Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 60

   

He managed to thank them all for their concern, but at last they left off, and after a swig of something unidentifiable but strongly alcoholic from Jacobs’s canteen, he sat on the ground, shut his good eye, leaned his head back against a log, and waited for the throbbing in his temples to lessen.

Despite his bodily discomfort, he felt comforted in spirit. The men with him weren’t soldiers, and God knew they weren’t an army—but they were men, engaged in common purpose and mindful of one another, and that was a thing he knew and loved.

“. . . and we bring our needs and desires before thee, O great Lord, and implore thy blessing upon our deeds . . .”

The Reverend Woodsworth was conducting a brief service of prayers. He did this every evening; those who wished might join him; those who didn’t occupied themselves in quiet conversation or small tasks of mending or whittling.

Grey had no real idea where they were, save somewhere to the northeast of Philadelphia. Messengers on horseback met them now and then, and confused bits of news and speculation spread like fleas through the group. He gathered that the British army was heading north—clearly to New York—and that Washington had left Valley Forge with his troops and was intending to attack Clinton somewhere en route, but no one knew where. The troops were to muster at a place called Coryell’s Ferry, at which point they might, possibly, be told where they were going.

He didn’t waste energy on thinking about his own position. He could escape easily enough in the darkness, but there was no point in doing so. Wandering around the countryside in the midst of converging militia companies and regular troops, he ran more risk of ending up back in the custody of Colonel Smith, who would probably hang him out of hand, than he did in remaining with Woodsworth’s militia.

The danger might increase when they did join Washington’s troops—but large armies really couldn’t hide from each other, nor did they try to avoid notice. If Washington got anywhere near Clinton, Grey could at that point easily desert—if one considered it desertion—and cross the lines into British hands, risking only being shot by an overenthusiastic sentry before he could surrender and make himself known.

Gratitude, he thought, hearing Mr. Woodsworth’s prayer through a haze of growing drowsiness and fading pain. Well, yes, there were a few more things he could count on his list of blessings.

William was still on parole and thus a noncombatant. Jamie Fraser had been released from the Continental army to escort Brigadier Fraser’s body back to Scotland. Though he’d returned, he was no longer in the army; he wouldn’t be in this fight, either. His nephew Henry was healing, but in no way fit for combat. There was no one likely to be involved in the coming battle—if there was one—over whom he need worry. Though come to think. . . . His hand found the empty pocket of his breeches. Hal. Where the bloody hell was Hal?

He sighed, but then relaxed, breathing in the scents of woodsmoke, pine needles, and roasted corn. Wherever Hal was, he’d be safe enough. His brother could take care of himself.

The prayers over, one of his companions had started to sing. It was a song he knew, but the words were quite different. His version, picked up from an army surgeon who’d fought with the Colonials during the French and Indian war, went:

Brother Ephraim sold his Cow

And bought him a Commission;

And then he went to Canada

To fight for the Nation;

But when Ephraim he came home

He proved an arrant Coward,

He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there

For fear of being devour’d.

Dr. Shuckburgh hadn’t had much opinion of the colonials, and neither had the composer of the newer version, used as a marching song. He’d heard that one in Philadelphia and hummed along under his breath.

Yankee Doodle came to town,

For to buy a firelock,

We will tar and feather him,

And so we will John Hancock!

His present companions were now singing—with gusto—the latest evolution:

Yankee Doodle went to town

A-riding on a pony,

Stuck a feather in his cap

And called it Macaroni!

He wondered, yawning, whether any of them knew that the word dudel meant “simpleton” in German. He doubted Morristown, New Jersey, had ever seen a macaroni, those affected young men who went in for pink wigs and a dozen face patches.

As his headache eased, he began to appreciate the simple pleasure of reclining. The shoes with their makeshift laces fit him badly and, as well as rubbing his heels raw, gave him shooting pains in the shins from the effort of constantly clenching his toes in order to keep the bloody things on. He stretched his legs gingerly, almost enjoying the tenderness in his muscles, so near bliss by contrast with walking.

He was distracted from his catalog of meager blessings by a small, hungry gulp near his ear, followed by a young, low voice.

“Mister . . . if ye’re not meanin’ to eat that journeycake yourself . . .”

“What? Oh . . . yes. Of course.”

He struggled to sit up, one hand pressed protectively over his bad eye, and turned his head to see a boy of eleven or twelve sitting on the log just beside him. He had his hand inside his sack, rummaging for the food, when the boy let out a gasp, and he looked up, vision wavering in the firelight, to discover himself face-to-face with Claire’s grandson, fair hair in a tousled halo round his head and a look of horror on his face.

“Hush!” he said in a whisper, and grabbed the child’s knee in such a sudden grip that the boy gave a small yelp.

“Why, what’s that you’ve got there, Bert? Caught you a thief?” Abe Shaffstall, distracted from a desultory game of knucklebones, looked over his shoulder, peering shortsightedly at the boy—Christ, what was his name? His father was French; was it Claude? Henri? No, that was the younger boy, the dwarf. . . .

“Tais-toi!” he said under his breath to the boy, and turned to his companions. “No, no—this is a neighbor’s son from Philadelphia—er . . . Bobby. Bobby Higgins,” he added, grabbing at the first name that offered itself. “What’s brought you out here, son?” he asked, hoping that the boy was as quick-witted as his grandmother.

“Lookin’ for my grandda,” the boy replied promptly, though his eyes shifted uneasily round the circle of faces, now all aimed in his direction as the singing died away.

“My mam sent me with some clothes and food for him, but some wicked fellows in the wood pulled me off my mule and . . . and t-took everything.” The boy’s voice trembled realistically, and Grey noticed that, in fact, his dirty cheeks showed the tracks of tears.

This provoked a rumble of concern round the circle and the immediate production from pokes and pockets of hard bread, apples, dried meat, and dirty handkerchiefs.

“What’s your grandpa’s name, son?” Joe Buckman inquired. “What company is he with?”

The boy looked nonplussed at this and shot a quick glance at Grey, who answered for him.

“James Fraser,” he said, with a reassuring nod that made his head throb. “He’d be with one of the Pennsylvania companies, wouldn’t he, Bobby?”

“Aye, sir.” The boy wiped his nose on the proffered handkerchief and gratefully accepted an apple. “Mer—” He interrupted himself with an artful coughing fit and amended this to “Thank ye kindly, sir. And you, sir.” He handed back the handkerchief and set himself to ravenous consumption, this limiting his replies to nods and shakes of the head. Indistinct mumbles indicated that he had forgotten the number of his grandfather’s company.

“No matter, boy,” Reverend Woodsworth said comfortingly. “We’re all a-going to the same place to muster. You’ll find your grandpa with the troops there, surely. You think you can keep up with us, though, a-foot?”

“Oh, aye, sir,” Germain—that was it! Germain!—said, nodding fast. “I can walk.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Grey said hastily, and that seemed to settle it.

He waited impatiently until everyone had forgotten the boy’s presence and begun to ready themselves for sleep, then rose, muscles protesting, and jerked his head at Germain to follow him, muffling an exclamation of pain at the movement.

“Right,” he said in a low voice, as soon as they were out of earshot. “What the devil are you doing out here? And where is your bloody grandfather?”

“I was lookin’ for him,” Germain replied, unbuttoning his flies to piss. “He’s gone to—” He paused, obviously unsure what his relationship with Grey now was. “Beg pardon, my lord, but I dinna ken should I tell ye that or not. I mean . . .” The boy was no more than a silhouette against the darker black of the undergrowth, but even the outline of his body expressed an eloquent wariness. “Comment se fait-il que vous soyez ici?”

“How did I come to be here,” Grey repeated under his breath. “Comment, indeed. Never mind. I’ll tell you where we’re going, shall I? I gather we’re bound for a place called Coryell’s Ferry to join General Washington. Does that ring a bell?”

Germain’s slender shoulders relaxed, and a soft pattering on the earth indicated that apparently it did. Grey joined him, and, finished, they turned back toward the glow of the campfire.

Still in the shelter of the woods, Grey put his hand on Germain’s shoulder and squeezed. The boy stopped dead.

“Attendez, monsieur,” Grey said, low-voiced. “If the militia learn who I am, they’ll hang me. Instantly. My life is in your hands from this moment. Comprenez-vous?”

There was silence for an unnerving moment.

“Are you a spy, my lord?” Germain asked softly, not turning round.

Grey paused before answering, wavering between expediency and honesty. He could hardly forget what he’d seen and heard, and when he made it back to his own lines, duty would compel him to pass on such information as he had.

“Not by choice,” he said at last, just as softly.

A cool breeze had risen with the setting of the sun, and the forest murmured all around them.

“Bien,” Germain said at last. “And thank ye for the food.” He turned then, and Grey could see the glint of firelight on one fair brow, arched in inquisitiveness.

“So I am Bobby Higgins. Who are you, then?”

“Bert Armstrong,” Grey replied shortly. “Call me Bert.”

He led the way then toward the fire and the blanket-humped rolls of sleeping men. He couldn’t quite tell, above the rustling of the trees and the snoring of his fellows, but he thought the little bugger was laughing.

MORPHIA DREAMS

WE SLEPT THAT NIGHT in the public room of an ordinary in Langhorne. Bodies were sprawled on tables and benches, curled under the tables, and laid in haphazard arrangements on pallets, folded cloaks, and saddlebags, as far away from the hearth as they could get. The fire was banked, but it still radiated considerable heat. The room was filled with the bitter scents of burning wood and boiling bodies. I estimated the temperature in the room at something like ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit, and the slumbering bodies on display were largely unclad, pale haunches, shoulders, and bosoms glimmering in the sullen glow of the embers.

Jamie had been traveling in shirt and breeches, his new uniform and its dazzling smallclothes carefully folded into a portmanteau until we got within range of the army, so his disrobing was a simple matter of unbuttoning his flies and pulling off his stockings. Mine was complicated by the fact that my traveling stays had leather laces, and over the course of a sweat-drenched day, the knot had tightened into a stubborn nodule that resisted all attempts.

“Are ye no coming to bed, Sassenach?” Jamie was already lying down, having found a remote corner behind the bar counter and spread out our cloaks.

“I’ve broken a fingernail trying to get this bloody thing loose, and I can’t bloody reach it with my teeth!” I said, on the verge of breaking into tears of frustration. I was swaying with weariness, but couldn’t bring myself to sleep in the clammy confines of my stays.

Jamie reached up an arm out of the darkness, beckoning.

“Come lie down wi’ me, Sassenach,” he whispered. “I’ll do it.”

The simple relief of lying down, after twelve hours in the saddle, was so exquisite that I nearly changed my mind about sleeping in my stays, but he’d meant it. He squirmed down and bent his head to nuzzle at my laces, an arm round my back to steady me.

“Dinna fash,” he murmured into my midsection, voice somewhat muffled. “If I canna nibble it loose, I’ll prise it wi’ my dirk.”

He looked up with an inquiring noise, as I’d uttered a strangled laugh at the prospect.

“Just trying to decide whether being accidentally disemboweled would be worse than sleeping in my stays,” I whispered, cupping his head. It was warm, the soft hair at his nape damp to the touch.

“My aim’s no that bad, Sassenach,” he said, pausing in his labors for an instant. “I’d only risk stabbin’ ye in the heart.”

As it was, he accomplished his goal without recourse to weapons, gently jerking the knot loose with his teeth until he could finish the job with his fingers, opening the heavy seamed canvas stays like a clamshell to expose the whiteness of my shift. I sighed like a grateful mollusk opening at high tide, plucking the fabric out of the creases the stays had made in my flesh. Jamie pushed away the discarded stays but remained where he was, his face near my br**sts, rubbing his hands gently over my sides.

I sighed again at his touch; he’d done it by habit, but it was a habit I’d missed for the last four months, and a touch I’d thought never to feel again.

“Ye’re too thin, Sassenach,” he whispered. “I can feel every rib. I’ll find ye food tomorrow.”

I had been too much preoccupied in the last few days to think about food, and was much too tired at the moment to be hungry, but made an agreeable sound in response and stroked his hair, tracing the curve of his skull.

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