Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 54

   

“Aye, fine. I’m no going in there. If we have to kill him, it’s best if he doesna ken me, so I can get behind him. I’ll wait at yonder tavern.” He lifted his chin, indicating an establishment called the Peartree, a few hundred feet down the road from the fort, then kicked his horse into motion. Ten feet on, he turned and called over his shoulder, “One hour! If ye’re not with me by then, I’m comin’ in after ye!”

Roger smiled, despite his apprehension. He waved briefly to Buck and swung off his horse.

Bless me, Lord, he prayed. Help me to do the right thing—for everyone. Including Buck. And him.

He hadn’t actually stopped praying at any time since Jem had disappeared, though most of it was just the frantic, reflexive Dear Lord, let it be all right of everyone facing crisis. Over time, either the crisis or the petitioner wears down, and prayer either ceases or . . . the person praying starts to listen.

He knew that. And he was listening. But he was still taken aback to get an answer.

He had enough experience in the business of prayer to recognize an answer when it showed up, though, however unwelcome. And the pointed reminder, arriving as a random thought in the middle of their mud-spattered, rain-sodden journey—that Jack Randall’s soul was in as much danger as Brian Fraser’s life—was damned unwelcome.

“Well, then,” Buck had said, brightening under the soggy brim of his hat when Roger had shared his disturbance at this insight. “All the more reason to kill him now. Save yon Frasers, and keep the wicked wee sod from going to hell—if he hasn’t done something already as would send him there,” he’d added as an afterthought. “Two birds wi’ one stone, aye?”

Roger had squelched along for a moment before replying.

“Out of sheer curiosity—were you a solicitor or a barrister, when ye did law?”

“Solicitor. Why?”

“No wonder you failed at it. All your talents lie in the other direction. Can ye not have a conversation without arguing?”

“Not wi’ you,” Buck had said pointedly, and kicked his horse into a trot, sending up thumping clods of mud in his wake.

Roger gave his name and asked the army clerk if he might have a word with Captain Randall, then stood by the peat fire, shaking off as much water as he could before the man came back to lead him to Randall’s office.

To his surprise, it was the same office where he and Brian Fraser had had their audience with Captain Buncombe almost two weeks before. Randall was seated behind the desk, quill in hand, but looked up with a courteous expression at Roger’s entrance and half rose, with a small bow.

“Your servant, sir. Mr. MacKenzie, is that right? You’ve come from Lallybroch, I collect.”

“Your most obedient, sir,” Roger replied, adjusting his accent back to his normal Scots-tinged Oxbridge. “Mr. Brian Fraser was good enough to give me the object that you brought. I wanted both to thank you for your kind assistance—and to ask whether you might be able to tell me where the object was discovered.”

He knew about the banality of evil; human monsters came in human shapes. Even so, he was surprised. Randall was a handsome man, rather elegant in bearing, with a lively, interested expression, a humorous curve to his mouth, and warm dark eyes.

Well, he is human. And perhaps he’s not a monster yet.

“One of my messengers brought it in,” Randall replied, wiping his quill and dropping it into a stoneware jar full of such objects. “My predecessor, Captain Buncombe, had sent dispatches to Fort George and Fort Augustus about your son—I am very sorry for your situation,” he added rather formally. “A patrol from Ruthven Barracks had brought the ornament in. I’m afraid I don’t know where they discovered it, but perhaps the messenger who brought it from Ruthven does. I’ll send for him.”

Randall went to the door and spoke to the sentry outside. Coming back, he paused to open a cupboard, which revealed a wig stand, a powdering shaker, a pair of hairbrushes, a looking glass, and a small tray with a cut-glass decanter and glasses.

“Allow me to offer you refreshment, sir.” Randall poured a cautious inch into each glass and offered one to Roger. He picked up his own, his nostrils flaring slightly at the scent of the whisky. “The nectar of the country, I’m given to understand,” he said with a wry smile. “I am told I must develop a taste for it.” He took a wary sip, looking as though he expected imminent death to result.

“If I might suggest . . . a bit of water mixed with it is customary,” Roger said, carefully keeping all trace of amusement out of his voice. “Some say it opens the flavor, makes it smoother.”

“Oh, really?” Randall put down his glass, looking relieved. “That seems sensible. The stuff tastes as though it’s flammable. Sanders!” he shouted toward the door. “Bring some water!”

There was a slight pause, neither man knowing quite what to say next.

“The, um, thing,” Randall said. “Might I see it again? It’s quite remarkable. Is it a jewel of some kind? An ornament?”

“No. It’s a . . . sort of charm,” Roger said, fishing the dog tags out of his pocket. He felt an ache in his chest at thought of the small personal rituals that the fliers did—a lucky stone in the pocket, a special scarf, the name of a woman painted on the nose of a plane. Charms. Tiny bits of hopeful magic, protection against a vast sky filled with fire and death. “To preserve the soul.” In memory, at least.

Randall frowned a little, glancing from the dog tags to Roger’s face, then back. He was clearly thinking the same thing Roger was: And if the charm is detached from the person it was meant to protect . . . But he didn’t say anything, merely touched the green tag gently.

“J. W. Your son’s name is Jeremiah, I understand?”

“Yes. Jeremiah’s an old family name. It was my father’s name. I—” He was interrupted by the entrance of Private MacDonald, a very young soldier, dripping wet and slightly blue with cold, who saluted Captain Randall smartly, then gave way to a rattling cough that shook his spindly frame.

Once recovered, he complied at once with Randall’s order to tell Roger all he knew about the dog tags—but he didn’t know much. One of the soldiers stationed at Ruthven Barracks had won them in a dice game at a local pub. He did recall the name of the pub—the Fatted Grouse; he’d drunk there himself—and he thought the soldier had said he’d won the bawbee from a farmer come back from the market in Perth.

“Do you recall the name of the soldier who won them?” Roger asked.

“Oh, aye, sir. ’Twas Sergeant McLehose. And now I think—” A broad grin at the recollection showed crooked teeth. “I mind me of the farmer’s name, too! ’Twas Mr. Anthony Cumberpatch. It did tickle Sergeant McLehose, bein’ foreign and soundin’ like ‘cucumber patch.’” He sniggered, and Roger smiled himself. Captain Randall cleared his throat, and the sniggering stopped abruptly, Private MacDonald snapping to a sober attention.

“Thank you, Mr. MacDonald,” Randall said dryly. “That will be all.”

Private MacDonald, abashed, saluted and left. There was a moment’s silence, during which Roger became aware of the rain, grown harder now, clattering like gravel on the large casement window. A chilly draft leaked around its frame and touched his face. Glancing at the window, he saw the drill yard below, and the whipping post, a grim crucifix stark and solitary, black in the rain.

Oh, God.

Carefully, he folded up the dog tags again and put them away in his pocket. Then met Captain Randall’s dark eyes directly.

“Did Captain Buncombe tell you, sir, that I am a minister?”

Randall’s brows rose in brief surprise.

“No, he didn’t.” Randall was plainly wondering why Roger should mention this, but he was courteous. “My younger brother is a clergyman. Ah . . . Church of England, of course.” There was the faintest implied question there, and Roger answered it with a smile.

“I am a minister of the Church of Scotland myself, sir. But if I might . . . will ye allow me to offer a blessing? For the success of my kinsman and myself—and in thanks for your kind help to us.”

“I—” Randall blinked, clearly discomfited. “I—suppose so. Er . . . all right.” He leaned back a little, looking wary, hands on his blotter. He was completely taken aback when Roger leaned forward and grasped both his hands firmly. Randall gave a start, but Roger held tight, eyes on the captain’s.

“Oh, Lord,” he said, “we ask thy blessing on our works. Guide me and my kinsman in our quest, and guide this man in his new office. May your light and presence be with us and with him, and your judgment and compassion ever on us. I commend him to your care. Amen.”

His voice cracked on the last word, and he let go Randall’s hands and coughed, looking away as he cleared his throat.

Randall cleared his throat, too, in embarrassment, but kept his poise.

“I thank you for your . . . er . . . good wishes, Mr. MacKenzie. And I wish you good luck. And good day.”

“The same to you, Captain,” Roger said, rising. “God be with you.”

BABY JESUS, TELL ME . . .

Boston, November 15, 1980

DR. JOSEPH ABERNATHY pulled into his driveway, looking forward to a cold beer and a hot supper. The mailbox was full; he pulled out a handful of circulars and envelopes and went inside, tidily sorting them as he went.

“Bill, bill, occupant, junk, junk, more junk, charity appeal, bill, idiot, bill, invitation . . . hi, sweetie—” He paused for a fragrant kiss from his wife, followed by a second sniff of her hair. “Oh, man, are we having brats and sauerkraut for dinner?”

“You are,” his wife told him, neatly snagging her jacket from the hall tree with one hand and squeezing his buttock with the other. “I’m going to a meeting with Marilyn. Be back by nine, if the rain doesn’t make the traffic too bad. Anything good in the mail?”

“Nah. Have fun!”

She rolled her eyes at him and left before he could ask if she’d bought Bud. He tossed the half-sorted mail on the kitchen counter and opened the refrigerator to check. A gleaming red-and-white six-pack beckoned cheerily, and the warm air was so tangy with the smells of fried sausage and vinegar that he could taste it without even taking the lid off the pan sitting on the stove.

“A good woman is prized above rubies,” he said, inhaling blissfully and pulling a can loose from its plastic ring.

He was halfway through the first plate of food and two-thirds of the way into his second beer when he put down the sports section of the Globe and saw the letter on top of the spilled pile of mail. He recognized Bree’s handwriting at once; it was big and round, with a determined rightward slant—but there was something wrong with the letter.

He picked it up, frowning a little, wondering why it looked strange . . . and then realized that the stamp was wrong. She wrote at least once a month, sending photos of the kids, telling him about her job, the farm—and the letters all had British stamps, purple and blue heads of Queen Elizabeth. This one had an American stamp.

He slowly set down the letter as though it might explode and swallowed the rest of the beer in one gulp. Fortified, he set his jaw and picked it up.

“Tell me you and Rog took the kids to Disneyland, Bree,” he murmured, licking mustard off his knife before using it to slit the envelope. She’d talked about doing that someday. “Baby Jesus, tell me this is a photo of Jem shaking hands with Mickey Mouse.”

Much to his relief, it was a photo of both children at Disneyland, beaming at the camera from Mickey Mouse’s embrace, and he laughed out loud. Then he saw the tiny key that had fallen out of the envelope—the key to a bank’s safe-deposit box. He set down the photo, went and got another beer, and sat down deliberately to read the brief note enclosed with the photo.

Dear Uncle Joe,

I’m taking the kids to see Grandma and Grandpa. I don’t know when we’ll be back; could you please see to things while we’re gone? (Instructions in the box.)

Thank you for everything, always. I’ll miss you. I love you.

Bree

He sat for a long time next to the cold grease congealing on his plate, looking at the bright, happy photo.

“Jesus, girl,” he said softly. “What’s happened? And what do you mean you’re taking the kids? Where the hell’s Roger?”

PART THREE

A Blade New-Made from

the Ashes of the Forge

SOMETHING SUITABLE IN WHICH TO GO TO WAR

June 19, 1778

Philadelphia

I WOKE COMPLETELY disoriented, to the splat of water dripping into a wooden bucket, the sharp smells of wood pulp and printer’s ink, the softer musk of Jamie’s body and frying bacon, the clank of pewter plates, and the loud braying of a mule. The latter noise brought back memory at once, and I sat up, sheet clutched to my bosom.

I was naked, and I was in the loft of Fergus’s printshop. When we had left Kingsessing the day before, during a brief pause in the rain, we had found Fergus patiently sheltering in a toolshed near the gates, Clarence the mule and two horses tethered under its eaves.

“You haven’t been out here all this time!” I’d blurted upon seeing him.

“Did it take that long?” he inquired, cocking a dark brow at Jamie and giving him the sort of knowing look that Frenchmen appear to be born with.

“Mmphm,” Jamie replied ambiguously, and took my arm. “I rode Clarence out, Sassenach, but I asked Fergus to come on a wee bit later wi’ a horse for you. The mule canna carry us both, and my back willna stand walking that far.”

“What’s the matter with your back?” I asked, suspicious.

“Nothing that a night’s sleep in a good bed willna cure,” he replied, and, stooping so I could put a foot in his hands, tossed me up into the saddle.

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