Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 70

   

There was. The door had gone and a tangle of spindly, pallid vines had sprouted from a rotted sack of potatoes abandoned in the corner, tendrils crawling in slow desperation toward the light.

“It’ll do,” Greene decided, and made a penciled note in the small book he carried everywhere. “Let’s move on, then.”

They let the horses drink, poured more water over themselves, and rode on, gently steaming. Greene was not a chatterer, and there had been no conversation for a mile or two, when he finally reached a conclusion of his mental processes.

“The principal thing to bear in mind regarding Friends,” he said, without preliminary, “is that they depend very much upon one another’s company and opinion—often to the exclusion of the world outside their meetings.” He shot Jamie a glance. “The young woman—is your nephew known to her meeting?”

“Mmphm,” Jamie said. “As I understand from her brother, they were both put out of their meeting—in a small place in Virginia when he decided to become a surgeon in the Continental army. Or perhaps he was put out, and she merely went with him; I dinna ken whether it makes a difference.”

“Oh, I see.” Greene plucked the wet shirt away from his body in hopes of admitting a little air to his skin, but it was a vain hope. The air lay thick as a woolen blanket on the simmering countryside. “A ‘fighting Quaker,’ as they call it?”

“No, he willna take up arms,” Jamie assured Greene, “but apparently his merely being connected with the army offended his meeting.” Greene snorted in what appeared to be a personal way, and Jamie cleared his throat. “In fact, Denzell Hunter—Dr. Hunter—also is engaged to be married. Though his path may be somewhat smoother, in that his bride has become a Friend herself.”

“Has she a home meeting?” Greene asked sharply. Jamie shook his head.

“No, it appeared to be a . . . private event. The conversion, I mean. I am told that Quakers dinna have either clergy or ritual . . . ?” He left that hanging delicately, and Greene snorted again.

“Nor do they. But I assure you, General, there is nothing truly private in a Friend’s life—certainly no spiritual matter. My own father opposed reading, as being a practice likely to separate one from God, and when as a young man I not only read but began to collect works on military strategy, in which I had an interest, I was brought before an examination committee from our meeting and subjected to such questions as to—well, as I say, I am no longer a member of that sect.”

He blew out his lips and made small rumbling noises for a bit, frowning at the road ahead—though Jamie saw that, even in his preoccupation, Greene was taking note of their surroundings, with an eye to logistics.

He himself had become aware of a certain vibration in the air and wondered if Greene sensed it. Not quite noise, it was a disturbance that he knew well: a large body of men and horses, too far away to see their dust—but there. They’d found the British army. He slowed a little, looking carefully at the trees ahead in case of British scouts—for the British must surely know by now that they were pursued.

Greene’s hearing was less acute, though, or perhaps he was only preoccupied, for he glanced at Jamie in surprise, though he slowed, as well. Jamie raised a hand to stop him speaking and lifted his chin—there was a rider coming toward them, following the road. The sound of hooves was audible, and Jamie’s own mount flung up his head and whickered with interest, nostrils flaring.

Both men had come armed; Greene set a hand on the musket balanced across his saddle. Jamie left his rifle in its sling but checked the priming of the pistols in his saddle holsters. Awkward to fire a long gun from horseback.

The rider was coming slowly, though; Jamie’s hand on the pistol’s grip relaxed, and he shook his head at Greene. They reined up, waiting, and a moment later the rider came in view.

“Ian!”

“Uncle Jamie!” Ian’s face blossomed with relief at sight of him, and no wonder. He was dressed like a Mohawk, in buckskin leggings and calico shirt, with feathers in his hair, and a long, hairy gray carcass lay across his saddlebow, blood dripping slowly from it down the horse’s leg.

The beast wasn’t dead, though; Rollo twitched and raised his head, giving the newcomers a yellow wolf glare, but recognized Jamie’s scent and barked once, then let his tongue loll out, panting.

“What’s happened to the hound, then?” Jamie rode up alongside and leaned forward to look.

“The numpty fell into a deadfall trap,” Ian said, frowning rebuke at the dog. Then he gently scratched the big dog’s ruff. “Mind, I’d ha’ fallen in it myself, if he hadna gone before me.”

“Bad hurt?” Jamie asked. He didn’t think so; Rollo was giving General Greene his usual look of appraisal—a look that made most people take a few steps back. Ian shook his head, his hand curled into Rollo’s fur to keep him steady.

“Nay, but he’s torn his leg and he’s lame. I was looking for a safe place to leave him; I’ve got to report in to Captain Mercer. Though seein’ as you’re here—oh, good day to ye, sir,” he said to Greene, whose horse had backed up in response to Rollo and was presently indicating a strong desire to keep going, in spite of his rider’s inclination. Ian sketched a salute and turned back to Jamie. “Seein’ as you’re here, Uncle Jamie, could ye maybe fetch Rollo back to the lines with ye and get Auntie Claire to tend his leg?”

“Oh, aye,” Jamie said, resigned, and swung down from the saddle, groping for his soggy handkerchief. “Let me bind his leg first. I dinna want blood all over my breeks, and the horse willna like it, either.”

Greene cleared his throat.

“As you mention reporting, Mr. . . . Murray?” he asked, with a sideways glance at Jamie, who nodded. “Perhaps you’d be so good as to give me, as well as Captain Mercer, the benefit of your report?”

“Aye, sir,” Ian said agreeably. “The army’s divided into three bodies now, wi’ a great long line o’ baggage wagons in between. Sae far as I could tell—I exchanged words wi’ another scout who’d gone all the way up the column—they’re headed toward a place called Freehold. The ground’s no verra good for attack—folded up like a used napkin, all cut up wi’ ravines and bitty creeks—though the other scout told me there’s meadows beyond that might do for a fight, and ye could lure them or drive them out there.”

Greene asked sharp questions, some of which Ian could answer and some he couldn’t, while Jamie tended to the ginger business of binding up the dog’s leg—there was a nasty stake wound, though not too deep; he hoped the stake hadn’t been poisoned. Indians would do that sometimes, in case a wounded deer or wolverine might spring out of the trap.

Jamie’s horse was not enthused at the prospect of carrying a wolf on his back but eventually was persuaded, and with no more than a nervous eye roll backward now and then, they were mounted.

“Fuirich, a choin,” Ian said, leaning over and scratching Rollo behind the ears. “I’ll be back, aye? Taing, Uncle!” And with a brief nod to Greene, he was away, his own horse clearly wanting to put as much distance between himself and Rollo as possible.

“Dear Lord,” Greene said, wrinkling his nose at the dog’s reek.

“Aye, well,” Jamie said, resigned. “My wife says ye get used to any sort of smell after a bit of smelling it. And I suppose she’d know.”

“Why, is she a cook?”

“Och, no. A physician. Gangrene, ken, festering bowels and the like.”

Greene blinked.

“I see. You have a most interesting family, Mr. Fraser.” He coughed and looked after Ian, rapidly vanishing in the distance. “You might be wrong about him never becoming a Quaker. At least he doesn’t bow his head to a title.”

A VISCOUS THREE-WAY

JAMIE CAME BACK from his ride with General Greene looking damp, wrinkled, and completely disheveled but otherwise refreshed—and with Rollo, bloody and disgruntled but not badly hurt.

“He’ll be fine,” I said, scratching Rollo gently behind the ears. The gash had bled a lot, but wasn’t deep. “I don’t think I’ll stitch it.”

“Dinna blame ye a bit, Sassenach,” Jamie said, glancing at the dog, who had suffered my cleaning, salving, and bandaging his leg but didn’t look at all inclined to stand for more fiddling. “Where are my good stockings?”

“In the portmanteau with your other linen,” I replied patiently. “Where they are every morning. Surely you know that?”

“I do,” he admitted. “I just like ye to tend to me.”

“All right,” I said, obligingly pulling them out. “D’you want me to put them on for you?”

“Nay, I can manage that,” he said, taking them. “Could ye find my shirt, though?”

“I think I can do that, yes,” I replied, taking the shirt out of the same portmanteau and shaking it out. “How was General Greene this morning?”

“Good. I asked him about the Quaker way of marriage,” he said, pulling a fresh white shirt—his only fresh white shirt, as I pointed out—over his head.

“Evidently the difficulty is with Denzell and Rachel not havin’ a home meeting, as it’s called. It’s no that they canna marry, but to do it in the proper way, it would involve the whole meeting. There’s a thing called a Clearness Committee, which meets wi’ the bride and groom to counsel them and make sure they’re suited and that they’ve some notion what they’re in for.” He shrugged into the sleeves and grinned at me. “I couldna help thinking, while he was tellin’ me, what a committee like that would have had to say about us when we wed.”

“Well, they wouldn’t have had any more notion what we were in for than we did,” I said, amused. “Do you think they would have thought us well suited?”

“If they’d seen the way I looked at ye, Sassenach, when ye didna see me lookin’—then, aye, they would.” He kissed me briefly and looked round for the hairbrush. “Can ye club up my hair for me? I canna be reviewing my troops like this.” His hair was tied back carelessly with a leather thong, damp stray wisps sticking to his face.

“Of course. How many of them are you reviewing? And when?” I sat him down on the stool and set to work with the brush. “Have you been burrowing through the countryside headfirst? You have foxtails and leaves in your hair, and those winged seeds that elder trees make. Ooh! To say nothing of this.” I carefully removed a tiny green caterpillar that had become entangled in his tresses and showed it to him, perched inquisitively on my forefinger.

“Thalla le Dia,” he said to the caterpillar. Go with God. And taking it carefully onto his own finger, brought it to the tent flap and loosed it into the grass.

“All of them, Sassenach,” he said, returning and sitting down again. “My last two companies came in this morning; they’ll have been fed now and rested a bit. I meant to ask,” he added, twisting round to look up at me, “would ye come with me, Sassenach, and have a look at them? To see if any should be left back from the fighting or to tend any that might need the odd bit o’ repair.”

“Yes, of course. When?”

“Come to the parade ground in an hour, if ye would.” He passed a hand over the neatly gleaming auburn queue, doubled on itself and ribboned in a club at his nape. “Aye, that’s grand. Am I decent otherwise?”

He stood up and brushed bits of discarded leaf from his sleeve. The crown of his head brushed the tent, and he was glowing—with sun, energy, and the suppressed excitement of impending action.

“You look like bloody Mars, god of war,” I said dryly, handing him his waistcoat. “Try not to scare your men.”

His mouth quirked as he shrugged into the waistcoat, but he spoke seriously, eyes on mine.

“Och, I want them frightened of me, Sassenach. It’s the only way I’ll have a chance of bringing them out of it alive.”

WITH AN HOUR to spare, I took my kit of everyday medical supplies and went out to the big tree where the sick among the camp followers tended to gather. The army surgeons would tend camp followers as well as soldiers, if they had time—but they wouldn’t be having time today.

There was the usual assortment of minor ailments and injuries: a deeply embedded splinter (infected, requiring the application of drawing salve, followed by excavation, disinfection, and bandage); a dislocated toe (caused by the patient having kicked a fellow in play, but the work of a moment to reduce); a split lip (requiring one stitch and a little gentian ointment); a badly gashed foot (the result of inattention whilst chopping wood, requiring twenty-eight stitches and a large dressing); one child with an ear infection (an onion poultice and willow-bark tea prescribed); another with the bellyache (peppermint tea and a strong admonition against eating eggs of unknown age out of birds’ nests of unknown provenance) . . .

The few patients requiring medicines I put aside until I’d dealt with the injuries. Then—with a wary eye on the sun—I led them off to my tent to dispense packets of willow bark, peppermint, and hemp leaves.

The tent flap was open; surely I had left it closed? I ducked my head into the gloom of the tent and stopped abruptly. A tall figure stood before me, apparently in the act of rifling my medicine chest.

“What the devil are you doing with that?” I asked sharply, and the figure jerked, startled.

My eyes had now become accustomed to the diffuse light, and I saw that the thief—if that’s what he was—was a Continental officer, a captain.

“I beg your pardon, madam,” he said, giving me a perfunctory bow. “I had heard that there was a supply of medicaments here. I—”

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