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West Bound

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I sat in the shade of the picnic table and watched Jamie, Rollo, and the two Ians, play catch football. Rollo was the clear star of this game but fun was had by all. Our Ian is the spitting image of his father but with my dark curly hair. It takes my breath away to see them together, both so handsome and self-assured. Ian is building bridges for the City of Edinburgh which is exactly the job he has wanted throughout his studies in structural engineering. I am so happy he is living the life he dreamed of. Ian will supervise the building of our house so there have been many nights father and son have bent over blueprints until the wee hours. Jamie is so proud of him.
 
Ian was quite a good rider when he moved to Scotland full time. He loved riding with Shawn’s group and sometimes rode alternate in team roping but his first love was jumping. He was a natural and we always thought he would continue riding in Scotland but school work didn’t allow outside pursuits, at least that is what he always told me. I stopped asking and assumed he didn’t love it as we did. When he asked us to attend his horse show over our first weekend here I almost fainted.
 
“Da, I want you and mom to come to my horse show this weekend. Will ye come?”
 
Jamie and I listened with rapt attention when he told us he started exercising horses for a start-up barn outside Edinburgh and eventually became the owner’s rider. He never said anything about it because he didn’t want to let Jamie down if he quit again. His barn was hosting horse trials and eventing the following weekend and we were thrilled to go and watch him. Before the stadium jumping it was announced that Jamie Fraser, world champion, was in the stands and all eyes turned to Jamie when he waved. I cried like I had every day with Ian, watching him race across the field, meeting his girlfriend, and watching the introduction to Rollo to name a few.
 
Rollo was transported to Scotland by AirPet and his journey took two days longer than ours. Jamie was so excited to pick him up he hardly slept the night before. Ian was expected at Lallybroch so I stayed behind and big Ian opted to go fetch the wolf with Jamie. I told my son the history of the wolf, how he was found, how Jamie refused to let him die, and how he saved us from killer coyotes. When the men drove up I could see a large shipping crate with one beautiful wolf inside. Ian watched with wide eyes as he was released and dropped to his knees and waited. It took ten minutes or so but Rollo became curious about the man that stared at him from his level and came closer to have a look and a sniff. Rollo sat down in front of Ian and the two looked at each other like long lost friends. I cried, remembering the special bond he had with Pup, his constant companion. Ian ran his hand down his back and spoke quietly to the wolf. I couldn’t hear but it was calming to Rollo. I realized that they were both young adults, full of power and energy, like kindred spirits. After that, Ian and Rollo would disappear into the woods for hours while the rest of the world went on without them. This would live in my memory as the summer of Ian and Rollo.
 
When Faith joined us in July, Ian took his two-week vacation and we scoured the Highlands, the islands, the castles and even Culloden Moor where the Jacobites faced the great British army and were slaughtered in the seventeen hundreds. Jamie told us it was the end of the clans and their way of life. When the Fraser rock was found he told us about his great, great, uncle, also named James Fraser, later known as the Dun Bonnet, and how he led his troops into battle in the uprising. Ian corrected him twice because he had read the old bibles so often the story was burned into his memory. I cried.
 
Some evenings I would look for the children and see them walking in the fields or sitting away from us talking. Faith spent almost half her life without her brother but she worshiped him and hung on his every word. Ian indulged her and even took her shopping in the city one day. Rollo sat on the dirt road in front of Lallybroch and waited for Ian to return. It was clear to me that Rollo had bonded with Ian and worried about how Jamie would accept the idea of him staying in Scotland.
 
Ruby yawned and dropped her paintbrush into the solvent as she stretched her back. She was troubled. The painting of Jamie was easy because there was so much material about his life leading up to the minute the picture was snapped for the magazine cover. She knew his meteoric rise in the equestrian world, his challenges and failures, and his determination to rule his sport. She painted emotion and felt she had nailed Jamie. She looked at her graphite renderings of Claire that filled her board and felt lost. She had no idea what her expression meant and to guess could jeopardize the painting. She had been painting all night and no progress had been made. She went out to find Sarah reading the paper in the back yard. Ruby pulled her clothes off, always happy she wore her suit underneath and jumped into the pool. Sinking to the depths she wondered what Claire was smiling about at that moment in time.
 
“You should not paint all night Ruby, it’s going to make you sick. What’s wrong dear?”
 
“My painting of Claire is not working. I don't know what she is smiling about. I can’t paint her. Sorry.”
 
“Wait, what is wrong with it? We have to fix this Ruby. Maybe she is smiling because it’s so much fun. Or maybe she knew there was a photographer there?”
 
“I pulled up hundreds of pictures of eventing and not one of the riders was smiling. Not one. If you were galloping toward a jump four feet high and five feet wide there isn’t brain space to notice a photographer. Not when your life hangs in the balance. So why did she smile?”
 
Sarah was the repository of Claire’s life story beginning at birth. The women shared hundreds of hours over the years telling each other every detail of their struggles, achievements, fears, and dreams. Sarah was taking a chance but she started to tell Ruby what she knew about Claire’s life and it was not an easy story to hear. Ruby cried hearing about her parent's death and the years following her uncle into remote areas of the world. Growing up without friends, living in a tent, getting her first period with no one to help her. How she cried alone in her tent for years because she was all alone and Lamb was distant.
 
“When she was eleven, an equestrian joined them with his horses. I believe they were in Croatia at the time, or maybe it was somewhere else, I can’t remember. It was the first time in six years she felt any excitement because she loved the horses. Fine animals, not like the pack mules they used. She hung around them all the time and learned how to brush them and braid tails. She watched the man exercise the horses for hours. He put her in the saddle at one point and walked her around the camp so she could feel the animal under her. It was a turning point for her and slowly the man gave her more independence and taught her how to ride basically. She was happy, bless her heart, and the man must have seen this because she always had access to the horses. She told me she would snap her fingers along with the horse's gait to better understand the timing. She saw the man jump over something and said she almost fainted with excitement.”
 
Sarah watched Ruby struggle to understand such a lonely life, and what the horses must have meant to her. How she survived without loving parents to guide her and protect her.
 
“Keep in mind that she rode barefoot because the sandals they wore would not fit in the stirrups. Anyway, the man had teamed up with her uncle and they stayed together through her remaining years in the field. The man taught her trick riding and covert leg cues like those used in dressage and she practiced day after day for five more years.”
 
Ruby was on the edge of her seat and asked how that Claire could ever become the Claire she knew.
 
“Lamb brought her back and enrolled her in public school when she was sixteen I think. Having only the education provided by Lamb she still managed to test into her junior year because she’s a brainiac. Lamb enrolled her in some fancy equestrian program in the summers and kept her riding throughout the school year as well. She was riding for owners at eighteen when she started her pre-med training in Boston.”
 
Ruby cried again when Sarah gave her the details of her relationship with Frank along with the emotional abuse, neglect, and ultimately the loss of her beloved horses. She explained her courageous escape from Boston with Fred and Ginger and Jamie pulling her out of Fred’s stall when he found her sleeping the first night.
 
“Jamie Fraser fell in love with the beautiful but quirky Claire and they were inseparable in a very short time. I met them early in their relationship and remember thinking I could put each of them on opposite sides of the planet and they would find each other again. It’s a rare bond they have.”
 
Ruby squirmed. “I still don’t understand her expression in the picture. It is telling a story and I still don’t know it.”
 
“Jamie’s thing is eventing and Claire wanted to do it. Maybe because Jamie loved it or maybe it was her next big hurdle on a horse, no pun intended. Jag was purchased as a greenie because Jamie knew he would be a great eventing horse. Claire was his rider for jumping and dressage and he asked if she wanted to try it. She worked very hard at running the field at a breakneck speed but wasn’t very good at it, if you can believe that. In the process, she fell in love with Jag. When she hit a wall with her training Jamie told her to go fast or lose Jag.”
 
“What? Wait. I can’t see Jamie being so mean. Why would he do such a thing?”
 
“I don’t know Ruby. But I know he loved Claire more than anything in the world so I’m sure he had his reasons. It came down to one last ride on the field where Claire would prove her metal or walk away from Jag and eventing. She told me she just surrendered and rode with all the passion and faith she had. All I ever heard from Jamie is they went in as individuals and came out as partners. After that, she was devoted to eventing and she and Jag were unstoppable.”
 
“That’s it.” Ruby took a deep breath and smiled. “That is what I see on her face.”
 
“What do you see on her face Ruby?”
 
“Everything you just said.”
 
Ruby returned to her room and ripped all the renderings of Claire off of her board. She used a large sheet of paper and drew in Claire’s face, helmet, and shoulders. It was all about the expression of pure joy and partnership. Her body is held just inches above Jag’s back like she is a part of him but he can still move freely over the huge jumps. Her joy comes from her love and trust in Jag. They are both doing what they love with complete faith in the other.
 
“Oh my God.” Ruby looked at her hasty drawing and knew she finally had it. She was elated and let out a whoop before she tore out the front door, late for her chores.
 
Jamie held his hand out to me after dinner and we walked through the fields around the estate. There was so much going on at Lallybroch with house plans, horse shows, a pack of young children and a brand new grandson, that I hardly spent any time with Jamie. I was happy for a bit of quiet time with him.
 
“I think it’s time to say goodbye to Rollo lass.”
 
“Does it hurt you to let him go?”
 
“Nah, he was never meant for our lives. I was just a pathway to Ian.” I looked at Jamie and he kissed my forehead. “Although, it might be a way to get Ian to visit more often.”
 
I laughed at that knowing Jamie could never withhold something from his son. “You have been his rock since you brought him into this world on the side of the road. He has followed in your footsteps Jamie, choosing to live in a country away from his family, chasing his dreams. I couldn’t be more proud of him, or you.”
 
I kept up with Sarah every day by text but today I got the crazy idea to do a video chat and show her around Lallybroch. She was thrilled. I started in the house with a quick tour, pointing out the parts of the structure still standing and in service since it was built almost three hundred years ago. Jamie waved and smiled from his blueprints at the kitchen table. I showed her around the grounds hearing her gasp at the beauty. It was when I entered the woods to show her the stakes that delineated the corners of our house, and others for the barn, that she fell silent. I turned the phone around to see if she was still there and realized she was just speechless.
 
“Thank you, Claire. Now I will know what you’re talking about when you get home. I am so happy you let me see this beautiful place.”
 
“Sarah, I feel something magical out here, something benevolent but powerful. It is always here in the woods and I want to be close to it.”
 
“Her eyes sparkled when she spoke to me. “Talk to it. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what it is. It’s there for you. It’s waiting to hear from you, Claire. Talk to the power you feel in the woods. Over and out.”
 
I accidentally dropped the phone into the wrong pocket and heard Sorcha yip in pain. I pulled her out and made a fuss over hurting her. She yawned and wagged her tail trying to lick my face. We walked through the woods a bit and she was darting her eyes from the trees to the logs, stones, and nearby stream. She continued to yawn so I put her back in my trench coat pocket and sat alone on a rock. I whispered all the things I was grateful for and realized the list was quite long. I told Pup and Jag how much I loved them and didn’t feel at all silly. Somehow, I felt they would hear me.
 
Our last day at Lallybroch is bittersweet. We are ready to go home and resume our place at the center and my practice, but leaving Ian, Jenny and big Ian is so hard. Ian asked me to walk with him and Rollo and I happily agreed. He was quiet at first but when he started talking I knew he had something important to say. I stayed quiet and gave him time to say it.
 
“I don’t know if you realize how lonely I am for you, how lonely I’ve always been for you. From the first time I hugged ye goodbye at the airport until now, that has never changed. It never goes away. I have wanted to tell ye a thousand times and always figured I would do it next time we talked.”
 
He paused and I put my arm through his.
 
“When ye got sick I feared I wouldn’t have a chance to tell ye so I’m doin it now. Ye’re my greatest love Mom, and ye always will be. A love so pure and unconditional it goes on forever and never diminishes. I’m a grown man but I cry when I talk about ye to my friends and my girlfriend. I miss ye every single day and I want ye to know that.”
 
He stopped and smiled at my tears like he understood the overwhelming love because he felt it too. “This is for you mom, so every time you see it or touch it ye’ll know I’m thinking of ye.”
 
I opened the small box and felt my heart in my throat. A lovely necklace with a heart and two gems attached to it. It was beautiful and I knew they were birthstones of Ian and Faith. He put it on for me and I hugged him for a full minute wishing I could hold onto him forever.
 
“Grrrr.”
 
“Did ye hear that mom?” Ian looked around for Rollo and shook his head. “I could swear I heard something growl.”
 
“That would be Sorcha.” I pulled her out of my pocket and Rollo was quick to stick his nose up to her and make his wolf noises. She wiggled until I put her down on the forest floor and she immediately ran to Rollo.”
 
“They’re friends and Rollo might miss her.”
 
“She will be back in seven months and they will have the whole summer together. Just like us.”
 
When we returned to Lallybroch, Jenny and her daughters were bringing food to the outside table. Several kinds of meat were cooking over the fire, bowls of salads, vegetables, bread, and side dishes covered the table. Jamie looked up at us and saw the new necklace around my neck. He smiled and turned back to his conversation with Faith.
 
The meal and conversation lasted until well after dark. It was like no one wanted it to end. Jamie, Faith and I would leave before sunrise to catch our flight back to Arizona. As the fire threw shadows across his handsome face I hugged Ian hard enough to last the next seven months, and I cried watching his car disappear down the road. Jenny gave me a squeeze and a compassionate look.
 
“It willna be long before yer with him again sister.” She couldn’t be more right and I felt a balance snap into my soul and the sadness lessen.
 
When we were in bed, Jamie held me close in the dark. “I’m a grateful man tonight Sassenach,” he whispered.
 
Standing at the arrival curb at Sky Harbor airport I feel disoriented and sleepy. Jamie keeps checking on me and I smile at him but I am struggling. I need to lay down in my own bed and process these emotions. I look through the line of cars for Sarah and finally see her, raising my hand to get her attention. Jamie holds my hand and keeps the conversation going with Sarah. I see her glancing at me in the rearview mirror and there is concern in her eyes. I squeeze Jamie’s hand and smile, forcing myself to add to the conversation and show them I’m not sick, just a little heartbroken. I wonder if it will ever get easier to leave Ian behind.
 
Driving up Ironwood I feel a bit better, more excited to see our house and the barn. Sarah asked if we had the energy to walk through the barn and even Faith said yes. There were some boarders there but when they saw us come in they kind of vanished. Jamie gave love to the grey and promised a ride on the field tomorrow. I got a hug from Sarah’s therapy horses, Micky and Minnie. When we turned the corner toward the office I saw a group of people, like they were waiting for us. Ruby, Shawn, Rupert, Angus, Vickie and her husband, Dougal, and our favorite borders. I looked at Jamie and he looked as confused as I felt. Ruby flew into my arms and there were cheek kisses from the guys. I was saying hello and feeling very welcomed when I heard Jamie gasp.
 
“Christ Ruby…what…Claire!”
 
I turned completely around and then I saw them. Two large paintings hung on the wall leading to the office. Above them, it said, A Tribute To The Champions.
 
I heard myself say “oh my God” over and over and then “Ruby!” I gripped her still looking from one to the other. When I looked at Jamie’s picture I heard the roar of the crowd, when I looked at mine I heard my pounding heart, hooves galloping, and I smelled Jag. How remarkable.
 
“Sarah commissioned the paintings.”
 
“Sarah!”
 
I held them both and stared at the paintings, completely overcome. Jamie was speechless and when he tried to thank Ruby he spoke Gaelic and then shook his head. He eventually thanked them both in English.
 
Sorcha was not happy being smashed between bodies and started barking in my pocket. When I set her on the ground she took off, much to my horror. I went after her and watched her look into stalls until she found the grey. Then she dashed inside and bit him above his hoof, shaking her head savagely. I screamed for Jamie and grabbed Sorcha away. The grey was unaware of a little dog trying to kill him.
 
“Sorcha you are a bad dog, no!”
 
Sorcha looked at Jamie with a mouth full of horsehair and growled but his attention had been stolen away by the beautiful gelding. I watched him run his hand down his neck and back, transported into a world of flying across the field with his friend. I wondered if my eyeballs were going to wash out of my head with all the tears I had shed.
 
Sarah watched Jamie, “that’s quite a horse you have there. Is he your new Donus?”
 
Jamie gave a half-smile, “unfortunately no. He is in service only, he doesna love it like Donus did. I’ll sell him with the next round if we can teach him to quiet down.”
 
I felt my heart drop and tried to keep it from my face. I really thought he had found a new partner to fill the loneliness for his magical Donus.
 
Later, Jamie pulled me toward the door and we walked home. It was good to be back in our house and I pulled up the wolf’s bed and bowls and put them away. I realized I had left Pup’s collar on the wolf and felt panic at first, but realized a piece of Pup was now with Ian and so was the wolf. Nothing in this world could be bad about that.
 
“Jamie, why won’t the grey work for you? I thought you liked him.”
 
“I do mo chridhe, but his heart isna on the field or flyin over a jump like Donus. He does it because he has to and happy when it’s over I’m sure. It’s okay love, old men shouldna ride big brutes anyway.”
 
Jamie slipped from bed at five in the morning and made his way to the barn, feet crunching on the dirt and pebbled road. He was excited to ride after three long months. He looked out over the field and saw the goofy chickens emerging from their coop. The air was chilly, promising the arrival of fall, and all that goes with it. Jamie’s boots crunched louder on the stones of the driveway and though his mind was a million miles away…he heard it. He stopped to listen, and there it was, the hoof of a monster horse banging on the corral bars saying hurry up, I’ve missed this, I’m ready to go.
 
The End