Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 104

   

“Stay here. I see something that might do.” He’d already seen that there was little in the way of fallen branches near the road; there never was, when an army’s foragers had recently passed through. But he saw an orchard of some kind, a little way from the road, with a farmhouse beyond.

As he made his way toward the orchard, he could see that artillery had been hauled through it; there were deep furrows in the ground, and many of the trees had broken limbs, hanging like jackstraws.

There was a dead man in the orchard. American militia, by his hunting shirt and homespun breeches, lying curled among the gnarled roots of a big apple tree.

“Should have culled that one,” William said aloud, keeping his voice steady. Old apple trees never yielded much; you took them out after fifteen, twenty years and replanted. He turned away from the body, but not fast enough to avoid seeing the greedy flies rise up in a buzzing cloud from what was left of the face. He walked three paces away and threw up.

No doubt it was the cloying smell of rotting apples that rose above the ghost of black powder; the whole orchard hummed with the noise of wasps gorging themselves on the juices. He unwrapped the handkerchief from Jane’s knife and thrust the knife through his belt without looking to see if there were bloodstains on it. He wiped his mouth, then, after a moment’s hesitation, went and laid the handkerchief over the Rebel’s face. Someone had stripped the body; he had neither weapons nor shoes.

“THIS DO YOU?” He laid a three-foot length of applewood across the saddlebow. He’d broken it at both ends, so it made a serviceable club, about the thickness of his own forearm.

Murray seemed to wake from a doze; he drew himself slowly upright, took hold of the club, and nodded.

“Aye, that’ll do,” he said softly. His voice sounded thick, and William looked at him sharply.

“You’d best drink some more,” he said, handing up the canteen again. It was getting low; probably no more than a quarter full. Murray took it, though moving sluggishly, drank, and gave it back with a sigh.

They walked without conversation for a half hour or so, leaving William time at last to sort through the events of the morning. It was well past noon now; the sun was pressing on his shoulders like a heated flatiron. How far did Rachel say it was it to Freehold? Six miles?

“D’ye want me to tell ye, or no?” Murray said suddenly.

“Tell me what?”

There was a brief sound that might have been either amusement or pain.

“Whether ye’re much like him.”

Possible responses to this came so fast that they collapsed upon themselves like a house of cards. He took the one on top.

“Why do you suppose I should wonder?” William managed, with a coldness that would have frozen most men. Of course, Murray was blazing with such a fever, it would take a Quebec blizzard to freeze him.

“I would, if it was me,” Murray said mildly.

That defused William’s incipient explosion momentarily.

“Perhaps you think so,” he said, not trying to hide his annoyance. “You may know him, but you know nothing whatever about me.”

This time, the sound was undeniably amusement: laughter, of a hoarse, creaking sort.

“I helped fish ye out of a privy ten years ago,” Murray said. “That was when I first kent it, aye?”

Shock struck William almost dumb, but not quite.

“What—that . . . that place in the mountains—Fraser’s Ridge . . . ?!” He’d succeeded, for the most part, in forgetting the incident of the snake in the privy, and with it, most of a miserable journey through the mountains of North Carolina.

Murray took William’s choler for confusion, though, and chose to elucidate.

“The way ye came out o’ the muck, your eyes bleezin’ blue and your face set for murder—that was Uncle Jamie to the life, when he’s roused.” Murray’s head bobbed forward alarmingly. He caught himself and straightened up with a muffled groan.

“If you’re going to fall off,” William said, with elaborate courtesy, “do it on the other side, will you?”

“Mmphm.”

They paced another hundred yards before Murray came to life again, resuming the conversation—if it could be called that—as though there had been no pause.

“So when I found ye in the swamp, I kent who ye were. I dinna recall ye thankin’ me for saving your life that time, by the way.”

“You can thank me for not strapping you into a travois with a dead panther and dragging you for miles through the dirt now,” William snapped.

Murray laughed, gasping a little.

“Ye’d likely do it, if ye had a dead panther.” The effort of laughing seemed to deprive him of balance, and he swayed alarmingly.

“Fall off and I’ll do it anyway,” William said, grabbing him by the thigh to steady him. “Dead panther or not.” Christ, the man’s skin was so hot he could feel it through the buckskin leggings.

Despite his fog, Murray noticed his reaction.

“You lived through the fever,” he said, and took a deep breath. “I will, too; dinna fash.”

“If by that expression you mean that I ought not to be concerned that you’ll die,” William said coldly, “I’m not.”

“I’m no worrit, either,” Murray assured him. The man wobbled slightly, reins held loose in one hand, and William wondered if he could be sunstruck. “Ye promised Rachel, aye?”

“Yes,” William said, adding almost involuntarily, “I owe her and her brother my life, as much as I do you.”

“Mmphm,” Murray said agreeably, and fell silent. He seemed to be going a nasty grayish color under the sun-browned skin. This time he stayed silent for a good five minutes before coming suddenly to life again.

“And ye dinna think I ken much about ye, after listening to ye rave wi’ fever for days?”

“I do not,” William said. “No more than I think I’ll know a great deal about you by the time I get you to Freehold.”

“Maybe more than ye think. Stop, aye? I’m going to puke.”

“Whoa!” The mule obligingly halted, though it clearly didn’t like either the sound or the smell of what was going on behind its head, and kept sidling round in circles, trying to escape it.

William waited ’til it was over, then handed up his canteen without comment. Murray drained it and handed it back. His hand was shaking, and William began to be worried.

“We’ll stop as soon as I find water,” he said. “Get you into the shade.” Neither of them had a hat; he’d left his in the copse, rolled up with his uniform coat under a bush.

Murray didn’t reply to this; he was not precisely raving, but seemed to be pursuing a separate conversation in his head.

“I maybe dinna ken ye that well, but Rachel does.”

That was undeniably true and gave William an oddly mixed sense of shame, pride, and anger. Rachel and her brother did know him well; they’d saved his life and nursed him back to health, had traveled with him for weeks and shared both food and danger.

“She says ye’re a good man.”

William’s heart squeezed a little.

“I’m obliged for her good opinion,” he said. The water hadn’t helped that much; Murray was definitely swaying in the saddle, his eyes half closed.

“If you die,” William said loudly, “I’ll marry her.”

That worked; Murray’s eyelids lifted at once. He smiled, very slightly.

“Ken that,” he said. “Ken I’m no going to die? And, besides, ye owe me a life, Englishman.”

“I don’t. I saved your bloody life, too; I saved the both of you from that maniac—Bug, was he?—with the ax in Philadelphia. We’re quits.”

Some interminable time later, Murray roused himself again.

“I doubt it,” he said.

KEEPING SCORE

JAMIE SAW THE GREYS out of the house and came back with an air of grim satisfaction. I would have laughed if it hadn’t hurt to do it, but settled for smiling at him.

“Your son, your nephew, your wife,” I said. “Fraser, three; Grey, nil.”

He gave me a startled look, but then his face truly relaxed for the first time in days. “You’re feeling better, then,” he said, and, coming across the room, bent and kissed me. “Talk daft to me some more, aye?” He sat down heavily on the stool and sighed, but with relief.

“Mind,” he said, “I havena the slightest idea how I’m going to keep ye, with no money, no commission, and no profession. But keep ye I will.”

“No profession, forsooth,” I said comfortably. “Name one thing you can’t do.”

“Sing.”

“Oh. Well, besides that.”

He spread his hands on his knees, looking critically at the scars on his maimed right hand.

“I doubt I could make a living as a juggler or a pickpocket, either. Let alone a scribe.”

“You haven’t got to write,” I said. “You have a printing press—Bonnie, by name.”

“Well, aye,” he admitted, a certain light coming into his eyes. “I do. But she’s in Wilmington at the moment.” His press had been shipped from Edinburgh in the care of Richard Bell, who was—presumably—keeping her in trust until her real owner should come to repossess her.

“We’ll go and get her. And then—” But I stopped, afraid to jinx the future by planning too far. It was an uncertain time for everyone, and no telling what the morrow might bring.

“But first,” I amended, reaching out to squeeze his hand, “you should rest. You look as though you’re about to die.”

“Dinna talk that sort of daft,” he said, and laughed and yawned simultaneously, nearly breaking his jaw.

“Lie down,” I said firmly. “Sleep—at least until Lieutenant Bixby shows up again with more cheese.” The American army had withdrawn to Englishtown, some seven miles away, only an hour’s ride. The British army had decamped entirely, but as many of the militia units’ enlistments had expired soon afterward, the roads were still very busy with men going home, mostly afoot.

He did lie down on his pallet, with surprisingly little protest—a good indication of just how exhausted he really was—and was asleep in seconds.

I was very tired myself, still very weak and easily exhausted, even by something like the Greys’ visit, and I lay back and dozed, stirring to wakefulness every so often when some sound roused me, but Jamie slept deeply, and it eased my heart to hear his soft, regular snore.

I woke some time later, hearing a distant knocking below. As I raised my head blearily off the pillow, I heard a voice shouting, “Hallo, the house!” and snapped into instant alertness. I knew that voice.

I glanced quickly down, but Jamie was dead asleep, curled up like a hedgehog. With excruciating slowness, I managed to swing my legs off the bed and—moving like a geriatric tortoise and clinging to the bed frame—took the two steps that brought me to the window, where I clung to the sill.

There was a handsome bay mule in the dooryard, with a half-naked body laid over the saddle. I gasped—and immediately doubled in pain, but didn’t let go the sill. I bit my lip hard, not to call out. The body was wearing buckskins, and his long brown hair sported a couple of bedraggled turkey feathers.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I breathed, through gritted teeth. “Please, God, don’t let him be—” But the prayer was answered before I’d finished speaking it; the door below opened, and in the next moment William and Lieutenant Macken walked out and lifted Ian off the mule, put his arms about their shoulders, and carried him into the house.

I turned, instinctively reaching for my medical bag—and nearly fell. I saved myself by a grab at the bed frame but let out an involuntary groan that brought Jamie up into a crouch, staring wildly about.

“It’s . . . all right,” I said, willing my belly muscles into immobility. “I’m fine. It’s—Ian. He’s come back.”

Jamie sprang to his feet, shook his head to clear it, and at once went to the window. I saw him stiffen and, clutching my side, followed him. William had come out of the house and was preparing to mount the mule. He was dressed in shirt and breeches, very grubby, and the sun licked his dark chestnut hair with streaks of red. Mrs. Macken said something from the door, and he turned to answer her. I don’t think I made a noise, but something made him look up suddenly and he froze. I felt Jamie freeze, too, as their eyes met.

William’s face didn’t change, and after a long moment he turned to the mule again, mounted, and rode away. After another long moment, Jamie let out his breath.

“Let me put ye back to bed, Sassenach,” he said calmly. “I’ll have to go and find Denny to put Ian right.”

I WILL NOT HAVE THEE BE ALONE

SOMEONE HAD GIVEN HIM laudanum before setting to work on his shoulder. Strange stuff, that. He’d had it before, he thought, a long time ago, though he hadn’t known the name at the time. Now Ian lay on his back, blinking slowly as the drug ebbed from his mind, trying to decide where he was and what was real. He was pretty sure most of what he was looking at right now wasn’t.

Pain. That was real and something to use as an anchor. It hadn’t entirely gone away—he’d been aware of it, but remotely, as a disagreeable muddy green strand like a stream of dirty water meandering through his dreams. Now that he was awake, though, it was becoming more disagreeable by the minute. His eyes didn’t want to focus yet, but he forced them to roll about in search of something familiar.

He found it at once.

Girl. Lass. Ifrinn, what was her—“Rachel,” he croaked, and she rose instantly from what she was doing and came to him, her face worried but alight.

“Rachel?” he said again, uncertain, and she took hold of his good hand, pressing it to her bosom.

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