"How is he doing?" Bree's eyes were wide and serious.
I rubbed the back of my hand across my forehead, wiping away the beads of sweat gathered at my hairline. Spring had finally arrived on the ridge, and its first warm day was glorious. The heat of the house rose to the second floor where our bedroom was, and by mid-afternoon, it was warm. I shook out the coverlet and let it billow to rest on the bed. "Bloody Scot," I grumbled over my shoulder as I tucked in the corners. "He knows I want him to get well, so of course he's too stubborn to do so."
Bree's lips pressed together, as if to say something but instead she picked up the empty pitcher on the bedside table. "I'll get some more water," she volunteered.
"Thank you, dear," I said, coming around to the other side of the bed. Jamie was thirsty all the time, now. His urine was strong and sweet-smelling and it was worrying me. It meant his kidneys could be failing, the latest in a line of symptoms- all of which boded no good. I went over it in my mind- the diabetes-like symptoms, the swollen gallbladder, the abdominal pain. Even the slight case of jaundice, which explained why I'd had Roger and Jeb carry him outside to where the fall sunshine might work on him.
I wouldn't say it, not even in my own mind, but the physician inside me ruthlessly went over the symptoms. Increased thirst, loss of weight even before he'd lost his appetite, the nausea and pain I knew he felt but refused to complain about in front of anyone but me. The mass in his abdomen, the jaundice. The symptoms were cascading. If I knew for sure, I'd chance a biopsy; I still had a bit of ether in my surgery…
"Mom?" Bree was still standing in the room, clutching the water pitcher to herself, her arms squeezing it against her belly. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears and her chin quivered once before she grit her teeth to stop it. She fought for control and I saw her take a deep breath before she raised her chin. "Is Da going to be all right?"
For a moment, the habit to reassure her, to pretend that it was all within my power to fix, to be the powerful La Dame Blanche who could save men with a wave of her hand or the herbs in her chest, tempted me. I'd saved dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of lives with my knowledge and skill. But this time, there was no magic cure in my hands. This was not an illness that I could fight, I spent my days making sure Jamie was comfortable, tucking in the blanket around his perpetually cold feet, trying to persuade him to have a bit more broth when his stomach was settled, having Roger and Jeb move him outside when the weather permitted, and my nights in the small medical library I had amassed over the years, looking for anything that might indicate a different diagnosis than the one all the signs pointed to. The thought of it lay in the bottom of my mind like a sleeping snake. Pancreatic Cancer.
I spun away from the bed, trying to shake the words from me. I had not the presence of mind to compose my face before I turned in her direction and I saw the terror I knew was written on my countenance reflected in her eyes. Her eyes, so like his, widened and her chest rose in a silent gasp.
I stood before her, suddenly speechless. I could not speak the words of reassurance, for I knew in my heart they were not true. I swallowed once as a pain originated in my heart, radiated outward and I made a small helpless gesture with a hand.
The crockery in her hands fell to the floor, and shattered on the edge of the hearth, spraying pieces outward. The sharp slivers would cut the soles of the feet of Jenny Marie and Billy, Bree's youngest, when they came to visit their grandfather in bed. "Oh, " I gasped, dazed. I fell to my knees, gathering the pieces in the apron I wore. "The pitcher…" It was just a plain white pitcher, slightly misshapen at that, but suddenly it seemed a tragedy that it was gone, broken, shattered. "The pieces..." I said, tears springing to my eyes and thickening in my throat. As my hand reached for another jagged piece, her hand stopped mine. She knelt beside me, and threw an arm around my shoulders.
"Oh, damn it, Mother." Her voice shook with tears. "Fuck the pitcher." Her eyes were brimming with tears and suddenly I could not be the strong one. She pulled me into her arms, where the fear and the pain and the specter of loss rolled over me like a wave, drowning me, pulling me into its darkness. We clung tightly to each other, holding on as if we were shipwrecked sailors , adrift in an ocean of grief. We knelt together among the pieces of shattered crockery and wept.
They were long, shuddering sobs, pulled wrenchingly from me and echoing from the depths of my love for the Highlander that had given my life shape and meaning. She cried with me, with the knowledge that this second father whom she had come to love was to be taken from her.
"I can't stand it, Bree," I whimpered into her hair, when the ability to speak returned to me. "I can take anything but losing him."
She had her arms wrapped around my neck and I felt her hands cup my head and smooth my hair. "I know, Mom, I know." She pulled back from me, tear tracks shimmering on her cheeks, her nose red and blotchy. Her face searched mine. "Does he know?"
I swallowed the lump in my throat. "No, I haven't said anything to him. I think he knows I'm scared, but I keep hoping my diagnosis is wrong."
The sound of footsteps climbing the stairs drifted into the room, as well as the sound of Mrs. Mueller's huffing. Our housekeeper for the last few years, she was a rotund German woman. "Halloo," she called as she came down the hall. "Ist everyone all right in here?"
"Yes, we're fine," I answered, using the corner of my apron to wipe my eyes. "Just a small accident." Bree dragged the sleeve of her dress across her face as I started reaching to gather the crockery shards again.
I stood up, holding my apron, the pitcher's pieces clanking together inside its folds. Still on her knees, Bree looked up at me and I could see the many questions she wanted to ask in her eyes.
"Later," I promised softly. "Later." At the moment, I had to pull myself together.
Mrs. Mueller turned the corner into the room and clucked at the crockery pieces still strewn around the room. "Ach, is de broom we'll be needing."
The floor swept, and Bree and Mrs. Mueller off to find another pitcher, I lingered in our bedroom. I gave the window sill a sharp rap and then pushed on the window. After a long winter hiatus, it gave begrudgingly but it finally swung open and the warm spring air, redolent of grass and trees, gently wafted in. I inhaled deeply, the fresh breezes nearly paradaisical after the smoky, close air of the winter. I fingered the curtains, they could use a good washing next laundry day.
Our window overlooked the front of the house and out on the patch of grass in front of the house, Roger and Jem had set up one of the deep chairs from the living room. Jamie sat in it, his face upturned to the sun, a patchwork quilt over his shoulders and across his lap. His hair had finally given up its ginger, and had warmed to a pale yellow color except where it shone a pure silver at the temples.
His eyes were closed against the strength of the sun, his face serene and at rest. Even with the pallor of winter and the tinge of his illness, his skin was ruddy, speaking of a life lived outdoors. The lines of his face were deep and strongly etched: lines of care that ridged his forehead, the crow's feet at his eyes' corners and the brackets around his mouth that revealed a readiness to laugh. Age had sharpened his nose even more , but those eyes were still the same, the same startling blue surrounded by his rufous lashes.
Around the corner of the house, Alexander the goat came trotting at a sharp pace, a brown flash of cloth dangling from his mouth. He was followed in quick succession by Jem, and the dangling brown object resolved into Jem's hat. Jem, now a tall and gangly boy of nineteen, had taken to wearing a slouch hat, much in the manner of the Carolina regiment that had passed through last fall, much to Bree's chagrin. She had absolutely refused to consider the possibility of Jem joining up with them, despite his fervent arguments for just such an endeavor. Watching Jem's long strides, and athletic pursuit of Alexander, I thought it wouldn't be too much longer before Bree was no longer granted the consideration.
"Gimme back my hat, ye quim-licking scunner!" Jem cried, snatching for the hat, causing Alexander to veer sharply toward Jamie's chair. Jamie's arm shot out as the goat cantered past, plucking the hat from the surprised goat, who then turned and wheeled back to the safety of the goats' enclosure.
"Here ye be, lad," Jamie said, offering the hat.
"Thanks, Grandda." Jem jammed the hat on, a bit worse for wear. Even from my perch, I could see a tear and missing bit of the brim. Jem squatted next to the chair, so Jaime would not have to squint up into the sun to see him.
"Best ye not let your Ma and Da hear you speak like that," Jamie warned. "You may be too old for a tanning but I'll wager they'll think of something unpleasant."
Jem peered from under the misshapen hat brim. "Well, let's not tell them, then, eh?"
Jamie snorted with humor. "They'll not hear it from me," he promised.
Jem picked up a twig and scratched a line in the dirt with it. "So, what appears to be ailing ye?"
Jamie glanced up to the window where I was concealed by the curtain. I took a silent step backward, but kept my eyes on the tableau below. He shrugged. "Oh, it's just all going to pot, ye ken?" Even that small bit was an admission I'd not heard him make before. He'd tell me of his aches and pains if he were asked, but stoicism came naturally to him and admitting to fraility in front of Jem was startling.
"Doesna Grannie have something to cure ye?"
"I think mebbe not this time," Jamie said. He leaned toward the boy. "And aye, it's making her verra crabbit."
"You're sick and she's crabbit?' Jem asked, puzzled.
"Indeed. The sicker I get, the more crabbit she gets. She takes it personally, you ken, when I refuse to get better."
Jem tossed the twig in his hands away. "Well, you'd best get better soon, aye?"
Jamie smiled at the squatting boy. "So, who was it you were in such a hurry to see last night?" Last night? I wondered. Roger and Bree had not said anything about visitors last night.
"Oh, ye saw that, eh?" Jem said, the color rising on his checks.
Jamie nodded. "Take the time to oil the hinges on the surgery door before you try to slip away next time. It creaks something fierce." I didn't remember hearing the surgery door, but I knew Jaime had had another restless night.
Jem pulled the hat off his head and looked up at his grandfather through the hair that had fallen over his eyes. It had deepened to the same shade of Bree's and Jamie's at that age- a brilliant mix of cinnamon, amber and flame. "Hank and Willie Dunham were going coon hunting. They'd asked me to come along."
"Hmmphm," his grandfather said, infusing the noise with a fair amount of skepticism. "And that hunting wouldna be anywhere near the McElviray property, would it?" The McElvirays had a full brace of daughters, three of them between twenty and sixteen. They all had their mother's amply rounded figure and large, thickly-lashed eyes.
Jem grinned, abashedly. "Well, there are a muckle lot of them over that way." Jem's brogue broadened when speaking to his grandfather. He had Jamie's gift for languages and could easily slip into Gaelig.
Jamie's brow furrowed. "You're lucky Angus McElviray didna shoot ye where ye stood."
"Aye, he tried," Jem confessed. "Willie near got a pantload of buckshot. As it was, he dropped from the tree he was in so quick, he turned his ankle fierce and Hank and I had to nearly carry him home."
Jamie chuckled. "Well, then ye got away light. Angus is no known for being tolerant when it comes to his daughters."
"That's God's truth," Jem said, scratching his head. Across the yard, Alexander was getting dangerously close to the bandages I had spread on the blackberry bushes to let the sunshine disinfect. I took a step forward, thinking to alert Jem below, but Jamie was already on it.
"Best get that goat in the pen," he said, nodding to where Alexander was eyeing my linens.
Jem rose and jammed the hat back on his head. "I could learn to hate goats," he muttered as he turned away. Jamie chuckled again and he twisted in his chair toward the window where I stood. His eyes found me unerringly. A knowing smile crossed his face, and I knew he'd been aware of me the whole time.
His eyes turned to Jem as he manhandled the goat back to the pen and I could see pride swell his chest. This family, Roger and Bree and their children, was Jamie's proudest legacy and he felt that because of them, he had not lived his life in vain.
For my co-Outlander fans. More to come. If you are enjoying, please let me know