Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 11

   

Jamie saw her throat move as she swallowed, squeezing the child so hard that it squealed like a piglet and started to cry. He felt several of the men, doubtless fathers, wince at the sound.

“No, Friend,” she said, and he realized she was a Quaker. “Naught but water from the well. Shall I fetch you a bucket?”

“Don’t trouble thyself, Friend Hardman,” Nathanael Greene said, soft-voiced. “I’ve two bottles in my saddlebag will do us.” He moved slowly toward the woman, not to startle her, and took her gently by the arm. “Come outside. Thee needn’t be disturbed by this business.” He was a heavy, imposing man, who walked with a noticeable limp, but she seemed reassured by his plain speech and went with him, though looking back with an anxious face, as though fearing that the men might set fire to the place.

A quarter hour later, Jamie wasn’t so sure that they might not ignite the cabin by the sheer force of their excitement. Washington and his troops had been bottled up at Valley Forge for the last six months, drilling and preparing, and the generals were on fire to be at the enemy.

Much talk, plans proposed, argued over, put aside, returned to. Jamie listened with half a mind; the other half was in Philadelphia. He’d heard enough from Fergus to know that the city was divided, with regular clashes between Patriots and Loyalists, these kept under control only by the presence of the British soldiers—but the Loyalists were a minority. The moment the army’s protection was withdrawn, the Loyalists would be at the mercy of the Rebels—and Rebels who had been suppressed for months were not likely to be merciful.

And Claire . . . His mouth went dry. Claire was, so far as anyone in Philadelphia knew, the wife of Lord John Grey, a very visible Loyalist. And Jamie himself had just removed John Grey’s protection from her, leaving her alone and helpless in a city about to explode.

How long did he have before the British left the city? No one at the table knew.

He took as little part as possible in the conversation, both because he was estimating how fast he could reach Philadelphia on foot—versus the possibility of going out to the privy and stealing back the horse he’d just given Washington—and because he hadn’t forgotten what auld Dan had said to General Washington when he’d dragged Jamie in here. The very last thing he wanted was—

“And you, Colonel Fraser,” Washington said. Jamie closed his eyes and commended his soul to God. “Will you do me the signal service of accepting command of Henry Taylor’s battalion? General Taylor fell ill and died two days ago.”

“I . . . am honored, sir,” Jamie managed, thinking frantically. “But I have very urgent business . . . in Philadelphia. I should be happy to oblige ye, so soon as my business is accomplished—and I could, of course, bring back word of exactly how matters stand with General Clinton’s forces.” Washington had been looking severe during the first part of this speech, but the last sentence made Greene and Morgan hum with approval and Wayne nod his little chipmunk head.

“Can you manage your business within three days, Colonel?”

“Yes, sir!” It was no more than ten miles to the city; he could do that in two or three hours. And it wasn’t going to take him more than thirty seconds to take Claire out of that house, once he reached it.

“Very well, then. You’re appointed to a temporary field rank of General of the Army. That—”

“Ifrinn!”

“I beg your pardon, Colonel?” Washington looked puzzled. Dan Morgan, who’d heard Jamie say “Hell!” in Gàidhlig before, shook silently beside him.

“I—thank ye, sir.” He swallowed, feeling a dizzy wave of heat pass over him.

“Though the Congress will have to approve your appointment,” Washington went on, frowning a little, “and there’s no guarantee as to what those contentious, shopkeeping sons of bitches will do.”

“I understand, sir,” Jamie assured him. He could only hope. Dan Morgan passed him a bottle, and he drank deep, hardly noticing what was in it. Sweating profusely, he sank back on the bench, hoping to avoid any further notice.

Jesus, now what? He’d meant to slip quietly into the city and out again with Claire, then head south to retrieve his printing press, perhaps establish a wee business in Charleston or Savannah until the war was over and they could go home to the Ridge. But he had known there was a risk; any man below the age of sixty could be compelled into militia service, and if it came down to it, he was likely a little safer being a general than a commander of militia. Maybe. And a general could resign; that was a heartening thought.

Despite all the talk and the worrying prospects of the immediate future, Jamie found himself paying more attention to Washington’s face than to what he said, taking note of how the man talked and carried himself, so that he could tell Claire. He wished that he could tell Brianna; she and Roger Mac had sometimes speculated about what it might be like to meet someone like Washington—though having met a number of famous people himself, he’d told her that the experience was likely to prove a disappointment.

He would admit that Washington knew what he was about, though; he listened more than he talked, and when he said something, it was to the point. And he did give off an air of relaxed authority, though it was clear the present prospect excited him very much. His face was pockmarked, big-featured, and far from handsome, but had a good bit of dignity and presence.

His expression had become very animated, and he went so far as to laugh now and then, showing very bad, stained teeth. Jamie was fascinated; Brianna had told him they were false, made of wood or hippopotamus ivory, and he had a sudden dislocating recollection of his grandfather: the Old Fox had had a set of teeth made of beechwood. Jamie had thrown them on the fire during an argument at Beaufort Castle—and just for an instant he was there, smelling peat smoke and roasting venison, every hair on his body a-prickle with warning, surrounded by kinsmen who might just kill him.

And as suddenly he was back, pressed between Lee and auld Dan, smelling sweat and exhilaration and, despite himself, feeling the rising excitement among them begin to seep into his blood.

It gave him a queer feeling in his wame, to sit nay more than a foot away from a man whom he knew not at all but about whom he maybe kent more than the man himself.

True, he’d sat with Charles Stuart many evenings, knowing—and believing—what Claire had said would happen to him. But still . . . Christ had told doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed.” Jamie wondered what you called those who had seen and were obliged to live with the resultant knowledge. He thought “blessed” was maybe not the word.

IT WAS MORE than an hour before Washington and the others took their leave—an hour during which Jamie thought repeatedly that he might just stand up, flip the table over, and run out the door, leaving the Continental army to make shift without him.

He kent perfectly well that armies moved slowly, save when fighting. And clearly Washington expected that it would be a week or more before the British actually quit Philadelphia. But it was no use talking sense to his body, which as usual had its own measures of importance. He could ignore or suppress hunger, thirst, fatigue, and injury. He couldn’t suppress the need to see Claire.

Likely it was what she and Brianna called testosterone poisoning, he thought idly—their term for the obvious things men did that women didn’t understand. Someday he must ask her what testosterone was. He shifted uncomfortably on the narrow bench, forcing his mind back to what Washington was saying.

At long last, there came a rap on the door, and a black man put his head in and nodded to Washington.

“Ready, suh,” he said, in the same soft Virginia accent as his master.

“Thank you, Caesar.” Washington nodded back, then put his hands on the table and rose swiftly. “We are agreed, then, gentlemen? You’re coming with me, General Lee. I’ll see the rest of you in due course at Sutfin’s farm, save you hear otherwise.”

Jamie’s heart leapt and he made to rise, too, but auld Dan put a hand on his sleeve.

“Set a bit, Jamie,” he said. “You’ll need to know something about your new command, won’t you?”

“I—” he began, but there was no help for it. He sat and waited while Nathanael Greene thanked Mrs. Hardman for her hospitality and begged her to accept a small recompense from the army for her civil reception of them. Jamie would have wagered a good deal that the coins he plucked from his purse were his own and not the army’s, but the woman took them, an acceptance too faint to be pleasure showing in her worn face. He saw her shoulders sag with relief as the door closed behind the generals and realized that their presence might have put her and her child in considerable peril, should the wrong people see uniformed Continental officers visiting her house.

She glanced consideringly at him and Dan, but they seemed to trouble her much less, in their rough civilian clothes. Dan had taken off his uniform coat and folded it inside out, laying it on the bench beside him.

“Feel any tongues of fire come down on your head just now, Jamie?” Dan asked, seeing his look.

“What?”

“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you,” Dan quoted, and grinned wide at Jamie’s look of astonishment.

“My Abigail’s a reading woman, and she reads bits o’ the Bible out to me regular, in hopes it’ll do some good, though ain’t much luck in that direction yet.” He took up the rucksack he’d brought in and dredged about in it, coming out with a folded sheaf of dog-eared papers, an inkhorn, and a couple of tattered quills.

“Well, now that the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost are gone off about their own business, let me write you down the names of your company commanders, what-all you got in the way of militia, and where they all are, ’cuz it ain’t like they’re all in barracks—or even in the same village. Missus Hardman, might I trouble you, ma’am, for a drop of water for my ink?”

Jamie bent his mind with difficulty to the business at hand, the better to dispatch it quickly, and within a quarter hour was gathering together the lists, made out in Dan’s slow, crabbed hand. Two hours to Philadelphia . . . maybe three . . .

“Got any money on you to speak of?” Dan asked, pausing by the door.

“Not a penny,” Jamie admitted, with a glance at the spot on his belt where his purse was normally fastened. He’d given it to Jenny to keep on the journey, as she delighted in making their small purchases. And this morning he’d been so much on fire to see Claire that he’d left the printshop with nothing but the clothes on his back and the packet of papers for Fergus. He spared an instant to wonder whether things would be different now, had he not been spotted giving the papers to Fergus and followed to Lord John’s house by the soldiers—and William—but there was no point in regrets.

Dan pawed in his sack again, came out with a smaller bag and a clinking purse, both of which he tossed to Jamie.

“A bit of food for your journey, and an advance on your general’s pay,” he said, and chortled with amusement at his own wit. “You’ll need to pay hard cash for a uniform these days; ain’t a tailor in Philadelphia will take Continentals. And woe betide you if you show up before his worshipfulness George Washington without being dressed proper. He’s a stickler for proper uniform, says you can’t expect to command respect without lookin’ like you deserve it. But I reckon you know all about that.”

Dan, who had fought both battles of Saratoga in a hunting shirt, leaving his uniform coat hung over a tree branch in camp because of the heat, smiled broadly at Jamie, the scar on his upper lip where a bullet had torn through his face showing white against the weathered skin.

“Fare thee well, General Fraser!”

Jamie snorted but smiled nonetheless as he stood to shake Dan’s hand. Then he turned back to the litter on the table, stowing the papers and purse—and a stray quill that Dan had abandoned, overlooked—into the bag. He was grateful for the food; the scent of jerked meat and journeycake floated out of the canvas depths, and he could feel the hard shape of apples at the bottom. He’d left the printshop without breakfast, too.

He straightened, and a pain like white lightning shot from the middle of his spine down the back of his leg to the sole of his foot. He gasped and collapsed onto a stool, his lower back and right buttock clenched with cramp.

“Jesus, Mary, and Bride—not now,” he said between his teeth, and meant it somewhere between prayer and curse. He’d felt something small wrench or tear in his back when he’d hit John Grey, but in the heat of the moment it hadn’t seemed important. It hadn’t troubled him much walking—he’d barely noticed, with all there was on his mind—but now that he’d sat for a time and the muscles had chilled . . .

He tried rising, carefully, collapsed again. Bent sweating over the table with his fists clenched, he said a number of things in Gaelic that weren’t at all prayerful.

“Is thee quite well, Friend?” The woman of the house leaned near, peering nearsightedly at him in concern.

“A . . . moment,” he managed, trying to do as Claire told him and breathe through the spasm.

“Like labor pains,” she’d told him, amused. He hadn’t thought it was funny the first time and didn’t now.

The pain eased. He extended his leg, then flexed it back under him, very gingerly. So far, so good. But when he once more tried to rise, his lower back was locked in a vise, and a pain that made him catch his breath stabbed down his buttock.

“Have ye . . . anything like . . . whisky? Rum?” If he could just get to his feet . . . But the woman was shaking her head.

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