The Greys exchanged looks of muted chagrin, and I coughed, very carefully, holding a pillow to my stomach.
“If that’s the case,” I said, “then presumably he’ll come back, once he’s either found them or given up looking for them. Wouldn’t he? Would he go AWOL over them—er . . . absent without leave, I mean?”
“He wouldn’t have to risk that,” Hal said. “He’s been relieved of duty.”
“What?” John exclaimed, rounding on his brother. “What the devil for?”
Hal sighed, exasperated. “Leaving camp when he was ordered to stay there in the middle of a battle, what else? Getting into a fight with another officer, ending up at the bottom of a ravine with a dent in his skull through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in general being a bloody nuisance.”
“You’re right, he is your son,” I said to Jamie, amused. He snorted, but didn’t look altogether displeased.
“Speaking of nephews,” Jamie said to Hal, “ye seem remarkably well informed, Your Grace. Might ye know anything of an Indian scout named Ian Murray?”
Hal looked blank, but John’s head turned quickly in Jamie’s direction.
“Yes,” he said. “I do. He was taken prisoner late on the day of battle and walked with me into camp, whereupon he killed another scout with a tomahawk and walked out again.”
“Blood will tell,” I murmured, though privately both shocked and worried. “Er . . . was he injured?”
“Aye, he was,” Jamie answered brusquely. “He’d been shot wi’ an arrow, in the shoulder. I couldna pull it, but I broke the shaft for him.”
“And . . . no one’s seen him since the night of the battle?” I asked, striving to keep my voice steady. The men exchanged glances, but none of them would meet my eyes.
“I, um, did give him a canteen of water mixed with brandy,” John said, a little diffidently. “He wouldn’t take a horse.”
“Rachel will find him,” Jamie said, as firmly as he could. “And I’ve asked Ian Mòr to watch out for the lad. He’ll be all right.”
“I trust your faith in your blood will be justified, sir,” Hal said with a sigh, evidently meaning it. “But as we can do nothing about Murray, and the question of William’s whereabouts is apparently moot for the moment . . . I hesitate to intrude my concerns regarding my blood, but I have stringent reasons for finding Captain Richardson, quite apart from anything he may have done or not done with William. And to that end . . .”
“Aye,” Jamie said, and the tension in his shoulders relaxed. “Aye, of course, Your Grace. Sassenach, will ye have the goodness not to die whilst I go and ask Mrs. Macken for paper and ink?”
“We have some,” John said, reaching into the leather pouch he’d been carrying under his arm. “Allow me.” And proceeded to lay out paper, an inkhorn, a small bundle of quills, and a stub of red sealing wax.
Everyone watched as Jamie mixed the ink, trimmed a quill, and began. Knowing how laborious writing was for him and how much he’d hate being watched, I pushed myself up a little more, stifling a groan, and turned to Hal.
“John mentioned that you wanted to make us an offer,” I said. “Of course we’re happy to help, regardless. But out of curiosity—”
“Oh.” Hal blinked but changed gears rapidly, fixing his gaze on me. “Yes. The offer I had in mind has nothing to do with Mr. Fraser’s kind accommodation,” he said. “John suggested it, as a matter of convenience for all concerned.” He turned to his brother, who smiled at me.
“My house on Chestnut Street,” John said. “Plainly I shan’t be living there for the foreseeable future. And I understand that you had taken refuge with the printer’s family in Philadelphia. Given your present fragile state of health”—he nodded delicately at the small heap of bloody dressings in the corner—“clearly it would be more comfortable for you to resume residence at my house. You—”
A deep Scottish noise interrupted him, and he looked up at Jamie, startled.
“The last time I was compelled to accept assistance from your brother, my lord,” Jamie said precisely, staring at John, “I was your prisoner and incapable of caring for my own family. Now I am no man’s prisoner, nor ever will be again. I shall make provision for my wife.”
In dead silence, with all eyes fixed on him, he bent his head to the paper and slowly signed his name.
ONE DAY, COCK OF THE WALK—NEXT DAY, A FEATHER DUSTER
HE’D GONE BY INSTINCT to fetch Madras, but paused to think on the way. If he found the girls, he couldn’t bring them both back with him on the horse. He changed direction and plunged into the teamsters’ park, emerging a brief time later with an ammunition cart, now sans ammunition, pulled by a large, rugged gray mule with half of one ear missing.
The mule was disinclined to move fast, but still made better time than two girls on foot might. How long a head start did they have? Maybe an hour, from what Zebedee had said, maybe longer.
“Heya!” he shouted, and snapped the whip over the mule’s rump. The animal was surly, but not a fool, and lurched into a faster pace—though William suspected that this effort might be as much to outrun the swarming flies as in response to his own urging.
Once solidly in motion, though, the mule seemed able to keep it up without noticeable effort, and they trotted down the road at a tooth-rattling pace, easily passing farm carts, foragers, and a couple of scouting parties. Surely he would catch the girls up in no time.
He didn’t. He drove nearly ten miles, by his estimation, before concluding that there was no way the girls could possibly have outrun him, and he turned back, searching carefully along the few farm roads that led off into fields. To and fro he went, inquiring of everyone he saw, growing hotter and more irritated by the moment.
Midway through the afternoon, the army caught up with him, marching columns overtaking the mule, which had slowed to a walk by now. Reluctantly, he turned about and continued with the army to camp. Perhaps Colenso had been wrong; maybe the girls hadn’t left at all. In which case, he’d find them once the camp settled for the night.
He did not. He did find Zeb, though, and Colenso with him. Both were adamant that the girls were indeed gone—and William found no trace of them, though he made stubborn inquiries among the laundresses and cooks.
At last, he trudged through the camp in search of either Papa or Uncle Hal. Not that he expected either man to have any notion regarding the girls—but he somehow felt that he could not abandon his search without at least soliciting their help in putting out word of the girls. Two half-grown girls couldn’t possibly outstrip an army, and—
He stopped dead in the middle of camp, letting men on their way to supper flow around him.
“Bloody hell,” he said, too hot and tired even to make it an exclamation. “Colenso, you left-handed little bugger.” And barely containing his exasperation—with himself as much as with his groom—he set off grimly to find Colenso Baragwanath.
Because Colenso was a left-handed little bugger. William had noticed that immediately, as he suffered from the same affliction himself. Unlike Colenso, though, William could tell the difference between his right hand and his left—and had a sense of direction. Colenso . . . didn’t, and William wanted to kick himself for not remembering that.
“You bloody idiot,” he muttered, wiping a sleeve across his sweating, dusty face. “Why didn’t you think of that?”
Because it made little sense—once he paused to think about it—for the girls to have run off ahead of the army. Even if they were afraid of someone in the army, and even if they meant to reach New York, they would have been better served to have gone the other way, at least temporarily. Let the army march on well ahead, and then make their way wherever they meant to go.
He glanced at the sun, just barely still above the horizon, and heaved a deep, exasperated breath. Whatever else she might be, Jane wasn’t a fool. First he’d find some supper, and then Colenso—but he’d give good odds that the morrow would find him on the road back toward Middletown.
HE FOUND THEM, just before noon. They saw him coming, but he’d seen them first: the two of them walking down the side of the road, each with a bundle in either hand. They glanced over their shoulders at the sound of his wheels, saw nothing alarming, turned back—and then Jane whirled round again, her face aghast as she realized who she’d just seen.
She dropped one of her bundles, clutched her younger sister by the wrist, and jerked her off the road. The road led through farmland here, with open fields on either side—but there was a sizable chestnut grove a few hundred yards ahead, and, despite William’s shout, the girls ran for this as though the devil himself were after them.
Muttering under his breath, he pulled up, dropped the reins, and leapt out. Long-legged as he was, he failed to catch them before they reached the edge of the wood.
“Stop, for God’s sake!” he bellowed. “I’m not going to hurt you!”
Fanny, hearing this, seemed disposed to stop, but Jane yanked her urgently on and they vanished among the rustling leaves.
William snorted and slowed down. Jane could make up her own mind—if she had one, which he was strongly inclined to doubt at the moment—but she hadn’t any business to be dragging her little sister off through land that had been a battlefield only two days ago.
Broken trails and big crushed patches marred the fields, from soldiers running or artillery being dragged through it. He could smell death when he drew a deep breath; it made him uneasy. The stink of uncollected corpses swelling in the sun, bursting open, weltering with flies and maggots . . . On the one hand, he hoped the girls wouldn’t stumble over such a sight. On the other, if they did, they’d likely come haring back out into his arms, screaming.
And corpses might not be the only things hiding in the folds and furrows of the countryside. His hand went automatically to his waist, groping for the hilt of his knife—which, of course, wasn’t there.
“Fucking buggering shit-fucking hell!”
As though this had been a signal, a sudden racket broke out in the trees. Not a corpse; he could hear male voices, cursing, cajoling, and high-pitched shrieks. He snatched up a fallen branch and charged into the grove, shouting at the top of his lungs. He could hear them; they could certainly hear him, and the tone of the shouting changed. The girls were still shrieking, but less frantically, and the men—yes, more than one . . . two, three? Not more—were arguing, agitated, fearful. Not English . . . not speaking English . . .
“Mistkerle!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. Bloody stinking Hessians! “Feiglinge!” Shit-eating cowards!
A great thrashing of leaves and snapping branches, and, peering through the trees, he saw that the lot of them—judging by the noise, the girls were still with them—were heading for the road.
He stopped yelling and instantly altered his own course, charging back toward the road, crashing heedless through brush and low-hanging branches, half-ripe chestnuts thumping off his head and shoulders. There! He saw a man push out of the trees, stumbling onto the road, and lunge back, grabbing. A louder shriek and Fanny came stumbling out in turn, the man gripping her by the neck.
William veered toward them and burst out running, shouting incoherent curses, brandishing his makeshift club. He must nonetheless have looked frightening in his uniform, for the man holding Fanny let go of her at once, turned, and ran like a rabbit, dust spurting from his feet. Fanny staggered and fell to her knees, but there was no blood, she was all right. . . .
“Jane!” He shouted. “Jane! Where are you?”
“Here! He—” Her voice was cut off suddenly, but he could see where she was, no more than ten feet from him, and dived for the wildly waving branches.
There were two men with her, one with a hand over her mouth, the other struggling to detach the bayonet from a brown Bess musket. William kicked the gun out of his hands, then lunged at the man, and in moments was on the ground, grappling with a burly man who might not know what to do with a bayonet but certainly was acquainted with battle of a more primitive sort.
They rolled to and fro, panting and gouging, twigs breaking with a sound like gunshots, cracking beneath their bodies. He heard dimly a screech from the other man—perhaps Jane had bitten him; good girl!—but had no attention to spare for anything but the man who was trying earnestly to throttle him. He had a grip on the man’s wrists, and, with a faint memory of Ban Tarleton, jerked the man closer and butted him in the face.
It worked again; there was a horrible crunch, hot blood spattered his face, and the man’s grip relaxed. William squirmed away, his head swimming, only to find himself facing the other man, who had evidently succeeded in freeing the bayonet, for he had a foot of sharpened steel in his hand.
“Here! Here!” Jane popped out of a bush right beside William, startling him, and shoved something into his hand. It was, thank God, a knife. Nothing to rival the bayonet, but a weapon.
Jane was still by him; he grasped her arm and began to walk backward, knife held low and threatening in his other hand. The Hessian—Christ, was it one of the sons of bitches who’d hit him in the head? He couldn’t tell; there were spots floating in front of his eyes, and the men had thrown away their telltale green coats. Did all sons of bitches wear green coats? he wondered muzzily.
Then they were on the road, and things became confused. He thought he’d stuck one of the men, and the girls were screaming again, and once he found himself in the roadway, choking on dust, but came up again before one of the bastards could kick him in the face . . . and then there was a shout and the pounding of hooves, and he let go of the man whose arm he was gripping and whirled round to see Rachel Hunter on a mule, coming fast down the road, swinging her bonnet from its strings and shouting, “Uncle Hiram! Cousin Seth! Hurry! Come on! Come on! Help me!”