. What was wrong with me? Of course he was right. We would both have hypothermia before nightfall if we didn’t lay our clothes out to dry in the sun. Common sense. Perfectly reasonable.

I hurried to strip out of my skirts and blouse, leaving only my thin chemise. It was difficult with my injured hand, but I made do.

Jamie emerged moments later, wearing only his plaid blanket low on his waist. Low enough that I was oddly fascinated by the trail of copper hair descending from his navel on downward, and uncomfortably puzzled by the clenching feeling in my gut at the sight of it. When he turned to set our clothes out, I could see the rise of his buttocks above the blanket, and two little dimples above. I flushed and hurriedly turned away, squeezing my eyes shut and feeling ashamed.

“Dinna look,” he said, teasingly, and I knew he seen me look away.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, disliking how my voice squeaked.

He made his way back over to me, keeping his head respectfully turned aside, though I knew rationally he’d seen me in a similar – if not more – state of undress when I was sick. Even still…being with him like this, alone, half-naked…was making me feel unreasonably nervous, and I didn’t even know why. I knew he wasn’t going to attempt anything with me. I wasn’t remotely afraid of him…and yet my heart was beating like a herd of wild horses.

Suddenly the teasing from Jenny and Murtagh was making a bit more sense.

“We need to tend yer hand, lass,” he said, still turned away.

“My case should have kept some bandages dry,” I said. “Have you got any whiskey left?”

“Always,” he said cheerfully, handing me the flask to sip at while he retrieved the bandages.

He sat down beside me, facing me now, but keeping his eyes glued firmly on my outstretched hand. “Okay, pour some of the whiskey on it, please.”

Jamie winced in sympathy as he poured the alcohol over my raw skin, and I bit my lip to hold in any cries of pain.

“It’s alright, mo ghriadh,” he crooned, cradling my hand as he gently wound the bandage around it. “Ye dinna have tae try no’ to cry.”

“You didn’t cry when you were shot,” I pointed out, though tears were escaping regardless. “I won’t cry over a silly skinned palm.”

“Maybe I cried once yer back was turned,” he reasoned, though I doubted it was true.

“What does that mean? What you just called me?” I asked. “I heard you say it before, when I was sick. Among other things I didn’t understand.”

I might not have been able to tell that he was blushing, what with his suntanned face, had I not been able to see his entire chest flush dark. “Ah, it’s only a, weel, endearment, ken. Like callin’ someone dear or darling, or the like.”

I flushed as well, though I told myself that I called patients “dear” all the time, and it meant nothing.

Once he was finished bandaging my hand, Jamie retreated away several feet, to give us both some much needed space and privacy.

My tent and bedroll were long gone, but luckily the supplies in my saddlebags were accounted for, if drenched. I fished out my small hand mirror, and grimaced at the sight of my wild curls sticking out of my serviceable bun every which direction as they dried. They were untamable enough as it was, but the adventures of the last few days had made them especially unruly.

I’d always rued my outrageously curly hair, especially when I saw other women with their smooth, sleek waves or perfectly coiffed ringlets. I grunted in irritation as I began to pull out the pins.

Jamie had wrapped my hand well, so I couldn’t move it much, and plus it hurt too much anyway, so I struggled to undo the remains of my bun one-handed, sighing in frustration when I was met with a multitude of tangles.

Without warning, a warm hand covered mine on my head, and moved it gently away, before large, but deft fingers undid my bun and carefully unwound it.

I sat stock-still as he plucked at the tangles, expertly unraveling them, then he combed his fingers through my curls, fanning them out over my shoulders.

He picked up my comb and sat there methodically brushing my hair, each pass of the comb followed by his own fingers.

I sighed in bliss, letting my head loll to the side. I adored having my hair brushed for me, but it hadn’t been a regular occurrence since I’d grown out of the need for a nanny. Brianna brushed my hair sometimes, as did Fergus…but somehow that felt nothing like it did right now.

I had a sudden memory of a time Frank had been sitting with me in the parlor of the house where I lived with Uncle Lamb. Lamb had been at the hospital, and it had felt comfortable and intimate being there with Frank, a cheery fire in the fireplace, and only a handful of nosy maids.

On a whim I’d picked up the hairbrush I’d left in the parlor the night before, and asked him to brush my hair for me, thinking it would be rather romantic, and loving the idea of being touched that way.

Frank had looked at me oddly before chuckling, asking why he would want to do such a thing. I’d laughed it off as well, pretending I’d been joking, when it truth I’d been humiliated.

I forced Frank out of my head. It was incredibly unfair to be thinking of him in that moment, especially unfavorably, and resolutely went back to enjoying the moment.

Jamie slowly combed out every single snarl, but continued to run his fingers through my hair long after the tangles were gone, and I didn’t stop him.

Mo nighean donn,” he murmured, and I could feel his voice rumbling against my back, making me realize how close he was sitting.

“What does that mean?” I whispered, careful not to move or speak too loudly, which might snap him out of whatever spell he was under and make him move away.

“Brown-haired lass,” he answered.

 I furrowed my brow. That mo word he kept using meant something, and to me it sounded like my. I decided not to point it out, however. “I always thought it a rather dull color, brown,” I said instead.

He tsked. “No, not dull at all. It reminds me o’ the water in a burn. All dark and light spots…with hints o’ copper, where the sun touches it…” as he spoke, his fingertips brushed the back of my neck, sending jolts of…of something down my spine and making my heartrate increase again, followed by that curious clenching sensation.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. In one instant I wanted to run away, far away from him. In the next I wanted him to never, never stop touching me that way. My mind whirled and tumbled and thrashed about like Adso when Fergus had accidentally trapped the cat under a basket.

There was a sudden rumbling boom, and for a moment I couldn’t tell if it was more dynamite, or my head had finally exploded.

But actually it was just thunder, and Jamie leaned away from me at last, looking up in concern and swearing quietly under his breath.

My relief at the interruption was palpable, and it was a long moment before I could even turn and look at him again. And when I did I looked away, having forgotten he was nearly naked.

 

The rain storm I’d been worried about, that Jamie insisted wasn’t coming, finally came, but of course it came only after my tent had been lost to Willow Creek.

Jamie threw off the blanket tied to his waist, not even warning me to turn away, and as a result I was treated to an entire view of his backside before he immediately jumped into his trousers, and I had absolutely no clue how to deal with that.

He rushed to build a tiny shelter and herded me, the supplies, and our half-dry clothes into it just as the sky opened up. He continued to pile branches and leaves onto the roof as the deluge soaked him once more, and as I arranged his bedroll and the plaid blanket out to lie on.

I was quite frankly impressed by his ability to build a structure that actually did keep all the rain out so fast, but he didn’t seem inclined to come inside, or build another of his own.

I wrapped up in his mostly dry blanket, only distantly aware of what it had recently been covering, but still shivered as icy wind and droplets blew in.

He was muttering and cursing, and I realized with a hint of amusement that he was angry at being proven wrong about the storm, and lack of supplies.

“Aren’t you coming in?” I called out to him.

“It’ll stop soon!” he grumbled.

“Stop being so stubborn,” I told him, attempting and failing to mimic his accent.

He leaned down to grin at me, water rolling off the end of his nose. “Ye got me, Sassenach.”

I scooted over as he crawled into the tiny shelter, just big enough for us to stretch out side-by-side. I rolled away from him, and tensed when he lifted the blanket to get under it with me.

I kept reminding myself over and over in my head that these were extenuating circumstances, and it meant nothing to sleep together this way.

Such was the size of the shelter – and the size of the man – that Jamie had no choice but to spoon up behind me, shivering as much as I was. His pants were soaked and freezing against my legs, but there was really nothing for that.

He shakily, tentatively, placed his hand on my waist. Lightly, as if ready to snatch it away the moment I acted uncomfortable.

I couldn’t really say I was comfortable exactly. I honestly didn’t know what I was. But Jamie was blissfully warm, and I didn’t want him to pull away. So I reached back and grabbed his hand, pulling it more securely around me.

With this tacit permission, Jamie relaxed against me, pulling me flush against him, tangling our legs together. I could feel puffs of breath against my hair as my eyes started to drift shut.

I fell asleep, soundly, feeling safer and more at home than I had any right to in the situation.

Chapter Text

When I awoke the next morning, the rain had stopped, but Jamie was still pressed against my back, his arm and one heavy leg flung over me.

He let out a snoring grunt, and a smile forced its way across my face. I raised my head enough to peek over at Rollo, who had situated himself at our feet. He was awake, looking calmly about, which told me no enemies were nearby.

I thought to just remain still and let Jamie rest, Lord knew he needed it. He didn’t feel feverishly warm, his breathing was clearly fine, and I could feel his heart beating strong and steady against my shoulders. And, if I was going to be completely honest with myself, it felt sort of nice to be held in such a way.

But then I became drowsily aware of something jabbing me in the lower back. It was uncomfortable, so I shifted slightly, thinking it was likely the handle to Jamie’s tomahawk. But then Jamie suddenly moaned in his sleep, and it dawned on me like a bucket of water poured over my head what it was.

That was no tomahawk.

I may have been inexperienced in the ways of men, but I was a doctor, and knew plenty enough about human biology to understand just what was happening. I reminded myself firmly that it was just an automatic, biological event that happened to all men in their sleep, and had nothing to do with me.

I slowly tried to sit up, but he was effectively pinning me down. As I lay there, wracking my brain for ways to make this situation less embarrassing, I felt him start to wake up. He shifted his hips, pressing them harder against me, in what I told myself was another automatic reaction, and then he went tense all over, and I knew he’d woken up completely.

I rolled over when he pulled away, immediately kicking myself for not just pretending to still be asleep.

“Erm, ‘morning…Sassenach,” he said, voice hoarse from sleep.

“Good morning,” I replied, thinking maybe we could let the predicament go without talking about it all.

He stared at me searchingly for a moment, before whatever he found in my face made him go scarlet. I’d been told before that I wore everything I was thinking and feeling on my expressive face, and I’d never regretted it more than in that moment.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” he stammered, color rising in his face and looking so distressed it near to broke my heart. “I assure ye, Claire, I’d never…”

I held up a hand, stopping him. “Don’t. It’s okay, really. I’m not…er…offended. I’m a doctor. I…understand these things.”

“A doctor, aye,” he said, as if needing the reminder. “Still. I hope I didn’t…frighten ye at all.”

I sat up and made to crawl out of the shelter, but stopped first to look him in the eye. “You could never frighten me, Jamie. I know you’d never hurt me.”

Never,” he said emphatically.

For a long beat I found myself unable to look away from the intensity of his eyes, gazing back at me with an expression I’d seen him wear before, but not one I understood. And this his eyes flickered down, toward my mouth, and sudden spark of…something in me had me scurrying backwards out of the shelter as fast I could, trying to smile as if to assure him he wasn’t scaring me away.

I left him there to collect himself, pulling out his bag on the way which contained our food.

When he emerged a moment later, (and I had a horrifyingly embarrassing moment where my eyes went automatically to the front of his trousers, but it was only a second, and I didn’t think he noticed,) neither of us mentioned the “incident” again and went about preparing for the last leg of our journey.

 

After all we’d been through the past three days, I’d half expected to run blazing into the mill dodging a hail of bullets, but in reality we simply snuck along the edge of the work area to a large pump that fed into the creek. The hope was to get in, get what we needed, and get out without any more mishaps.

I hid against the side of the pump while Jamie darted down to the creek, collecting a vial of water.

When he returned, I instructed him to put a piece of fool’s gold into a separate vial, explaining how the metal from the fool’s gold, mixed with sulfuric acid (the look on Jamie’s face as he uncorked the acid with his mouth upon hearing my hissed warning as to the contents was priceless,) and water from the creek should create a vapor that, if mercury was present, would turn black.

“Rip a piece of fabric from my petticoat,” I told him, lifting my skirts.

He arched a brow, but knelt and did as asked, being a bit more methodical in the task than I thought strictly necessary.

I held the piece of cloth over the vial, watching in satisfaction as it turned black. “And there it is,” I said, smirking.

“Great, now let’s go,” Jamie said, but both of us froze at the sound of a gun cocking.

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere,” a bearded man said, appearing from behind the bushes with an equally bearded friend.

Rollo growled from where he perched on the rocks above, and Jamie turned to hiss something at him in Gaelic, waving an arm, and the wolf darted away as the man shot at him and missed.

We were led very insistently to Harding’s camp, where we came face-to-face with the man himself. He didn’t look surprised to see us, obviously having been informed of our presence by his guard dogs, and he looked so smug about it I could have shoved his head into the creek. If that didn’t go against my oath as a doctor, of course.

They took our belongings and laid them all out on a table and began rifling through them. One of the men carelessly shoved my compact mirror off the table, but Jamie neatly caught it before it hit the ground, and placed it gently back on the table, all the while glaring daggers at the other man, daring him to drop it again.

“And what is this clap-trap?” Harding asked, poking through my chemist kit.

“It’s a crude method for testing for mercury in the water,” I told him conversationally.

“There’s nothing wrong with that water,” Harding snapped, slamming the lid back on the kit.

“Would you drink it, Mr. Harding?”

“Oh no,” he said, chuckling. “I will not engage in theatrics, madam.”

I shrugged. “Good, then you won’t object to sending a sample to Denver for analysis.”

“My father’s word is good enough!” said Harding’s obnoxious twit of a son.

Harding rounded the table toward us, and I felt Jamie take a step closer behind me, his knuckles brushing the back of my hand. “Need I remind you, Miss Beauchamp…”

Doctor Beauchamp,” Jamie corrected, his voice all the more menacing for being almost too quiet to hear.

Doctor,” Harding amended scathingly. “Need I remind you, Doctor Beauchamp that you’re the one breaking the law here. You’re trespassing on my property without my permission, despite clear posted warnings.”

“We asked permission and you refused,” I said.

“And now we know why,” Jamie added. “Yer mines aren’a safe.”

“I have the right to shoot you for this,” Harding threatened.

Jamie stepped forward once more, moving around me as smoothly as a cat, and effectively putting himself between me and Harding. “Ye’ll be found out and hanged,” he said.

Harding scoffed like that was no great matter, and motioned for two of his larger guard dogs to take us away, instructing us to be placed in a tent for “safekeeping.”

Despite them being big, Jamie was still much larger than the scruffy men sent to watch us, but they were armed and Jamie was not, so he herded me placidly into the tent, careful to keep himself between me and their leering gazes.

 

We sat on a cot in the middle of the tent, back to back, in case anyone popped in from the other side, and we were left that way for several dull hours.

“What do you think they’re going to do to us?” I asked Jamie, resting my head on his back between his shoulders.

“Take us into the woods,” Jamie murmured, jostling my head as he shrugged his good shoulder. “Make it look like an accident…”

I gulped as it really settled in for the first time that we were in very real danger.

“I’m sorry I got you into this,” I said.

He shook his head. “I would’a come wi’out ye, Sassenach, remember? And I’d be long dead by now, ha’ it no been for ye.”

“Still, it was my idea. My insistence that we prove the mercury was coming from here.”

“And ye were right. Ye did it tae save lives,” he twisted his neck to look at me. “Because yer a doctor…and a good person.”

“So are you,” I said fondly. “Now if we could just…”

Just then, the flap of the tent was wrenched open, and a man stood there, shouting for us to come out, and hurry.

We followed him back out to where Harding was knelt beside his son, who was doubled over in a chair.

“My son’s taken sick,” Harding said without preamble. “You’re a doctor, huh? So fix him!”

I quickly took Harding’s place knelt at the boy’s feet, feeling his pale and sweating head.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“My stomach hurts…” he panted, his breathing hitching. “Hurts somethin’ awful! And I been throwing up…”

“Have you been drinking the water?” he’d looked fine when we’d arrived, and mercury poisoning wasn’t usually so instantaneous, unless in large quantities, which I thought possible this close to the source.

“Of course not!” Harding snapped. “We got a spring!”

I twisted around to glare at him in appalment, but chose not to answer in favor of treating the very sick young man.

“Have you eaten anything…cooked, or mixed with the water?” I pressed. “Anything strange at all?”

He shook his head, then scrunched his face up in pained thought. “Just that moonshine you brought.”

“You drank that?” Harding exclaimed.

I shot to my feet, infuriated. “It was full of mercury!” I shouted.

He shoved a finger into my face. “You brought that poison here!”

“You CREATED that poison!”

We were staved off from further shouting by a sudden moan from the boy, as his entire body clenched in pain.

Do something!” Harding pleaded.

“You took my bag!” I snapped.

Harding actually looked shamefaced for once, which told me my medical bag had been picked through and emptied, otherwise he would have had it fetched by now.

“Get me some charcoal powder,” I hissed at last.

“Charcoal?”

“We’ll have him swallow it,” I explained. “It will absorb the poison.”

Harding shouted at one of his men to get the charcoal, and within an hour, I had the boy wrapped up in his bed like a child, resting more or less peacefully.

Jamie and I found Harding pacing by the creek after I assured that the boy, Calvin would be okay.

“Calvin’s going to pull through,” I told him. “The charcoal worked. I sent one of your men into town for a medicine, however, that will settle his stomach,” Harding eyed me as I rattled off more instructions - ending firmly with a warning against letting him drink the water - looking resigned.

“The water,” he muttered. “S’pose we better warn folks not to be drinking it.”

“That’s not enough!” I exclaimed. “The fish, the animals, the plant life…all things we all rely on for food, will be affected. Can’t you see that?”

Harding sighed. “Do you have any idea how expensive it’ll be to change my operation?”

“We’re talking about peoples’ lives here! Lives like your son, who was almost lost because of it! Or Mr. Walker, who did lose it!”

“You could build a tailings pond,” Jamie suggested, causing me to look at him curiously, wondering what on earth that was. “Dam up the waste, keep it from seeping into the river.”

“I could do that,” Harding relented, though begrudgingly.

“How soon?” I asked.

“I’ll talk to my foreman!” he snapped, then after a beat and a hard look from me, relented again. “I’ll talk to him today.”

“Good,” I said, nodding.

Harding sighed again, rubbing the back of his neck before reaching into his vest pocket. “What do I owe you?”

I thought a moment. “How about instead of paying me, you see to it that Happy Walker has a proper burial?”

He gave a brisk nod. “I can do that. And I’ll loan you a couple of my horses to get back…I, uh…want to thank you. For saving my son.”

“I would have done it either way,” I said. “Just promise me you won’t let it happen to anyone else’s son?”

Harding nodding, looking tired, and I could only hope that this scare was enough to change his practices for good.

 

“How do you know so much about mining?” I asked Jamie as we were shown to the horses.

He nodded in the direction of the mine. “”s what I did, when I was first paroled here, ken.  Sent tae the coal mines, until Harding’s operation pulled me intae gold minin’ because I was strong. Learned much in that time about how miners are treated, wi’ little tae no care for their safety, so long’s the quotas are met.”

I marveled at how much Jamie had experienced in his relatively short life, and would have asked more had two sets of reigns not been thrust in our direction.

“Ready tae go home, Sassenach?” Jamie asked me, grinning.

I chuckled tiredly. “More than ready. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

On our borrowed horses, our trip back down the mountain was indeed much faster, just as Jamie said. We were already halfway home by the time it was dark.

It wasn’t raining, so there was no need for the rather intimate sleeping arrangements of the night before. But it was cold, and we only had the one blanket left between us, so by unspoken agreement we drifted close to one another, sharing the blanket even if we weren’t wrapped around one another this time.

I faced away from Jamie, toward the fire, and stroked the soft plaid blanket, admiring the colors. “Is this tartan?” I asked him quietly.

“Aye,” he confirmed just as quietly. “It’s no’ Fraser colors. I haven’a been able to come by a Fraser tartan since my Da’s old one was lost in a fire. But it’s McKenzie, which is my family also. It eh…belonged to my wife’s mother, she said. Passed down from some distant relative. She gave it to me on our wedding day.”

I suddenly felt very strange to be wrapped up with a man in a plaid that had been a wedding gift from his wife. Strange in a way I probably should have felt, sleeping in such a way with a man who wasn’t my husband.

“You must have loved her very much,” I said a bit awkwardly, not sure how else to respond.

He didn’t answer for so long I thought he wasn’t going to, or had fallen asleep. But when he spoke it was so softly, I had to strain to hear.

“She was verra young,” he said. “I dinna mean just her age, though she was younger than me. I mean more in a way that was just how she was. I remember when I first came to Colorado Springs, no’ even twenty years old yet, and a young lass named Leoghaire set her wee eyes on me, and made no secret of it,” he chuckled, and I had a vision of the pretty but pinch-faced Leoghaire mooning over Jamie the way she now mooned over Roger. I didn’t care for that vision.

“Murtagh once said, about her, that she’d be a girl until she was fifty. I think he knew even then that Geneva was the same way, but it’s hard to accept when it’s yer own lass…I imagine. Geneva wasn’a really his, ken. But a stepdaughter, though he raised her from childhood and loved her all the same.

“She was…spoil’t. Used t’ gettin’ her own way. Maybe I was the first one who didn’a give in t’ her every request, I think she liked that. Weel…she made up her mind about me, and was verra persistent. My Da taught me to respect women, ken. Dinna run about wi’ them till after marriage, and I wanted to do right by him. But…Geneva was persistent, and I was verra young…and only a man, after all…”

Despite myself, I found myself smiling. I could only imagine Jamie valiantly trying to deny the beautiful young woman I remembered from the photograph. I rolled on my back to see him, and was relieved to see him smiling too, ruefully.

“I’ll give ye one guess about what happened,” he said, quirking an eyebrow.

“Oh…” I said, amusement fading. “She…”

“Aye. And o’ course I couldn’a ruin the lass. She had her sweet ways about her, made me laugh. I didn’a think it would be so bad being marrit to her. So we were. Murtagh was furious, as was his right, but I thought he was satisfied that I was doing right by her, at least.”

I knew what happened next, but kept silent, letting him get it all out.

“I was…so happy to be a Da. Lad or lass…I didn’a care. I loved him wi’ my whole being th’ moment I learned he existed. I would dream at night of all the things I would do. I would be ev’rything my Da was and more.”

I could see tears begin to glisten in his eyes by the light of the fire. I reached over the few inches between us beneath the blanket to take his hand, and he turned his over beneath mine to lace our fingers together.

“He was such a bonny thing,” he whispered. “So…so wee. I could fit his heid in the palm o’ my hand. Dark hair, like Geneva’s, but eyes like mine. He breathed just once, in my arms. I like to think he could somehow feel how much I loved him in that one moment before he was gone.”

“I know he did,” I said, unable to keep from speaking any longer. “And I think he still feels it, wherever he is now.”

Jamie glanced at me, smiling briefly. “I hope yer right, Sassenach.”

“And Murtagh, what, blamed you?”

“Well, aye, and he should. It was my doing that got Geneva wi’ child. And wi’out the child, she may still be alive.”

“No, Jamie. It wasn’t your fault.”

He shook his head, and I knew he didn’t believe me.

“I dinna think that’s really it though. Murtagh just…knows my worst sin,” he looked at me with eyes far older than his years. “I am responsible for Geneva’s death…and all the worse…because I did not love her.”

 

I slept deeply, with haunting images of a stunning, black-haired  woman, glaring at me over the head of the infant in her arms, darting through my head.

I awoke slowly, wanting to bury my face into my pillow before I realized that I was still sleeping outside on the ground, with nothing but a plaid blanket under my cheek.

My fingers were still laced with Jamie’s and he snored lightly. I gingerly untangled our hands and sat up, stretching and rubbing my face. When my eyes blinked blearily open, I let out an undignified shriek to see another man hunched over our smoldering fire.

Jamie was awake in an instant, rolling into a crouch with his tomahawk ready in his hand.

“Sorry,” the man said sheepishly. “I only thought to let you two sleep a little longer.”

“William!” I exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

I jumped to my feet, and he hopped over the fire to embrace me, lifting me a little off the ground.

“I came looking for you of course!” he said. “When Bear and Donas showed up back home, we thought something must have happened.”

“You came all the way out here alone?” I demanded. “What about Bree and Fergus?”

“Gail and Joe are looking after them,” William said. “And I didn’t come alone, Mr. Fitzgibbons, Mr. Christie, Dougal, Rupert, and Angus all came with me.”

I looked around, half expecting all of them to pop out of the trees. “They did?”

William glanced around himself. “Well, they did. But then they wouldn’t stop fighting over which way to go, and they all just kept getting us lost. So I set out alone. Then this fellow found me, and led me to you…”

I glanced over to the other side of the fire where Rollo lay, gnawing on a bone of some sort.

“But they all came out looking for me and Jamie?” I asked skeptically. I would have believed it if it had been someone like Roger or Denny, but the rest of those men only barely tolerated me, and some of them loathed Jamie.

“Well…you mostly,” William admitted with an apologetic look at Jamie, who only shrugged. “Looks like you didn’t really need saving, though.”

I wanted to laugh at the disappointed look on William’s face, but managed not to. Only just. “Perhaps not, but it looks to me like you’ve brought coffee with you, and that, darling, makes you my hero.”

William grinned broadly, going back to the fire to fetch me a cup, the smell of which must have been what awoke me in the first place.

“I’m eh…going tae see about a fish for breakfast,” Jamie said, whistling for Rollo to follow.

“How’s he gonna catch a fish with no pole or even a gun or anything?” William asked once Jamie had left.

I chuckled. “I’ll tell you later. Listen…” I hesitated, biting my lower lip, unsure how to brooch the subject. “About…” I gestured over to where Jamie’s plaid was still laying on the ground, feeling my face heat up.

William flushed too, and shrugged before turning back to the coffee pot. “None of my business.”

His answer only embarrassed me more. “No…it isn’t…that wasn’t what it looked…we didn’t…”

William chuckled, surprising me. “I didn’t think so, Dr. B. Looks to me like you’ve lost your supplies somewhere and needed to do somethin’ to keep warm.”

“That’s exactly it,” I said. “But still…if anyone else knew…”

“Relax, no one else’s gonna know. I wouldn’t risk your reputation.”

“Thank you,” I said, leaning over to kiss his cheek. “Just know that I’d better not ever find you in a similar situation. Or else.”

He gave me a dry look. “Do as you say, not as you do, huh? You are turning into a mother.”

It was said teasingly, but he honestly couldn’t have given me a better compliment, and I was still beaming when Jamie returned with breakfast.

 

We met the rest of our errant would-be search party later that afternoon, surprised and bemused to find them all in their underwear. (Evidently they’d had their own set of misadventures, one involving a skunk.)

Jamie offered Murtagh a cordial nod, which Murtagh ignored. But he didn’t say anything scathing to Jamie in passing, which I thought a step in the right direction.

“Looks like you’ve had a rough ride,” Dougal said to me with a lewd expression, earning childish giggles from Rupert and Angus.

I rolled my eyes. “Like you wouldn’t believe,” I said, making Jamie raise his eyebrows at my deliberate suggestiveness and Dougal and his posse howl with laughter.

“Ah, we’re glad you’re alright,” Rupert said more seriously, and I smiled at him.

 

We were met with applause as we rode into town, everyone hailing our “heroes” to my annoyance. But Jamie only chuckled and kept silent, so I followed his example.

“Mama!”

“Dr. B!”

Fergus and Brianna elbowed their way through the crowd to launch themselves at me, and I gathered them both up in my arms, mindful of my hand.

“We were so worried!” Bree exclaimed.

“Thank God you’re okay!” Jenny exclaimed, reaching above the children to give me a hug of her own. “Glad to see you’re in one piece. You too, I guess, Mac.”

“Good to see ye too, Jenny,” Jamie said, lips quirking up at the corners.

Through the buzz of questions coming at me from all directions, I watched as both Fergus and Brianna released me to throw their arms around Jamie’s middle, and my heart ached at the soft, pleasantly surprised look on his face.

“Well,” I began, clapping my hands once to get everyone’s attention. “You’ll all be pleased to hear that Mr. Harding has agreed to stop pouring mercury into the water!”

That got another thunderous applause, and Gail popped up, announcing that luncheon was ready. Turned out that in the less than a week since we’d been gone, she’d decided and already put into motion opening a sort of make-shift café in the middle of the field beside Joe’s smithy.

As everyone gravitated toward the food, I held back with Jamie. “How’s the shoulder?” I asked. “I need to check the bandage, and get it cleaned properly.”

“It’ll bide for now,” he said, waving a hand.

“I want to thank you, for everything,” I said quietly.

“Seems I should be thanking you,” he said. “Ye managed to save me no’ once, but twice.”

I chuckled. “And you’ve saved me a time or two. How about we just call it even?”

“As ye say, Sassenach.”

 

I’d never been more relieved to see a bed than I was that first night back home after my trek with Jamie up the mountain. Without even being asked, William and Fergus took it upon themselves to draw me a proper bath in our copper tub, usually reserved for washing laundry as baths in the river were much easier. After thoroughly scrubbing, I laid my head down on my pillow and fell promptly to sleep.

I slept late the next morning, and awoke to find the boys already about their chores, and went to find Brianna, thinking to check on her, since before I left she’d been behaving a bit peculiarly.

I found her in the barn, milking the cow…which was Fergus’s job, and to my dismay, she was sobbing pitifully.

“Bree, what’s wrong?” I asked, hurrying to her side and wrapping an arm around her.

“I…I think I’m dying!” she wailed, face red and blotchy and damp with tears.

“Dying?” I asked. “Why on earth do you think you’re dying? And why didn’t you say something before?”

Lacking a handkerchief, I resignedly offered her a corner of my skirt, letting her dab her nose with it.

She snuffled, pulling away from my embrace. “I dunno…you were gone, and then you were tired and I…I was embarrassed!”

“Bree, honey, please tell me what’s wrong so I can help!”

“I’m bleeding!” she exclaimed, glancing down at her lap, even though I’d already begun to guess at the problem. “I’ve been bleeding almost since you left! I couldn’t stop it!”

I sighed, pulling her back in for a hug, though she resisted just a moment before slumping against me. “Oh, sweetheart…you’re not dying. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Nothing wrong?!” she exclaimed, sitting back up, this time indignant. “How can you say that?”

“I mean what’s happening to you, while unpleasant, is normal. It happens to all us women once we grow up. All it means is…well, you’re becoming a woman.”

Her face turned red again, only now she looked appalled. “A woman? What on earth does bleeding have to do with being a woman? And it happens to everyone?! Even you?”

“Even me,” I admitted with a rueful chuckle. “I’m so sorry, Bree, I should have realized. You are thirteen, now. I wasn’t much older than you when I started.”

Bree shrugged. “You were busy.”

I hummed. “That’s no excuse for not preparing you. Now listen…”

It was a halting, awkward conversation. I’d never had to give “the talk” to anyone before. But I tried to be as honest and informative as I could, staying far away from the vague innuendo and flowery body part pet-names I was subjected to by my nannies. I tried not to frighten her either, though, knowing how clinical I must sound, having only the biological information myself and no practical experience in the art of reproduction.

“Can’t imagine why I’d ever wanna do that to start with,” Brianna mumbled into her knees which she’d raised up to her face.

I shrugged. “Honestly? Me either.” I had a sudden, invasive memory of Jamie’s face, inches from mine as we laid side-by-side in the firelight, and I shook my head to clear it. “But…from what I understand it can be…pleasant. And men of course like it. So if you love a man, and want to have a child with him, you might wish to share that with him. But never, ever just for the sake of a man, do you understand me? I don’t care how much you like him, never let a man touch you without your consent, alright?”

“I won’t,” Brianna said emphatically, nose wrinkling in disgust. “But…aren’t you supposed to tell me to wait until marriage? I knew that much already, that men and women aren’t to be alone together until they’re married. Otherwise you’ll be a woman of loose morals, like Dottie and the other women at the saloon.”

I scowled. “First of all, please don’t talk that way about Dottie. She didn’t really choose the life she lives. Second of all, why is it only the woman has loose morals if she decides to be with a man before marriage?”

Brianna shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t know? Just always seems like boys get to do what they want, but girls have to be more careful of their reputation.”

I sighed in annoyance. “You’re right, though I wish you weren’t. You should keep up a good reputation, Brianna. I want you to grow up to be respected. But all I really care about, honey, is that you respect yourself. Whatever anyone else thinks of you…boys, the town, none of it matters as much as what you think of yourself. Do you understand?”

“I think so,” Bree admitted. “What about you? Are you gonna have a bad reputation now that you were alone with Mac?”

I chuckled. “I think my reputation is already shot, Bree. A woman doctor isn’t exactly the most respected occupation. But what matters is I have respect for myself, and I surround myself with people who treat me with respect. Like Jamie, he respects me, and he’d never lay an untoward hand on me, or anyone for that matter.”

“Jamie?” Bree echoed, eyes wide. “Mac’s name is Jamie?”

I flushed, cursing my own clumsiness. “Erm, yes, but it isn’t something he likes everyone to know, for reasons that are his own.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” Bree said shaking her head.

“Are you alright?” I asked her. “Please, if ever anything is going on with you again, whether with your body or anything else, tell me. You never have to be embarrassed, or afraid I’ll be angry.”

“I will,” she said. “I promise.”

We left the barn hand in hand, and she looked calmer than she had in over a week, though she was still scowling. “Why don’t boys have to go through anything like this?”

I chuckled. “It’s not fair, I know. But rest assured young men have their own sets of problems they face as they become men,” I thought with a rush of embarrassment of the morning after the rainstorm when I woke up to one of those “pesky” problems men have.

“I don’t ever wanna get married, or have kids,” she declared firmly.

“You might change your mind,” I said with amusement. “Or…you might not. Either way will be fine with me, my darling.”

Chapter Text

I wasn’t entirely surprised that in the wake of our mountain adventure, Jamie dissolved back into the woods and his reclusiveness. I wasn’t all that bothered by it; it made sense to me, thinking he’d desire the space. But after a few weeks without so much as a note from him, I grew a little worried.

He finally appeared some three weeks later, bearing a beaver he offered for meat, and the pelt for a winter hat for one of the children.

But his talk was quiet and stilted, the way it was back when we’d first met, and he refused the invitation to dinner, claiming he and Ian were hunting elk, and he would bring me more meat if they managed to get any.

I was left confused, and more than a little hurt. I felt we’d become quite close during the days and nights we spent together, through the experiences we’d shared, and I wasn’t afraid to admit to myself that I missed his company.

I thought perhaps he was trying to send a message that he wasn’t looking for more with me, but neither was I, so what was the problem?

 

“You’re very distracted, brother,” Ian said, eyes sparkling with mischief, like usual. “Your thoughts are so loud, they’re scaring away the elk.”

Jamie blinked and shook his head, taking a better grip of his bow as he responded in the Cheyenne language. “I’m sorry, brother. I suppose my head was in the clouds.”

“Head in the clouds? Should we change your name to Cloud Head?”

Jamie glared at him. “It is a figure of speech. Something Claire says.”

“Ah, Claire. I should have known this was about her.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Ian chuckled. “It means, brother, that ever since that woman came into your life, you have been changed. I mean this as a good thing. You have been lighter…happier. But right now your clouds are dark. Has there been a problem?”

“You are too perceptive by far,” Jamie said sardonically. “No, there’s no problem. She and the children are fine.”

“I don’t mean a problem with their safety, I mean have you and the lovely Claire had a disagreement?”

“A disagreement?” Jamie asked, scoffing before shuffling through the dense leaves in the direction the elk had run. “There is not much we do agree upon.”

Ian smirked. “I think that is part of what makes you so well matched. You challenge one another. You’re a man of great fire, Walks Alone. And Claire, Claire is more of a hurricane. You clash, yet meet in the middle with a burning cyclone.”

Jamie hummed, switching to English. “Yer comparisons leave much tae be desired, Ian.”

Ian shrugged. “Then perhaps you are a wolf,” he nodded down to Rollo, who’s gold eyes gleamed with the thrill of the hunt. “Alone, until he finds a mate worthy of him. Too bad for you that your mate happens to be a hungry mountain lion.”

Jamie threw back his head, laughing. “Yer even worse in English! Mayhap we should leave the words o’ wisdom to Black Kettle.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Ian said, chuckling. “But I got you laughing. Now really, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Jamie insisted. “She only seemed a wee bit miffed wi’ me when I went tae give her the beaver.”

“If miffed means she’s upset, perhaps it has to do with you being with me in the village the past month, and not home with her.”

“That’s no’ my home, anymore, and ye ken it,” Jamie said sharply. “I dinna live wi’ the woman, and what ye said is precisely why I haven’a gone around, of late.”

Ian raised one dark eyebrow, waiting for an explanation.

“Some o’ the men were makin’ lewd jokes about her bein’ in the woods alone wi’ me. And I know some o’ the women were probably bein’ snide as well. I dinna want to make things harder for Claire than they already are, and I certainly dinna want to bring scandal to her children.”

Jamie didn’t mention that Murtagh had pulled him aside after they’d returned.

You better watch yourself, boy,” he’d hissed. “Don’t you be doing to Dr. B. what you did to my Geneva. She doesn’t deserve it.”

Jamie had been torn between anger that the older man was insinuating such a thing, and mild pleasure that he was taking up for Claire that way. But either way the point had been driven home, and Jamie knew he needed to correct the mistakes he’d already made.

“’Fore I know it, th’ town will be clamoring for me to wed the lass,” Jamie sneered.

“Would that be so terrible?” Ian asked.

“…No,” Jamie admitted reluctantly. “But I will not drag another woman into a marriage she doesn’a want.”

Ian huffed a laugh. “I may not know Claire as well as you do, but I do know she’s not the type of woman who is going to let anyone drag her into anything she doesn’t want. And besides, you’re skewing your own memories of what happened with Geneva. She wanted the marriage.”

“Aye, but I didn’t,” he said. “And I willn’a marry another unless it is for love. And I dinna love Claire,” at Ian’s highly skeptical look, Jamie persisted. “And even if I did, I’m in no place tae be a husband. I have no money, no prospects, I dinna even get tae use my own name.”

“Claire knows your name, you told me so.”

“Aye,” Jamie allowed. He was surprised at how easy it was to give her his long-protected name, but tried to tell himself that the danger now of being recognized was minimal.

“But you care for Claire, yes?”

“Weel, yes,” Jamie said. “She’s my friend, as ye are.”

Ian barked out a laugh so loud it sent birds flying, and the elk they’d been attempting to track leapt out of the woods and far into the distance. “She’s your friend as I am?! Brother, if that is true, I must be truthful with you…I do not wish to take you into my lodge. I am sorry.”

Jamie shoved Ian, knocking him over, which led to Ian jumping up and pushing Jamie in return, which led to childish scuffling until they finally admitted that all the elk were gone and they may as well go home.

“You should go talk to her,” Ian said. “Just see her. You do not want to lose her, even as a friend.”

“You’re right,” Jamie said.

“I know I am, a charaid.”

 

Jamie wandered his way into town, figuring Claire would be at the clinic this time of day, and not at home.

He found her walking Angus out, the latter holding his bandaged hand out with exaggerated care.

“J…Mac,” Claire exclaimed, seeing him. “Didn’t think I’d see you again so soon.”

Jamie winced at the accusatory tone in her voice. Angus heard it too and chortled, muttering to him as passed about being in the “doghouse.”

“Aye, I’m sorry I turned down supper last night, Sassenach. I had a lot on my mind.”

Her look grew softer, concerned, and Jamie marveled at the incredible myriad of expressions she could wear on her glass face. “Is everything okay?

“I thought…” he hesitated. “Weel, I hoped that ye’d like to come with me tae the Cheyenne reservation. Black Kettle thought it would be good, tae let ye take a wee look at the children, ken. See if there are any ailments the medicine man may have missed.”

“I’d love to!” she exclaimed. “I’ve wanted to go back there, meet everyone properly, not like last time!”

He chuckled at the memory of her being unceremoniously dragged into the village when Fergus had gone missing.

He waited while she finished her errands in town, and since there didn’t seem to be anyone in dire need of her services, they rode straight out to the reservation.

 

I was as nervous and excited as my first day in medical school. I wanted the Cheyenne people to like and trust me, because that meant that if they ever needed help, they wouldn’t be afraid to reach out to me.

And also, I was simply curious to see how they really lived, without the filter of the way white authors wrote about them.

Jamie was in a strange mood, and I longed to ask him straight out why he’d been avoiding me for so long. His mercurial temperament, however, was just a part of him, and I’d learned already that it was more productive not to push him.

It wasn’t the same village I’d been taken to during Fergus’s disappearance. The same people, of course, but they tended to migrate around, though Jamie explained that it was very difficult to uphold their way of life when they were restricted to a particular plot of land.

I saw a man look up from a conversation with a teenage boy and wave cheerfully at us. After a moment I recognized him as Two Moons, or Ian as Jamie fondly called him.

The boy looked up as well, a grin spreading across his lean features. “Ma’háhkéso!” he greeted.

“Who are ye callin’ “old man,” ye wee bastard?” Jamie snapped playfully.

“It is that beard you’re growing,” Two Moons said, shocking me with his perfect English. “It makes you look like one of the old white men who live in the mountains.”

“Suppose I am an auld white man who lives in the mountains,” Jamie retorted. “Ian, you remember Claire?”

Two Moons held out his hands to help me dismount and I managed to gather my jaw up from the ground. “You do speak English!” I exclaimed. “Why did you pretend you didn’t?!”

“It’s a defensive measure, Sassenach,” Jamie said. “When white people think they dinna speak English, they canna interrogate them.”

“It is an old habit,” Ian admitted. “But you are our friend, and welcome,” he motioned to the boy at his side. “My son, Ian.”

I quirked an eyebrow. “Is his name…really Ian?”

Two Moons laughed. “His Cheyenne name is Wolf’s Brother, but he is Ian, after the name my own brother, Jamie has given me.”

Ian was the very picture of his father, tall and lean, though he looked scarcely older than Brianna. Neither father nor son were what one would call handsome, but each had such sincere, jovial looks about them which made them attractive.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Ian and…Ian.”

Both Ians laughed, and the younger knelt to tussle with Rollo who greeted the boy as ecstatically as he usually greeted Fergus. He kept peering up at me, though, and said something to Jamie in Cheyenne that had me very curious since it made Jamie’s face turn the shade of his hair.

“English, son,” Two Moons admonished. “We will show courtesy to our guest.”

Ian chuckled. “I said, she is even prettier than Uncle Jamie sa…”

Jamie chose that moment to shove Ian over, making the boy tumble, laughing, over Rollo’s back.

I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing at Jamie’s embarrassment.

“Come,” Jamie said a bit gruffly. “Black Kettle’s wife is anxious to meet ye.”

Black Kettle and a woman who I assumed was his wife were sitting outside their teepee, but stood to greet us.

“This is Nayawenne,” Two Moons introduced. “Wife of Black Kettle.”

Nayawenne was a handsome older woman with a friendly smile and bright eyes. Her attractiveness was not marred by the scarring on the left side of her face, but my doctor’s eyes drifted to them automatically.

“Sand Creek,” she said, touching her face. “My husband came back for me and saved my life, but I still bear the scars.”

“I’m sorry,” I said automatically, as if I could apologize for what the people of my own race had done.

“I am pleased to meet you,” Nayaenne continued, tactfully changing the subject. Her speech was slow and deliberate, as she worked to be sure she correctly said the words, but her English was nearly flawless. “I am forever grateful to you for you saving my husband. He has told tales of your medical knowledge. Women do not do medicine in the white world, do they?”

“Not normally,” I admitted, shrugging one shoulder.

“You are special,” Nayawenne said, smiling and nodding once as if a hunch had been confirmed.

“Nayawenne is a Medicine Woman, too,” Jamie explained, and my brows raised in interest.

“My medicine is surely very different from yours,” she said.

“I would love to hear about your medicine,” I said sincerely. “You must be who gave Jamie the fever tea that saved my life, along with the half the town.

She nodded, no false modesty, but not a trace of conceit either. “I have taught Two Moons. I could teach you, as well. But…not today,” she held up a hand that was lightly bandaged with leaves, wincing slightly.

“She burned herself this morning,” Two Moons said.

“I have something for that!” I exclaimed, rooting in my medicine kit for a particular salve. “You could put this on the burn,” I handed her the tin. “It works wonders. When I first moved here, I didn’t know how to cook…and well, I had a few mishaps…”

Nayawenne took the tin, looking at it critically before tucking it away into a pocket in her dress. I didn’t know whether she would really use it, but I was glad she accepted the gesture regardless. “Did your mother not teach you to cook?” she asked bluntly.

“She passed away when I was young,” I said with a shrug. “I was raised by my uncle. But I’m learning!”

Nayawenne’s eyes crinkled in thought. “Ah, well you will come here. The women can teach you our way of cooking, and how to be a wife, and mother.”

My eyes widened. “Well…I don’t really think…”

“Jamie said you have children.”

“I do! But I don’t…”

Jamie chuckled. “She raises children who are not her own,” he said. “She is not a wife, yet.”

Nayawenne shrugged as if that were an insignificant detail. “Yet.

Jamie and both Ians gave me a tour of the village, introducing me to families and curious children.

The children would pull me down to their level so that they could touch my hair where it curled out of my bun. I eventually took the bun down, and they clapped and giggled and oo-ed and ahh-ed over it.

What was funny was people kept calling me Hestse’emo, which I knew to be different than my Cheyenne name, Ma’heóná’e, which meant Medicine Woman.

The funny part was Jamie’s flustered reaction each time, his gruff corrections, and refusal to tell me what it meant.

I bandaged a few minor wounds, and checked the teeth, eyes, and ears of a dozen children. And before I left I was gifted with smoked meats, beaded necklaces, and a charm which Jamie claimed had something to do getting good sleep but the mischievous expressions on the young women’s faces and the pointed looks from me to Jamie and back again told me something very different.

When I left, Nayawenne embraced me, and implored with me to return soon, which I promised I would.

“Ye seemed to have a good time,” Jamie said as we rode away.

“I did! Nayawenne is wonderful. Why do you call her that but you say Black Kettle’s name in English?”

Jamie chuckled. “Because Black Kettle’s name in Cheyenne is many syllables long. Nayawenne’s name doesn’a really have an English way to say it, but it amounts to it may be…or it will happen.”

“That’s….interesting,” I said. “What about Two Moons? Is he their son?”

“He looks on them as parents,” Jamie said. “But he was adopted into the tribe, ken, when he was a lad. His own tribe was massacred. They say th’ only reason he survived, was because he was in th’ arms o’ his white mother. The soldiers felt guilty for killing her,” he snorted. “But no’ guilty for the countless other women and children. But they let Ian live.”

“So Ian is half white,” I said, my theory confirmed. Two Moons’ simply did not look like the Cheyenne, nor any other Indian I had seen. He had the same hair and eyes, but his skin was paler and his features definitely held hints of someone with European blood. “What about Young Ian? Where’s his mother?”

“Died long ago,” he said.

“That’s too bad. Well, he seems like a nice boy. Perhaps we should introduce him to William, Bree, and Fergus. They might get along.”

“Aye,” Jamie agreed. “I’m sure he’d like that.”

Chapter Text

Jamie remembered belonging to a large family.

Sometimes the memories felt like they were from a dream, or a past life. Surely the cocksure, naïve boy with a doting mother, loving father, several siblings and countless cousins to bicker with couldn’t have ever been him. Surely he’d never walked his estate…the one that would have been his…with his head held high because everyone for miles knew he was Brian Dubh’s son.

But it had been him. He’d once been in that life, and it had been taken away, replaced by a life of solitude. Sure, he’d been given chances of family again, but it had gotten to the point where he was too afraid to take it. He didn’t think his soul could handle another loss of that magnitude. Perhaps it was just easier to be alone, since that way you had so much less to lose.

In all his memories, though, it would seem that one part of being in a family that he had forgotten was how much they could embarrass you.

He’d been excited to introduce Claire to his Cheyenne family. The kind people had accepted him with open arms; an orphan and widower with no one and nothing. And he knew they would love Claire, with her open-mindedness and eagerness to help.

And he’d been right; the tribe loved her. Nayawenne seemed ready to adopt her. But thank God Claire had none of the Cheyenne language.

His Wife, they kept calling her, referring to him. He kept trying to correct them, but they’d kept stubbornly on, with Ian cackling in glee. And the women had given her fertility charms of all things! It was humiliating.

Jamie shook his head and continued into town, seeking Claire. Nayawenne would need her bandage changed, and one of the children had developed a cough that Claire said she had a medicine for.

“Sassenach,” he called, seeing her escorting an elderly woman out of her clinic. The old woman scowled at him, tsk-ing at the sight of his leather breeches and long hair.

“I’m ready,” she said, heading back inside for her medicine kit. “And I have those provisions already loaded up in the wagon.”

“Black Kettle will appreciate it,” Jamie said. “Food is starting to become more scarce now tha’ they’re no permitted to migrate freely like they used to.”

“It’s a shame,” Claire said, shaking her head. “I mean, I’m grateful to live here, but it’s just so wrong that it’s come at the cost of them losing their land and homes.”

“Aye,” he agreed.

Claire opened her mouth to say something else, but her eyes flicked over his shoulder and her eyes widened in horror.

“BREE! Look out!”

Jamie spun around and was already running by the time he realized Brianna was standing in the middle of the road, reading something, and completely unaware that she was about to be crushed by an oncoming stagecoach.

He snatched her out of the way, both of them tumbling to the ground.

“Brianna,” he said, sorting through the mess of her disarrayed skirts to grab her by the arms and lift her up. “Are ye alright, lass?”

“I…I’m fine,” she said, blushing furiously.

“Bree!” Claire cried, running to their side. “Are you hurt?”

“No, Dr. B.,” Brianna said, a bit shakily. “I’m okay, really.”

“Dr. B.!” someone shouted from where the stagecoach had capsized in its attempt not to run over the girl. Claire glanced once more at Brianna, assuring she was alright, then darted off to aid the coach driver.

“What were ye thinkin’, lass?” he asked Brianna, who seemed shaken and shocked, but not harmed.

“I…I was reading,” she stammered, shoving the circular she holding into her pocket. “I’m sorry Colt…I mean, Mac.”

Jamie arched a brow. “Ye sure ye didn’a hit yer heid?”

Brianna smiled up at him. “No, I’m fine, really. Let’s go see if Dr. B. needs help.”

 

Jamie sat and waited while Claire examined the coach driver, then declared his arm broken, and in need of a cast. It was fascinating at first, watching her make and begin applying the plaster, but the entertainment wore off eventually, though he was sure not to show it.

But Claire smiled ruefully at him anyway. “Sorry, this is going to take a while. I think we’d better postpone until tomorrow. I hope Nayawenne won’t mind.”

“She’ll understand,” Jamie said, glancing at Brianna where she sat beside him…staring. Did he have something on his face?”

“I could go with him!” Brianna exclaimed suddenly. “I’d love to see the reservation. And it’s just a bandage, I could do that. Besides, they need the provisions, right?”

Claire turned and appraised her daughter, before looking to him to gauge for his opinion.

Jamie shrugged. He didn’t mind. Brianna was a braw lass, funny and smart. He sometimes liked to imagine that his own child would have been like her, when the thought didn’t sadden him too much.

“I suppose…” Claire said at last. “But you’ll be careful, and you’ll do as Mac says, understand?”

Brianna discreetly rolled her eyes, but agreed at once and excitedly pulled him out of the clinic by the arm.

Jamie glanced back at Claire before he left, making sure to tell her with his eyes, ye can trust me. I’ll protect her like my own child, and Claire nodded in understanding.

 

The trip to the reservation was filled with girlish chatter as Brianna regaled Jamie about her life, the friends she’d been making, how her cooking and sewing skills were ever improving, how she’d engineered a little door that allowed Adso to get in and out of the house without letting the chickens in.

Jamie wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to any of it. The only little girl he’d ever had much experience with had been his older sister, so he couldn’t very much rely on that.

Engaged?!” he exclaimed as she told him about a friend of hers. “How can she be engaged?! Are ye no twelve?”

“Thirteen,” she corrected, squaring her shoulders. “But Mary is older. She’s sixteen. That’s only three years older than me.”

“Aye…” he grimaced. He knew Mary, and couldn’t possibly imagine that wee lass being anyone’s wife.

“Wasn’t your wife sixteen when you married?”

Jamie blinked, and if he had been walking, he probably would have tripped. Christ, Geneva had been sixteen when they wed! It was only just after her sixteenth birthday the first time they…

Jamie felt vaguely ill. Of course he’d been much younger then too, but still a man grown, while she’d been naught but a child. It hardly mattered that she had seduced him.

He glanced down at Brianna, on the cusp of womanhood herself and verra bonny, and he felt irrationally angry at the thought of any randy buck looking at her the way all the men had looked at Geneva. The way men looked at Claire. He knew it was silly of him. He wasn’t Brianna’s father. Still…he was glad to know that she had a protective older brother keeping an eye on her.

Jamie was saved from having to answer Brianna’s question because they were arriving at the village.

They welcomed Brianna much the same way they welcomed Claire, only obviously without all the humiliating innuendo.

“This is Young Ian,” Jamie introduced his nephew. “Ian, this is Brianna, Claire’s daughter.”

Ian grinned and nodded in greeting, but there was a definite flush in his cheeks as he took her in.

Christ.

“Nice to meet you,” Ian said, forming his English carefully.

“And you,” Brianna said, smiling becomingly with an unpracticed flutter of her eyelashes.

Christ.

“Erm, let’s go see Nayawenne,” Jamie said, steering Brianna away from his nephew.

Once Brianna was sat examining Nayawenne’s wound while the older woman watched on with a patient and impressed smile, Jamie figured she was in good enough hands that he could go with Ian to see the horses Black Kettle’s son was giving his new wife.

“The child is Claire’s?” Ian said, nodded back toward Brianna.

“Aye,” Jamie said. “Claire couldn’a come, and Brianna has a bit o’ medical knowledge, now, learned from her mam.”

Ian smirked. “You’re like a father to her, now.”

Jamie scowled at his brother, feeling his cheeks heat up. “Och, away with ye! I needed tae get the provisions here and the lass wanted to come.”

Ian chuckled. “I saw how you were with her and my Ian. You looked at the nephew you love like a son as if he had suddenly become a snake.”

“No! It’s just…she’s no but a wee lass, and I ken fine well the way Ian is wi’ girls.”

“I took no offense,” Ian said, eyes still sparkling with mirth. “We protect our children…aye?”

Jamie shot him a final glare before stomping back to where Brianna was finishing up bandaging Nayawenne’s hand, the latter giggling like as much of a young girl as Brianna.

“How’s it goin’ here?”

“Great!” Brianna said, eyes lighting up at the sight of him. “Nayawenne was just telling me about Cheyenne customs.”

Jamie smiled fondly. “Aye, she’ll make ye one of them soon enough. But for now, I’d best get ye back tae yer mam.”

Brianna hugged Nayawenne goodbye, and waved shyly at Young Ian, whose moony eyes followed her until they reached Donas.

They left the cart so it could be unloaded, and doubled up on Donas for the ride home. Brianna clung tightly to his back, her face pressed between his shoulder blades. He didn’t remember her ever being nervous on horses before, but then she normally rode in carts, so perhaps she was.

Near the town, one of her hands lifted from his waist to wave at a small group of girls her age, who stared at them as they rode by.

“Would ye like me to let ye off wi’ your friends?” he asked her.

“No,” she said, sounding a little sleepy. “I’d rather stay with you.”

Jamie smiled, warmth blooming in his chest, and he thought about what Ian had said before…but no, he was naught but a friend to Brianna and her brothers. For to be more to them, would to be more to…

He shook his head. That wasn’t going to happen.

 

Brianna was in love.

She’d never really given much thought to boys before, other than her brothers, and for a while after her talk with Dr. B, she swore to herself she’d never like a boy if it led to…to that.

And, well, she still wasn’t so sure about…well…all that, but she was absolutely positive of one thing. She’d fallen hopelessly, desperately in love!

It all started when her friends showed her the periodical story they read together in the weekly paper from Denver. It was the achingly romantic tale of Carolina and Colt, two star-crossed lovers who were destined to be together. Carolina was a young, smart, sultry woman who all the men desired. Colt was a tall, strong, handsome Scottish man with rippling muscles who saved Carolina’s life every week.

All it had done was taught her how to tell if a man was in love with you, and how to tell if you’re in love with him.

Colt saved Carolina. He protected her, was gentle with her, spoke in a low, rumbling brogue to her. And Carolina described her love for Colt as being a fluttering in her chest whenever she looked into his eyes.

Well, Brianna had felt that. And she was sure she’d found the man she was going to spend her life with.

Jamie.

Jamie was his real name, his secret name, that only she knew about. Well…her and Dr. B., who’d told it to her, but she’d also told her not to tell anyone else. So whenever anyone else could hear her, he was Mac, but deep in her heart, he was her Jamie.

He’d saved her from that runaway cart. They’d gone off alone, just the two of them. He’d introduced her to his family. And then they rode together on his horse, her arms wrapped tightly around him.

True, he was much older, but Bree didn’t think that mattered too much. Older men married younger women every day. It had been Margaret who told her that Jamie’s wife had been a scant three years older than Bree was now when they married. And Bree was, in fact, a woman now, so it was okay.

The only problem Brianna could foresee…was Dr. B.

If it were the age thing alone, Brianna thought Dr. B. would come around to it eventually. She couldn’t stand in the way of true love. No, the problem was whether or not Dr. B. had feelings for Jamie herself.

They’d been friends for over a year now, and spent loads of time together. Even time alone, like when they went out to find who was putting mercury in Willow Creek. It was that which told Brianna that if Jamie was in love with Dr. B., he certainly would have proposed by now.

No man and woman would spend that much time together without getting married, unless they just didn’t feel that way toward each other. The way Brianna felt toward Jamie.

Maybe Jamie did have feelings for Dr. B. at one point, but when it became clear they weren’t going to get married, he decided he needed to find someone else. Then, BOOM! There was Brianna, newly a woman!

But Brianna had to make sure. She wouldn’t do anything to hurt Dr. B., even if it meant denying her own heart. She loved Dr. B. too much for that.

She decided the best means of finding out how Dr. B. felt about Jamie would be just to ask her. Point blank.

She found the perfect opportunity one afternoon while she was helping Dr. B. disinfect her medical instruments, and they were alone in the clinic.

“Dr. B…” Brianna began slowly, trying to carefully choose her words.

“Yes?” Dr. B. prompted, focusing on wiping down her forceps.

“Are…you in love with Mac?”

Dr. B. jumped, dropping her forceps into the bowl of alcohol, paying no heed to the splash and staring up at Brianna with wide eyes. “I…I’m sorry, what?”

Brianna shrugged. “It’s just…you’ve never said, is all. And he’s been your friend a long time.”

Dr. B.’s mouth opened and shut a few times, then she collected herself, and responded calmly. “I do love Mac.”

Brianna’s heart sank. Oh, what would she do? What would she say to Jamie?

“As a friend,” Dr. B. continued, firmly.

Just like that, hope bloomed again in Brianna’s chest. “That’s all? You’re sure?”

“…Yes,” Dr. B. said, her face reddening, but Brianna chalked it up to being the conversation in general. “Mac has been a very good friend to me, to all of us, and I consider him family. But that’s all we’ll ever be.”

“Really?” Brianna pushed, trying not to let her excitement show. It wouldn’t do to reveal the truth to Dr. B. before revealing it to Jamie himself. But this was wonderful! If Dr. B. considered Jamie family, she’d be all too pleased to welcome him into the family for real!

“Yes, really,” Dr. B. said, huffing. “Why?”

“Oh…nothing,” Brianna hedged. “Just…wondering, is all.”

Dr. B. arched a brow at her, but said nothing more. And Brianna began to dream. She couldn’t wait to declare her love to Jamie, but she couldn’t just come right out and say it. He may not have even admitted to himself his feelings for her. She needed to make sure he was sure of them, before she could say the words and they could begin their life together.

And she knew just what to do. She’d read all about it in the story of Carolina and Colt.

 

In Rocky Mountain Hero, Carolina was kidnapped and trapped in a cave, where all she could do was write a letter to Colt, begging him to save her. Of course he did, and it was then that he declared his love for her.

Brianna couldn’t very well get kidnapped, but she knew what she could do to give Jamie a reason to save her.

But first, she needed to give someone a letter to give to Jamie. Couldn’t be the boys, they’d no doubt read it. It couldn’t be Dr. B., because she was too close to the situation.

No, it had to be someone impartial. That was something she heard Dr. B. say before.

She walked through town, thumping her sealed letter against her thigh. Denny was the obvious first choice, being the one who handles the mail, but he stayed so busy in the telegraph office, he might not have the time to leave and find Jamie. Mr. Fitzgibbons was out; he hated Jamie. Tom Christie for the same reason.

She avoided Dougal whenever possible, so not him, and she didn’t trust any of the children in town not to lose the letter. So who?

Brianna caught sight of the Reverend tipping his hat to an elderly woman as he left the Mercantile. Perfect! The Reverend was trustworthy, knew Jamie, didn’t hate him, and had the freedom of movement so that he could get the job done.

“Reverend Wakefield! Reverend Wakefield!” she called, running over to him.

“Well, if it isn’t Miss Bree,” Reverend Wakefield said, smiling down at her. “How are you today?”

“Just fine,” Brianna said, out of breath. “I was wondering if I could ask a really important favor of you.”

Reverend Wakefield turned so he fully faced her, giving her all his attention. She’d always like that about him; he always paid attention to her like anyone else, and never dismissed her just because she was young. “Of course, anything I can do. Is everything alright?”

“Everything’s fine!” she exclaimed, vividly imagining how he might someday be performing a wedding ceremony for her and Jamie. “I was just wondering if you could hold on to this letter for me, and give it to Ja…I mean, Mac, when you see him.”

Reverend Wakefield took the proffered letter, looking at it puzzledly. “I…sure…I suppose I could do that. But wouldn’t you be more likely to see Mac before I do?”

“Oh…no…I have to, I have to do something, and I won’t be back till later. Do you think you could give it to him for me? Please?”

Reverend Wakefield arched a brow, then smiled a bit indulgently. “Alright, I promise I’ll deliver your letter safely into Mr. McTavish’s hands.”

“Thank you, Reverend!” Bree cried before darting away.

She ran back home for a shawl, as the temperature had been dropping a little. But she didn’t think she would need anything in the way of provisions. Once Reverend Wakefield gave Jamie the letter, he would be tearing the mountain apart searching for her. He’d no doubt find her before dark.

Grabbing the latest weekly to help pass the time, Brianna headed out of the house and toward the mountain, where she knew of an abandoned mineshaft she used to love to explore as a child. It wasn’t very far away; she didn’t want to make it too hard for Jamie to find her, but it was hidden enough so that he would think she was in danger. She started up the hill, only to be delayed by a certain someone following her.

“Go home, Fergus,” she said impatiently.

“Where are you going?” Fergus asked.

Nowhere.”

Fergus laughed. “You have to be going somewhere.”

Brianna growled in frustration. “I’m just going up to the creek for a little while. Tell Dr. B. I’ll be home for supper, alright?”

Fergus nodded, but when she turned to go, he still followed. “Go home Fergus!”

Rolling his eyes and waving her off, Fergus turned and went back home, and Brianna took the first steps toward her destiny.

Chapter Text

I paced the kitchen for the hundredth time, my gaze flickering from the front door to the darkened window.

Where did you say she was going?” I asked Fergus, also probably for the hundredth time.

“She didn’t say,” Fergus said yet again. “She just said she was going up to the creek and not to follow her, and that she’d be home for supper.”

“And that was, what, two o’clock?” I pulled anxiously at my unbound hair, worry gnawing at my insides.

“That does it,” William said, slapping a hand on the table before standing. “I’m gonna go look for her.”

Just then, there was a knock on the door, and I rushed to it, not bothering to think how Brianna wouldn’t be knocking on her own door.

“Bree?!” I exclaimed, wrenching open the door, only to find a completely different redhead instead. “Jamie!” I cried, half in disappointment that it wasn’t Bree, and half in relief that here was there.

“A storm’s comin,” Jamie said, and I hadn’t realized how cold it had gotten until I opened the door and felt the wind coming through, and seeing the way Jamie was all bundled up. “I came tae check on ye, gonna drop in temperature, and fast.”

“Brianna’s not home!” I blurted helplessly.

“WHAT?” he exclaimed. “Where is she?!”

“We don’t know! Fergus said she was going to the creek this afternoon, but she hasn’t come back!”

Jamie sighed, frustration and concern mingling on his face. “Alright, I’ll go find her.”

“I’m coming too,” I declared, reaching for my coat. When Jamie gave me his signature look that said he was about to argue, I cut him off before he could. “I’m coming. Two people searching are better than one.”

Seeing I wasn’t to be dissuaded, he nodded and waited while I donned my coat, a scarf, and kissed the boys goodbye.

 

Fall had come, and come fast. In a matter of hours the temperature had plummeted to the freezing point. The sudden change was dangerous even for someone like Jamie, who had buckskin clothes, heavy blankets, the ability to keep fires going even in strong wind, and when all else failed, 8 stones of wolf to curl up beside.

According to Fergus, Brianna had nothing but a thin shawl along with the clothes on her back. Jamie assured the panic-stricken Claire that Brianna was near-grown, canny, and had lived her whole life in these hills. She could take care of herself.

But his own wame was churning with worry.

They searched through the night. Rollo was unable to pick up a scent due to the wind, and the clouds blocked what little light was afforded by the half-moon. They were literally feeling their way like blind men, hoping only that the lass could hear their calls, and answer.

“BRIA…” Claire’s call was cut off midway, and Jamie managed to turn around just in time to keep her from tripping.

With his arms about her, he could feel her shivering, and he bit back the insistence that she return home. He knew fine well she wouldn’t, stubborn wee thing that she was.

As the sun rose, the wind died down, but the icy chill in the air remained. Dripping icicles hanged from the tree branches.

“Listen,” Jamie said, taking Claire by the shoulders and using his fingertip to turn her pale face toward his. “Ye need to go home…” he moved his finger to press it against her lips to stall the protestations about to come flying out. “…tae check and see if she made it back, ken? And if she didn’t, ye’ll grab some bread tae eat, and ye and the lads can all come back out.”

For a moment she still looked like she was going to argue, but then her shoulders slumped and she nodded reluctantly. “Fine,” she sighed. “Please don’t stop looking?”

“Never,” Jamie promised, squeezing her shoulders before releasing her with a pat.

He continued up the path, not expecting Brianna to have strayed far from it. He gave Rollo another whiff of the blouse Claire had provided, and this time Rollo’s ears perked up and he took off like a shot.

“Dr. B!” Jamie yelled, trying to catch her before she got too far away.

He ran after Rollo, following him to one of the old abandoned mine shafts that dotted the mountainside. This one was collapsed, and Rollo was whining as he rooted around between the boards.

“CLAIRE!” Jamie called again, lifting and tossing planks of wood as fast as he could.

Thankfully, it was only the entrance to the mind that was collapsed, and as Jamie stuck his head inside and squinted to see in the dark, he could just make out the curled up form of Brianna.

“Brianna!” he said, crawling inside and touching her shoulder. She flinched at his touch, but didn’t open her eyes. He wrapped his plaid around her and got her into his arms as best he could in the confined space, then carried her out of the mine just in time to meet her mother.

“Bree!” Claire cried, fingers immediately finding her neck to feel for a pulse. “Christ, she’s ice cold!” she pulled one of Brianna’s hands out of the folds of the plaid, and both she and Jamie gasped at the sight of the child’s discolored fingers.

“We have to get her to town,” Claire said. “And fast.”

 

We bypassed the homestead completely, rushing her straight to my clinic. Bree barely even shivered in Jamie’s arms as we raced to town, which terrified me. Her fingers were frostbitten, but not, I thought, to the point of no return, not if I moved fast. I hadn’t even checked her feet yet, but I prayed she hadn’t gotten them wet, and that they were no worse than her hands.

During the whole headlong run through the woods, I just kept thinking; what was she doing out there? What possessed her to run off and hide like that? I tried to remind myself that despite Jamie’s instances that she was near grown, Brianna was still a little girl, and perhaps this had just been a game that had gone very wrong.

People couldn’t help but notice Jamie hauling the barely conscious girl into town, and they flocked over to see.

“Brianna!” Jenny exclaimed. “Oh God, what happened?!”

“Jenny, I need some warm water,” I ordered. “Not hot, just warm.”

Jenny darted off to do as asked just as Roger appeared to help Jamie maneuver Brianna’s limp body through the narrow doorway to the clinic. “She’s ice cold!” he exclaimed unnecessarily. “How did this happen?!”

“She got trapped in an old mine up in the hills overnight,” Jamie explained.

Roger tsk-ed in dismay. “I knew we should have had those unused mine shafts sealed off.”

“Let me through!” Tom Christie shouted, elbowing his way through the crowd and into the clinic. “I know what to do for this!”

I was busy removing Brianna’s shoes, shoulders slumping in relief to see that her toes were beet-red with cold, but not frostbitten. “Tom,” I said distractedly, not having much patience for him at the moment.

“We’ve got the water!” Jenny exclaimed, leading Joe into the clinic with a large pot of steaming water.

“Perfect,” I said. “Pour some into a bowl, and make sure it cools down to the point where it feels like the same temperature of your body.”

Jenny and Joe nodded quickly and went to work pouring and carefully testing with their wrists and elbows.

“We need to warm her up gradually,” I told the room at large.

“No, no, you have to warm her up fast!” Tom snapped.

“How’s this Lady Jane?” Joe asked, handing me the bowl which I tested once with the back of my hand.

“Perfect,” I told him. “Pour another for her feet, please. Actually,” I continued to Tom, who was still blustering protestations. “We’ve learned that’s it best to get the body’s temperature up to normal slowly, so as not to shock…”

We?!”

“We doctors.”

“Hey!” Tom shouted. “I’ve dealt with more cases of frostbite than you…”

“Roger?” I asked, cutting my eyes over to the worried-looking Reverend twiddling his thumbs by the door. “Could you please?”

“Come on, Tom,” Roger said firmly, grabbing Tom by the arm. “Let’s get out of their way, shall we?”

While Roger dragged a belligerent Tom out of the clinic, I moved to dip Bree’s hands into the water, cooing soothingly at her as she whimpered.

“I need you to put your hands in here, Chick Pea,” I whispered.

“No…” she cried pitifully, weakly trying to pull her hands away when the tepid water no doubt felt like needles to her frozen skin.

“Just for a little bit, love, please?”

We worked slowly for an hour, dipping her hands and feet into the warm water, having to change it often when her limbs acted like ice and cooled it down.

When she started shivering in earnest, I explained to everyone why that was a good thing when they looked at me sideways for sighing in relief. “It means her body is working to warm itself up,” I said. “The alternative is not shivering…and shutting down.”

Three sets of wide eyes went back to their work, and eventually we were able to move Bree upstairs to a room, where we could bundle her in blankets.

She gradually woke up and became more aware, which was more of a curse than a blessing because it meant she was more aware of the stabbing pain in her hands.

Jamie and I sat on either side of her, dipping into the water with our own hands to drip it over her fingers.

“Mama…” she cried.

“Shh,” I hushed, not responding because I wasn’t sure she wasn’t crying out for her real mother. “It’s okay.”

But her eyes opened and fixed on me. “Mama…it hurts.”

I blinked back the tears in my eyes. “Oh my love, I know it does. But you’re going to be alright, I promise.”

She continued to cry until her eyes suddenly cut over to where Jamie sat, and her tears increased. “Mama, make Jamie leave…”

Jamie and I looked up at one another. He looked surprised…perhaps at her usage of his real name, and slightly hurt. But I gave him a smile that I hoped was reassuring and he got up and left without another word.

 

Claire said that Bree was healing fast…all except for her fingers, which remained discolored and immobile. Jamie could tell she was worried, and conflicted, bordering on a decision she truly didn’t want to have to make.

As she got better, Brianna began to get a little restless, so everyone would stop by to visit and try to entertain her a little.

Jamie had been hesitant to go back into her room, unwilling to make her uncomfortable after she’d asked her mother to make him leave, but when he poked his head around the corner she lit up and beckoned him in.

When Jamie saw that her brothers were beginning to wear on her nerves, and the adults – while he was sure the extra attention was fun for the her – could only be so entertaining to a lass her age, Jamie though mayhap her friends ought to visit.

First he sent William out to fetch those wee lasses he’d seen waving at Brianna while they were riding together, but he had returned looking irate, saying the girls had acted skittish about seeing Brianna in a sick bed, and he’d decided ultimately maybe it was better if they didn’t come.

After a while of thought, Jamie had an idea. It was a risky one, but he knew his nephew would be up for it, and it might be just the thing to cheer the lass up.

William didn’t even ask why Jamie needed to borrow an outfit from him, and when Jamie left and returned that afternoon, it was in the company of a strutting young lad with his hair piled up into a hat.

Young Ian shared his father’s skin tone, which was lighter than most Indians. Wearing white man clothes, he could almost pass for a tanned white lad. …Almost. The tattoos on his face were a dead giveaway, but Jamie ordered his nephew to keep his damned head down.

Claire looked up from some medicine she was preparing in the main room of the clinic when Jamie and Ian walked in, and her eyes widened in surprise.

Hestse’emo!” Ian exclaimed, barely flinching from the punch Jamie gave his shoulder.

“Someone really needs to tell me what that means,” Claire said wryly, giving Jamie a look.

Jamie cleared his throat in discomfort. “It’s just a term o’ respect, Sassenach,” Ian nodded in solemn agreement. “I brought the lad to visit Brianna, is it alright?”

Claire smiled. “I think she’d like that. Go on ahead, Ian.”

 

Brianna stared in disgust at her gray, lifeless fingers. They looked like the belonged on a dead person.

She looked up when someone appeared at her door, and for a split second, the sight of a stranger wearing her brother’s clothes confused her, until she recognized the broad, friendly grin of Ian, from the reservation.

“Hello, Ma’ovéséhe!” he greeted.

“Hi, Ian,” Brianna said, resisting the urge to wave. “What does that mean?”

“Red-haired girl,” Ian explained, plopping himself down on the corner of her bed.

Brianna giggled. “Well, yes. Is that the only thing you can think to call me?”

Ian shrugged. “You can’t have your real Cheyenne name until I know you better, and see who you are.”

Brianna scowled. “Even I don’t know that. How are you supposed to know?”

“My father says you often cannot see your own self. That’s what friends are for!”

“What are you doing here?” Brianna asked, hoping it didn’t sound rude.

“Uncle brought me,” he said. “He asked if I would like to visit you, and I did!”

“’Fraid I can’t visit very good,” Brianna pouted, raising her hands so he could see.

Ian tsk-ed, gingerly taking her by the wrist and raising her hand up to the light. “Not so bad. I’ve seen worse. Seen better, though.”

Brianna laughed again, oddly cheered by his blunt honesty. “Gee, thanks.”

 

Jamie and I smiled at each other, hearing the childish giggles coming from Brianna and Ian, and I touched his arms as I passed in thanks.

It was vital that Brianna stayed positive, meanwhile I was sick with dread.

Jamie must have noticed my change in demeanor. “Her fingers aren’a gettin’ better, are they?”

I shook my head. “And Gangrene is going to set in soon if I don’t…if I don’t…”

Jamie grimaced in horror and turned away. “Oh, Sassenach…how long?”

I sighed, rubbing the back of my neck. “If I don’t see any improvement by tomorrow, I’ll have no choice, Jamie. If I wait any longer than that, she stands the risk of losing her whole hands, or her arms.”

“Aye,” he murmured. “Puir lass.”

Another round of giggles made me smile again, if a bit sadly. “I’m glad you brought him.”

“He took a shine tae her,” Jamie said, a hint of warning in his voice.

I hummed. I wasn’t particularly worried about potential romances at Brianna’s age. She was at the age where she was bound to start noticing boys, which was normal, but I suspected Jamie’s warning was the due to the fact I might object to a play-courtship between Bree and his nephew.

“Ian seems like a good lad,” I told him as way of answer, and Jamie grinned.

A knock at the door proceeded Roger, who shuffled in looking pinched and worried.

“Are you okay, Roger?” I asked him. “Are you sick?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “No, I’m fine. I just…God, I feel horrible.”

“Ye must feel horrible, if yer takin’ the Lord’s name in vain,” Jamie teased, earning an unamused look from the Reverend.

Roger held out a letter, sealed with wax from my clinic, though I didn’t recognize it, and the seal was broken. “Brianna gave this to me, that afternoon before she went to the mine. She asked me to deliver it to Mac…I thought it was part of some kind of game. But in all the worry that followed, I forgot all about it. I found it again this morning, forgetting what it was, and opened it…” he put it into my hands, instead of Jamie’s. “Well, I read the first part, anyway, and stopped. I think it explains why Brianna went up there.”

I held the letter up, shooting a confused look to Jamie, who looked just as clueless as I.

“I’m so sorry,” Roger continued. “If I’d gotten it to you right away, you might have found her sooner.”

I shook my head. “It’s alright, Roger. You didn’t even know she was missing. I’m sure it was just a game.”

Roger looked pointedly at the letter. “Maybe not…at least, not to her. You should read it.”

With that he tipped his hat and left.

“Is it okay?” I asked Jamie. “She wrote it to you.”

Jamie nodded toward the letter. “Yer her mam, Sassenach.”

I opened up the letter, and read aloud.

My Dearest Jamie,

If you’re reading this, I am in grave danger, and am in dire need of your assistance. I know that once you receive this letter, you will fly at once to my aid! I am in the old mineshaft by Willow Creek. Please, save me, Jamie! You’re my only hope!

My eternal love,

Brianna.”

I looked up at Jamie, whose eyebrows had disappeared into his hairline.

“Oh…” I began.

“Oh…” Jamie agreed.

I groaned. “She did all this for your attention, Jamie. She’s sweet on you.”

Jamie shook his head. “She canna…no, it must just be a silly game! She wouldn’a be sweet on me. I’m no’ but an auld man to her!”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I can see where she would be. You’re kind, brave…handsome…”

He quirked a brow at that, and I hurried to carry on. “Any young girl with an imagination like hers might see your gallantry and attention toward her and misconstrue it as romantic interest. And she has been reading that silly romance in the weekly.

“Ah,” Jamie nodded. “Now it makes sense. She called me Colt once. He’s th’ “hero” o’ the tale.”

I nodded as well, until I suddenly stopped and stared at him. “Wait, are you saying that you read…”

“What are we gonna do about the lass?” Jamie broke in.

I looked at him askance but let the subject go in favor of worrying about my daughter. “I don’t know. These kinds of things can seem like life or death to girls her age. I don’t want to add heartbreak on top of what she’s already going through, so maybe for now, it would be best if I handle her treatments myself?”

“Aye,” he said. “That would be best. What of you, Sassenach? Ye sound like ye speak from experience. Were ye sweet on an older man, too, at her age?”

I chuckled. “Not really. I didn’t pay much attention at all to boys, or men. However…

I trailed off, but Jamie sat himself at my desk and leaned forward with his chin resting on a fist, the very picture of the intent listener.

Shaking my head at his antics, I continued. “There was a friend of my uncle’s. He was always kind to me, didn’t mind me prattling on to him about this or that. I just thought he hung the moon. There was a time I fantasized about marrying him, no mind that I was an exceptionally awkward fourteen-year-old, and he was fifty-four.”

“Fifty-four!” Jamie exclaimed, guffawing. “Christ, Sassenach! I see ye have a pattern…”

I scowled at him. “What do you mean, a pattern?”

“Older men,” he said, eyes twinkling. “Yer dashing senior citizen, and ye said Frank was a bit older as well.”

I bristled slightly at the mention of Frank, but realized the reminder didn’t come with the usual pang of remorse. Instead, I was only a little impressed that Jamie had remembered his name. “So? I suppose I’m drawn to older men, what of it?”

He shrugged. “Nothing. I think I’m like ye, anyway.”

“Drawn to older men?” I teased, smirking.

Women,” he corrected with exaggerated pointedness.

I wanted to say that it made sense, after his experience with the younger Geneva, but decided against it. “Well you’re, what, twenty?” I guessed, knowing full-well he wasn’t. “Everyone is older than you.”

“Twenty-six,” he sniffed. “And a half! And how auld are you Sassenach? Canna be older than twenty-two, at the most.”

I stuck my nose up in the air. “A lady doesn’t tell.”

Jamie smirked again, leaning forward. “I thought ye were a doctor, no’ a lady?”

I narrowed my eyes at him, wondering when and how he’d heard about that, but just then, Ian was coming back downstairs, and I had to let Jamie have the last word.

“She was getting tired,” Ian explained. “I thought she should rest.”

“Thank you, Ian,” I said sincerely. “And thank you for visiting her. I know she enjoyed it.”

To my surprise and bafflement, Ian actually took a leg and bowed to me, before grinning impishly and skipping out.

I raised my brows at Jamie, but he only rolled his eyes and sighed. “Better go catch him and take him home. Who knows what mayhem the lad’ll cause in town unsupervised.”

As if on cue we heard, in order, a crash, the clamor of chickens, an indignant shout, and a lady’s squeal, so Jamie ran out without another word.

 

I barely left Brianna’s side the rest of the day, methodically giving her the warm water treatments, and trying to massage life back into her fingers. I kept thinking the color was improving, but I couldn’t be sure if it really was, or it was just hopeful thinking.

Later that evening I looked up to see Jamie peering into the room, having returned from taking Ian home, and my heart broke a little for him. His concern over Brianna was touching, and sometimes when he looked at her, or Fergus, there was something in his eyes that made me think he was also looking at the child he never had.

Jamie was, simply, made to be a father. I’d seen and heard of forlorn women who had lost their children, or maybe couldn’t have them, and were referred to as being a mother without a child. People rarely spoke of men who’d lost their children, but I knew the pain had to be just as acute.

“It isn’t working, is it?” Brianna said, voice strained, and I was brought firmly back to the situation at hand.

“It’s working,” I said stubbornly, rubbing the digits a little harder.

“It’s not!” she cried. “You’re gonna have to…”

“Don’t think like that!” I exclaimed. “You’re going to be fine!”

Her eyes flicked up to a point over my shoulder, and her face crumbled. “Jamie?”

I flinched, turning to look at Jamie as he stood sheepishly in the doorway.

“Jamie,” Bree said again. “You could love a girl who didn’t have…who wasn’t perfect…couldn’t you?”

Jamie’s mouth opened and shut a few times, and looked at me, wide eyes pleading for help. There was no possible way he would let her down right now, and with just hours left now before I had no choice but to amputate, I just couldn’t let heartbreak be added to her pain. So I nodded at him, then toward Bree and he entered the room, gingerly sitting on the side of the bed, keeping a respectable distance from her.

“I…of course I could, a leannain.”

Brianna crumbled into his arms, and though he tensed in discomfort for a moment, he finally relaxed and raised one hand to cradle the back of her head, like a baby.

 

Brianna awoke from a deep sleep, one filled with a confusing dream. In her dream, she was older, and getting married. She was wearing a beautiful, long white gown, with a bouquet of wildflowers in her hands. William and Fergus were there, as were everyone in town.

The best part of the dream had been Dr. B and her mother, both there, hands joined and smiling proudly at her with tears in their eyes.

Brianna had called for her Mama, and her mother had grinned and patted Dr. B on the shoulder, ushering her forward. Dr. B came to her side, adjusting her veil, and her mother remained behind. That made Brianna a little sad, but she understood. Her mother would be there, watching, but for now when Brianna needed her Mama, it would be Dr. B. there caring for her.

When the time came to walk down the aisle to her groom, her heart fluttered excitedly, straining her eyes to see down the impossibly long aisle, looking for Jamie’s characteristic red hair.

To her confusion, the only man standing at the alter wasn’t Jamie, but a man with a shock of black hair. She couldn’t see his face, or make out who he might be, yet he seemed familiar somehow.

Someone took her arm to walk her down the aisle, and her dream mind supplied the knowledge that it was her father. She looked up in surprise, but the man she only vaguely remembered as Papa was nowhere to be seen. Instead, at her side, was Jamie.

“Ye ready, a leannain?”

Her dream self spoke without thinking, and the words that came out of her mouth were, “Ready, Da.”

That was when Brianna woke up, staring perplexedly at the ceiling.

She sat up, rubbing her face tiredly, her fingers prickling uncomfortably. Then suddenly she froze, staring at her prickling fingers, then wiggled them.

 

“MAMA! MAMA!”

I nearly jumped out of my skin, apparently having dozed off at my desk where I’d spent the night studying the anatomy of the hand and fretting. I all but fell out of my chair to rush to Brianna’s room, only to see her come careening down the stairs.

“Mama, look!” she exclaimed, jutting her hands out toward me. “Look!”

I grabbed her waving hands to hold them still, and my breath caught in my throat at the healthy pink color of them.

“I can move ‘em! Watch!” she said, wiggling her fingers, if a bit laboriously. “Is it okay?! Are they okay?!”

I laughed, tears springing to my eyes, and I pulled her into my arms. “You’re going to be just fine, darling.”

“I love you, Mama,” she sighed, and more tears came rolling down my face, for a slightly different reason.

“I love you, too.”

 

Jamie was overjoyed to hear about Brianna’s hands. But then he was nervous, because that meant a highly uncomfortable conversation was bound to have to happen.

Suddenly all the mooning looks, and hesitant flirtation the past few days had made sense to him, but he just hadn’t been able to see it because when he looked at Brianna, all he saw was a wee lass with pigtails he just wanted to protect.

She ran to him, excitedly showing off her fully-functional hands, and Claire looked like she was holding her breath. But then…

“Can we go see Ian?!” she exclaimed. “I wanna show him! He promised that once my hands were better, he’d show me how the Cheyenne set traps!”

Jamie looked up at Claire in surprise. “Weel, it’s alright w’ me, if it is w’ yer mam.”

“Can we, Mama?” Bree asked, spinning to face her mother. “You come too! I bet Nayawenne’s missed you.”

“Alright,” Claire agreed. “Let’s all go. So long as you take it easy.”

Brianna groaned but didn’t argue, and since Claire wasn’t inclined to say it, Jamie felt he needed to. “We’ll be goin’ w’ you and Ian settin’ traps,” he said, glancing at Claire to gouge her reaction, hoping he wasn’t overstepping himself. “I dinna think it proper for a lad and lass of yer age to go about alone.”

Brianna scowled at him and stamped one foot. “That’s not fair! You and Mama go off alone all the time!”

Jamie couldn’t help but be impressed by her fieriness. “Aye…well, yer mam and I are grown.”

Brianna growled. “You can’t tell me what to do! Mama…”

“He most certainly can, and you’ll listen to him,” Claire interrupted, quirking a brow in a way Jamie had fast learned brooked no argument. “Besides, it’s his nephew as well.”

“Fine!” Brianna exclaimed, stomping away out toward the cart, making a passing Jenny chuckle and give Claire and Jamie a knowing look.

Claire looked up at him, barely concealed amusement dancing her in whiskey-colored eyes. “I think her little infatuation seems to have taken care of itself.”

“I think yer right,” Jamie said, chuckling and holding out an arm cordially. “Shall we, Dr. Beauchamp?”

Claire raised her chin in that way of hers and took his arm. “Let’s. We have a pair of teenagers to chaperone.”

Chapter Text

It had been a hell of year and a half.

William felt like he’d grown ten years in that amount of time. One minute, all he’d cared about was trying to grow a beard, and catching the eye of Emily Smith. The next he was an orphan with two younger siblings to look out for, a new home, and a newcomer to town who was suddenly their guardian.

In the beginning, he wanted to hate her. He was perfectly capable of taking care of his family by himself. He was a man, damn it. But then he saw the way she tried, when it was clear she wasn’t a naturally maternal woman.

The way she galvanized into action when Fergus was sick, or when Fergus or Bree were missing. The way she cuddled them close just like their mother once did. William was far too old to still need a mother, but his siblings weren’t, and it wasn’t long before William was damned grateful that Dr. B. was there. For all that she wasn’t a very good cook.

But he was still the man of the house, which meant that whether she believed it or not, Dr. B. was his responsibility as well.

And through an offhand comment made to Brianna two weeks ago, William knew that Dr. B.’s thirtieth birthday was coming up, and he wasn’t about to let it go without a proper gift and celebration.

“Alright, so, what are your ideas?” William asked his brother and sister as they met in the barn while Dr. B was with Mac at the reservation.

“Doctorin’ tools!” Fergus exclaimed. “Mama always loves a good scalpel, or bone saw!”

William tilted his head from side to side. “True, but she has all those things. She’s turning thirty, I think it should be something really special.”

“I think we should have a party,” Brianna said. “A big one! Invite everyone in town!”

“Yeah!” Fergus agreed. “Miss Gail can make the food!”

“We should tell Aunt Jenny, she can help plan it.”

“That’s all well and good,” William said, pacing through the hay. “But we should still get her a gift. New…dress?”

Brianna rolled her eyes. “It would be me doing all the work making it, and besides, Mama has more dresses than she knows what to do with. She don’t even wear the ones she’s got.”

“Well, you’re the girl!” William exclaimed. “You think of something!”

“Maybe we should ask her,” she said. “I know when it’s my birthday, I like to get what I asked for.”

“Well,” Fergus began, sighing. “When we were doing that writing assignment at school about what we’d wish for if we found a magic genie, I asked her what she’d wish for and she said she didn’t want for anything.”

“Sounds like her,” William said. “We have to think of something. Dr. B.’s done a lot for us, she deserves something great.”

“Well…” Brianna began uncertainly.

“Well? Spit it out, Bree!”

“It’s just…I had a talk with Mama recently about…well, it doesn’t matter what it was about, but I asked her if there was a man she liked and she said no.”

William exchanged a look with Fergus. “And…?”

“It’s just that, she kinda had a look about her that made me think maybe she wanted to fancy a man. Sometimes I think she’s a little lonely.”

“Lonely?!” Fergus scoffed. “How can she be lonely! She’s got us!”

“That ain’t the same as having a husband,” William reasoned. “Thirty…that’s kinda old to have never been married, isn’t it?”

Brianna and Fergus nodded in agreement. “I think it’s hard for her,” Brianna said. “Remember what she said about her old fiancé? How he was the only one who accepted her for how she is? I think it’s not easy for her to talk to men, ‘cause she’s afraid they won’t like how she’s a doctor, and probably smarter than they are.”

“That’s silly,” Fergus said, his nose wrinkling. “I’d like a wife who’s smarter than me! She can do all my thinking for me!”

William chuckled. “According to some of the men in town, wives do that either way!”

“So…we’re gonna find Mama a husband?” Brianna said.

“Are we sure we wanna do that?” Fergus asked. “A husband for Mama is a Pa for us…isn’t it?”

“Well, we obviously wouldn’t pick someone who wouldn’t make a good Pa,” William said sternly. “Dr. B. deserves the best.”

“And besides,” Brianna added. “If her husband can’t handle being a Pa to us, how could he be a good Pa to any future babies?”

“Isn’t Mama too old for babies?”

William glared at his brother. “Of course not! But…she probably better get on it soon.”

“Yeah!” Fergus cheered. “I want a little brother!”

Or sister!” Brianna insisted.

“SO…” William clapped his hands, getting everyone’s attention. “We’re in agreement? We’re gonna find a husband for Dr. B. for her birthday?”

Brianna and Fergus both nodded excitedly.

“But…” Fergus scrunched his face up. “Who?”

 

Fergus was excited about the prospect of a great big party for Mama. He thought that if there was anyone who deserved a great big party, it was her. But the part he wasn’t so certain of, was finding her a husband.

He thought they were doing just fine, the four of them. But then again, he had enough memories of life in the brothel in Paris to know that there were some things women liked from men that they couldn’t get from their kids.

Like…kissing, and snuggling.

And, well, that one thing that always happened behind closed doors.

He was never completely clear on what that was, but it apparently was fun, and if you weren’t careful, you’d wind up with a squeaker. That’s what some of the ladies called babies.

Brianna was busy talking with Aunt Jenny, Miss Gail, and Miss Louise about Mama’s party, and William was talking with Mr. Joe. Fergus walked past the saloon, waving at the ladies as he went, who all giggled and blew kisses at him.

“Mornin’, Miss Dottie!” he greeted, climbing up to hang on the railing.

“Good morning, Mr. Fergus,” Dottie said, ruffling his hair. “What are you up to today?”

“Planning a surprise party for Mama,” Fergus said. “But it’s a secret! So you can’t tell her!”

“Oh, what a wonderful idea! Tell your aunt and sister to let me know if there’s anything I can do to help! What sort of gift are you going to get her?”

“We’re gonna find her a husband,” Fergus said. “She’s turning thirty, you see.”

Dottie made a bit of a face. “Find her a husband? Don’t you think that’s something Dr. B. should handle on her own?”

Fergus shrugged. “She hasn’t done it so far! She’s always busy with doctorin’, and us!”

“Still…”

“So, you’re on a husband hunt for your Ma?” Dougal said, striding out of the saloon, smirking.

Fergus frowned. He didn’t like Dougal. But then he’d never liked the men who took it upon themselves to buy people.

“No,” Fergus lied. “I gotta go. Bye, Miss Dottie!”

“Bye, Fergus,” Dottie said, shooting a glare at Dougal.

Fergus trotted along toward the livery, and caught sight of Mac headed there as well. Perfect!

If there was one man who Fergus thought would make the perfect husband and Pa, it was definitely Mac.

“Mac!”

Mac turned around, smiling when he saw him. He always smiled at Fergus. “Fergus,” he said, nodding. “Keepin’ out of trouble, lad?”

“For now,” Fergus chirped, grinning. “We’re planning a surprise birthday party for Mama!”

Mac’s eyebrows raised. “Are ye now? Her birthday is coming up?”

“Yep! Next week. Will you come?”

“Oh, aye. Of course.”

“Good,” Fergus fell into step alongside him. “And then, you can marry her!”

All of a sudden, Mac was stumbling, and Fergus looked back in surprise. Mac never tripped.

What?!” Mac exclaimed. “What are ye talkin’ about, ye wee numpty?”

“She needs a husband,” Fergus said seriously. “She’s turning thirty, so she doesn’t have a lot of time left. Don’t you want to marry her?”

“Fergus!” Mac said, his voice weirdly high, and knelt down. “That’s…that’s no’ something ye just do, a charaid.”

“But why not? You like Mama. She’s pretty. You could even be our Pa.”

“Ye dinna need me as a father,” Mac snapped, and Fergus’s heart sank at how upset he look. “I’m yer friend, lad. And that’s all. “

“What’s going on?” William said, he and Joe making their way over.

“I…erm…have to go,” Mac said. “I’ll come back for that knife later, Joe.”

William watched him go, before turning back to Fergus. “What the hell did you say to Mac to scare him off like that?”

“Scare him?” Fergus wondered. “He isn’t scared of me! All I did was tell him about the party, then asked if he wanted to marry Mama. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? Finding her a husband?”

William groaned and covered his face with his hand while Joe laughed. “No wonder he ran off like his ass was on fire!” Joe exclaimed.

“Great, Fergus!” William sighed. “Now there’s no telling when he’ll be back.”

“What?” Fergus pouted, crossing his arms. “I didn’t do anything! Why would Mac be scared?”

“Because,” Joe said, kneeling down. “Someone like Mac, who’s lived a certain way for a long time, might not be ready for…something else. Someone else.”

“And we’re a lot of someone elses,” William pointed out.

“Well, he’s gonna miss out,” Fergus said.

William crossed his arms, looking out the direction Mac had fled. “You’re right about that part, Fergus.”

 

As far as Brianna was concerned, the choice was clear. Mama had already expressed, quite firmly, that she had no romantic interest in Jamie. And that was too bad, because Jamie was awfully great, and the two of them were awfully great together.

But she wouldn’t try and force someone on her she didn’t want. Perhaps Jamie was just too wild for her. She was, after all, a proper Bostonian lady.

There was only one man in town who had the sophistication, manners, kindness, and also handsomeness that Mama deserved.

“Reverend Wakefield!” Brianna called, trotting up to him as everyone filed out of the church.

“Hello, Miss Bree!” the Reverend greeted, smiling at her. “And how are you this lovely Sunday?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Brianna said politely. “And it is a lovely day, isn’t it? A good day for a ride through the country?”

The Reverend chuckled a bit bemusedly. “Erm, yes? I suppose it is...it’s probably one of our last mild days before winter.”

“Great!” Brianna enthused. “So why don’t you ask Dr. B.?”

“…Ask Dr. B.? Ask her what?”

“To go on a ride through the country, of course!” Bree exclaimed.

The Reverend frowned, but Brianna didn’t miss the pink tinge to his cheeks.

“Don’t you like her?” Brianna asked. “She’s pretty, isn’t she?”

“Erm…yes! I mean…of course, she’s beautiful…”

“And she’s smart!”

“Without a doubt…”

“And she’s nice! Come on, Reverend, just ask her! She wants someone to court her, and I can’t think of anyone better than you!”

Now the Reverend was well and truly red. “She does? But…surely not…me.”

Brianna shrugged. “You’ll never know until you ask her!”

 

My children were acting strange.

For the past three days I’d been catching them whispering among themselves, only to change the subject once I walked in on them or enquired about it. And it wasn’t just them.

Perhaps I was being paranoid, but it felt like everyone was whispering behind my back. And when I asked Jamie if he wanted to come for supper the day before, he ran away like Adso at the sight of Rollo.

The children had begged and begged for an outdoor picnic after church, so I’d packed a basket of egg sandwiches and cookies, but they all seemed distracted.

“So…” William said, not quite meeting my eyes. “Just wondering, but…if someone were to ask you…oh, I dunno, to go courtin’ with you. Would you do it?”

I blinked, momentarily blindsided by the strange question. “Courting? William, where is this coming from?”

“Just asking, that’s all!” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Hypo-thetic-ly!” Fergus chirped, using the word I’d taught him the meaning to only days before.

“Yeah,” William agreed. “Hypothetically.”

“Don’t you wanna ever get married?” Fergus asked.

“I…that’s…that’s nothing you children should concern yourselves with!”

“Why not?” William asked. “You’re our family.”

I smiled, seeing that they meant well. “You’re sweet. But…courting someone isn’t something that just…happens. And it wouldn’t be just anyone.”

“But if someone asked?”

I narrowed my eyes, beginning to smell a rat. “Alright, boys. What have you done?”

I had just a moment to admire their guilty expressions before there was a tap on my shoulder.

It was Roger, red in the face, with Brianna standing behind him having a silent argument in hand gestures with her brothers.

“Good morning, Dr. B.,” Roger said hurriedly. “I was wondering, could I interest you in a buggy ride?”

I gaped for a moment, at a loss for something to say. Those rotten children! They’d trapped me in a situation I couldn’t just say no to without insulting and embarrassing their poor pawn, Roger.

“Oh…that’s…erm, I would, but I promised the children I’d take them on a picnic today!”

“We don’t mind!” Brianna exclaimed.

“…Yeah,” William said. “Why don’t you just go?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” I stammered, grasping at straws. “I wouldn’t just leave you to…”

“I’ll take them,” Jamie said, appearing from seemingly nowhere. I stared at him in betrayed shock while the children all readily enthused that they were fine, and I should go.

I was left with no other reasonable excuse, so I decided to just bite the bullet for now…and get even with my children later on.

 

We rode for a while in awkward silence. He looked like he was trying to think of something to talk about, and I was trying the think of ways to seek revenge.

It wasn’t at all that I disliked Roger. He was intelligent, funny, and once we got to know one another I found that there was hardly a nicer man in town. And he was, I could admit, very handsome.

But for one thing, he was young. At least ten years my junior. Closer to Brianna’s age than mine. For another, I simply didn’t feel anything toward him but friendly affection.

However, he’d asked me on a ride, no doubt at the behest of my daughter, and I accepted so I owed it to him to at least be cordial.

“So…” I began. “How did you become the reverend of your own church so young?”

He smiled self-consciously from behind his dark, closely trimmed beard. “Inheritance, you might say. I…well…” he cut his eyes over to me. “I’ve never told anyone this, before, but I never wanted to be a preacher.”

That did surprise me. “No? What did you want to be?”

He chuckled. “You’ll laugh, but I wanted to be a musician.”

I did laugh, but only in delight. “What changed your mind?”

“My Pa…he…this church was his life. He loved this town, and these people so much. He passed away when I was sixteen, and I couldn’t bear to watch the church divide, as it looked like it was going to do if they couldn’t find a new permanent preacher. I went to seminary school, and came right back home to begin leading my flock. It ended up becoming more fulfilling than I ever thought it would be. And it…I don’t know, makes me feel closer to him, you know?”

“I know,” I said, smiling. “I feel the same way about medicine. It makes me feel closer to my Uncle Lamb.”

Roger winced and looked away. “That’s another thing. The real reason I asked you out here, Claire, is because I owe you an apology, and I’ve been looking for the right way and time to say it.”

“Apology? For what? You mean for when I first came here? Roger, that was almost two years ago! Water under the bridge.”

He shook his head. “No, please, I need to say this. I treated you horribly, Claire, and I had no right. Truth is, we have a lot in common, you and I. See, my Pa, he was my uncle. Just like yours was.”

“Really?”

“Mmhmm. My parents both died of smallpox,” he glanced at me. “We didn’t have a doctor like you. I was just a toddler, so I don’t really remember them. But my father raised me like his very own. And after he died, and I tried to take up his mantle, you know what happened?”

I shook my head.

“No one would take me seriously,” he lowered his voice, like he was mimicking an old man. “What business does a seventeen year old whelp have trying to preach to grown adults? What does he know?” he chuckled, shaking his head. “It took them quite some time to come around, and it took a lot of work. They were only just coming around to me when you moved to town. So what do I do? I judge you just because you’re a woman, the exact same way people judged me because I was young. So, I’m sorry, Claire. I was wrong.”

I smiled, reaching over to place my hand over his where it held the rein. “Apology accepted. Thank you, Roger.”

He grinned. “So, you interested in making a real go at this? Courting, I mean.”

I awkwardly pulled my hand away, and my face must have betrayed my thoughts because he laughed. “You’re right. I think we’re better as friends than as a couple,” he gave me a teasing look. “Besides, something tells me your tastes run more toward rugged Scotsmen.”

“Watch it,” I warned him. “The fact of the matter is, you’re closer in age to my daughter than you are to me, Roger.”

He laughed again. “Brianna is a sweet girl. She was so determined to set us up, but you know it’s only because they care about you.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I just wish they’d keep their little noses out of my love life.”

“Sorry, but I think you forfeited any hope of privacy the minute you became their mother.”

I sighed. “I suppose you’re right.”

Chapter Text

Jamie could never have known that one conversation with one bairn could leave him so…discombobulated.

He’d felt a little reassured…and maybe a little miffed to learn that Fergus and his siblings hadn’t just singled him out for an attempted arranged marriage between him and their mother. Evidently they were asking the entire town.

Regardless, he found himself wandering Murtagh’s mercantile, trying to find something suitable to give Claire for her birthday. But nothing seemed good enough…or maybe too good. Too…personal.

It wasn’t that he thought the children would succeed. Claire was too stubborn by half to let a bunch of weans find her a husband. Mostly he was just afraid she would think he was somehow in on it, and be angry. He could admit that they cared about one another, but he was realistic enough to know that nothing could ever be between them.

He touched the hem of a lavender, frilly dress in the shop, wrinkling his nose. It was pretty…but didn’t suit Claire at all.

“Boy, you’ve had some fool ideas in your life, but this one TAKES THE CAKE!”

Jamie looked up from his musings to see Fergus fleeing the store for his life, Murtagh shaking his fist at him as he went.

A soft chuckling caught his attention next, and he found Jenny at his elbow, so he quickly snatched his hand away from the dress.

“Have they gotten to you yet?” she asked, mirth dancing in his eyes. “You’d be the obvious choice.”

“Hardly,” he grumbled.

“Well, you’re coming to the party still, right? I’m hoping it won’t turn into a courtship mob, but I know every single fellow in town will be vying for a dance from the birthday girl.”

“Aye,” he managed, wordlessly taking his leave. Jenny’s words hadn’t helped in the least, and now he had a vision of being forced to sit back and watch while Claire danced with every man in town…maybe eventually finding something with one of them she might not have found without her children’s well-intentioned meddling.

Church had let out a while ago, but many families were still congregated on the grounds. Claire and the bairns often took picnics on the grounds, and despite his confusion and the churning in his wame, he found himself inexorably drawn there. Maybe he could talk to Claire, or the kids, try to get them to stop all this.

But when he got there, Wee Roger Mac of all people was bashfully asking Claire on a buggy ride, and she looked like she didn’t entirely want to say no.

Roger? Really? A whelp still wet behind the ears? What was he thinking, sniffing after a woman like Claire?

Without his permission, his mouth opened itself and offered to stay with the children so Claire could go on her buggy ride. He supposed Roger was better than someone like Dougal, or Tom. Maybe he ought to try and get used to seeing her with a man.

But then he watched them walk away together, and a sickening feeling overcame him, making him both want to retch and murder Roger, or both. And he knew he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t go to that party and watch every eligible man in town chase Claire’s skirts.

He just wasn’t brave enough.

 

Dr. B. and Reverend Wakefield came back from their ride laughing like old friends, but the moment her eyes landed on William, Brianna, and Fergus, she was shooting them daggers, and William knew their plan had failed. What’s more, they were also probably dead meat.

Mac had been restless and glum the whole time they’d been gone, and William simply didn’t know what his problem was. It was clear as day to him that Dr. B. and Mac cared for one another. It was clear to everyone, but, apparently, the two of them.

Now Dr. B. was incensed because suddenly, the town’s worth of men were chasing after her like hungry dogs. Even Dougal had thrown his hat in, showing up at the door to the clinic with a charming smile. Dr. B. had simply said, “no,” and slammed the door in his face.

William was headed for the clinic when he saw Mac walking past it, Rollo at his heels. He looked like he was ready for a long trek, so William trotted to catch up with him. 

“Mac! Wait up! Where are you going?”

“I need tae go check my traps,” Mac said, hefting his pack higher on his shoulder. “I’ll be gone a few days, tell yer mam for me, aye?”

“A few…but what about her party? It’s tomorrow night! Aren’t you gonna be there?”

Mac grimaced. “I…eh, I need to check my traps. It needs done. I’ll see her when I get back.”

William scowled, clenching his fists. “Look, I heard about what Fergus said to you, and I’m sorry about that. But you have to come! You’re Dr. B’s friend…I’d even say her best friend. I know if it were me, I’d be awfully upset if my best friend didn’t come to my birthday party.”

“It isn’a that simple!” Mac exclaimed in annoyance.

“Yes it is!” William took a breath, taking a step back. “Look, all I’m saying is, if you keep waiting around…well, she’s liable to find a new best friend.”

William stomped off then, not waiting for a response. There were times he felt far older than his sixteen years, and other times when he looked at adults and thought, if that’s what it means to be an adult…he wanted no part of it.

 

My birthday was spent in much the same way every other day was spent. Woke up, did chores, sent the children off to their lessons, and went into town to open up the clinic.

But it was a markedly better birthday than my last one, which was spent by myself in the homestead, not a patient in sight.

This day I had an impacted tooth to extract, three stitches to apply, and a boil that needed lanced. An all-around good day, as far as I was concerned.

The only poor spot was that I was still getting the uncomfortable feeling that everyone was talking about me.

Ever since my buggy ride with Roger, word had gotten around that I was “man-hunting,” and I’d had suitor after suitor at my clinic door for two days. Everyone from 19 year old Sam Johnson, to 78 year old Edgar Richards. (The latter of whom promptly asked if I had any remedies for the inability to become erect.) Rupert and Angus had arrived together, arguing over who would be the best match, but in the end they were distracted by Betsy over at the saloon and forgot all about me.

I wasn’t even that surprised to see Dougal leering at me from my doorway, but I was just relieved that Denny and Joe at least seemed immune to the apparent bug in the air.

The men weren’t even the worst part. It was everyone whispering about it behind my back. Like they really thought I didn’t see them looking at me, and talking behind their hands.

I walked past the store, only to see Murtagh trying and failing not to smirk at me. And then there was Jenny, deep in conversation with Louise, but both of them stopped, smiled at me, and walked away.

“Alright, you know what?” I blurted, unable to take it anymore. “Do you really think I can’t tell that you’re all talking about me behind my back?”

Jenny blinked. “We’re not…”

“I just don’t know why my marital status is such a hot topic! So I’m thirty and unmarried, so what?! I’m also a doctor and a mother, and I don’t want nor need a man!”

“You finished?” Murtagh asked, arching a bushy eyebrow. “Because you know, Fergus came to me the other day, asking me if I’d be interested in courting you…”

Letting out a very undignified sound like a strangled cat, I stormed away, wishing I weren’t already outside and had a door to slam.

By the time I reached home, it was nearly dark and my ire had faded to melancholy. When I’d accidentally let it slip to Brianna a month before that my thirtieth birthday was approaching, I’d half-expected her and her brothers to make something of it, though I hadn’t particularly wanted them to. To me, a birthday was just the marker of another year. Uncle Lamb had never made much of either of our birthdays, and before that, my parents were very often away on my birthday, leaving me to celebrate alone with my nannies and dolls.

And yet, as the day came and was quickly passing, I found that even a simple “happy birthday” might have been nice. The children had likely forgotten the exact date anyway, though it was no fault of theirs.

Brianna’s thirteenth birthday had come so soon after their mother died, so we hadn’t done much but a cake and a few paltry gifts. Williams birthday was just after hers, so it had been much the same. Fergus’s birthday was approaching, or rather, the day Charlotte adopted him, since he didn’t remember his actual day of birth.

I decided then that I would make sure each of their birthdays was memorable from there on out. It was no less than a child deserved.

I opened the door to the homestead, sighing to see the children hovering around the table, whispering among themselves. I let the door bang shut, and they all spun around with guilty looks on their faces.

But then my eyes focused on something over their head. It was a handmade banner, in splotchy red paint that read, “Happy Birthday Dr. B! (Mama)”

“Happy Birthday!” all three children chorused, parting ways to reveal a cake with lit candles, and a crudely wrapped gift, the ribbon of which was being attacked by Adso.

I stood speechless, eyes filling with tears.

“Why are you crying, Mama?” Fergus asked worriedly. “You don’t like it?”

I took the two steps forward necessary to wrap Fergus in a tight hug. “I LOVE it! I can’t believe you did this for me!”

“You think we’d let your birthday go by with nothing?” William asked, grinning cheekily.

I pulled him and Brianna into hugs of their own. “You three are the most wonderful people in the world.”

“Blow out your candles!” Fergus exclaimed.

“Don’t forget to make a wish!” Brianna added.

I sat in front of the cake, trying to think of a good wish. A few ran through my head, one or two a bit sillier than the others, until I finally settled on simply wishing my children to live long, happy, and healthy lives.

They clapped as I blew out the candles with one breath, and Fergus pushed the wrapped gift closer.

“Open your present!” Brianna said excitedly.

“We were gonna find you a husband for you present,” Fergus explained, earning horrified looks from his siblings. “But it didn’t work out.”

“So that’s what all that was about,” I groaned, things falling into place. “But why? Why do you think I need a husband?”

Brianna shrugged, blushing. “We just thought you might be lonely, is all.”

“How could I be lonely?” I asked, pulling Fergus into my lap. “I have all of you!”

“That’s what I said!” Fergus exclaimed.

“We’re sorry,” William said, shuffling his feet. “We just thought you might like a…a friend, in addition to us.”

I narrowed my eyes playfully. “I’ve plenty of friends, but I’m grateful for the sentiment, anyway,” I squeezed Fergus and glanced up at the gift. “Can I open it now?”

At their nods, I pulled at the ribbon holding the reused Christmas wrapping paper together, revealing a wooden box painted with flowers (some delicate, some not-so-much.)

“Mr. Joe helped William make it,” Brianna explained. “And Fergus and I painted it. Our mother had one sort of like it. And she kept things in it, memories she said. Pictures we drew for her, our baby shoes, that sort of thing.”

“We thought…” William began. “That maybe you’d like one, too.”

“I already put that bracelet in it that I made for you!” Fergus said excitedly, lifting the lid to reveal the oversized beaded bracelet he’d given me weeks ago that I dutifully wore in situations I didn’t fear I might lose it when it slipped off. “You’re crying again,” he pointed out.

“I know,” I sobbed. “But they’re happy tears. I love it, and I love all of you so much!”

I grabbed Brianna and William by the arms to pull them all into a group hug, feeling happier than I thought I ever remembered being.

But our little celebration was interrupted by a knock on the door, with Joe on the other side, yelling for me to come quick.

“Emergency,” he said when I opened the door. “Hurry!”

“You children better stay here,” I said, grabbing my coat.

“No!” Brianna cried.

“We wanna be with you!” Fergus pleaded.

Incapable of saying no to their big entreating eyes right then, I nodded and asked William to hitch the cart.

We rode as quickly into town as we could, though I’d yet to hear from Joe exactly what the emergency was, and it made me uneasy not being able to mentally prepare for the situation.

The town seemed dark and quiet as we rode through, and I feared the worse, wondering if I should have left the children at home after all. But nearing the clinic, there was light, and we turned a corner into a massive crowd of townsfolk crying out “Happy Birthday!”

“Happy Birthday, Lady Jane,” Joe said as he rode up beside me, winking.

“You…” I looked over at William. “You three did this?”

“They had help,” Jenny said, pushing Murtagh forward to help me down out of the cart. “But it was their idea.”

“I can’t believe all of you!” I exclaimed, hugging her. “You all let me make a fool of myself today!”

Jenny made a face at me. “That was the best part!”

“Right this way, if you please,” Roger said, taking my elbow. “We have something to show you.”

I followed the crowd over to my clinic, where something hanged above the porch, only it was covered with a sheet. At Roger’s signal, Tom and Denny pulled at the ropes which released the sheet, revealing a large carved wooden sign that read,

MEDICAL CLINIC
 Claire E. Beauchamp, M.D.

I covered my mouth with my hands, looking around at the gathered crowd with wide eyes.

“You’ve done a lot for this town,” Roger said. “This is just a small way of finally saying thank you.”

“I don’t know what to say…”

“Ha! We actually made her speechless!” Rupert crowed.

“It’s a miracle!” Angus agreed.

I glared playfully at the two, though I laughed along with everyone else.

“Thank you,” I said at last. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you, everyone,” I looked back up at the sign, seeing more than carved letters in a plank of wood. Seeing acceptance. “You have no idea what this means to me!”

“Maybe a little idea,” Roger said quietly, so that only I heard him.

“Now, who’s ready to eat?!” Gail exclaimed, to everyone’s enthusiastic cheers.

As everyone filed away toward the field were the tables were set up, I remained behind to admire my sign.

“Aren’t you coming?” William asked.

“You go on ahead, I’m right behind you,” I said.

As I heard the footsteps fade, I grinned up at the sign. “I wish you could see me now, Uncle Lamb.”

“I bet he’d be verra proud.”

I didn’t jump at the sound of Jamie’s voice for once, having at long last become accustomed to him sneaking up on me. “You think…so…Jamie?!”

He was standing a few feet away, on the porch of the clinic, but in place of his usual buckskin pants, old linin shirt, and fringed leather coat, was a pristinely clean white buttoned shirt, knee-high boots, and a kilt!

It wasn’t the same tartan that he carried around everywhere, but looked to be a similar pattern. His plaid wrapped around his chest, and his sporran rested in its traditional spot at his front, instead of to the side like he normally wore it.

His hair was brushed back, and his face was clean-shaven. He almost looked like a different man entirely.

I’d seen men in kilts when I visited Scotland, and had at the time privately thought they looked a little funny. But there was nothing funny about Jamie Fraser in a kilt. Jamie Fraser in a kilt was downright resplendent.

“What?” he asked, squirming under my staring. “Can a man no’ dress up for a special occasion? I’m told its yer birthday, ken.”

I nodded dumbly, still having a difficult time processing what I was seeing…and coming to terms with the way it made me feel.

“You look…you look…”

“Daft, I ken,” he chuckled self-consciously, brushing an imaginary spec from his sleeve.

“No…I was going to say…very handsome.”

He seemed a bit pleased by that, and smiled. “Ah. Weel, thank ye, Sassenach. I erm…have a wee gift for ye.”

It was only then that I noticed he’d been keeping his hands behind his back. When he revealed them, they were holding a set of saddlebags. When I stepped closer to take them, I first became unusually aware that Jamie was freshly bathed, and that his soap smelled like pine trees. Then I focused on the saddle bags, stroking the buttery soft leather, and seeing my name carved on the side.

“Did you…make these?”

“Aye,” he said quietly. “Yer auld ones got so mangled up in th’ mountains. I made these with compartments, see?” he lifted the flap to show me. “Places to put yer wee tools and medicines. And see here? A sleeve for yer favorite bone saw.”

I had to chuckle at the continuation of a seemingly running joke that I had a bone saw I was absurdly attached to. “It’s beautiful, Jamie. Thank you.”

I looked up to find him smiling softly at me, and decided that he deserved a better thank you than just the words. Heart hammering, I stood up on tip toes so that I could kiss his cheek. But either he turned his head, or I missed, and before I could correct myself, my lips were on his, shocking the breath right out of me. For a breath I jolted back, feeling like an electrical current was running through me, but he followed, and without my brain even telling my body to move, I leaned into him.

His lips were chapped but soft and full, his breath warm as it mingled with mine. The smell of his pine soap, and beneath that his normal scent of horses and wolf and man filled my senses. But then he was pressing closer, tilting his head so that our mouths fit together like two pieces of a puzzle, and I was pulling away, feeling both like I wanted to run away and throw my arms around him, simultaneously.

I was at a loss for what to say, and Jamie’s face was unreadable, but he saved me by taking a respectful step back and holding out his hand, telling me we’d better go to my party before Rupert and Angus ate all my cake.

I smiled and took his hand, interlacing our fingers by some automatic impulse, then followed him toward the warm light of the party.

It was a good birthday, indeed.

Chapter Text

My thirtieth birthday was, by far, the best of my life.

I finally felt completely accepted as the town’s doctor, and more appreciated than I’d ever felt in my profession.

I had three children who had gone through such lengths to make the day special, just because they loved me.

And, well, I’d kissed Jamie.

We walked to the party hand-in-hand, and my mind raced like a horse, wondering what people would think when they saw. Wondering if I cared or not.

But once we reached the crowd, Jamie squeezed my fingers and released them, then accepted good-natured ribbing about his attire.

“Nice dress, McTavish!” Rupert howled.

“I think Murtagh’s store has a hat that would go lovely with that!” Tom sniggered.

Jamie only smirked and walked with his head held high, which I liked. But I saw his eyebrows raise in surprise when Murtagh laughed and joined the teasing.

“At least he’s got the legs for it,” Murtagh said. “What do you think, Dr. B.? I know you’ve noticed!”

That led to a whole new round of laughing, especially when I blushed, but then Jenny insisted everyone stop teasing the birthday girl and eat.

After food and cake, there was dancing, and William proudly asked for the first dance. By then I’d had several cups of wine, and then there was a blur of dancing with likely every man in town, including Dougal, though I had to deliberately step on his feet a few times when his hand tried to wander below my waist.

The only one who didn’t ask me to dance was Jamie, but he continued to deliver drinks and would stand beside me with his hand on my lower back, appearing solicitous, but more making sure I wasn’t getting too tipsy.

“What sort of wine do you think this is?” I asked him, peering into my cup.

“It’s Rhinish,” he said. “Dougal learned tae make it from his brother, so I’ve heard. Strong stuff, that.”

I peered up at him, squinting to see him properly. “You’ve had twice the amount of drink that I’ve had. How are you so steady?”

He did that odd thing again, where he blinked owlishly. “I’m a Scot, o’ course.”

“Hmmph. Scot. You can hold your drink, but did you know you can’t wink?” I snorted. “Drink, wink…”

He frowned. “I can wink.”

“You really can’t. But you needn’t stop trying. I rather like owls.”

He laughed in earnest then. “Weel, this owl has a verra sore shoulder, d’ ye think ye could take a wee keek at it?”

I did my own impression of an owl at him. “Perhaps. Assuming you were just speaking English.”

I took his hand and let him lead me back over to my clinic. I started to head inside, but he gave me a peculiar smile and held me back, pulling me over to the bench on the porch instead.

“Is it the bullet wound?” I asked him, already pulling at his shirt. “You should have told me if you were still have problems with it.”

“Nah,” he said. “It’s fine. I just thought it best if ye stepped awa’ for a moment.”

“Are you trying to say I’m drunk?!”

He laughed, but motioned with his hand to quiet me. Apparently I’d said that rather loudly. “Only a bit. But ye’ve drank Rupert under the table already. I’m impressed, Sassenach.”

I giggled, but forced myself to stop when I could hear how girlish it sounded, then grimaced. “Ugh. I shouldn’t let myself get this way. What if there was an emergency?”

Jamie chuckled. “Knowing you? Ye’d probably step up to th’ occasion as skillfully as always. I dinna think a wee bit of wine could stop ye if the need arose.”

I smirked, trying to hide how pleased that made me, and probably failing. “Too right! But really, is your shoulder okay? Let me see.”

I stood up, and he followed suit, standing still while I unbuttoned the first two buttons of his shirt and pull it aside to see the scar made by the wound he sustained during our trip to Harding’s mill. “It’s healed well,” I told him, probing it gently. “It likely won’t even leave much of a scar, in time.”

“If it does, what’s one more?” he said lightly.

When I looked up, it reached through my addled mind at last how close we were, sharing the same air, and all I could see were his too-blue eyes. My lips were still tingling from the earlier kiss, and I was wondering if it would be too forward to try again…

“Hey, you two!” Angus’s sudden, loud voice broke us apart like we’d been shocked. “You hoggin’ the birthday girl over there McTavish?! I’m entitled to a birthday kiss myself!”

“Alright,” Jamie said teasingly. “But it’s yer funeral. She bites, ken?”

Angus howled with laughter while I glared at Jamie in appalment.

“Relax, Sassenach,” Jamie said in an aside to me. “He’s so far gone, if he remembers that in the morn’ I’ll be most impressed. Now come, we best get ye back ‘afore someone else comes after ye.”

 

I awoke the next morning with a splitting headache, but was very happy, although I had a few hazy memories of being entirely too forward with Jamie that I hope were either false or exaggerated.

I was excited to go see my new sign in the daylight, so I drank an extra cup of coffee and made my way into town.

“Last night was so much fun,” Brianna enthused. “Did you have fun, Mama?”

“Most fun I think I’ve ever had,” I told her honestly. “Not even my own graduation party was so much fun.”

“I’ve never see you drink before,” Fergus said, eyes squinting in mirth. “I liked it!”

Brianna and William both laughed at that, while I blushed. “Well, erm, that isn’t...I mean it’s not wise to drink too much, you know that, right?”

“You drank a lot,” Fergus said, oblivious to my embarrassment. “Where did you and Mac go when you went off alone?”

Alone?” William asked, voice tinted with teasing scandal.

Nowhere,” I hissed, glaring at him.

“No one asked me to dance though,” Brianna continued, as if the rest of the conversation hadn’t happened.

I clung to the change of subject. “No? Well, maybe at the fall festival. That’s coming up.”

“There it is!” Fergus exclaimed, pointing at my sign. “Isn’t it pretty? Joe did most of the work.”

“It’s wonderful,” I sighed, climbing down out of the wagon.

“So where did you and Mac go?” William asked, eyes twinkling.

I rolled my eyes. “I may have been a wee bit too tipsy, and Jamie brought me over here to the porch of the clinic so I could clear my head. That’s all.”

“I saw the saddlebags he made you. They’re nice. Must have made them quick too, since a couple of days ago he wasn’t even coming…” William trailed off when my head snapped around to him, and his eyes widened. “Uh…I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

“Why wasn’t he going to come?” I asked, trying not to feel hurt since he did in fact come, and we have a wonderful evening.

William shook his head. “It was our fault, that whole dumb “finding you a husband” thing.”

“You asked him?!” I groaned. “William…”

“Fergus did!” he cried, pointing to the guilty party.

“And then he ran away like his ass was on fire,” Fergus said.

“Fergus!”

“That’s what Mr. Joe said!”

I pushed open the door to the clinic, leading the way in. “So, he was upset hm?”

“I guess you could say that,” William said, shrugging. “But, he was probably just embarrassed! That’s all!”

“I thought you only liked Mac as a friend,” Brianna said. “That’s what you told me.”

“I do,” I said, feeling myself start to blush. “But, he didn’t have to run away like his ass was on fire, just because you asked him about marrying me!”

The children all laughed at that, and the subject was dropped, but my mind was still running.

What did the kiss mean? Was it just something that happened, or did it mean more to Jamie. Did it mean more to me?

I was suddenly fearful that things between us would change. As nice as the kiss was, and it was nice, I didn’t think I wanted things to change. I wasn’t ready to get married…to anyone. At one time in my life I thought I was, but then he was gone, and my life went in a completely different direction. I’d only just learned how to share my life with the children…I wasn’t sure I was ready to share it with anyone else.

Then again…I already shared so much with Jamie. But having a friend, even a very close friend like Jamie, was very different than having a husband.

Why did it have to be one way or the other?

 

“Be still,” I ordered for the fifth time. “You didn’t squirm half this much when I was patching up your bullet wound. Surely this doesn’t hurt as much as that.”

Jamie had popped sheepishly into my clinic one afternoon, clutching his side. He’d had a “mishap” while hunting, and a wild boar’s tusk “happened its way” into his abdomen just under his left pectoral.

It was more of a cut than a puncture, thankfully, requiring nothing more than a thorough cleaning and a few stitches. If the overgrown boy would just stop fidgeting!

“Apologies, Sassenach,” he grunted, but didn’t cease his wiggling every time I touched him.

“Well, I’m never going to get it stitched if you don’t…” my hand brushed over his belly in my fight to get the needle into him, and he flinched wildly back with something I was dumbfounded to have to classify as a giggle.

“Jamie Fraser,” I said, trying for sternness but unable to keep the smirk off my face. “Are you ticklish?”

“No,” he snapped, going still as a board. “Nonsense.”

But when I poked him just above his navel, his whole abdomen twitched, and he hissed in pain.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said sincerely, patting the relatively safe area of his shoulder. “That was unkind. But I do need to get this stitched up. I’ll try to touch you as little as possible, alright?”

“Where’s the fun o’ that?” he muttered, but I ignored him.

It took herculean effort on his part, but he managed to remain still while I finished the stitches. I did have to keep my hands on his skin to hold the flesh together, and it was my own herculean effort to pretend I didn’t notice his well-defined chest, or the coarse feeling of copper hair.

“Done,” I said. “That pig didn’t get you anywhere else, did he?”

“My back may be bruised a bit,” he admitted. “Donas stepped on me accidentally when I fell off. That’s when the wicked wee bugger stabbed me too.”

“He what?!” I exclaimed. “You half-wit! That’s far more serious than the boar wound. Turn around.” I pushed on his shoulder to have him turn around on the cot, so that his back faced the light. I could see definite bruising beneath the patchwork of scar tissue in the shape of a horseshoe, but it didn’t look serious.

“Turn your head for me?” I asked him. “Does that hurt? No? Well, I’m afraid I’m going to need you to fill this,” I passed a jar over his shoulder.

“Fill it? With what?” he asked bewilderingly.

“With urine, of course,” I said. “The bruising is over your kidney. You’ve had 90 stone of horse step on you, I need to check for blood in your urine. Now, if you’re able.”

Jamie stared at the jar, then at me, then back again. “But…I canna…”

“I’ll step around the screen,” I assured him. “But I don’t have time for your delicate sensibilities. Do you need a drink of water?”

“No,” he muttered belligerently, sliding off the cot to stand up. “Prim and proper outside th’ clinic she is…”

“What was that?”

“Nothing!”

“Dr. B., have you…”

William and Fergus both appeared from the other side of the privacy curtain, having come from upstairs instead of through the locked front door.

William trailed off, and both boys stared in shock at Jamie’s back, which was turned to them.

“Boys!” I snapped. “What have I told you about barging in here like this?”

“It’s alright lass,” Jamie said quietly. “They’re doing nay harm.”

“What happened to your back, Mac?” Fergus said before yelping and glowering at his brother for punching his shoulder. “What was that for?!”

“Don’t ask that, you little fool!” William hissed.

“I got hurt a long time ago, a bhalaich. Doesn’a pain me, anymore…” he grimaced and shifted his stance. “Save the new wee scratches yer mam has been patchin’ up for me, that is.”

“Alright, alright,” I said. “Off with you two. I need to finish Mac’s examination.”

“Is she makin’ you piss in the cup?” Fergus asked, pointing at the jar. “She made me do that once! N’ I made it from a whole foot away!”

“Fergus!” I scolded.

“Bet I can make it from farther,” Jamie whispered conspiratorially.

“Two to one says you can’t make it from…” William took the jar and placed it on the floor about three feet away. “Here!”

“Yer on!”

“Oh for the love of…” I threw my hands up in surrender and left the boys to their questionable game, going instead to answer the knock at the door.

“Hi, Claire,” Jenny said when I opened the door. “I just came by looking for the boys. I need their help mending a fence. And also to return the rest of this salve you gave me for the new calf. Her skin looks so much better.”

“Oh good,” I said, accepting the tin. “I’ll send the boys. I’m sorry I can’t invite you in, I’m with a patient…”

We both stopped and listened as a riotous cheer came from the back of the room. Jenny arched an eyebrow.

“Pissing competition,” I sighed.

Jenny rolled her eyes upward and turned to go. “Men,” she paused on the step though, and turned to smile at me. “But it’s nice to hear Mac laugh like that again.”

 

After I estimated that Jamie had had enough time to…win the bet, I returned to his cot to find the three boys laughing like a bunch of hyenas.

“Are we done now?” I asked, crossing my arms, trying to remain the stern, serious doctor when all I wanted to do was laugh along with them.

“All done, Sassenach,” Jamie said, handing me his prize with a gallant bow, as if presenting me with a bouquet of roses.

“Oh, why thank you,” I chuckled, curtseying before taking the jar and holding it to the light to examine it. “Fergus, William, your Aunt Jenny wants you two to go help her mend some fences.”

“But I was gonna go fishin’ with Rabby!” Fergus whined.

“And Joe was gonna show me his new foal…” William began.

I leveled them with a no-nonsense look I thought I was gradually perfecting. “Excuse me?”

The boys exchanged a hurried look before turning back to me in all contriteness. “Yes, ma’am,” they chorused before bidding Jamie goodbye and scurrying out.

“Yer gettin’ good at that, Sassenach,” Jamie said, putting his shirt back on.

“Thanks,” I chirped. “Sorry about…them. Bursting in, I mean.”

He waved me off. “Och, dinna fash. The only reason I dinna usually like people to see my back is because it can be hard for some people, I think. Tae see the scars, then be able to look at me and no’ think of anythin’ but. Children are famous for no’ caring one way or th’ other th’ way a person looks.”

“You didn’t seem to mind when I saw,” I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to point that out, but I did.

He quirked one of his half-smiles. “Aye, weel, ye had a knack for lettin’ me know ye felt sorry for it, wi’out makin’ me feel pitiful about it.”

I smiled back at him, then became distinctly aware that we were standing very close to one another, and his shirt was only half-buttoned.

There was a tense moment where we just stood there, staring at each other, and his eyes flickered downward momentarily before he suddenly cleared his throat and took a step back.

“Listen…Sassenach…I, uh…been meanin’ tae talk tae ye about something.”

I cleared my throat as well, and busied myself cleaning my medical tools. “Oh?”

“It’s about yer birthday…about that kiss…”

My heartrate increased, and my hands froze over my forceps. “…Oh?” was all I could manage.

His hand covered mine over the forceps, drawing my attention away from the tools and back to him. His eyes roved over my face, and I was uncomfortably aware that I was being read, hating how easily he could do it.

“What I mean tae say is…I meant it, ken? But…”

“But?” I prompted, my voice coming out barely more than a whisper.

“But…I just…I’m no’ so sure if…”

I looked away. “If you…we…are ready?”

He sighed. “Aye.”

“Me either,” I told him honestly, looking him in the eye again. “You’re my best friend, Jamie. I’d never want anything to get in the way of that. Maybe…maybe we’re just…better this way.”

He nodded. “Aye. Aye, Sassenach. And I’ll always be here for ye, ye ken that, right?”

“I ken,” I said, looping my arms around his neck for a brief hug, then walked him to the door. On one hand, I was relieved. I felt that a relationship with Jamie was just a recipe for disaster, and it was much easier having it settled that a romantic relationship wasn’t going to happen, but that our companionable and trusting one would live on.

On the other hand…a little piece of my heart might have broken that day.

Chapter Text

That summer was the summer Denny’s little sister came to live with him, after the passing of their aging mother.

I never could have imagined in a thousand years the drama one sweet, quiet young woman would end up causing.

“Dr. B! Dr. B!” Denny called, waving me over to the telegraph office.  Beside him stood a lovely girl of about fifteen with long, chestnut hair and a beguiling smile. “Remember my sister I was telling you about?”

“You must be Rachel,” I smiled, reaching out my hand to shake hers. “I’m so sorry about your grandmother.”

Rachel smiled sadly. “Granny was eighty-six. She lived a long life. I’m just glad I have my brother, still. Denny says you’re a real-life lady doctor!”

“And a good one,” Denny said. “Rachel here has taken an interest in healing. Our granny used to be a midwife. I told her maybe she could help you out in the clinic sometimes…if that was alright with you, of course!”

“That would be lovely!” I enthused. “I can always use an extra set of hands. My daughter, Brianna is a great help, but I think medicine isn’t really her calling. If you have the interest, I’m sure Bree wouldn’t mind the extra free-time!”

“That would be wonderful!” Rachel said. “I’m a hard worker and a fast learner, I promise!”

“I also told Rachel you have children around her age,” Denny added.

I nodded. “I do. Bree is thirteen, and William is almost seventeen. In fact…I see him over there. William!”

William spotted me and crossed over from Joe’s smithy with Fergus in tow.

“Rachel, these are my boys, William and Fergus. Boys, this is Rachel Hunter, Denny’s sister. She’s come to live here.”

“Hi!” Fergus greeted cheerfully, waving, then looked up curiously at his brother.

William was standing stock-still, staring at Rachel with wide eyes, and not speaking.

“Willie?” I said. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

“Hi,” William said, his voice cracking dramatically enough that it made Rachel giggle.

“Hello,” she said, trying to hide her smile behind her hand.

Denny and I exchanged amused looks.

“William, Fergus, why don’t you show Rachel around?” I suggested. “Introduce her to your sister, and the other kids in town. Hmm?”

“Sure!” Fergus exclaimed, taking Rachel’s hand. “Come on! I’ll even show you all the best places to catch toads!”

Instead of balking, Rachel only grinned. “Sounds great! Are you coming, William?”

I had to discreetly nudge William with my elbow to spur him into motion, and when he did, he almost tripped over his own feet.

“Uhh…yeah! Coming! I…I’m coming…”

I watched Rachel go off between the two boys before turning back to Denny with an apologetic smile. “Uh oh…”

Denny chuckled. “Well, she’s fifteen now, not the gangly eleven-year-old I saw last. She could certainly do worse than William.”

“And vice-versa, I’m sure,” I agreed. “But poor William. I think it’s been a long time since he’s seen a young woman he didn’t grow up around.”

“They’ll be fine, so long as Fergus is around to chaperone.”

“Speaking of sweethearts, how are things with you and Dottie?”

Ever since the influenza epidemic, Denny and Dottie had drifted ever closer to one another. It raised quite a few eyebrows, of course, due to Dottie’s profession. But the town knew and liked Dottie enough, and also respected Denny enough that most were able to look the other way.

The only one who wouldn’t look the other way, however, was Dougal, the saloon owner. He’d been making it harder and harder for the two to spend any time together, even increasing Dottie’s fees. Denny didn’t mind that too much, because it meant that she didn’t work as much as the other girls. But she did still work, and I knew how much he hated it.

“I’ve been trying to save up the money to buy her contract,” Denny admitted.

“Really?” I gasped. “Oh, Denny, that would be wonderful! I can’t offer much in the way of money, but if there’s anything I can do to help…”

“I might need you around the day it comes to confront him,” he said. “Not that I want you in the middle of any fight, but you’re so good at telling him off! Besides it might be good to have you there for Dorothea.”

“Of course!” I enthused. “You say the word, Denny, and I’m there.”

“Thanks, Doc,” he grinned. “Dorothea and I will be together. Come hell or high water.”

“She’s lucky to have you,” I said, appalled with myself for feeling a twinge of envy. Must be nice, to have someone fight for you that way.

 

After that day, William lived, ate, and breathed Rachel Hunter. He followed her about Colorado Springs like a lost puppy, spoke of nothing and no one but her, and went around constantly with a moony look on his face.

It was sweet, but also a tad annoying, since it was starting to get in the way of the rest of his life.

“Willie, you forgot to bring the cows in,” I said, taking the laundry off the line. “Now they’re asleep in the field.”

“Oh…uh, sorry Dr. B.,” William said, trotting out toward the field.

“Second time this week,” I muttered to Joe and Gail, who had come to bring back our wagon after borrowing it to haul in a lame horse for Joe to tend.

“Aw, come on, Lady Jane,” Joe teased. “Don’t you remember your first love?”

I rolled my eyes, thinking about that friend of Uncle Lamb’s who’d I’d been so desperately “in love” with as a teenager. “Yes,” I drolled. “But I don’t recall lapsing in all my responsibilities because of it!”

“Ah, but sometimes it can just feel like the beginning and the end of the world!” Gail said dreamily.

“It’s that end of the world I’m worried about,” I said. “Rachel’s kind to him, but I’m not so sure she shares his…infatuation.”

“Maybe she’s playing hard to get,” Joe suggested.

Or,” Gail said. “She doesn’t know how to show how she feels. We know a couple someone’s like that, don’t we Joe?”

“That we do, Gail,” Joe agreed, smirking.

I narrowed my eyes at them. “Who do you mean?”

“No one you know,” Gail said, all innocence.

I sighed and rolled my eyes, getting ready to tell them I saw right through them, when Joe suddenly frowned at something over my head. “Uh…friend of yours, Lady Jane?”

Furrowing my brow I turned to see a figure crouched on top of the barn roof. He was too small to be Jamie, and I had to squint in the fading light to see who it was.

“Ian? Ian is that you?”

A set of gleaming teeth made themselves known in the half-dark, and Ian hopped lightly to the ground. “Hello, Ma’heóná’e!”

“Not, hestse’emo?” I asked in amusement, crossing my arms. “I have yet to be informed of what that means, by the way.”

Ian threw back his head and laughed. “Uncle Jamie would gut me alive if I told!”

I groaned long-sufferingly, then glanced back at Joe and Gail, who were staring wide-eyed. “Oh, Joe, Gail, this is Ian. He’s a Cheyenne, and J…Mac’s adopted nephew. Ian, these are friends of mine, Joe and Gail.”

Ian waved cheerfully. “Friends of Ma’heóná’e are friends of mine!”

“Is everything okay, Ian?” I asked him. “Not that I’m complaining of your visit, but your father and everyone, they’re alright?”

“They’re braw,” he said, slipping briefly into a rather convincing Scottish accent.

“Here to see Bree then? She’s out but…”

“Here to see you!” he exclaimed, shuffling closer and starting to take my laundry down for me. “Can I not visit my favorite Auntie?”

“Auntie?” I asked. “Oh I get it, if you can adopt an uncle you can adopt an aunt?”

“Sure,” he grinned, then winked at Joe and Gail, who both laughed. I scowled, feeling like it was all at my expense.

“You’re always welcome, Ian,” I said, folding a sheet. “And I’m sure you’re hungry.”

“Always,” he said solemnly. “And if anyone sees a cross-looking Cheyenne brave, about this tall,” he raised his hand to about my height. “With a brown feather in his hair, I did not kiss his woman.”

I groaned. “Really Ian? Tell me I’m not about to have a revenge seeking brave invading my house!”

He scowled at me in affront. “I’d never endanger you, Auntie!  The Cheyenne are your friends. No one would dare bring violence to your house, or they risk the wrath of my father, and Black Kettle. Or worse…Nayawenne,” he smirked over at Joe and Gail. “That is why I am here, and not at home.”

“So,” Joe began. “Did you kiss the girl?”

Ian stretched his mouth into a straight line, before hanging his head dramatically. “Yes. But it wasn’t my fault! She didn’t tell me she was promised!”

“Oh, Ian,” I sighed. “Fine, you may hide here, but if your father or uncle come looking, I’m not lying for you.”

“Of course not!” he exclaimed. “Have you any chores that need done?”

I gestured toward the cow pasture. “Willie could probably use help herding the cows in for the night. Then he needs to go pick up Brianna from church where she’s been having choir practice. Remind him, please. He’s been forgetful lately,” I looked him up and down. He was wearing William’s old clothes from the last time he visited town, and could more or less pass as just another townsperson, so long as no one took too close a look at his tattooed face. “You could go with him, so long as you keep your head down.”

“I won’t let you down!” he exclaimed before bounding gracelessly off.

“Just what you need,” Joe chuckled. “Another kid under your roof!”

“Ian’s a good boy,” I said.

“Still,” Gail said, grimacing slightly. “Is it safe for you? Keeping a Cheyenne here?”

“It’s not illegal, and half the town has already seen him around. No one’s going to make too big a fuss over a fourteen year old boy.”

Joe huffed. “If you say so, Lady Jane.”

 

William started at the sudden appearance of a Cheyenne brave out in the cow pasture. Admittedly, he’d been a little in his own head, which he was getting pretty bad about lately.

He didn’t get it. William didn’t get all flibbertijibbet about a girl! But Rachel…Rachel wasn’t like other girls William knew. She was outspoken, smart, funny, brave…

A lot like Dr. B., actually.

And Dr. B. was a great lady, if Rachel was half of what she was, William would be lucky to have her.

If only he had her…

So Ian’s appearance had been surprising, but not unwelcome, since it finally distracted him for a moment.

Young Ian was a nice enough kid. William thought Bree was sweet on him, and William wasn’t sure how he felt about that, but both his mother and Dr. B. taught them firmly that the Indians weren’t to be seen as or treated any different than any of folks.

Ian was nice, always good for a laugh, but had a trouble-making glint to his eye that William was able to spot the very first time they met when Brianna was sick.

“What brings you around here?” William asked, hoping he sounded solicitous and not suspicious.

“Just around for a visit,” Ian said in his near-flawless English. “Your mother said I can stay for a few days, so long as I help you with chores, and remind you to get Brianna from church.”

“Damn!” William swore. “Forgot all about that!” he started taking off in the direction of town. “The cows’ll just have to bide for now.”

“Can I come?” Ian called, trotting to catch up. “Your mother said I could, so long as I,” he pitched his voice in actually a pretty good imitation of Dr. B.’s accent. “Keep my head down!”

William laughed. “Sure. But eh…she’s not my mother, you know that, right?”

Ian blinked at him. “I know that. Brianna and Fergus call her “Mama,” though.”

“I know,” William said, flushing slightly. “And that’s fine, but she ain’t our real Ma. She died.”

Ian shrugged. “As did mine. But loving others doesn’t stand in the way of my loving her.”

“I know that, William said, a tad defensively. “Forget I said anything. And remember to keep your head down.”

“Head down. Got it.”

They reached the church just in time to see the choir members spilling out the front doors. William hesitated to see Brianna walking alongside Rachel of all people, and Reverend Wakefield, and he grabbed Ian’s arm to hold him back.

“I don’t think I have much of a future in singing, Reverend,” Brianna was saying laughingly. William had a moment were he had to stop and stare at her for just a second…when had she gotten so…grown up sounding?

“I think you sound just fine, Miss Bree,” the Reverend said. “The Alto section would be incomplete without you! And not just because you managed the fix the risers for us! I want you and Rachel to work on your duet this week.”

“Who is that?” Ian asked lowly.

“Reverend Wakefield,” William answered, not taking his eyes from Rachel’s face as she conversed charmingly with Bree and the Reverend.

“Not him! Her! With Brianna!”

William turned to glare at him, and felt a hot rise of irrational anger at the way Ian was staring at Rachel.

“Oh, there’s Willie,” Bree said, making Rachel spin around to see. The girls said goodbye to the Reverend and made their way over to them, and if William could have shoved Ian into a trough or something, he would have.

“William, w…Ian?” Brianna gasped in delight. “What are you doing here?”

“Came to visit,” Ian said, straightening his shoulders.

Rachel was peering at Ian curiously in the dim light given off by the church, when he turned to smile at her, she gaped at the sight of his tattoos.

“You’re…you’re…” she stammered, growing louder with every repeat.

William and Brianna each grabbed one of her arms and dragged her a few feet away from where the rest of the choir was starting to congregate.

“Shh!” William said. “Say it loud and we’ll have the army descending on us, next!”

“Ian is our friend,” Brianna said.

“Denny did say there were Indians around here, but that they weren’t usually dangerous.”

“Well,” Ian drolled, sticking his hands into the pockets of his borrowed pants. “This Denny has not seen Nayawenne when you say you do not like her cooking.”

Rachel giggled, and William could have sworn he saw a distinct rise in color to her cheeks. Brianna saw it too, and looked back and forth between the two with a growing scowl.

“Well, we should be going,” Brianna said, grabbing Ian’s arm and turning him.

“It was nice meeting you, Ian,” Rachel called.

“Nice meeting…wait!” Ian broke away from Brianna to lope back over to Rachel. “What is your name?”

Rachel smiled shyly. “Rachel. Rachel Hunter.”

“Rachel Hunter,” Ian echoed. “A good name! I will see you soon, Rachel Hunter!”

“Let’s go,” William hissed, shoving Ian lightly in the direction of home.

He told himself it didn’t matter. Ian was charming and flirtatious by nature, but he was a Cheyenne Indian who lived on a reservation miles from town. Perhaps Rachel was a little intrigued by his differentness, but it didn’t mean a thing.

Chapter Text

If I had thought that having an additional teenager around the homestead wouldn’t make much difference, I would have been very wrong.

It wasn’t that Ian was misbehaved, or messy. Quite the opposite. But he was full of boundless energy, mischievousness, and clumsiness to the point it was like having a second Fergus around the house. Mixed with a second Adso.

He and Brianna still got along well, and he and Fergus were becoming co-conspirators, but there was some sort of male rivalry happening between Ian and William. I watched the two boys circle one another daily like a pair of territorial wolves. There were never any cross words that I could hear, or physical confrontations, but everyone else could feel the tension between them. I thought at first it had something to do with Ian and Brianna’s friendship, or perhaps the attention I was giving him, but William was not, by nature, a jealous person. I felt like there had to be something else.

I expected someone to come looking for the boy eventually, so I wasn’t surprised when the elder Ian came riding up one afternoon alongside Jamie.

Ian nodded politely to me, but didn’t beat around the bush. “Where is he?”

I smiled, hoping he wasn’t angry with me for harboring the young fugitive. “He’s gone with Fergus to check and set traps. I’m sorry, I know I probably should have sent him home right away…”

He held up a hand to stop me. “No, I am indebted to you for taking him in as your own. It was best that he got away. Buffalo Chaser was angry enough to kill, as was his right.”

“Didn’t cause too much trouble, did he?” Jamie asked, smirking.

I waved a hand. “No, actually he’s quite helpful. But he and William don’t particularly get along.”

Jamie’s brows raised. “I must say, I’m surprised. I thought th’ two would ha’ been fast friends.”

“Me too. But William is a bit older than him, maybe he sees him as a bit of a pest. Here he comes with Fergus now.”

Ian and Fergus rambled down the path, almost tripping over their own feet as they laughed at something one of them had said. But then Ian saw who was with me, and his laughter dried up in an instant.

Two Moons said something to his son in Cheyenne, and Ian frowned. “English, Father. We must show courtesy to our hosts.”

I glanced up at Jamie to find him hiding a smile behind his hair, and it looked like Two Moons was having a hard time keeping a straight face as well.

“Fine, English it is, son. You have wronged Buffalo Chaser. Are you ready to come home and atone for what you’ve done?”

“What did you do?” Fergus asked Ian.

“Kissed his woman,” Ian said honestly. “But last I checked it takes two people to kiss!”

Two Moons scowled, but I rather suspected it was to keep from laughing. “You are starting to sound like a white man.”

Ian shrugged. “You named me like one.”

“Regardless,” Two Moons sighed. “It is time to go home, son.”

“Not yet!” Ian exclaimed, bordering on a whine.

“Buffalo Chaser is no longer angry,” Two Moons said. “So long as you go to his lodge and apologize for the disrespect. You are safe.”

“But I do not want to go!” Ian crossed his arms. “I like it here!”

“Yeah!” Fergus agreed. “Don’t make him go yet!”

“Claire was kind to let ye stay, a charaid,” Jamie said. “But she has her hands full enough wi’ her own weans and her medical clinic. Dinna overstay yer welcome.”

“But I help around the homestead,” Ian reasoned. “And Auntie said I can help her carry firewood to her clinic tomorrow!”

“Auntie?” Jamie asked, arching a brow, to which I shrugged.

“You’ve been going into the town?” Two Moons asked worriedly.

“Mostly after dark,” I said, wincing. “No one has paid him any mind so far. And those who know him for who he is, don’t mind.”

“Can’t I stay for a little longer, Father?” Ian pleaded.

“Yeah!” Fergus agreed. “A little longer?!”

Two Moons exchanged a look with Jamie, before turning to me. “What is your thought, Ma’heóná’e? It is your home and family, after all.”

I bit my lip, not wanting to get in the middle of a father and his son, but unwilling to hurt Ian by turning him out. “He’s no bother,” I hedged. “We like having him, it’s truly just up to you.”

Two Moons nodded as if I’d given a correct answer to a question that hadn’t been asked, then exchanged another one of those odd silent conversations with Jamie. “Very Well, my son. You will remain until the full moon, and then I will return for you.”

Ian grinned widely and bounced on the balls of his feet, exchanging an excited look with Fergus which, curiously, held the same sort of impression of a silent conversation as Jamie and Two Moons. “Thank you, Father. I will be ready on the full moon.”

“You will respect your aunt,” Two Moons continued, making me chuckle at the continued use of the honorific. “You will do good work for her.”

Ian nodded solemnly. “Yes, Father.”

Smiling in satisfaction, Two Moons nodded to me in farewell before mounting his horse, though Jamie remained behind.

“Thought it only fair tae explain tae ye,” he said once Two Moons had ridden away and Ian and Fergus had run off to finish their chores. “By leavin’ Young Ian here, Ian has sort of given him tae ye in a way, as a foster child.”

“Well, of course I take care of him the same way I do mine…” I began. “I hope he knows that.”

“He does,” Jamie said. “But what I mean is, it’s no’ a light thing he’s done. Nor was it when Young Ian came here initially. Ye are family tae them, now. Young Ian will regard ye now as another parent, a bit like a godmother.”

“Oh, now I see,” I said, then smiled. “Well, that’s fine by me. Ian is a good boy.”

“Aye,” Jamie said quietly, and then the two of us stood in silence a moment, but for once the silence wasn’t entirely comfortable the way it always had been before.

Suddenly I deeply regretted my impulsive act on my birthday. True, the memory of that kiss still filled me with warmth, but that warmth was rapidly cooling in the face of the awkward impasse we were at now.

“I’ll uh, just be goin’, then,” Jamie said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder.

“Why don’t you stay for dinner?” I asked lightly, desperate to get back some of our old comradery. “You wouldn’t leave me to deal with all these kids alone, would you?”

He smiled. “Wouldn’a wish such a fate on my worst enemy, Sassenach. What’s for dinner?”

 

“Take it easy, Ian!” I admonished as Ian struggled to carry far too many pieces of firewood into the clinic at one time. “This isn’t a race! You’re going to hurt yourself.”

He dumped his burden on the floor with a crash that made me wince. “I told you I could get it all!” he crowed, pulling off the cap I made him wear the rare occasions I brought him to town. “Can I go to that place across the street? The one with all the women?”

“The saloon?” I scoffed. “Even if you weren’t Cheyenne, you are not nearly old enough for that sort of establishment. Not that I would approve of you going at any age. As it is, you are Cheyenne and I’m afraid the proprietor would sooner shoot you than serve you whiskey.”

“What did Indians ever do to white people? Ian asked, crouching to stack the firewood.

I snorted. “You didn’t do anything, Ian. You’re only trying to hold on to your land, and way of life. It just so happens that your land and way of life don’t fit in to the way white men think the world should work.”

“So, if we let the white men have the land, live the way the white man thinks we should, they’ll stop killing our people?”

His innocent question felt like a knife in my heart. I knelt down beside him and took his chin, tilting his head up to meet mine. “I wish I could tell you for sure that fighting for your land and life was a winning battle, but that doesn’t mean you should give up.”

“But fighting could mean killing, and I don’t want to kill anyone.”

I released him and stood back up. “Great things have been accomplished by men who believe in peace, Ian. I think strongly that perhaps you could be the next one.”

He smiled at me, then flinched at the sound of the door opening. As per instruction, he made to hide in the hall, but paused at the sight of who it was entering the clinic.

“Rachel,” I said. “You’re early…” I glanced nervously at Ian, who’d stopped and was just standing there like an idiot, his long dark hair and tattooed face on full display.

But Rachel surprised me by only smiling and greeting him. “Ian! Hi!”

Ian raised a hand in a sort-of wave. “Hello.”

“You two know one another?” I asked.

“We met the other night after choir practice,” Rachel said. “Don’t worry, Dr. B. I haven’t told anyone he’s here, not even my brother.”

“Well, I appreciate that, Rachel,” I said before cutting my eyes over to Ian. “But not the fact that no one informed me of this encounter.” Ian shrugged sheepishly. “Well, Rachel, there’s still a couple of hours before my first scheduled patient is set to arrive. Why don’t you go over those anatomy charts I showed you?”

“Sure!” she skipped over to my bookcase to retrieve the charts, glancing at Ian over her shoulder all the while. “Can I practice by telling Ian what I know so far?”

“That’s not a bad idea,” I said. “You can go to that first room there so that Ian’s out of sight,” I watched them scurry out of the examination room and narrowed my eyes. “Keep the door open, please.”

Sighing long-sufferingly, and wondering if I just contributed to a major teenage drama, I began setting up for the tooth extraction I had later that day.

It wasn’t long before Brianna and Fergus returned from school, and William from working with Jenny’s cattle.

“Need any help, Mama?” Brianna asked.

“No, thank you, darling. It’s been a quiet day. I have a patient coming soon, and Rachel’s just in the back studying. But come to think of it, you should all probably take Ian home now, before Mr. Stubbs arrives.”

“Ian? He’s here?” William asked. “Where?”

“In the back with Rachel…” I began, watching a fascinating transformation come over William’s face.

“Hi, everyone!” Rachel exclaimed, emerging from the back with Ian in tow.

“’The hell are you doing?” William said, heedless of his audience.

“Excuse me?” Rachel and I said in unison.

William flushed, but didn’t back down. “N…not you, Rachel! Him!” he turned to me. “And you! You’re letting them be alone in a room together?”

I crossed my arms. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, William. But for the record I could see them from my desk. Now, I don’t appreciate the way you’re speaking to me right now, or that language.”

“What’s the matter with you, William?” Rachel asked, also crossing her arms.

“I…just don’t think it’s proper!” William said, face growing redder. Ian, for his part, was grinning smugly.

“Bree, Fergus, take Ian home now,” I said, my tone brooking no argument.

“Come on, you,” Bree growled, grabbing Ian by the arm and dragging him out the back. “See you later, Rachel.”

“Bye,” Rachel said, not taking her eyes from William.

“Rachel, could you run down to Murtagh’s? I need matches. Just charge it to my account.”

“Yes, Dr. B.”

Once William and I were alone, I leaned against my desk and crossed my arms again. “Well? I’m waiting for an explanation.”

William huffed and shifted his weight from foot to foot, and the sight would have been enough to make me laugh had I not been aware of how unkind it would have been. It was just that he’d grown up so much physically in the two and a half years I’d known him, transforming suddenly from a lanky boy to a strapping man right before my eyes. It was easy to forget sometimes that he was still a boy until moments like this when he was caught in the wrong, and shuffled his feet before me like Fergus when he’s gotten into the candy before dinner.

“I’m sorry I spoke disrespectfully, Dr. B.,” he muttered. “Shouldn’t’a done that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” I said. “And I accept your apology. But do you want to tell me what’s going on with you and Ian? I mean, I think I can guess at this point, but I’d like it if you just talk to me.”

“Well why don’t you talk to Ian?” he snapped. “He’s suddenly your favorite kid.”

“Ian is a guest,” I said. “You can’t truly be thinking he’s going to replace you children?”

William sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “No. I just wish he’d go back to where he came from. It’s too much work keeping him hidden, too crowded around the homestead…”

“Too crowded around Rachel?”

He flushed scarlet again, and ducked his head. “Ian’ll flirt with anyone with a bosom…pardon my language. I don’t like him treating Rachel that way, is all. Bad enough with Brianna, but she’s too young to notice in any case.”

I sighed, and pushed off the desk to stand closer to him. “First of all, it’s my humble opinion that each and every one of you is too young to be so concerned about which boy spends time with which girl. But since I know none of you share that opinion, here’s the thing: Rachel is an independent young woman who knows her own mind. I won’t argue with you that Ian is a flirt, but that’s part of the reason he’s here. I’m trying to help teach him to respect women better. But he’s a good boy, and Rachel can handle his clumsy flirting just fine. It’s not bad that you want to protect her, but you’re going about it all wrong, and you’re just going to end up pushing her away. All you can do at this point is treat Rachel the way she deserves to be treated, be dependable, be there for her. The rest will have to take care of itself. And as for your sister…you’re aware, aren’t you that she’s only a little more than a year younger than Rachel?”

“Ugh, you’re right,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “And you’re right about the rest of it.”

I smiled at him and stood up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “It won’t be hard for Rachel to see what a sweet, kind young man you are. Just make sure you’re showing her the real you.”

His cheeks dimpled as he returned my smile. “Thanks Dr. B.”

Chapter Text

“What in heaven’s name is a Hurdy Gurdy?” I asked Jenny, who was fluttering around Murtagh’s shop gathering various fabrics.

“I think it’s a type of instrument,” Murtagh said, watching as Fergus perused his selection of harmonicas.

“Well…yes, but it’s also a dance event,” Jenny said. “I’ll have a group of young ladies who will dance with the men for a fee, and the proceeds will go to rebuilding the McCormick home that burned down last week.”

“Pay to dance with women?” I clarified, wrinkling my nose. “Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like…”

No,” Jenny snapped. “This is a perfect respectable pastime! The girls will all be of a high moral standard, it will be strictly chaperoned, and all dancers must dance a Bible-width apart.”

“I’m still not so sure…” Roger said. “Do you have to hold it so close to the church?”

“Have I ever told you what my favorite verse is, Reverend?” Jenny asked, eyes twinkling.

“No…”

“Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.”

At Roger’s blank stare, she continued. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven…a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance!”

I had to chuckle at Jenny having out-scriptured the Reverend, and he only shook his head with a rueful smile.

“Can I be a dancer?” Brianna asked hopefully, sidling up to Jenny.

Jenny’s eyes widened and met mine, which narrowed.

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said. “I’m keeping the age limit firmly at fifteen.”

“That’s no fair,” Brianna whined. “No one ever dances with me at dances.”

“So why do you think they’d pay to?” Fergus suddenly said, looking up from his harmonica selection.

Brianna screeched in outrage and ran after Fergus, the two of them circling poor Murtagh until he snatched Fergus’s harmonica and blew it once loudly, surprising them both into stopping.

“Brianna! Fergus! Both of you stop it this instant!” I snapped. “Take our purchases out to the wagon, now.”

Cowed, Bree and Fergus did as told, leaving Murtagh and Jenny chuckling in their wake.

“I don’t know how you manage it,” Jenny said. “Those two, plus love-sick William, plus one extra?”

“One extra what?” I asked too-innocently.

Jenny gave me an exasperated look. “Do you really think we haven’t noticed the extra child you’ve suddenly acquired? Or why you seem intent on hiding him? He’s an Indian, isn’t he?”

I glanced at Murtagh, who was grimacing, but at least didn’t look outraged. “It’s only temporary. Ostensibly it’s just because he wanted to stay…but I think things may be bad at the reservation, and that his father wanted him away from it for a while.”

“Is his father that man who came here during the epidemic?” she asked in a rather peculiar tone.

“Yes, that’s him,” I said, wondering why she was so curious. “You won’t say anything will you?”

“Of course not,” Jenny said.

“You’re being a damn fool,” Murtagh groused.

“He won’t say anything,” Jenny said confidently. “Despite all his growling, he’d never let harm come to you or those kids.”

I grinned over at Murtagh, but he only harrumphed and started wiping down his counter.

 

“Ian? Dinner,” I called out the front door, finding the boy sitting out in the yard with Adso in his lap, staring out toward the mountains. “What is it?” I asked, coming out to stand beside him.

“Full moon,” he said, stroking Adso’s silky back. “Father said he would come today.”

I hummed, looking out into the still, brightly lit night. “Maybe he just got caught up with something. I’m sure he’ll come tomorrow.”

“I should go home,” Ian said, turning to look at me. “Something could be wrong.”

I bit my lip, remembering the tense lines around the elder Ian’s eyes. “Just wait until tomorrow. It’s late, and I’m sure he’ll be here. If not, I’m sure we could find Jamie.”

“He hasn’t been around much,” Ian pointed out.

“I know,” I said. “I’m sure he’s been busy.”

“How can he be too busy for his heart?”

“His…what?”

Ian shrugged. “That is what Black Kettle calls Nayawenne. And I have heard Uncle Jamie call you the same thing.”

I sputtered. “W…when? When have you heard Jamie call me that?”

“I heard him say it to you once, though I think he didn’t mean to say it out loud. He called you mo cridhe.” he said the Gaelic words in perfect Scottish accent.

I remembered hearing him call me that, when I was sick, but of course had no idea what they meant. “That means my heart?”

“Aye.”

I had no idea what to do with that information, so I just ushered the boy in for dinner. I stared out toward the mountains for another minute, listening to the echo of distant thunder…until I realized with a sinking feeling that it was gunshot.

“Jamie where are you?” I whispered, before going inside.

 

I felt like we were just playing with fire by continuing to take Ian into town with us, but it was hard just leaving the boy home alone, especially because his father was two days late, and if I did leave him alone, he was bound to just set off on his own, and I was terrified of what he might find if he did…or who might find him.

Jenny had selected her dancers for her Hurdy Gurdy, and Rachel was among them. William was in a state, fretting about knowing the right dances and having the money to purchase dances with her, but Ian was no longer participating in the boys’ self-made competition due to his own worry.

I was leaving the store happy to escape the gaggle of girls choosing fabric for new dresses, having not been fond of that sort of thing even when I was a young girl.

Ian was beside me, hat pulled low over his brow, collar pulled up high, and his long ponytail tucked into his shirt. He was still short and scrawny enough that people overlooked him as just another child about town. One growth spurt though and he would be noticed not as an ignorable boy, but a man and a stranger.

Neither of us noticed the approaching horses until Fergus exclaimed and reached up to grab a handful of my skirt.

“Mama…it’s Two Moons!”

Ian and my heads both snapped up, and I took a tight hold of his shoulder automatically.

A troop of soldiers were marching into town, led by a pinched-face man with an absurdly long yellow mustache. A Cheyenne man I couldn’t identify was draped over a horse; I couldn’t even tell for sure if he was alive, and Two Moons was being led on foot by a rope, his hands tied behind his back. He was bruised and bleeding, but more-or-less alright.

The general strode up to Tom Christie, asking if he was the barber, then proceeding to usher Two Moons, the unconscious Cheyenne man, and several wounded soldiers into the barbershop.

Ian was pulling against me, and in my shock I didn’t even realize I was losing my grip on him until I did. He would have been across the street and straight into the hands of those soldiers had Jenny not appeared and gotten a surprisingly strong grip on his arm for a woman so small.

“Are you insane, boy?” she hissed.

“Ian, no!” I hissed, running to stand in front of him to shield him from view. “I know, I know. I’m going to go help him but you have to get out of here.”

“They have my father!” he spat.

“Ian, if you go over there now they will kill you, do you understand that? And where will your father be then, hm?”

“She’s right, lad,” Jamie said, materializing from nowhere. “Ye have to get away, and fast.”

“You’ll help him?” Ian asked, staring pleadingly from me to Jamie in turn.

“We will,” I promised. “Now go. Go to the homestead and hide until someone comes for you.”

I pushed him in the direction of home, and Fergus grabbed his hand, all but dragging him away.

“Jamie,” I spun to face him. “Where the hell have you been? What happened?!”

“They attacked the village wi’ no warning,” Jamie said quietly. “No’ many casualties, but they’re pushing them back. Farther into the mountains. Claimin’ they have tae keep them contained for some crimes they didn’a commit.”

I shook my head in anger. “Black Kettle and Nayawenne? They’re okay?”

“Aye, for now.”

“Well, I need to go see if I can help them,” I said, heading over the barbershop.

Tom was busy triaging the soldiers (the way I taught him,) and the general, who I assumed was General Custer, was seated comfortably on a barber chair.

“Get that woman out of here,” he drolled upon seeing me.

I pulled my arm out of the grasp of one of the soldiers. “My name is Dr. Claire Beauchamp. I’m a surgeon.”

“That so?” Custer said, with a bit more interest than I had expected. “So you’re Dr. Beauchamp? I heard all about you from Colonal Chivington.”

“I bet you did,” I muttered, already intensely disliking the man. “I’m here to help.”

“Mr. Christie?” Custer inquired. “Do you need the help?”

Tom was clearly out of his depth with so many patients at once, but of course tried to play it casual. “So long as she doesn’t get in the way.”

“I found the blacksmith,” a young man said, pulling Joe into the barbershop.

“I need two sets of irons,” Custer said cordially. “About…ten feet of chain, key locks if you have them. How soon can you get those for me?”

Joe hesitated, glancing around at the room full of soldiers, landing lastly on me. “I uh…can’t do that, General,” he said finally.

“Can’t? Or won’t?”

Joe straightened his shoulders determinedly. “I’m not so good and making chains, sir. They always seem to break. You’d be better off finding someone else.”

Custer’s brow lowered. “Is there another blacksmith in town?”

“I don’t believe so.” 

My breath caught in fear for Joe, but Custer only stared him down a moment before turning to the soldier who had brought Joe in. “Corporal Hill knows how to work iron, doesn’t he, Sergeant?”

“Yes sir,” the sergeant said.

Joe and I exchanged another look before he shouldered his way out of the barbershop.

I took immediate stock of the men and their injuries. None looked life-threatening, and Tom could handle a few on his own, so I directed a nearby soldier to take the less serious cases to the clinic and get them water to wait, and then I knelt to tend the most serious case; the unconscious Cheyenne man.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Custer asked.

“His injuries are the most serious,” I said without looking at him.

Custer had been so quiet and still the entire time I’d been in there with him, I wasn’t expecting him to suddenly leap to his feet and pull me roughly away from the Cheyenne man. “You will tend my men first,” he barked.

I wasn’t surprised by that, but still scowled at him in disgust. “None of your men have life-threatening injuries!”

“Parker, lock these savages up in the livery.”

“Stop it!” I screamed as the men began to carelessly lift the young man. “He could die if I don’t treat him!”

Jamie was pushing his way into the building, getting in between the soldiers and me, but we both froze at the sound of a gun cocking.

“You will treat my men first,” Custer said calmly, his pistol inches from Two Moon’s head. “Or this one dies now,” he held the gun even closer. “Now.”

“Alright,” I said weakly. “I’ll treat your men.”

Custer smiled, and I realized then that he wasn’t just vile…he was insane. “Thank you. Sergeant, lock him up.”

Two Moon’s and my eyes met as the sergeant untied him from the chair he was sitting against. His eyes were hard but pleading, and mine must have looked helpless.

 

I quickly set the wounded men up in my clinic, most of them boys no older than William…who I sent home as soon as I found him, to look after Ian and the children. William may have been at odds with Ian, but after seeing what was going on, grew immediately worried about the younger boy and promised he would make sure Ian remained at the homestead no matter what. Jenny decided to go as well, in case I didn’t make it home that night.

Custer floated around the clinic, making my skin crawl. It wasn’t just his attitude toward the Indians. Just something about the man didn’t sit right at all with me, no matter that the young men under his charge looked at him with respect and hero worship.

“How are you feeling?” he asked a boy whose eyeless socket I was bandaging.

“Pretty good,” he said, clearly putting on a brave front.

“He will be alright to leave in about a week,” I said.

Custer didn’t even bother looking at me, just smiled like a proud father at the boy. “We ride out in two days. Think you’ll be ready by then?”

“Yes, sir!” the boy said immediately.

“General,” the sergeant said, peeking in the door. “Black Kettle is here, under a flag of truce.”

I followed the train of men out of the clinic to see Black Kettle atop his prized pinto, dressed in formal Cheyenne garb, with his American flag draped across the horse and a white one in his hand. He was surrounded by braves, and Jamie was there on foot to act as ambassador.

“You’re wasting your time, sir,” Custer said in a bored tone.

“Chief Black Kettle has come tae try’n keep th’ peace,” Jamie said. “Ye’ll insult him if ye dinna sit down wi’ him and talk.”

Custer glared at him. “I won’t sit down and talk as long as his men keep killing settlers!”

“He said he was told th’ ones who kill are Dog Soldiers…renegades who he has no control over.”

“He’s lying. Arrest him now, Sergeant!”

I gasped as the soldiers all raised their guns, and immediately the braves raised their spears and bows. But Black Kettle raised his hand, and called for his men to stop. Then he spoke to Custer in low, calm tones.

“What did he say?” Custer asked Jamie.

Jamie glanced at me, then back at Custer. “He said that if Two Moons is no’ back by t’night, ye’ll have more trouble than ye can deal with.”

“The Indian will remain my prisoner, until he tells me where the Dog Soldiers are hiding.”

Black Kettle spoke again, shaking his head as he did, then without a backward glance, turned his horse and led his men out of town.

Custer glared after him, and looked at Jamie, waiting for a translation.

“He said yer too young n’ foolish tae live tae be a wise old man,” Jamie said.

Custer and Jamie stared one another down, and I could just feel a fight brewing, so I hurried to Jamie’s side, aware that I was showing Custer and his men where my affiliations laid.

“Jamie don’t, please,” I whispered. “He’ll kill you, you know that.”

Jamie didn’t take his eyes off Custer, but backed down, and walked away.

I longed to follow him and talk to him, but instead I went after Custer.

“General,” I said, trying to catch up. “I want to see Two Moons and the other Cheyenne.”

“Mr. Christie will be handling Two Moon’s treatment from now on,” Custer said, not slowing his walk. “The other one is dead. I’d rather you spend your time on my men.”

I felt a pang for the young man whose name I didn’t even know, but powered on. “How I spend my time is my choice.”

Custer finally stopped, turning to face me with frustration in his every gesture. “And how I deal with my prisoner is mine. If Two Moons doesn’t tell me where the Dog Soldiers are in two days, I will execute him. May as well let your savage friend know.”

 

I returned home feeling exhausted and discouraged, but put on a brave face the moment I walked in the door.

“Auntie!” Ian exclaimed, bounding over to me. “How is my father?!”

“He’s alright for now,” I told him. “They’re keeping him locked up until he tells them where the Dog Soldiers are.”

Ian growled and turned away. “Dog Soldiers!” he spat. “The Dog Soldiers do not follow Black Kettle or my father. He does not know where they are now!”

“I figured as much,” I said. “Unfortunately General Custer doesn’t see it that way.”

“What are you going to do?” Jenny asked, placing a calming hand on Ian’s back.

I raised my arms then let them fall again. “I don’t know.”

There was a sudden banging on the door, and I hissed at Ian to hide under Brianna’s bed.

Once he was well out of sight, I opened the door to find the sergeant on the other side.

“Mr. Christie sent for you,” he said shortly. “The prisoner was injured trying to escape.”

I had to force myself not to look in the direction of Brianna’s bed, and hurried to gather back up my medical bag.

“I’ll stay here with the kids,” Jenny said, and I nodded to her in thanks and followed the sergeant into the night.

Chapter Text

As I dismounted Bear outside the livery, I felt Jamie’s hands touch my waist briefly as he helped me down. “Tell them ye need me tae translate,” he whispered in my ear, and I nodded and led the way over to where two men were guarding the door to the livery.

“He can’t go in there,” one of them said.

“I don’t speak Cheyenne,” I said, not trusting myself under the situation to flat-out lie. “Now, unless one of you would like to translate for me…”

The two men glanced at one another, unsure, but didn’t stop Jamie as he followed me in after removing the belt which held his tomahawk and sporran and tossing it to the ground. I glanced back, worried the soldiers would steal it, but Rollo immediately plopped himself on top of it. No one would be touching Jamie’s things.

Yet another soldier was standing guard at the stable where Two Moons was being held, and Tom rose as we entered.

“I’ve done what I could,” he said sincerely. “I thought you’d better come take a look at him.”

I squeezed his hand in thanks and hurried to kneel beside Two Moons. It wasn’t easy to make out in the dark, but his face was even more bruised and swollen than before. “I’ll need water,” I said to whoever was listening. “How did this happen?!”

“Ran into the butt of a rifle, I reckon,” the soldier said disinterestedly as he handed me the bucket of water, one of the same buckets used for the horses.

I sneered in his direction before turning my full attention on Two Moons. He had multiple contusions all over his face, his mouth was swollen and bleeding, and the skin surrounding the iron around his neck was blistered like he’d been yanked around by the chain. Butt of a rifle indeed.

His eyes met mine, and I felt like he was attempting that silent communication he did with Jamie. I wasn’t as adept at that as they were, but even I could see the anger and fear in his dark eyes.

Tom had done a decent job so far, but seemed to have forgotten to give the poor man water to drink. There was no cup or ladle to be seen, so I was left with only my hands to get water to his mouth.

I ran my hands over his torso to search for further injury, and when my hand reached his shoulder he hissed through his teeth, and I could feel the distortion of dislocation.

“His shoulder is dislocated,” I said, speaking to him but careful to make it sound like I was talking to his translator. “I’ll need to set it.”

Jamie obliged by repeating my words in Cheyenne, but Two Moons was already bracing himself resignedly.

I glanced at Tom, who immediately moved to brace Two Moons, and I didn’t miss the fact of how upset he looked over Two Moon’s treatment.

Jamie said something to Two Moons in a teasing tone, and Two Moons cracked a weary smile which he aimed at me. I of course couldn’t understand, but I inferred that it had something to do with it being Two Moons’ turn to have his shoulder set by me.

Smiling back in a way that I hoped was reassuring, I nodded at Jamie and Tom to hold him still while I pulled the joint back into place. It went in easily, and Two Moons barely made a sound save for a low groan.

“I need you to take the iron off,” I told the guard as I placed Two Moon’s arm in a sling. “I need to clean the wounds on his neck.”

“What is he doing in here?” Custer demanded, charging into the stable.

“The doctor said she needed him to translate,” one of the guards from outside said nervously.

Custer gestured to his sergeant. “Get that man out of here. Now.”

I missed the end of Jamie’s shirt by an inch in my effort to grab him before he launched to his feet. The sergeant took hold of him before he could reach Custer, and Two Moons snapped at him in Cheyenne, something I assumed by his tone amounted to stop, you fool.

“What did he say?” Custer asked.

Jamie shoved the sergeant away. “He asked why ye kill women and children.”

“The Indians ambushed my company,” Custer replied, as if it were obvious.

“Ye liar,” Jamie hissed, lunging again, fists clenched and ready.

Custer pulled his pistol and leveled it with Jamie’s face, and my heart stopped. “If this man comes within a hundred yards of here, shoot him on sight,” Custer ordered. “Then kill the prisoner!”

I watched as Jamie was escorted roughly from the stable. “How could you do this to a human being?” I asked Custer. “When he hasn’t even done anything wrong?”

Custer sighed and shrugged, looking tired. “He’s just an Indian, ma’am,” he said, almost gently, as if speaking to a child upset about an injured sparrow.

“This man saved my life!”

“And now you’ve saved his. You have ten minutes to complete your examination of my prisoner, Miss Beauchamp.”

With that he was gone, and I turned back to Two Moons. I wished I could tell him that I’d figure something out, and that his son was safe. But all I could do for the moment, was clean his wounds.

 

“We have to do something!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you want me to do!” Roger argued, coming out of the room where he’d been visiting the injured soldiers at the clinic.

“You could talk to General Custer. I understand that he’s a religious man, he might listen to you.”

Roger shook his head and sighed. “Look…I…”

“Two Moons was severely beaten last night,” I told him.

“I was told he was trying to escape,” Roger pointed out.

“That’s a lie!”

“Were you there?”

“I know him!” I hissed, then lowered my voice to a near whisper. “Don’t stand there and pretend you’re not fully aware that his son has been staying with me.”

He glared at me. “And you’ll notice I’ve not said a word, and will not! I want to help, Claire, I really do. Especially considering what he did for us during the epidemic. But the fact of that matter is that this is all part of something bigger than us, and like it or not General Custer is the authority of this land.”

I clenched my jaw as he stepped around me to leave, but I spoke just as he was leaving. “Pardon me, Reverend. I just thought you answered to a higher authority.”

 

Rachel and I were setting up the clinic for the moment when she suddenly paused, her hands hovering over my scalpels. “Dr. B.? What’s that sound?”

I stopped as well and listened, feeling the blood suddenly rush out of my face when I realized it was the pounding of military drums. The rhythmic beat that hailed an execution.

I ran out of the clinic like it was on fire, reaching the square and gathering crowd in time to see Custer’s men leading Two Moons to stand in front of the livery, his hands tied in front of him. A line of soldiers were preparing their guns.

A scream had made its way out of my mouth before I was even aware of it, but before I could even take another step, Roger’s arm was around my torso, stopping me.

“You can’t do this!” I shouted at Custer, who was sighing in resignation at the sight of me. “You said two days!”

“You’re going to execute a man without a trial?!” Roger demanded, struggling to hold me back until William pushed his way through the crowd to help him. I roughly elbowed them both, but they held firm.

“What’s his crime?” Jenny asked. She had Brianna and Fergus on either side of her, trying to shield them.

“He’s an Injun,” Dougal drolled. “He’s got to have done something to be shot for.”

“This man saved our lives!” I yelled.

Custer started to make his way to the line, and Roger released me to try to stand in front of him. “I can’t believe you’ll shoot a man in cold blood!”

From the corner of my eye I saw Jamie skirting around the clinic, and rushed to meet him.

“Jamie, do something!”

“He didn’a do anything!” Jamie cried, looking young and helpless.

Custer strolled up to Jamie, a smug look on his face. “Fine. You ask him again, then.”

Jamie looked at me, then marched over to where Two Moons stood. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Two Moons shook his head. When Jamie turned around again, his face was drawn and pale. I could see his eyes scan over Custer and his men, and I knew he was calculating whether he could fight them all off, bloody man.

Custer’s hands came up to my shoulders to push me back behind the firing squad, and I pulled away from him only to be apprehended again by Roger. I twisted and bucked in his grasp, glancing once at my children to see that Jenny had Brianna’s face pressed against her chest, and William was holding Fergus in his arms, turning away.

“No!” I cried. “Please!”

“Ready,” the sergeant called.

Jamie appeared before me, relieving Roger, and forcefully pressed my face into his shoulder.

“Aim…”

Jamie’s entire frame shook in anger, and I gripped his shirt in my fingers.

“FIRE!”

There was a blast of multiple rifles, and I shoved at Jamie’s shoulders to try and get away. Maybe he wasn’t dead…maybe I could save him.

Two Moons was still standing in front of the livery, cowing back, but was unharmed.

Jamie, Roger, Jenny, and I all stood in utter shock as Custer’s men laughed, and Custer himself ordered them to lock Two Moons back up.

“Blanks,” Murtagh murmured.

I could barely process it. My mind was warring between relief and fury. Two Moons was trembling violently as they led him past me, and I could smell the ammoniac scent of urine, but at least he was alive.

I looked up at Jamie, and he seemed in a similar state as me. “Next time, they will kill him,” he said.

“We have to do something,” I told him.

“Where’s Wee Ian?” he asked. “Is he still safe?”

I nodded. “He’s at the homestead. But I need to talk to the children. If they tell him about this…”

Jamie shook his head. “Th’ wee fool would come after Custer himself, aye. I canna send him back to the reservation just now. He wouldn’a know where tae find them, and I canna go with him just yet.”

“No, he’s safer where he is for now,” I assured him. “So long as we can keep him there. Right now we need to focus on his father. And I think I have an idea.”

 

“I just don’t think it’s right, carrying on with the Hurdy Gurdy considering what’s going on,” Jenny was saying.

“But the young folk have been so looking forward to it,” Roger said. “It isn’t their fault what the men have been doing.”

“Roger’s right,” I said, joining them where they stood outside the store. “You can’t cancel the Hurdy Gurdy, Jenny. The town needs it.”

Jenny seemed surprised to hear that coming from me, and I didn’t blame her. “Really? I don’t know…”

I bit my lip and looked around, but it was midday, and few people were outside. “There’s another reason,” I said quietly, mentally debating. But I felt like someone else needed to know what was going on, and if it were anyone, then it should be Jenny and Roger. I grabbed both their arms and pulled around the corner of the shop. “We also need the Hurdy Gurdy as…a distraction.”

“You’re going to help Two Moons escape?” Jenny asked too loudly, wincing in apology when I shushed her.

“Yes, so I need you to invite all the soldiers to the dance. Distract them with the girls, ply them with drink. I wouldn’t ask you to do anything dangerous, just keep them occupied.”

I glanced at Roger, who looked a bit pale. “Are you alright with that?” I asked him, hoping I hadn’t made a mistake in trusting him.

“What they’re doing to that man is wrong,” Roger said. “Do what you have to do, Dr. B.”

“Thank you,” I said to them both. Now on to the first phase of the plan.

 

Jamie’s first task had been to get the key to Two Moon’s shackle, which was kept on a peg in the stable, beside the guard. I never get the full story on how that was accomplished, but evidentially it was done without a hitch. He then had Joe forge a copy, so that Jamie could put it in the original key’s place.

The next part was, perhaps, the most dangerous part, and I insisted that I be the one to do it. For starters, I was the only one out of any of us with reason to be in with Two Moons. Also if it all went to hell, I could always fall back on a good old impression of a damsel in distress.

I went home and readied myself for the Hurdy Gurdy. I hadn’t wanted to tell the children what was happening, even though I hated keeping things from them, but the poor dears were so upset over Two Moons, I worried they wouldn’t be able to help keep up the illusion at the dance.

“Come on, Willie, here I thought you were so excited to buy Rachel’s dance card.”

William glanced over to where Ian sat at the window, staring out, like he’d been doing every night.

“I think I’m going to stay home with Ian,” Brianna said. “He’s the only one who would dance with me anyway, and he can’t go.”

“You have to go,” I said, a bit too desperately, and it got me several puzzled looks.

“Okay, look,” I said at last. “Ian, come here,” Ian unfolded himself from the windowsill and joined the other children. “We’re going to do everything we can to help your father,” I told him, then looked at the others. “But it’s very important that we keep on as we have, and go to the Hurdy Gurdy tonight, understand?”

As I’d hoped, sparks of understanding lit in William and Ian’s eyes, and Brianna looked as if she had a hunch as well, while Fergus was blissfully unaware.

“Alright, Dr. B.,” William said. “Come on, Bree, Fergus. Let’s go before all the dances are taken.”

“William,” Ian said, stalling him, and grinned. “Will you dance one with Rachel for me?”

William smiled back. “You bet.”

I waited until the others left before turning back to Ian. “Promise you’ll stay here?”

Ian scowled and stared at the floor. “Uncle Jamie said I risk not just my life, but your life, and the lives of Bree, Fergus, and William if I let the soldiers see me. It pulls at me…not going to my father’s aid. But my priority now, as a man, must be your safety, Ma’heóná’e. Father would want it that way.”

I smiled at him. “I trust you, Ian. And I’ll take care of your father,” I placed a hand on his cheek. “I promise.”

 

By the time I got there, the Hurdy Gurdy was in full swing.

Jenny, Gail, and the other ladies had decorated the gazebo in the meadow behind the church with white flowers, and lengths of soft blue and yellow rafters like festive streamers. There was a refreshment table set up, and the band – which consisted of Rupert, Angus, a few men I couldn’t immediately come up with the names of, and curiously, Murtagh on harmonica. It was hardly an orchestra, but the music was lively and most importantly – loud.

“Mama, is Mac going to come?” Brianna asked, appearing at my elbow. “Do you think he’d dance with me?”

“Um, I’m not sure, lovie, but I doubt he’ll be able to make it,” I said, trying not to show how nervous I was. “But I’m sure he’d love to dance with you.”

The poor darling. I remembered distinctly how it felt to be at a dance and not a single boy ask for you. But Brianna was so stunning and outgoing, I was just waiting for the day when the area young men realized it, and she’d no doubt be beating off offers.

Brianna sighed and wandered off, and I twisted a handkerchief in my hand in effort to keep from doing the same to the skirt of one my nice dresses.

The agreed-upon time was approaching, and I exchanged a look with Jenny across the crowd before making my way out of the party and toward the livery.

The guards let me by with no incident, though their gazes lingered on the décolletage afforded by my dress, as did the third guard in the stable.

Two Moons looked no worse, thankfully, only exhausted. I knelt in front of him, careful to keep the guard directly behind me. We met eyes for a moment, taking a simultaneous deep breath, and then I went into motion, checking over and cleaning his wounds.

I took a length of gauze out of my bag in one hand, and in the other produced the large iron key. I glanced once behind me, just to see how close the guard was paying attention, but he was more focused on cleaning his rifle. He smiled at me when I looked up, and I smiled back, before turning back to the task at hand.

Heart hammering, I brought the key and gauze up together, trying to use the gauze to muffle any sound. Two Moons held perfectly still, but he was watching the guard intently, and had his arm resting on his raised knee, just a hair from my shoulder, and I knew he was ready to alert me the moment the guard took notice.

I slowly…slowly inserted the key into the lock, cringing every time I heard the scrape of metal on metal. At one point, the lock made a terribly loud clanging noise, but to cover it up Two Moons hissed and shifted his feet, which jostled the chain.

“Sorry,” I murmured, going with the act that I’d hurt him.

But the lock was open, and I left the gauze at his neck while I shoved the key down the front of my dress.

I was almost done…but unfortunately Joe had only enough time to make a key and ring that looked like the real thing…but wouldn’t be a real working key at all. If I left behind the fake, it would be clear that it was a conspiracy and not a simple escape. And both Joe and I would be specifically implicated.

I paused near the keyring and looked into my bag. “Oh…silly me,” I muttered. “Sir?” I addressed the guard. “I seem to have misplaced my stethoscope. Do you see it anywhere?”

The guard nodded cordially and got up to start shuffling through the hay looking for my stethoscope. Once he was over by Two Moons, and had his back to me, I hurried to switch out the fake key for the real one. But the damned things clanked so loudly, it drew his attention.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?!” he shouted, storming toward me.

Two Moons was on his feet in an instant, wrapping a length of the chain around the guard’s neck and holding until he lost consciousness.

“So much for quick and painless,” I muttered as Jamie appeared through the back.

“Come on,” he hissed at Two Moons, then looked up at me in fear. “Sassenach…shite, lass…” he looked around and found some rope and motioned for me to turn. “Better tie ye up.”

I nodded and put my hands behind my back, and he wrapped the coarse rope around them.

“I won’t tie ye too tight,” he whispered in my ear. “Tell me if it hurts.”

“It’s fine,” I said, impatient for them to get away. “Now gag me.”

He gave me an odd look, and Two Moons snorted. “I don’t even want to know why you find that funny, now will you just hurry?”

Jamie looked around, then seemed to notice my crumbled handkerchief sticking up out of the front of my dress. Without preamble he plucked out the handkerchief before tying it around my mouth.

“Wait,” I said as the fabric came up. “The fake key, it’s still in…” clenching my jaw in annoyance, I glanced down my front.

Jamie reddened, but grinned impishly before sticking his entire hand down my bosom, and returning victoriously with the key and a wag of his eyebrows.

I rolled my eyes then glared at Two Moons, who was laughing again. Bloody men. Only they could be having such merriment in a time like this.

I sat down in the stable while Jamie and Two Moons made for the back door, but a shout was proceeded by the appearance of Custer and his sergeant, and my own scream of warning couldn’t be helped before Custer fired at Jamie’s retreating form, luckily missing.

“After them!” Custer demanded, and the sergeant and several officers took off in pursuit. He looked at me and sighed in frustration before kneeling beside me and undoing my bonds.

“You helped them escape,” he accused sharply.

I pulled the handkerchief free. “Help the Indian?” I shrilled, perhaps overdoing it a tad. “I was tied up! And after all I did to help him…”

He clenched his fists like he was wishing he could hit me, but he was far too “gentlemanly” to hit a woman. “I heard you cry out a warning!”

“I cried out in fear!” I snapped. “You came in waving guns, I was afraid you’d shoot me by mistake!”

The miserable lout knew he had nothing on me, but could see right through me, and I knew it made him furious. “You’re a traitor, Miss Beauchamp,” he leaned in closer. “And traitors are always found out. And when that happens…I’ll see you hanged.”

I had no retort, but shouldered past him and out of the livery, feeling like my insides were liquefying.

Once I was outside and headed back to the Hurdy Gurdy, I heard low bird whistle.

“Jamie?” I whispered, looking around.

“Dinna turn,” he whispered back, from behind a row of hobbled horses.

“Two Moons, is he…”

“He’s headed for th’ mountains,” Jamie said. “I’m gonna go get Young Ian now, and get him home.”

I felt a pang. The children and I wouldn’t get a chance to say goodbye, and who knew when the next time we’d see him. “Tell him and his father goodbye for us?”

“Oh aye, Sassenach. Ian is verra grateful for what ye’ve done, for him and his son. Ye’ve the soul of a warrior.”

I grinned. “He said that?”

“No…” Jamie hedged. “I uh…I did. I’ll see ye soon, Sassenach.”

I knew he was already gone before I could speak, but I did anyway. “Be safe.”

 

When I got back to the Hurdy Gurdy, Jenny and Roger were standing close together with strained smiles. Upon seeing me their looks grew instantly questioning, but I smiled in reassurance and squeezed both their arms in passing.

“What say we get a singer up here?” Jenny called out once the current song was over. “Roger?”

Roger demurred by was given enough shouts of encouragement that he took to the stage, and I watched with a grin as he opened his mouth and in the most wonderful singing voice, began Beautiful Dreamer.

I knew he’d wanted to be a musician, but I’d had no idea he could sing so wonderfully, and I was entranced. I caught sight of William and Rachel, giggling as they danced the night away, and Fergus was skirting around the crowd, fists full of cookies so that I knew there’d be no getting him to sleep that night.

But over in a corner sat Brianna, head hanging low, still no dance partner. I sidled up to her and nudged her with my hip.

“Is Ian’s father okay?” she asked.

“He’s fine,” I said. “Both he and Ian are going home.”

She hung her head again. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“We’ll see them again. Ian’s family, now, after all. But for now…could I have this dance?”

Brianna raised a brow skeptically at me, but I held my smile and my hands out to her until she melted into a giggle and let me lead her onto the dance floor. I took the man’s position and showed her where to put her hands, then led her through simple dance steps.

Brianna flushed and laughed happily as we danced across the floor, and she was really quite naturally good. She glanced up at the stage where Roger was singing, and her smile broadened. “He sure sings pretty.”

“Yes he does. And you, dear, dance beautifully.”

Chapter Text

It was awfully quiet at the homestead without Ian around. Brianna and Fergus felt his absence particularly, but while William was glad that both Ian and his father were safe, I suspected he wasn’t exactly missing him. And besides, he was still on cloud 9 after his evening with Rachel at the Hurdy Gurdy which, I suspected, may have ended in a kiss.

A newcomer had arrived into town on the stage, and I was automatically suspicious when I heard he was a suited gentleman from Denver. Those types never seemed to bear good news. But folks were soon abuzz with the fact that he was evidentially from the railroad, and offering to purchase properties ahead of the rail on its way to Colorado.

“I don’t see what we need a railroad for,” Murtagh was griping to the stranger as I entered the store. “Bunch of outsiders running about, the noise…”

“Outsiders?” Jenny breathed where only I could hear her. “You mean like sassenachs?”

I elbowed her playfully in passing, and moved closer to the two men to listen in on the conversation. The gentleman didn’t look like any railworker I’d ever seen, with his shiny bowler hat and thin twirling mustache, and he had a certain gleam in his eye that I’d long associated with snake oil salesmen.

“But think of the money!” he said, gesturing widely with his hands. “More people in town means more money in your register, good sir.”

“What is he trying to do?” I asked Jenny.

“Trying to buy the shop,” Jenny said, with a roll of her eyes, handing me the linin I’d ordered. She followed me out of the shop and across the street to the clinic. “Murtagh will never sell, the old goat.”

“Why is he trying to buy it?”

“He says he’s a lawyer of some sort, hired by the railroad to buy properties so that the railroad can come through.”

“Well, it isn’t a bad idea,” I said.

Jenny snorted. “A noisy train blowing through town at all hours?! One reason I return here after herding cattle all over Colorado is because it’s peaceful and quiet. Well, at least it always was before someone moved to town and started making waves everywhere she goes…” she cut her eyes up to me with a humorous twinkle.

Knowing she was only teasing me, I elbowed her again. “Forgive me for trying to keep things interesting!”

Denny was on the porch of the clinic, but as he didn’t look like he was sick or bleeding, I greeted him with a smile. “Hello, Denny, did you need to see me?”

“I was hoping I could get some more of that stuff you put in my ear,” he said, rubbing at said ear. “It’s been hurting again.”

I frowned. “Come inside and let me take a look…”

“And who owns this building here?” I heard someone say behind me, and turned to find the lawyer who had been speaking with Murtagh.

“She does,” Murtagh said, gesturing toward me.

The man’s eyes lighted on me and his mouth stretched into what I’m sure was meant to be a charming smile. “And who is this stunning vision?”

“This is Doctor Claire Beauchamp,” Denny introduced formally.

The man’s face looked for a moment like it was going to contort into a scowl but after a quick scan of the faces of curious bystanders who’d gathered – presumably to check that this information was correct and permissible – he only smiled even broader, if it was possible. “A woman doctor,” he sighed, reaching out to shake my hand. “Do you know, I actually had a woman doctor removed my lumbago in Denver.”

I struggled to keep my expression neutral. “Took it right out, did she?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, clearly believing he’d said the right thing.

Removing a lumbago, indeed.

“My name is Thaddeus Birch,” he said, tipping his hat. “Attorney at Law. I was hired by the United States Continental Railroad to see to it this town is ready for the train to come through!”

“Right through town?” I asked.

“Right down the middle!” he enthused, then began gesticulate wildly. “Right here, will be the train station…and right over there, a three story hotel with a crystal chandelier brought all the way from London!” he leaned toward me, as if sharing a confidence. “That’s in England, you know!”

“So I’ve heard,” I said, making sure to speak my accent clearly. Denny snickered at my side, and Jenny had to cough into her apron to cover a laugh.

 

I didn’t trust Mr. Birch in the least, even though his promises of the rail coming through town weren’t unappealing, at least in my opinion. The train would mean easier access to life-saving medicines. But I decided to have Denny wire an enquiry to Denver about this Mr. Birch, to be sure he was who he said he was.  

I got home at a reasonable daylight hour for once, happy to spend a relaxing evening with the children. Jamie would be lying low for a time, and understandably so, to give Custer and his men ample time to get far away from Colorado Springs.

I didn’t for a moment regret what I had done to save Two Moons, although Custer had managed to frighten me somewhat with his talk of treason. I knew that what Jamie and I did was, in fact, a form of treason, but it had also been the right thing to do. So where was the line between upholding the law, as I’d done my entire life, and breaking it to the right thing…something I found myself doing more and more of since coming out West…and meeting Jamie.

“Alright you,” I huffed to Adso, who was clearly in the midst of marathon sleeping on the front porch. “I’m sure there are plenty of mice around here you could be chasing. Don’t tell me you’re starting to slack off,” I sat beside him, my feet dangling off the side of the porch as I stroked his back. “Do you miss Ian too? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were beginning to miss having Rollo around to chase you. He and Jamie sure haven’t been around much, lately, hm?”

Adso’s only response was a lazy mrrp as he rolled over to give me access to his belly. But I’d fallen for that trick before, and I was in no mood to have the skin clawed off my hands.

Adso’s head perked up seconds before the sound of hoof beats reached my own inferior ears, and I watched him scrambled away under the porch before two horses came careening out of the woods.

For a moment all I could think was, I didn’t except to see the Ians back so soon, but then my mind caught up to my eyes, and I could see that they were dragging the bloody and lifeless form of Jamie off of Donas.

“Oh God, Jamie!” I cried, rushing toward them.

Ian helped Two Moons get Jamie over his shoulders, and the two hurried him into the house, where I directed them to the bed.

“Mac!” Fergus cried, getting held back by William as they and Brianna looked on in horror.

“What happened?!” I demanded.

“The soldiers followed us up the mountain,” Two Moons said, face darkened with worry and anger. “I went the long way, to keep them off my trail, and Jamie came up behind with Ian.”

“Some of them found us,” Ian continued. “Jamie played like we were only hunting. They believed it, I think, but they…” his jaw clenched. “They taunted us. And then one of them said something about how I was pretty with my long hair, and Uncle Jamie…he just went mad. He fought them, but there were two of them, and they had guns and I…” he hung his head. “I got knocked out. When I woke up, the soldiers were gone and Uncle Jamie was on the ground. I…I couldn’t lift him…I had to go find Father…”

He was beginning to get very upset, so I laid a hand on his shoulder to stop him. “It’s alright, Ian. You did the right thing. You both got him here.”

Two Moons helped me cut off Jamie’s blood-soaked shirt, and I started trying to stop the shaking in my hands to evaluate his injuries, and realizing that my usual calm, clinical mindset was nowhere to be found.

He’d been beaten to a bloody pulp. His body was a color wheel of reds, blues, purples, and blacks, and I could even see prints off the bottom of a boot where they had kicked and stomped on him. And his face…his beautiful face, was practically unrecognizable for the swelling, bruising, and blood.

“Oh Jamie…” I whispered, resolutely pushing back my anguish so that I could take care of the situation. “Has he said anything?”

“Only your name,” Two Moons said.

 

I wouldn’t let Brianna help me, considering her closeness to Jamie, her youth, and the fact that he sustained injuries over just about every portion of his body. She’d seen unclothed men while helping during the epidemic, and of course had two brothers, but I decided – and she didn’t argue – that this was just too much for her. Two Moons remained to help me undress him and clean the worst of his wounds, but ultimately I had to insist he get Ian home.

Ian was unharmed save for a bump to his head, but he was almost unrecognizable as well due to the seething righteous fury coming from every pore of his wiry body. I hoped once they were home, that Nayawenne would give him the motherly affection I longed to give him.

William, bless him, stepped up voluntarily to help me and together we went over every cut and abrasion, cleaning, applying stitches where need be, and ice in others.

“Is it bad?” he asked, holding a lamp over Jamie’s face while I applied a salve to his swollen-shut eye.

“His external wounds aren’t that serious,” I told him. “But I have no way of telling what’s happening inside.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he could have injuries inside his body, injuries to his organs, that there’s precious little I can do about.”

The light wavered slightly as William gulped and shuddered, but he held it firm. “Why did they do this?” he asked. “Two to one, that’s not a fair fight. I thought American soldiers are supposed to be better than that.”

I shook my head. “There’s good and bad everywhere, Willie. I don’t put anything past the type of men who are capable of murdering innocent children in the reservations.”

“But Jamie’s not an Indian.”

I turned to glare at him. “Is that supposed to make a difference?”

“No!” I exclaimed, eyes widening. “That ain’t what I meant! I meant to them.”

“To them, Jamie is a traitor, whether they can prove it or not. A white man who defends Indians is just as bad as an Indian, as far as they’re concerned.”

I put down the salve and looked back up at him. “That’s something you need to consider, William, as you go on. For now, you’re under my care, so you can’t be held accountable for what I do. But you’re becoming a man, and you’re going to need to decide soon where you stand.”

William looked me hard in the eye. “It’s wrong what they’re doing to the Indians. I won’t let any more innocent people be hurt, not if I can help it.”

I smiled at him. “You’re a good man, William,” I turned back to patient.

“Like him?” I heard William say behind me, sounding impossibly young and scared.

“Yes. Like him.”

 

It was a full twelve hours before Jamie fully came to. When he did, he groaned loudly and flinched, like he was ready to leap out of bed.

“Easy, easy,” I cooed. “It’s me. You’re at the homestead.”

“Sassenach?” he said breathlessly, struggling to open his swollen eye. “What happened?”

“Two Moons and Ian brought you here,” I told him, easing him back against the pillows and running a hand soothingly over his hair. “You were severely beaten by some soldiers. Do you remember?”

“Aye,” he growled. “Whoresons. Ian! Is Young Ian alright?”

“He’s fine. Just worried about you. Now listen, now that you’re awake, I need to examine you for internal injuries. I’m going to press along some places, and it’s going to hurt, but I need you to try and concentrate on the different degrees of pain, alright?”

He nodded and braced himself while I folded the sheet down to his waist. I palpated along his torso, watching his face wince each time. When I reached the area of his spleen, he groaned lowly.

“Okay, okay,” I whispered, hating causing him more pain. I looked over my shoulder to see Brianna and Fergus watching on, so I was extra careful to keep his lap covered as I lifted the sheet up from his feet, and repeated my prodding from there.

This time, Jamie didn’t so much as flinch as I ran my hands up his leg. “Does this hurt?” I asked him.

Jamie blinked and looked down at me, like he hadn’t even realized I’d been touching him. “I…I dinna feel that,” he whispered, eyes widening. “I canna move my legs, Claire…” he sat up and shifted, panic clearly rising, and I put my hands on his shoulders in effort to keep him calm.

“Jamie, Jamie, take it easy. You probably just have some fluid built up around your spinal column,” his eyes flickered to mine in panicked incomprehension, but I continued doggedly. “Once the swelling goes down, you should get the feeling back in your legs.”

“Yer sure?” he asked. Begged.

“I…I’m sure.”

He looked away. “Yer a bad liar, Sassenach.”

I sighed. “Fine, I can’t be sure. But I’m confident. You’re strong, Jamie. I truly believe you’ll heal. In the meantime, there are things I can do to keep the muscles in your legs strong.”

“Like?”

I moved back down the bed toward his feet. “I can massage them,” I began to demonstrate by rubbing his calf. “And I have poultices I can apply that will help the blood circulation. Now…just hold still, I’d like to see how far up the lack of feeling goes…” I moved my hands slowly up his leg, until they disappeared under the sheet. I was careful to stay to the outer side of his hip. But once I reached his hipbone he flinched and grabbed my hand.

“I feel that,” he rumbled uncomfortably.

“Oh…well, good,” I said, removing my hands and smoothing the sheet back over his lap.

His one open eye started to droop, so I kept him awake long enough to get some laudanum in him then covered him with a quilt to let him get some hopefully healing rest.

Only then did I let the tears fall.

 


 

That first night was the most frightening, as I sat awake beside the bed, just staring at him, watching his chest rise and fall. Occasionally his distorted face would screw up, and he would moan restlessly, so I would gently stroke his hair until he settled again.

When he awoke the next morning, he was in pain, but alert, and some of my fears of serious internal injury abated.

But he still had no feeling in his legs, so I assumed my most doggedly optimistic bedside manner, because I refused to believe he wouldn’t heal and be perfectly fine.

It wasn’t surprising but still sweet to see the children all take it upon themselves to make Jamie as comfortable as possible in their own ways. Brianna made him soup and gently bullied him into eating some. Fergus distracted him with stories about Adso and various toads.

Jamie smiled softly at them, but I could see the dread and pain in his eyes.

I made up a poultice that Two Moons once showed me to make, of Butcher’s Bloom and Rosemary; a thick, fragrant paste to rub into Jamie’s skin to increase circulation. It would keep his muscles active during his convalescence, and hopefully aid in returning some feeling to them.

“Dinna ken why yer bothering,” he huffed when I sent the children outside for their chores, and pulled the sheet up off his legs.

“Any little bit helps,” I told him gently, hating how he already sounded like he was giving up, and reminding myself he was just in pain and scared.

I massaged the green paste into his skin, focusing on trying to detect any hint of muscular activity.

I couldn’t say I’d ever given any thought to Jamie’s legs before, but now that my entire focus was on them, I could see and feel how long and strong they were. The legs of someone who rarely ever ceased movement.

There were plenty of people who were able to live their lives just find after losing the ability to walk. I’d seen them. They’d come a long way in creating wheeled chairs, leg braces, and such. But I’d also seen people who rapidly withered away to nothing when their freedom and independence were taken from them.

If Jamie never walked again, I would help him however I could for as long as he’d let me. But as strong and seemingly infallible as Jamie was, I knew in my very marrow that he could never live without the ability to walk. And somehow I also doubted he would be one to just wither away.

I started at his feet and worked my way up. When I reached the top of his thighs, and the edge of the sheet, I paused. And then I mentally berated myself for it. I was a doctor for God’s sake, and I refused to shy away just because the patient was my friend.

“Are you able to roll over?” I asked, having already noted that he had been resolutely not watching me. “Not if it’s painful, mind you, but it would really be best if I could massage the base of your spine as well.”

He grimaced, but pushed himself up on his hands, and I helped him maneuver carefully onto his back.

I pulled the sheet off entirely, but then decided to cover his upper back with it, to keep him from feeling too exposed.

“I can feel that, Sassenach,” he drolled, turning his head enough to see me. “Ye havin’ fun, lass?”

I flushed, but his teasing both eased my timidity and gladdened me to hear something a bit more cheerful coming from him.

“Oh, I’m having a grand old time,” I quipped, daring a light smack to his bare posterior before beginning the massage on his lower back. I felt his back muscles constrict as he chuckled, then hissed when it caused him pain.

Now that the tension had been eased, it was more comfortable to complete the treatment. And I was only vaguely aware of what a well-defined posterior it was.

 

Despite the one moment of cheer, Jamie’s disposition did not improve. He wasn’t a bad patient; he did everything asked of him and never complained. But he was dour and ill-tempered, and I could just tell he was aching to go outside and hit something to keep from accidentally snapping at me or the children.

After three days of forced optimism, I decided to leave Jamie in the capable hands of the children and take a much needed trip into town to check on things there. Joe has been informed of the situation, and knew to come fetch me in the case of an emergency, and Rachel had been told only that I was tending a patient outside of town. But I was anxious to see how things were going, and besides…I could use a break.

“Dr. B.!” Rachel exclaimed when I entered the clinic. “How’s your patient?”

I sighed and gave a one-shouldered shrug. “He’s healing, just a bit more slowly than I think he would like. How have things been here?”

“Little Aiden broke his ankle,” Rachel reported. “I almost sent for you, but it wasn’t a bad break, so I set it and put a plaster on it the way you showed me!”

“That’s wonderful, Rachel!” I enthused. “You’re shaping up to be quite a doctor, you know.”

“Do you really think I could be a doctor?” she asked, blushing.

“I did it, I see no reason why you couldn’t, if it’s what you want. You have a natural talent for healing. That’s something that can’t be taught. Bree is a wonderful help in surgery, she’s brilliant and quick thinking, and can use her analytical mind to anticipate my needs. But she doesn’t quite have that innate sense for it that you do.”

“Thank you, Dr. B.,” Rachel said shyly, beaming with pride. “Mrs. Miller is coming in today for a tooth extraction.”

“I can take care of it,” I told her. “You go enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”

Rachel hesitated but grinned and skipped out, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon extracting two teeth, stitching an ear, and then kissing the bruised finger of the four-year-old who wandered in while his mother was shopping. (He paid me with a gumdrop.)

“Hey, Dr. B.!” Denny called as I escorted my little patient outside and back to his amused mother. He trotted over, out of breath. “I…(gasp)…got a response from Denver!”

“Oh?” I took the telegram from him and scanned the contacts. “Interesting…”

“What are you going to do?” he asked. “I didn’t sell to him, but a lot of people in  town did.”

“Well, to start, perhaps you could tell me who sold to him, and then I’d like to show them this telegram.”

 

As it turned out, Mr. Thaddeus Birch didn’t work for the railroad at all. They had never even heard of him. Whether he was really a lawyer or not was anyone’s guess. Dougal, Tom, and – to both my and Jenny’s surprise – Murtagh had all been among those who had sold the deeds to their businesses to Mr. Birch.

Instead of buying the deeds outright, he had sold them small shares. In all actuality, none of it appeared fake or illegal, but it was certainly very unethical, considering the circumstances.

Infuriated upon reading the telegram, Dougal had been all too happy to allow me to ambush Mr. Birch inside the saloon.

“And what do I owe this pleasure?” Birch asked, smiling at me. “Won’t you have a drink with me, Dr. Beauchamp? I’ve been meaning to talk with you about that clinic…”

“I don’t think so,” I said, remaining standing. I was flanked by Tom, Dougal, Murtagh, and the others who had sold. “First of all, Mr. Birch – if that’s your real name. You don’t work for the railroad. And what’s more, you’re buying the properties of hardworking individuals with near worthless shares so that you can resell to the rail at triple the cost.”

Triple?!” Tom exclaimed, blanching.

“Now, now, Dr. Beauchamp,” Birth said, waving at me in a placating gesture. “Those shares are perfectly valid, and the sales legal. The rail is coming. The shares may be low in value now, but as the company grows…”

“That may be so,” I allowed. “But they still won’t be worth as much as they could make if the people here sold directly to the railroad.”

Birch gave a crooked smile. “What can I say? The sales were legally done, and are final.”

I shrugged, and crossed my arms. “Yes, yes, I understand. But you see…” I glanced behind me at the very irate men. “The gentlemen may not see it that way, and you do know what they say about the law of the West.”

He blanched. “You wouldn’t allow such a thing! You’re a doctor!”

“Which only means I can do no harm. I can’t do anything about what others do…save pick up the pieces.”

Birch looked around wildly for an escape, and seeing none, sighed in resignation. “About the money…”

“What about it?” Dougal growled, flexing his hand in preparation.

He chuckled, taking the deeds from his coat pocket and dropping them on the table. “You’re all going to be making a lot of it.”

Cheering, the men reached for the deeds, and I nodded at Birch. “Thank you for doing the right thing, Mr. Birch. Maybe you should try your luck in London. I hear the weather is lovely this time of year.”

He shook his head and donned his hat. “Must be an adventure, living in a town with someone like you as its doctor.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Denny said, grinning, and the other men laughed.

 

I was feeling pretty good about helping the town, and was excited to tell Jamie about it, as well as get his thoughts about the rail that would, apparently, soon be arriving.

But when I entered the house I could tell he wasn’t going to be in the mood. He was obliging the children by telling them a story, but I could see the deep lines of pain and exhaustion written on his face.

“Alright,” I said, putting down my bag. “Let’s leave our patient to his rest, hm? Bree, Fergus, go see to your evening chores. William, would you go put Bear away?”

The children all nodded and filed out obediently, and Jamie gave me a tired smile in thanks.

“Have you eaten anything?” I asked, seeing a bowl of soup sitting untouched on the nightstand.

“No’ hungry,” he mumbled, turning away.

“You need to eat, Jamie,” I implored. “How else will you keep up your strength?”

“Could ye call Willie back in here?” he said gruffly, and I didn’t have to ask the reasoning when I caught his uncomfortable squirming.

Honestly, Jamie,” I sighed. “If you need the bedpan just ask for it. I’m a doctor, for goodness’ sake.”

“It doesn’a mean I’m no’ entitled to a bit o’ privacy!” he snapped. “Christ, will ye no’ leave me tae just die in peace, woman?!”

“Now you’re just being dramatic!” I snapped back. “You’re not dying, Jamie! You’re getting better every day.”

“Am I? I still canna so much as move my damn legs! I canna even take a fuckin’ pish by myself! Am I just supposed to lay here in yer bed for th’ rest o’ my damned life lettin’ ye spoon feed me till I grow old?!” he flung out his hand, knocking the bowl of soup off the nightstand where it crashed to the floor in a shower of liquid and crockery.

I caught sight of William and Bree peeking their heads in in concern, but waved them off. They seemed glad to go.

“That was my favorite bowl,” I said between clenched teeth, trying very hard not to either cry or scream at him.

“Christ…” he breathed. “A Dia, Sassenach…I’m sorry…I…”

I shook my head, going to get a towel and a broom. “I know you’re scared, Jamie. And I don’t blame you one bit. But you are just going to lie here and wither away to nothing if you let yourself, and you don’t keep trying. You don’t like people feeling sorry for you, I know that. But maybe it’s time you start trying to feel so sorry for yourself.”

“What if I dinna want to keep trying?” he asked quietly.

“Too damn bad,” I hissed, tossing down the towel and broom to glare at him, my temper finally reaching its breaking point. “Because I am going to sit here and force you to live for however fucking long it takes to get it through that bloody thick skull of yours that your life isn’t over!”

Our eyes held for several breaths until I watched his shoulders sag, and his head dropped. I didn’t realize he was crying until I heard a soft, hitching breath, and I practically fell on top of him in my rush to get my arms around him.

For a second he acted like he was going to pull away, but then he all but melted against me, his arms wrapping tightly around my waist. He didn’t really cry out, but I could feel his tears hot through my blouse. I combed my fingers through his hair, having determined that he was soothed by that, and simply held him.

“I’m sorry,” he said a while later, after the storm had seemed to pass, though he hadn’t released me just yet. “I’m sorry, Claire,” he pulled back, his eyes bright with tears. “Ye’ve done nothing but save me time and again, and I’ve chosen a puir way o’ thanking ye. Do ye forgive me?”

“Forgiven,” I replied softly, immediately. “Please don’t give up, Jamie.”

He shook his head. “Nay, lass, ye’ve scared me straight. And I’ll replace yer wee bowl. Now…” he pulled away, a hint of sheepish grin on his face. “I really do need the bedpan, Sassenach.”

I arched an eyebrow. “It’s just under the bed. You have two fully working arms and everything above your waist works perfectly. Do it yourself.”

He chuckled ruefully and twisting to reach under the bed when I thought I saw something. “Jamie! Wait!”

“Lass, I really need tae…”

“Jamie, look!” I yanked back the sheet to uncover his feet. I knew I hadn’t been imagining it. “You just moved your foot!” I ran a finger along the arch, and was rewarded with a twitch.

A Dhia!” he breathed. “I felt that!”

“See?” I said smugly. “I told you so.”

Chapter Text

Jamie didn’t think he’d ever been so shamed than he was that afternoon after his temper tantrum. Not even the last time his father belted him when he was eight years old.

It was unforgivable to take his frustration out on Claire of all people, but it had just bubbled up to a point that he hadn’t been able to stop himself.

He was just so scared. Dying was one thing, but being left unable to walk absolutely terrified him.

What kind of man would he be if he had to depend on others just to survive? How could he take care of and protect Claire and the children? How could she even see him as a man?

But then he saw the real terror in her beautiful whiskey colored eyes when he spoke of giving up, and he’d been so ashamed of himself.

And then his foot moved, then it moved again, and Claire called the children back in and he was able to wiggle his toes for them all on his own. They had cheered, and cleaned up the broken bowl, and it was like his fight with Claire hadn’t happened, no matter his lingering guilt.

Now she spoke of exercises, and soaks in the hot springs, to increase feeling in his legs. And he would no longer try to fight her on any of it. If Claire said it would help, he would do it. Because once he was on his feet again, he could go after those whoresons who did this to him. Who had looked at Wee Ian the same way Randall had once looked at him. Being beaten could almost be forgiven, but the lecherous thoughts written on their faces could not.

Claire would be angry again, but in this case he could do nothing else about it.

He must have drifted off, because when his eyes blinked open the homestead was dark, save for the fire, and all was quiet. But something had triggered his senses, and he listened more carefully until the creak of a chair caught his attention. He looked over toward the fire to find Claire curled up in the wooden chair he’d made, wrapped up in a shawl and nodding off.

Yet another thing to feel guilty about was that he had been taking up her bed for days, and the puir lass had to be exhausted. But then again he’d thought she’d been sharing with Brianna.

“Sassenach,” he whispered. And she couldn’t have really been asleep since her eyes shot open.

“Do you need something?” she asked blearily, and he wondered if it was the firelight making the dark circles under her eyes more pronounced, or if he’d truly been so wrapped up in his own self-pity that he hadn’t noticed until then.

“Why are ye no’ sleepin’ in Bree’s bed?” he asked.

She smiled ruefully. “I love that child to pieces, but she likes to take up a bed like an acrobatic starfish. And Fergus is a kicker. I pray for their future spouses.”

Jamie laughed, and so did she. “Why no’ make them share?”

“Because then one or both inevitably ends up in bed with me, and the cycle starts all over. It’s fine, really, this chair is actually quite comfortable.”

“Yer a bad liar, Sassenach.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “Am not. Go to sleep.”

“Come here,” he insisted, pulling back the blanket. Even in the firelight, he could see her cheeks redden. “What? Just to sleep. Nothin’ we haven’a done before.”

“That was different,” she said. “And besides, there are children in the house.”

He rolled his eyes. “I dinna plan on doin’ anythin’ improper, do you? Ye need rest, Sassenach, if yer tae keep puttin’ up wi’ me.”

“That’s true enough,” she muttered, rising to her feet.

She must have been tired, because he honestly had expected more of a fight than that. Of course he would have offered to sleep on the floor, but he knew how that would have gone.

The bed was rather narrow, so he maneuvered himself as far to one side as he could, and she slipped under the covers, curled up along his side.

He slid his arm under her, ostensibly to make the tight sleeping arrangement more comfortable, but he really just wanted his arm around her.

Further testament to her exhaustion, Claire was asleep almost instantly, though Jamie lay awake for some time, listening to her breathe, reveling in the fact that he could feel her gently kick him in the ankle. Fergus is the kicker, hm? And he resolved to awaken extra early so he could rouse her before the kids got up.

 

“Dr. B.!”

“Ugh…five more minutes, William.”

“You don’t have five more minutes. The Reverend is outside. I told him I was helping Mac bathe to stall him. But you need to get up.”

I cracked my eyes open, glaring my eldest boy. “What is the matter with you?” I asked him, but he didn’t need to answer, because it all became clear when I felt something warm shifting behind me in bed.

In bed!

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!”

I leapt out of bed, leaving a half-asleep and bemused Jamie behind. How the hell had I…but then I remembered – vaguely – being almost to the breaking point of exhaustion and seeming to think crawling into bed with my patient (at his insistence, to be fair,) was a grand idea.

“I didn’t think you’d be happy if our reverend came in,” William said, crossing his arms and smirking. “So, you’re welcome.”

“Nothing happened, lad,” Jamie grunted, pushing himself upright.

“Oh, I know,” William said, still annoyingly cheerful. “If it had, I’d be giving you another beating right now, crippled or not.”

“William,” I scolded, but Jamie and chuckled.

“Warning taken,” Jamie said, grinning.

I hurried to make myself descent behind the curtain, face burning the whole while. What had I been thinking? I was only grateful that Bree and Fergus hadn’t seen, because they’d have gotten all sorts of wrong ideas.

“Roger,” I greeted at the door, hoping I’d gotten my blushing under control. “Did you need to see me?”

Roger smiled politely and removed his hat. “Actually, I thought I’d stop and see your patient. Brianna…erm…let it slip at choir practice last night just who your patient is.”

“Brianna…” I growled, drawing out each syllable of her name.

I turned to see her peeking out from behind the curtain. “I thought we trusted Reverend Wakefield!”

“We do but…” I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face. “I’m sorry, Roger, please, come in.”

“Roger,” Jamie greeted with a nod of his head. William had given him a clean shirt, and he was now sitting up in bed. I could tell he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the company, but knew he’d never say a word.

“Did Bree happen to tell you what happened?” I asked.

“Only that Mac had been hurt, and temporarily couldn’t walk. I just came by to see if I could offer my help with anything.”

“Well,” I began, crossing my arms. “What happened is that Mac was set upon by a pair of Custer’s men. They beat him senseless, two men against one.”

Roger looked taken aback. “But…why would they do such a thing?” his tone held the further question, what did he do to provoke them?

“Mac was with Young Ian, Two Moons’ son. They were threatening the boy and Mac defended him.”

“Normally I can take on two at once,” Jamie drolled. “But one o’ the wee bastards got me once in the heid wi’ the butt o’ his rifle. Dinna fight fair, they.”

“Actually, maybe you can do something to help,” I said, earning a discreet glare from Jamie. “I want him to do some exercises. He’s been in bed long enough that his muscles have begun to atrophy. If he’s going to have the strength to get up on crutches soon, I want him to exercise his upper body.”

I instructed William and Roger to construct a frame out of wood to hang over the bed, then tie ropes to it so that Jamie could pull himself up on the them. Roger was quiet, but rolled up his sleeves and went straight to work.

When they couldn’t quite decide on the best layout for the frame, Brianna appeared, and directed them into building it securely.

They all stood around the bed and cheered Jamie on as he pulled himself up halfway off the bed over and over, and even though he grumbled about it, I thought he enjoyed showing off a bit.

 

After that, Jamie recovered rapidly. The bruises covering his face and the majority of his body faded to an impressive array of bright greens and yellows. With help from me and William, he was soon able to stand for a few seconds at a time, then take halting steps across the room. I ordered him a pair of sturdy crutches from Denver, and within the week he was able to take short walks alone, which I knew was an immense balm to his wellbeing.

The confusing part, however, was that instead of becoming in higher spirits, he seemed to withdraw into himself more than ever. He ceased telling the children stories at night, claiming he was tired. He didn’t invite me to share the bed again – not that I would have taken him up on it this time. I couldn’t figure it out, but was honestly a little afraid to ask.

One morning, a month and a half after his injury, he disappeared, only to reappear that afternoon pale, waxy, and out of breath. I didn’t try to ask him where he’d been, only bullied him back into bed where he promptly fell asleep.

I had some sinking suspicions, and I deeply hoped that I was wrong. But my suspicions proved correct a week later, when I was in the yard tending my herb garden, and he emerged from the house fully dressed, with his tomahawk, dagger, and sporran at his waist.

He was also sans crutches, though his walk was stiff and a little bowlegged.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked. “And where are your crutches?”

“I’m fine,” he said, his tone clipped. “I thank ye, Sassenach, truly, for ever’thing ye’ve done for me.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” I said, standing up and brushing the dirt off my skirt.

“Aye,” he nodded. “It’s yer job, I ken.”

“No,” I corrected him. “You don’t need to thank me because I’m your friend, and friends help one another. Now, are you going to tell me where you’re going in your condition?”

He gave me a level look. “I talked tae Ian. The same group o’ soldiers wi’ the two who attacked Wee Ian and I attacked another hunting party. Some of the hunters were no’ but wee boys. These men are dangerous, Sassenach.”

“And you’re, what, going after them?” I asked sharply.

“Ian said those same two were seen poaching buffalo up the ridge, apart from the rest of the troop.”

“Are you out of your mind?!” I exclaimed. “Christ, Jamie! You can barely walk! You couldn’t take them when you were healthy, what in hell do you think you’re going to do now?! Kill them?”

When he just glared in lieu of answering, my mouth dropped open. “You’re serious? You want to kill them?! Out of what, revenge?!”

“I ken what sort of men they are,” Jamie said lowly, bending to meet my eyes. “Ye didn’a see th’ way they looked at Wee Ian. This isn’a about what they did tae me.”

“Jamie,” I tried to force my voice to sound calmer, but it was a losing battle. “I understand you want to seek justice, I do. But going after them right now would be suicide!”

“The troop could move on tomorrow,” he argued angrily. “I may no’ get a chance tae get them alone again.”

“But they will kill you, Jamie! Don’t you understand that?!”

“They willn’a kill me until I’m able to take them wi’ me.”

I growled and kicked at one of my plants, nearly uproot it. “Do you even hear yourself?! You’re not going after them, Jamie! I won’t let you!”

“Ye dinna get a say,” he said, starting to walk away.

“You think you can just go off and get yourself killed like you have no one to answer to,” I shouted after him. “But like it or not your choices don’t affect just you! Not anymore!”

He paused, glancing back a bit guiltily, and I hoped it meant he was having second thoughts. But perhaps I ruined it by continuing to speak.

“If you walk away now, I’ll never forgive you, Jamie Fraser.”

He sighed. “Maybe it’s better that way. Goodbye, Claire.”

 

Jamie stepped gingerly over a log, hating how laborious it was when weeks ago he could hop over it as easily as an elk.

But what he hated more, was having walked away from Claire the way he did.

He was sorry to have upset her, and didn’t blame her in the slightest. But those men…those soldiers were a menace, and didn’t deserve to walk the earth.

Claire didn’t understand. Thank God she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand the sheer depravity that lived in some men.

Look at that hair,” one of them had said, leering at Wee Ian. “So long and pretty. Bet you ain’t got hair anywhere else, do you boy? I hear Injuns don’t grow it anywhere but their heads. Bet you’re smooth and soft as a baby…”

“Move along,” Jamie had snarled, standing firmly in front of his nephew. “The lad doesn’a understand yer teasing anyway. We dinna want any trouble, so just go.”

“I bet he’d understand this,” the second had said, grabbing his crotch and gesturing lewdly.

They had laughed and jeered like a couple of crows. Jamie had been prepared to just stand his ground, let them have their deplorable fun, and then go.

But then the first spoke again… “I like ‘em younger, anyway.”

Jamie barely even remembered what happened after that. He remembered attacking like a rabid wolf, and that was all. He was glad that his own wolf had been hunting, and too far away to get there in time, because the whoresons almost certainly would have shot him. He was glad still that he’d sent Rollo with Wee Ian, though he missed his companion sharply.

Jamie knew about men like those soldiers. He had luckily escaped one just like them, with only the scars on his back, but it had been a near thing. Jamie couldn’t let them go. Besides, if he didn’t do it, he was truly afraid Wee Ian might try, and that couldn’t be allowed to happen. Ian would not become a killer, if his father and Jamie had anything to say about it.

He didn’t really expect to survive, though he hoped he would. Claire may never speak to him again, but at least the land would be just a wee bit safer.

 

I tore through the house in a righteous fury, stripping the bed where Jamie had convalesced and cleaning the house to remove all trace of him.

That, of course, didn’t work. Since the man had built the house himself, and all the furniture within, his traces quite literally could not be removed.

I was glad the children were in town, unable to see my enraged cleaning spree.

“Bloody, stupid, fucking bastard,” I hissed, tossing dirty dishes carelessly into the sink.

Then my hand landed on a bowl sitting in the middle of the table. It was my bowl, my favorite one that Jamie had broken in a pique of temper but had been immediately sorry for.

The pieces had been glued back together so meticulously that I could only just make out the spidery lines where the break had been. All at once, anger turned to tears, and I sat with a plop on the chair, weeping over a repaired bowl.

I had to stop him. Or…if I couldn’t stop him, I had to at least go after him and hope maybe I could put him back together again.

 

I saddled Bear and left a note for the children, then raced off in the direction I had seen Jamie go. Unfortunately, other than the general direction, I had no idea where he or the soldiers were.

I couldn’t afford to waste time riding up and down the mountain, so I made my way straight to the reservation.

Ma’heóná’e,” Nayawenne greeted when I rode up, taking hold of Bear’s reign.

“Is Jamie here?” I asked hopefully, in lieu of greeting.

She frowned. “No. Two Moons says he has been with you, recovering from his wounds.”

“He was, but now he’s gone off after the soldiers who beat him, and threatened Young Ian.”

“He what?” Two Moons said, coming from around the cooking fire along with Ian. Rollo made a beeline straight for me, sniffing at my ankles and seeming to look around expectantly, like he would have thought Jamie to be with me. “He went alone?”

“Yes,” I said, my voice beginning to be tinged with hysteria. “He’s going to get himself killed!”

“I’m going after them,” Ian declared, swinging a quiver of arrows over his back, bow clutched in his hands. “I will fight with Jamie, this time I will not run…”

No, e’ha,” Two Moons snapped, grabbing his arm. “I forbid it!”

“Uncle Jamie needs help!” Ian exclaimed. “I will fight for him! Those whoresons deserve to be punished!”

“You’re father’s right, Ian,” I said. “Jamie wouldn’t want that! Look…” I turned back to Two Moons. “You told Jamie where they were hunting. If you can just tell me where to go, I can find him and try to stop him.”

Two Moons hesitated. “He wouldn’t want you there, any more than he would want Ian.”

“But I’m his doctor,” I pointed out.

Two Moons took a deep breath, then released it. “I can lead you part of the way there, but I cannot fight, Claire. Black Kettle does not want to contribute to this war.”

I shook my head. “And I don’t want you to. Please, just get me to him.”

 

Two Moons led me up the North side of the mountain to a place known as “the ridge” where buffalo were known to graze. In the end, he couldn’t bear to let me go alone, and I was grateful for it when the first gunshot made my heart stop.

We raced up and down the grassy hills as fast as our horses would take us, but a thunderous roar had then stopping in their tracks and fighting desperately to turn the other way.

“Up the hill!” Two Moons shouted, steering his horse to the right, up a steep rise.

Bear didn’t even need direction to follow, and we made it out of the path just in time before the stampede of buffalo tore down the ridge.

I watched in astonished awe as the beautiful…and enormous creatures tore past, the sound like the pounding of a thousand drums.

But after the last of them were gone, panic rose in me anew. A million possibilities ran through my mind, each more terrifying than the last. Two Moons and I crested the ridge just as a figure was raising a rifle to another figure laying in the grass.

A scream tore through my throat, but before the gun went off, the man suddenly went rigid, then fell to the ground. I looked over and saw Two Moons, his bow still raised.

I ran down into the valley, passing the distorted remains of a trampled man, and stepping over the other with an arrow sticking out of his chest.

Jamie was on his back, breathing heavily but very much alive.

“Jamie!” I gasped, dropping to my knees beside him. “Are you hurt? Were you trampled?”

He shook his head. “No,” he wheezed. “I’m no hurt, lass. And I didn’a kill them, either.”

I glanced back over my shoulder at the two corpses, thinking it was probably only because Two Moons and a herd of buffalo beat him to it.

“It doesn’t change the fact that you tried.”

He laboriously rolled over, his massive head coming to rest in my lap. “I had to do something.”

“I know,” I whispered, fingers automatically threading their way through his hair. “I know. Bloody man.”

Chapter Text

My mind had been whirling ever since the incident with Jamie and the soldiers.

After forcing him to stay in bed another day to recuperate from the fight and stampede, he’d left to go back to…wherever it was he lived, mostly healed save for some stiffness.

But what had me feeling adrift was just the whole situation. The heart-wrenching fear when Jamie had been brought to me on the brink of death. The sickening worry when he left with every intention of never returning.

I cared deeply about Jamie, there was no denying that. But I was no longer sure if I could have him in my life if he was going to constantly turn it on its side like this. If it were just me, that would be one thing. But there were three others whose lives and safety had to be put before either mine or Jamie’s.

The illegal activity could put them in danger, the dangerous situations could leave them orphaned once more or worse…hurt. And it wasn’t fair to them to have someone like Jamie in their lives, whom they loved and looked up to, who paid no heed to his own safety, or didn’t appear to have any interest in making himself a permanent fixture in their lives.

But whether or not I could stay away from him was a different matter entirely.

In the meantime however, life went on.

“It’s stage day,” I said aloud to whoever was listening around the house. “That means mail. That means I need to stop by the telegraph shop. Who, oh, who will take me?”

Right on cue, William materialized, ready to go. “I got Bear already hitched up!” he reported happily.

I chuckled, seeing right through him. He wanted any excuse to see Rachel. “Thank you.”

“I’m coming, too!” Brianna exclaimed, jumping into the wagon, followed by Fergus. “I’m expecting a package!”

“Of what?” William teased. “Ribbon?”

“No,” she replied primly. “Clockmaking parts.”

Fergus made a face. “You’re gonna make clocks?”

“No,” she said evasively, but didn’t offer any more information.

Once we reached the telegraph office, Brianna made a beeline for the packages, squealing when she found one with her name on it. William, naturally, made a bee-line for Rachel.

“Dr. B!” she exclaimed, smiling in passing to William but bypassing him for me. “I have your mail, it looks like you got a letter!”

“Oh? I said, taking the envelope, not recognizing the handwriting. “Who would write to me?”

“It came all the way from Boston!” Rachel said excitedly.

“Boston?” Brianna asked, looking up from her package. “An old friend from where you used to live, Mama?”

“Maybe,” I said, shrugging. “But I haven’t really kept in touch with anyone.”

“Read it and see!” Fergus begged.

Seeing now that I had a rapt audience, I moved away from the bustle of mail day to a bench outside the barbershop, and sat with Bree, Fergus, William, and Rachel all surrounding me.

Hoping it wouldn’t just be something boring and disappoint my audience, I opened the letter with exaggerated slowness and pulled out a folded sheet of high quality stationary.

“It smells good!” Fergus cried, leaning closer to sniff.

“Have you got a secret admirer, Dr. B.?” Rachel asked mischievously.

“Who’s it from?” William asked.

I skimmed down to the end of the letter and let out a small gasp. “Geillis!”

“Geillis? Who’s Geillis?” Brianna asked.

“Geillis Edgars! She was a friend of mine from school. Only, she dropped out of medical college.”

“Dropped out? Why?”

I shrugged ruefully. “She wasn’t much for the rigors of higher education. Too much of a free spirit, Geillie. We kept in touch for a while, but I haven’t heard from her since moving out west. She was…” I nodded my head from side to side. “A bit odd, you might say. Intense. But she was a loyal friend.”

“What’s all this?”

I looked up to see Jamie approaching, a package in his hand.

“Jamie!” I exclaimed, happy despite myself to see him. “Is everything…”

He smiled and nodded. “Everything’s fine, Sassenach. What have ye got there?”

“Mama’s got a letter from an old friend in Boston!” Fergus said, catching Jamie up.

“Well?” Brianna urged. “What does her letter say?”

“Maybe it’s private,” Rachel suggested.

“Mama doesn’t keep secrets from us!” Fergus protested.

“We’ll see,” I chuckled, privately thinking that some of Geillie’s old letters tended to get a little scandalous, but I could always make quick edits as I went. Jamie propped a foot up on porch, ready to listen as well, so I cleared my throat theatrically.

“It says, Dear Claire, I heard you have gone and headed West! I could hardly believe my ears. Sweet little Claire, how are you surviving?! Are there truly savage Indians there? Have you…” I trailed off, because the next bit said found any truth to the rumors that they make excellent lovers?Have you…made friends?” William must have been reading over my shoulder, because he snorted, so I elbowed him in the ribs and angled my letter away from him.

I haven’t heard from you in so long. I hope you’re well. I’ve missed you, Sweet Claire. Boston isn’t as much fun without you running around telling everyone what they’re doing wrong.”

That got a good laugh out of my audience, and I glared at each of them in turn.

You may note that this letter is postmarked Duncan and not Edgars. My husband died some years ago…terrible accident, and I have since remarried. He is an older man, but very rich and doesn’t bother me much!

“I wish I could say this letter was purely social, but it’s not. I should have written to you before I had something drastic to say, but, well, you do know me. And I am nothing if not drastic,” I glanced up at everyone, muttering, “That’s for sure.”

The news I bring you cannot be written about in a letter. But trust me when I tell you it is important. I would like to invite you to come see me, so that you may evaluate the situation yourself. I wouldn’t be so evasive, if I could only find the words.”

“Do you think she’s okay?” Brianna asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, genuinely perplexed. “Geillie has a flare for the dramatic, but I’m sure if it were a medical emergency, she would say.”

I hope this letter has found you well, and that I will see you soon. Your friend, Geillie.”

 

“What are you going to do?” William asked. “Are you going to go see her?”

I frowned at the letter in my hand. It was postmarked a month ago, not unusual for mail all the way from Boston. “Geillis wouldn’t have written out of the blue like this if she didn’t think it was important,” I said. Unfortunately, important to Geillie and important to everyone else weren’t always aligned, but something about it gave me a queer feeling.

“I think we should go.”

“We?” Brianna asked, eyes widening.

I grinned at her. “Do you really think I’d go all the way to Boston without you?”

She gasped, leaping to her feet. “We’re going to Boston?!”

“I suppose we are. Rachel…” I turned to her.

“I can handle the clinic while you’re gone!” she exclaimed.

“I know you can,” I said. “But it’s a long way to Boston, and I don’t know how long I’ll need to be there. I think I might better send for a doctor from Denver, just in case. To help you, I mean.”

Rachel preened, then she and Bree started chattering on about what Boston will be like.

“When will ye leave?” Jamie asked quietly, not looking at me in favor of scratching Rollo’s ear.

“As soon as arrangements can be made,” I said, eyeing him. He didn’t look happy, but I didn’t anticipate him voicing any desire for me not to go.

 

William wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of leaving.

“Please, William?” I asked. “We may need you. It’s safer to travel with a man.”

As I’d expected, his chest puffed out slightly at being referred to as a man, but he was still dour. “You came here all alone the first time. What’s different about this time?”

This time I’ll be traveling with two children. And besides, we’re a family. I’d like us to stay together.”

That finally did the trick, and his shoulders slumped in defeat. “Fine. I’ll go pack.”

“Pack your church pants,” I called after him. “And your nice jacket.”

“My church pants are high water on me,” he protested.

“Then I’ll let them out, but you’ll need your nicest clothes.”

He scowled. “For what? Just to be in Boston?”

“It’s a city,” I said. “People dress differently than they do here.”

“So why do I have to dress like them?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Just bring me your church pants.”

“What about me, Mama?” Brianna asked, coming out with one of her nicest dresses. “Will this be good enough for Boston?”

“That will be just fine, lovie,” I assured her. But truth be told, I was a little nervous. Bree and William had never stepped foot out of Colorado Springs in their lives. Fergus had of course, but he had been so young and had been living a very unorthodox upbringing. I worried how they would handle Boston society.

I arranged it with Joe and Gail to look after the homestead and the animals, and Rachel and Jenny would keep my clinic open until the replacement doctor arrived.

I sent a letter ahead to Geillis to advise of my arrival, and my three extra guests, but I couldn’t be sure it would get there before us. I only hoped she wouldn’t mind, or be too shocked to learn I was a mother.

I truly thought Jamie would come to say goodbye, and I tried to nonchalantly stall the stagecoach driver, but eventually it was time to go…and he never came.

The journey felt even longer than it took me to get to Colorado Springs, but at least this time I had company to pass the time, even if that company tended to get a little cranky and stir crazy on the train.

For her part, Brianna was captivated by the train. She and Fergus were even permitted to visit the engine and pull the whistle.

“Can you believe the whole thing is powered by steam?” she enthused. “I’d love to see the inside of it, how it all works.”

“I don’t know if we can manage that,” I said. “But we can certainly find you a book about the workings of trains in Boston.”

“Really?”

“Oh, absolutely. There are huge libraries there, and also bookstores where you can buy books to bring home.”

She grinned. “Oh, I can’t wait!”

“This ain’t a vacation, Bree,” William drolled. “Dr. B. is here on important business.”

“There’s no reason we can’t also have a little fun,” I told him, hoping I was right and wouldn’t be walking into a life or death situation.

After two grueling weeks of travel, we finally reached Boston Station. All three children stood mouths agape once we stepped outside.

“There’s more people here than I’ve ever seen in my whole life!” Brianna gasped.

“It smells funny,” William groused, wrinkling his nose.

“Why is that man yelling at that other man?” Fergus asked.

I looked over, seeing a paunch-bellied older man berating the young black man handling his luggage, calling him all manner of terrible names.

“Some people are just odious like that,” I told him, trying to steer them away from the scene. When the same young man scurried over to help load our luggage into a cab, I made sure to look him in the eye as I thanked him, and tipped him well.

The Duncan residence was a huge, sprawling estate, of the sort many of my uncle’s colleagues had owned.

“Is this a hotel?” Brianna asked in wonder.

“This is a house,” I told her, chuckling at all three of their looks of astonishment. “Geillie did say her new husband is rich.”

The door to the carriage was opened by an attendant, and I asked him to announce our presence. By the time we reached the doorway at the top of the wide stair, it was flung open by a petite woman with strawberry blonde hair.

“Claire!” Geillis exclaimed, throwing her arms around my neck. “You did come!”

“Of course I did,” I laughed, hugging her back. “I must say I was intrigued by your letter. I wrote back, but perhaps we beat it here…”

“That you did,” Geillis said, pulling back. “But there have been some delays in the mail of late. But please, come in, come in!” she ushered us through the door, her icy blue eyes lingering questioningly on the children. “Did you pick up some extra luggage, Claire?”

I shook my head, waving the children forward. “I’d hoped to warn you, but since you didn’t get my letter, Geillis, I’d like to introduce William, Brianna, and Fergus. My children.”

“Hi!” Fergus chirped, cheeks dimpling.

“Hi,” Geillis said, then turned her enquiring gaze back to me. “It’s been a long time, Claire, but it hasn’t been that long,” she cut her eyes back over toward William, and I scowled at how they lingered.

“I’ve adopted them,” I said firmly, drawing her attention back to me. “I’m sorry to bring them unannounced but…”

“Nonsense!” she broke in. “There’s plenty of room! And you’ve come at the perfect time; my husband is away on business! HERCULES!”

I blinked at her sudden outburst, then took an involuntary step back, along with the children, when quite possibly the largest, most intimidating man I’d ever seen emerged from the hall.

“Hercules, could you get my guests’ bags?” Geillis asked the hulking man sweetly.

Hercules didn’t speak, simply took all of our bags at once and carried them up the stairs like they weighed nothing.

“He’s big,” Fergus said in wonder.

“That he is,” Geillis agreed. “And quiet, too. But that’s the best sort, isn’t it? Now, you all must be famished! Why don’t I have the cook whip us up a little something, and we can catch each other up, hm?”

I was dying of curiosity about why I was brought there, but I obliged Geillis by enjoying a late supper in the sitting room, and being shown to our bedrooms where we could unpack. She’d given us an entire floor made up of a series of bedrooms. One for me, one for Brianna, and one for Fergus and William. Each room was lavishly decorated and lushly furnished.

“This is like a dream!” Brianna cried, flopping onto her bed.

“Like it, do you?” I asked, chuckling.

“Is this anything like the house you grew up in?”

I shrugged and went to sit beside her. “A bit. But Uncle Lamb’s house wasn’t this big, or this extravagant. But it was similar, I suppose.”

“Wow,” she breathed. “And you left a life like this to come to Colorado Springs?”

“Mmhmm,” I tapped the tip of her nose. “And I’d do it again!”

“Mama!” Fergus exclaimed as he and William entered the room. “My bed is HUGE!”

“And there’s an outhouse right down the hall!” William said.

“Did you see what happens when you pull the cord?” I asked him.

“No…”

I waited while he and his brother ran back out, and minutes later heard their cries of delight.

 

When we returned to the sitting room, Geillis was there in a silk dressing gown, lounging on a chaise like a queen.

“Quite the life you’ve made for yourself,” I said, beckoning the children to have a seat near the fire. “Though I’m very sorry to hear about Greg.”

Geillis sniffed, but she was notorious for never showing much emotion over men, so whether she was actually sad about her late husband was anybody’s guess. “He died in a fire six years ago, so tragic. And I did love him so. So handsome, and such a lovely co…”

What about your new husband?” I broke in, jerking my meaningfully toward my oblivious children. I knew exactly which direction she was headed. She’d always been quite shameless when it came to relationships. “How did you meet?”

Her jaw twitched and she rolled her eyes. “Arthur is the heir to a shipping fortune. We met through some common acquaintances. He’s old, ugly, and horrifically boring, but who cares when I get to live like this?” she gestured to the lavishly decorated sitting room, her mouth quirked up in a smile.

“You mean you don’t even like him?” Brianna asked.

“We don’t all have the luxury of marrying for love, my dear. But enough about me, I’m dying to know how you’ve been, Claire. And how your sweet little family came to be. Don’t tell me you’ve gone and married a widower!”

“I’m not married,” I said, chuckling self-consciously. “The children’s mother…” I glanced at them, smiling in apology for having to get into it. “She passed away three years ago. She was my first friend in Colorado, and she left me the children on her death bed.”

“Amazing!” Geillis gasped. “And you’re just raising them as your own! Lord, you never even liked children!”

“You didn’t?” Fergus asked, frowning.

“It isn’t that,” I assured him. “I just never knew much about them, but you knew that, surely.”

He giggled. “It’s true, Mama didn’t know much about bein’ a Mama at first.”

“I believe it,” Geillis said. “The Claire I knew was more…operational than maternal.”

“But she’s a wonderful mother,” William said in a quiet voice, causing me to shoot him a grateful smile.

“I heard you have a clinic there, too,” Geillis said. “How is that faring? A woman doctor in the West must be quite the novelty.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” I muttered. “The town didn’t take to me at first, but they’ve since come around…for the most part.”

“Mama’s the best doctor there is,” Brianna said proudly.

Mama,” Geillis echoed. “I still can’t believe it. Claire Beauchamp, a Mama. And you’re doing it alone? There’re no…prospects?”

“There’s Mac!” Fergus piped up. “He’s almost like a Pa. He brings us food and builds us stuff and takes care of us and is around Mama all the time… ‘cept he don’t want to marry her.”

Doesn’t want to…” I corrected under my breath.

“Mac!” Geillis exclaimed, eyes dancing. “Who is this…Mac?”

I didn’t even bother trying to stop them, but watched as Geillis grew more and more gleeful with every word as all three children tag-teamed the story of my and Jamie’s every adventure thus far.

“…And when Mama was dying of the flu, Jamie carried her away where Two Moons…that’s Jamie’s Indian brother…performed a ceremony that helped cure her!”

“…I found them up there, barely any supplies left, and Mac was injured. They single-handed stopped the mercury from being dumped into the river.”

“…And they fought a mountain lion!”

“And devised a plot to help Two Moons escape…”

“Okay!” I broke in, not comfortable with them sharing the tale of how we broke the law. “I think that’s enough for now.”

“This is fascinating,” Geillis purred. “I would so love to meet this…Jamie.”

“I’m sure you’d like him,” I said noncommittedly. “But, I’d really like to know why you asked me here in the first place. Your letter was very vague, and I admit I’m curious.”

I watched in startled confusion as Geillis practically deflated into the chaise, suddenly looking tired and more serious than I thought I’d ever seen her. I glanced at the children, the sudden thought in my head that whatever it is might not be suitable for sensitive ears. “Should we speak alone?”

Geillis shrugged. “If they’re your children, they’re bound to find out. I suppose it’s up to you if you’d rather tell them yourself later.”

Now I was truly concerned, and the children were looking at me with wide, beseeching eyes, silently begging not to be sent away. “Then go ahead,” I said. “You’re right, I would tell them later either way.  What is it Geillie?”

“It’s Frank,” Geillis blurted, looking suddenly nervous. “He’s alive.”

Chapter Text

“It’s Frank,” Geillis blurted, looking suddenly nervous. “He’s alive.”

All at once the world dimmed, and all I could hear was the roar of blood in my ears. A million and one thoughts ran through my head, all disjointed and out of order. The news that Frank had been taken prisoner and presumed dead. The day he proposed. The memorial service held with an empty casket. The first day I walked into class and saw him at the podium.

Alive? How could he be alive? He’d been dead for close to a decade. He couldn’t be alive.

“Claire? Claire, can you hear me?”

“Alive?” I whispered, my voicing sounding odd even to my own ears.

“Mama, are you okay?”

I shook my head, and the roaring stopped, and I was able to focus once again. Four sets of eyes were staring at me in concern, and I fought against the juvenile instinct to run away and hide under my bed. “Is this some kind of joke?” I rasped. Geillis had been known to pull some dramatic pranks in our younger days, but this would be going too far, even for her.

“Claire, do you honestly think I would do such a thing?” Geillis asked, seeming genuinely offended. “I didn’t know how to tell you, so I’ve been stalling all evening. But it’s the truth. When I heard I didn’t believe it myself, so I went to see him. It’s him, Claire. Frank is alive.”

“W…where? How?”

“Harvard Medical,” she said. “I don’t know the full story, but from what I understand he was taken prisoner in Virginia during the first Bull Run, like we were all told. But he wasn’t killed; he was held in a prison camp, then eventually a hospital somewhere down south where they treated his wounds. When the war was over he was released, and only recently returned to Boston for surgery. Surgery for what I don’t know, only that it was related to his injury sustained in the war. Only a handful of people know he’s alive and here. I only know because one of our old classmates, Amelia, is a nurse there and she thought you should know.”

A hand closed over mine, and it took a moment for my mind to register that it was William’s. I tried to take comfort, but was finding myself unable. “H-how…” I stammered. “How could he…why wouldn’t he…the war has been over for years! Why wouldn’t he send word?”

Geillis shrugged again. “I don’t know. I only saw him through a window, I didn’t let him know I was there. He wasn’t...disfigured or anything, so far as I could tell.”

All of a sudden I couldn’t bear to remain seated, and leapt to my feet, pacing across the plush carpeting. “It wouldn’t have mattered if he was! I mourned him! He was dead and I mourned him! How? How could he come back like this and…and not tell me?!”

“I don’t know!” she exclaimed. “Perhaps he intended to, perhaps the letter got lost, perhaps he had amnesia! That’s why I sent for you, Claire, because you deserve to have answers. Unfortunately, I’m not the one who can give them to you. Only he can.”

“Him? You mean…oh no…” I shook my head and started to pace again. “I couldn’t possibly…I can’t go see him.”

“Why not?” William asked. “Mrs. Duncan is right, you deserve answers.”

“What would I say?” I demanded, then began prattling sarcastically. “Oh, hi Frank, heard you were in town and figured I’d pop in. How have you been? Say, do you suppose we’re still engaged?!”

“Well the first part sounds alright,” Geillis said dryly. “But I would start with just that for now.”

I plopped back down onto the settee and buried my face in my hands. “Oh God, Geillie. You could have warned me in the letter, you know.”

She waved a hand. “Then you would have just spent the entire trip fretting. I did you a favor. Look, Claire, see him or don’t, it’s completely your choice. I only thought that you should know.”

 

I dragged my feet up the stairs to our rooms, expecting a barrage of questions from the so-far silent children once we got there.

It wasn’t exactly a barrage, but they didn’t disappoint.

“So,” Brianna began, following me into my room. “Are you going to go see him?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “I don’t know what to do. What to think.”

“Maybe start with how you feel,” William suggested. “How do you feel?”

I opened my mouth to say, I don’t know, but closed it and tried again. “Shocked? Confused? Hurt? Elated? I…I’m thrilled that he’s alive. I just don’t understand how he couldn’t send word. If I’d known I’d have come right away. I would have helped with whatever injury he has.”

“Maybe that was it,” William said. “Maybe he wanted to be well before he saw you again.”

“Remember how Jamie was when he couldn’t walk,” Brianna said. “He didn’t like needing help. Neither did you, when you were sick. Maybe it’s something like that.”

The reminder of Jamie sent an all new wave of anxiety right through me, though I tried to shut it out for the time being.

“Or maybe he found someone new,” I suggested a bit bitterly.

“If he did, it isn’t like you haven’t moved on,” William pointed out. “Either way, don’t you just want to know?”

“You’re right,” I said, sighing. “I’m being a coward. I have to go see him,” I shot them a rueful smile. “This isn’t quite the trip to Boston I had imagined.”

“Do we still get to go sight-seeing?” Fergus asked, then amended himself when William elbowed him in the side. “After you go see Mr. Frank, I mean.”

 

I lay in bed that night, staring at the ceiling. A part of me desperately wished Jamie were there, so I could talk to him, get his opinions, then let him wrap me up in a warm hug.

But on the other hand I was very glad he was thousands of miles away. The last thing I needed then was his presence to confuse me, especially considering he’d made his intentions with me – or lack thereof – abundantly clear.

When I finally slept, I dreamed of the day Frank proposed, only instead of the happy memory it was, I kept feeling pulled away from him. I never saw the force that kept pulling at me, but it called me Sassenach.

 

I awoke the next morning with a new resolve. I would go see Frank, demand answers, and one way or another, I could move on with my life.

“You’re sure you don’t mind them staying here?” I asked Geillis again of the children. They weren’t up just yet, and I was meaning to slip out the door before they were. I hadn’t the stomach for breakfast, anyway.

“Course not,” she said with a wave of her hand. “We can get to know one another better. I wouldn’t mind hearing more about this Mac.”

I chuckled ruefully. “Oh, they have plenty of tales about him, that’s for certain.”

“Are you sure that you want to go alone?” she asked, taking my hand and squeezing it.

 

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, it’s for the best. Tell the children I won’t be long.”

“Good luck, Claire.”

Geillis had sent Hercules out to ready the carriage, and I couldn’t help but still be a little intimidated by his sheer size and brooding silence.

But at least his silence meant I didn’t have to come up with any small talk before climbing into the carriage and fidgeting restlessly for the entire half hour ride to Harvard Medical.

My walk into the hospital was like walking into a fog. Up to this point I’d barely even believed it was real. Like any moment I was going to wake up, Frank would still be dead, and my life would continue on like normal. But when I approached the desk and asked for Frank Randal, the receptionist directed me to room 14, and I knew it wasn’t a dream.

I reached room 14 and hesitated. Would he be glad to see me? Or did he have reasons for not reaching out, and would be angry that I’d found out he was there?

“Buck up, Beauchamp,” I muttered to myself. “You can’t be a coward now.”

I raised my fist and knocked twice on the door, and waited. Then I heard a hauntingly familiar voice call me to enter, and so I did.

He was sitting upright in the bed, the same as last I saw him…and yet different. He was thinner, and had a little gray in his hair. But other than that it was him…my first love.

“Claire?” he whispered, eyes widening to saucers.

“Hello, Frank,” I whispered back, incapable of making my voice project any louder.

For a long time we just stared at one another in varying degrees of shock and amazement, until he finally broke the silence.

“It’s…it’s good to see you, Claire. You look…you look wonderful.”

I choked out a laugh, though it sounded a little bitter to my ears. “You look…alive.”

“Oh Claire,” he raised a hand like he was going to hold it out for me, but let it drop back onto the blanket. “Claire I…I was going to write you, I swear it. They kept me prisoner for…Christ I don’t even know how long. I was injured, and kept in a Confederate hospital. It’s been…a long recovery.”

“Why are you here?” I asked him, gesturing to the hospital.

He smiled a bit ruefully. “To see a specialist. My leg was badly injured…among other injuries. But I’m going to be alright.

“That’s good,” I said, tears in my eyes as I smiled. “That’s very good.”

He finally continued his aborted gesture of holding his hand out for me, and after a moment’s hesitation, I stepped forward and took it, and let him pull me to sit on the side of his bed. He raised his other hand and traced the side of my face.

“I’ve missed you, Claire. So very much.”

“I missed you, too,” I whispered. “I…I mourned you, Frank.”

“I know,” he said, ducking his head. “And I…I understand fully if you’ve…moved on. But I’m still so grateful that you came.”

“A lot has happened,” I said. “But I haven’t…I mean…I haven’t married, if that’s what you’re asking.”

He brightened. “No? I must say, that does surprise me. A woman as beautiful and intelligent as you. Must have just been too busy, hm?”

I chuckled, brushing the tears off my cheeks. “You know me. But much has happened. I have a family now. Three children whom I’ve adopted.”

“Three?” he gasped. “How did that come about?”

We sat there for hours, and I told him everything. Uncle Lamb’s death, my move to Colorado, my accomplishments there as a doctor, all about my children and friends. I even told him about Jamie, and the Cheyenne.

“That’s incredible,” he said. “I’m so proud of you, Claire. You’ve come a long way.”

I smiled. “I have.”

“Do you think…” he turned his hand around in mind, to lace our fingers together. “That there still might be room in your heart for me?”

I stared down at our entwined hands, and for a moment I saw large, callused hands in place of Frank’s thin, elegant ones. “You never left my heart, Frank,” I told him honestly. And he hadn’t…what I wasn’t sure of anymore, was if he held the highest place still.

 

Frank told me that his surgery had gone well, and that he’d be discharged in a couple of days. He was very vague on the exact nature of his injury, which I found odd considering we were both doctors. But I didn’t blame him for not wanting to waste our time together with medical talk.

When I returned to the house, I decided to stave off the inevitable interrogation by gathering the children up for a bit of sightseeing. Geillis eyed me shrewdly, seeing right through me of course, and I knew her own personal brand of interrogation would come later. For now, I just wanted to walk the streets of my old home, and talk to my children.

“You haven’t said much about him,” Brianna said and we strolled downtown. “Was he happy to see you?”

“He was,” I said, smiling. “Surprised, and a bit shamefaced, but if it’s as he said, and he was hospitalized for some time, and has been working on his recovery. I think it’s as you said, William, he wanted to be well.”

If it’s as he said?” William echoed. “Are you saying you’re not sure if you believe him?”

“No, that’s not what I meant…” I sighed. “I just…I don’t know. I think he’s not telling me the whole truth.”

“Why wouldn’t he?” Brianna asked. “He loves you, right?”

“I think he does. But you have to understand, he’s been through so much.”

“Are you gonna marry him, Mama?” Fergus asked suddenly.

“She’s engaged to him,” William pointed out. “Ain’t you?”

“Aren’t you,” I corrected. “And I…I don’t know. The engagement was never formally broken, but it’s been seven years. I know I’m certainly not the same person I was seven years ago, and Frank couldn’t possibly be either.”

Brianna wrinkled her nose. “What does that have to do with it? When you marry someone, ain’t it…isn’t it supposed to be forever? Or is like our Ma and Pa?”

No,” I said firmly. “Marriage isn’t supposed to be like that, at all. Your Pa was very wrong for leaving his wife and family. But I think…when you’re married, you’re together. And when you grow and change, you’re supposed to grow and change together. Unless…you don’t…” I shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know!”

William shook his head. “Let’s just forget it for now. You’re gonna fret yourself sick.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I want us to go to the shops, and the bookstore but first…” I grabbed Fergus’s shoulders and angled him to the left, so he could see the large colorful building across the street.

“Is that…” he breathed. “A candy store?!”

“Mmhm,” I said, grinning. “Would you like to go in?”

Fergus nodded so quickly his hair flopped into his eyes, and I thought perhaps a haircut was in order as well. “Then let’s go!”

Chapter Text

The children and I spent a wonderful afternoon shopping, and eating, and looking. Brianna was intimidated by the new fashions and prim young ladies in the dress shops, but she tore into the bookstore as eagerly as Fergus had the candy store.

Her selections consisted of a book on mechanics, one about trains, and a brand new book of inventions. It gathered her a few strange looks at the checkout, but she was thankfully too absorbed to notice.

Fergus absolutely did not want a haircut. (“I like my hair long! Like Mac!”) but other than that he was pleased as punch to do any shopping since he still had a bag of gumdrops securely in his hand.

The only one who didn’t seemed to find anything of particular interest was William. He enjoyed the sightseeing, and cooperated during a suit fitting, but the whole day he seemed uncomfortable and insecure.

We ate dinner at a small café (only the normal number of forks,) and arrived back at Geillis house after dark. She was waiting for me in the sitting room, and I could see that she was ready for the interrogation, so I sent the children on up to bed and joined her for a nightcap.

“So, Claire,” she began. “What are you thinking?”

“About what?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes. “About what? You come back from seeing your long-lost love and immediately take your kids out shopping? What’s wrong with you? Frank is alive! Why aren’t you planning the wedding?”

“I don’t even know if our engagement still stands!” I exclaimed. “We didn’t really get into it. He’s just gotten back, Geillie, and is recovering from surgery. I’m not leaving tomorrow, so there’s plenty of time to talk it all out.”

She hummed. “But you’re not over the moon, like you would expect a woman to be after hearing her fiancé is alive after seven years. Could it be…you’ve changed your mind?”

“Geillis…” I sighed, knowing just where she was headed.

“Could it have anything to do with the rugged savage man your children are so fond of?”

Don’t use that word,” I warned her. “Jamie is no savage, and neither are the Cheyenne.”

Geillis sobered, and sat back in her chair, hands folded. “You’re right, I’m sorry. It was a poor choice of words. But you were awfully quick to defend him.”

Growling, I threw up my hands and let them fall into my lap. “Fine! Yes, I care about Jamie, alright? He’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had. But we…we just wouldn’t work that way. He…lives off the land, and never stays in one place very long. His life is full of danger and uncertainty, not the sort of life I want for me or my children. And besides, he told me he didn’t want more than friendship with me. He doesn’t need or want the responsibility of a wife and three children.”

“He said that?”

“Well…not those words exactly. But I know him. He wouldn’t sacrifice his freedom for us, and I wouldn’t risk our security. So that’s all there is to it.”

Geillis’s emerald green eyes glinted off the fireplace, and I could tell there was something she wanted to say, but wasn’t. “Sounds like your mind is made up.”

“I suppose it is,” I said, taking a large sip of port. “He didn’t even come to say goodbye when we left. It seems like a pretty clear message to me.”

“Perhaps,” Geillis cooed. “Or perhaps he just couldn’t bear to see you leave. Then again, you may want to take that into consideration when you make your choice, if he doesn’t want to fight for you.”

I glared at her. “Or maybe doesn’t have to be a choice between one and the other, maybe I’m doing just fine on my own!”

She shrugged. “Still a choice. Are you going to see Frank tomorrow?”

“Yes,” I said, settling back into my chair. “He should be discharged tomorrow or the following day. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I brought him here for supper.”

“Of course not,” she said. “I look forward to it.”

 

Frank ended up being discharged the next day, and though I suggested he might retire to his apartment to rest before having dinner at the Edgars house, he insisted he was feeling quite well, and wanted to meet the children.

He walked steadily, though with a cane, and he had yet to explain the nature of his injury. My doctor’s curiosity was making it increasingly difficult not to pry, but I was trying to give him privacy.

I led him through the foyer into the sitting room, where the children were waiting. They all stood as we entered, and I bit back unreasonable nerves as I made the introductions.

“Frank,” I said, moving to stand by each child individually as I told him their names. “This is William, Brianna, and Fergus. Children, this is Mr. Frank Randal.”

“Hello,” the children chorused, until Fergus suddenly piped up.

“Are you gonna marry Mama now?”

“Fergus!” William and Brianna both hissed.

“Sorry,” Brianna said sheepishly. “We’re working on his manners.”

Frank chuckled. “It’s quite alright. I’m so very pleased to meet you all. Claire speaks of almost nothing else.”

“You’re kinda old,” Fergus continued, undaunted. “Can you even go huntin’?”

William finally slapped a hand over his brother’s mouth, and I just shook my head.

Frank shot me an amused look over their heads, and I led him over to the settee, and the children sat in the surrounding chairs.

“So, tell me about yourselves,” Frank suggested.

“I like to hunt, and swim, and catch toads,” Fergus dove right in. “And I like candy, and women.”

“Wait…did you say women?” Frank asked, arching a brow.

“Yes,” Fergus said, all innocence. “Women are beautiful. Don’t you think so?”

Frank chuckled a bit bemusedly. “Well, yes. As a matter of fact I do.”

“Sorry,” William said. “We passed an establishment today that reminded Fergus of the brothel he’s from.”

“Brothel?!” Frank exclaimed.

“Long story,” I murmured. “Moving on, Brianna, tell Mr. Randal about yourself!”

Brianna flushed. “Well, I like to make clothes, but lately I’ve been interested in…” she looked toward me, as if asking if it was okay, and I nodded in encouragement. “In, well, how things work. Trains, machines, that sort of thing.”

“How delightful!” Frank said. “Claire, I hope you plan to enroll this girl into college once she’s old enough.”

I smiled. “If that’s what she wants.”

Brianna beamed and nodded. “It is, Mama. I want to make things. Invent them!”

“Then that’s what you’ll do, Chick Pea.”

Frank chuckled. “Do you know that’s what her Uncle Lambert always called her? Chick Pea?”

“It is?” Brianna asked, blushing again.

I nodded. “Mmhmm. All my life. William?”

William shrugged. “Not much to say about me. I take care of the farm, work my aunt’s cattle. That’s about it.”

“Those don’t sound like small things,” Frank said. “And you care for your siblings, and Claire. That’s important.”

William’s only answer was to shrug again.

Fergus, Brianna, and Geillis ended up keeping the conversation flowing all through dinner. I watched on in pleasure as Frank seemed to genuinely enjoy the children, but William hardly said a word. I chalked it up mostly to shyness, however, knowing the way he internalizes uncomfortable feelings.

I smiled at the young maid as she set the main course in front of me.

“Thank you,” I said to her. “I didn’t see you before, what is your name?”

The girl blinked at me dumbly before looking over at her mistress. Only then did I notice that both Geillis and Frank were looking at me oddly.

“Answer the woman,” Geillis ordered. “Don’t just stand there, child.”

“M-Molly,” the young woman stammered, still looking incredibly nervous.

“Thank you, Molly,” I said simply, so that she could quickly scurry out of the limelight.

Geillis and Frank were still staring, so I gave them a “what?” look.

“The maids are more or less used to being invisible in the dining room,” Geillis explained. “I believed you embarrassed the poor girl.”

“I didn’t mean to,” I said defensively. “I was trying to make conversation.”

Geillis arched an eyebrow. “With the help?”

Frank chose that moment to change the subject, and I exchanged a shrug with Brianna.

After dinner, I walked Frank to the door, and received a chaste peck on my cheek, then I went up the stairs to Brianna’s room, where all three were congregated.

“Well?” I prompted. “What did you all think?”

“I think he’s nice,” Brianna said, a bit non-committedly.

“Me too,” Fergus agreed. “But he doesn’t know a lot about fun things, like fishing and horseback riding.”

“Well, maybe he’d like you to teach him,” I said. “I think he liked you all very much.”

“So that’s it then?” William asked. “You’re gonna marry him and bring him home?”

I sighed. “We’re just visiting for now, William. Getting to know one another again. Do you not like him?”

He hunched his shoulders. “I don’t know! I don’t think he’d like Colorado Springs. And I know for sure Mac ain’t gonna like him.”

“You know for sure Mac isn’t going to,” I corrected. “And he…”

“And why do you keep corrected us all of a sudden?!” he interrupted. “Just because we’re in Boston?”

I sighed. “Poor grammar makes you sound unintelligent, William, which I know for a fact you are not. So things may be a bit different here, that doesn’t make it bad.”

“I don’t care how things are here!” he insisted. “We ain’t gonna live here!

“William,” I ran I hand over my face. “This is not an easy time for me, alright? I have a lot to process, and a lot to think about. Could you please try being a tad more understanding?”

William’s face softened and he took a deep breath. “Alright, I’m sorry, Dr. B. I’ll try to give Frank a chance.”

“Thank you. Now, to bed with all of you.”

 

After a couple days to recuperate, Frank invited all five of us to dinner and a play. I had the children dress in their new outfits and drilled them on how to be on their best behavior.

“Remember Fergus, these are grown-up places that we’re going to. Children don’t normally attend. So you’ll be expected to be still and quiet, understand?”

“Still and quiet?” Brianna scoffed. “Have you met Fergus?”

“I can be still and quiet!” Fergus protested. “Just ask Mac! When he took me hunting last month we sat and waited for the quails for hours and I was very still and quiet!”

“I know you’re perfectly capable,” I said, chuckling. “I just know it will be a new experience, and you might get excited, or bored. Just please try to be a gentleman, alright?”

Frank took us to Le Lieu Chic, one of the most lavish restaurants in Boston. I hadn’t been to such a place since before Uncle Lamb’s death, so even I was feeling nervous walking into the grand establishment.

“This is too much, Frank,” I whispered out of the side on my mouth as we were led down the staircase into the main dining room. I looked down at my dress; one of my nicest, and around at the other women, realizing with a sinking feeling in my gut that it was several years out of style.

“Nonsense,” he said, offering me his arm. Even with his cane and the tightness around his eyes that told me walking was quite painful for him, he was incredibly elegant in his black suit, tails, and pristine white gloves. “And you look beautiful, Claire.”

I realized he’d caught me worrying about my clothing, and smiled, taking his arm. “Thank you. It’s been so long since I’ve been anywhere like this. It hadn’t fully impacted me just how long it had been until now.”

“It all feels a bit like needless pomp after being away from it, doesn’t it?” he asked.

“Well, it may be pretty, but I doubt the food can beat Gail’s outdoor café in Colorado Springs.”

He pulled out my chair, and hurried to do the same for Brianna as we all sat down. The children were looking around wide-eyed and nervous, and I patted Bree’s hand and smiled at them all in assurance.

The waiter came and offered us a bottle of fine red wine, and Frank nodded. “I think William is old enough, don’t you?” he asked me.

“Can I have some, Mama, please?” Brianna asked.

“You don’t like wine,” William muttered.

“Neither do you!”

“Bree,” I whispered warningly.

“So William,” Frank began. “Have you thought about school?”

He made a face. “Why? I don’t wanna be a doctor, or anything.”

Frank smiled. “That’s not the only reason to go to University. You can never have too much education! Any thought of what you might like to do with your life?”

He shrugged. “Figure I’ll take over my Aunt Jenny’s cattle herd someday. Build myself a house, get married.”

“That’s admirable. But there’s a whole big world outside Colorado Springs, you know.”

“What’s wrong with Colorado Springs?” William challenged, scowling.

“Nothing, I…”

“Oh look, the first course!” I interrupted as the waiter wordlessly sat plates before us.

“What’s this?” Brianna asked.

“Escargot,” I told her, picking up my fork.

“Escargot? What’s that?”

Snails?!” Fergus exclaimed. “We’re s’posed to eat snails?

“Fabulous time for you to remember your French,” I said under my breath before speaking more brightly. “Give it a try, you might like it.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. B.,” William said, reddening. “I don’t think I can eat snails.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Frank goaded. “Escargot is a delicacy.”

Brianna, anxious to try and fit in, took a miniscule bite, and I watched her face screw up as she fought valiantly against spitting it out. “Not bad,” she squeaked, taking a large gulp of water.

“Well, it’s not for everyone,” Frank allowed.

 

The rest of the dinner went a little more smoothly, but even I had to admit to myself that the food was rather lacking considering the exorbitant prices. After dinner we saw Romeo and Juliet, which was met with mixed reviews.

“I liked the swordfight,” Fergus said, as we climbed into the carriage.

“I don’t get why they killed themselves at the end,” Brianna said. “What good did that do anyone?”

“I couldn’t stand all the talking,” William groused.

“What they mean is, thank you very much for taking us,” I said, a bit pointedly.

Taking the hint, the children all voiced their obligated thanks.

Frank laughed good naturedly, and our ride back to Geillis’s was a quiet, which was welcome after the busy day.

“Thank you, again,” I told Frank as he handed me out of the carriage, trying to end the evening there so he wouldn’t feel obliged to walk us all the way to the door with his bad leg.

“You’re very welcome,” he said, resting his hands on his cane.

I watched the children clamor up the steps and waited for them to be out of earshot before continuing. “I apologize if they were…”

He held up a gloved hand to stop me. “They’re charming, all of them. It’s only natural that they should need time to adjust to the city way of life. I see three well-adjusted, well-mannered children. You should be very proud.”

I smiled a bit bashfully. “I can’t take any credit. Their mother is who raised them.”

“But the past three years have all been you,” he pointed out. “And they so clearly adore you.”

“I can’t imagine my life without them.”

We paused then, uncertainly. Before, during out engagement, Frank would walk me to the door, greet Lamb if he was there, perhaps come inside for a nightcap. And then before he left he would kiss me lightly before taking his leave.

I wasn’t sure if he was going to kiss me now, nor even if I wanted him to. In a way it felt like nothing had changed, we were the same two lovebirds who were to be married all those years ago. But in other ways, everything had changed. And I had absolutely no clue where it left us, or how to find out.

“Listen, Claire,” he began. “While I was in the hospital, I heard a lot of talk about a hospital across town. It’s a charity hospital, for the less fortunate. And the talk I hear is of how incredible short-handed they are. I spoke to an old colleague of mine and he suggested I go and have a look around, see about perhaps getting back into the swing of things, as it were, and providing help where it’s truly needed,” he paused, and took a breath. “After…after everything that’s…happened. I think I need it. To practice medicine again, even if it amounts to the work of a nurse. To give back.”

“That sounds wonderful,” I told him. “The hospital would be lucky to have a doctor of your talents there.”

“Would you like to come with me tomorrow?” he asked. “Just to have a look around.”

“I’d love to!”

He smiled, and I’d forgotten how nice his smile was. “Excellent! I’ll pick you up at eight then, if that’s alright?”

“Sounds terrific.”

Bobbing his head happily, Frank gently took my hand and pressed a chaste kiss to the back of it, then he was in the carriage and tumbling down the road.

Chapter Text

I was up bright and early the following morning, which I was no stranger to. I was genuinely excited to see this charity hospital, and hopefully get the chance to help some people while I was there. I’d been to a few such places with Uncle Lamb, but they had been in other countries. And they were exciting to me because they didn’t discriminate between male and female medical practitioners, always just grateful for whatever volunteer help they could get. I didn’t know if it would be the same in Boston, but if they were truly desperate for volunteers, I couldn’t imagine them turning away a licensed doctor just because she was a woman.

Frank picked me up in his carriage, and we took the half-hour long drive to the other side of Boston, where some of the poorer neighborhoods were.

The charity hospital, for all its low funds and lack of staff, was clean and well-run. Most of the staff actually consisted of nuns from the neighboring convent. They bustled about in their pristine habits, laying comforting hands and speaking soothing words to every person who came through the doors in need of help.

Frank introduced us to the first person he could stop long enough to do so, and the young nun took one look at us and turned to call for someone named Mother Hildegarde.

Mother Hildegarde was an imposing older woman, with a stern face but kind – if world-worn eyes. She was perhaps even taller than I, her habit making her look even more so.

“This is Drs. Randal and Beauchamp,” the younger sister said. “They’ve come to see if we had use of their services.”

“We always have need,” Mother Hildegarde said, looking over us shrewdly, her eyes lingering on Frank’s cane, and then at me in general. “Dr. Beauchamp?” she asked, raising a brow in enquiry.

“Yes,” I nodded, stepping forward.

“Sister Martha will show you to the men’s ward, the bedpans need emptying.”

“Yes, Mother,” I said, bobbing a clumsy curtsy and going to follow Sister Martha.

“Dr. Randal, can you file?” Mother Hildegarde continued. “The office is in disarray…”

“Ma’am,” Frank began, flustered. “Dr. Beauchamp and I are educated medical professionals…we don’t…”

“Frank,” I whispered, shooting him a look. He caught it, and quieted, then nodded reluctantly.

 

I spent the rest of the morning emptying bedpan after bedpan. It was certainly nothing I wasn’t acquainted with, and while it lacked the thrill and fascination of a medical dilemma or surgery, it was necessary work, and I took the opportunity to tidy patients’ beds while I was there, and offer smiles or words of encouragement.

Many of them suffered from ailments related to poor living conditions; malnutrition, scurvy, dysentery. Others had injuries sustained from factories and work houses. I saw a small boy with a finger crushed by machinery, a girl barely older than sixteen suffering a miscarriage and worrying about when she could go back to work. It made me grateful for the type of community in Colorado Springs that would never allow children to work that way.

As I picked up the bedpan beneath a woman’s bed, I noted how pale and thin she was.

“Can you help me?” she asked weakly.

I sat down on the side of her bed, feeling her clammy head. “What wrong?”

“Tired,” she said. “Cold…”

Something in the way the urine looked in the bedpan I held caught my attention, reminding me of a patient Uncle Lamb had not long before he died.

“Are you thirsty? Hungry?” I asked.

“All the time,” she rasped. “But no matter how much I eat, it isn’t enough.”

Acting on a hunch, I dipped the very tip of my pinky into the bedpan and brought it to my tongue. The sickly sweet taste was exactly how Uncle Lamb described, and I had a very good idea what was wrong with the poor woman.

“I’ll bring you something to eat,” I told the woman, getting up and turning to find Mother Hildegarde watching me.

She glanced at the bedpan, then back at me, and led me a few paces from the woman’s bed. “What did you find?” she asked me.

“It’s exactly like a case I’ve seen before,” I told her. “Sugar sickness, I’ve heard it called.”

Instead of skeptical, like I expected, Mother Hildegarde nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. It is what we thought. What prognosis would you give her?”

I frowned and shook my head. “There’s nothing I know of that can be done for her at this point.”

Mother Hildegarde sighed. “As I feared. Thank you, Dr. Beauchamp. When you’re done here, I have another patient I’d like you to take a look at…”

And so began the rest of my day, offering my medical opinion to several cases, and providing treatments where I had the ability and supplies.

When it came time to leave, Frank met me outside, bemused that I’d had a busy day, and he’d been stuck in an office, but he didn’t complain.

 

“…but after she saw me taste the urine, she was impressed, and she let me…”

“Taste what?” William shrilled, interrupting my excited account of my day that evening after supper.

“You’d be amazed what a doctor isn’t afraid to do,” Geillis said. “Makes me glad I got out when I did. You should have known her uncle.”

“Taught me everything I know,” I said proudly, ignoring my children’s disgusted faces.

 

It continued on like that for days. Frank and I spent our mornings and early afternoons at the hospital, then I spent time with the children around town, and sometimes Frank would take us to dinner or a show.

On the fourth day at the hospital, a patient was rushed in with a sizable piece of metal protruding from his abdomen – another factory accident.

“Prep for surgery, Dr. Beauchamp,” Mother Hildegarde ordered.

I felt a fission of fear, but quickly swallowed it down and proceeded to let my mind run through what was needed. The nuns there were competent nurses, but I wished I had Brianna, and her ability to almost read my mind during procedures, or Rachel. But there was someone there I trusted.

“I’ll need help,” I said. “I haven’t done a surgery like this, but I know Dr. Randal has.”

“Get him,” Mother Hildegarde ordered a nurse.

Frank was quickly found where he’d taken up my job cleaning bedpans and was brought to me.

“I haven’t performed surgery in years, Claire,” he said, rubbing a hand over his face. “I can’t even let go of this damned cane long enough to use two hands.”

“But your eyes work fine, right?” I asked. “I need those and your mind more than your hands, Frank.”

Nodding, Frank scrubbed in and we prepared for surgery.

For a hospital with limited supplies, it felt like the finest hospital in the country compared to having to perform surgery in my dimly lit clinic back home. It was exhilarating and comforting having a proper surgery to work in.

But even more exhilarating and comforting was working with Frank again. We fell right back into our old connection, where we could read one another thoughts, anticipate each other’s needs. After his reluctance passed, he did in fact lean his cane against the wall to get his hands in with me, and we worked together like the cogs of a clock. Perfectly and in sync.

The young man lived, and barring infection I saw no reason why he wouldn’t make a full recovery.

Frank and I rode home that evening all abuzz over our triumph.

“I forgot how it felt,” he sighed, grinning. “Real healing. The thing I became a doctor for.”

“It was wonderful,” I agreed. “Not that the poor boy was hurt of course...”

He chuckled. “Only that we could help him, I know. And we’re still a pretty good team, aren’t we?”

“We are,” I said, smiling back.

The carriage had stopped in front of Geillis’s house, but neither of us had made move yet to get out.

“More than anything,” he said quietly. “I missed this. Working with you. Seeing that incredible mind of yours work.”

“Why didn’t you contact me?” I asked suddenly. “The real reason, Frank.”

He was quiet for a long moment, and I thought at first that he was angry, but then he let out a long breath. “When I was released from the confederates, the first thing I did was compose a letter to you, Claire. I composed twelve letters. But so many years had already passed and…then I sought a second opinion on the diagnosis I was given.”

“What was the diagnosis?”

He smiled, but it was tired and sad. “I was shot, Claire. Please don’t ask me to go into details. I recovered better than anyone believed I could but…suffice to say I can never have children, now.”

“Oh Frank,” I whispered, laying a hand on his.

“How could I face you?” he continued. “Now that I’m barely a man…”

“Frank, you have to know that wouldn’t have mattered to me!” I exclaimed. “I loved you for you. Surely you don’t think I’m that shallow.”

“It wasn’t fair to you, I know. I was just so ashamed. I know you didn’t think much of children at the time, but I feared in time you would want them, and…I don’t know how to apologize, Claire.”

I huffed and leaned back in my seat. “You could start with “I’m sorry.”

He smiled crookedly. “I’m sorry. And I am, Claire.”

“I never would have cared about that,” I reiterated. “But allowing me to continue believing you were dead, that’s another matter, Frank.”

He nodded, and opened his door. “I know.”

He came around to my side of the carriage and opened my door, holding his hand out for me. “I suppose all I can do now is try to earn your forgiveness.”

I held his hand and climbed down out of the carriage, stopping and looking him in the eye. We held that way for a moment, and then he slowly lowered his head to mine.

His lips covered mine. Gently, chastely. He didn’t press for more, didn’t try to deepen the kiss. But when he pulled away his brown eyes were soft and loving, and I smiled.

I felt his eyes on me as I went up the walk to the house, and I reflected briefly how when Jamie kissed me, my mind was awhirl like a storm. When Frank kissed me, my mind was blank, relaxed. Comfortable.

Geillis was, blessedly, already in bed, so I went straight up to see if the children were still awake. They were, and congregated in William and Fergus’s room.

“I’m sorry I’m so late,” I told them. “Frank and I had to perform emergency and…”

“Why did you kiss Mr. Randal?” Brianna blurted.

I blinked. “Wh…what? Were you watching me?”

William pointed to the window, which overlooked the front lawn. “We just want to know what’s happening. Are you going to marry Frank?”

“I…I don’t know!” I stammered. “That’s none…”

“And don’t say it’s none of our business,” Brianna said. “We happen to think that who our mother marries is very much our business.”

I let my shoulders sag and dragged my feet farther into the room, and fell onto Fergus’s bed.

“Is he gonna come live with us?” Fergus asked.

I tried to imagine Frank living in Colorado Springs, and found that I absolutely could not envision it. The two just did not mix, like a polar bear living in the desert.

“Here’s an easier question,” William said. “When are we going home?”

“Home?”

He furrowed his brows at me. “Yeah. Home, remember that place? We were only supposed to be here a few days, a week at most. It’s been almost three. You have a whole town back home depending on you, Dr. B., and the rest of us have lives too.”

“I know,” I said. “I guess I’ve gotten…distracted. I don’t know what to do, if I’m honest.”

“Well, I guess the thing you need to ask yourself,” Brianna said, sounding far older than her years. “Is do you love Mr. Randal?”

“He was my first love,” I said quietly.

“That doesn’t answer the question,” William said. “You need to figure out who you love now. Is it Frank, or…”

“I don’t think there is an “or,” William.”

William snorted. “Not so sure about that.”

Chapter Text

Rollo nudged Jamie’s arm, whining.

“Ach, away,” Jamie sighed, pushing at the wolf’s enormous muzzle. “I ken ye miss Fergus, but I dinna feel like throwin’ a damn stick.”

Heaving out a breath, Rollo flopped down onto his side beside Jamie where he sat on a hillside overlooking the river. He’d spent the day digging a new well for the homestead, and his arms were aching.

I reached a hand into his sporran to pull out the letter he’d already read four times since receiving it that morning.

Claire had written him, informing him that she and the children had arrived in Boston safely.

…And she’d also told him the reason her friend had asked her to come.

…My fiancé, Frank, is alive,” the letter read. “I cannot even begin to figure out how I feel about that in my own mind, much less put it on paper. Of course I am glad that he survived, but so many years have passed with no word! I wish mail did not take so long to get back and forth, because your council would be invaluable now.”

Jamie wasn’t even sure how he would counsel her. How would he feel if Geneva were suddenly alive? But no, that would be different. He had never truly loved Geneva, whereas Claire had been in love with Frank Randal. The letter was postmarked three weeks ago, which meant that she’d been in Boston reconnecting with her fiancé for three weeks.

For the thousandth time he kicked himself for missing saying goodbye to her. He’d gotten wrapped up in watched a couple of trappers lingering close to the reservation, making sure they weren’t up to trouble. By the time he got back to Colorado Springs, the stagecoach was gone…and so was Claire.

When Rollo’s ears perked up again, Jamie thought the overgrown pup was going to harass him to play again until he heard a twig snap from somewhere behind him. Other than a low whine, Rollo barely reacted, so Jamie wasn’t worried.

But he did jump when a feminine voice spoke the name Mac, instead of Ian’s jovial tone, as he’d expected.

Twisting around, Jamie was surprised to see Jenny strolling up, unceremoniously taking a seat beside him.

“Thought ye were Ian,” he told her.

“Ian the boy, or Ian his father?”

“His father. What are ye doin’ way out here?”

Jenny spread her skirt out around her, revealing the men’s boots she wore beneath. “Calf ran away.”

“Dinna ye have cowhands to do that for ye?”

She squinted at him. “What? You think I can’t find my own damn calf? I’ll tell you right now Mac, I don’t need a man to…”

He chuckled, waving at her to stop. “Alright! I’m sorry. Christ, ye sound like Claire.”

She sniffed. “I’ll take that as a compliment, coming from you. Tell me, is that what has you brooding up here? Missing Claire?”

“I’m resting,” he said, giving her a warning look.

Jenny rolled her eyes. “You can say you miss her, you know. No one’s going to force you down the aisle at gunpoint for it. I miss her, Gail and Joe miss her, even my Uncle Murtagh misses her. Her and the kids. Did you get a letter?”

“Mmphm,” he hummed, holding up the letter she could clearly see.

“Did she…tell you?”

“About the resurrection of her fiancé? Aye.”

“And are you…alright?”

He frowned at her. “What do ye mean?”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Stop playing dumb. Claire’s fiancé isn’t dead, you must have feelings about that.”

He turned away from her again. “Aye. I feel as though he’s a bit o’ a fool for no’ telling her he was alive all this time, but I’m happy for Claire.”

“Happy? That’s it? So you’re not going to do anything. You’re not going to try to fight for her?”

“She isn’a mine to fight for!” he snapped. “She was engaged tae Frank first.”

“Since when are you such a coward?” Jenny demanded. “This is getting ridiculous! You love Claire! You can’t just sit here and let her go on thinking you don’t even care! She might end up settling for someone who truly doesn’t care enough to actually tell her he didn’t die years ago!”

“But what can I give her?! I live in a hut in the woods and am constantly on th’ other side o’ the law. She’s been in love with him for a decade. They’re well-matched in ever’ way. He’s educated, he’s a doctor like her.”

“Is that what you think makes a good match? Being exactly alike? Maybe I’m not one to talk, but it seems to me like that’d get awfully boring after a while, being married to someone just like myself. Not to mention annoying. And Claire…she’s a passionate woman. Passionate about just about everything she says and does. She needs someone with passion like her, but someone who can challenge her. Support that damnable sense of adventure she has. But most importantly, someone who can love her for the stubborn, contrary person she is, and love those children as much as she does. And I suppose that if you really believe you’re not that man, then you should just sit here and sulk for the rest of your life. But if you do, then I think maybe it’s worth letting her know that. You might be surprised by the results.”

Jenny’s words struck Jamie’s heart, but he still wasn’t sure. “She deserves better, Jenny. I canna give her the safety and security she deserves.”

Jenny snorted. “Maybe you should just let her decide what she deserves or doesn’t deserve. You think she’d appreciate having decisions like this made for her? Give her the damn choice.”

They were both quiet for a while, watching the sun begin its descent over the horizon.

“She’s not Geneva,” Jenny said at last, quietly. “I know that’s part of why you’re scared. Scared that what happened to her will happen to Claire. Geneva was my cousin, and she was my friend. I loved her…but I knew what she was. She was manipulative and selfish, at no fault of poor Murtagh who did everything he could  to try to make her a decent person. I know what she did, and I know you were never in love with her.”

“She had her flaws,” Jamie croaked, his throat suddenly tight. “But she deserved tae be loved.”

Jenny raised her knees so she could rest her arms on them, then turned to look at him. “And I truly believe you loved her as much as you were able. And I know you would have loved that boy with all your heart. But you can’t keep punishing yourself. You didn’t love Geneva, and she wasn’t really in love with you, either. I don’t know if she would have ever been able to really love. You both made mistakes, but you have to stop letting it be an excuse to live, Jamie.”

He looked at her, quirking an eyebrow, and she chuckled.

“Bree let it slip, sorry. I guess your super-secret real name isn’t that secret anymore.”

Jamie chuckled. “It’s alright. I think part o’ the reason I didn’a tell anyone my name was so…I didn’a have tae get close to anyone.”

“But you didn’t waste time telling Claire your name, did you?”

He smiled and shook his head. “No. I wanted her tae know me.”

“And she does. She knows you better than anyone, and I could tell you how I know she feels about you, but I think it’s better that you two discuss that for yourselves.”

“What do I do?” he asked, pleaded.

Jenny gave a shrug and got to her feet, brushing off her skirts. “I suppose you have choices. You could wait for her to come back…but who knows how long that will be, and in the meantime this Frank Randal could be working on giving her reasons to stay in Boston. Or…”

Jamie stood up as well, ruffling Rollo’s head on the way, and took a deep breath. “Will ye look after th’ wolf for me? And the homestead?”

Jenny grinned broadly, and scratched Rollo’s ear. “Sure thing. See you around, Jamie.”

Jamie nodded, leaned down to kiss her cheek, then told Rollo to stay in the Gaidhlig. “See ye around Jenny,” he started to walk away then paused, and turned back with a smirk. “By th’ way, Ian…the elder, that is…asked after ye. He hoped tae see ye soon, tae thank ye for the kindness ye showed his son.”

To his amusement, Jenny’s cheeks reddened. “Oh…well…it was nothing. Young Ian is a sweet boy.”

“Aye,” Jamie agreed, still smirking as we turned to leave. “Thank ye, Jenny.”

His heart was pounding, all sorts of nervousness starting to set in, and he had no real plan. But he did know that he had to at least see her, see that she was well, make sure she knew that his indifference lately was due to his own cowardice and not because of her. To tell her how he felt about her.

First, he had to get a ticket to Boston.

Chapter Text

The children had forced me to see reality, and knocked me out of my happy cycle of healing people, and ignoring the future.

That night made it fairly clear to me that Frank still wanted a relationship, though he hadn’t voiced explicit desire to reinstate our engagement. The first order of business was to have a serious talk with him, find out what he wanted…and then try to figure out what I wanted.

My sleep that night was troubled. I kept trying to envision my and Frank’s life together again. Easy, secure, filled with satisfying work and intellectual conversations. But for some reason, what once had been everything I wanted in a marriage, suddenly filled me with a subtle sense of dread instead of anticipation. Instead I felt my heart desiring a life full of adventure, challenges, teasing jokes, and an all-consuming desire to simply be close to someone, all of the time.

Ever since arriving in Boston, despite how much I enjoyed my time with Frank, I found myself constantly wanting to turn to Jamie and just talk to him. Tell him about my day, confide in him how I felt, laugh with him about a sexist thing a patient said. Or when I didn’t think a patient could be helped, instead of hearing Frank’s knowledgeable condolences, all I wanted were Jamie’s arms to wrap around me, making me feel safe.

And that was just it…life with Frank could be secure, but nothing had ever made me feel safer than being close to Jamie. Even when we were being held in a tent by Harding’s men, possibly close to death, I felt safe with him.

But…Jamie didn’t want me, not like that. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering what could be with him, not when there was a wonderful man right in front of me, wanting me.

 

Some of Frank’s old colleagues decided to throw a welcome back party for him, and Geillis graciously offered the use of her house.

“Mrs. Duncan said some of the guests are bringing their children,” Brianna said excitedly. “Do you think anyone will ask me to dance?”

“Why wouldn’t they?” I asked, brushing her hair. “You’re a beautiful, interesting girl.”

She pouted. “No one ever did back home.”

“But that was back home, where everyone has known you since you were born. Here, you’re different. You have amazing things you can tell people about your life back home.”

“Not so sure I wanna be different,” she muttered.

I put my finger under her chin to tilt her face toward me. “It’s better to be original, darling, than just the same as everyone else.”

“But it’d be a lot easier.”

“And a whole lot less exciting!”

“Dr. B.? Do I have to wear this thing?” William asked, entering Brianna’s bedroom, fussing with his cravat. “It feels like I’m being hanged.”

“That’s not at all dramatic,” I droned. “Come here, let me fix it.”

“Um, Miss?” a maid said, timidly peeking into the room.

I looked up, smiling at the shy young woman. “Yes, Molly?”

“Sorry to disturb you, Miss, but there’s a…man here to see you.”

“Frank?” I asked, curious because I assumed the maids all knew him on sight.

Molly’s eyes widened almost comically. “Oh, no, Miss. This isn’t Dr. Randal. I’m afraid he’s a rather frightful sort. Pauline’s called on Hercules to have him removed, but I thought I needed to tell you, first. He was quite insistent.”

I exchanged perplexed looks with the children, and we all hurriedly filed out of the room - getting stuck in the doorway and having to push at each other to get out - to see who could possibly be at the door that got such a reaction from the maids.

We didn’t beat Hercules, and by the time we got downstairs, he was trying to forcibly remove someone from the house.

“Just tell Claire I’m here!” he was demanding, and I would know that particular brogue anywhere.

Jamie?!”

“Sassenach!” he exclaimed, as Hercules continued to manhandle him out the door. “Will ye tell this damned ox that ye know me?!”

“Hercules, stop!” I cried, running down the last of the steps. “Let him in!”

“What the devil is going on in here?!” Geillis exclaimed, entering from the other staircase.

I went to Jamie’s side, getting in between him and Hercules who was still glaring murderously. Jamie’s presence only made Hercules look even bigger, since prior to meeting him Jamie had been the tallest man I knew. “Geillis this is my friend, Jamie.”

“Oh you’re Jamie!” Geillis’s eyes lit up as she came into the foyer. “Oh Claire, you didn’t tell me what a handsome red fox he is!”

“Mac!” Fergus and Brianna cried, nearly bowling Jamie over with hugs.

“I missed ye too,” he laughed, hugging them back.

“Jamie, what are you doing here?” I asked, feeling a bit dazed at seeing him there, in his buckskin and plaid, unshaven and dirty from travel, standing in Geillis’s grand foyer. “Has something happened?”

“No,” he said. “No, ev’ryone’s fine, Sassenach. I just…ye were gone sae long…”

“I wrote,” I said quietly, acutely aware of all the eyes on us.

“Aye,” he acknowledged, looking embarrassed. “I got yer letter. I just…I wanted tae…”

“I hate to cut this reunion short,” Geillis broke in. “But Claire, we’ve a party to prepare for, and a new guest to…erm…” she looked Jamie up and down, her nose wrinkling slightly. “…get ready.”

“Party?” Jamie asked.

“Um, yes,” I said, having forgotten about the whole thing during the shock of seeing Jamie. “A um…welcome back party of sorts, for Frank.”

“Oh…” he looked around, uncertainty written all over his normally unreadable face. “I should go then. There’s a pub nearby I’ll be roomin’ at…”

“Nonsense!” Geillis said. “I won’t hear of it! There are plenty of rooms here for you to stay in, and you must come to the party!”

“Yeah, you should come!” Fergus cried. “Please, Mac?!”

“No,” Jamie said firmly, shaking his head. “It’s no’ my place…”

I was confused and conflicted, but a stern look from Geillis and an imploring one from William spurred me into action. “You should stay, Jamie. Please?”

He looked at me in surprise. “Are ye sure, Sassenach? I’m no’ exactly dressed for a fancy party.”

“You’re about the same size as my late husband,” Geillis said, tapping her chin. “And I still have some of his clothes, I’m sure I could find you something to wear.”

I squinted my eyes at Geillis, curious as to why she had her dead husband’s clothes in her current husband’s house, but shook my head and looked past it for the moment.

I took Jamie’s hand, unsure if his presence at the party was a good idea or not, but unwilling to hurt his feelings by sending him away. And besides I was very curious to know what exactly brought him all this way. “Please stay, Jamie?”

He looked me hard in the eyes, then nodded. “Aye.”

“Thank God,” William sighed. “I’ll have someone there to talk to!”

“Molly,” Geillis called, clapping her hands. “Take Mr. erm…” she looked to Jamie expectantly, and I flushed at the realization I’d introduced him using his real name, and not his false one.

“Fraser,” he said firmly, giving me a look.

“Please take Mr. Fraser to the guest room on the second floor and find him a suit to wear. William, you go on along and help pick, hm?”

“Come on,” William said, following Molly up the stairs.

“I’m coming too!” Fergus cried.

Jamie looked a little worried, but followed the boys up the stairs, giving me one last look over his shoulder.

“Well then,” Geillis cooed. “This sure makes things interesting, doesn’t it, Sassenach?”

“I can’t believe he’s here,” I said dazedly. “What could have possessed him to travel 2,000 miles?”

Geillis chuckled. “What indeed? You know, for a smart woman, you can be awfully dense sometimes, Claire. Now, you’d best go get ready for the party. I have a feeling it’s going to be a good one.”

 

I was practically vibrating with nerves as I got ready for the party. It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy to see Jamie…I truly was. But Jamie, here? At a party honoring Frank?

I wasn’t even sure what I was afraid of, but I was afraid.

When I descended the stairs again, guests were arriving, as had Frank.

“You’re early,” I said, smiling. “I think Geillis wanted you to make some sort of “entrance.””

Frank smiled back, taking my gloved hand and kissing the back of it. “That’s precisely why I’m here early, my dear. And you, are beautiful.”

I flushed in pleasure as he kissed my hand again, then bit my lip in thought. “There’s something I should probably tell you, do you remember the friend I told you about…”

“Jamie?” he asked, before I could finish. “Yes, I remember. You speak of him constantly.”

I didn’t like the slight edge to his voice, but opted to ignore it. “Well, he showed up this evening unexpectedly, to visit. So he’ll be at the party.”

Frank nodded, lips pinched. “Ah, well the more the merrier! How nice of him…to visit.”

“He’s a little different than the people here. He might seem a little…rough around the edges.”

“Relax, Claire,” he said, offering his arm to lead me into the party. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. So long as you promise me the first dance. And the last.”

I chuckled. “I don’t think Jamie likes to dance anyway, so we’re set.”

When we entered the party, Frank was quickly pulled away by acquaintances, and I could see the tired strain around his eyes as he was asked question he’d no doubt be answering all evening.

Leaving him to it, I looked around to see if my children and Jamie had made it down yet, and spotted them sliding in through the kitchen door.

“Caught you,” I said, smirking. “Sneaking early bites, aren’t you?”

“Mac’s been traveling,” William said in defense.

“Mmhm, yes, and that explains the sauce on your chin, does it?”

William’s eyes widened as he wiped at his chin, his siblings pointing and laughing as he did.

“Ye look verra beautiful, Sassnach,” Jamie said quietly.

I turned to appraise him, surprised by how quickly he’d been scrubbed and shaved. The suit he wore was slightly too small, but it took nothing away from how handsome and debonair he looked. If anything, it drew attention to the broadness of his chest and shoulders. “Thank you,” I told him. “You look very nice as well…although I must say, if I had to choose, I’d choose the kilt.”

He chuckled. “Aye, as would I. Will I do, though? No’ too embarrassed tae have me here?”

“Jamie, I could never be embarrassed of you,” I said firmly. “If I made you think that earlier, it was just because I was surprised to see you, that’s all.”

He smiled ruefully. “I s’pose I was unexpected, aye? I hope I’m no’ an imposition tae Geillis.”

“No, of course not. Believe me, she loves guests. Now come on, I’ll introduce…Jamie?”

I watched in frightened concern as Jamie’s face rapidly emptied of all color, and his eyes fixed on something over my head, wide in horror. Genuinely believing he was about to pass out, I grabbed his arm to hold him steady.

“Jamie, talk to me, what’s wrong?”

A Dhia,” he whispered, then something else in Gaelic that I couldn’t possibly follow.

“Hello,” I heard Frank’s voice behind me, and instantly felt Jamie’s entire body go rigid in response.

When I turned my head to look, Frank’s face was drawn in confusion. “Is everything alright?” he asked.

“Frank, this is Jamie,” I said. “I think…I think he isn’t feeling well all of a sudden. Would you excuse us, please?”

“Of course,” he said, nodding. “I don’t suppose someone would accompany me for the first dance in your absence…”

“Oh, me!” Brianna exclaimed, before catching herself and looking back to me and then Jamie, wordlessly asking if I needed help.

“Go ahead,” I told her, and she excitedly took Frank’s hand as he led her to the dancefloor, the act made slightly difficult by his cane, but he managed.

“Come on,” I said to Jamie, dragging him back through the kitchen, then to the hall. Once we were alone, I had to grab his face in both my hands to make him look at me. “James Fraser, talk to me, what’s going on? Are you sick?”

For a long moment he just stared right through me, and I was honestly terrified. Was he having some sort of stroke?

“Jamie, please,” I begged. “You’re scaring me.”

That finally snapped him out of whatever spell he was under, and his eyes finally focused on mine.

“Christ, I’m sorry, Sassenach. I dinna…I dinna think I should stay here. Maybe I should go…”

“Jamie, what happened? One moment you were fine, and the next you went white as a sheet. Please, just tell me what you’re feeling, and I can help you!”

That’s Frank?” he asked. “Frank Randal?”

I was brought up short by the question. “Yes…do you know him?”

He shook his head. “No…no. I’m sae sorry, Claire. He…oh God…he’s an image of Jack Randal. Even sounds like the bastard.”

“He does?” I asked, knowing there must be a startling similarity to get that sort of violent reaction from the normally stoic Jamie. “Oh God, Jamie. I suppose they must be related somehow…I’m so sorry. If I’d known I could have warned you or something…”

He shook his head. “No, ye couldn’a have known. I’m acting like a fool. I ken it’s no’ him.”

I finally recognized what had happened to Jamie as something I’d often seen from soldiers returning from war, and my heart broke for him.

I cupped my palm on his cheek, and he leaned into it. “You are many things, Jamie, but you’re no fool. Do you want to just go up to your room? I can tell them you’re not feeling well…”

“No,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I willn’a run from a ghost, ken? I’ll be fine, lass. Dinna fash.”

I had my reservations, but I let him lead me back to the party, managing to avoid Frank in favor of reintroducing him to Geillis.

By the time Frank came to request his dance with me, Jamie had collected himself enough that he was able to smile and nod cordially to Frank, though I could see the hint of fear in his eyes.

“Is he okay?” Frank asked as he led me in a slower dance.

“Do you have a relative named Jonathan Randal?” I asked instead of answering. “In England?”

“Why, as a matter of fact I do,” he said. “My cousin’s name is Jonathan, though they call him Black Jack, if I’m not mistaken. He’s a Captain in the army, there. Quite a few honors, I hear.”

“Honors,” I huffed.

“Why do you ask?”

“Jamie knows of him, and you look a bit like him.”

“How does Jamie know him? I gather from his reaction, they aren’t friends.”

It occurred to me then that I probably shouldn’t have spoken at all. “No…Frank, listen, I don’t know if you’re close with Jack but please, he can’t know anything about Jamie being here.”

Frank shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t keep in touch with him, anyway. But I advise you to exercise caution, Claire. If Jamie’s had a bad experience with my cousin, it wasn’t without reason.”

I wanted to pull away from him then, but forced myself to keep dancing. “Jamie has done nothing wrong, Frank, and that’s all I’ll say about it.”

“As you say,” Frank said, then dropped the subject.

 

I didn’t see much of Jamie the rest of the night, but I stayed mostly at Frank’s side, since it was his party, and I didn’t blame Jamie for avoiding us.

After all the other guests had left, I walked with Frank, arm-in-arm to the door.

“So your, erm, friend is staying here, I take it?”

“In one of Geillis’s many guest rooms, yes,” I said, chuckling.

“The children seemed awfully happy to see him.”

“They’ve known him all their lives,” I said. “And he’s done a lot for them. Brianna was awfully happy to be asked to dance, though. It’s a big deal to her, you know.”

He smiled. “She’s a sweet girl. Well, I won’t keep you. You must be tired. I’ll still you tomorrow to go to the hospital?”

“Of course!”

There was a moment where we both hesitated, and then he seemed to make his mind up about something, and leaned down for a kiss. I obliged, but caught him glancing over my shoulder before he donned his hat and left.

When I turned, I caught a glimpse of Jamie at the top of the stairs, just before he disappeared down the hall. Heaving a sigh and rolling my eyes, I started my way up to room, very much looking forward to laying my head down and sleeping away this confusing day.

Exhausted though I was, I indulged in a bath before bed. I’d only just donned my nightgown when there was a soft rap at my door. William normally banged with his fist, and Brianna and Fergus didn’t knock at all, so I knew it couldn’t be any of them.

I pulled on my dressing gown before cracking the door open, surprised and yet not to see Jamie on the other side.

“Jamie,” I began, pulling my dressing gown more tightly closed. “Did you need something?”

Looking over his shoulder, he stepped past me into the room, shutting the door behind him.

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly at my no-doubt scandalized expression. “Maids were in th’ hall.”

“You shouldn’t be in here,” I told him. “It isn’t proper.”

He arched a brow. “Proper? Really lass? We’ve been alone almost as much as we’ve been in public. I’ve seen ye in far less than that frilly robe, and you’ve seen me in absolutely nothing. What have ye left tae be shy about?”

“More than half of what you’re talking about was some sort of emergency, medical or otherwise. And it isn’t about what sort of situations we’ve been in before. Maid’s talk Jamie, and it just isn’t seemly.”

“Since when did ye care what others said or did?”

“We’re not in Colorado Springs! Things are different in Boston. There are different rules.”

“And ye told me ye liked getting away from those rules.”

“I did!”

He snorted and crossed his arms, leaning against the door. “Then why are ye still here? It’s been over two months, Sassenach. What’s keeping ye?”

I crossed my own arms, unintentionally shadowing his stance, but by the time I realized it it was too late to change it. “Visits to Boston aren’t exactly easy to make happen that often,” I said. “I’ve enjoyed being in the city, with Geillis, with…”

“Frank?”

I unfolded my arms and clenched my fists at my sides. “Yes! Frank! My former fiancé. He’s back after I believed him dead for nearly a decade. I’ve enjoyed spending time with him again, and I refuse to try and excuse myself for it!”

“Former?” he asked. “So he hasn’a proposed again?”

“I’m not sure he thinks he needs to,” I said. “We haven’t really talked about it yet…and what business is that of yours? Hm? Why are you here Jamie?”

He scowled and pushed away from the door, coming farther into the room and picking up a horse figurine from the bookcase. “Doesn’a sound like you’re verra happy to see me.”

“Don’t,” I warned. “Stop trying to make me feel guilty! I didn’t ask you to come, Jamie, and you’ve never once given me reason to stay in Colorado Springs.”

“Reason?” he exclaimed, putting the figuring down so hard I worried he may have broken it. “Why th’ hell should I give ye reason? I thought it was yer home! Yer patients are there, yer children grew up there. Is that no’ reason enough?!”

“Home has never been a place for me,” I said honestly. “Home is people who care about me, and people who need me. My children are here, and there are people here who care about me and need me just as much as in Colorado Springs.”

“Perhaps, but ye made a commitment tae th’ people there.”

I let my shoulders slump, knowing how right he was, but unwilling to admit it. I didn’t even know why I was arguing. I had every intention of going home. It was just that in that moment, it was less than appealing.

“Is that why you’re here? To remind me of my commitments?”

“No,” he said quietly. “I’m came tae see ye...that’s all.”

“Well, you’ve seen me,” I said, hating how cold I sounded, but completely unable to stop myself.

“Aye,” he agreed. “I s’pose I have. No’ sure I like what I see.”

With that he let himself out, and I collapsed onto my bed.

“Bloody Scot.”

Chapter Text

Claire was gone bright and early the next morning for the charity hospital with Frank, and Jamie was seriously considering beginning his way home. But in the end he realized how childish that would be, and had to at least bid her farewell before he went home with his tail between his legs.

Nothing had gone the way he’d planned. He’d rehearsed a dozen times the things he would say.

But then he’d gotten there; tired, dirty, his wame unsettled due to motion sickness from the train (not as bad as on a ship, but still.) And she was dressed all proper, looking stunningly beautiful…looking less than thrilled to see him, and all his words had flown right out the window.

He’d had to attend a party honoring her former fiancé of all people, and just when he thought he’d worked up the nerve to talk to her, he’d seen the man…Frank. Frank who could have been the identical twin of the bastard Black Jack.

He had been so upset and discombobulated by it all he’d fucked everything up, and now Claire wasn’t just not happy he was there…she was angry, and rightfully so. He may as well have pushed her toward Frank himself.

Jamie was furious with himself, but the day didn’t have to be a wash. The children were there, thrilled at the prospect of getting to show him around, and Jamie was glad that even though things weren’t going the way he’d hoped with Claire, he would at least get to spend time with three more of his favorite people.

“We can show you the candy store!” Fergus exclaimed, bouncing up and down.

“Seems ye’ve already had a wee bit o’ candy,” Jamie chuckled, poking the lad in the belly.

“Only one taffy,” Fergus said. “And besides, it’s to show you.”

“I canna wait, a charaid.”

Brianna’s hand slipped into his. “Can we go to the bookstore, Jamie…erm, I mean Mac. Sorry.”

He smiled at her, and squeezed her hand. “It’s alright, lass. Might as well call me by my name.”

“Why did you go by a false name for so long?” William asked. “Didn’t Geneva even call you Mac?”

He nodded. “Aye. ‘S a long, story. But it’s in th’ past, were it really ought tae stay.”

William shrugged and nodded, and they continued their way out.

Jamie had envisioned Boston to be more or less like Paris in terms of population and busyness, but it was different. Things seemed cleaner, more posh. At least in the parts of town he’d seen so far, where people stared at his Indian-like clothing and long hair in shock and disgust and turned their noses in the air.

He’d accepted a shave and a few sets of too-tight clothing from Mrs. Edgars’ busy little maids, but he’d vehemently refused a haircut. His only compromise had been pulling it into a club in the back, and he found he actually didn’t mind it that much.

The first place they went was the candy store, which, Jamie had to admit, was remarkable. He’d even indulged in some ice cream, a treat he’d read about but never gotten to try before. After that they went to the bookstore where Jamie perused novels while Brianna went mad in the science section.

“There’s a florist on the way back to Mrs. Duncan’s,” William said, following Jamie through the stacks with his hands behind his back.

“Fergus wants candy, Bree wants books, ye want flowers?” Jamie asked, smirking.

“Not for me,” William droned. “For Dr. B. I was just thinking maybe it’d be nice if you picked her up some. She’s always tired after working at the hospital, I bet she would appreciate it.”

Jamie sighed. “No’ so sure she’d appreciate it from me just now.”

“She would, and I know it. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To win her back?”

“Canna win back something I never had, lad.”

“You know what I mean. I want to help you, we all do.”

Jamie nodded toward where Brianna was showing a less-than-enthused Fergus a book about mechanics. “They seem rather fond o’ Frank.”

“Sure, he’s a nice enough fellow. But they love you, Jamie. And they love Dr. B., and we all know that you belong together. You see that now right? That’s why you came all this way, don’t bother trying to deny it!”

“I won’t.”

William opened his mouth as if to keep arguing, then snapped it shut. “Wait…really?”

Jamie went to run a hand through his hair, but remembered it was tied back, and settled for rubbing the back of his neck. “I just wonder if it’s too late.”

“It’s not! It can’t be! Frank may be able to share doctor stuff with her, but they’re nothing alike. Not like you and her.”

Jamie gave him a look. “Alike? Yer mam and me? Lad, we’re nothing alike.”

“What are you talking about? You’re both kind, and brave. You both care so much about other people, and doing the right thing, even if it means breaking rules or doing something dangerous. You both care about the Cheyenne, and the town, and us kids. Sometimes I look at you and you’re standing the exact same way, and sometimes you look at each other and you don’t even have to talk, ‘cause you just know what the other one is thinking or what they’re going to do. And you respect each other, which, according to her, is the most important thing of all.”

Jamie had to stare at William a moment in amazement. “Ye’ve really grown up, haven’ ye?” he asked.

William smiled. “No small thanks to you and Dr. B. And…also…” he smirked and exaggeratedly elbowed Jamie in the side, winking. “I’ve also seen how you look at each other. And in my Aunt Jenny’s words, it could melt the paint off a barn.”

“Sounds like her,” Jamie muttered, rolling his eyes. “Alright, a charaid, I hear what yer saying. So what do I do?”

“You need to court her. You can’t be a flashy doctor like Frank, but you can be romantic. Take her to dinner, dancing. That sort of thing.”

“I’m no’ good at that sort o’ thing.”

“Well, then start with dinner. Show her you’re at least willing to exist in her world, since she’s only ever known you in yours.”

Jamie nodded. “Aye, that makes sense. Where do I take her?”

 

I got home relatively early for a change, as there were few serious emergencies at the hospital. Frank invited me to dinner, but honestly I was looking forward to turning in early, so I politely declined.

But when I entered the house Jamie was there, dressed up with three children and a drama-loving friend peering out from the sitting room.

“Welcome back, Sassenach,” he said, glancing over toward the children nervously, as if looking for instruction, and it was enough to make me smile.

“Good evening, Jamie.”

“I was wonderin’…weel, I wanted tae ask if ye’d like tae have dinner with me tonight. If yer no’ too tired, o’ course.”

I was tired, but his boyish request was far too endearing to turn down, so I nodded and told him I just needed to change and freshen up, and he pulled a single red rose from behind his back and presented it to me.

“I ken ye prefer bone saws,” he said, eyes dancing. “But those are a wee bit harder tae come by.”

“And not quite as pretty,” I said, taking the rose and holding it to my nose.

I hurried to change, and rejoined him in the foyer.

“Have a good time!” Brianna called, waving.

“Don’t come home too early,” Geillis added with a saucy smirk.

I shot them a look and followed Jamie out to Geillis’s carriage, which he’d apparently already arranged to borrow.

He took me to one of the restaurants I’d taken the children to, which further proved my theory that they’d been coaching him. But it was still a sweet gesture, and it was incredible seeing Jamie in the role of attentive escort. I would never have expected it to seem natural coming from him, but somehow it did.

“Th’ kids told me ye took them here,” he said as he held my chair out for me. “I hope that’s okay. But I figured ye already like it so…”

“It’s perfect,” I assured him. “Thank you, Jamie.”

“I wanted tae apologize for last night,” he said. “I should’a spoken tae ye that way.”

I shook my head. “You were tired from traveling and had a stressful evening. Besides, I should be the one apologizing. I didn’t make you feel welcome, which you are, Jamie.”

He smiled, and we enjoyed a lovely dinner of baked fish, followed by slices of Boston cream pie.

The restaurant had a dancefloor, no doubt why the children had suggested it, and I kept wondering if maybe Jamie would finally ask me to dance, but he didn’t.

But he asked about my day at the hospital, and I excitedly told him all about a case where a man was exhibiting pain and fever after a seemingly healed injury, and how Mother Hildegarde showed me the hidden infection.

“Sorry, I’m sure I’m boring you,” I said self-consciously, thinking how even Frank would have told me to slow down by now, or at least save the gruesome parts for after our dessert was finished.

“Not at all,” he said, and I could tell he was being sincere. “I admit, I dinna understand half o’ what you’re talking about, but I like how animated ye become when ye talk about yer medicine.”

I felt myself blush, but still thought I’d have mercy on him and change the subject. “What did you and the children do today?”

Jamie then filled me in on the details of their day, and it pleased me to no end to be able to tell how much he enjoyed their company just for the sake of them, and no one else.

Jamie walking me to the door that evening was a bit different, knowing we’d both be entering the house together. But I paused before the stair regardless, feeling like since he’d made effort to make this a proper date, I should as well.

“I had a lovely evening, Jamie, thank you.”

“Yer welcome,” he said, smiling. “As did I.”

“May I ask you a question? And I don’t mean to criticize you in any way, so please don’t answer if you don’t want to.”

“Now ye have me worried,” he joked. “Did I have food stuck in my teeth all night or something?”

I laughed. “No! I just…why have you never asked me to dance?”

Jamie grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. “I could see ye thinking about it, at dinner.”

I rolled my eyes. “You always read my mind.”

“Aye,” he chuckled. “It’s no slight on you, Sassenach. It’s only that, I dinna know how tae dance.”

The answer was so obvious, I felt silly that I hadn’t thought of the possibility at all.

“I’m no good wi’ music at all, ken. No ear for it. I can keep a beat wi’ a Cheyenne drum well enough, but I never learned all yer wee dances ye do. The ones in Scotland were different, and I was never good at those, either.”

“Oh, there’s no shame in that!” I assured him. “They’re really not as hard as they look, at least the ones I know. Trust me, I’m not that good at them either!”

“Ye look pretty good to me,” he said. “I’ve watched ye.”

“What sort of dances did they do in Scotland?”

“Weel, there’s the traditional ones, like th’ one ye do around the swords. But the ones my family did during Hogmanay were more a bunch of hoppin’ around. No’ so…organized as what ye do.”

“Show me,” I said, holding out my hands.

He furrowed his brow. “Show you? There’s no music.”

“You just said you’ve no ear for music anyway. Come on, just a little?”

Rolling his eyes he took my hands, and started haltingly hopping from foot to foot, before switching until only one each of our hands were held, then back again. I quickly copied his steps and giggled as we clumsily bounced around, no doubt looking like complete fools.

He was right; for someone who could so gracefully scale mountains and ride horses, he had no natural rhythm and two left feet, but he seemed to have fun, remembering the steps from so long ago.

“That’s all I remember,” he laughed, pulling us both to a stop.

“I like it!” I said. “Your Hogmanays must have been very lively.”

“Oh, they were. Like nothin’ ye’ve seen!”

“But you know, if you can do that, a waltz isn’t much different, and can be done to slower music. Like this…”

I grabbed his hands and placed one on my waist, while I rested my free hand on his shoulder. “And you just step in a box shape, one…two…three…”

We were laughing anew as he attempted the steps, once nearly trampling my foot. I made us slow down, so that we were more swaying than anything else.

“See?” I said, looking up at him. “You can dance.”

He chuckled, and I could feel his breath warm on my face. “So long as yer leading, Sassenach.”

We continued to sway aimlessly, neither of us making a move to stop or move apart. His head was slowly inching closer to mine, and I closed my eyes in anticipation…just as a boy came running up the drive shouting my name.

“Dr. Beauchamp!” he cried. “Mother Hildegard sent me. There’s been a fire in an apartment building across town, she needs your help! I’m to fetch Dr. Randal, too!”

“We’ll take the carriage and pick him up,” I said, letting go of Jamie and looking back at him apologetically. “I have to go.”

“I ken ye do,” he said quietly. “Best hurry and change, I’ll tell Geillis and the children. And I’m coming wi’ ye.”

“No, Jamie, it’s late, and there are plenty of nurses who can help. Really, just get some sleep.”

He shook his head. “No’ tae help, but ye’ll need a driver and Geillis’s man is done in for th’ day. And besides that, a charity hospital at night may no’ be safe, and meaning no offense tae Frank, he’s injured, and maybe can’t…”

“Alright, alright, alright,” I said. “I haven’t time to argue. Go change into something you can move around in, because knowing Mother Hildegard she’ll put you to work.”

Chapter Text

The messenger boy ran ahead of us to alert Frank, who was standing outside near the road when we pulled up, making no comment about Jamie’s presence in the driver’s seat.

The hospital was a madhouse by the time we got there. Dozens of people were scattered around the triage, in various degrees of injury. Frank and I immediately donned aprons and rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

The nuns and civilian volunteers were able to deal with the patients suffering the effects of smoke inhalation and the more minor injuries, while Frank and I, and another surgeon volunteer by the name of Dr. Andrews handled the severe burns and those too far gone to help other than making them as comfortable as possible.

I had no idea what became of Jamie once I stepped through the doors, and I only saw Frank in passing through most of the night.

At one point I almost thought I couldn’t handle it. There was a child so badly burned she was almost unrecognizable as a girl at all. Whereas dying children were never something easy to see for anyone, doctor or not, it had become infinitely harder for me now that when I looked at them, all I saw were the faces of the three children who had become mine.

There were a hundred more emergencies that needed dealt with, but I sat at that girl’s side, not touching her since there was scarcely a part of her skin unscathed, but whispered to her words of love and comfort as she took her final rattling breaths.

“Are you alright?” Mother Hildegard asked me quietly as I covered the child – whose name I didn’t even know – with the sheet.

“No,” I told her honestly. “But I have to be, because there are more people who need me.”

“You made it easier for her,” she said. “You should take comfort in that.”

“Is her mother here?” I asked.

“I’m not sure. No one has come forward looking for their child, but there are still people being brought in. Your man has been very helpful in bringing them in.”

“My man? Do you mean Jamie?”

“Tall, redheaded Scot?”

I smiled tiredly. “That’s him. I figured you’d find him work to do, but he isn’t my man.”

She shrugged. “Well, regardless, Dr. Randal needs you in surgery. A young man with a crushed leg, after the building collapsed. Do you think you can handle it?”

I flexed my tired shoulders, but nodded resolutely. “I’m ready.”

 

It was five solid hours of attempting to put the boy’s leg back together. Frank had thought initially that it would have to be amputated, and for a while it looked like he was right, but I stubbornly kept on removing pieces of splintered bone and pushing the remaining pieces back together. We encountered two bleeders, resulting in the need to set up a transfusion. By the time we were done, the leg looked more like a patchwork quilt than a limb.

After an additional hour of stitching up a few other contusions, Frank and I left the operating room nearly dead on our feet.

“Do you think he’ll live?” he asked me.

“If he can survive the blood transfusion and any possible infections, then I’d say he has a fighting chance.”

“You were incredible,” he said, smiling excitedly at me. “Most doctors would have amputated right away, but you gave that boy a chance of a full recovery. You’re amazing, Claire.”

“Thank you,” I said, warming under his praise. “I had to at least try. I couldn’t have done it without you, though. I don’t know anyone else able to stem bleeders like you.”

One of the nuns brought us some hot cups of coffee, which we accepted gratefully.  “We make a good team, don’t we?” he asked.

“We really do. As tragic as this night has been, I’m so glad you brought me to this hospital, Frank. It’s been wonderful working with you again.”

“It can always be this way, you know,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about opening a pro-bono clinic near the hospital, so that people can receive the care they need without having to wait here, if it’s a non-emergency. I thought about what you’ve told me about your clinic in Colorado, and thought I could work it out that the people pay whatever they can afford, and rely on donations.”

“That sounds amazing,” I said.

“I want you to run it with me, Claire.”

I nearly choked on my coffee, and had to set in on a nearby table to keep from spilling it all over myself. “What?”

Frank put down his own cup and took me by the arms, steering me toward an alcove by a window, out of the way of passing staff. “Just think, Claire. We could work like this, side-by-side. Here at the hospital, and at our clinic. We will be equals, partners in every sense of the word. Marry me, Claire. Let me give you the life I should have given you long ago. I’ll raise your children with you like they were my own. We can be so happy Claire.”

I opened and closed my mouth several times, trying to make my sleep-deprived brain come up with a response. The things he was saying sounded wonderful. Doing the work I love alongside someone I can share it with. But was it really what I wanted?”

“You don’t have to answer now,” he said, seeing my hesitation. “You’re tired. Please, just think it over, and give me your answer when you’re ready.”

I nodded dumbly, accepting the sweet kiss he pressed to my lips.

What now?

 

Claire had been right when she said that this Mother Hildegard would put Jamie to work. The tall, imposing woman took one look at his strong frame and set him to carrying supplies, and eventually carrying people when stretchers became scarce.

His heart ached at seeing all the hurt and dying people, especially the children.

He’d just gotten finished holding a large man down so his arm could be set when he heard a soft crying coming from a supply cabinet. He opened it slowly to see a little girl of about four or five, huddled in the back behind mops and buckets.

“What is it a leannain?”  he said, making sure to pitch his voice as soft as he could. “Are ye hurt then?”

She shook her head “no,” though her face was covered in soot and her hair looked a bit singed.

“Canna find me mam,” she cried in a little Scottish lilt.

“Ach, ye sound like me, lass!” he said, smiling at her and crouching down to make himself as small as possible. “Yer no’ from around here, are ye?”

She shook her head again. “We came on a boat.”

He made an exaggerated face. “Dinna care much for boats, myself. Get sick as can be soon as I step on one! Made for a long trip here, it did. Do ye like boats?”

She nodded. “I like boats. Da takes me sailing.”

“Does he now? Weel, why don’t ye come out, and I’ll see if I can help ye find your mam and da?”

Nodding again, she crawled out from behind the buckets and immediately stuck her arms up for him. She was rail-thin, but it seemed more just how she was built, and not due to malnutrition, since behind the soot her cheeks were full. Either way, it was like holding air as he stood up, holding her close.

He walked her through the halls, making sure to point out pretty pictures on the walls to draw her attention away from the gruesome injuries that were impossible to escape.

“Sarah?!”

Her little head, which had dropped to rest on his shoulder, popped up suddenly and swiveled around until her eyes landed on the distraught looking couple running toward her.

“Mam!” she cried. “Da!”

Jamie happily handed his sweet little burden over to her parents, who sobbed and kissed her between words of thanks to him. From what he could catch between their babbled words, she’d been under the care of a neighbor while they had been at work, and they’d been looking for her ever since hearing of the building fire.

After they were gone, homeless but happy to be together, Jamie realized by glancing out a window that the sun was rising. He decided to look for Claire, and make sure she wasn’t running herself into the ground, and possibly see if he could convince her to go home and sleep a while.

When he found her, she was with Frank. They looked like they’d just been in surgery, and Frank had her by the arms, excitedly talking to her about something.

Jamie hesitated, not wanting to intrude, until he caught their conversation.

“…We could work like this, side-by-side. Here at the hospital, and at our clinic. We will be equals, partners in every sense of the word. Marry me, Claire. Let me give you the life I should have given you long ago. I’ll raise your children with you like they were my own. We can be so happy Claire!”

Jamie’s heart plummeted to somewhere near his feet as he watched them kiss.

Christ, what had he been thinking? They were equals. They shared things Jamie could never share with her, could never begin to understand.

He scuttled away before he could be caught eavesdropping. It hurt…God it hurt. But at the end of the day, all Jamie really wanted was Claire happiness. He had wanted to believe that he could make her happy, and perhaps he could have, but would have been enough for her?

One thing he did know that this was a decision Claire needed to make for herself, by herself, without him there to make her feel at all guilty. She needed to do what was best for her and the children, and he needed to just be okay with that.

When he found her again later, she looked exhausted.

“Ye need to go home and sleep, Sassenach,” he told her gently.

“I will,” she said. “I have just a couple more to see and then I’m done. Why don’t you go, Jamie? Frank can send for his carriage. I’d like it if you make sure the children know we’re okay.”

He wanted to argue, because Christ she needed rest, but he reminded himself he needed to let her go. Let Frank take care of her, as unsettling that thought was to him.

“Aye, Sassenach. But please, rest soon?”

She smiled tiredly. “I will, I promise. Thank you, Jamie.”

He took one last look at her; disheveled, dirty, exhausted…and so beautiful, then turned to go. He longed for sleep himself, but decided he could rest on the train.

It was time to go home.

 

I practically stumbled like a drunkard into the house. I was bone weary, but satisfied that I’d done good work. Frank had blessedly not brought up the proposal again, upholding his promise to let me sleep on it.

The house was still quiet, save for some maids, and the tempting scents of breakfast were wafting from the kitchen. Tempting though it was, I resolutely dragged myself upstairs in search of a bath and a long nap, in that order.

I decided just to peek in on the children, mostly just to reassure myself of their health and safety after such a trying night, and was surprised to find them all awake in William and Fergus’s room.

“You’re all up early,” I said. “Is everyone feeling okay? Did Jamie make it home alright?”

“He did,” William said, and I was taken aback by the sharp tone in his voice. “And he left.”

“Left? What do you mean, left?”

William stood up, fists clenched. “He went home, Dr. B. Do you remember home?”

I shook my head in confusion. “I don’t understand, why would he just leave without talking to me? And goodness, he must have been exhausted!”

“He wouldn’t talk about why,” Brianna said. “He just said it was time for him to go, and to apologize to you and Mrs. Duncan for his abrupt departure.”

“Oh God,” I groaned, realization dawning. “He overheard Frank and I.”

“What did he overhear?” William asked suspiciously.

I sat down on the edge of Fergus’s bed, wrapping an arm around him. “He wants to open a free clinic near the charity hospital, and he wants me to help him run it…as his wife.”

“You’re gonna marry him?!” Fergus exclaimed.

“We’re gonna live here?” Brianna asked at the same time.

“No!” William cried. “No, I don’t want to live here! I want to go home, Dr. B.!”

“Would it be so bad?” I asked weakly. “You could all go to good schools, meet countless new people. You could have so many opportunities here in Boston, and Frank would love you as his own.”

“Do you love him?” Brianna asked, her voice small.

“I…” I trailed off, finding myself unable to answer.

I did love Frank. I’d always loved Frank. It was a quiet love, quiet and still. Nothing at all like…

“That bloody Scot,” I muttered. “How dare he just run off like this!”

I jumped up, tiredness rolling off my shoulders as it did.

“I have something to do,” I said, then left my children looking bemused and perplexed as I raced out the door.

Chapter Text

I must have attracted quite a few dirty looks as I flew through the train station, still grubby and smelling of smoke, but I paid no heed to any of them. There was only one train heading West, so I knew it had to be the one he was on.

I got on the train by virtue of not stopping when asked to, and no one being quite willing to physically stop a woman. I had to peek into every cabin, most certainly looking like a madwoman, and hardly caring.

At long last, I peered inside a cabin to find a large redhead in buckskin and tartan, lounging against the bench.

“Claire?” he said in surprise, leaping to his feet. “What the devil are ye doing here?”

“What am I doing here? What are you doing here? How could you just leave like that, without a word?”

“I told the kids,” he said, jaw clenching. “It’s time for me tae go, Claire.”

“Claire? Not Sassenach?”

I thought that might coax a smile from him, but it didn’t, and his eyes remained drawn and cold.

“Why did you even come here?” I asked, growing angry.

“Because,” he hissed.

I rolled my eyes. “Because? Really? That’s your answer? Christ, Jamie! Because why?!”

“Because I love you, damn it!”

I froze, my mouth hanging open in shock. In a way I knew, had always known. But I never expected him to come out and say it that way, and especially not in such a tone that contradicted his words.

I couldn’t speak, but I didn’t have to, because his mouth was on mine, and I was being kissed unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, or even imagined.

He pushed me until my back was against the wall, and his hands bracketed my face, holding me still. I felt like I was on fire, but instead of feeling trapped or wanting to get away from the source of the burning, I wanted ever closer to it. I raised my own hands to bury in his hair, loving the feel of his soft curls slip between my fingers.

Needing air, but unwilling to part from him, my mouth opened to take a breath, but it turned into a gasp when Jamie’s tongue ran over my bottom lip before sliding in and touching my own. Never had I been kissed that way, and although it was odd…God I wanted more. So much more.

The train lurched, breaking us forcibly apart as he kept me from falling. Realization washed over me like cold water.

I couldn’t leave on this train! My children were still at Geillis’s, and it would have been incredibly unfair to leave without talking to Frank.

But I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? ‘Hold that thought?’

So I made the very stupid decision of turning tail and fleeing like the coward I was. I should have asked him to stay, but I didn’t feel like that was fair either. And in truth my brain was so clouded with exhaustion, conflicting emotions, and arousal, I would never have been able to trust my mouth had I opened it again.

I didn’t even remember my ride back to Geillis’s. I was so weary, all I could manage was dragging myself back to my room and collapsing on the bed, still in my work clothes.

I awoke hours later to find that I’d been tucked under a blanket, and my shoes removed. There was a tub awaiting me, and though the water had cooled, it was still blessedly refreshing to get clean again.

I ventured out to find my children, and found Geillis instead in the sitting room.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. “The kids told me about what was going on with Frank and Jamie. Quite a night you’ve had.”

“Tell me about it,” I sighed, then groaned and covered my face with my hands. “Oh Geillis, I’ve ruined everything!”

She chuckled. “Somehow I doubt it. What happened?”

“I went to find Jamie at the train station. We talked, and…he said he loves me.”

“Seemed rather obvious to me,” she said. “And I’ve only the known the man a few days!”

“Well, it wasn’t to me! Maybe in retrospect…but…he told me he loves me, he kissed me…God he kissed me! And then I just left! I left, Geillie, without saying a word!”

Geillis pucker her mouth. “Ooh. That…was bad. But for Christ’s sake, Claire, you’d been awake for over 24 hours and had just been proposed to by another man. I think we can excuse a bit of a lapse of judgement.”

“You might can, but can Jamie?”

“That depends, I suppose, on what you want to do now. Who do you want to be with, Claire?”

I leaned back into the cushion. “Frank and I are so much alike in so many ways. He’s…my intellectual equal. He understands the hectic life of being a doctor. He’s known me forever. I could be happy with him.”

“Mmhm, and with Jamie?”

“…he’s never treated me with anything but admiration and respect for what I do. Never condescends, never asks me to be anything but what I am. He makes me laugh. He challenges me. He looks at me and…I feel something I didn’t even know I could feel. He touches me and…” I blushed and looked down at my hands in my lap. “The thought of being without him…”

“Sooo…” Geillis drolled. “What are you going to do?”

 

I could only hope Frank wasn’t still asleep when I arrived at his house that evening. But when I knocked on his apartment door, he answered quickly.

“Claire!” he exclaimed, eyes brightening. “I didn’t expect to see you today. Figured you’d sleep for years!”

“I felt like I could,” I said. “I did rest though, and Frank, I…”

“What am I doing? Come in, come in! If you erm…don’t find it improper.”

I chuckled and entered the apartment. “Life on the frontier has vastly altered my view of what is proper.”

“Can I get you some tea? Coffee?”

“No, Frank…I…I have my answer.”

He smiled, though I could tell it was forced. “That fast, huh? I can see by your face that it isn’t a yes. Has anyone ever told you how expressive you are?”

Sighing, I reached out to take his hand. “Frank, I’m sorry. I truly am but I…”

“Claire, listen,” he interrupted. “I know I hurt you by not telling you I’d survived. I know you’ve grown, changed. So have I! We were always so good together, Claire!”

“I know, we were! And I’ve already forgiven you for what you did. It isn’t that, Frank it’s…”

“It’s him, isn’t it? Jamie.”

I smiled sadly, tears stinging my eyes. “Do you know, I don’t think he’s ever once interrupted me. Though I think I’ve done it to him a time or two. I love you, Frank, and a part of me always will. But not the way you deserve to be loved. I could never give you my heart. Because…I’m simply not in possession of it anymore.”

He nodded. “I understand. But I think you’ll regret it, Claire. Down the line, when he can give you nothing but…but a teepee in the woods.”

I slipped my hands from his and took a step back. “You’re hurting, so I’m going to let that go. For what it’s worth, I am sorry. Goodbye, Frank.”

I left then without another word, not wanting to sour the memory of my time with him with hateful words.

When I got back to Geillis’s, I found Brianna first, laying on her belly on her bed, reading one of her new books.

“You know what I think?” I asked her, making her jump slightly, then laid down beside her. “I think you rather like it here.”

She smiled. “Yeah. It’s so different and exciting! But I know the boys are homesick.”

“And you’re not? Not even a little?”

She hummed. “Well, I do miss Aunt Jenny, and Joe and Gail, and Adso, and my chickens. And Ian, and Rachel. They’re really the first real friends I’ve ever had.”

“And they’re good friends,” I said. “Loyal ones, not like the society girls you’re bound to find here. But you could always come back, to go to school one day.”

Her eyebrows raised. “Does that mean we’re going home?”

I nodded. “I told Frank I couldn’t marry him. Now I have someone else I need to talk to.”

Brianna’s grin stretched from ear-to-ear. “And just what are you going to tell him?”

I winked. “Better tell it to him first. Want to go tell your brothers?”

Giggling, she hopped off the bed, running into the hall screaming, “Willie! Fergus! We’re going home!”

 

Going home felt like it took even longer than getting to Boston, even though the trip was actually a day shorter due to fewer stops. But I was a bundle of nerves the whole while, wondering if Jamie would even be there, or if he would be off with the Cheyenne.

I rehearsed over and over what I would say to him until the words stopped making sense in my mind.

When the stagecoach finally pulled into Colorado Springs I almost wished I could turn it around and go back, just to give me a few more days.

“Hey! It’s Dr. B. and the kids!” Angus shouted upon seeing us emerge from the stagecoach.

Just like that we were swarmed by townsfolk, and there were shouts of joy and hugs all around. Could never find a welcome like that in Boston!

“It’s about time!” Jenny exclaimed, elbowing through the crowd and sweeping Fergus into a hug.

“We were beginning to be afraid you’d never come home!” Joe said.

“We’re just happy there’s been no serious emergency since you’ve been gone,” said Denny.

Rupert lifted me off the ground in a hug, then suddenly made a face. “Hey, you’re right. Anyone else think that all our emergencies are because of Dr. B.?”

“Hey!” Roger exclaimed. “That’s no fair! She didn’t cause the epidemic!”

I was thrilled to see them all, but there was one face in the crowd that was missing that I most wanted to see. Not that I blamed him.

But then Brianna was tugging on the back of my bodice, and I turned to follow her gaze.

There he was, by the clinic, Rollo at his side. He had a faint smile on his face, but looked anxious, body tense, like he was ready to bolt.

Well, I couldn’t let that happen. Before I even knew what I was doing, I was running across the square toward him, and didn’t stop until I was throwing myself into his arms, trusting him to catch me.

And catch me he did. His arms wrapped tightly around me, and he swung me off my feet.

Now I’m home,” I whispered, before pulling back so I could see his face. “I love you, too, Jamie.”

He grinned broadly, and I had just a moment to admire its beauty along with his shining blue eyes before he was kissing me, and for the first time it didn’t frighten me at all, but filled me with a sense of rightness. A sense of home.

I wasn’t frightened, but I was a tad embarrassed when I remembered the whole town was watching, and now they were all whistling and hooting.

We pulled apart then, sheepishly, to face the cheering crowd.

“IT’S ABOUT DAMN TIME!” someone shouted. I think it was Murtagh, of all people.

“Better go face them, Sassenach,” Jamie said through the side of his mouth. “If we leave together now, we’ll never hear th’ end o’ it.”

“But you will come home with us? For um…dinner, I mean.”

He smiled, and performed his characteristic non-wink that I realized just then how much I absolutely adored. “Oh aye, mo nighean donn. And ev’ry other dinner, besides.”

Chapter Text

The homestead was a sight for sore eyes as we rode up that afternoon.

“Adso!” Fergus called, hopping off the wagon before we even came to a full stop. “Adso! Here, kitty, kitty!”

“I want to see my chickens!” Brianna exclaimed, following on her brother’s heels.

For a moment I had to just sit there, basking in the stillness and serenity of home after so long in the bustling city. And it fully hit for the first time how much I preferred life in Colorado Springs…and those who came with it, of course.

“Ye alright?” Jamie asked, coming around to my side of the wagon.

I smiled down at him. “Just glad to be home.”

He held up his hands to lift me down, just as he’d done many times before, but this time when I reached for him and his hands spanned my waist, it came with an extra flutter in my stomach. And he didn’t release me immediately when my feet touched the ground.

“Jamie?” Brianna called, leaning over the fence that led the chicken yard. “Where are my chickens?”

Jamie cleared his throat and let me go before striding toward the back yard. “They should be in the coop, lass.”

Brianna went to investigate, but returned frowning. “There’s two missing!”

“Mama!” Fergus called. He was standing by my garden, and I went over to see, much to my dismay, that most everything planted there was dead. “Where are the pumpkins we planted?” he asked.

“I suppose they didn’t come up,” I sighed. “Jamie, didn’t you say Joe took care of the homestead while you were gone?”

“Aye,” Jamie said. “But there’s been no rain. He had tae give what water there was tae spare tae th’ animals.”

“You mean it hasn’t rained since we left?” William asked. “It had already been months without rain before that.”

“Is this serious?” I asked him.

“It’s happened before,” he said. “I dinna think there’s too much cause for concern yet.”

I hummed. “Well, it’s a shame about the pumpkins, but I needed those herbs.”

“I can take ye tae find wild-growing herbs,” Jamie offered.

I started to nod then caught his expectant face. “W…what, now?”

He shrugged. “Why not?”

“We have to unpack, then I need to go to the clinic.”

“The clinic? Ye have tae go back tae work now? Why no’ give it a day?”

“It’s been months, Jamie, I need…” I trailed off when I realized the children were standing in a row as a rapt audience.

“Are you gonna get married now?” Fergus asked suddenly.

Jamie and I exchanged flustered looks and several stammered non-words.

“But you do love each other?” Brianna clarified, eyes bright. “You said so.”

I looked at Jamie again, and his face had melted from embarrassed to warm, and it left a similar warm feeling in me. “Yes,” I said. “We do.”

William had a hint of an amused smile on his face. “So, you’re courtin’?” he asked, with faux sterness.

“S’pose we are,” Jamie said, draping his arm about my shoulders.

“Why don’t you go on?” William asked. “Hunt herbs. I want to go see Rachel, anyway.”

“And I can check on the clinic,” Brianna offered. “And get some groceries.”

“I wanna tell Mr. Murtagh about the candy store!” Fergus enthused.

“Fine,” I said, seeing and appreciating their efforts to allow Jamie and I some time alone. “Only if you at least unpack your own things first.”

The three raced inside without a backward glance, and Jamie made a grand gesture in the direction of the woods with a stately bow. Curtseying, I took his arm and followed him.

***

“I’m sorry I just ran out on you like that,” Claire as they strolled along a deerpath. Rollo could be heard snuffling through the brush, but only occasional glimpses of gray fur could be seen between the leaves. “You said you loved me and I just…bolted. I truly thought you would be angry with me when I got home.”

Jamie shook his head and took her hand to help her over a log. She didn’t let go again, and neither did he. “Ye dinna owe me an apology,” he said. “It’s no’ like ye could have left, and th’ train was moving. Besides, I ran out on ye first. I should apologize for no’ just getting off th’ train with ye.”

“Why don’t we just call the whole thing even?” Claire asked, offering him a crooked smile.

“Agreed,” he said, smiling back.

He wouldn’t tell her how he didn’t sleep the entire journey home, going through a cycle of deep regret for not handling the situation right, and miserable disappointment that he’d missed his chance entirely. When he’d gone to collect Rollo from Jenny, she’d taken one look at his haggard form and ushered him inside and to a pallet near the fire where he’d promptly fallen asleep with his wolf at his side, and slept for a solid twenty-four hours.

Afterword, he hadn’t much wanted to talk, but Jenny must have inferred enough of what had happened and thankfully didn’t ask questions.

He could barely stand to return to the homestead, but he had to relieve Joe. He’d never had much love for the place, beyond vague pride in having built it with his own hands. Mostly it just reminded him of his uncomfortable marriage and the child that had never gotten to live.

But for a time it had been her place. Hers and the children. He’d go to visit and it would be filled with warmth and laughter and the smell of dinner cooking. It was more of a home to him than any of the time he’d actually lived in it.

When he returned to it though, he tried to come to terms with the idea that they were never coming back, and it came close to shattering him.

Then came the day of the next stagecoach. He’d gone into town, telling himself it was just for supplies, but it was just hope against hope that maybe they’d be on it.

And then there they were…there she was. Getting off the stage and breathing life into him again. His mind raced as he tried to think of what to say. But all he could think was, “Ah Dhia, she’s beautiful.”

She’d taken away his need to say anything at all when she flew right into his arms, smiling bigger than he thought he’d ever seen, telling him that she loved him, too.

She was in his arms, he was kissing her, and he’d never felt more alive.

For all that he’d been married once, and had an innocent romance with a girl back in Scotland when he was just a lad, Jamie felt like the less experienced one of the two, and he worried he wouldn’t know how to properly court her. She’d been courted – twice – by an older, worldly man. Surely she had expectations.

He watched and smiled as she gathered her wee herbs as happily as a lass gathering wildflowers. It was charming to see, but mostly he was enjoying the sight of her arse wiggling in the air with no one around to catch him looking.

No one, of course, save the owner of said arse.

“Enjoying the view?” she sang, looking over her shoulder and noticing his line of sight.

His first instinct was to turn away and deny it, and still, that would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, but hang it. “Aye,” he said, smirking. “Verra much so.”

He held his breath, waiting for her to be affronted, but she only smirked back and went back to picking herbs, only this time he could swear there was an extra bounce to it.

“’Tis a verra fine arse,” he continued, hoping to get a rise out of her. “Roundest I’ve ever seen.”

“That’s the petticoat,” she drolled, not looking at him.

“Ye forget I’ve seen ye in no’ but your underthings.”

“And I’ve seen you in nothing but your birthday suit.”

Christ, give the woman a proper kiss and suddenly she’s unflappable.

“Weel, seems we’re uneven then. Fair’s fair, Sassenach. Off wi’ it.”

At last, her head whipped around, face glowing that lovely shade of red he so enjoyed. It reddened more when he laughed, but she laughed along with him.

“You did that on purpose.”

“Aye, only joking. A little.”

Rolling her eyes, she straightened up, tucking her herbs into a wee pouch. “So,” she began, falling alongside him as they continued down the path. “What now?”

“There’s more by th’ river,” he said.

“No, I mean, what now? For us?”

He quirked an eyebrow at her. “We’re courtin’, no?”

“Well…yes, but…”

Great, mere hours into courting and he was already doing something wrong. “What do ye think we should do?”

She shrugged. “Well, things are different now, aren’t they?”

“I dinna see why they have tae be so different. We already spend time together, we already know practically ever’thing about each other,” he thought about asking what courting Frank had been like, be he was loath to even bring him up.

“But now we’re together. That means we should try to start thinking like a couple, to see if we’re…”

“We’re…?”

“Compatible,” she said, sticking her chin out, the way he knew she did when she was nervous about a discussion.

He smiled, and took her hand, lacing their fingers. “And how do we do that?”

“We talk about what we want, what we don’t. We…try to make decisions with the other person in mind.”

Ah, there it was. He stopped walking, tugging on her hand to turn her to face him. “Yer talking about what happened wi’ Custer’s men. When I left.”

Claire bit her lower lip and nodded, averting her eyes. “You scared me, Jamie. It was like you didn’t even care about getting killed and leaving the children and I.”

Jamie shook his head, and cupped her cheek in his palm. “I was wrong, Claire. I was wrong to risk myself that way. I was angry, and let it cloud my judgement. I never should have left ye, afraid that way, no’ takin’ what ye felt into consideration. But…” he let his hand drop, and took her hand again. “I do live a life that is sometimes dangerous. I canna promise I’ll turn into a quiet farmer overnight…”

“I don’t want you to,” she broke in. “I want you to be who you are, Jamie. A stubborn, foolhardy man who does whatever he can to protect other people. I just want you to talk to me about it. Don’t disappear without a word.”

“I won’t,” he promised.

“What about you?” she asked. “What do you think it means to be courting?”

He smirked. “Ah, that’s easy. We carry on more or less as we have…only now…” he took a step closer, giving her time to pull away if that’s what she wanted.

“Now?” she whispered, not pulling away.

He kissed her softly, easing her into it. Christ but she tasted good. He pulled her gently by the waist until his back was against a tree, a role reversal of their first real kiss on the train. He didn’t want to rush her, or worse; scare her. As brave and self-assured she was, he knew that this aspect of a relationship intimidated her a little.

But she certainly wasn’t acting intimidated. She pushed her body against his, a soft whimpering in the back of her throat. It was quickly driving him insane, and he was starting to realize just how easy it would be for him to lose control.

He pulled away, but matters weren’t made easier for him by her flushed cheeks and kiss-plumped lips. Those lips were turned down in a pout, though. “What’s wrong, Sassenach?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said her voice deliciously hoarse.

He quirked an eyebrow. “Yer a terrible liar.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s just…the way you kissed me on the train…”

Was that it? He wasn’t kissing her as hard as on the train? He was worried that he had gone too far then, and thought to ease her back into it. Maybe he was wrong?

“You…I mean I…” she growled. “I don’t know what I’m doing, Jamie.”

Jamie chuckled. “Yer doin’ just fine, Sassenach,” but then he watched her lick her lips, eyes locked firmly on his, and he thought he understood what she couldn’t manage to ask of him. “It’s alright,” he whispered, brushing her lower lip with his thumb. “Open yer mouth for me, mo nighean donn.”

When he kissed Claire this time, her mouth opened immediately, and he finally let himself taste her the way he so wanted.

After a moment, he felt her tongue flick out in timid mimicry, and the unpracticed move made him groan hungrily.

Jamie slid down the tree, bringing her to sit between his knees, never releasing her mouth. Like in everything else she did, Claire was a fast study.

He didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help but think briefly of Geneva. His experience with her had been as a randy lad, perfectly satisfied with anything that led to his own release. But now that he had Claire warm and eager in his arms, he understood how lackluster even casual intimacy with Geneva was. He could be perfectly content to sit there and kiss Claire senseless and go not a step farther.

…Well, at least he thought he could be, until he realized he was hard as a stone and even through her skirts she had to have felt it.

“Maybe we should be gettin’ back,” he whispered, pulling away slightly, but keeping her firmly in his arms.

She looked up at him, then quickly down and back again, her face reddening even more. But he saw a hint of a smirk on her face, and it was enough to make him want to push her down into the grass right then and there.

“Let’s go,” he croaked out, climbing to his feet and pulling her with him. Better see th’ clinic’s no burned down, aye?”

“Aye,” she agreed, her smirk broadening.

Chapter Text

It was a bit odd, walking back into town with Jamie, hands linked. People looked at us, cheeky grins on their faces. Tom sang a quiet ooh la la at us as we passed. Rupert and Angus both waggled their eyebrows in a suggestive manner.

It was odd, and admittedly a little embarrassing, but I wouldn’t release Jamie’s hand for anything, nor take back my very public declaration of love for him.

“Glad to see you’ve both come to your senses!” Dottie called from the porch of the saloon, winking as went by.

“So it was really that obvious for everyone in town,” I stated, more than asked.

“Seems so,” Jamie said.

“Definitely,” Jenny broke in, falling into step with us. “And I do hope I get credit.”

“I’ll owe you forever, Jenny,” I said, grinning at her. “Jamie told me how you lit a fire under him.”

“If that hadn’t have worked, a swift kick in the ass was what was next!”

“How’s everything been at the clinic?” I asked, anxious to go see for myself. “Was Dr. Brown able to come from Denver?”

Jenny made a face that rather worried me. “Well, yes, he came. And no one has died, if that’s what you’re asking. Other than that, better go see for yourself.

I exchanged a look with Jamie and all but dragged him the rest of the way to clinic.

I knew what she must have been talking about the minute I stepped foot inside. For starters, the entire clinic had been rearranged. My desk now sat on the opposite side of the examination room, and was empty save for the casebook and a cup of pencils. The beds had been moved into two rows on either side of the room, instead of the staggered positions I’d had them in to increase privacy and make the clinic look a less institutional.

“Dr. B.!” Rachel exclaimed, trotting down the stairs. She had somehow procured a stark white nurse’s uniform, complete with cap. “Everyone’s been talking about what happened…” she blushed as she looked between Jamie and I. “I wish I had been outside to see it! But Dr. Brown had me in here reorganizing the patient files.”

“What happened to this place?” I asked. “Why is everything moved around? And where did you get that uniform?”

“Dr. Brown,” Rachel said, in answer to both questions. “He said he wanted to make the examination room look more orderly, and me too.”

“But you’re not a nurse,” I told her. “You’re an apprentice. And I liked the examination room the way it was.”

“It can be moved again, Sassenach,” Jamie said.

“I know, but that’s not the point. Dr. Brown was only asked to come keep an eye on things in case of an emergency, not…take over.”

“Dr. Brown said I’m better off sticking to nursing,” Rachel said, looking as if she was fighting against rolling her eyes. “’Said I’d never find a husband if I tried to become a doctor, like you.”

“Is that so?” I asked, crossing my arms, then narrowing my eyes when who I presumed to be the man himself emerge from the hall.

“Is there something I can do for you, sir?” Dr. Brown asked, addressing Jamie and completely looking past me.

“I’m Dr. Beauchamp,” I said, taking a step forward. “I thank you, Dr. Brown, for looking after my clinic in my absence.”

“Ah,” Dr. Brown said, beady eyes taking me in from behind thick spectacles. “Of course…Dr. Beauchamp. Welcome back.”

“You told my apprentice she shouldn’t try to become a doctor?” I asked, curious to get his answer.

He waved a hand. “Miss Hunter is a young lady, surely you must agree that she should be made aware that life as a woman doctor has its challenges, not least of all in finding a suitable husband.”

“It most certainly has challenges,” I agreed. “All of which I’ve made sure to explain to her. But finding a husband will be no more challenging than it is for any woman.”

“She’s had no trouble,” Jamie said, sticking a thumb toward me. “Why, just days ago she was fendin’ off two suiters.”

“That so?” Brown asked skeptically.

“Aye,” Jamie said, grinning and wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “As ye can see, I won.”

“At any rate,” I broke in, shaking my head fondly at Jamie’s antics. “I do appreciate you keeping an eye on things here, but your services are no longer needed. I’m sure you’re quite anxious to return home.”

“Of course, of course,” Brown said, taking a look at the clipboard in his hand. “I just have a blood-letting appointment coming in at three I need to…”

Blood-letting?!” I exclaimed.

“I tried to tell him no,” Rachel said quietly. “It was just Mr. Charleston last week, and Mrs. O’Brian today.”

“Thank you, Dr. Brown,” I hissed, trying to maintain my civility. “But I’ll take care of the rest of your patients. Good day.”

“But…”

“She said good day,” Jamie said, and I marveled again at how menacing he could sound with his voice so soft and quiet.

Huffing and puffing all the while, Dr. Brown gathered his things and left. Once the door slammed shut, Rachel’s shoulders drooped in relief.

“Thank goodness!” she cried. “He was getting on my last nerve!”

“I’m sorry, Rachel,” I said. “You probably would have been better off alone. But I’m back now, and you can go take off that ridiculous outfit while we fix the examination room.

“Gladly!’ she exclaimed, turning to dart up the stairs before she paused. “Um, Dr. B.? William asked if I’d like to take a walk with him after I was finished here, to tell me about Boston…”

“Go change and get out of here,” I told her, smiling.

With a happy bounce she sped up the stairs, leaving Jamie and I chuckling in her wake.

“How have things been at the reservation?”  I asked Jamie as we began setting the clinic to rights.

“Quiet for th’ most part,” he said. “Ian’s been a bit worrit about Wee Ian. Th’ lad’s been restless and disquiet ever since th’ incident wi’ me and Custer’s men. He doesn’a blame him for bein’ angry, he is too. But he doesn’a want th’ lad swayed by th’ Dog Soldiers.”

“Do you really think he could?” I asked, trying and failing to imagine sweet young Ian falling in with violent renegades.

“He’s becomin’ a man,” Jamie said. “It’s only natural he should want tae try tae make a difference in his world. But Ian guides him well, I think he’ll be fine. Besides,” he chuckled. “Seems a lass there has caught his eye, and vise-versa.”

I chuckled too. “William will be happy to hear it. He always hated the way Young Ian and Rachel got along.”

“Aye, Ian believes they’ll marry soon enough.”

Marry?” I exclaimed. “He’s fourteen!”

“Fifteen. A man grown, so far as the Cheyenne are concerned.”

I grimaced. “Still, though. Makes me glad his and Brianna’s infatuation settled into mere friendship.”

Jamie’s mouth quirked. “I pity any young buck who sets his sights on Brianna,” he said, pronouncing her name in his unique way, by rolling the R and emphasizing the beginning, so it sounded more like BREEanna. “What wi two brothers tae guard her, and if he should get past them…” he grinned. “There’s me.”

“Standing by with a tomahawk and a 100 pound wolf, no doubt,” I said, laughing.

“Probably Wee Ian, too, in full war makeup.”

“And Joe, and Murtagh, and Roger, and every other man in town. All forming a wall around the poor girl.”

“What poor girl?”

We both spun around guiltily as Brianna entered the clinic.

“Nothing,” I said, biting my lip to keep from laughing, glancing up to see that Jamie was doing the same.

Brianna arched an eyebrow, but shook her head and didn’t ask. “Everyone is talking about what happened earlier, Mama. Everyone says how romantic it was, you runnin’ into Jamie’s arms like that!”

I groaned good-naturedly. “I’m never going to hear the end of it.”

Jamie started pushing the last cot into place, looking up at me from under a curtain of his hair. “Are ye ashamed, Sassenach?”

“No,” I said firmly, hopping up on the cot before he was finished moving it, so that he had to just push me along, which he did without breaking his stride. “But maybe we can keep things just a little more…private from now on.”

“Aye,” he agreed, bracing his hands on the cot so he could lean toward me. “It’s no one’s business what we do behind…closed doors.”

“That’s not what I m…” he cut me off by kissing me, and I blushed as I pulled away, glancing ruefully over to where Brianna and now Rachel were standing there, giggling and blushing themselves.

“Oh, ye meant them too?” Jamie asked, smirking mischievously.

I playfully kicked at him, then slid off the cot to get back to work.

 

The children were off to bed right after supper that night, exhausted from the journey. I was as well, but I was loath to end the evening and send Jamie on his way.

“Where do you sleep at night?” I asked him for possibly the hundredth time since I’d known him, as we stepped out on the front porch with cups of tea in our hands.

“Do ye want me to show ye?” he asked, bringing me up a bit short.

Every other time I’d asked him, he’d either changed the subject, laughed it off, or gave some sort of vague non-answer. I hadn’t been expecting the sudden offer to see it.

“What, now?”

He nodded, but then made a face. “Ah, I didn’t think how tired ye must be. Never mind.”

I was tired, but I was also increasingly curious about where the man I’d known for three years…the man I loved…lived.

“I’m not too tired,” I lied. “I want to see it!”

He gave me a look so characteristic he didn’t even need to say the words, “yer a terrible liar, Sassenach,” for me to hear them.

“It isn’a far,” he said. “Ye can be back a’fore the kids even notice yer gone.”

“Better at least tell William, just in case,” I said, turning toward the barn.

Just go!” a voice called from inside said barn. “But behave yourselves!”

Laughing and rolling my eyes, I took Jamie’s arm and let him lead me out into the woods.

He was right, it wasn’t very far at all, though it was a rather steep up-hill walk to a wide, moonlit meadow overlooking the valley. He led me through the meadow back under the trees, and I would have missed it if I’d just been walking by.

There was a tiny lean-to near the base of the mountain, shielded by trees. Beside it was an oft-used fire pit, and inside was his bedroll and scant few belongings.

Rollo trotted up happily to the campsite, immediately settling himself down on a bed of moss and leaves that looked to have been placed specifically for him.

“Better n’ livin’ in a cave,” Jamie said from behind me.

“I…I just don’t understand,” I said. “Why do you live way out here all alone, instead of with the Cheyenne?”

“I did live wi’ them for a while,” he said. “After Geneva died. But sometimes I needed tae be on my own for a bit, tae clear my heid.”

“It looks like you’ve been here a while though.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Aye, weel the thing about that is, after ye came tae live in my old homestead, I took tae campin’ here sometimes. It’s always been a favorite spot o’ mine anyway, but I just thought I ought to be near. First when ye were just settlin’ in, then when th’ kids came tae live wi’ ye. And then I’d hear talk of bears in the area or such, so I’d stay. Or after ye were sick…after a while, it just seemed better to stay here.”

Tears welled in my eyes at the dawning understanding that Jamie had lived there, in the woods, for three years because it was close to me.

“Even…before?” I choked out. “Before you…you loved me, I mean.”

He blinked at me in surprise. “Sassenach…I’ve always loved ye.”

When I could do nothing but stare at him, he put his arms around me, pulling me flush against him. “Weel,” he whispered. “I wanted ye from th’ moment I saw ye…”

“I was face-down in the mud,” I pointed out, chuckling.

“Aye. And still the single most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. And then when ye took down that sign in Murtagh’s store, tiltin’ that wee chin up th’ way ye do, I’d never wanted anyone more in my life. And when I took ye tae find Fergus and we rode together on Donas…wi’ yer rock hard heid thumpin’ me in th’ chest, and…” I let out an involuntary squeak when his hand suddenly slid downward until it cupped my rear. “…yer round arse wedged tight between my thighs.”

“So that’s why you fell in love with me?” I said breathily, face burning so much I felt like it must have been glowing. “My hard head and round arse?”

He smiled. “That’s why I wanted ye. I loved ye when ye stood up tae those soldiers to defend the Cheyenne.”

I remembered that day vividly, along with the look he’d given me…and I could scarcely believe it. Could scarcely believe he’d loved me that long, and it took until now for me to see it.

But then I tried to think about when I first fell in love with him. Perhaps it hadn’t happened quite as quickly for me as it had for him, though I’d liked him and trusted him from the start.

“When you told me your name,” I whispered, staring at where my fingers were gripping his shirt. “And sat with me all night when I was sick.”

“Couldn’a bear tae leave ye,” he murmured, and I could feel his lips move against my hair.

My heart was beating so fast I feared it was unhealthy. Jamie’s hand had left my “arse” but was stroking slowly up and down my back, sending chills down my spine, and making something clench in my lower abdomen.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, Jamie,” I whispered to his chest. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone, (as usual,) and without really consciously meaning to, my fingers found their way past the fabric and to the soft red hair there.

He chuckled lightly, though I didn’t know if it was because of what I said or if I was tickling him. “Ye dinna have to,” he said. “We’ve all th’ time in th’ world, mo chridhe. We dinna need to hurry.”

I looked up at him finally, seeing the love written so plainly on his face. Had it always been there? Or had he just stopped trying to hide it? “I’ve never felt like this before,” I admitted, hoping it didn’t make me sound childish somehow.

“I’ve a secret for ye,” he said, leaning closer. “Neither have I.”

It seemed like he was waiting for me to close the distance, so I did. Kissing him felt like trying to extinguish a fire with lamp oil, thinking it was water. It felt like a relief, but only made me burn all the hotter.

Jamie took a step backward, then another, then gently tugged on me until we were kneeling in his lean-to. It only seemed natural to lay back, and before I knew it, he was stretched out above me, the entire length of his body pressed against mine.

Entire length.

This wasn’t even the first time I’d felt him this way, the first being when we were in the mountains near Harding’s mill. But this time I couldn’t explain it away as nothing but a biological occurrence in sleep.

I think Jamie noticed my body tense up before even I did, and he immediately broke the kiss and rolled to his side, so that I could no longer feel him.

“Sorry,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Too much?”

“Maybe a little,” I admitted. “I should…um, probably get home…to the children.”

We untangled ourselves awkwardly, but then he took my hand to pull me to my feet, and that small reestablishment of physical contact was soothing.

When he took his leave at the door, kissing me soundly goodnight, and telling me he loved me, it almost hurt to watch him walk away. It was all I could do not to pull him inside with me and insist he stay the night.

But despite our less than proper relationship up to this point, I was determined to set a good example for the children. And that meant not inviting the man I was courting to sleep over.

I peeked in at Bree and Fergus, finding them fast asleep, and shut the curtain that separated their sleeping area from the rest of the house.

It didn’t help that the homestead wasn’t exactly conductive to privacy. If my and Jamie’s relationship took a more permanent turn, something would have to be done to give us space to be alone.

It was more than an hour after getting into bed and I was still staring at the ceiling, completely incapable of turning my mind off.

Mostly it was because I was so happy. I was home at last, and was in love with a wonderful man, who loved me back.

But that wonderful man had left me feeling like I had a fever, though I wasn’t sick. I felt hot and uncomfortable, aching for something, but not knowing what. Only that every single fiber of my being wanted to leap out of bed and go back to Jamie’s lean to.

I kept unintentionally imagining what might have happened if I hadn’t tensed up, if I’d let him do whatever he had wanted.

I knew, knew that Jamie was never going to push for anything I didn’t want, or wasn’t ready for. But just the memory of his hands running along my back and gripping my backside had me squirming anxiously.

I knew about sex, of course. I knew what happened between a man and a woman. I knew every single physical and biological aspect of the act. I knew that the release men found was the height of pleasure for them, and I knew the same was possible for women – even if most medical textbooks I read never even hinted at the fact, and the ones that did seemed to indicate it was either unhealthy, or a myth.

What I didn’t know, was how that felt, or why just having Jamie’s hands on me – fully clothed – was enough to have feeling like this.

I slowly became aware that my own hands were stroking my torso, the same way Jamie had. It didn’t feel half as good as when he did it, but it was a small relief.

Feeling a little bold, and incredibly curious, my hand strayed lower, where I was throbbing uncontrollably.

I of course had touched myself countless times, in washing, checking on my own health, and – in my younger years – simple curiosity. But even though it had felt good, I’d never attempted it seeking pleasure. It was commonly believed that doing such led to medical issues such as blindness, but I knew that was ridiculous.

And damn it, I was tired of feeling so lost and clueless. I was thirty-one years old, for Pete’s sake.

Pausing to glance over at the curtain, and straining my ears to make sure I could hear the children snoring, I quickly pulled up my nightgown and eased my hand between my thighs, jumping in shock when I felt slippery wetness.

Lubrication, my mind supplied. Necessary for intercourse.

I slid my fingers up at down, letting myself becoming accustomed to being touched like that. I had a sudden thought of Jamie’s work-roughened fingers replacing my own and a jolt of desire shot through me that had me curling up under the covers.

That motion pushed my hand upward a bit…until my fingers brushed against something that nearly made me cry out, had I not bitten my lip and turned my face into my pillow in time.

I yanked my hand away and looked back over toward the curtain, holding my breath and straining my ears to see if they were still asleep. They were, but my face still burned in embarrassment.

And there, staring in bored intensity from the floor, was Adso, a barely discernable shadow with two gleaming yellow eyes.

Now you show up,” I whispered, rolling onto my back.

With a low “mrrow”, Adso hopped up onto the bed and curled up beside my legs, purring contently.

I was still thrumming with arousal, and now I was frustrated on top of it. But I closed my eyes resolutely and tried to will myself to sleep.

Chapter Text

Though I was sleep deprived the next morning, I was happy to head back to my clinic and officially get back into the swing of things. It pleased me to no end how happy everyone seemed to be that I was back, and even more pleased to hear about how much they liked me better than Dr. Brown.

“Good morning,” Joe chirped, swanning into the clinic. “Where’s your lover?”

I narrowed my eyes at him as I tore another strip of linin for bandages. “Must you?”

He chuckled. “I must. I gotta say, Lady Jane, that was the most impressive display I’ve ever seen. Looked like something straight out of one of those romance novels…that, uh, Gail reads.”

“That Gail reads, hm?”

He shrugged. “What can I say? Some of them have good stories. But seriously, I’m really happy for you, both of you.”

I smiled. “Thank you, Joe. Which reminds me, how are things progressing with you and Gail?”

“Not half so novel-worthy as you and Mac,” he said, eyes crinkling with mirth. “But I’ll get that stubborn woman down the aisle one of these days, you can count on it.”

“I will.”

“She’s headed out with Miss Jenny tomorrow,” he said, coming up beside me to help tear fabric. “She asked me if I wanted to come along, but I’m not so sure of leaving the livery for so long.”

“Headed out?” I asked. “On a cattle drive?”

“That’s right, you wouldn’t have heard yet. She’s bringing back a herd from New Mexico, over 200 head.”

“Sounds like quite the job,” I said, not that I knew the first thing about cattle herding. “But you should go, if you want to. Gail might just be trying to spend some time with you.”

Joe smirked. “Time alone you mean? In the wilderness? Like you and someone we know?”

I rolled my eyes and chuckled. “My and Jamie’s relationship is quite innocent, I’ll have you know.”

“Yeah, for now.”

I put down the linin and glared at him. “Is there a reason you’re here?”

“Other than to gossip? No…”

“Dr. B!”

We both spun around at Gail’s panicked cry as she burst into the clinic.

“Gail?!” Joe exclaimed. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she gasped, out of breath. “It’s Jenny! She’s hurt!”

 

I raced out with Gail and Joe to the cow pasture just outside of town, beside the small cabin where Jenny lived.

I saw William first, knelt down just this side of the fence. Against the fence sat Jenny, and beyond the fence stood an irate-looking bull.

“What happened?” I demanded, dropping to my knees beside her.

“Ol’ Paulie got into the wrong pasture,” Jenny said between clenched teeth. “Meaner bastard you’ve never met, but he’s a damn good stud.”

“Did he get you with his horns?” I asked, nervously eyeing those foot-long horns with only a wooden fence between us.

“She jumped the fence,” William supplied. “Got her leg stuck in it though, I could hear the cracking sound all the way from the barn.”

Sure enough, her leg was badly broken in at least two places, and I feared it would require surgery to repair.

“We need to get her to the clinic,” I said.

“Joe’s already gone to fetch the cart,” Gail said, eyes wide and worried.

 

To her credit, Jenny remained still and quiet the entire bumpy way to the clinic, though she was ghostly pale, sweating, and had to be in immense pain. The breaks were just under her knee, and above the ankle. None of the bones had punctured the skin, but her leg was grotesquely distorted.

“Claire?” I heard Jamie call as we sped up aside the clinic. “What happened?!”

“It’s Jenny,” I told him. “Help me get her into the clinic.”

I didn’t miss the way Jamie’s face fell in horror, and his worry would have been touching had I not been so worried myself.

Rachel was outside of town bringing food to a family sick with a catarrh, so I yelled for William to fetch Brianna.

Soon we had Jenny laid out on a cot, and I was quick to administer laudanum and then chloroform. Once Brianna was there, we quickly prepared for surgery.

The breaks were bad, but thankfully they were clean, and it was a relatively easy procedure to set them back into place.

“Will she be alright?” Jamie asked once I’d finished sewing her up.

“She’ll be fine,” I assured him. “She’ll be fine and back to her busybody ways before we know it.”

“What about the cattle drive?” William asked. “She was supposed to set out tomorrow.”

I shook my head. “Jenny won’t be going anywhere beyond a bed for some time,” I said. “And certainly no cattle drive.”

William grimaced. “But the herd is being driven up from Mexico. If she ain’t there to meet it, it could be lost. Dead, run off, or stolen.”

“There must be someone else who can do it, she has cowhands, doesn’t she?”

“She hires them on a job by job basis,” William said. “She would’a hired them in New Mexico.”

“Well, I don’t know what to say, other than Jenny won’t be going.”

 

“Like hell I’m not going!” Jenny yelled, struggling to sit up in bed.

I pushed her shoulders, barely needing to exercise any strength to get her to lie back against the pillows. “Your leg was broken in two places, and you needed surgery to repair it. You can’t go, Jenny, I’m sorry.”

“If I lose that herd, I’m ruined,” she snapped. “I’m going on that drive!”

“Yer going tae listen tae Dr. B., Janet,” Jamie said, arms crossed and standing sternly behind me.

I watched in amused fascination as the two stared on another down for several moments until Jenny finally flopped back with a frustrated sigh. “Fine, James.”

“Are you sure you two aren’t related somehow?” I asked, chuckling.

“Me? Related to that behemoth?” Jenny snarled. “Not damn likely.”

“Surely there’s someone else who can do it,” I suggested. “Gail?”

Gail took a giant step back, shaking her head. “Oh no, I’m a cook, not a cattle wrangler.”

“I can do it,” William said suddenly, causing everyone else in the room to turn and stare at him.”

“William,” I began, “You can’t…”

“Why can’t I?” he interrupted, a hint of challenge in his voice. “I’ve been working with Aunt Jenny for years. She’s taught me everything she knows. What do you think Aunt Jenny?”

Jenny hesitated, glancing between William and me and back again. “You’re good with the cattle…and I always intended you to take over for me one day. I’m not ready yet, but it would be good experience.”

“Absolutely not!” I protested. “That’s a 400 mile trip, and with 200 cows on the way back?!”

“My foreman Miguel is bringing them up from Mexico,” Jenny said. “William can pay him a few head of cattle to have his team help herd them the rest of the way. William just needs to be there to give the orders on my behalf.”

“I can do this,” William said, firmly. “I am doing this.”

“I’ll go with him,” Jamie declared.

“I don’t need help,” William shot back.

“Ye may be able, but ye dinna know th’ way,” Jamie said, crossing his arms.

I crossed my arms as well. “So I guess I just don’t get a say in all this?”

William sighed and walked over to me, looking me in the eye. “I’m seventeen, Dr. B. Almost eighteen. I’m more than capable.”

“What if sometime happens with this Miguel and he can’t lead the herd the rest of the way?”

“Then I’ll drive them. I know how.”

“Not that many, William.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Jenny said. “Drive them back, William. Keep Miguel on for guidance, but if you get them home, half the herd is yours.”

“Mine?” he asked in wonder. “You’re serious?”

I huffed in frustration. It wasn’t that I thought he was incapable, I was positive he was. But it was 400 miles, and 200 head of cattle. I knew little about cattle drives, but I knew that they were infamously dangerous. And William was still only seventeen, and still under my care.

“Fine,” I said, aware there was little I could do to stop him either way. “But I’m coming too.”

Jenny snorted, then started laughing, and William and Jamie both gave me incredulous looks.

“Ye dinna know anything about cattle drives,” Jamie muttered.

“Neither do you!” I snapped. “But my son and my…” I hesitated, realizing with embarrassment because I wasn’t sure on the correct title for my relationship to Jamie. “My…you are not going out gallivanting on a dangerous cattle drive without your doctor. End of story.”

Fine,” William said at last. “But what about Bree and Fergus?”

 

Once Bree and Fergus heard about what was happening, leaving them behind would have occurred during a blizzard in hell. And as dangerous as I was aware a cattle drive was, I was loath to ever separate our family for too long, so away we all went, along with Gail, Joe, and Murtagh volunteered as well to help out his niece.

The ride there wasn’t too perilous, since we had a wagon full of supplies. Really the only difficulty was the heat caused by lack of rain, and general worry about finding adequate water sources for the animals.

Within a week we were facing the wide open wilderness of New Mexico – and it was easy to find the company we were searching for, by simply following the sounds and smells of 200 cows.

“Wow,” Fergus breathed, staring down the hill at the enormous herd. “I’ve never seen so many cows in my life! How are we gonna get them all home?”

I shrugged from my place astride Bear. “Hopefully this Miguel will have the answer to that.”

“I’m gonna ride down to find him,” William declared, squaring his shoulders before spurring his horse on.

“William thinks he’s all grown up now,” Brianna drolled from the wagon where she sat beside Gail, rolling her eyes.

“William is grown up,” I told her. “And this is important to him, so let’s be supportive, hm?”

Bree sniffed. “He’s not that grown up,” was all she said.

Jamie smiled down at me from atop Donas and gestured grandly with his arm. “Shall we, Sassenach?”

“We shall,” I said, nodding and spurring Bear on to try and beat him down the hill.

I didn’t, but we were laughing as we rounded upon the camp. We allowed a couple of young men to take our reins and started looking for William.

“There he is,” I said, spotting him talking to heavyset man I could only assume was Miguel. I picked up my steps however, when I saw the pinched look on William’s face.

“What am I supposed to do?!” he was asking.

“I’m sorry, mijo, I can’t do it!” the older man said, holding his hat in his hands. “I have to get back to Durango, and these boys have been riding hard for months! They have families to get back to before winter.”

William growled and tossed his own hat on the ground.

“William? Is everything alright?”

William glanced up at me, looking lost. “Miguel can’t drive the herd to Colorado. He has to get the whole team back to Durango immediately.”

“Normally I would do anything for Miss Jenny,” Miguel said apologetically. “But the drive has not been easy. I have to think of my team.”

“And are ye trying tae say Jenny would have driven th’ whole herd herself had she been here?”

Miguel shrugged. “Normally she would have hired fresh hands on the way here.”

William’s cheek twitched and he turned back to me. “She didn’t mention that.”

“She was testin’ ye,” Jamie spat.

Or maybe she was in a lot of pain and was groggy from laudanum,” I said in Jenny’s defense. “She did say to hire men, she just didn’t specify when.”

“Well, can you hold them here while I ride to next town to find help?” William asked.

Miguel grimaced in sympathy, but shook his head. “I’m so sorry, William. The nearest town is three days’ ride from here. We’ve been here for days already, and we’re running dangerously low on supplies. You’re welcome to talk to the boys, see if any are willing, but I’ll not ask it of them. I’m sorry.”

“Well this is just great,” William hissed as Miguel walked away. “Had the herd less than an hour and I’m already bound to lose ‘em.”

“Don’t say that,” I said. “Miguel said we could ask the men. Surely some of them would be willing to help.”

Jamie nodded. “Aye, and ye have us.”

William arched a skeptical brow. “You think the three of us are ready to drive 200 head of cattle 400 miles to Colorado?”

“Not three,” I said loftily. “There’s Joe, Gail, Murtagh, Brianna, and Fergus.”

Jamie looked out over at the huge mass of meandering bovine and winced. “Aye. How hard can it be?”

Chapter Text

The four men William hired on were no more than a bunch of rowdy boys, one of whom Jamie noticed allowed his eyes to linger on Brianna for far too long for comfort when everyone was introduced.

But boys or no, they seemed to know their business as the cattle drive burst into motion with the cracks of whips and the rise of voices.

Jamie had always thought cattle naturally stayed together as a herd, and for the most part they did, but with 200 of the beasts, there was constantly at least one trying to go rogue. It was a never-ending battle to round up the wandering cows and get them back into the group, only for another one to go the wrong way. Stupid creatures.

On the morning of their second day, the herd was already behaving restless as they had yet to pass an adequate water source. The drought that plagued Colorado was apparently very wide-spread, as areas that should have been filled with ponds and streams were naught but dusty valleys.

Jamie was wandering the encampment, keeping an eye out for Claire, having been missing getting to talk to her much with the constant activity, but found William instead, leaning over a fold-out table and a map.

“Gonna need to find a water source soon, aye?” Jamie said as he approached the lad, careful to word his statement as a question.

“Yeah,” William said, nodding. “We’re gonna start driving them to the east, toward Sandy Flats.”

Jamie’s brow furrowed. “Sandy Flats? Have ye scouted it, then?”

“No,” William admitted, rapping a finger against the wrinkled paper. “But it’s on the map Jenny gave me.”

Jamie took a breath through his nose and released it before responding. “Aye. But th’ drought’s been goin’ on for months now, William. Ye canna be sure about water in times like these till ye see it.”

William sniffed and squared his shoulders, and Jamie couldn’t help but wonder how the lad could look so much like Claire when her stubborn mind was at work if they weren’t so much as related. “Hundreds of cattle drivers have used this very map, Jamie,” he said. “Aunt Jenny’s gone by it for her whole career.”

“Yes, but…” Jamie hated to argue, wanting William to handle this important challenge on his own, but damn it there was so much at stake – most importantly the safety of everyone there. “What about th’ spring near Battle Rock? We passed it on th’ way, so we know there’s water there.”

“But Sandy Flats is closer,” William argued. “I know what I’m doing, Jamie. We’re going to Sandy Flats.”

With that William folded up his map and marched away, and Jamie deflated in defeat.

 

He found Claire, handing off a small metal tin to Murtagh with a rueful smile.

“You need some too?” she asked him as Murtagh waddled off.

Jamie frowned. “Need some…what?”

Claire chuckled and rolled her eyes. “There seems to be a bit of a rash of saddle sore, is all.”

He chuckled as well. “I’m long since immune, Sassenach. M’ thighs have calluses of the like ye’ve never seen.”

She turned away to tidy her medical bag, but Jamie didn’t miss the reddening of her cheeks. “That so?” she murmured.

“Aye,” he murmured back, leaning toward her, a teasing smile on his face.

“Have you seen William?” she asked, effectively changing the subject.

Jamie grunted. “Aye, I just spoke tae him. He’s ready tae move out.”

“Why do you sound so grim?”

He gestured to the dusty land around him. “It hasn’a rained in months. Ev’rywhere we’ve gone we’ve seen dried up watering holes. William wants tae drive the herd east, to Sandy Flats. Because of the elevation, there’s good reason tae think th’ water there may have dried up as well. But he doesn’a want to hear anything about it.”

Claire crossed her arms and leaned against the wagon. “I hear what you’re saying, but William is in charge, here. It’s not easy for me, either, but he does know more about cattle herding than we do.”

“That may be, but he doesn’a know everything, and I know about weather patterns and the water sources in these parts.”

“I know you do,” Claire said patiently. “But for now, we need to try and just do as William says. This is important to him, Jamie.”

Jamie growled and stalked away. “Fine.”

 

It was two hot, grueling days of travel, the only thing spurring the group on was the promise of cool water to bathe in and refill dwindling canteens.

But when they crested the hill leading to Sandy Flats, expecting to see a large blue lake, there was nothing but a ditch that made Sandy Flats sound all too literal.

“I don’t understand,” William said.

“Great,” one of the cowboys, Jesse, hissed, the snub-nosed one who Jamie had noticed eyeing Brianna. “Where’s the water, trail boss?”

“The map says there’s water here year-round!” William snapped defensively.

“S’pose things change,” Jamie muttered.

“Where’s the next chance of water?” Murtagh asked.

William fiddled with the map, nearly dropping it. “Bayou Flats…three days’ ride.”

“Will the cattle make it?” Joe asked, blanching.

William folded up his map and shoved it into his vest pocket. “No choice. We gotta drive ‘em on.” He turned his horse to face the rest of the group, and removed his hat. “We’re gonna have to start a dry ride. ‘Means we’ll have to ride day and night,” he nodded toward the wagon where Gail and Brianna sat. “Miss Gail, can you have coffee available to anyone who needs it?” at her nod, he continued. “If we move steady, we can get to Bayou Flats in two and a half days instead of three. Then they’ll be plenty of water, and plenty of time to rest. In the meantime, conserve your water.”

“How do we know there will be water there?” Jesse asked impudently.

“There is,” Jamie said. “I’ve seen it.”

Jesse huffed and kicked his horse, riding out toward the herd, leaving Jamie glaring after him.

 

Though the team was immediately preparing to ride out, Jamie chanced a quick rest to sip sparingly at his canteen. He was rather missing having Rollo at his side, but Jenny had pointed out before they left what a poor idea bringing a wolf on a cattle drive would be, and Jamie had been forced to agree. Rollo was well-trained enough that he could have refrained from picking off the cattle, but the cattle may not have appreciated their worst fear being constantly among them.

He heard footsteps coming up behind him, and didn’t have to turn to pick out Claire’s long stride. Unladylike, some would probably say, but it was due to her endlessly long legs and the reminder of those legs made him smile.

“Jamie?” she said softly, as if not to startle him. “You alright?”

His smile fell as he thought again of the situation they were in. “I knew there’d be no water.”

“You couldn’t have known for sure,” Claire sighed, sitting beside. “You said yourself that you hadn’t seen it.”

“Aye, but after a while ye just get a sense of these things,” he said, flipping his hand in the general direction of the empty lake.

“And the only way William will learn that sense is with time, and by making his own mistakes.”

“But it isn’a his own mistake,” Jamie ground out. “It’s a mistake that affects all of us, puts us all in danger. I dinna like standing by and watching him make those kinds of mistakes.”

“I know,” she said. “Neither do I. But there’s nothing for it now, but to keep on.”

Jamie plucked at a piece of grass and twirled it in his fingers. He heard what Claire was saying. It was as he told her all the time; William and the other children were growing up, and needed the space and freedom to become the men and woman they was meant to be.

But this wasn’t just William who would succeed or fail. This was everyone who Jamie loved most, and he would be damned if he just sat back and let William endanger them all.

“What do you think about Jesse?” Claire blurted suddenly.

Jamie was a little taken aback by the sudden change of subject. “The cowhand? Why?”

“I just want to know what you think of him,” Claire said, shrugging.

Jamie arched a brow. “…Interested, are ye Sassenach? I dinna think he’s your type. I know ye’ve come to take a shine tae younger men lately, but he’s still wet behind th’ ears, lass.”

Claire gave him an unamused look. “No. I don’t trust him, and I was wondering what you think.”

Jamie shrugged. “I think he’s cock-sure, thinks he’s indestructible like most lads. Doesn’a want to obey orders,” he snorted. “And I dinna like he looks he’s given wee Brianna, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at.”

“So you’ve noticed too,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “But that’s not entirely what I meant. He doesn’t seem sincere, like he actually wants to help William.”

Jamie shrugged. “S’pose he’s more interested in the payment than anything. I dinna like him much either, Sassenach, but he’s strong, can ride, and knows how tae drive cattle. We need him.”

Claire groaned and rolled her eyes. “I guess,” she cut her eyes over to him then, tilting that wee chin up. “Haven’t seen much of you during this trip.”

“I know,” he agreed, nudging her with his shoulder. “I was hopin’ we’d get a chance tae spend at least a little time together.”

They turned toward the low thundering sound of the herd beginning to move, and sighed simultaneously.

“S’pose it’ll have tae wait a wee bit longer, aye, Sassenach?”

Chapter Text

Brianna wasn’t exactly happy with the way she’d been delegated to helping Gail with cooking instead of driving the herd, but Gail was incredibly grateful for the help, especially after they started their day-and-night drive to Bayou Flats.

“Hey Miss Bree,” Jesse called, riding up alongside the wagon, one corner of his mouth quirked up in a cheeky grin. “Got some coffee for me?”

“Sure,” Brianna said, exchanging a quick glance with Gail before jumping into the back of the wagon to hand him out a cup. His fingers were warm and callused where they brushed hers as he took it.

“Mmhmm,” Gail sang when Brianna reclaimed her seat.

“What?” she asked innocently.

“I know it’s a long ride,” Gail said. “But that boy sure does put away a lot of coffee. Surprised he hasn’t vibrated right off his horse.”

“Well, you made it, so it must be good, huh?”

Gail squinted her eyes at her. “Think it’s the coffee he’s after?”

Brianna felt herself start to blush, so she resolutely wouldn’t meet Gail’s eyes. “Of course.”

“Just be careful girl. Jesse’s older than you, and seems like a scamp, besides.”

“He’s not interested in me,” Brianna said, rolling her eyes. “He’s just being nice.”

She’d met Jesse on the second day of the drive. He had sidled up to the table where she and Gail were passing out lunch, and insisted he wanted only to try whatever Brianna had made. They had a couple of brief conversations since then, and while he seemed a bit cocky on the outside, she found him to be quite smart and charming. He’d been all over the Northwest, and had so many fascinating stories, she’d never met anyone like him.

During a slow period where the herd was navigating an outcropping of rocks, Brianna climbed down out of the wagon to stretch her legs. She wandered aimlessly, spotting Jesse riding among the cattle, feeling her mouth turn downward without really meaning to at the realization he was too busy to stop and talk to her.

At that she realized she’d been walking directly toward him, and immediately corrected her path, mentally kicking herself for it. He was going to think she was a pathetic little girl, following him about like a puppy.

“Bree?”

Letting an involuntary squeak, Brianna spun around to find her mother peering down at her from atop Bear.

“What are you doing way over here? You know I don’t like you straying too far from the wagon.”

Brianna scowled. “I’m fourteen, Mother. I’m not a child.”

Mama rolled her eyes, looking like she was about to argue that fact, but thankfully didn’t. “It has nothing to do with that, Brianna. You shouldn’t be wandering around the herd like this on foot. It’s dangerous, now come on,” she held out her hand, and Brianna sighed before taking it and letting Mama pull her up onto the back of Bear.

“What were you even…” Mama began, but trailed off when her eyes landed on Jesse, who just happened to choose that moment to notice them, and lifted a hand to wave.

Brianna waved weakly back, and could feel her mother tense up. “Oh…” Mama said.

“Oh, what?” Brianna asked defensively. “I was just stretching my legs.”

Mama turned her head to fix her with those unsettling amber eyes of hers. “And you just happened to stretch them all the way over here toward Jesse? What’s going on, Chick Pea?”

“Mama…” Brianna groaned, hoping Jesse couldn’t hear them from way over there. “Nothing’s going on. I was just walking, I swear. But what of it? Jesse’s nice. I like talking to him.”

“He’s too old for you, for one thing.”

“He’s four years older,” Brianna sighed. “You’re four years older than Jamie.”

“And yet the space between twenty-seven and thirty-one is remarkably different from the space between fourteen and eighteen,” she turned again to appraise Brianna as she turned Bear to head back toward the wagon. “It doesn’t help that you look so much older.”

Brianna couldn’t help but preen a bit at that statement, though she was still annoyed by the judgement. “Jesse’s just my friend, that’s all. Not that it’s any of your business.”

The last was said under her breath, but she realized immediately that that was the wrong thing to say.

“I am your mother, and it absolutely is my business, and will continue to be so until you are actually an adult. Now, I have no problem with you making friends, even...young men…friends. But Jesse…”

“What about Jesse?” Brianna challenged.

“I just think you should be careful okay? I don’t really trust him.”

“You don’t know him!”

“And you do?”

Brianna growled and slid off of Bear, nearly falling in the process. “I know him better than you! He’s nice, and he’s a gentleman!”

Mama dismounted Bear and followed her as she stalked away. “I’m only saying to be careful! And you’re not to be alone with him? Understood?”

Understood,” Brianna snapped, not ceasing her storm-off.

“Miss Bree?”

Brianna yelped once again, looking up and blushing furiously to find Jesse standing right in front of her.

“Everything alright?” he asked, looking over her shoulder in concern. “You looked upset so I thought I’d come over and check on ya. Having a fight with the old lady?”

“Old la…” Brianna began in confusion, turning around to see her mother walking away, but glancing over her shoulder at them. “Oh. Um, no just…a disagreement.”

“Parents, right?” Jesse said, shaking his head. “Almost makes me glad that I’ve been on my own since I was ten.”

Brianna frowned. “That’s…awful.”

He shrugged. “Nah, wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t!”

Brianna smirked and started walking, letting him fall into step beside her. “And where is that?”

“A cowboy! And well on my way to being able to afford a ranch of my own.”

“And where would that ranch of yours be?”

He chuckled and shrugged again. “I hadn’t decided. But ya know, ever since I met you, and heard about Colorado Springs, I’m starting to feel like that might be a good place to settle down.”

Brianna felt something warm up in her chest, and she coughed to cover up the girlish giggle that was threatened to come out of her mouth. “Well, Colorado Springs is a really nice place. I think you’d like it there.”

To her amazement, Jesse slipped his hand into hers, lacing their fingers. “I think I would, too.”

***

William ran his forearm across his forehead before taking a miniscule sip out of his canteen. Once it was empty, that would be it until they reached Bayou Flats, and water.

At least…he hoped there would be water.

He’d been so confident when they started, maybe overconfident, but he hadn’t realized just how heavy the pressure of having everyone counting on him would be.

He’d made a serious mistake in going to Sandy Flats, a mistake that was making everyone suffer. Jamie had tried to tell him…but damn it! This was his cattle drive, he was the trail boss, not Mr. King of Men Jamie. He couldn’t just sit back and rely on Jamie and Claire like he usually did.

While he was distracted thinking, his horse, Tucker, reared as one of the calves darted under his feet. The jolt made William’s hat blow off, and he growled in frustration while he got Tucker under control and his hat landed somewhere in the thick of a dozen cattle.

Naturally, a couple of the cowhands, Jesse and Peter were watching, and they laughed and sneered at his fumbling. They had agreed to help, and were doing a fine job, but William knew not a one of them respected him, and that set him on edge possibly more than anything.

He tried to act casual and unconcerned, and gritted his teeth against their mocking. But before he could go in search of his hat, he found it being handed to him, by Jamie, of course.

“Thanks,” William murmured, trying not to snatch the hat as he took it back.

“Ye alright, lad?” Jamie asked. “Ye have enough water?”

Oh sure, Jamie was probably about to offer his own water. Typical. “I’ve got plenty,” William lied. “Go…go make sure Dr. B. and the other women have enough.”

Jamie narrowed his eyes at him a moment before relenting. “Alright.”

Huffing, William yanked Tucker’s reign and turned him about to get away from Jamie and the damned hyenas. He skirted along the edge of the herd, making sure they were staying in formation, and came across Fergus, who was standing on a rock facing away from the herd, shooting a slingshot.

“What’cha up to, Fergus?” William called, eager for a distraction.

“Practicin’,” Fergus said, still focused on whatever it was he was aiming at.

William swung off of Tucker and tethered him loosely to the tree next to Fergus’s horse, Taffy. “Wanna let the horses rest a bit and scout ahead with me on foot?”

That got Fergus’s attention and he grinned as he leapt off the rock and shoved his slingshot into his back pocket. “Sure!”

 

William and Fergus trotted down a grassy hill, and William was thankful to be away from everyone – person and cattle alike – for even a moment. Fergus chatted on happily about everything he’d been seeing and learning since beginning the trip, and William had to admit it was refreshing to hear about it from the perspective of an excited nine-year-old.

“You’re having fun, aren’t you?” William asked, chuckling.

“Yeah aren’t you?!” Fergus exclaimed. “This is a way better vacation than Boston.”

William’s eyebrows shot up. “Wow. Better than Boston’s candy shops? Big words.”

“Aren’t you having fun?”

William grimaced. “Not exactly. It’s rough, you know, having everyone depend on you, like this.”

“Yeah…that sounds kinda scary, I guess.”

“Real scary. Like, when I mess up, it effects everyone. If we get to Bayou Flats and there’s no water…I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Fergus bit his lip as he thought a moment, bending as he walked to collect ammunition rocks. “I think you’ll figure it out. If not, Mac’s here. He’ll know what to do.”

William groaned. “But I don’t want to fall back on Mac! All my life, I’ve never made my own decisions. I mean, when I was a kid with Ma and Pa it was one thing, but since growing up I’ve always had Dr. B. and Mac to keep me out of trouble. I want to be the one to get this herd home.”

Fergus shrugged, reaching down for more rocks. “Seems to me you’ll have plenty of time to mess up on your own. Why not let Mama and Mac keep you out of trouble while you can?”

William stopped walking a moment to let that set in. “Where do you get this stuff?”

“Mama said it last month when I wanted to run away and join the…AHHH!”

William jumped at Fergus’s sudden shriek and rushed to his side. “What happened?!”

“Somethin’ bit me!” he wailed, holding up his hand, which was already starting to swell.

William looked down and could actually feel the blood rush out of his face at the sight of scorpion in the grass. He stomped on the thing before swinging Fergus into his arms and running back to the drive as fast as his legs could take him.

The short run to the wagon where Dr. B. always rode nearby felt like the longest of William’s life, and heart-wrenching memories of struggling to carry his own mother after she was bitten by that rattlesnake ran rampant through his head.

“DR. B.!” he screamed, praying she hadn’t run off somewhere with Jamie. “CLAIRE!”

He found her riding Bear, and practically threw Fergus at her the moment her feet touched the ground. “What happened?!” she cried, already carrying Fergus to the wagon where she could lie him down in the back.

“Scorpion got him!” William rasped, feeling like he was going to faint.

Dr. B. looked up sharply for the briefest of seconds before turning her full attention on Fergus, who was pale and shaking convulsively.

“Brianna get me a blanket!” Dr. B. snapped

“Is he gonna be alright?” Brianna cried, hurriedly spreading the blanket over him.

“Scorpion stings are rarely fatal,” Dr. B. said. “But it’s swelling badly, and he’s going into shock. Bree, keep him warm…” she looked up again, to find that Jamie and the others had arrived. “Jamie, I need some dirt, and water to make a paste.”

“I’ll get the water,” Gail said as Jamie snatched up a bowl and started scooping up dirt.

“The paste will help the swelling,” Dr. B. said as she packed the mud over Fergus’s wound.

William felt utterly helpless as Dr. B. treated poor Fergus. Christ! He couldn’t even take care of his brother properly! How the hell was he supposed to take care of ten other adults and 200 cattle?!

 

After a time, Fergus’s tremors ceased, and the swelling in his hand went down. Once Dr. B. said it was safe, they had to keep moving.

William stayed near the wagon as much as he could, peering inside periodically to see how his brother was faring.

“William,” Dr. B. said during one of such checks. She was holding Fergus in her lap, washing his brow with a damp cloth. “We need to stop and let your brother rest.”

William squinted up at the sun, estimating that it was late afternoon, and they had to move as fast as possible before dark when the cattle would have to stop for at least a short time. “We can’t do that,” he sighed. “We gotta get this herd to water, Dr. B. They’re gonna start going blind and crazy soon.”

“William’s right,” Joe said, grimacing. “We’ll lose the whole herd if we don’t keep moving.”

Dr. B. glared up at him. “Are you saying the cows are more important than your brother?”

“Of course not!” William snapped. “Are you saying that if we don’t stop, Fergus won’t make it?”

Dr. B. kept glaring a moment before she sighed. “No. He’ll be alright. The bumping around is just very uncomfortable.”

William looked down at his brother. “I’m sorry, we gotta keep going. I’m sorry, Fergus.”

For everything.

***

Fergus felt like he was in a cloud of fuzziness for a long time. All he could really think of for a while was how cold he was, and how much his hand hurt.

He remembered hearing William’s voice, then Mama’s, and even though he hurt, he wasn’t scared. Mama was the greatest doctor in the world, she would fix whatever he was sick with, just like when he had the ‘fluenza. And William was looking out for him too, and despite what William thought, he could do anything.

“Can I ride with ‘im a while?” he heard someone ask. It wasn’t William, and he didn’t think it was Mac either.

He felt Mama kiss his head, and then he was being handed off to someone else, though the annoying bumping of the wagon didn’t stop.

It was hard to open his eyes, cause he was just so tired, but when he finally did he saw that it was Murtagh holding him, and Fergus smiled.

“Hanging in there? Murtagh asked, smiling back, and Fergus thought it was the first time he’d ever seen the man smile.

“’M okay,” Fergus said, surprised at how little his voice sounded.

“You gave us a scare there,” he said.

“Even you?”

Murtagh rolled his eyes. “Yes, even me, you little fool. Didn’t anyone tell you not to play with scorpions?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time,” Fergus said, glad when it made Murtagh’s shoulders shake in laughter.

“Just hang on,” Murtagh said. “Hang on, and there’s a whole jar of candy back at the store with your name on it.”

All of a sudden, there was screaming and shouting, and Fergus was afraid for a moment before he realized it sounded happy.

With Murtagh’s help he sat up and looked out the side of the wagon, the lingering fuzziness lifting when he saw a wide, sparkling lake.

“Water!” William cried joyously, riding up alongside the wagon. “Water, Fergus! We made it! You okay?”

Fergus nodded, then looked back to grin at Murtagh. “So, what’s this about a jar of candy?”

 

Chapter Text

“This way!”

Brianna laughed and shook her head. How was it that even someone as grown as Jesse could still be such a little boy at heart? “Where are we going?” she asked for the third time.

“Just a little further,” Jesse said, grinning impishly as he darted ahead.

Looking back over her shoulder, Brianna hesitated. Dr. B. wasn’t going to like her venturing so far away from camp, especially after she’d made her opinion of Jesse clear.

But she was wrong about Jesse, and…and…damn it, Brianna was fourteen years old! Ian told her that according to the Cheyenne, fourteen was an adult, considered old enough to live alone, and marry. He would soon be married, and he was scarcely older than her.

Dr. B. was just being over protective, that was all.

“Bree, come on!” Jesse called again, running back to grab her hand and pull her along.

Brianna and Jesse ran, breathlessly laughing, until they came to a stop under a huge oak.

“So…” Brianna said, catching her breath. “What did you want to show me?”

“This,” he said, gesturing vaguely.

Brianna looked around, and though the tree was pretty, it wasn’t anything particularly special, and she couldn’t see anything else that warranted this headlong dash into the woods.

“What?” asked.

Jesse grinned, his cheeks dimpling charmingly as he did. “This…”

Before Brianna could react, Jesse was kissing her, and the world turned on its axis.

His lips were soft, and he smelled like sweat and cattle, and it was all-around the most perfect thing.

Brianna was frozen, unsure what it was she was supposed to do, but her mind was racing. Surely she was supposed to do something!

Jesse pulled away, his smile gone from impish to soft. “Relax,” he crooned. “I’ve got you.”

Nodding timidly, Brianna tried to relax her body when Jesse kissed her again, his hands running up and down her back, making her shiver.

His hands kept moving, until they suddenly moved to her front, and she pulled away when she felt him brush along the side of her breast.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“M…maybe we should slow down,” Brianna said, taking another step back.

Jesse snorted. “Come on, we’re just playing around! Don’t be such a stick in the mud!”

“I’m not!” she snapped, her hackles rising. “I just...Dr. B. will be looking for me…I should probably get back.”

“You call your mother Dr. B.?”

Brianna crossed her arms, trying to get her very conflicting emotions under control. “She isn’t my birth mother,” she admitted, clinging to the change of subject. “She adopted my brothers and me three years ago, after our real mother died.”

“Oh, that’s rough. My ma died too. Only I didn’t get adopted, she didn’t leave me nothin’ but a bunch of debt, and this…” he pulled a chain out from underneath his shirt to show her the small silver ring hanging from it. “It’s tin, so it ain’t worth nothin’.”

“I’m sorry,” Brianna said, for lack of anything better to say. “But it’s nice to have something of hers, right? My ma left me this,” she held out her right hand, to show him the thin gold band on her middle finger with an emerald at its center. “I don’t know if it’s worth anything or not, but it was my grandmothers, and then my ma’s.”

“Pretty,” Jesse said, taking her hand to look over it briefly. “Almost as pretty as the girl who wears it.”

Brianna blushed, but didn’t take her hand away. “We should really be getting back.”

Jesse sighed long-sufferingly, then grinned. “Alright, alright. Let’s go.”

***

Things were better once the herd reached water. Everyone’s spirits were lifted, and even Fergus was able to get out of the wagon and was quickly getting back to his usual exuberant self.

For the first time William actually felt some confidence that he could really do this.

He only wished that Jamie seemed even a little confident, but the older man was still walking around with a pinched look on his face like he was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“How are things going over here?” William asked, coming up to the wagon.

Gail smiled and passed him a roll, but Brianna ignored him, methodically scrubbing a pan.

“Bree? Hello?”

Jumping, Brianna looked up at him suddenly. “William! Do you need something?”

“You alright, baby sister?” he asked. “You got some water right?”

She shook her head, as if to clear it. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just…what is it Jamie says? With the fairies?”

William arched a brow at her, but didn’t bother to dig any deeper into one of his sister’s moods.

He heard a deep rumbling, and glanced up at the sky hopefully. Maybe the drought was ending soon? But when he was met with cloudless blue he frowned, then heard a cry that sent chills straight through him.

“STAMPEDE!”

The herd was running, thundering through the lake and up the other side.

“INTO THE WAGON!” William screamed, all but picking Brianna up to throw her into it. “Where’s Fergus?!”

“Here!” Fergus called, sticking his head out the back.

William swung himself up into the saddle of his horse just in time for the herd to make it to him, thousands upon thousands of pounds shouldering past them in a mad fury.

“Just stay there!” William yelled at Fergus and the girls as reached over to unlatch the horses that pulled it, letting them run free instead of risking them getting trampled or worse, stampeding along with the herd with the wagon in tow.

William spurred Tucker to run alongside the stampede, hoping to try and get to the front of it to stop it.

He could see Jamie and Dr. B. on their horses, looking around helplessly, and William could do nothing but watch in horror as one of the cows collided with Bear, nearly knocking the giant beast over. But as the horse reared and got his balance, Dr. B. went right over, disappearing into the herd.

“NO!” he cried, brutally kicking Tucker to try and make him move in her direction, but he knew he would never make it in time.

“JAMIE!” he screamed, waving his hat frantically to get the other man’s attention. “JAMIE! CLAIRE’S DOWN!”

Jamie couldn’t seem to hear him, but at least William’s waving got him to check back at Claire, and even from a distance William could see the blue of his eyes as they rounded in terror and with an anguished cry of Claire’s name, he spun Donas around. Donas was large and fearless, and didn’t shy away from charging into the stampede, making the cattle skirt around him instead.

William stared at the ground near where Dr. B. fell, trying to see through the hundreds of legs, and every now and then he could catch a glimpse of her, huddled face-down into a ball.

It felt like hours but was only seconds before Jamie reached her, and he yanked her effortlessly into the saddle in front of him the moment she popped up.

The cattle eventually slowed to a stop on their own, likely not having the energy for a long stampede after so many days without water, and bunched near the base of the mountain, grazing like nothing had happened.

Everyone met at the wagon for a roll-call, and William embraced his siblings in relief.

“Mama!” they both cried when Jamie rode up with Dr. B. sitting across his lap.

“M…Dr. B.,” William breathed, rushing forward to help her down. “Are you okay?!”

She nodded a bit shakily. “I’m not dead, so that’s something.”

He knew she meant it as a joke, but William wasn’t even close to laughing. He’d very nearly watched one of the people he loved most in the world die, and he was responsible.

“Are you hurt anywhere?”

She seemed to recognize his upset, and stopped trying to lighten the mood, instead started flexing her arms and legs.

“Just bruised, I think. None of them stepped on me, thank goodness.”

“Yer bleeding,” Jamie said, taking hold of her arm and gently pulling up the sleeve.

“It’s not serious,” she said, examining the scrape.

“Come on, Mama,” Brianna said. “I’ll clean it for you, and help check you over, if you want.”

“Do ye know what started th’ stampede?” Jamie asked, crossing his arms and scowling down at him.

“No idea, you?” William said, trying to remain calm but bristling at Jamie’s judgmental expression.

“Dinna ken. You’re th’ trail boss.”

“Look, this isn’t my fault! Stampedes happen!”

“It isn’a your fault, but you’re responsible. Claire could have died.”

“I know that, alright?!”

“Jamie,” Dr. B. snapped, coming back from behind the wagon. “William, both of you, stop! Instead of trying to assign blame, how about we just figure out what happened and move on, hm?”

Jaw clenching, William swung back up into the saddle. “Joe, Murtagh, help me count heads.”

 

“How many did you get?” William asked Joe later when they met up again.

“42.”

William sighed. “So 42, plus Murtagh’s 36, and my 92…that means, besides the seven that were trampled, there’s still 23 missing?”

“And wait,” Joe said, looking around. “I haven’t seen Jesse and his crew, either.”

William frowned and looked as well. “Neither have I,” he turned toward the wagon. “Has anyone seen Jesse or the others?”

“I saw Jesse this morning,” Brianna said. “Do you think he’s okay?!”

William scowled and ripped his hat off. “I think he’s okay alright, I think we found the cause of the stampede.”

“What do you mean?!” she demanded. “You can’t possibly think Jesse would do something like that!”

“I do,” he said, dismounting from his horse. “I thought he was no good from the start, but we needed the help. He started this stampede, so he could steal part of the herd.”

“You can’t know that!” Brianna cried, clenching her fists.

“My money pouch is gone!” Gail said, checking her saddle bags.

Sighing and rolling her eyes upward, Dr. B. went to her own bags, coming back with a stormy look on her face. “Mine too.”

“You’re wrong!” Brianna shouted. “You’re all wrong! Jesse may be a bit rough around the edges but he’s nice! He’s sweet and good and…” she trailed off suddenly, unclenching her fists to stare blankly at her hand.

“Bree?” Dr. B. said softly. “Bree what…where is your ring?”

William watched as his sister’s shoulder’s drooped, and she blinked rapidly as if to ward off tears.

“That does it,” William said, shaking his head and going back to his horse.

“What are ye going to do?” Jamie asked, grabbing his arm.

“I’m going after them,” William said, snatching his arm back.

“William don’t,” Dr. B. said. “It isn’t worth it.”

“Not worth it? They stole from us!” he stepped closer to her, throat tightening at the sight of her dirty and scraped face. “You were hurt. I won’t let this stand!”

“What do ye plan tae do once ye find them?” Jamie asked. “Kill them? It’s four against one, lad. Twenty-three cows, a bit o’ money, and a ring aren’a worth murder or yer life.”

“This is my herd, my responsibility,” William snapped, throwing Jamie’s words back at him and reaching for the rifle strapped to his saddle.

Jamie yanked him back by the shoulder. “Yer not going.”

“You can’t tell me what to do!” William hissed, hating how juvenile it sounded. He shouldered roughly past him trying to get to his horse, but Jamie pushed him back again.

“Jamie!” Dr. B. cried.

Fed up, William lunged at Jamie, pulling him to the ground. In the back of his mind, William somewhat wondered at how easy it was, since Jamie had always seemed larger than life to him. He swung blindly, catching the other man in the jaw, then lunged to his feet to drive his shoulder into Jamie’s stomach.

Dr. B. was screaming at both of them to stop, so was everyone else, but William ignored them all.

Jamie staggered to his feet, and William didn’t have time to dodge before Jamie’s fist landed squarely in William’s own stomach, punching the air right out of him.

“Ye done lad?” Jamie panted, wiping a small trickle of blood off his chin.

William swallowed the urge to vomit and snatched up his trampled hat before storming away.

***

Fergus watched in abject horror two members of his family fought – and not the play fighting that he and Rollo did – but real, angry fighting.

At the end of it, William was marching away, Jamie was shaking in anger, Mama looked torn, and Brianna was crying quietly in the shadow of the wagon.

Fergus wasn’t sure if he understood all of it, but from what he could gather, Jesse started the stampede that hurt Mama, stole some of the cows, and a ring from Brianna, which was sad because Fergus knew that Brianna liked Jesse.

It seemed to Fergus that this Jesse was an all-around bad guy, and that William was right in going after him.

It took a while for everyone to relax enough for Fergus to slip away unnoticed, but he did and found William quickly. He was leading one of the wagon horses toward the woods, Joe’s rifle in his hands.

“Willie!” Fergus cried, skipping to catch up.

William spun around, casting a look around before scowling at him. “Shh! Fergus, what are you doing here?”

“I’m coming with you,” Fergus stated, frowning because, wasn’t it obvious? “Aren’t you gonna go after Jesse and the others?”

“Yes,” William hissed. “But you’re not coming! Go back to camp…now.”

“No, I’m coming,” Fergus insisted. “You shouldn’t go alone.”

“It’s dangerous, and this is my responsibility. Get back to camp, and if anyone asks, tell them I’m down at the lake, okay?”

“William…” Fergus whined.

William knelt down, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Listen, I need you to cover for me, okay? Please?”

Fergus deflated and sighed. “Fine.”

“Thank you,” William said, standing and turning to go, checking back every so often to be sure Fergus wasn’t following until he disappeared into the trees.

Fergus watched him go, and once he was out of sight, he counted to ten, then with a slow smirk, took off after him.

William wasn’t hard to follow. Jamie had taught Fergus everything he knew about tracking, and William wasn’t doing a very good job of covering his tracks.

It was at least an hour until Fergus saw him again though, slowly traversing through the forest path.

At this point he didn’t bother to conceal himself, and when William finally heard him and looked back with a shocked expression, Fergus chuckled.

“Damn it, Fergus!” William swore. “You said you were gonna cover for me!”

“You shouldn’t go alone,” Fergus repeated. “I’m your brother. So I’m going with you.”

William groaned and slapped his hat against his thigh. “Fine. Come on.”

Fergus bounced in excitement before climbing up behind William on the horse.

They rode together a while longer until the braying of cattle could be heard through the trees. Dismounting, William looked up seriously at Fergus. “Now, I want you to stay here, understand? I mean it, Fergus. Stay here, and if anything goes wrong, you ride back to camp as fast as you can, got it?”

Fergus nodded, starting to feel a little nervous, Jamie’s words about four against one echoing in his mind.

After William crept forward toward Jesse’s camp, Fergus nudged the horse along quietly, peeking through the trees to watch events unfold.

“Jesse,” William said, holding his gun aimed right for him, and Fergus gulped. Surely William wouldn’t actually shoot Jesse, would he?

“Well if it ain’t the trail boss,” Jesse said chuckling seeming pretty unconcerned about the gun.

“Where are your friends?” William asked.

Jesse flapped his hand. “Took their share. Wanted them gone before they got it in their head to want more.”

From what Fergus could see, there were at least ten cows there, so the other four people must have taken two or three each. But at least they weren’t there, and it was only one against one.

“Well, I’m taking my cattle back,” William stated. “Along with the money you stole.”

Jesse smirked. “You and what army?”

William shrugged. “Don’t need an army. This’ll do nicely.” He raised the rifle in demonstration.

“Please, you ain’t got the guts to shoot.”

“You’re a thief,” William hissed. “I have the right to shoot you. And I want my mother’s ring back, the one you took from Brianna.”

“Ah, Miss Bree,” Jesse sighed dreamily. “Tasty little thing, ain’t she? So sweet…and willing.”

“Shut. Up.”

“Ah, don’t get up in arms. It’s a shame, really, that I didn’t have time to really work the girl. I had plans to plough that field and leave her wantin’ more, but when the opportunity for the stampede came along…”

William took a big step forward. “I said SHUT UP!”

It took a moment for it to register to Fergus was Jesse was talking about. Because…it was Brianna. Brianna wasn’t old enough for…for that sort of thing! He reached into his pocket for his slingshot and a heavy stone, jaw clenching in anger.

“She was timid the first time I tried, but if I’d had more time I would have had her screaming my name in no time…” Jesse was continued, cackling with glee while William’s eyes flashed murderously. “You think that red hair of hers is red…everywhere?”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” William shouted, raising his gun to fire the exact moment Fergus let his stone fly, catching Jesse in the head and knocking him down just in time to avoid having a bullet replace the rock.

William blinked a moment in shock, staring at Jesse on the ground, his hands shaking, until Jesse suddenly groaned and rolled over, holding a hand to his head.

William looked from Jesse’s head to the gun in his hand and up again, until Fergus came running out of the woods, slingshot at the ready.

“Fergus!” William exclaimed.

Fergus stood over Jesse, aiming his slingshot right at his face. “My brother said to shut the fuck up!”

Once Jesse seemed to realize that he wasn’t dying, he glared up at the pair of them. “What are you gonna do? Kill me?”

William took a deep breath through his nose then exhaled it. “No,” he said lowly. “I’m taking my cattle and…” he reached down and snatched Brianna’s ring off of Jesse’s pinky. “this, and we’re leaving. But if I ever see you again, I will kill you.”

Fergus watched in admiration as William herded up the cattle and the two of them drove them back to camp, arriving back with fifteen of the twenty-three missing cattle, and all the rest that was stolen.

“William?!” Mama cried, seeing them. “You went after them?!”

“And ye took Fergus?!” Jamie demanded, looking like he was ready to hit William again.

“He didn’t know I followed him!” Fergus exclaimed quickly, sliding off the back of the horse.

“We got fifteen of the cows back,” William sighed. “And all the money and…he looked over apologetically at Brianna, holding out the ring.

Face reddening, Brianna snatched the ring and ran away.

“That was a fool thing tae do,” Jamie said.

“No it wasn’t!” Fergus cried. “It was brave! And William let Jesse go, he didn’t have to do that! But he listened to what you said!” he didn’t mention the fact that William did fire at Jesse, but he was just trying his best to mend things between his two favorite people.

Jamie hesitated before shaking his head and walking away, and William’s shoulders dropped in response.

“It’s time to move out,” William said after a moment. “Let’s go.”

***

I felt helpless once again, torn between wanting to go after Brianna, William, and Jamie at the same time, all for different reasons. And also wanting to reprimand Fergus for running off.

Eventually I decided there wasn’t much to do about Fergus, and the two men needed time to cool off, so I turned and ran after my daughter.

She hadn’t gone far, leaning against a tree, her arms crossed around herself, crying softly.

“Bree?” I called gently.

“I can’t believe I liked him,” she spat. Well, anger was better than sadness, at least.

“He was charming,” I said, not really believing it, but seeing how she could think so and trying to be understanding. “And handsome.”

“No boy has ever paid attention to me like that before,” she said, still not meeting my eyes. “He was sweet, and gentlemanly. And when he kissed me…and touched me…”

My stomach dropped and I struggled to keep an iron grip on my facial expression and words. It would do neither of us any good if I exploded now.

I could explode later. In private.

“What…what exactly did he…do?”

“Not that,” Brianna sighed, rolling her eyes up at me. “I think maybe he wanted to, but I wouldn’t let him. We just kissed.”

I sighed in relief and mentally cheered. “And it was your first kiss, I wager?”

She nodded. “I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

“I know what you mean,” I said honestly. “I still remember my first kiss. The son of one of my uncle’s servants. I felt on top of the world. And then I found him kissing another girl later, and I was crushed.”

“How did you get over it?” she asked lowly.

I shrugged. “It just took time, I suppose. And eventually I learned what love really feels like, and trust me…that sort of kiss blows the first one out of the water.”

Brianna huffed a quick chuckle. “Jamie?”

“How’d you guess?” I chuckled back. “I’m sorry your first kiss turned out to be such a cad. But you know, you don’t have to like a boy just because he likes you, or pays attention to you. You have the power to choose. And you should be very choosey. Don’t ever settle…wait until you find the one who’s right for you.”

She nodded. “I know you’re right. I didn’t even really like him that much. But it…hurts.”

“I know,” I whispered, pulling her into my arms. “And that’s okay, too.”

 

With one fire at least partly extinguished, I moved on to the next one. The next one being a tall, stubborn Scot.

“Jamie,” I said, finding him brushing Donas down with a handful of dry grass.

“Ye should be restin’,” he said shortly.

“I’m fine, thankyouverymuch,” I said, crossing my arms. “Do you want to tell me why you’re being such a bastard to my son?”

“Me?!” he exclaimed, spinning to face me. “Th’ wee fool is th’ one who willn’a listen to sense! And he started th’ fight!”

“Okay, now you’re starting to sound like a child,” I said, unamused. “It doesn’t matter who started the fight. William is seventeen years old, almost eighteen. I get that’s it’s hard to start seeing his as a man, but you’re the one who always says how I need to treat him as an adult.”

“Aye,” he growled, tossing down his handful of grass. “But that’s when his mistakes dinna endanger your life.”

“The stampede wasn’t his fault and you know it.”

“No,” he admitted. “But he also endangered Fergus.”

“…Who tagged along without permission. Come on, Jamie, you know how Fergus is.”

“I know!” he exclaimed, throwing his hands up. “I just dinna like watching William struggle! I want tae help him but he willn’a let me!”

I walked up to him, resting one hand on his shoulder and using the other to turn his face to mine. “You feel that way because you love him. And because he loves you, he wants to prove himself in your eyes. Do you not see how desperate he is for your approval?”

Jamie scrunched up his face. “My approval? Seems tae me he’s after just the opposite.”

“No, he wants to impress you. He wants to do things his way and make you admire him for it. He idolizes you every bit as much as Fergus does, he just hides it better. Jamie…you’re more a father to those children than their own father ever was…” I let my hands fall and took a step back. “…and I understand if that’s not a responsibility you’re ready for just yet but…”

“Sassenach,” he broke in, stemming my words with a fingertip to my lips. “Surely ye know I love those children…as my own. Don’t you?”

I smiled, then kissed his finger before he pulled it away. “I know…at least I hoped I did.”

He stepped closer to wrap his arms around me, and I rested my head against his chest. I’d almost forgotten how soothing it was to do so.

“You’re right, Sassenach.”

“Aren’t I always?” I asked, earning a nip on the side of my neck.

“I’ll go find him,” he rumbled, and though I agreed he should, I rather regretted him pulling away.

 

The herd was already moving by the time Jamie caught up with William, riding at the fore on Tucker.

He nudged Donas along, though the auld brute was quickly tiring of cattle ever since the stampede.

After deliberating a moment of what to say, Jamie finally just asked, “Where’s our next stop, then?”

William half turned, fixing him with a sideways stare before answering. “Helwater Falls. The spring comes off the mountain, and with the snowfall last winter, it shouldn’t be dry.” He tensed, as if ready for Jamie to refute.

“Sound plan,” Jamie said. “Will ye have me take up the rear, then?”

William eyed him a moment, brows slowly rising in surprise. “Er…no. Would you mind scouting ahead a ways? The map is unclear about the terrain.”

Jamie smiled and nodded. “Aye, as you say.”

Chapter Text

“Mama! Mama!” Fergus cried, nearly bowling me over in his rush to get to me.

We’d arrived at Helwater Falls the evening before, and it was such a beautiful, peaceful area William decided that we should camp there at least a day in order to rest.

“What is it?” I asked, trying to catch him by the shoulders but he was hopping from one foot to the other like a wind-up toy. “Is someone hurt?”

“One of the cows is havin’ a baby!” he exclaimed, eyes round as saucers. “But Joe said she’s in diss-tress. He said to have you come quick!”

I sighed in relief that at least it wasn’t a human in distress, but nevertheless I grabbed up my medical bag and ran after Fergus into the herd, where a cow lay in the grass surrounded by concerned onlookers.

“I think the calf is turned around,” Joe said without preamble. “I don’t quite know what to do for that.”

“Well,” I began, appraising the expectant mother. “I imagine it’ll need to be turned, same as with a baby.”

“Can you do it, Mama?!” Fergus asked.

“Fergus, I’m a people doctor. I’ve never treated animals.”

“Not true,” he protested, his lower lip sticking out. “You bandaged up Rollo when he got his foot caught in a trap.”

“And you treated Bear when the cut on his leg got infected,” Brianna pointed out.

“Fine,” I admitted. “But I’ve never delivered anything but a human baby.”

“How different could it be?” Jamie asked, smirking.

Rolling my eyes at him, I knelt down near the cow’s hind quarters, eyeing the gaping birth canal dubiously. Just as I did, she let out a low bray, and her body contorted as she suffered a contraction.

For a human I would attempt to palpate the abdomen to try and turn the child around. I didn’t think that would work on a cow…not that I was absolutely certain where the calf was at that point.

“Guess there’s nothing else for it,” I sighed, rolling up my sleeves.

“You mean you’re gonna…” William began, gesturing to the cow’s hind quarters with wide eyes.

“Would you rather be the one?” I asked him.

He took a step back. “No. Carry on.”

I waited until the next contraction had passed before slowly pushing my hand into the birth canal. All I felt was warmth and wetness, no sign yet of anything fuzzy with legs.

Another contraction hit and I gasped as the birth canal clenched tightly around my arm to the point of pain, preventing me from moving an inch.

“Sassenach?” Jamie said. “Are ye alright?”

“Contractions are strong,” I bit out through ground teeth as it finally loosened.

“You can do it, Mama,” Fergus said, sitting closer beside me than anyone else was daring.

I kept on, almost to my shoulder until I finally felt something hard and slick.

“I think I found a hoof!” I cried, feeling around for the other three. Another contraction hit, and I had to groan and breathe through it same as the cow.

I felt along the tiny leg until I felt what I thought might be the head, so I pressed down gently, trying to rotate the calf.

Sweat was pouring down my face, and I smiled in thanks as Fergus wiped it off with a rag. Jamie finally knelt on the other side of my and helped brace my arm. It took three more contractions until the calf finally shifted, and once it did it slid into life with a gush of blood and fluid.

“You did it!” Fergus cried, not so much as shying away from the mess as he helped me wiped the fluid of the little one’s face.

We did it,” I corrected, happy in a job well done, nearly as exhausted as the mother, and with an adorable baby cow to show for it.

 

Once the calf was gleefully nursing from its tired yet satisfied mother, I beat a hasty retreat along the stream to find a secluded area to wash.

I knelt beside the trickling water in a spot sheltered by trees and hissed as I stuck my aching hand into the water. Flowing down as melted snow from the mountaintop, the stream was absolutely freezing, and though it was good for my bruised arm, I didn’t relish the thought of bathing in it. But I was covered from head to toe in unmentionable birthing fluids, and a wash wasn’t debatable.

“Sassenach?” Jamie said, peeking around the trees and smiling apologetically when I startled. “Sorry…just wanted tae see if ye were alright. Ye were cradling yer arm.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Just sore and…filthy.”

“Didn’a mean tae disturb ye,” he said. “But would ye rather some warm water? There’s some already heated on th’ fire I can bring ye.”

I started to say no, but thought again of that icy water and changed my mind. “That would be lovely, Jamie. Thank you.”

Grinning, he darted away, and I glanced ruefully down at my stained blouse, wondering if it would ever come clean.

I thought about it a moment, but mentally shrugged and started unbuttoning the blouse. Jamie had seen me in less.

By the time Jamie had returned, I had my blouse and skirt resting on the rocks so that the rushing water could clean them, and sat in only my chemise and bloomers. To his credit, he didn’t so much as blink at my state of undress, and knelt down beside me with a large bucket of steaming water.

“Thank you,” I said gratefully, reaching for my washcloth, expecting him to take his leave.

When he didn’t, I looked over my shoulder at him questioningly.

“Let me help,” he said, taking the washcloth and dipping it in the water.

“I’m fine,” I said automatically.

He huffed, lightly running his fingers down my arm which was rapidly turning blue in places. “Ye have one arm scraped and th’ other bruised. All because of cows. Let me help ye, Sassenach.”

Smiling, I nodded, then immediately closed my eyes in bliss when the warm cloth touched the back of my neck.

He washed me methodically, starting at my neck and shoulders before making his way gently down my grubby arms. He was making it a caring gesture rather than a seductive one…though my body and heartrate didn’t seem to know the difference.

When the thin strap of my chemise slipped off my shoulder, he slowly replaced it, making me grin at his respectfulness. But then he raised up on his knees behind me, reaching over to run the washcloth down my chest, letting the water run down between my breasts, and I grinned even more at his sudden lapse in respectfulness.

“Beautiful,” he murmured, and I could feel his breath on the side of my neck, cool in comparison to the warm water, giving me gooseflesh.

“Really, Jamie?” I asked in amusement. “I’m covered in the results of a cow birth, and I haven’t even had a proper bath in weeks.”

“And ye smell like it too,” he quipped, earning a sharp jap in the stomach with my elbow. “But beautiful, still.”

“Not sure how much of a compliment that was,” I said ruefully, leaning back into him regardless, refraining from pointing out that he didn’t exactly smell like potpourri.

I wondered why he had been so focused on cleaning my neck first only until I felt his mouth fasten onto it, biting and sucking gently.

I made a sound I barely recognized of myself and pressed back into him, hoping to encourage his ministrations. It worked, and he bit down harder, making me squirm in reaction.

His hands roved over me as he continued to worry the skin on my neck, and I knew in the back of my mind it wasn’t proper, that I’d been trying to keep things proper for the sake of the children, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to care.

Although what he was doing to my neck was surprisingly pleasurable, I hadn’t kissed Jamie properly in almost two weeks, and I found very suddenly that I needed to do that more than I needed my next breath.

I craned my neck, and he obliged me immediately, kissing the breath back into me.

“Dr. B. are you over…here…” William said, trailing off as he came around the tree, eyes widening at the scene before him. His hand shot out to his side, and I realized after a beat that it was to stop Fergus from skirting around him – his hand colliding directly with Fergus’s face.

“Ow! Hey! What are you doing?!” Fergus cried, trying to pull away.

Jamie adjusted his body, awkwardly trying to sit casually beside me, while still shielding me from view, and, I suspected, his lower half as well.

I cleared my throat, trying to look casual, and feeling anything but. “Did…um…you need something William?”

“No…” William shook his head, his color rising. “Just uh, Gail sent me to tell you supper’s ready.”

“We’ll be along,” I said, elbowing Jamie again when I could feel him start to laugh.

William nodded, backing away and trying to take Fergus with him.

Fergus yanked away from his brother’s hand, glaring up at him. “What was that for?!” he looked over at us. “Oh, hi Mac! What are you guys doing?”

“Come on, Fergus,” William hissed, grabbing his arm and dragging him away.

I could hear him protest in aggravation as they disappeared. “Ow! Stop! I wanted to talk to Mama! I’ve seen her in her underwear before! What were they doing that we can’t…OW!”

Jamie and I took one look at each other before dissolving into laughter, and I collapsed into his arms, burrowing closely to him.

He mumbled something into my hair, and I peered up at him. “What was that?”

He smirked, then kissed the tip of my nose. “Nothin’ Sassenach. S’pose we better go before Murtagh forgets tae leave us any food.”

I leaned back again, bumping my head against his chin in the process, though he didn’t complain. “Five more minutes.”

 

 

We packed up camp the following morning for our final ride to Colorado Springs. I couldn’t say I would miss life on the trail although it was…no. No, I would not miss life on the trail.

Good thing too, because I was completely out of the saddle sore ointment.

“Dr. B.?” William said, peeking his head under the tent I was taking final stock of my remaining medical supplies.

“Everything okay?” I asked him, automatically looking him up and down for injury.

“Oh, no, I’m fine.”

When he didn’t say anything else, I raised one eyebrow. “Willie, if this is about yesterday…”

William flushed and shook his head and waved his hands at me to make me stop. “No! No, no, no. Not…that. I just wanted to see how you’re doing…feeling I mean.”

I frowned. “Feeling? I’m fine. I mean, I could do with a good long sleep in my own bed for about three days, but other than that…”

William came all the way into the tent, kneeling beside me, and gestured toward my arm. “Well, I guess it is about yesterday. I could see how bad your arms look.”

My arms did hurt, though it was better not think too much about them. “Bruises and scrapes, William. Nothing concerning at all.”

“I just can’t stop thinking about the stampede,” he said, grimacing. “You could have been killed.”

I reached over and took his hand, squeezing it gently. “But I didn’t. I’m fine, and we’re almost home.”

“I don’t know what I would have done if anything happened to you, is all. I guess all I’m trying to say is…I’m sorry it happened but…thank you. For coming.”

I smiled at him and leaned over to kiss his cheek. “I’ll always be here for you, William.”

He grinned back in response. “Yeah, I know. And I’m glad.”

“Mama! Mama!”

William and I hurried out of the tent to find Fergus running toward us.

“Fergus, what’s wrong?” I asked, desperately hoping it wasn’t another life-or-death emergency, but then I caught sight of Jamie following behind, carrying the calf I delivered the day before.

“I found his mama,” Fergus said, every feature in his face turned downward in sadness. “She’s dead.”

“I’m sorry, Fergus,” I said, feeling a pang of sadness myself. You couldn’t help but feel a connection to someone you helped to give birth, even an animal, apparently. And especially such a difficult and…invasive delivery.

“What’s gonna happen to the baby?” he asked as Jamie set the calf on the ground beside him.

“We’ll have tae find a way to feed him,” Jamie said. “At least until another cow adopts him.”

“But how?” Fergus asked. “Will he drink milk out of a bowl like Adso?”

“I don’t think so,” William said, stroking his chin. “Unfortunately, calves who lose their mothers on a drive don’t typically make it.”

“But he has to!” Fergus cried. “He was just born! He can’t die!”

“He isn’t going to die,” I declared to everyone. “I have an idea…” I went back into my tent and rummaged around until I found the empty pill bottle I knew I had.

“William, do you still have that glove you lost the mate to?”

“Yeah,” he said puzzledly, going to his horse to fetch the glove and handing it to me. “What are you gonna do with that?”

“Hand me a strip of rawhide,” I ordered instead of answering. Jamie obliged me with a thin length of leather from his jacket, and I used my scissors to cut a finger off the glove. “Bree, fill this bottle with milk, please.”

“You’re gonna feed him with a bottle?” Fergus asked.

“I am,” I said, attaching the glove finger to the top of the filled bottle with the rawhide, then snipped a hole in the top.

I handed the bottle to Fergus, and with eyes wide in wonder, he tilted the bottle up to the calf’s mouth, coaxing him with gentle words and wetting his mouth until he finally caught on and began drinking greedily.

“He’s eating!” Fergus cried.

“Good thinking, Dr. B.,” William said before turning to his brother. “Would you like to take responsibility for the calf, Fergus?”

“His name is Pumpkin!” Fergus exclaimed.

William laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

 

Pumpkin seemed to need no further persuasion to follow Fergus’s every move after that, even as he rode along on his horse.

Things were finally moving along smoothly, and even some hopeful-looking dark clouds were starting to roll in over the mountain.

“Maybe th’ drought is over,” Jamie said, smiling up at the darkening sky.

“Thank goodness,” I sighed. “It’s going to take me a week to wash all this dust off of me. I am very ready for a downpour.”

Jamie smirked and offered me one of his failed winks. “Just let know if ye need any help washing, Sassenach.”

I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t hold back a flustered grin. “I’ll let you know.”

A sudden, deafening clap of thunder took us all by surprise, making the horses rear and threatened to cause another stampede.

But the real problem didn’t become apparent until minutes later when the air began rapidly filling with smoke, and the hills ahead started to glow.

“Fire,” Jamie breathed.

“Wildfire!” William shouted in the same instant. “Must have been the lightning! We need to move!”

It was a tense, anxious ride, seemingly in slow motion as we drove the cattle toward the growing flames.

In the way fire does, it seemed to suck the sound right out of the air, which felt static from the brewing storm.

Murtagh and Joe were riding the sides of the herd while the wagon brought up the rear, leaving William, Jamie and I at the front.

“Shouldn’t we try to go around it?” I asked nervously, seeing that before very long, we would be right in the middle of it.

“It’s moving too fast,” William said, glaring up at the sky. “The grass is dry as paper, and damn it, I wish it would rain.”

“Clouds are moving fast,” Jamie said. “Dinna think it’ll offer much in th’ way of rain.”

“Then we have to turn back,” I said.

William shook his head. “If we do that, the fire will chase us East, and we’ll be backed into the mountain. Our best chance is to just drive the herd through it.”

I gaped at him, then turned my gape to Jamie, hoping for an alternative from him, but was disappointed.

“He’s right,” Jamie said. “It’s our best chance. Maybe our only chance.”

Waving his hat as he rode around the herd toward the wagon, William gathered everyone together to tell them the plan.

“We’re riding through the fire?!” Gail cried, thankfully echoing my concern.

“Take all the canteens, and douse the wheels of the wagon,” William instructed. “And the horses’ legs, too. Cover your mouths, and for God’s sake don’t stop for anything.”

“Fergus, get into the wagon,” I said, stemming his protests with a look.

By the time we’d wetted the horses’ legs and took a breath, the fire had reached us, and with a cry William started the drive forward.

I eyed the imposing wall of smoke with trepidation, but with only Murtagh, Joe, and Jamie left to help William drive the herd, they needed all the help they could get. So taking up my lariat, I used a length of it to whip at the cattle, forcing them onward.

“Go! Go, you goddamned bloody bastards!” I shouted, convinced they responded better to cursing.

They started off well enough, but a handful in the back got spooked, broke from the herd and started running back away from the fire.

“No!” I cried, looking around for William or Jamie, but not seeing anyone except the wagon behind me.

“Brianna!” I shouted over the panicked braying. “Do something!”

Even from a distance I could see Brianna square her shoulders and think rapidly before disappearing into the back of the wagon and emerging with a rifle, which she promptly fired into the air, nearly falling over with the kick-back, and scaring the cattle into turning and running the right way.

“Good job, Bree!” I praised, unsure if she could hear me, but then I frowned when they weren’t moving.

I kicked Bear into motion and sped back for them, watching as Fergus leapt out of the back and hearing Brianna and Gail both shout after him.

“He’s looking for his calf!” Gail cried as I rode past them.

“Get going!” I ordered. “I’ll go after Fergus!”

I found Fergus beside a shrub, where Pumpkin lay cowering. “Fergus, we have to go, now,” I told him. “If we don’t, we might not make it!”

“I can’t leave Pumpkin,” he exclaimed, tears on his face. “He’s just a baby, and he’s scared! And he’s my responsibility!”

Sighing, I looked back over my shoulder, seeing that the herd and everyone else was nowhere to be seen.

Leaping off of Bear, but keeping an iron grip on his reign, I scooped up the calf and deposited him across Bear’s shoulders before mounting again and yanking Fergus up behind me.

“Cover your face with the back of my shirt and for the love of God, Fergus, don’t let go.”

Heart pounding, I covered my own mouth with a handkerchief and kicked Bear, having to do so three times before the normally agreeable horse would agree to move.

“You’ll have all the oats and sugar cubes you can eat from here till forever if you just go, Bear!”

We ran head-long into the flames, immediately being engulfed in a haze of smoke so thick that I couldn’t so much as see the ground, much less the sky, and it was disturbingly quiet. Even the hoof-beats were muffled.

My handkerchief did next to nothing, and I was left with nothing to do but breathe as shallowly as possible when every inhale burned. Fergus coughed into my back and squeezed me almost painfully, but the pain assured me he was there and still conscious.

In a moment of crazed panic, I thought Bear might lose his bearings and run in a circle, never reaching the other side.

But then the air began to gradually clear, and I could see two shapes approaching, which soon proved to be Jamie and William, coming back for us once the wagon made it through without us.

They led us out to the other side, and the comparatively clean air. William lifted Fergus down while Joe took the calf, leaving me to fall bonelessly into Jamie’s arms.

“Are ye alright, Sassenach?” he asked, worry lacing his features.

“I’m great,” I wheezed, aware that I would be on the ground if Jamie wasn’t holding me up.

“We need to keep moving!” William yelled. “Dr. B, you gonna make it?”

“She’ll make it,” Jamie said, guiding me toward Donas. “Up ye go, lass.”

I was too dizzy to argue, and let him lift me into the saddle before mounting behind me.

It was actually kind of nice, because the rest of the ride went by in a haze, so that before I knew it, we were leading the herd right through the middle of town.

Everyone came out of their homes and shops to watch the odd parade, and Jenny was sitting on the porch of clinic, grinning broadly.

“We made it,” I said as Jamie slowed Donas beside Tucker.

“We made it,” William echoed, practically glowing.

“Ye did well, lad,” Jamie said. “I’m proud of ye.”

If I thought William had been glowing before, he was positively beaming at Jamie’s words.

The wind and dark clouds had followed us all the way home, and as Jamie helped me down from the horse, I felt a drop of water hit the tip of my nose. That drop was joined by another, and another, until the sky opened up and a deluge poured down, drenching us all in seconds.

“Rain!” Fergus cried, and the entire town rose up in a cheer as the drought finally ended.

I tilted my face up, blissfully letting the cool water rinse the dust off my heat-scorched skin.

I opened my eyes after a moment, finding Jamie still right beside me, watching me with a peculiar expression.

But then I realized I recognized that expression, as well as the appraising way he let his eyes rove over me…and no doubt the way the water was making my clothing cling.

Maybe it was the way he didn’t even bother to hide it that affected me the most, making my belly clench and waves of startling warmth roll over me.

He kissed me right there in the middle of the street, though everyone was too busy celebrating both the rain and our return to notice.

“Feels good to be home,” I murmured as we parted.

“Aye, it does,” he agreed. “Let’s get inside. Ye look like you’re…” he glanced down then back up at my face, a suggestive glint in his eyes. “Cold.”

“Okay,” I said, not getting it until we started making our way toward the clinic and it dawned on me by the way my blouse was rubbing against me that he could see my nipples through the soaked white fabric.

I shot him an affronted look, but he was only grinning like a little boy who’d peeked a naked lady for the first time and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. Then I gratefully accepted his jacket.

It felt good to be home, indeed.

Chapter Text

Well where is it?”

“On the nightstand, over there.”

“No, Fergus! Dinna wake her up!”

I sighed and cracked my eyes open, seeing the key to the root cellar sitting on my nightstand. I assumed they were making breakfast, and trying to be quiet about it, but they weren’t exactly succeeding.

We’d been home from the cattle drive for a little over two weeks, but it hadn’t been terribly restful. The rain and accompanied cold front had also brought about a rash of catarrh that had kept me busy day and night at the clinic, while Rachel and Brianna visited homes. It had finally quieted down, and I’d been promised a chance to sleep in the next morning.

I tried to bury my annoyance, however, since Jamie and the children had been so helpful and supportive the whole time.

The key they needed was on my nightstand, which was pushed up against the wall, so they only way to get to it would be to lean over the bed. I could have revealed that I was awake and handed it to them, but honestly I was being thoroughly entertained by their whispered squabbling.

Fergus, just go out and feed th’ chickens. I’ll get the keys.”

“How are you going to do that without waking her up?”

“Easy.”

Sighing as if in sleep, I rolled onto my back so I could peek and see what Jamie was doing. He crept slowly over to the bed with exaggerated movements, making Fergus and Brianna have to clap their hands over their mouths to stifle their giggles and me have to bite the inside of my cheeks.

First he tried to reach over me without touching the bed, but even though his arms were long, they weren’t that long, so he slowly, slowly rested a knee on the mattress and reached again.

He still couldn’t quite get it, so he looked over me calculatingly and tried again. I shifted and he froze, but when I settled back down he continued his slow-motion attempt.

Jamie ended up completely straddling me on the bed, and the children were almost on the floor trying to restrain their laughter. He got the key, but then he was left with getting back off the bed without “disturbing” me. While he froze in indecision, his face inches from mine, I decided it was time to “wake up.”

Opening my eyes sleepily, I peered up and him in bemusement. “Hello,” I murmured.

“Hello…” he said guiltily, drawing the word out and glaring over at the children who had completely lost it, and were cackling madly.

Just then William came through the door, stopping midway through with one foot hovering in the air, looking from Jamie and me, to his giggling siblings, and back again. “Again?!” he exclaimed. “For God’s sake, you two, there’re kids in the room!”

That just sent Brianna and Fergus off all over again, and Jamie leapt off of me like he’d been burned.

Speaking of burned… “Do I smell smoke?” I asked.

“Oh no!” Brianna exclaimed, rushing over to the stove where a plume of black smoke was starting to rise from a pan.

Jamie hissed and they all bundled into the kitchen, presumably to try and salvage breakfast.

Chuckling fondly, I used the distraction to get out of bed, wrap up in a robe and sneak out to the privy.

 

Upon my return, Jamie was on the porch, grinning sheepishly. “Ye didn’a really want eggs wi’ yer breakfast, did ye?”

“Nah,” I said, waving my hand. “What’s all this about, though?”

“We were just tryn’a treat ye, and let ye sleep in a bit after all th’ work ye’ve been doing. Sorry.”

“Sorry?” I sidled up beside him, kissing his cheek and letting him bundle me up under his arm. “I don’t know what you’re sorry for, it was a wonderful thought, and I did get to sleep in a bit later than I have been lately. I love you all so much for it. Although we really need to try to stop giving poor William a shock.”

“Hey,” he snapped playfully. “That one was an accident.”

“We’re a terrible influence.”

Jamie wrapped his other arm around me, almost crushing me…but in a pleasant way, and noisily kissed the top of my head. “Seeing two people who love each other could never be a bad influence, Sassenach. Wouldn’a ye rather them see that than a man ‘n woman who barely look at one another?”

My mouth was covered up by his arm, but I hummed in the affirmative and he loosened his hold.

“My parents weren’a afraid tae kiss and touch in front of us,” he said fondly. “By th’ time I discovered that that wasn’a th’ norm, I was old enough tae appreciate that they’d taught me that there was no shame in showing th’ world how much ye love your woman.”

Your woman,” I echoed teasingly. “I was so young when my parents died…but I can’t say I remember ever seeing them kiss. They didn’t kiss me, either. I knew that they loved me…but they didn’t tend to say it.”

He frowned. “How awful. I hope yer uncle remedied that.”

I shrugged. “He didn’t really say it in words so much either, but I never doubted that he loved me.” I meant it, but I didn’t add how I’d made it a point to be sure I told the children in words that I loved them.

He hummed. “Weel then, I supposed I’ll have tae make up for it,” he leaned down to kiss me softly. “I love ye, mo cridhe.

“I love you, too,” I whispered, cuddling back against his chest

“No’ tae change th’ subject,” he continued. “But I’ve also come this mornin’ wi’ an invitation. Wee Ian’s to be married tonight, and he asked if ye could all come.”

Tonight?!” I squeaked. “He’s getting married tonight?!”

“Aye,” Jamie shrugged. “Once it’s decided and the requirements filled, the Cheyenne dinna waste much time.”

“Clearly,” I chuckled. “Should we bring anything? Dress any certain way?”

He shook his head. “Nay. Bring yerselves and dress as yerselves. It’s only yer presence Ian wants.”

 

“I can’t believe Ian’s gonna be married,” Brianna mused as we rode out to the reservation that evening.

“Me either,” I admitted. “But I’m fascinated to see a Cheyenne wedding.”

“We’re not gonna have to like…watch the honeymoon or anything weird like that are we?” William asked, grimacing.

“Only th’ first time,” Jamie quipped, following by a hasty “kidding” when I glared at him.

The sun was setting when we reached the reservation, and even though there weren’t exactly decorations up, the whole village had a cheerful air of celebration that was quickly infectious.

“Normally th’ Cheyenne have special, ceremonial locations for wedding,” Jamie explained to me as we walked into the village. “But wi’ th’ way th’ army is, Black Kettle didn’a want tae take the risk. Th’ bride’s family wasn’a overly pleased, thinking it a bad omen.”

“Black Kettle’s right, unfortunately,” I said. “It’s one thing for small groups of hunters to leave the reservation, an entire wedding party would be far too conspicuous.”

“Auntie!” I heard Young Ian cry before he suddenly barreled out of a teepee and nearly tackled me in a hug. “I’m so glad you came!”

Ian had been so quiet and morose ever since the incident with Jamie and the soldiers, it was refreshing and reassuring to see him back to his boyish, boisterous self. But it also served to remind me how young he was, and how unbelievable it was to me that he was about to be someone’s husband.

“We wouldn’t miss it!” I said, hugging him tightly. “I can’t wait to meet your soon-to-be-wife.”

“Me either,” he said, beaming. “I know you will love her. But you will have to wait until the ceremony, I cannot see her until then.”

“Same as with our kinds of weddings,” I informed him.

“Ye best go get yourself ready,” Jamie said. “Willn’a do tae keep yer bride waiting.”

Ian nodded and practically hopped away, and I chuckled and shook my head. “Still such a boy,” I said fondly.

“Th’ best kinds o’ men have a bit o’ boy still in them, always, wouldn’t ye say?”

I winked at him. “Oh, most definitely. The best kinds.”

He grinned. “Let’s find th’ children, it will be startin’ soon.”

 

A Cheyenne wedding was the most unusual, but possibly the most beautiful wedding I’d ever witnessed. Parts of it were strikingly similar to a European ceremonies, but it seemed livelier, less solemn.

Ian’s bride was a stunningly beautiful young woman with pitch-black hair that tumbled down past her waist as straight and smooth as silk. She smiled adoringly at Ian as they joined hands.

The elder Ian, Black Kettle, Nayawenne, and who I assumed to be the bride’s parents all stood by while the rites were spoken, and then the couple took seven dancing steps around the fire, speaking a vow after each one. It was all spoken in Cheyenne, so I didn’t understand a word of it, nor did I want to distract Jamie by asking for a translation. But their vows were spoken with such fervor and passion, it gave me a warm feeling to hear them.

“Wait,” I whispered as Ian spoke his seventh vow. “That sounds like Gaelic.”

“Aye,” Jamie whispered back, beaming proudly. “He asked about Scottish weddings, and I taught him the traditional vows.”

“What does it mean?”

When he didn’t answer right away, I glanced up to find his ever-startling blue eyes staring hard at me in a way that somehow made my heart race just by seeing it.

“I’ll tell ye,” he said, taking my hand and bringing it up to his lips to kiss the back of it. “But no’ just yet.”

I quite wanted to know what he meant by that, but then everyone was cheering, and the drums started up again in earnest.

“Is that it?” Fergus asked. “Are they married?”

“Seems so,” I said, still a little distracted by Jamie’s vague words.

“Dance,” Two Moons said, appearing at our sides. “This is a celebration!” he reached out for Brianna’s hand, who of course took it without a second thought, and she giggled madly as he began teaching her the rhythmic steps.

Two young women dragged William and Fergus into the fray, and I made a mental note to keep an eye on William.

“I don’t think I can do that,” I informed Jamie.

He gave me a puzzled look. “Oh? But I ken how ye wish I could dance wi’ ye, and I believe I told ye how I can keep beat tae th’ drums…just no a tune.”

I saw where he was going with it, and if I ever hoped to get him to step out of his comfort zone and dance a waltz with me, I would just have to do this for him.

It should have felt silly, hopping and skipping around the fire like that. Should have, but didn’t. And Jamie’s hand was in mine the entire time.

There were several more ceremonies that needed to be performed until Young Ian was able to bring his wife to us to meet.

“Everyone!” he exclaimed. “Meet my wife, Wako’teyehsnonhsa.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said, waiting while Ian turned to her to translate, and hoping I wouldn’t need to repeat the name back any time soon.

“She says she is happy you have come to share this with us,” Ian translated back after she answered.

They turned to speak with Bree, Fergus, and William, and I happened to catch sight of her parents, glaring over at us.

“Do not mind them,” Two Moons said quietly from beside us. “Their village was wiped out by the army. They have no love for white people, and were not happy you would be coming, but Ian put his foot down, and Wako’teyehsnonhsa took his side.”

“I hope we haven’t caused any problems,” I said. “That’s horrible about what happened to them.”

“It is not your doing,” he said, mouth set in a grim line. “You are our family, and have as much right to be here as they.”

As the hour grew late and the festivities wound down, the happy couple prepared to retire into Ian’s new teepee for the night. I wasn’t sure if the Cheyenne participated in any honeymoon pranks or hijinks like I’d seen at European weddings, but I decided I didn’t want the children around to find out.

“It was a beautiful wedding,” Brianna sighed as we rode home, Fergus’s sleeping head in her lap. “I can’t wait to have a wedding.”

“You can and you will,” I teased. “Remember you are not a Cheyenne and will not be marrying at fifteen.”

Her nose scrunched up. “I don’t mean yet. I want to go to college first.”

I grinned back at her. “Good girl.”

“What I meant to say was I can’t wait for us to have a wedding. Like in the family.”

“Whoever do you mean, Brianna?” William said, all wide-eyed innocence. “Surely not me?”

“Maybe,” Brianna trilled, eyes shining as she grinned at Jamie and me. “Or maybe not.”

“Alright you two,” I said, exchanging a bemused smile with Jamie.

Though I was quite content with the way things were…with my clinic, with the homestead, with the children, and with Jamie. That night of Ian’s wedding did get me to thinking. How could it not?

But if Jamie’s mind was in the same place, he didn’t show it, and once again I cursed his uncanny ability to hide what was in his mind whereas I was an open book.

It still did nothing to diminish my warm and happy mood, and I leaned my head against his shoulder as we rode the rest of the way home.

Chapter Text

As Autumn turned to Winter, Jamie and I celebrated our first Christmas as a couple.

I was learning that Jamie was not naturally given to romantic gestures. To him, a useful and needed gift showed his love much more than flowers or jewelry, as I’d seen ever since his first gift to me of Adso as a mouser.

And though I was accustomed to the idea of romantic gifts, I was quickly coming round to his way of thinking, and he had been pleased to punch with his new boots.

“It’s beautiful,” I whispered in awe as I turned the small bejeweled dagger he’d given me around in my hands. And it was, as bright and beautiful as any jewelry, but I imagined was meant for much more practical uses.

“It’s a sgian dubh,” Jamie said. “Hidden dagger. It’s meant for protection, ken.”

“Mama can’t stab anybody,” Fergus said, hefting his new real tomahawk in his hands. “She’s a doctor. She took the hypothetical pledge.”

Hippocratic Pledge,” I corrected. “And you’re not wrong…I don’t think I could ever actually stab someone.”

“It’s my duty tae make sure ye never have to,” Jamie said seriously. “But I’d like it if ye carried it, anyway. Ye can never be too sure.”

I grimaced at the reminder at how bad things were getting between the army and the Indians. It seemed every other day we were hearing of another village burned to the ground by the army, or another family slaughtered by Dog Soldiers.

It had gotten to the point where Custer and his men were frequently in town, urging citizens not to venture too far away or risk attack by renegades. But their presence alone was enough to set everyone on edge, especially Jamie.

“Well, carry it I shall,” I said, shaking off the bad feeling I got every time I thought of General Custer. “But it’s so pretty it almost seems a shame to hide it.”

Jamie smirked. “Ye wear it in yer stocking…or yer bosom.”

Fergus giggled, repeating the word “bosom” under his breath.

“Stocking it is,” I said.

“But first I have tae teach ye how tae use it.”

I gave him a puzzled look. “Pointy end goes into the other person…right?”

He chuckled. “Aye, but it’s a wee bit more complicated than that.”

“Don’t see how you could do much damage with such a tiny blade anyway,” William said.

“Ye’d be surprised. Stand up, Sassenach.”

Doing as bid, I stood up and removed the sgain dubh from its sheath and holding it my fist, aimed downward

“See, if ye were tae bring th’ blade down like that, ye’d do nothin’ but make yer foe mad. Ye’ll want tae stab upward, like this…” he took my hand and repositioned it. “And ye dinna want to stab th’ ribs, too hard to get it through. Ye wanna stab up here,” he brought my knife close to his side. “In and up, right through the kidney.”

“Got it,” I said, pulling away and lunging at him again, stopping just short of actually stabbing him and reveling in the way he flinched. “And to uphold my oath, after I’ve stabbed him, I’ll heal him again!”

“Quite a vicious cycle ye’ll have,” Jamie laughed. “But that was good.”

 

We enjoyed our quiet, peaceful Christmas together, but after that Jamie grew restless and agitated, faced with the rapidly declining conditions in the reservation.

“They dinna have food,” he told me, and his helpless frustration tore at my heart. “After th’ drought, their crops bore practically nothing, and all th’ buffalo have gone for th’ winter. Normally they could have followed them, gone in search of food, th’ way they’ve done for hundreds of years. But since they’re no’ allowed tae leave th’ reservation, their going tae starve!”

“I know,” I whispered. “We can bring them more food…”

He shook his head. “Nay. I’ll no’ haeve ye’n th’ bairns go wi’out.”

Jamie’s accent tended to strengthen when he was upset, though I grasped the meaning of what he was saying, even if I couldn’t quite catch every word.

“And I suppose the army is doing nothing about it?” I asked. “They’re supposed to supply food to those they’ve confined to the reservations.”

Jamie snorted and said something in Gaelic that sounded like was probably riddled with curse words.

As much as I disliked how the army was treating the Indians, they were still the ones best in position to help, so I wrote a letter to Denver requesting assistance…or rather, enquiring as to why assistance hadn’t already been provided.

To my surprise, I received a telegram right away, from a Colonel Egan requesting a meeting at the army camp with Black Kettle, and Jamie and I there to translate and mediate.

Dubious in the extreme about whatever the army had to offer, Jamie obligingly went to the reservation to tell Black Kettle about the meeting, and he agreed to come.

Jamie and I arrived at the camp before Black Kettle and Two Moons, and met with Colonel Egan who reassured me by seeming nothing like Chivington or Custer. He seemed sincere in his desire for peace between the nations, if misguided and short-sighted.

Later, I stood back and watched as Two Moons stormed out of the tent, uncharacteristically furious, followed by a more sedate Black Kettle.

“Please, come back inside,” Egan said, trailing after them. “Let’s just talk this out more.”

“What is there left to talk about?” Two Moons sneered. “You have taken our land, and our buffalo, and offer nothing in return.”

“We have offered a generous peace treaty! With our food and supplies, you wouldn’t have to hunt.”

Two Moons scoffed. “Do not have to hunt. You mean do not have to exist.”

Egan looked like he was out of arguments while Jamie quietly translated the conversation to Black Kettle.

On one hand I understood Two Moons’ position completely. The Cheyenne weren’t dogs that you could kick and then turn around and offer treats and they act like nothing ever happened.

But on the other, winter was far from over, and the Cheyenne needed food and supplies if they were going to survive to spring.

Young Ian stood off to the side, watching the proceedings shrewdly, and accepting brief translations from his father since he was still under the pretense that he didn’t speak English. Young Ian was in a position where he may one day take leadership of the Cheyenne tribe, and my heart went out to him, having to sit back and watch what it was becoming.

“We do not want your peace treaty,” Two Moons spat.

“And what will the women and children think this winter when they’re dying of starvation and cold?” I spoke up, unable to keep quiet anymore. “It’s an impossible situation, Two Moons, but the fact of the matter is you need those supplies. The army owes you far more than that…but it’s a start.”

After a brief discussion, Jamie translated for Black Kettle. “He says that Medicine Woman knows what she speaks. They will take the supplies.”

Egan sighed in relief, while both Two Moons and Young Ian shook their heads.

 

“Here’s the last of the blankets,” William said, unloading the wool military blankets from the wagon.

“Wonderful, thank you,” I told him. “Bring them over there to the women. Nayawenne is having them handed out.”

“May I take one?” Ian asked William, admiring the soft blue fabric. “I’d like to give it to my wife.”

“Sure,” William said, handing him one. “So how are things going with you two?”

“Good,” Ian said, grinning. “There is nothing greater than having a woman to warm your bed! Do you know, sometimes she even lets me…”

“AL-right,” I interrupted before the conversation could get graphic. “Let’s get the rest of this food unloaded, hm?”

“I’ll tell you the rest later,” I heard Ian whisper before he took the blanket and darted away.

“What is this?” Two Moons asked dubiously, eyeing a bag of flour.

“You can use it to make bread,” I explained. “I’ve already told Nayawenne how.”

“This isn’t our food,” Two Moons said grimly.

“But food it is,” Nayawenne broke in, taking the bag of flour from him. “And because of it, we will not starve.”

“No one is expecting ye tae lie down like a dog and take whatever th’ army does tae ye,” Jamie said, resting one of his hands on his brother’s shoulder. “Doin’ what ye must tae get through th’ winter doesn’a mean ye’ve given up th’ fight.”

Two Moons sighed, the nodded. “Aye, you are right,” he looked over at me. “Thank you, Claire, for what you have done.”

“Don’t thank me,” I said, not wanting credit for anything the army had done, even if it was a positive thing.

 

It was a slight relief knowing that the Cheyenne would at least have enough food to make it through the winter, but that relief was very short-lived when about a week later, a young Cheyenne boy came racing right through the town and to the clinic to get me.

I made the frantic child sit while Fergus ran off to find Jamie, but I didn’t need a translator to know something was very, very wrong at the reservation.

“He says there’s a sickness,” Jamie said once he’d arrived and the boy have jumped up and began speaking rapid-fire. “Terrible one, many are ill.”

“Sickness?” Tom asked, nosily hanging around beside the clinic, glaring mistrustfully at the boy. “Like influenza?”

“I don’t know,” I said, running back inside to start gathering supplies.

“Well you ain’t going are you?” Tom asked, following us in. “You could bring back another epidemic! If that boy there hasn’t done it already.”

“There’s not going to be an epidemic,” I assured him impatiently, although there was no way I could know that.

“Would ye like tae come along and make sure?” Jamie asked, which was enough to make Tom scoff in affront and leave.

“What do ye think it might be?” Jamie asked, sobering.

Terrible sickness could unfortunately mean practically anything,” I told him.

“Rachel and Denny are still in Manitou visiting their aunt,” Brianna said, donning her cloak. “Should I send Rupert and Angus out to fetch her back?”

“No,” I said. “She’ll be back in a few days to cover the clinic if I end up being gone a while. You can watch over things in the meantime.”

She blinked at me. “I’m coming with you to the reservation.”

I shook my head, taking her cloak and hanging it firmly back on its hook by the door. “No, you’re not. Hopefully it’s a bacterial infection. Still terrible but at least easy to contain. But in case it’s something more contagious, you and your brothers are going to stay here, is that understood?”

I watched as Brianna’s jaw twitched, making her look even more eerily similar to Jamie than usual, but I kept a strong grip on my own face so I didn’t smile at how like Jamie all the children were becoming. “Fine,” she said at last. “Just promise you’ll send word of how things are going, and if it’s not contagious, I’ll come and help.”

“Deal,” I said, marveling once again at how much she’d grown up lately. A year ago she would have fought tooth and nail instead of seeing reason.

 

Jamie and I followed the boy, Does No Harm, as fast as we could to the reservation. Even before I could see anyone, it was if I could feel the sickness in the air the moment we stepped into the village.

When we turned toward the common area, several people were lined up on pallets near the fire, all women and children, and the general smell of illness permeated the air.

Nayawenne caught sight of us over the head of a young woman she was coaxing through a coughing fit and sighed in relief. “Thank the Spirits you have come,” she said. “Well done, No Harm.”

No Harm stared in forlornness at the sick woman, but I grabbed his shoulder and held him back before he could kneel at her side when I caught sight of the rash on her neck and chest.

“Jamie,” I said. “Tell No Harm to go away now.”

Jamie, catching the tone of urgency in my voice, firmly told the boy to leave, and he obeyed after one last sad look.

“Do you know what it is?” Nayawenne asked. “I have never seen anything like it, and our medicines are not helping.”

I had a very good idea, but I first pulled the blanket down off the woman to examine her skin and felt her head for fever. “What are their symptoms?”

“Fever, coughing, and the blisters, all of them. They cannot eat or drink, and the light seems to hurt them. Some of them have not been able to hold their bowels.”

“Do ye know what it is, Sassenach?” Jamie asked, flinching and half-reaching for me like he was ready to wrench me away from the ill woman.

I nodded solemnly, hating that I had been right in my initial assessment. “Typhoid,” I said to him, watching his eyes widen in understanding. This time, his hand followed through and grabbed my arm, pulling me a foot away.

“Jamie, stop.”

“It’s catchin’, is it no?” he asked urgently.

“Yes…but I’ve been exposed before. Uncle Lamb told me that as long as we’re extremely cautious to keep clean, even our clothes, we should be alright. I want you to keep your distance regardless, however.”

“And what of you?”

“I’m the doctor,” I said firmly, snatching my arm away. “And you know fine well I have to do what I have to do.”

“Aye,” he sighed, looking tired. “I know, mo nienne donn. I know.”

 

“Do you know what caused it?” Two Moons asked as I explained the situation, and the seriousness of the disease to him, Black Kettle, and Nayawenne. “It is a white man’s sickness, is it not?”

“It is,” I said, sighing in frustration. “It’s believed to be spread by contact, hand to hand, even clothing. We need to keep things as clean as possible, especially in the case of bodily fluids. And sick people need to be kept separate from the well. Only those of us who must care for them should come anywhere near them, and we must be vigilant in keeping our hands clean. Alcohol would be best, if you have enough.”

Two Moons nodded. “It shall be done. But why has this happened?”

I raised my arms and let them drop. “I don’t know. You said it just started in the past few days? Typically symptoms start to appear within a few days, to a week of infection. The only thing I can think of is…” and then it dawned on me. “Oh God…”

“What, Sassenach?” Jamie asked.

I looked up at him, my stomach and heart both plummeting. “The blankets,” I whispered. “It’s been a week. It must have been the blankets the army gave them!”

What?” he hissed.

“The blankets were given to the women and children,” Two Moons said flatly, face blanching in horror.

“Wee Ian gave one to Wako’teyehsnonhsa,” Jamie said. “Is Ian…”

“Ian is well,” Nayawenne said. “But Wako’teyehsnonhsa is not. Her spirit fades quickly.”

“Oh God,” I whispered again, swallowing compulsively to keep from vomiting. “Jamie what have I done?”

“Stop,” he ordered, taking me by the shoulders. “Ye canna do this now, Claire. What must be done?”

I nodded, pulling myself together. Now was not the time to fall apart. “Our clothes. We don’t know what we’ve already come in contact with, we need to get rid of them. Burn them.”

“Burn?”

“We can never be sure if we simply wash them. And we need to tell the children, make sure none of those blankets were taken home. I need supplies from the clinic.”

 

I swallowed my modesty and disrobed alongside Jamie behind a teepee, too cautious to enter any of them while we sort out who had been contaminated and where they lived, not that anyone stopped to care.

“All of it?” Jamie asked, taking my dress over his shoulder while he kept his eyes carefully averted, and at the same time he used his own body to block me from view of anyone else.

“Better safe than sorry,” I said, admittedly a little sorry to see my favorite chemise go into the small fire he’d built.

“This is all I could find that we’re sure hasn’t been contaminated,” Nayawenne said, handing Jamie and I spare clothes.

I recognized the dress she gave me as Wako’teyehsnonhsa’s wedding dress, and winced. “We’ll be back as soon as we can,” I told her as I pulled the dress on.

 

My gut was churning in worry as Jamie and I fled home. Thankfully Brianna and Fergus had been in school the day we delivered the supplies, but William had helped, and then gone straight home to his siblings. We all did. So far we’d all been fine, but looking back I thought William had been looking a little pale the past day or two.

“Halt!”

Bear reared up on his hind legs when Donas suddenly skidded to a stop in front of us. After I got him under control, I could see the soldier standing in our path, a rifle aimed right at us.

“What’s the meanin’ o’ this?” Jamie demanded.

“Reports came back from our sentries that there’s sickness at the reservation,” the young soldier said, not wavering. “Typhoid Fever by the sounds of it. No one is to come in or out of the reservation until the epidemic has passed.”

My blood ran cold. I supposed in the back of my mind I had still hoped that the contaminated blankets had been an unfortunate accident, not a deliberate attack. But the fact that the “sentries” could know so soon of the epidemic told me they knew it was going to happen before it did.

“I’m a doctor,” I told him. “I need to get home, get supplies, and see to my children.”

“We’re no’ sick,” Jamie added.

“Look, I have orders to shoot anyone trying to come off that reservation,” the soldier shot back. “Now get back there before I have to do it!”

“Come on, Sassenach,” Jamie muttered, turning Donas about.

“But how are we going to get word to the children?” I asked once we were out of earshot of the soldier. “If Bree doesn’t hear from us, you know fine well they’ll come here, soldiers or no soldiers.”

Jamie thought a moment before whistling for his ever-present shadow. “Have ye got a pencil and paper?”

Catching on immediately, I scribbled a quick note for Brianna and handed to Jamie, who tucked it up under Rollo’s leather collar.

“Rollo, go tae Fergus,” Jamie said. “Fergus. Go!”

Rollo took off like a shot, bound for his second favorite person next to Jamie.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Now, we go back, and do our best to save them.”

Chapter Text

At one time, Brianna had thought she would like to be a doctor like Dr. B. when she grew up. In time she decided though that instead of healing the sick, she’d rather invent ways to keep them from getting sick. Create ways to make lives better entirely.

Mama told her that the best way to get there was to learn anything she could about everything, and watching Mama perform medicine had taught Brianna more than anything else in her life.

She still liked to help Mama in the clinic, but Brianna had been grateful when Rachel came along, carrying the same passion for medicine that Mama did, so that Brianna didn’t have to feel compelled to follow in her footsteps.

But when Rachel wasn’t there, Brianna loathed the idea of Mama having to work alone, knowing how much it helped to have someone else there who knew what to do. So it grated at Brianna having to kick her heels up in the empty clinic instead of helping her mother.

She looked out the window for the fifteenth time, having expected them to return by now, or at least send the little boy back with news.

“Brianna!” she could hear Fergus yelling from outside the door. “Bree, open up!”

“It’s not locked,” she yelled, going and opening the door regardless. On the other side stood Fergus, nearly crumbling under the weight of William who he was holding up with his shoulder up under the much larger boy’s arm.

“William!” she exclaimed, helping Fergus drag their half-conscious brother over the threshold and to the nearest cot. “What happened?!”

“I don’t know!” Fergus cried. “After you and Mama left this morning, Willie laid down on Mama’s bed and fell asleep. I thought he was just tired, but when I went back home he was still there, and coughing real bad. He couldn’t even get up by himself!”

Brianna’s heart plummeted to somewhere near her toes when she touched William’s scorching-hot head. “Fergus, go get a bowl of water and a sponge, we need to get his fever down.”

“Mama and Mac aren’t back yet?” he asked as he ran to do as asked.

“No,” Brianna said, untying William scarf and unbuttoning the first few buttons of his shirt to give him more room to breathe. She froze at the sight of small, enflamed red blisters on his chest. “Oh no…”

“What is it?” Fergus asked, returning with the water. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I…I’m not sure,” she said, hands starting to shake. “I know of a few different sicknesses that have rashes…none of them are good.”

“What do we do?” he asked. “Should I ride to the reservation and get Mama?”

She took a deep breath through her nose. “Y…yes. Go get Mama, then ask her if you should go get Rachel. I’ll check Mama’s medical book and see if it can tell me what William has.”

“Okay,” Fergus said, darting out the door without another word.

“Whoa, there Fergus, where’s the fire?” Brianna heard Tom say just outside the door, and ran out to see.

“William’s sick!” Fergus exclaimed. “He’s real bad, I gotta go fast to get Mama!”

“Sick?” Dougal asked, walking over from the saloon. “Sick with what?”

“Fergus, come back inside,” Brianna said, having a bad feeling. After the influenza epidemic, the town had been especially cautious of any time of illness.

“He’s got a cough and a rash,” Fergus said, blind to the brewing trouble.

“Hey!” one of the other men in town said. “I heard there’s some kind of epidemic over at the reservation. And wasn’t there an Indian kid running around here this morning?”

“Yeah,” someone else agreed. “And Dr. B.’s kids hang out with the Indians all the time!”

“We could be looking at another epidemic like before,” Dougal snarled.

Everyone started murmuring angrily, and Brianna stepped out to take Fergus by the shoulder and pull him back.

“Last time, Dr. B. said sick and exposed people needed to be quarantined,” Tom said. “Get back in there, Brianna.”

“W…What?”

Tom shook his head, stepping toward them with his hands up. “Look, it’s nothing personal alright? But your brother is sick, and you two have been exposed. You should stay in the clinic.”

“Fine,” Brianna sighed. “But let Fergus go and get our mother, we need her.”

“Forget it!” Dougal yelled. “She’s already at the source! No way are we letting her back into town right now!”

“But we need help! What about Rachel?”

“I’m sending word to Denny to stay in Manitou, no sense in him and his sister coming and endangering themselves.”

“Go!” Tom snapped, ushering them back like they were sheep.

“What’s going on here?!” Joe exclaimed, he and Murtagh appearing on the scene.

“Help!” Fergus cried.

“William is sick,” Tom explained. “We gotta quarantine them, it’s what Dr. B. would do!”

“You honestly think Dr. B. would force her own children into confinement alone?!” Joe snapped.

“You can’t do this!” Murtagh roared.

“Fine,” Tom said. “You don’t want them to be alone? You go in with them! It’s your funeral.”

“Murtagh, where’s Jenny?” Joe asked.

“Driving the cattle out over the river for grazing,” Murtagh said.

Joe sighed. “Well, go get her. I’ll stay with the children,” he hopped up the steps of the porch, taking Brianna and Fergus by the arms. “Come on.”

Brianna watched in confused distress as Tom, Dougal, and the other men nailed boards to the clinic door and windows. On one hand, she understood their fear. On the other, she was terrified.

“He doesn’t look so good,” Joe said, looking over William but not getting too close.

“I don’t know what he has,” Brianna said, opening her mother’s medical textbook. “In the meantime just be careful not to touch your face at all, and don’t let him cough on you.”

“Your ma and Mac went to reservation?”

She nodded. “A messenger came this morning saying there was some sort of sickness there. This must be the same thing. William was at the reservation last week delivering supplies.”

“Shit,” Joe hissed, grimacing in apology when Brianna shot him a surprised look. “Sorry. It’s just…I’ve heard things, is all.”

“What kinds of things?”

“Well, it might not be true, but I’ve heard stories of the army giving the Indians contaminated food just to weaken them…or wipe them out.”

“Why would they do such a thing?” Fergus asked. “The Cheyenne haven’t even done anything.”

“Maybe they didn’t,” Joe allowed. “It could just be a regular sickness.”

“William wouldn’t have eaten any of their food,” Brianna said. “They needed it too much. It’s gotta be something else,” she flipped through the book, landing on something that made her pause. Dr. B. had told her about a Typhoid epidemic she’d seen while traveling with her uncle. “The rash looks the same,” she murmured, showing Joe the book.

“Typhoid Fever?” Joe said. “That’s…bad, isn’t it?”

Brianna nodded, feeling dizzy. “It’s not…always fatal…but a lot of time…”

“Bree, you hear that?” Fergus said suddenly, running for one of the back windows that still hadn’t been boarded up. “It’s Rollo!”

“Maybe Mama’s back!” Brianna exclaimed, joining Fergus by the window while he let the wolf inside.

“I don’t see her,” Fergus said, looking back out.

“But look at this,” Joe said, pulling a folded up piece of paper out from under Rollo’s collar and handing it to Brianna.

Brianna unfolded the note, and what hope that had started to rise plummeted like a stone. “It says Mama and Jamie are being prevented from leaving the reservation by the army. There’s a…Typhoid epidemic.”

“At…at least you were right,” Fergus offered. “Now what?”

“I don’t…I don’t know.”

William started up coughing again, and Brianna rushed to his side, supporting his back and holding a rag over his mouth. “I don’t know how to treat this!”

“You have to,” Joe said. “You’re all your brother has right now.”

“I’m not a doctor!” Brianna protested, fighting back a surge of hysteria. “I don’t have that healing knack that Mama and Rachel have.”

“But you’re smart, and you’ve learned from your mother same as Rachel,” Joe said. “You gotta get it together, Bree. William needs you!” and her tremulous nod, he sighed and continued. “I’m gonna write a note back to them, telling them what’s going on. Can you send Rollo back, Fergus?”

Fergus nodded and waited until Joe had secured the new note under Rollo’s collar before grabbing the great wolf’s head and turning his attention to him. “You gotta go back to Jamie, boy. Rach chun do mhaighstir.”

Rollo turned and leapt back out the window, a gray blur as he sped over the hill.

“Since when do you speak Gaelic?” Joe asked.

“Jamie taught us so that we could always command Rollo,” Fergus explained.

“And talk so other people can’t understand,” Brianna added, easing William back into the pillows once his fit had passed. “Didn’t ever think we’d actually need it.”

***

I stood up and stepped away, letting Young Ian fall down to his knees beside his young wife and watch in anguish as she took her last labored breaths, her wide, expressive dark eyes slowly losing their light.

Wako’teyehsnonhsa was apparently already in poor health. They had believed her to be pregnant, but judging by her gaunt appearance I suspected something else. Not that it mattered anymore anyway, because the fever had gone through her weakened body like a shot, and she had just been powerless to fight it.

I turned away and walked back over to Jamie, flinching when I heard Young Ian’s heart-wrenching cry.

Jamie opened his arms to me, but I shook my head and wrapped my arms around myself instead. I would have loved his embrace, but I needed to wash first, and I was keeping contact with Jamie to a minimum since I was being much more exposed than he.

“Scarcely a man and already a widower,” Jamie said, looking sadly over at his nephew. I knew he was thinking about his own wife, dying so young. Even though Jamie had admitted to not being in love with Geneva, I knew he would always feel guilty of her death.

“Scarcely even married and already it’s over,” I said.

I jumped when Ian’s mourning song turned to something loud and angry, and Jamie and I turned to see him and Two Moons shouting at one another in rapid-fire Cheyenne.

Ian snatched his arm away from his father, tears rolling down his face as he yelled. He stormed over to his horse but Two Moons prevented him, trying to pull him into a hug but giving up when Ian shoved at him then ran away.

“What happened?” I whispered to Jamie.

“Dinna ken,” he said. “Couldn’a understand them.”

Two Moons started to rub a hand over his face but stopped himself, seemingly remembering my warnings. When he caught sight of us watching he sighed and made his way over to us.

“Ian is angry,” he said unnecessarily. “He wants to go after the ones who did this. I am afraid for him.”

“It’s all my fault,” I said. “I’m the one who convinced Black Kettle to accept the supplies.”

“Yes,” Two Moons said, catching a look from Jamie before his shoulders drooped. “But you were only trying to help us. You believe the best in people, that is one of your strengths. You would never have known they would do this.”

“It’s also one of my weaknesses, clearly,” I said miserably. “I don’t know how I can ever tell you how sorry I am.”

Two Moons sighed and finally his face melted into real compassion instead of obligation and he put his hands on my shoulders. “I know you are sorry, Claire. But it does not do us good to blame ourselves or each other. You are our sister, and that has not changed.”

“I hope Young Ian can be as forgiving.”

“He loves ye,” Jamie said softly. “And besides, none o’ this is yer fault, or mine. It’s th’ army’s fault. It’s Custer’s fault.”

 

There was little to be done for Typhoid except try and control the fever, ease the coughing and discomfort, keep them hydrated, and hope for the best. And of course keep the area as clean as possible.

But a serious problem occurred in the wake of what to do with Wako’teyehsnonhsa’s body, and later that afternoon, an elderly woman.

“Burn them?” Two Moons gasped in horror.

Black Kettle didn’t even need the translation, apparently picking up enough of what I was saying to have a similar reaction.

“If we do not bury the bodies, their souls cannot pass into the Spirit World,” Two Moons explained with forced patience.

“I understand that,” I said. “But, as hard as I know it must be, you have to think about those who are still living. Burning the bodies is the only way I know of to make sure the disease doesn’t continue to spread.”

Jamie had been translating to Black Kettle, but he held up a hand to stop him, looking at me hard before speaking lowly with his wife for a moment.

“He says it shall be done,” Nayawenne said at last.

“Thank you,” I said to them. “And I’m sorry.”

Black Kettle nodded solemnly then walked away.

“I think the Spirits would understand,” Nayawenne said.

I didn’t exactly believe in Spirits, and I knew that there was no other choice, but it didn’t lessen how wretched I felt about the whole thing.

“Rollo,” Nayawenne said suddenly, pointing.

Rollo darted right up to Jamie, panting heavily. The poor wolf looked like he’d been on a journey and a half, and it made me worried about whether or not he had ever reached the children when I saw the piece of muddy paper sticking out of his collar.

Jamie extracted the note and held it up to the light, squinting at the letters blurred from damp.

“Says…locked…locked in clinic,” Jamie read. “Wi’ Brianna and Fergus…William…” he trailed off, but I could tell by the way he was staring at the paper it wasn’t because he couldn’t make out the words.

“William?” I prompted. “William what?”

Jamie wordlessly handed me the note and I first saw that it was signed by Joe before I made out the words William is sick…Bree thinks it’s Typhoid.

The note fell from my boneless fingers and for a brief moment I couldn’t move.

William had Typhoid Fever, and the only doctor in town wasn’t there.

“I have to go,” I said at last, spinning on my heel and charging in search of my horse.

Jamie didn’t argue, but found the horses before I did and hastily saddled them.

I barely had the presence of mind to remind Nayawenne to keep the sick hydrated and clean, but the rest of my focus was getting home as quickly as possible.

It wasn’t just William, though that was cause for panic enough as it was. If the simpletons that ran the town had locked Bree and Fergus up with him for fear of epidemic, they would be in serious danger of contracting the disease themselves, Joe as well.

We rode hard down the path, skidding to a stop at the same road block as before, only this time there were two soldiers blocking the way.

I jumped down off of Bear and stormed right up to them, heedless of their aiming guns. “Let me pass!” I ordered.

“Get back!” one of them snapped. “We have orders to shoot!”

“I said let me pass!” I yelled. “My son is sick, I have to get back to town!”

Jamie appeared behind me, gently taking my arm, though his grip tightened when I tried to pull away.

“You have to let us by!” I pleaded. “I’m the town’s only doctor! If I don’t get home, he could die!”

“She’s delirious,” the other soldier said, taking a step back. “Bet she’s got it already!”

“Claire, come on,” Jamie said, tugging me back.

“Please!” I cried, fighting against him. “He’s my son!

“Lady, if you don’t go back right now I’ll shoot you in the head!”

“Claire!” Jamie hissed, almost picking me up off the ground as he dragged me away.

“This isn’a going tae work,” he said after he’d pulled me kicking and screaming a safe distance away.

“Then let’s find a way around them!” I said. “They can’t block the whole forest!”

“That’d be easier said than done. They’ll be watchin’ close, making sure no one enters th’ town, and they might not give us a warnin’ if they catch us again.”

“But without proper care, William might die!” I exclaimed, feeling as if he wasn’t understanding the gravity of the situation.

“Brianna is looking after him,” he reasoned.

“She’s intelligent, and knows a fair amount about medicine, but she’s never encountered something like this. She may not be careful enough, she might…” I had a sickening and pervasive thought of returning home after the reservation epidemic was over, and entering my clinic to find the bodies of all three of my children.

Pulling away from Jamie, I lean over with my hand braced against a tree, feeling as though I’d be sick.

“Come on,” Jamie said once I had my breathing under control. “We’ll try the South road. It may not be as heavily guarded as this one since the Cheyenne dinna use it. If not there, we can come over and down from th’ mountain.”

I nodded, and let him boost me back onto my horse, and we made our way back the way we’d come.

***

According to Mama’s books, there was little to be done about Typhoid save keep the patient as comfortable as possible, and keep the fever down as best you could. But William was refusing to drink the fever tea, and not even with Joe’s help could she get it down him.

It had been three days and his condition was only worsening.

“We need Dr. B.,” Brianna said for the five-hundredth time.

“Gail even tried wiring that Dr. Brown from Denver,” Joe said. “But he wouldn’t come, he’s treating a woman with a difficult pregnancy and didn’t want to risk infection.”

“What can Mama do that you can’t?” Fergus asked her.

Brianna appreciated his vote of confidence, even though she didn’t share the sentiment. “I don’t know, but that’s exactly why we need her. I. Don’t. Know.”

“Do you think they got our note with Rollo?”

“I sure hope so.”

There was a knock on one of the boarded up windows, and they all gathered around the gap to see who it was.

“How’s it going in there?” Jenny asked as Gail passed a basket of food through the opening. “Is he any better?”

“No,” Brianna said. “He’s worse. Any word from the reservation?”

Jenny shook her head. “No, but word from the army is they’ve closed all the roads. It’s going to be really hard for them to get back until the block is lifted.”

“Then we’ll go to them!” Brianna exclaimed, darting for the back of the clinic. They’d since boarded up the window they sent Rollo through, but it was facing the alley and it wouldn’t be as noticeable if they pried the wood free.

Catching on, Jenny and Gail ran around back and helped them dislodge the planks of wood.

“How are you going to get there, though?” Gail asked. “They’re not letting anybody in or out.”

“Gail, go and bring ‘round my wagon,” Joe said. “And fill the back with hay.”

Once she brought the wagon back, they carefully maneuvered William’s limp body out the window and into the back of the wagon.

“But this still doesn’t answer how you’ll get by,” Jenny said, smoothing back William’s sweaty hair as she covered him with blanket.

“I won’t,” Joe said. “But they will. No one is gonna stop a pair of kids taking their brother’s body to be buried.”

“Buried?!” Brianna and Fergus exclaimed together.

“Not really!” Joe amended, pulling the blanket over William’s head. “Just got to let them think it, and they’ll let you by.”

“You’re sending them alone?” Jenny asked worriedly.

“They’ll stand a much better chance than if you or I were with them,” Joe said. “Bree, think you can handle it?”

Brianna nodded, squaring her shoulders.

“Good. Take the South road. They might get suspicious if you take the one heading right for the reservation.”

He leaned down to hug her before helping her up into the wagon. “Will’s gonna be fine, Bree. He’s got too many people looking out for him.”

Brianna smiled as confidently as she could, then snapped the reins.

 

Brianna’s heart was thudding like a cattle stampede as they rambled down the road. William was deathly still under the blanket, so much that she had to make Fergus keep checking him, just to be sure.

It felt like forever before they finally came to the road block, and a soldier stood in their path, wielding a gun. She eyed that gun fearfully, having never seen one aimed her direction before.

“What do I do?” Fergus whi