Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 66

   

“Ah, to be sure.” Richardson drew a little closer, lowering his voice. “That being the case . . . I wonder whether—”

“No,” William said definitely. “I am one of General Clinton’s aides, and I cannot leave my duty. You will excuse me, sir; I am expected.”

He turned on his heel and made off, his heart hammering—and realized rather belatedly that he had left his horse behind. Richardson was still standing at the far side of the horse park, talking to a groom who was taking down the pickets, coiling the rope around one shoulder as he did so. The crowd of horses and mules was swiftly diminishing, but there were enough still near Visigoth to enable William to duck in and pretend to be fiddling with his saddlebags, head bent to hide his face until Richardson should go away.

The conversation had left him with an unsettling image of his erstwhile stepmother as he had last seen her, disheveled and en déshabillé but glowing with a radiant life he had never seen. He didn’t suppose she was his stepmother anymore, but he’d liked her. Belatedly, it occurred to him that Claire now-Fraser still was his stepmother—by a different father. . . . Bloody hell.

He set his teeth, rummaging in the saddlebag for his canteen. Now that that Scotch bugger had returned from his watery grave, throwing everything and everyone into confusion . . . why couldn’t he have drowned and never come back?

Never come back.

“You are a stinking Papist, and your baptismal name is James.” He froze as though shot in the back. He bloody remembered it. The stables at Helwater, the warm smell of horses and mash, and the prickle of straw that worked its way through his stockings. Cold stone floors. He’d been crying . . . Why? All he recalled was a huge wash of desolation, total helplessness. The end of the world. Mac leaving.

He took a long, slow breath and pressed his lips together. Mac. The word didn’t bring back a face; he couldn’t remember what Mac had looked like. He’d been big, that was all. Bigger than Grandfather or any of the footmen or the other grooms. Safety. A sense of constant happiness like a soft, worn blanket.

“Shit,” he whispered, closing his eyes. And had that happiness been a lie, too? He’d been too little to know the difference between a groom’s deference to the young master and real kindness. But . . .

“‘You are a stinking Papist,’” he whispered, and caught his breath on something that might have been a sob. “ ‘And your baptismal name is James.’”

“It was the only name I had a right to give ye.”

He realized that his knuckles were pressed against his chest, against his gorget—but it wasn’t the gorget’s reassurance that he sought. It was that of the little bumps of the plain wooden rosary that he’d worn around his neck for years, hidden under his shirt where no one would see it. The rosary Mac had given him . . . along with his name.

With a suddenness that shocked him, he felt his eyes swim. You went away. You left me!

“Shit!” he said, and punched his fist so hard into the saddlebag that the horse snorted and shied, and a bolt of white-hot pain shot up his arm, obliterating everything.

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

IAN WOKE JUST BEFORE dawn to find his uncle squatting beside him.

“I’m away to break bread wi’ the captains of my companies,” Jamie said without preamble. “Ye’ll report to Colonel Wilbur as a scout. And will ye see about horses, Ian? I’ll need a spare mount, gun-broke, and so will you.” He dropped a purse on Ian’s chest, smiled, and vanished into the morning mist.

Ian rolled slowly out of his blanket, stretching. He’d chosen his resting spot well away from the main camp, on a small rise of ground near the river. He didn’t bother wondering how Uncle Jamie had found him, or waste time in marveling at his uncle’s recuperative powers.

He took his time about his preparations, dressed carefully, and found some food, thinking over the things that must be done. He’d dreamed during the night, and the dream was still on him, though he couldn’t recall the details. He’d been in thick woods, and something was there with him, hiding among the leaves. He wasn’t sure what it was, or even if he’d seen it, but the sense of danger lingered uneasily between his shoulder blades. He’d heard a raven calling in his dream, and that was certainly a warning of some kind—but then the raven had flown past him, and it wasn’t a raven at all but a white bird of some kind. Its wing had touched his cheek in flight, and he could still feel the brush of its feathers.

White animals were messengers. Both the Mohawk and the Highlanders said so.

He was an Indian and a Highlander; dreams were not to be dismissed. Sometimes the meaning of a dream floated to the surface of your mind like a drowned leaf rising. He let it go, hoping the dream would return to explain itself, and went about his work, seeing Colonel Wilbur, finding and haggling for two reasonable horses, big enough to bear a large man through battle . . . but the white bird stayed by him all day long, hovering just above his right shoulder, a glimpse now and then in the corner of his eye.

IN THE LATE afternoon, his business done for the moment, he returned to the main camp and found Rachel standing in line with a number of other women at the well in the yard of the Goose and Grapes, two buckets resting at her feet.

“I could take those down to the river for ye,” he offered. She was flushed with the heat of the day but looked beautiful, her bare arms brown and the curving muscle of them so neat and delicate that it lifted his heart to look at them.

“I thank thee, Ian, but no.” She smiled up at him and reached to tweak one of the two eagle feathers he’d knotted into his hair. “Thy auntie says the boats throw their waste into the river, and half the army is pissing in it, as well, and she’s right. I should need to walk a mile upstream to find a clean place from which to draw water. Is thee about thy business, then?”

She spoke with interest but with no sense of concern or disapproval, and he appreciated that.

“I willna kill anyone unless I have to, Rachel,” he said softly, and touched her cheek. “I’m signed on as a scout. I shouldna have to.”

“But things happen,” she said, and looked away, to keep him seeing the sudden shadow in her eyes. “I know.”

With an unexpected spurt of impatience, he wanted to ask her: would she rather he kill or be killed for the sake of his soul’s grace? But he smothered the impulse, and the tinge of anger with it. She loved him, he didn’t doubt that. It was maybe a fair question to put to a Quaker, but not to his betrothed.

Her eyes were on his face, interested and thoughtful, and he felt a slight flush rise in his cheeks, wondering just how much of his thoughts showed.

“Thy life’s journey lies along its own path, Ian,” she said, “and I cannot share thy journey—but I can walk beside thee. And I will.”

The woman standing behind them in the line heaved a deep, contented sigh.

“Now, that’s a very pretty and right thing to say, sweetheart,” she said to Rachel, in approving tones. And, switching her gaze to Ian, looked him skeptically up and down. He was dressed in buckskins, clout, and calico shirt, and, bar the feathers in his hair and the tattoos, didn’t look too outlandish, he thought.

“You probably don’t deserve her,” the woman said, shaking her head doubtfully. “But try, there’s a good lad.”

HE CARRIED THE water for Rachel, making their way through the sprawl of the camp toward the place where Denzell had set up his medical practice. The tent was still standing, but Denzell’s wagon with its painted goldfinches on the tailboard was drawn up beside it, Dottie standing in it, and Denzell handing up parcels and boxes to her.

Rachel stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, then vanished into the tent to help with the packing.

“Wilt thee join us later, Ian?” Denny looked up from the pack he was strapping together.

“Anywhere, a bhràthair,” Ian said, smiling. “Where are ye bound, then?”

“Oh. Nowhere.” Denny took off his spectacles, polishing them absently on the tail of his shirt. “It’s not yet First Day, but we may well be engaged in battle then; we thought to hold meeting before supper tonight. We would be pleased if thee feels it good to sit with us, but if not . . .”

“No, I’ll come,” Ian said quickly. “To be sure. Ah . . . where . . . ?” He waved a hand vaguely, indicating the half-ordered chaos of the camp surrounding them. New companies of militia were still coming in from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to join the Continental soldiers, and while officers had been assigned to receive and organize these and help them find campgrounds, they were swiftly overwhelmed. Men were making camp anywhere they could find open ground, and there was great to-ing and fro-ing in search of water and food, arguments and raised voices, and the sound of industrious shoveling and muttered curses nearby indicated the creation of yet another set of sanitary trenches. A constant small procession of persons who couldn’t wait visited a nearby copse in hopes of a private moment. Ian made a mental note to step wary if he walked that way.

“Ye dinna mean to do it here, surely?” People came in and out all day, in need of the doctor’s attention, and wouldn’t be likely to stop, only because meeting was being held.

“Friend Jamie says he will provide us a refuge,” Denny assured him. “We’ll go as soon as—who has thee there, Dorothea?”

Dottie was stowing supplies but had paused to talk with a young girl who had climbed up to kneel on the wagon’s seat and was addressing Dorothea earnestly.

“It’s a woman in childbed, Denny,” she called. “Three campfires over!”

“Urgent?” Denny at once began unstrapping the pack he had just done up.

“This child says so.” Dottie straightened up and tucked her straggling fair hair back under her cap. “It’s her mother’s fourth; no trouble with the first three, but given the conditions . . .” She sidled past the baggage to the lowered tailboard, and Ian gave her a hand to hop down.

“She really wanted Mrs. Fraser,” Dottie said to Denny, sotto voce. “But she’ll settle for you.” She dimpled. “Is thee flattered?”

“I see my reputation spreads like pomade on a silken pillow,” he replied tranquilly. “And thy use of plain speech inflames me. Thee had best come with me. Will thee watch the wagon, Ian?”

The two of them made off through the maze of wagons, horses, and stray pigs—some enterprising farmer had driven a dozen lean hogs into camp, seeking to sell them to the quartermaster, but the pigs had taken fright at the inadvertent explosion of a musket nearby and run off among the crowd, causing mass confusion. Rollo had run one down and broken its neck; Ian had bled and eviscerated the carcass and—after giving Rollo the heart and lights—stashed it under damp canvas, hidden beneath Denzell’s wagon. Should he meet the distraught swineherd, he’d pay him for the beast, but he wasn’t letting it out of his sight. He stole a quick glance under the skirting board, but the canvas-covered lump was still there.

Rollo moved a little and made an odd sound, not quite a whine, that shifted Ian’s attention at once to the dog.

“How is it, a choin?” he asked. Rollo at once licked his hand and panted in a genial fashion, but Ian slid off the wagon tongue and knelt in the leaves, feeling his way over the big, shaggy body, just in case. Palpating, Auntie Claire called it, a word that always made Ian smile.

He found a little tenderness where the dog had been shot the autumn before, in the meat of the shoulder just above the foreleg, but that was always there. And a spot on his spine, a few inches forward of the beast’s tail, that made him splay his legs and groan when it was pressed. Maybe Rollo had strained himself taking down the hog.

“None sae young as ye used to be, are ye, a choin?” he asked, scratching Rollo’s whitened jaw.

“None of us are, a mac mo pheathar,” said his uncle Jamie, coming out of the gloaming and sitting down on the stump Dottie had been using to mount the wagon. He was wearing full uniform and looked hot. Ian passed over his canteen and Jamie took it with a nod of thanks, wiping his sleeve across his face.

“Aye, day after tomorrow,” he said, in answer to Ian’s raised brow. “First light, if not before. Wee Gilbert’s got command of a thousand men and permission to go after the rear guard.”

“You—I mean us”—Ian corrected himself—“with him?”

Jamie nodded and drank deep. Ian thought he looked a bit tense, but, after all, he was in command of three hundred men—if all of them were going with La Fayette . . .

“I think they’re sending me with him in hopes that my ancient wisdom will balance the Seigneur de La Fayette’s youthful enthusiasm,” Jamie said, lowering the canteen with a sigh. “And it’s maybe better than staying back wi’ Lee.” He grimaced. “Boiling Water thinks it beneath his dignity to marshal no but a thousand men and declined the command.”

Ian made a noise indicating amusement at this and faith in his uncle’s sagacity. It might be fun, harrying the British rear. He felt a tingle of anticipation at thought of putting on his war paint.

“Where’s Denzell gone?” Jamie asked, glancing at the wagon.

“Attending a childbirth over yon,” Ian said, lifting his chin in the direction Denzell and Dottie had taken. “He says ye’re hosting a Quaker meeting tonight.”

Jamie lifted a thick brow glistening with droplets of sweat.

“Well, I wasna planning to join in, but I said they might use my tent and welcome. Why, are ye going yourself?”

“Thought I might,” Ian said. “I was invited, after all.”

“Were ye?” Jamie looked interested. “D’ye think they mean to convert ye?”

Loading...