But… said the small, cold voice of reason, and he felt its chilly touch on his neck. If Captain Richardson was not mistaken… then he meant to send you to death or imprisonment.
The sheer enormity of the idea dried his mouth, and he reached for the cup of herbal tea that Miss Hunter had brought him earlier. It tasted foul, but he scarcely noticed, clutching it as though it might be a talisman against the prospect he imagined.
No, he assured himself. It wasn’t possible. His father knew Richardson. Surely if the captain were a traitor—what was he thinking? He gulped the tea, grimacing as he swallowed.
“No,” he said aloud, “not possible. Or not likely,” he added fairly. “Occam’s razor.”
The thought calmed him a little. He had learned the basic principles of logic at an early age and had found William of Occam a sound guide before. Was it more likely that Captain Richardson was a hidden traitor who had deliberately sent William into danger—or that the captain had been misinformed or had simply made a mistake?
Come to that—what would be the point of it? William was under no delusions concerning his own importance in the scheme of things. Where would be the benefit to Richardson—or anyone else—in destroying a junior officer engaged in minor intelligencing?
Well, then. He relaxed a bit, and taking an unwary mouthful of the ghastly tea, choked on it and coughed, spraying tea everywhere. He was still wiping up the residue with his towel when Dr. Hunter came trotting briskly up the stair. Denzell Hunter was perhaps ten years his sister’s senior, somewhere in his late twenties, small-boned and cheerful as a c**k sparrow. He beamed at sight of William, plainly so delighted at his patient’s recovery that William smiled warmly back.
“Sissy tells me thee requires to shave,” the doctor said, setting down the shaving mug and brush he had brought. “Plainly, thee must be feeling well enough to contemplate a return to society—for the first thing any man does when free of social constraint is to let his beard grow. Has thee moved thy bowels as yet?”
“No, but I propose to do so almost at once,” William assured him. “I am not, however, of a mind to venture out in public looking like a bandit—not even to the privy. I shouldn’t wish to scandalize your neighbors.”
Dr. Hunter laughed, and withdrawing a razor from one pocket and his silver-rimmed spectacles from another, set the latter firmly on his nose and picked up the shaving brush.
“Oh, Sissy and I are already a hissing and a byword,” he assured William, leaning close to apply the lather. “Seeing banditti emerging from our privy would merely confirm the neighbors in their opinions.”
“Really?” William spoke carefully, twisting his mouth so as to avoid having it inadvertently filled with soap. “Why?” He was surprised to hear this; once regaining his senses, he had asked where he was and learned that Oak Grove was a small Quaker settlement. He had thought Quakers in general to be most united in their religious sentiments—but then, he did not really know any Quakers.
Hunter heaved a deep sigh, and laying down the shaving brush, took up the razor in its stead.
“Oh, politics,” he said, in an offhand tone, as of one wishing to dismiss a tiresome but trivial subject. “Tell me, Friend Ransom, is there someone to whom I might send, to tell them of thy mishap and delivery?” He paused in the shaving, to allow William to reply.
“No, I thank you, sir—I shall tell them myself,” William said, smiling. “I am sure I will be able to leave by tomorrow—though I assure you that I will not forget your kindness and hospitality when I reach my… friends.”
Denzell Hunter’s brow furrowed a little, and his mouth compressed as he resumed the shaving, but he made no argument.
“I trust thee will forgive my inquisitiveness,” he said after a moment, “but where does thee intend to go from here?”
William hesitated, not sure what to reply. He had in fact not decided exactly where to go, given the lamentable state of his finances. The best notion that had occurred to him was that he might head for Mount Josiah, his own plantation. He was not positive but thought he must be within forty or fifty miles of it—if the Hunters might give him a little food, he thought he could reach it within a few days, a week at most. And once there, he could reequip himself with clothes, a decent horse, arms, and money, and thus resume his journey.
It was a tempting prospect. To do that, though, was to reveal his presence in Virginia—and to cause considerable comment, as everyone in the county not only knew him but knew that he was a soldier. To turn up in the neighborhood dressed as he was…
“There are a few Catholics at Rosemount,” Dr. Hunter observed with diffidence, wiping the razor on the much-abused towel. William glanced at him in surprise.
“Oh?” he said warily. Why the devil was Hunter telling him about Catholics?
“I beg pardon, Friend,” the doctor apologized, seeing his reaction. “Thee had mentioned thy friends—I thought…”
“You thought I was—” Puzzlement was succeeded by a jolt of realization, and William slapped a hand in reflex against his chest, naturally finding nothing but the much-worn nightshirt he was wearing.
“Here it is.” The doctor bent swiftly to open the blanket box at the foot of the bed and stood up, the wooden rosary swinging from one hand. “We had to remove it, of course, when we undressed thee, but Sissy put it safe away to keep for thee.”
“We?” William said, seizing on this as a means of delaying inquiry. “You—and Miss Hunter—undressed me?”
“Well, there was no one else,” the doctor said apologetically. “We were obliged to lay thee naked in the creek, in hopes of quelling thy fever—thee does not recall?”
He did—vaguely—but had assumed the memory of overwhelming cold and a sense of drowning to be more remnants of his fever dreams. Miss Hunter’s presence had fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—not formed part of those memories.
“I could not carry thee alone,” the doctor was explaining earnestly. “And the neighbors—I did provide a towel for the preservation of thy modesty,” he assured William hastily.
“What quarrel do your neighbors have with you?” William inquired curiously, reaching out to take the rosary from Hunter’s hand. “I am not a Papist myself,” he added offhandedly. “It is a… memento, given me by a friend.”
“Oh.” The doctor rubbed a finger across his lip, plainly disconcerted. “I see. I had thought—”
“The neighbors… ?” William asked, and suppressing his embarrassment, hung the rosary once more around his neck. Perhaps the mistake over his religion was the basis of the neighbors’ animus?
“Well, I daresay they would have helped to carry thee,” Dr. Hunter admitted, “had there been time to go and fetch someone. The matter was urgent, though, and the nearest house is a goodly distance.”
This left the question of the neighbors’ attitude toward the Hunters unanswered, but it seemed unmannerly to press further. William merely nodded and stood up.
The floor tilted abruptly under him and white light flickered at the edge of his vision. He grabbed at the windowsill to keep from falling and came to his senses a moment later, bathed in sweat, with Dr. Hunter’s surprisingly strong grip of his arm preventing his tumbling headfirst into the yard below.
“Not quite so fast, Friend Ransom,” the doctor said gently, and, hauling him in, turned him back toward the bed. “Another day, perhaps, before thee stands alone. Thee has more phlegm than is useful to thee, I fear.”
Mildly nauseated, William sat on the bed and allowed Dr. Hunter to wipe his face with the towel. Evidently he had a bit more time in which to decide where to go.
“How long, do you think, before I can walk a full day?”
Denzell Hunter gave him a considering look.
“Five days, perhaps—four, at the least,” he said. “Thee is robust and full-blooded, else I would say a week.”
William, feeling puny and pallid, nodded and lay down. The doctor stood frowning at him for a moment, though it did not seem that the frown was directed at him; it seemed rather an expression of some inner concern.
“How… far will thy travels take thee?” the doctor asked, choosing his words with apparent care.
“Quite some distance,” William replied, with equal wariness. “I am headed… toward Canada,” he said, suddenly realizing that to say more might imply more than he wished to give away regarding his reasons for travel. True, a man might have business in Canada without necessarily having dealings with the British army who occupied Quebec, but as the doctor had mentioned politics … best to be politic about the matter. And certainly he would not mention Mount Josiah. Whatever the Hunters’ strained relations with their neighbors, news concerning their visitor might easily spread.
“Canada,” the doctor repeated, as though to himself. Then his gaze returned to William. “Yes, that is some considerable distance. Luckily, I have killed a goat this morning; we will have meat. That will help to restore thy strength. I will bleed thee tomorrow, to restore some balance to thy humors, and then we shall see. For the moment…” He smiled and extended a hand. “Come. I’ll see thee safe to the privy.”
A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE
THERE WAS A STORM coming; William could feel it in the shifting of the air, see it in the racing cloud shadows that scudded across the worn floorboards. The heat and damp oppression of the summer day had lifted, and the restlessness of the air seemed to stir him, as well. Though still weak, he could not remain abed, and managed to get up, clinging to the washstand until the initial giddiness left him.
Left to himself, he then passed some time in walking from one side of the room to the other—a distance of ten feet or so—one hand pressed against the wall for balance. The effort drained and dizzied him, and now and then he was obliged to sit down on the floor, head hung between his knees, until the spots ceased to dance before his eyes.
It was on one of these occasions, while seated beneath the window, that he heard voices from the yard below. Miss Rachel Hunter’s voice, surprised and questioning—a man’s reply, low-voiced and husky. A familiar voice—Ian Murray!
He shot to his feet and just as quickly subsided back onto the floor, vision black and head swimming. He clenched his fists and panted, trying to will the blood to return to his head.
“He will live, then?” The voices were distant, half buried in the murmur of the chestnut trees near the house, but he caught that. He struggled up onto his knees and caught hold of the sill, blinking into the cloud-shattered brightness of the day.
Murray’s tall figure was visible at the edge of the dooryard, gaunt in buckskins, the huge dog at his side. There was no sign of Glutton or the other Indians, but two horses were cropping grass in the lane behind Murray, reins dangling. Rachel Hunter was gesturing to the house, plainly inviting Murray to come in, but he shook his head. He reached into the bag at his waist and withdrew a small package of some sort, which he handed to the girl.
“Hoy!” William shouted—or tried to shout; he hadn’t much breath—and waved his arms. The wind was rising with a shivering rush through the chestnut leaves, but the motion must have caught Murray’s eye, for he glanced up, and seeing William in the window, smiled and lifted his own hand in greeting.
He made no move to enter the house, though. Instead, he picked up the reins of one horse and put them into Rachel Hunter’s hand. Then, with a wave of farewell toward William’s window, he swung himself up onto the other horse with an economical grace and rode away.
William’s hands tightened on the sill, disappointment surging through him at seeing Murray vanish into the trees. Wait, though—Murray had left a horse. Rachel Hunter was leading it around the house, her apron and petticoats aswirl in the rising wind, one hand on her cap to keep it in place.
It must be for him, surely! Did Murray mean to come back for him, then? Or was he to follow? Heart thumping in his ears, William pulled on his patched breeches and the new stockings Rachel had knitted for him, and after a short struggle got his water-stiffened boots on over them. The effort left him trembling, but he stubbornly made his way downstairs, lurching, sweating, and slipping but arriving in the kitchen at the bottom in one piece.
The back door opened with a blast of wind and light, then slammed abruptly, jerked out of Rachel’s hand. She turned, saw him, and yelped in startlement.
“Lord save us! What is thee doing down here?” She was panting with exertion and fright, and glared at him, tucking wisps of dark hair back under her cap.
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” William said in apology. “I wanted—I saw Mr. Murray leaving. I thought I might catch him up. Did he say where I was to meet him?”
“He did not. Sit, for heaven’s sake, before thee falls down.”
He didn’t want to. The desire to be out, to go, was overwhelming. But his knees were shaking, and if he didn’t sit down shortly… Reluctantly, he sat.
“What did he say?” he asked, and realizing suddenly that he was sitting in a lady’s presence, gestured at the other stool. “Sit, please. Tell me what he said.”
Rachel eyed him but sat, smoothing her windblown clothing back into place. The storm was rising; cloud shadows raced across the floor, across her face, and the air seemed to waver, as though the room were underwater.
“He asked after thy health, and when I told him thee was mending, he gave me the horse, saying it was for thee.” She hesitated for an instant, and William pushed.
“He gave you something else, did he not? I saw him give you a package of some kind.”
Her lips pressed together for an instant, but she nodded, and reaching into her pocket, handed him a small bundle, loosely wrapped in cloth.