The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 162

   

She realized suddenly that her br**sts were turgid, aching with milk; there had been no time in the last several hours even to think of it, let alone take the time to relieve the pressure. Her n**ples stung and tingled at the thought, and she gritted her teeth against the small gush of milk that leaked into her bodice, mingling with her sweat. She yearned toward Roger, wanting suddenly to suckle him, wanting to cradle him against her breast and let life flow into him from her.

Touch him. She was forgetting to touch him. She stroked his arm, squeezed his forearm gently, hoping to distract herself from discomfort.

He seemed to feel her hand on his arm; one eye opened a little, and she thought she saw a consciousness of her flicker in its depths.

“You look like the male version of Medusa,” she said, the first thing that popped into her head. One dark eyebrow twitched slightly upward.

“The leeches,” she said. She touched one of those on his neck, and it contracted sluggishly, already half-full. “A beard of snakes. Can you feel them? Do they bother you?” she asked before remembering what her mother had said. His lips moved, though, forming a soundless “no,” with obvious effort.

“Don’t talk.” She glanced at the other bed, feeling self-conscious, but the wounded man in it was quiet, eyes closed. She turned back, bent, and quickly kissed Roger, the merest touch of lips. His mouth twitched; she thought he meant to smile.

She wanted to shout at him. What happened? What in hell did you DO? But he couldn’t answer.

Suddenly, fury overwhelmed her. Mindful of the people passing to and fro nearby, she didn’t shout, but instead leaned down and gripped his shoulder—that seeming one of the reasonably undamaged spots—and hissed, “How in God’s name did you do this?” in his ear.

His eyes rolled slowly toward her, fixing on her face. He made a slight grimace which she couldn’t interpret at all, and then the shoulder under her hand began to vibrate. She stared at him in complete perplexity for a few seconds, before she realized that he was laughing. Laughing!

The tube in his throat jiggled, and made a soft wheezing noise, which aggravated her beyond bearing. She stood up, hands pressed against her aching br**sts.

“I’ll be right back,” she said. “Don’t you bloody go anywhere, damn you!”

72

TINDER AND CHAR

GERALD FORBES WAS A SUCCESSFUL lawyer, and normally looked the part. Even dressed in his campaigning gear, and with the soot of gunpowder staining his face, he still had an air of solid assurance that served him well as a captain of militia. This air had not quite deserted him, but he seemed visibly uneasy, curling and uncurling the brim of his hat as he stood in the doorway of the tent.

At first I assumed that it was merely the discomfort that afflicts many people in the presence of illness—or perhaps awkwardness over the circumstances of Roger’s injury. But evidently it was something else; he barely nodded toward Brianna, who sat by Roger’s bed.

“My sympathies for your misfortune, ma’am,” he said, then turned at once to Jamie. “Mr. Fraser. If I might—a word? And Mrs. Fraser, too,” he added, with a grave bow in my direction.

I glanced at Jamie, and at his nod, got up, reaching by reflex for my medical kit.

There was not a great deal I could do; that much was obvious. Isaiah Morton lay on his side in Forbes’s tent, his face dead-white and sheened with sweat. He still breathed, but slowly, and with a horrible gurgling effect that reminded me unpleasantly of the sound when I had pierced Roger’s throat. He wasn’t conscious, which was a small mercy. I made a cursory examination, and sat back on my heels, wiping sweat from my face with the hem of my apron; the evening had not cooled much, and it was close and hot in the tent.

“Shot through the lung,” I said, and both men nodded, though they both clearly knew as much already.

“Shot in the back,” Jamie said, a grim tone to his voice. He glanced at Forbes, who nodded, not taking his eyes from the stricken man.

“No,” he said quietly, answering an unspoken question. “He wasn’t a coward. And it was a clean advance—no other companies in the line behind us.”

“No Regulators behind you? No sharpshooters? No ambush?” Jamie asked, but Forbes was shaking his head before the questions were finished.

“We chased a few Regulators as far as the creek, but we stopped there and let them go.” Forbes still held the hat between his fingers, and he mechanically rolled and unrolled the brim, over and over. “I had no stomach for killing.”

Jamie nodded, silent.

I cleared my throat, and drew the bloody remnants of Morton’s shirt gently over him.

“He was shot twice in the back,” I said. The second bullet had only grazed his upper arm, but I could plainly see the direction of the furrow it had left.

Jamie closed his eyes briefly, then opened them.

“The Browns,” he said, in grim resignation.

Gerald Forbes glanced at him, surprised.

“Brown? That’s what he said.”

“He spoke?” Jamie squatted beside the injured man, a frown drawing his ruddy brows together. He glanced at me, and I shook my head mutely. I was holding Isaiah Morton’s wrist, and could feel the flutter and stumble in his pulse. He would not likely speak again.

“When they brought him in.” Forbes squatted by Jamie, at last setting down the maltreated hat. “He asked for you, Fraser. And then he said, ‘Tell Ally. Tell Ally Brown.’ He said that several times, before he—” He gestured mutely at Morton, whose half-closed lids showed slices of white, his eyes rolled up in agony.

Jamie said something obscene, very softly, under his breath in Gaelic.

“Do you really think they did this?” I asked, equally softly. The pulse thumped and shuddered under my thumb, struggling.

He nodded, looking down at Morton.

“I shouldna have let them go,” he said, as though to himself. Morton and Alicia Brown, he meant.

“You couldn’t have stopped them.” I reached my free hand toward him, to touch him in reassurance, but couldn’t quite reach him, tethered as I was to Morton’s pulse.

Gerald Forbes was looking at me in puzzlement.

“Mr. Morton . . . eloped with the daughter of a man named Brown,” I explained delicately. “The Browns weren’t happy about it.”

“Oh, I see.” Forbes nodded understandingly. He glanced down at Morton’s body and clicked his tongue, a sound mingling reproof with sympathy. “The Browns—do you know which company they belong to, Fraser?”

“Mine,” Jamie said shortly. “Or they did. I havena seen either of them, since the end of the battle.” He turned to me. “Is there aught to do for him, Sassenach?”

I shook my head, but didn’t let go of his wrist. The pulse hadn’t improved, but it hadn’t gotten worse, either.

“No. I thought he might be gone already, but he isn’t sinking yet. The ball must not have struck a major vessel. Even so . . .” I shook my head again.

Jamie sighed deeply and nodded.

“Aye. Will ye stay with him, then, until . . . ?”

“Yes, of course. Will you go back to our tent, though, and make sure everything’s under control there? If Roger—I mean, come and fetch me if I’m needed.”

He nodded once more and left. Gerald Forbes came near, and put a tentative hand on Morton’s shoulder.

“His wife—I shall see that she has help. If he should come round again, will you tell him that?”

“Yes, of course,” I said again, but my hesitation made him look up, brows raised.

“It’s just that he . . . um . . . has two wives,” I explained. “He was already married when he eloped with Alicia Brown. Hence the difficulty with her family, you see.”

Forbes’s face went comically blank.

“I see,” he said, and blinked. “The . . . ah . . . first Mrs. Morton. Do you know her name?”

“No, I’m afraid I—”

“Jessie.”

The word was barely more than a whisper, but it might have been a gunshot, for its effect in stopping the conversation.

“What?” My grip on Morton’s wrist must have tightened, for he flinched slightly, and I loosened it.

His face was still dead white, but his eyes were open, fogged with pain but definitely conscious.

“Jessie . . .” he whispered again. “Jeze . . . bel. Jessie Hatfield. Water?”

“Wat—oh, yes!” I let go of his wrist and reached at once for the water jug. He would have glugged it, but I let him have only small sips, for the present.

“Jezebel Hatfield, and Alicia Brown,” Forbes said carefully, evidently noting the names in his neatly-docketed lawyer’s mind. “That is correct? And where do these women live?”

Morton took a breath, coughed, and interrupted the cough abruptly with a gasp of pain. He struggled for a moment, then found speech.

“Jessie—in Granite Falls. Ally’s—in Greenboro.” He breathed very shallowly, gasping between words. And yet I heard no gurgling of blood in his throat, saw none oozing from nose or mouth. I could still hear the sucking sound from the wound in his back, and moved by inspiration, I pulled him slightly forward and jerked back the pieces of his shirt.

“Mr. Forbes, have you a sheet of paper?”

“Why . . . yes. I . . . that is . . .” Forbes had thrust his hand into his coat in automatic response, and come out with a folded sheet of paper. I snatched this from him, unfolded it, poured water over it, and plastered it flat against the small hole beneath Morton’s shoulder blade. The ink mixed with blood and ran in little dark runnels over the pasty skin, but the sucking noise abruptly stopped.

Holding the paper in place with my hand, I could feel the beating of his heart. It was still faint, but steadier—yes, it was steadier.

“I’ll be damned,” I said, leaning to the side to look at his face. “You aren’t going to die, are you?”

Sweat poured from his face, and the rags of his shirt hung dark and sodden against his chest, but the edge of his mouth trembled in an attempt at a smile.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “I ain’t.” He was still breathing in short gasps, but the breaths were deeper. “Ally. Baby’s . . . next . . . month. Told her . . . I be there.”

I picked up the edge of the blanket with my free hand, and wiped some of the sweat from his face.

“We’ll do our best to see that you are,” I assured him, then glanced up at the lawyer, who had been watching these proceedings with his mouth hanging slightly open.

“Mr. Forbes. I think perhaps we had better take Mr. Morton back to my tent. Will you find a couple of men to carry him?”

He closed his mouth abruptly.

“Oh. Yes. Of course, Mrs. Fraser. At once.” He didn’t move right away, though, and I saw his eyes dart toward the wet sheet of paper plastered over Morton’s back. I glanced down at it. I could read only a few indistinct words between my fingers, but those were enough to tell me that Jamie’s casually insulting references to Forbes as a sodomite were likely inaccurate. “My darling Valencia,” the letter began. I knew only one woman named Valencia in the vicinity of Cross Creek—in the colony of North Carolina, for that matter. Farquard Campbell’s wife.

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