Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 12

   

“I’m sorry, Friend. I have not even small beer. Not even milk for the children any longer,” she added with a certain bitterness. “The army took my goats away.”

She didn’t say which army, but he supposed it didn’t matter to her. He made a sound of apology, just in case it had been the Continentals or the militia, and subsided, breathing heavily. This had happened three times before—just the same sudden flashing pain, the inability to move. Once, it had taken four days before he could hobble; the other two times, he had got to his feet within two days, and while it had twinged sporadically for weeks, he’d been able to walk, if slowly.

“Is thee ill? I could give thee rhubarb syrup,” she offered. He managed to smile at that, shaking his head.

“I thank ye, ma’am. It’s no but a clench in my back. When it eases, all will be well.” The trouble was that until it eased, he was all but helpless, and the dawning realization of that gave him a sense of panic.

“Oh.” The woman hesitated for a moment, hovering, but then the baby started to wail and she turned away to fetch it. A little girl—five or six, he thought, a stunted little creature—crawled out from under the bed and stared at him curiously.

“Is thee going to stay to supper?” she asked, in a high, precise voice. She gave him an appraising frown. “Thee looks like thee would eat a lot.”

He revised his estimate of the girl’s age to eight or nine and smiled at her. He was still sweating with the pain, but it was easing a bit.

“I’ll not take your food, a nighean,” he assured her. “In fact, there’s a good loaf and some jerked meat in yon bag; it’s yours.” Her eyes went round as pennies, and he amended, “Your family’s, I mean.”

She glanced eagerly at the bag, swallowing painfully as her mouth watered; he could hear the tiny gulp and it wrung his heart.

“Pru!” she whispered, turning urgently toward the table. “Food!”

Another small girl crawled out and stood beside her sister. They were both plain as fence posts, though they otherwise didn’t resemble each other much.

“I heard,” the newcomer told her sister, and turned a solemn gaze on Jamie.

“Don’t let Mam give thee rhubarb syrup,” she advised him. “It makes thee shit like the blazes, and if thee can’t get to the privy, it—”

“Prudence!”

Prudence obligingly shut her mouth, though she continued to look Jamie over with interest. Her sister knelt and rummaged under the bed, emerging with the family utensil, this a homely object of brown earthenware, which she presented gravely for his inspection.

“We’ll turn our backs, sir, if thee should need to—”

“Patience!”

Red in the face, Mrs. Hardman took the piss pot from her daughter and shooed the little girls to the table, where—with a glance at Jamie to be sure he had meant it—she took the bread and meat and apples from his bag, dividing the food scrupulously into three parts: two large portions for the girls, and a smaller one for herself, put aside for later.

She had left the chamber pot on the floor beside the bed, and as she eased him gingerly onto the corn-shuck mattress, Jamie caught sight of lettering painted in white across the bottom. He squinted to make it out in the dim light, then smiled. It was a Latin motto, encircling a vividly executed bee with a jovial expression and a pronounced wink. Iam apis potanda fineo ne.

He’d seen the jest before—the brothel in Edinburgh where he’d once kept a room had been equipped throughout with utensils sporting a variety of Latin tags, most of them prurient, but some merely puns, like this one. It was a Latin sentence, if a foolish one—

“Drink not the bee now”—but if read phonetically in English, ignoring the spacing, it read, “I am a piss pot and a fine one.” He glanced up at Mrs. Hardman in speculation but thought it was likely not her work. The absent Mr. Hardman must be—or have been, he thought, given the obvious poverty of the household, and he crossed himself unobtrusively at the thought—an educated man.

The baby had waked and was fussing in her cradle, making small sharp yelps like a fox kit. Mrs. Hardman scooped the child out, pulling a worn nursing chair toward the fire with one foot. She laid the baby momentarily on the bed beside Jamie, opening her blouse with one hand, the other reaching automatically to save an apple that was rolling toward the edge of the table, nudged by a little girl’s elbow.

The baby smacked her lips, hungry as her sisters. “And this will be wee Chastity, I make nay doubt?” he said.

Mrs. Hardman gaped at him. “How did thee know the child’s name?”

He glanced at Prudence and Patience, who were silently stuffing bread and meat into their mouths as quickly as they could eat. “Well, I havena yet met a lassie named Sobriety or Fortitude,” he said mildly. “The wean’s sopping; have ye a clean clootie for her?”

There were two worn clouts hung to dry before the fire; she brought one, to find that Jamie had already unpinned the baby’s soggy nappie—that’s what Claire called them—and wiped the shit from her bottom, holding her tiny ankles in one hand.

“Thee has children, I see.” Eyebrows raised, Mrs. Hardman took the soiled clout from him with a nod of thanks and dropped it into a bucket of vinegar and water that stood in the far corner.

“And grandchildren,” he said, wiggling a finger in front of wee Chastity’s nose. She gurgled and went cross-eyed, kicking her legs enthusiastically. “To say nothing of six nephews and nieces.” And where are Jem and wee Mandy, I wonder? Can she breathe easy now, poor lassie? He gently tickled the baby’s soft pink foot, remembering the strangely beautiful, heart-wrenching blue tinge to Mandy’s perfect toes, long-jointed and graceful as a frog’s.

“They’re just like yours,” Claire had told him, drawing a fingernail lightly down the sole of Mandy’s foot, making the long big toe spring suddenly away from the others. What had she called that?

He tried it himself, gingerly, and smiled with delight to see it happen to Chastity’s chubby toes.

“Babinski,” he said to Mrs. Hardman, with a sense of deep satisfaction at recalling the name. “That’s what it’s called when a wean’s great toe does that. A Babinski reflex.”

Mrs. Hardman looked astonished—though much more so when he skillfully repinned the new clout and swaddled wee Chastity afresh in her blanket. She took the baby from him and, with an uncertain expression, sank down in the chair and pulled the ratty shawl over the baby’s head. Unable to turn over easily, Jamie instead closed his eyes to afford her such privacy as he could.

REMEMBER PAOLI!

IT WAS HARD TO wipe away the sweat with his hands tied and impossible to keep the stinging salt out of his wounded eye, so puffed and slitted that he couldn’t close it tightly. Water ran down his cheek in a steady flow, dripping off his chin. Blinking in a vain attempt to clear his vision, John Grey missed a fallen branch in his path and fell heavily.

Those behind him on the narrow trail halted abruptly, with sounds of mild collision, jangling weapons and canteens, confusion and impatience. Rough hands seized him and hauled him up again, but the tall, rawboned man deputed to be his escort said only, “Watch your step, me lord,” in a mild tone of voice, and gave him a nudge down the path rather than a shove.

Encouraged by this evidence of consideration, he thanked the man and asked his name.

“Me?” The man sounded surprised. “Oh. Bumppo. Natty Bumppo.” Adding, after a moment, “Folks mostly call me ‘Hawkeye,’ though.”

“I don’t wonder,” Grey said, half under his breath. He bowed, as well as he could whilst walking, and nodded at the long rifle that bobbed in a sling at the man’s back. “Your servant, sir. I deduce that you are a fine shot, then?”

“Reckon that would be a good deduction, your lordship.” Bumppo’s voice sounded amused. “Why? D’you want something shot? Or somebody?”

“I’m keeping a list,” Grey told him. “I’ll let you know when it’s complete.”

He felt, rather than heard, the other’s laugh—the amusement was palpable, but it made little sound.

“Let me guess who’s first on your list—the big Scotch fellow what put your light out?”

“He’d be fairly high on the list, yes.” Actually, he couldn’t decide who he’d rather see shot first: Jamie Fraser or his own bloody brother. Probably Hal, all things considered. Rather ironic, if Hal ended up getting him shot. Though his captors seemed quite convinced that hanging was the preferred method.

That reminded him of the uncomfortable bit of conversation that had preceded his being chivvied through the woods on a deer trail bountifully equipped with bramblish bushes, low-hanging branches, ticks, and biting flies the size of the ball of his thumb.

“Would you happen to know what—or possibly who—Paoli is, Mr. Bumppo?” he asked politely, kicking a fir cone out of his way.

“What’s Paoli?” The man’s voice was filled with astonishment. “Why, man, are you just come to this neck o’ the woods?”

“Fairly recently,” Grey replied guardedly.

“Oh.” Bumppo considered, carefully matching his lengthy stride to Grey’s shorter one. “Why, ’twas an infamous attack, to be sure. Your kinsman—Major General Grey, as they said—him and his troops snuck up by night to where General Wayne’s men were camped. Grey didn’t want to risk a stray flint sparking and giving them away, so he gives the order to take out all the flints from their guns and use the bayonets. Fell upon the Americans and bayoneted near a hundred men in their beds, in cold blood!”

“Really?” Grey tried to reconcile this account with any recent battle he knew of, and failed. “And . . . Paoli?”

“Oh. That’s the name of the tavern nearby—Paoli’s Tavern.”

“Ah. Where is it? Geographically, I mean. And when, exactly, did this battle occur?”

Bumppo’s prehensile lips pushed out in thought, then withdrew.

“Be up near Malvern, last September. The Paoli Massacre, they calls it,” he added with a certain dubiousness.

“Massacre?” Grey echoed. The engagement had taken place before his own arrival, but he’d heard it talked about—briefly, and not in terms of massacre, to be sure. But, then, perceptions of the event were bound to be different, depending upon one’s position in the matter. William Howe had spoken of it with approval—as a successful engagement in which a minimal number of British troops had routed an entire American division, with a loss of only seven men.

Bumppo seemed disposed to share Grey’s opinion of the rhetorical nature of the name, albeit from yet a third perspective.

“Well, you know how folks will talk,” he said, lifting one shoulder. “Ain’t what I’d call a proper massacre, but, then, ain’t many folk seen one, and I have.”

“You have?” Glancing up at the tall, bearded ruffian, Grey thought it only too likely.

“Was raised as an Indian,” Bumppo said, with visible pride. “By the Mohican, my own folks havin’ died when I were just a tadpole. Aye, I’ve seen a massacre or two.”

“Indeed?” Grey said, innate courtesy obliging him to invite the man to elaborate, should he wish to. Besides, it would pass the time; they seemed to have been walking for hours, and no end in sight—not that he was eagerly anticipating the end. . . .

As it was, Mr. Bumppo’s reminiscences passed the time to such good effect that Grey was surprised when Corporal Woodbine, in the lead, called the company to a halt at the edge of a fairly sizable encampment. He was glad enough to stop, though; he was wearing city shoes, not suited for the terrain at all, and they had worn through his stockings and rubbed his feet to blood and blisters.

“Scout Bumppo,” Woodbine said, with a short nod to Grey’s companion. “You’ll take the company on to Zeke Bowen’s place. I’ll deliver the prisoner to Colonel Smith.”

This statement gave rise to vocal discontent, from which Grey gathered that the company wished very much to accompany Woodbine, in order not to miss Grey’s execution, which they confidently expected to occur within moments of his delivery to the aforesaid Colonel Smith. Woodbine was firm about it, though, and with democratic mutterings and execrations, the militia moved reluctantly off under the guidance of Natty Bumppo.

Woodbine watched them out of sight, then drew himself up, brushing a stray caterpillar from the breast of his shabby coat and straightening his disreputable hat.

“Well, Lieutenant Colonel Grey. Shall we go?”

NATTY BUMPPO’S reminiscences of the proper way to conduct a massacre had left Grey with the feeling that perhaps, by contrast, hanging was not the worst way to die. But while he hadn’t personally witnessed any first-rate massacres, he’d seen men hanged, very close to—and the memory of it dried his throat. The leakage from his eye hadn’t stopped completely but had lessened; the skin felt raw and inflamed, though, and the swelling gave him the annoying sense that his head was grossly misshapen. Still, he drew himself upright and strode chin out into the ragged canvas tent ahead of Corporal Woodbine.

Colonel Smith looked up from his lap desk, startled at the intrusion—though not quite as startled as Grey.

He’d last seen Watson Smith in his own sister-in-law’s drawing room in London two years ago, eating cucumber sandwiches. In the uniform of a captain of the Buffs.

“Mr. Smith,” he said, recovering his wits first. He bowed very correctly. “Your servant, sir.” He didn’t bother trying to keep the edge out of his voice or his expression. He sat down upon a vacant stool without being invited and gave Smith as direct a stare as he could with one operant eye.

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