Dawning in Dust: Part V
Claire had always had a knack for compartmentalizing. Whether it was life after her parents’ death, being a nurse in the War, or her recent life as a solitary nomad, she could separate herself from feeling and fear to deal with the here and now. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and set to work.
Despite Claire, Jenny, and anyone else’s opinions on the matter, Jamie had flatly refused pain medications. The stare down between the two siblings was something to behold, but the results didn’t change. He asked for a towel to replace his pillow, a few drams from the farm’s whisky stock, and to be left alone while his back was tended to. Claire had averted eye contact, but caught the gist of the Gaelic arguments going back and forth from all four Scots. They didn’t trust her enough to leave her alone with him, despite the fact that Jamie could probably knock her flat even in his present condition.
“Is… something funny?”
Claire started, nearly dropping the scissors she was about to use to cut his shirt open.
“Don’t do that!” she scolded.
“Sorry,” Jamie replied, though the curve of his mouth suggested he found her quite amusing. “Ought I not be concerned that ye were smirkin’ whilst preparing to slit my shirt open?”
Claire gave him a look. “Oh, I was not ‘smirking’”.
“Aye. Ye were,” he retorted, eyes gleaming with mischief. Claire gave him a look, then smiled and shook her head.
“I think you may be drunk my lad,“ she rejoined, putting the scissors on the table and seeing his raised eyebrow. “Alright. I might have been,” she conceded, taking a knee by the camp bed and pulling a hair tie out of one of her pants pockets. “May I?” she asked, holding it up for him to see.
“No, I am'ne and aye, ye can,” he replied, resting his forehead on his arms so Claire could pull his hair out of the way.
Being caught up in the bantering, Claire didn’t realize how tense Jamie had been. She reached to gather his hair, expecting the warmth of his body this time, but not his reaction. It was as if he unconsciously melted into her touch; like every wave of his copper hair that passed through her fingers rid him of some burden he carried.
Claire could see his pulse beating in his neck, steady but fast; goose flesh rippled over his arms; she knew without looking that he’d closed his eyes. He looked so young and vulnerable and yet he trusted her, a complete stranger, to do this. Trust was a rare commodity these days. She swallowed, placing a hand on his arm again as a sudden wave of tenderness swept through her. He opened his eyes and looked at her, open and fathomless.
“Ready?” she whispered.
He continued to gaze at her for a moment longer before he nodded.
Claire exhaled, gave his arm a light squeeze, and picked up the scissors again. Jenny had brought a stash of saline and had soaked Jamie’s shirt with it in order to make its removal easier. Claire hoped to trade for some before she left. The antibiotic ointments and fresh bandages were lined up and ready.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” she muttered, reaching for more saline.
Claire had hoped that the scabbing hadn’t fused with the shirt cloth but found her hopes dashed as she began to tug on the tattered pieces. Jamie’s skin tried to come up with his shirt. The extent of his injuries weren’t apparent while covered up but she could feel now how many lacerations he must have. Claire looked down, seeing that he was clutching the frame of the cot again. As if he sensed her, he opened his eyes to look at her again.
“Do what ye must. I’ll stand it,” he said gruffly, then shut his eyes again.
Claire pursed her lips, but went to grab more damp cloths from the hearth. Placing these by her other medicaments, she grabbed an end of shirt cloth and the saline bottle.
Alright Beauchamp. Squirt the saline underneath and pull the cloth. Stanch bleeding with the damp cloths. Assess. Clean. Disinfect. Possibly multiple times. Keep the wounds moist until scabbing shouldn’t result in infection. Now, how to do this on a large, pig-headed Scot who refused pain medication…
“This is a lovely place,” she said to try to distract him, selecting a bit of shirt that didn’t appear to stick as much.
Saline and pull, saline and pull..
“Aye,” Jamie muttered. “Aye it’s… been in my family since the 1700’s. Ancestral and all that. It’s a bonny place.”
“Mmm,” Claire agreed, pleased to see no bleeding from the first strip. “Are all your family fluent in Gaelic?”
Jamie’s forearms strained as Claire removed the next bit of shirt, taking most of the healed skin with it, but he made no sound.
"Aye,” he said after a moment, realizing the damp cloths Claire was dabbing him with wouldn’t hurt. “Since we were bairns.”
"That’s wonderful,” Claire replied, giving him a moment to recover. “Language is fascinating. Everything else may be shot to hell but people always find ways of communicating.”
"There are more ways than words to do that Sassenach,” the Scot responded dryly.
Claire wasn’t sure she heard him right but, looking down, saw one blue cat eye crinkled in amusement. She smiled and shrugged in assent, appalled to feel a blush creeping up her neck, but her mind returned to his back in the next instant.
God, what did they do?
"Alright. This is the worst part.”
He’d kept his gaze on her and nodded, gripping the cot tighter and setting his jaw.
Saline and pull, saline and pull…. Jamie’s breathing turned into hissing noises, but he still remained silent…. Saline and pull, saline and pull…. the muscles of his arms strained as he held on…
"Almost got it… keep still…” she breathed. Jamie responded with a huff of breath but continued to do as she asked.
Saline and pull, saline and pull…
"Done!“ Claire exclaimed triumphantly, grabbing for the last of the damp bandages to wipe the trickling blood away. Between the stress of removing the pieces of his shirt and the fire in the hearth, Claire felt her own perspiration make its way down her face and back. She wiped her forehead with her arm, then poured more saline on the cloths she’d put in place.
"Well done,” she said softly, bringing a cup of water for him to drink. “I need to clean and redress it, but that can wait a minute.”
"This isna whisky,” he said huskily, forming what he could of a smile. Claire noted the paleness of his face, but his eyes were still focused.
"I promise you’ll be fully rewarded later. Right now though,” Claire gave another Nurse Randall look, “I need you coherent.”
"Careful lass,” Jamie said as she stood. “A promise is a verra serious thing in the Highlands.”
The human body is a miraculous thing. So many connections and processes required for life to go on. Things seen and unseen that is the makeup of a person. Claire removed the cloths and gazed at Jamie’s back in fascinated horror.
"Bloody fucking hell..”
"Aye. It was.”
Jamie sniffed out an uncomfortable laugh, but the tension in his shoulders had returned. Claire took in his flayed skin, some wounds deep enough to cut the muscle underneath. How could he have stayed still like this, let alone ride a horse?
Claire jumped at her name, eyes snapping to Jamie’s. “What?”
"The uh, captain you encountered..” Jamie looked down then. “T'was him that flogged me.”
She nodded and blinked hard, then turned to her pack. He may have refused his sister’s medicines, but what he didn’t know wouldn’t kill him.
"Why were you flogged?” Claire asked, keeping her tone calm as she spread the topical lidocaine through the welts and blood on his back. It wouldn’t completely numb the area, but it would at least take the edge off.
Jamie made a Scottish noise. “Obstruction.”
"Obstruction? Does that exist now, with no one to enforce it?”
"It does if ye have the numbers to make it so.”
"And he does?” she asked, hoping the talk would at least distract from the first round of cleaning.
"Aye,” Jamie all but whispered, blue eyes staring straight ahead as Claire set to work.
"We served together in the Last War. Randall and me I mean,” he continued. “Near on four years ago now, they evacuated our companies from the mainland. I was… glad to come home, away from all of it.“
Claire felt a pang in her own heart at his words.
"Ye might not have noticed when ye arrived but we’ve many tenants near here. Small places that have been part of this land for generations. We didna have the old ways of collecting rents and pledging fealty but… we look after each other. The way it should be.”
"It sounds wonderful,” Claire replied softly, switching out a used cloth for a new one. “Are there many families?”
"Aye, a fair few. Not as many as there once was but-ah!”
"Sorry. This one’s very dirty.”
"S'fine,” Jamie hissed, burying his face into his forearm.
Claire glanced around for something else. “You still have lamps here. Old habits die hard?”
She saw Jamie smirk despite what she was doing to him.
Claire stopped dead.
Jamie lifted his head and grinned at what must have been a flabbergasted face.
"Electricity. Dinna have it where you come from?”
"No one’s had electricity since the virus outbreak spread to the utility systems.”
"Well, this modest farm never tapped into the utility systems. We harvest it with old fashioned water power.”
"No, I’m not. If ye can patch me up, I can show ye tomorrow.”
"Nice try. You’re not moving from this bed for at least three days,” Claire replied, moving on to the next laceration.
Jamie gave a grunt of amusement, but silence soon followed as Claire continued her work. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but Claire felt a weight to it; it was as if something hung in the air that wasn’t quite tangible, but just within reach all the same.
"Why you?” she blurted. “Why did he come after you?”
“I wouldna give him what he wanted. He..” Jamie shook his head, as if to catch the right words. “It’s… personal. Wi’ him, I mean.”
Claire moved to the table to grab the antibiotic ointment. If the scars on this man’s back were any indication, “personal” was an understatement.
“What was it that he wanted?”
A moment passed. Claire thought Jamie was going to ignore her question, but felt him shift a little as he sighed. Exhaustion and sweat lined his body and, when he spoke, he sounded far away.
“Power. Respect. He demanded it, always. The thing he never understood was what it took to earn it.”
Sensing this was all he would say on the subject, Claire nodded, bending down again to smooth Jamie’s hair out of his face. Still pale, but eyes clear. He blinked blearily at her as she touched his cheek with the back of her hand. Slight fever.
“Rest now, hm? I’ll guard the whisky.”
One corner of Jamie’s mouth turned up and he nodded.
“I’ll hold ye to that, Sassenach.”
Claire chuckled, allowed her thumb one light caress of his cheekbone, then stood and covered his back with a light bandage. She’d have to redo the process again, but Jamie needed sleep first.
Claire turned to tell him so but looked down in time to see that his eyes had already closed and his lips were slightly parted in restorative sleep. Smiling to herself, she pulled a tartan blanket off the high backed chair near the head of the cot and laid it gently over him. Claire curled up into the chair, watching over him until fatigue dragged her under, forcing all thoughts and feelings blessedly from her mind.