His mule jerked its head up from the grass and, seeing Rachel’s mount, brayed in greeting. This seemed to be the last straw for the deserters, who stood gaping for one stunned moment, then turned and galloped down the road after their vanished fellow.
William stood swaying for a moment, gasping for breath, then dropped his knife and sat down abruptly.
“What,” he said, in a voice that sounded petulant even to his own ears, “are you doing here?”
Rachel ignored him. She swung down from her mule, landing with a small thump, and led it to William’s mule, tethering it to the cart. Only then did she walk over to where William sat, slowly brushing dirt from his knees and counting his limbs.
“You wouldn’t happen to have seen a couple of girls, would you?” he asked, tilting his head back to look up at Rachel.
“Yes. They ran into the trees,” she said, nodding toward the chestnut grove. “As for what I am doing here, I have been up and down this road three times, looking for thy cousin, Ian Murray.” She gave him a hard look as she said this, as though daring him to contradict her assertion regarding his kinship with Murray. Under other circumstances, he might have taken offense, but at the moment he hadn’t the energy. “I assume that if thee had seen him, dead or alive, thee would tell me?”
“Yes,” he said. There was a swollen knot between his eyes, where he had butted the deserter, and he rubbed this gingerly.
She drew a deep breath, sighed loudly, and wiped her sweating face on her apron, before replacing her bonnet. She looked him over, shaking her head.
“Thee is a rooster, William,” Rachel said mournfully. “I saw this in thee before, but now I know it for certain.”
“A rooster,” he repeated coldly, brushing dirt from his sleeve. “Indeed. A vain, crowing, gaudy sort of fellow—that’s what you think me?”
Her brows went up. They were not the level brows of classic beauty; they quirked up at the ends, even when her face was at rest, giving her a look of interested intelligence. When she was not at rest, they slanted with a sharp, wicked sort of look. They did this for an instant now, but then relaxed. A little.
“No,” she said. “Has thee ever kept chickens, William?”
“Not for some years,” he said, examining the hole torn in the elbow of his coat, the hole ripped in the shirt beneath, and the bloody scrape upon his bare elbow. Bloody hell, one of the buggers had come close to taking his arm off with that bayonet. “What with one thing and another, my recent acquaintance with chickens has been limited largely to breakfast. Why?”
“Why, a rooster is a creature of amazing courage,” Rachel said, rather reproachful. “He will throw himself into the face of an enemy, even knowing he will die in the attack, and thus buy his hens time to escape.”
William’s head jerked up.
“My hens?” he said, outrage bringing the blood to his face. “My hens?” He glanced in the direction Jane and Fanny had taken, then glared back at Rachel. “Do you not realize that they are whores?”
She rolled her eyes at him in exasperation. She bloody rolled her eyes at him!
“I expect I have been living with an army for somewhat longer than thee has thyself,” she said, making a decided effort to look down her nose at him. “I am familiar with women who lack both property and protection and are thus reduced to the dreadful expedient of selling their bodies, yes.”
“‘Dreadful expedient’?” he repeated. “You realize that I—”
She stamped a foot and glared at him.
“Will thee stop repeating everything I say?” she demanded. “I was attempting to pay thee a compliment—while, as thy friend, lamenting the end thy roosterishness will surely bring thee to. Whether thy companions are whores or not—and whether thee pays for their company—is irrelevant to the matter.”
“Irre—” William began in indignation, but choked the word off before he could be further accused of repetition. “I don’t bloody pay them!”
“Irrelevant,” she repeated, doing it herself, by God! “Thee has behaved in exactly the same way on my own behalf, after all.”
“You—” He stopped abruptly. “I have?”
She exhaled strongly, eyeing him in a manner suggesting that she would have kicked him in the shins or stamped on his toes if not reminded of her Quaker principles.
“Twice,” she said, elaborately polite. “The occasions were so negligible, I suppose—or I was—that thee has forgotten?”
“Remind me,” he said dryly, and, ripping a chunk from the torn lining of his coat, used it to wipe the mud—and blood, he saw—from his face.
She snorted briefly, but obliged. “Does thee not recall the odious creature who attacked us in that dreadful place on the road in New York?”
“Oh, that.” His belly clenched in recollection. “I didn’t exactly do it on your account. Nor did I have much choice in the matter. He bloody tried to cave my head in with an ax.”
“Hmph. I think thee has some fatal attraction for ax-wielding maniacs,” she said, frowning at him. “That Mr. Bug actually did hit thee in the head with an ax. But when thee killed him later, it was to protect Ian and me from a similar fate, was it not?”
“Oh, indeed,” he said, a little crossly. “How do you know it wasn’t just revenge for his attacking me?”
“Thee may be a rooster, but thee is not a vengeful rooster,” she said reprovingly. She pulled a kerchief from her pocket and blotted her face, which was growing shiny with perspiration again. “Should we not look for thy . . . companions?”
“We should,” he said, with a degree of resignation, and turned toward the grove. “I think they’ll run if I go in after them, though.”
Rachel made an impatient noise and, pushing past him, stomped into the woods, rustling through the brush like a hungry bear. The thought made him grin, but a sudden yelp wiped the smile off his face. He started after her, but she was already backing out, yanking Jane by one arm, meanwhile trying to avoid the wild swipes Jane was making with her free hand, fingers clawed and slashing toward Rachel’s face.
“Stop that!” William said sharply, and, stepping forward, grabbed Jane by the shoulder and jerked her out of Rachel’s grasp. She turned blindly on him, but he had longer arms than Rachel and could easily hold her at bay.
“Will you quit that?” he said crossly. “No one’s going to hurt you. Not now.”
She did stop, though she looked back and forth between him and Rachel like a cornered animal, panting and the whites of her eyes showing.
“He’s right,” Rachel said, edging cautiously toward her. “Thee is quite safe now. What is thy name, Friend?”
“She’s called Jane,” William said, gradually loosing his hold, ready to grab her again if she bolted. “I don’t know her surname.”
She didn’t bolt, but didn’t speak, either. Her dress was torn at the neck, and she put a hand to the torn edge automatically, trying to fit it back in place.
“Have you seen my bundle?” she said, in an almost ordinary voice. “I have a housewife in it. I need a needle.”
“I’ll look for it,” Rachel said soothingly. “Did thee drop it in the wood?”
“Thir!” Fanny spoke quite sharply behind William, and he became aware that she’d been there for a few moments; she’d said it once or twice before.
“What?” he said impatiently, half-turning toward her while trying to keep both Jane and Rachel in view.
“There’th an Indian in there,” she said, and pointed toward the woods.
Rachel ran across the road, fleet as a snipe, and vanished into the trees. William followed hastily, hand on his knife. There was likely more than one Indian in these woods, and if it wasn’t Murray . . .
But he could tell from Rachel’s exclamation of mingled horror and relief from the depths of the wood that it was.
Murray was crumpled into a heap in the deep shadow at the base of a big pine tree, needles half-scuffled over him; evidently he’d tried to disguise himself but had passed out before managing the job.
“He’s breathing,” Rachel said, and he heard the catch in her voice.
“Good,” William said briefly, and, squatting beside her, put a hand on Murray’s shoulder to turn him over. The apparently insensible body gave a shriek, contorted violently, and ended on his knees, swaying and glaring wildly round, clutching the shoulder William had seized. Only then did William see the dried blood streaked down the arm and the fresh dribbles running down from the broken shaft of an arrow embedded in the swollen flesh.
“Ian,” Rachel said. “Ian, it’s me. It’s all right now. I have thee.” Her voice was steady, but her hand trembled as she touched him.
Murray gulped air, and his bleared gaze seemed to clear, traveling from Fanny and Jane, who had come into the grove after William, pausing briefly with a frown at William’s face, then settling and easing as he saw Rachel. He closed his eyes and let out a long breath.
“Taing do Dhia,” he said, and sank back on his haunches.
“Water,” Rachel said urgently, shaking the empty canteen that lay on the ground beside Ian. “Has thee got any water, William?”
“I have,” said Jane, stirring out of her trance and groping for the canteen round her neck. “Will he be all right, do you think?”
Rachel didn’t answer but helped Murray to drink, her face pale with anxiety. Murray’s own face bore the remnants of war paint, William saw with interest, and a brief ripple raised the hairs on his scalp, wondering whether Murray had killed any of the British soldiers. At least the bugger wasn’t sporting any scalps on his belt, British or otherwise.
Rachel was conversing now in low tones with Murray, glancing now and then at William, a certain speculation in her gaze.
William was mildly surprised to find that he knew exactly what she was thinking. Though perhaps it wasn’t so surprising; he’d been wondering much the same thing: could Murray ride the mule? Plainly he couldn’t walk far. And if he couldn’t . . . could Rachel persuade William to take Murray and her into the city in the wagon?
He felt his stomach clench at the thought of going back to Philadelphia.
His own gaze flicked toward Jane—only to discover that she wasn’t there. Neither was Fanny.
He was halfway to his feet when he heard Rachel’s mule bray in protest, and he made it to the road in seconds, to find Jane engaged in a futile struggle to push Fanny up into the saddle. The younger girl was trying valiantly, clutching at the mule’s bristly mane and attempting to get a leg up, but the mule was objecting strenuously to this sort of interference, tossing his head and backing away from Jane, leaving Fanny’s legs kicking desperately in the air.
William reached her in three paces and clasped her about the waist.
“Let go, sweetheart,” he said calmly. “I’ve got you.” Fanny was surprisingly solid, given her fragile appearance. She smelled sweet, too, though her neck was grubby and her clothes grimed with mud and road dust.
He put her down and turned a firm eye on Jane, who was looking defiant. He’d been acquainted with her long enough now, though, to see that the uplifted chin and tight jaw were covering fear, and, in consequence, spoke more gently than he might have.
“Where were you planning to go?” he asked, in a tone of mild interest.
“I—well, New York,” she answered, but uncertainly, and her eyes were darting to and fro, as though expecting some threat to manifest itself from the peaceful countryside.
“Without me? I’m hurt, madam, that you should have conceived a sudden dislike of my company. What have I done to offend you, pray?”
She pressed her lips tight together, but he could see that his jesting tone had settled her a little; she was still red in the face from exertion, but not breathing in that jerky way.
“I think we must part, Lord Ellesmere,” she said, with a touchingly absurd attempt at formality. “I—we—shall make our own way now.”
He folded his arms, leaned back against the wagon, and looked down his nose at her.
“How?” he inquired. “You haven’t any money, you don’t have a mount, and you wouldn’t get five miles on foot without running into someone else like those German fellows.”
“I—have a little money.” She smoothed a hand over her skirt, and he saw that there was indeed a bulge where her pocket lay. Despite his intent to remain calm, there was still a spring of anger in him, and it burst forth at this.
“Where did you get it?” he demanded, straightening up and grabbing her by the wrist. “Did I not forbid you to whore?”
She yanked her hand smartly free and took two quick steps back.
“You haven’t any right to forbid me to do any damned thing I want!” she snapped, color burning high in her cheeks. “And it’s none of your business, but I didn’t make this money on my back!”
“What, then? Pimping your sister?”
She slapped him, hard. He shouldn’t have said it and knew it, but the knowledge—and his stinging cheek—only made him angrier.
“I should bloody leave you here, you—”
“Good! That’s just what I want you to do! You—you—”
Before either of them could decide upon an epithet, Rachel and Ian emerged from the wood, the tall Scot leaning heavily on her. William gave Jane a final glare and went to help, taking Murray’s weight on one side. The man stiffened, resisting for a moment, but then yielded; he had to.
“What happened?” William asked, nodding at the broken arrow shaft. “A private quarrel or just bad aim?”