Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 134


“Don’t know.” Tench’s hand floated up, touched Jamie’s, but Tench didn’t try to pull it away. It rested on Jamie’s, as though his touch would tell Tench what he needed to know but couldn’t bear to find out for himself.

“Think he . . . Way he spoke. Maybe England, maybe Ireland. He . . . poured pitch over my head and sprinkled feathers on. Others would have left me then, I think. But all of a sudden, he turned back and seized a torch . . .” He coughed, wincing against the spasm, and ended breathlessly, “ . . . like he . . . hated me.” He sounded astonished.

Jamie was carefully breaking off small chunks of singed hair and matted clumps of mud and tar, revealing the blistered skin underneath.

“It’s none sae bad, man,” he said, encouraging. “Your ear’s still there, no but a wee bit black and crusty round the edges.”

That actually made Tench laugh—no more than a breathy gasp—though this was extinguished abruptly when I touched his leg.

“I’ll need more light,” I said, turning to the servant. “And a lot of bandages.” He nodded, avoiding looking at the man on the bed, and left.

We worked for some minutes, murmuring occasional encouragement to Tench. At one point, Jamie pulled the chamber pot out from under the bed, excused himself with a brief word, and took it into the hall; I heard him retching. He came back a few moments later, pale and smelling of vomit, and resumed the delicate work of uncovering what might remain of Tench’s face.

“Can ye open this eye, man?” he asked, gently touching the left side. I peered up from my station over his leg, to see that the lid was evidently whole but badly blistered and swollen, the lashes singed off.

“No.” Tench’s voice had changed, and I moved abruptly up to his head. He sounded almost sleepy, his voice unconcerned. I laid the back of my hand against his cheek; it was cool and clammy. I said something very bad out loud, and his working eye sprang open, staring up at me.

“Oh, there you are,” I said, much relieved. “I thought you were going into shock.”

“If he hasna been shocked by what’s already happened to him, I shouldna think anything would do it, Sassenach,” Jamie said, but bent closer to look. “I think he’s only worn out from the pain, aye? Sometimes ye canna be bothered to put up with it anymore, but ye’re no ready to die, so ye just drift away for a bit.”

Tench sighed deeply and gave a small, jerky nod.

“If you could . . . stop for a little while?” he whispered. “Please.”

“Aye,” Jamie said softly, and, patting his chest, drew the stained sheet up over him. “Rest a bit, mo charaid.”

I wasn’t at all sure that he wasn’t trying to die, but there was a limit to what I could do to prevent him, if that were the case. And there was a much more serious limit to what I could do if he didn’t die.

On the other hand, I had a vivid understanding of exactly what Jamie meant by “drifting away” and of the symptoms of severe blood loss. There was no telling how much blood Tench had lost, lying in the river. The fracture had by some miracle not ruptured either of the main tibial arteries—if it had, he’d have been dead long since—but it had certainly made hash of a number of smaller vessels.

On the other hand . . . the Delaware was a fairly cold river, even in summer. The chill of the water might well have constricted the smaller blood vessels, as well as slowed his metabolism and even perhaps minimized the damage due to burns, both by extinguishing the fire and by cooling the burnt skin. I’d whipped a pro forma tourniquet bandage round the leg above the knee but hadn’t tightened it; blood loss at the moment was no more than a slow oozing.

And, in fact, the burns were minimal. His shirt had been torn open, but the tar on his chest, hands, and clothes hadn’t been hot enough to blister his skin—and while there was certainly visible damage to one side of his face and head, I didn’t think more than a few square inches of scalp had third-degree burns; the rest was redness and blistering. Painful, of course, but not life-threatening. Whoever had attacked him had likely not meant to kill him—but they stood a good chance of doing so, anyway.

“Pitch-capping, they call it,” Jamie said, low-voiced. We had moved away to the window, but he nodded back toward the bed. “I havena seen it before, but I’ve heard of it.” He shook his head, lips tight, then picked up the ewer and offered it to me. “D’ye want water, Sassenach?”

“No—oh, wait. Yes, I do, thank you.” The window was firmly closed, in accordance with the custom of the times, and the small room was sweltering. I took the pitcher and nodded to the window. “Can you get that open, do you think?”

He turned to wrestle with the window; it was stuck fast in its frame, the wood swollen with humidity and disuse.

“What about the leg?” he said, back turned to me. “Ye’ll have to take it off, no?”

I lowered the pitcher—the water was flat and tasted of earth—and sighed.

“Yes,” I said. I’d been fighting that conclusion almost from the moment I’d seen Tench’s leg, but hearing Jamie’s matter-of-factness made it easier to accept.

“I doubt I could save it in a modern hospital, with blood transfusions and anesthetic—and, God, I wish I had ether right now!” I bit my lip, looking at the bed, and watching closely to see whether Tench’s chest was still rising and falling. A tiny, treacherous part of me rather hoped it wasn’t—but it was.

Feet on the stairs, and both Peggy and the manservant were with us again, armed respectively with a stable lantern and an enormous candelabra, Peggy with a square glass bottle clasped to her chest. Both turned anxious faces toward the bed, then toward me, standing apart by the window. Was he dead?

“No,” I said, shaking my head, and saw the same half-regretful relief flit across their faces that I had just experienced. I wasn’t without sympathy; no matter what their feelings for the injured man, having him on the premises was a danger to the Shippens.

I came forward and explained in a low voice what had to be done, watching Peggy go the color of a bad oyster in the flickering light. She swayed a little, but swallowed hard and drew herself up.

“Here?” she said. “I don’t suppose you could take him to . . . Well, no, I suppose not.” She took a deep breath. “All right. What can we do to help?”

The manservant coughed behind her in a meaningful manner, and she stiffened.

“My father would say the same,” she informed him coldly.

“Just so, miss,” he said, with a deference that wasn’t all that deferential. “But he might like to have the chance to say it himself, don’t you think?”

She shot him an angry glance, but before she could say anything, there was a grinding screech of wood as the window gave way to Jamie’s will, and everyone’s eye jerked to him.

“I dinna mean to interrupt,” he said mildly, turning round. “But I do believe the governor has come to call.”

JAMIE PUSHED PAST Miss Shippen and her servant before either could react. He ran lightly down the back stair and came through the house, startling a kitchen maid. Clearly the governor wasn’t going to be admitted by the kitchen door.

He reached the front door just as a firm knock sounded, and pulled it open.

“Miss Margaret!” Arnold pushed past Jamie as though he wasn’t there—no small feat—and seized Peggy Shippen’s hands in his. “I thought I must come—your cousin? How does he do?”

“He is alive.” Peggy swallowed, her face the color of the beeswax candle she was holding. “Mrs. Fraser is—she says—” She swallowed again, and Jamie swallowed with her, out of sympathy, knowing all too well what she was thinking of. Tench Bledsoe’s shattered leg bones, red and slimy as an ineptly butchered pig’s. The back of his throat was still bitter with the taste of vomit.

“I thank you so much for sending Mrs. Fraser to us, sir—I couldn’t think what on earth we were to do. My father’s in Maryland and my mother with her sister in New Jersey. My brothers . . .” She trailed off, looking distraught.

“No, no, my dear—may I call you so? It is my most fervent concern, to help you—your family, to . . . protect you.” He hadn’t let go her hands, Jamie noted, and she wasn’t pulling them away.

Jamie glanced covertly from Arnold to Peggy Shippen, then turned away a little, drawing back. It wasn’t hard for them to ignore him; they were focused on each other.

That made matters plain—or at least plainer. Arnold wanted the girl, and wanted her so nakedly that Jamie was slightly ashamed for the man. You couldn’t help lust, but surely a man should have enough control to hide it. And no just for the sake of decency, either, he thought, seeing a certain look of cautious calculation come into Peggy’s face. It was, he thought, the look of a fisherman who has just seen a fat trout swim right under the lure.

He cleared his throat in a pointed manner, and both of them jerked as though he’d run a drawing pin into them.

“My wife says it will be necessary to amputate the injured leg,” he said. “Quickly. She requires a few things—instruments and the like.”

“I need both the large saw and the small lunar one, the set of tenaculae—the long things that look like fishing hooks—and quite a lot of sutures . . .”

He was trying to keep the list in his head, though it made him ill to envision most of the items, thinking of the use they were about to be put to. Beneath the sense of revulsion and pity, though, was wariness—the same wariness he saw at the back of Benedict Arnold’s eyes.

“Does she,” Arnold said, not quite a question. His eyes flicked back to Peggy Shippen, who bit her lip in a becoming manner.

“Can ye maybe send your coachman to the printshop?” Jamie asked. “I can go with him and fetch back what’s needed.”

“Yes,” Arnold said slowly, but in an abstracted way, the way he did when he was thinking rapidly. “Or . . . no. Let us rather remove Mr. Bledsoe—and Mrs. Fraser, to be sure—to the printshop in my coach. Mrs. Fraser will have access there to everything she requires, and the assistance and support of her family.”

“What?” Jamie exclaimed, but Peggy Shippen was already hanging on to Arnold’s arm, her face transformed by relief. Jamie seized Arnold by the arm to compel his attention, and the governor’s eyes narrowed.

Jamie’s intent had been to demand rhetorically whether Arnold was mad, but the split second’s delay was enough to change this to a more politic “There’s nay room at the shop for such a venture, sir. We live atop one another, and folk come in and out all day. This willna be a simple matter; the man will need to be nursed for some time.”

Peggy Shippen made a small moan of anxiety, and it dawned upon Jamie that Tench Bledsoe was a hot potato, as much—or more—for Arnold as for the Shippens. The last thing Arnold could want, as military governor of the city, was public scandal and disorder, the remaining Loyalists in Philadelphia threatened and frightened, the Sons of Liberty seen as secret vigilantes, a law unto themselves.

Arnold must very much want the incident kept quiet. At the same time, he wanted to be the noble knight, riding to the aid of the very young and enchanting Miss Shippen by caring for her cousin while removing the potential danger he posed to her household.

By bringing it to mine, Jamie thought, his wariness beginning to turn to anger.

“Sir,” he said formally. “There is no possibility of preventing the matter from being known, should ye bring yon man into my son’s shop. And clearly ye ken the danger of that.”

The truth of this was evident, and Arnold paused, wrinkling his brow. But Jamie had fought with the man and kent him well enough; Jamie saw that, having made up his mind to relieve Miss Peggy’s concern, Arnold meant to do it, come hell or high water.

Evidently Claire was right in what she’d told him about testosterone, and he’d already known that Arnold was a ram, in terms both of balls and hardheadedness.

“Ah, I have it!” Arnold exclaimed triumphantly, and Jamie saw—with grudging admiration—the general emergent. This admiration disappeared with Arnold’s next sentence.

“Lord John Grey,” he said. “We could transport Mr. Bledsoe to his lordship’s house.”

“No!” Jamie said by reflex.

“Yes,” Arnold said, but in self-congratulation rather than contradiction; he was paying no attention. “Yes, the ideal solution! His lordship and his brother are much in my debt,” he explained to Peggy, with a feigned modesty that made Jamie want to hit him. “And as his lordship and Mrs. Fraser—” At this point, he caught sight of Jamie’s face and arrested his speech just in time to prevent exactly such a happenstance. He coughed. “The ideal solution,” he repeated. “Will you go and tell Mrs. Fraser what we intend, sir?”

“We?” Jamie said. “I intend nothing of the—”

“What the bloody hell is going on down here?” Claire’s voice came from the stairway behind him, and he swung round to see her leaning on the banister, a-flicker like a ghost in the light from the tin sconce above her. There was blood smudging her apron, blotches black on the pale cloth.

“Nothing, a nighean,” he said, fixing Arnold with a firm eye. “Only discussing where Mr. Bledsoe should be.”

“I don’t care where he should be,” she snapped, coming down into the foyer, skirts rustling with agitation. “Where he will be is dead, if I can’t take care of his leg quickly.” Then she noticed the glaring going on betwixt him and Arnold and moved up beside Jamie, looking hard at the governor herself.

“General Arnold,” she said, “if you have the slightest concern for Miss Shippen’s cousin’s life, you’ll oblige me by taking my husband promptly to fetch the instruments I need. Hurry!”