The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 67

   

“When I went for a soldier in France, I was marched to and fro and up and down, and wore a pair of boots clear through before they gave me powder for my gun. I was sae weary at the end of a day of drilling that they could have shot off cannon by my pallet and I wouldna have turned a hair.”

He shook his head a little, the half-smile fading from his face. “But we havena got the time for that. Half our men will have had a bit of soldiering; we must depend on them to stand if it comes to fighting, and keep heart in the others.” He glanced past the fire, and gestured toward the fading vista of trees and mountains.

“It’s no much like a battlefield, is it? I canna say where the battle may be—if there is one—but I think we must plan for a fight where there’s cover to be had. We’ll teach them to fight as Highlanders do; to gather or to scatter at my word, and otherwise, to make shift as they can. Only half the men were soldiers, but all of them can hunt.” He raised his chin, gesturing toward the recruits, several of whom had bagged small game during the day’s ride. The Lindsay brothers had shot the quail we were eating.

Roger nodded, and bent down, scooping a blackened ball of clay out of the fire with his own stick, keeping his face hidden. Almost all. He had gone out shooting every day since our return to the Ridge, and had still to bag even a possum. Jamie, who had gone with him once, had privately expressed the opinion to me that Roger would do better to hit the game on the head with his musket, rather than shoot at it.

I lowered my brows at Jamie; he raised his at me, returning my stare. Roger’s feelings could take care of themselves, was the blunt message there. I widened my own eyes, and rose.

“But it isn’t really like hunting, is it?” I sat down beside Jamie, and handed him one of the hot corn dodgers. “Especially now.”

“What d’ye mean by that, Sassenach?” Jamie broke the corn dodger open, half-closing his eyes in bliss as he inhaled the hot, fragrant steam.

“For one, you don’t know that it will come to a fight at all,” I pointed out. “For another, if it does, you won’t be facing trained troops—the Regulators aren’t soldiers, any more than your men are. For a third, you won’t really be trying to kill the Regulators; only frighten them into retreat or surrender. And for a fourth”—I smiled at Roger—“the point of hunting is to kill something. The point of going to war is to come back alive.”

Jamie choked on a bite of corn dodger. I thumped him helpfully on the back, and he rounded on me, glaring. He coughed crumbs, swallowed, and stood up, plaid swinging.

“Listen to me,” he said, a little hoarsely. “Ye’re right, Sassenach—and ye’re wrong. It’s no like hunting, aye. Because the game isna usually trying to kill you. Mind me—” He turned to Roger, his face grim. “She’s wrong about the rest of it. War is killing, and that’s all. Think of anything less—think of half-measures, think of frightening—above all, think of your own skin—and by God, man, ye will be dead by nightfall of the first day.”

He flung the remains of his corn dodger into the fire, and stalked away.

I SAT FROZEN for a moment, until heat from the fresh corn dodger I was holding seeped through the cloth round it and burned my fingers. I set it down on the log with a muffled “ouch,” and Roger shifted a little on his log.

“All right?” he said, though he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were fixed on the direction in which Jamie had vanished, toward the horses.

“Fine.” I soothed my scorched fingertips against the cold, damp bark of the log. With the awkward silence eased by this little exchange, I found it possible to address the matter at hand.

“Granted,” I said, “that Jamie has a certain amount of experience from which to speak . . . I do think what he said was rather an overreaction.”

“Do you?” Roger didn’t seem upset or taken aback by Jamie’s remarks.

“Of course I do. Whatever happens with the Regulators, we know perfectly well that it isn’t going to be an all-out war. It’s likely to be nothing at all!”

“Oh, aye.” Roger was still looking into the darkness, lips pursed in thoughtfulness. “Only—I think that’s not what he was talking about.”

I lifted one eyebrow at him, and he shifted his gaze to me, with a wry half-smile.

“When he went out hunting with me, he asked me what I knew about what was coming. I told him. Bree said he’d asked her, and she told him, too.”

“What was coming—you mean, the Revolution?”

He nodded, eyes on the fragment of corn dodger he was crumbling between long, callused fingers.

“I told him what I knew. About the battles, the politics. Not all the detail, of course, but the chief battles I remembered; what a long, drawn-out, bloody business it will be.” He was quiet for a moment, then looked up at me, a slight glint of green in his eye.

“I suppose ye’d call it fair exchange. It’s hard to tell with him, but I think I maybe scared him. He’s just returned the favor.”

I gave a small snort of amusement, and stood up, brushing crumbs and ashes off my skirt.

“The day you scare Jamie Fraser by telling him war stories, my lad,” I said, “will be the day hell freezes over.”

He laughed, not discomposed in the slightest.

“Maybe I didn’t scare him, then—though he got very quiet. But I tell you what”—he sobered somewhat, though the glint stayed in his eye—“he did scare me, just now.”

I glanced off in the direction of the horses. The moon hadn’t yet risen, and I couldn’t see anything but a vague jumble of big, restless shadows, with an occasional gleam of firelight off a rounded rump or the brief shine of an eye. Jamie wasn’t visible, but I knew he was there; there was a subtle shift and mill of movement among the horses, with faint whickers or snorts, that told me someone familiar was among them.

“He wasn’t just a soldier,” I said at last, speaking quietly, though I was fairly sure Jamie was too far away to hear me. “He was an officer.”

I sat down on the log again, and put a hand on the corn dodger. It was barely warm now. I picked it up, but didn’t bite into it.

“I was a combat nurse, you know. In a field hospital in France.”

He nodded, dark head cocked in interest. The fire threw deep shadows on his face, emphasizing the contrast of heavy brow and strong bones with the gentle curve of his mouth.

“I nursed soldiers. They were all scared.” I smiled a little, sadly. “The ones who’d been under fire remembered, and the ones who hadn’t, imagined. But it was the officers who couldn’t sleep at night.”

I ran a thumb absently over the bumpy surface of the corn dodger. It felt faintly greasy, from the lard.

“I sat with Jamie once, after Preston, while he held one of his men in his arms as he died. And wept. He remembers that. He doesn’t remember Culloden—because he can’t bear to.” I looked down at the lump of fried dough in my hand, picking at the burned bits with my thumbnail.

“Yes, you scared him. He doesn’t want to weep for you. Neither do I,” I added softly. “It may not be now, but when the time does come—take care, will you?”

There was a long silence. Then, “I will,” he said quietly. He stood up and left, his footsteps fading quickly into silence on the damp earth.

The other campfires burned brightly, as the night deepened. The men still kept to the company of relative and friend, each small group around its own fire. As we went on, they would begin to join together, I knew. Within a few days, there would be one large fire, everyone gathered together in a single circle of light.

Jamie wasn’t scared by what Roger had told him, I thought—but by what he himself knew. There were two choices for a good officer: let concern for his responsibilities tear him apart—or let necessity harden him to stone. He knew that.

And as for me . . . I knew a few things, too. I had been married to two soldiers—officers, both; for Frank had been one, too. I had been nurse and healer, on the fields of two wars.

I knew the names and dates of battles; I knew the smell of blood. And of vomit, and voided bowels. A field hospital sees the shattered limbs, the spilled guts, and bone ends . . . but it also sees the men who never raised a gun, but died there anyway, of fever and dirt and sickness and despair.

I knew that thousands died of wounds and killing on the battlefields of two World Wars; I knew that hundreds upon hundreds of thousands died there of infection and disease. It would be no different now—nor in four years.

And that scared me very much indeed.

THE NEXT NIGHT, we made camp in the woods on Balsam Mountain, a mile or so above the settlement of Lucklow. Several of the men wanted to push on, to reach the hamlet of Brownsville. Brownsville was the outer point of our journey, before turning back toward Salisbury, and it held the possibility of a pothouse—or at least a hospitable shed to sleep in—but Jamie thought better to wait.

“I dinna want to scare the folk there,” he had explained to Roger, “riding in with a troop of armed men after dark. Better to announce our business by daylight, then give the men a day—and a night—to make ready to leave.” He had stopped then, and coughed heavily, shoulders racked with the spasm.

I didn’t like either the looks of Jamie or the sound of him. He had the patchy look of a mildewed quilt, and when he came to the fire to fill his dinner bowl, I could hear a faint wheezing sigh in every breath. Most of the men were in similar condition; red noses and coughing were endemic, and the fire popped and sizzled every few moments, as someone hawked and spat into it.

I should have liked to tuck Jamie up in bed with a hot stone to his feet, a mustard plaster on his chest, and a hot tisane of aromatic peppermint and ephedra leaves to drink. Since it would have taken a brace of cannon, leg irons, and several armed men to get him there, I contented myself with fishing up a particularly meaty ladle of stew and plopping it into his bowl.

“Ewald,” Jamie called hoarsely to one of the Muellers. He stopped and cleared his throat, with a sound like tearing flannel. “Ewald—d’ye take Paul and fetch along more wood for the fire. It’ll be a cold night.”

It already was. Men were standing so close to the fire that the fringes of their shawls and coats were singed, and the toes of their boots—those who had boots—stank of hot leather. My own knees and thighs were close to blistering, as I stood perforce near the blaze in order to serve out the stew. My backside was like ice, though, in spite of the old pair of breeks I wore under shift and petticoat—both for insulation and for the avoidance of excessive friction while on horseback. The Carolina backwoods were no place for a sidesaddle.

The last bowl served, I turned round to eat my own stew, with the fire at my back, a grateful bloom of warmth embracing my frozen bottom.

“All right, is it, ma’am?” Jimmy Robertson, who had made the stew, peered over my shoulder in search of compliment.

“Lovely,” I assured him. “Delicious!” In fact, it was hot and I was hungry. That, plus the fact that I hadn’t had to cook it myself, lent a sufficient tone of sincerity to my words that he retired, satisfied.

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